Hand Scalping: A Digression on Combat Hair Pulling
There’s a surprisingly long history of hair pulling in the annals of combat, both sportive and on the battlefield. In this column, we’ll confine ourselves to sportive instances of what we now perceive to be unsportsmanlike behavior.
C ombat hair pulling — or
pugna capillos trahens, if you’d like to gussy it up a bit with Latin — was permitted in more than a few organized endeavors through the years. And in some cases, it was out and out encouraged.
Before we continue, if anyone doubts the efficacy of hair pulling in sportive combat, please stretch your memory back to UFC 3, specifically to the iconic match between the up-to-thatpoint mighty dominant Royce Gracie and the ponytailed behemoth that was Kimo Leopoldo. Gracie gamely took the win in that bout, but if anyone thinks that would have been the outcome had not that handy ponytail been available, I suggest a second look and a re-evaluation of opportunistic handles.
THE EARLY GREEKS prohibited hair pulling in pankration — except when it was permitted. That is, just as early boxing and wrestling went through negotiations for ad hoc rules — “This is in, but that ain’t!” — pankration seemed subject to rule bending and compromising. We’re told by Pausanias that the rules drifted a bit between regions, and Lucian refers to pankrationists being called “lions” by the fans not because of their leonine fighting nature but because of their propensity to bite, which was also prohibited.
There are various mentions of hair pulling in combative accounts throughout history, but it’s not until the 16th and 17th centuries that we begin to see more and more citations. Now, whether this is because the practice increased or simply because inexpensive printing and rising literacy rates made available more accounts of combat clashes, we cannot say for sure. My guess is that it’s the latter: more scribblers to document a practice that was already in full bloom.
Many English boxers in the 1700s sported shaved heads not for fashion’s sake but to remove the follicle handle. Jack Broughton, the father of the English school of boxing, drew up a set of rules in 1743 that noted no handles below the waist were permitted. However, no specific mention was made of hair pulling, and because we continued to see shaved pates in matches, we can surmise that it was still a tactic in play.
We know for a fact that it continued as a gambit, for as late as 1795, Gentleman Jackson used a bit of hair control to gain the English championship from the formidable Daniel Mendoza.
ACROSS THE POND in the young United States, fighting — both sportive and unsportive — was coin of the realm. What’s astonishing is just how vicious even the sportive aspects were.
Organized matches of Frontier Rough and Tumble play, a form of all-in fighting, held few rules — hence, the descriptor “all in.” It meant anything goes, in all respects. We’re talking about an era when sporting a single eye because you lost the other to an eye scoop was regarded as a badge of honor, a time when suffering from “lumberjack’s smallpox” — bearing facial scars from being stomped by caulked boots — marked you as a man.
References to hair pulling are frequent, and they indicate how vicious it could be. Never was an eye batted, which tells us that the tactic was not considered unsportsmanlike. Perhaps in an era when scalp taking was practiced by Native Americans and European interlopers alike, mere hair pulling seemed like a walk in the park.
I DISCUSSED and demonstrated Rough and Tumble hair-pulling tactics in my book No Second Chance and in my three-volume streetdefense series. At the risk of being redundant, I’ll note the two most useful elements of the practice here:
› The hair can be used as a handle, but it’s better as a guide. By “guide‚” I mean using the hair to twist and/or manipulate the head into a better striking position or force the opponent’s head and neck into an unnatural alignment intended to shut down his offense.
› Hair grows with a grain. The hair from the crown forward grows toward the forehead, while the hair from the crown downward grows toward the nape of the neck. Pulling or guiding the hair against the grain fires more pain receptors, thus permitting better control. It also makes for easier tearing — for hand scalping‚ so to speak.
CLEARLY, human combat has long had a connection with hair pulling. However, nowhere but in Frontier Rough and Tumble will you find such an “unsportsmanlike” tactic embraced with such gusto.
The early Greeks prohibited hair pulling in pankration — except when it was permitted.