Welcome to the Age of the Cage match

Call it a middle-aged men’s quarrel.

We already know the main event. That would be Elon Musk versus Mark Zuckerberg in Las Vegas, or maybe the Colosseum in Rome. Rival tech billionaires head into a cage match, mediated by UFC President Dana White.

And on the undercard, how about a sitting US senator across from a union boss? Marcwyn Mullen, R-Oklahoma, Challenge last week Sean O’Brien, General President of the International Brotherhood of Steel, got into a mixed martial arts fight after Mr. O’Brien called him a “clown” and a “scam” on Twitter.

In the event of insufficient testosterone, perhaps some feats of strength are in order. Robert Kennedy Jr. might be interested. The Democratic presidential candidate recently took off his shirt in Venice Beach To perform push-ups and incline bench presses — revealing an upper body uncommon for anyone, let alone a 69-year-old. (He has a full contract with Jeff Bezos, and he’s also muscle-bound.) So does Jamal Bowman. On Thursday, the New York Democratic Representative He posted a video on Twitter of himself bench press 405 pounds.

For some strong men, this is peacock season. No longer content to exemplify masculine ideals of financial, career, and political achievement — or simply to improve their fitness, as tech CEOs have long done — all of a sudden these honorable men want us to. See the achievements of their bodies. Gripping, squeezing, flexing, controlling (or dominating): These are no longer tired metaphors for collective or intellectual conquest. They are literal descriptions of the big cats of America who appear as orange boys.

So, what’s up with all these obvious displays of masculinity? To start, they are mostly just demos.

Andrew Reiner, Lecturer in Men’s Studies at Towson University and author of Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resilience. ” As Mr. Kennedy’s viral lift session proved, a little well-timed masculinity is prime fodder for the social media machine.

But, according to Mr. Rayner, these look-at-me behaviors also draw on something deeper: tropes of male honor and personal strength that American pop culture has widely turned away from, but may be rediscovering.

“It’s textbook, old-school, manly manliness,” Reiner said, referring to Will Smith’s slap on Chris Rock at the 2022 Academy Awards — after Mr. Rock made a joke about Mr. Smith’s wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith — as a watershed moment.

One factor in the cage match moment is the growing influence of mixed martial arts culture. A noted fight fan and black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Joe Rogan has reached millions of people through his podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience,” which featured Mr. Musk, Mr. Kennedy, and Mr. Zuckerberg as guests. Mr. Mullen, the senator, had a brief career as an MMA fighter.

Musk-Zuckerberg and Mullin-O’Brien’s back-and-forths recall the performative jaw-dropping of a boxing match, the sports theatre, or “kayfabe” of professional wrestling, in which wrestlers play characters they never admit they exist. scenario.

This combination of Fact and fiction became an essential feature of American public life during the Trump years, according to Abraham Josephine Reisman, author of “Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America.” Blurring reality is the key to understanding a world in which campy displays of heterosexual manhood can command our collective attention, mx. Raisman said.

“There’s just something about committing to a parody that’s so huge it just works for the human mind,” she said.

Another common thread may be the overcompensation metric. After being photographed shirtless last summer on a yacht (and later ridiculed for his physique), Mr. Musk tweeted in October that he had been fasting and taking Wegovy, a prescription drug used to treat obesity. And although Mr. Zuckerberg, who is 5 feet 7 inches tall, is actually a A committed athleteFor years, he has held the title of Nerd King, which he inherited from Bill Gates. (More recently, Mr. Zuckerberg has turned to training and competing in martial arts, posting mirror selfies of his progress on Instagram.)

Meanwhile, for Mr. Kennedy, the shirtless gaiety marks a contrast with the 80-year-old Democratic front-runner, President Biden. “Getting in proper shape for my discussions with President Biden!” tweeted Mr. Kennedyalong with a video of him doing push-ups.

The recent history of male politicians strutting and bickering goes way back At least for Teddy Roosevelt early 1900s. Vladimir Putin, Russian President and himself A Judo black belthe was photographed shirtless on horseback in 2009. Former Speaker of the House and onetime vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan carried 40-pound weights for Time magazine ahead of the 2012 presidential election.

at recent days , muscular Former Democratic Congressman John Delaney spoke to the media in 2019 about his fitness routine while running for president. (Mr. Mullen’s bipartisan fitness routine was covered in The Times for nearly a decade.)

Gary Meltz, a consultant who advises politicians and companies on their image, said he believes Mr Kennedy’s attempt to appear younger and stronger than Mr Biden misread voters.

“It’s more like Putin sitting on a horse than something that appeals to Democratic voters,” Meltz said.

Of course, women in leadership positions face scrutiny for their appearance and influence in ways that Mr. Musk and Mr. Kennedy never did. Imagine, for example, how a female CEO who displayed Mr. Musk’s impulsiveness, aggressiveness, and arrogance would be spoken of.

“The margin that women can display any kind of jealousy, resentment, ego, or desire to move forward in any unfettered way is very narrow,” said Samhita Mukhopadhyay, associate editor of the anthology.Bad Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s Americaand author of the upcoming book, The Myth of Making It.

Then again, times may change. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia congresswoman and CrossFit enthusiast who once shared a video of herself performing pull-ups and overhead presses, called fellow Republican Lauren Boebert of Colorado “Little whore” on the floor of the house last month. It was just the kind of thorns one might expect before a cage match.