Opinion | The real drama behind the proposed Musk vs. Zuckerberg cage match

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I’m putting my money on Mark Zuckerberg

Not to defy the odds and make his flailing metaverse a thing. But to win in a cage fight against Twitter CEO Elon Musk. Which apparently might be a real thing? At least a lot of us want it to be.

In a surreal turn of events, the two tech titans have challenged each other to a hand-to-hand battle. Musk tweeted on Tuesday that he would be “up for a cage fight” against Zuckerberg. The next day, in an Instagram story, Zuckerberg shot back, “send me location.” How serious was he? A Meta spokesman has been telling media outlets: “The story speaks for itself.” As for Zuckerberg’s prompt for a location, Musk has replied, “Vegas octagon.”

Zuckerberg and Musk may be on the brink of competing directly in the same market for short-form text-centric social media.

It’s difficult to overstate how delicious a spectacle this would be. Assuming it’s not a draw, at least one of the most powerful and insufferable people in the world would be subjected to a rare dose of humility. Maybe even both of them, if the fight went poorly enough! Of course the audience would be degraded by the experience as well, for temporarily deluding itself into thinking any of it could serve as meaningful comeuppance. Everyone participating in this scenario would be a fool, but at least it would be entertaining. 

The probability of the fight coming off is low. Musk recently tweeted that he never works out, and immediately downplayed his fighting prowess: “I have this great move that I call ‘The Walrus,’ where I just lie on top of my opponent & do nothing.” (Zuckerberg, who recently won medals at a Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournament, on the other hand, seems more serious.)

But regardless of whether they ever come to blows, it’s worth probing at why these challenges are even being issued. And there are a few factors at play, ranging from corporate competition to Silicon Valley C-suite machismo. 

Zuckerberg is currently working on crafting a competitor to Twitter, apparently sensing a business opportunity as Twitter has alienated many of its most avid power users under Musk’s controversial tenure. Zuckerberg’s project has prompted taunts from Musk and served as the initial premise for his challenge to take on Zuckerberg in a cage fight. In other words, Zuckerberg and Musk may be on the brink of competing directly in the same market for short-form text-centric social media, and Musk probably isn’t feeling wonderful about it.

Zuckerberg and Musk, who have jockeyed side by side in the rankings for the richest men in the world, have also publicly clashed before on their assessment of technological development — specifically, the offerings of artificial intelligence. The Meta founder is more of an optimist, while Musk has expressed concerns about the dangers superintelligence could pose to civilization. In 2014, Zuckerberg invited Musk to dinner to convince him to adopt his position — and didn’t succeed. Later each publicly called the other naive. In 2017, Zuckerberg called Musk’s warnings about the dangers AI poses to civilization “pretty irresponsible.” Musk retorted that Zuckerberg’s “understanding of the subject is pretty limited.”

So you’ve got two captains of industry clashing over customers and some of the big ideas that are defining their sector. But there’s the question of why all of a sudden it seems semi-plausible that at least Zuckerberg is game for a physical fight with Musk. And this is where the culture of Silicon Valley comes in. As The New York Times explains, Katy Cook, the author of “The Psychology of Silicon Valley,” has described the industry as a “male-dominated, emotionally primitive” environment that incentivizes displays of turbo-charged traditional masculinity. The culmination of any such kind of dynamic, of course, has to be a good old-fashioned duel between dudes. 

Zuckerberg, in particular, also seems to be conforming to a trend among tech executives who relish displays of physical fitness and power. Over the past year he’s begun aggressively training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and he performed well enough to win two medals at a tournament in May. (He also reportedly lost consciousness during one fight, a claim he disputes.) He recently posted a photo flaunting a newly muscular physique and boasted about his elite timing in completing a well-known CrossFit workout. 

Many influential tech moguls have made conspicuous efforts to demonstrate mastery over their physique. Think about Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ transformation from wiry finance guy to a man who looks more like a special forces soldier. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey has what can only be called a deranged eating schedule (which medical experts have cautioned is dangerous because of how infrequent it is). Author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss became famous writing a manifesto about how tech entrepreneurs can achieve the “4-hour workweek” — and then later wrote a book about the “4-hour body,” which was the result, he said, of “an obsessive quest” to “hack the human body.” To be fair, maybe Zuckerberg just wants to be in great shape and just happens to enjoy a combat sport. But one can’t help but feel that, among this set, the drive to dominate the economy corresponds with a desire to dominate physically.

Will Zuckerberg and Musk ever meet in the ring? It’s doubtful. But it’s easy to understand why they want to knock each other out.

Zeeshan Aleem

Zeeshan Aleem is a writer and editor for MSNBC Daily.

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