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.

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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.

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