The boys fight.
By “guys” we of course mean the technology billionaires Elon Musk, who owns Tesla, SpaceX and recently Twitter, as well as Mark Zuckerberg, who founded Meta (formerly Facebook), who also owns Instagram and WhatsApp.
They are 51[ads1] and 39 years old respectively – and we regret to inform you that they are preparing for a cage match at an unconfirmed location (but possibly in Las Vegas?) on a date to be determined. Elon Musk signaled his interest in the fight on Twitter a few days ago; Naturally, Zuckerberg confirmed that he was inside through Instagram.
Whether this fight will even happen is questionable, despite the back-and-forth on social media between Musk and Zuckerberg, and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) president Dana White’s claim that “ both guys are absolutely serious”. It would be a great spectacle of an MMA fight, but to some extent, Zuckerberg and Musk have already received the benefit of publicity just by talking about fighting.
This shared plea for attention can be a means of distracting from news they might want to bury: Just before the cage fighting news broke, Meta announced it would cut off access to news on Facebook and Instagram in Canada following the passage of a law requiring such tech companies to compensate domestic media when they link to their content. Meanwhile, Musk’s reputation has plummeted in the past year — data from Morning Consult as of late 2022 indicated his net lead had fallen 13 points among American adults, and even Tesla’s reputation has been tarnished by his behavior.
But entertaining a fight like this also seems to be a reflection of Musk’s and Zuckerberg’s sheer vanity. The younger generation of MMA fans in particular are “willing to fanboy for billionaires,” said Nate Wilcox, the owner of Bloody Elbow, a news site that covers MMA and other martial arts. Musk has done stunts like this before to gain media attention, like smoking weed on Joe Rogan’s show or naming his dog CEO of Twitter. And Zuckerberg is the kind of guy who allegedly cuts his hair to look like Augustus Caesar.
“I think that narcissism cannot be underestimated,” Wilcox said.
How much meat is in this steak?
This whole idea might sound like a worrying fever dream, but it’s actually real — and the showdown between Musk and Zuckerberg has quite a story. What set the stage for their “beef” was a SpaceX rocket carrying a Facebook-owned satellite in 2016. The launch failed, and the satellite – which the company now known as Meta had planned to use to provide internet services in parts of Africa – was broken.
Things have undoubtedly been a bit frosty since then. Musk is registered and says social media apps like Instagram negatively affect mental health. In recent months, Musk has said that one of his goals with Twitter is to maximize “unrepentant user time” — perhaps a swipe at Meta.
Zuckerberg, for his part, hasn’t tweeted in over a decade. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, in which reams of Facebook user data were misused by a private computer firm linked to the Trump campaign, Musk deleted the Facebook pages of Tesla and SpaceX.
But while the two men aren’t exactly friends, the promised Musk-Zuckerberg battle is actually about the competition between two similar businesses, which intensified after Musk entered the social media arena last year by (reluctantly) buying Twitter. Since then, Twitter’s waning stability, its ploy to charge users for features like identity-verifying blue ticks, and increasingly visible right-wing vitriol and hate speech (just this week, Musk declared “cisgender” a slur on Twitter) have been the subject of incessant complaint and mockery.
In March, tech newsletter Platformer reported that Meta was working on a Twitter-like, text-based social media app. A Meta executive boasted that their version would be “sensibly run,” nodding to countless reports of Musk’s apparently impetuous decisions since taking over Twitter. Musk referenced this comment ahead of the cage fighting proposal, tweeting: “I’m sure Earth can’t wait to be solely under Zuck’s thumb with no other options.”
It’s true that Meta is the much bigger company, with a market cap of nearly $747 billion and 3.8 billion monthly active users across all apps. In contrast, Twitter’s market cap (before Musk took it private) was around $41 billion and had around 368 million monthly active users in 2022. But the rhetoric is also classic Elon, positioning himself as jack of all trades – promising to create a egalitarian, free-of-speech town square – standing up to tyrannical monarchs.
Who would win in a battle between Musk and Zuckerberg?
It is difficult to predict whether Musk or Zuckerberg will emerge victorious.
“When you have amateurs, non-athletes trying to compete in martial arts, it’s always a crapshoot,” Wilcox said. “You don’t really know what to expect since you’ve never seen these people fight competitively before.”
In Zuckerberg’s case, the closest he has come is the lowest level of amateur competition in jiu-jitsu, where he has earned a white belt—the first rank of five in expertise. That might give him a slight advantage over Musk, who apparently has never done anything like this. Zuckerberg is also 12 years younger, which suggests he may be more nimble. That has some people in the MMA world betting on him.
But Musk (although he has recently lost weight, reportedly due to his Ozempic prescription) is bigger, and that could prove to be a huge advantage in MMA. The Twitter owner himself acknowledged it: “I have this great move that I call ‘The Walrus’ where I just lie on top of my opponent and do nothing,” he tweeted. Musk weighs an estimated 187 pounds and Zuckerberg less than 154 pounds.
Still, betting on any of them is a risky proposition. And while neither likely has the skills to knock the other out, it could still be an ugly fight, reminiscent of some celebrity boxing matches of the early 2000s, such as the particularly brutal beating of sitcom star Ron Palillo from the 70s took from Saved by the clockDustin Diamond. Wilcox compared that fight to “the story of when the Romans put elephants in gladiator cages with lions, and the elephants put on such a sad spectacle when they were crushed to death that the crowded Roman Colosseum actually turned their stomachs.”
If Musk and Zuckerberg take it out under the UFC, it will have to be regulated, which will likely include safety requirements like headgear that will put an upper limit on how dangerous it can be.
“The only fight result I can really promise you is that both men will embarrass themselves and if one of them has a clear physical advantage over the other, it won’t be pleasant to watch unless you like to watch beatings,” said Wilcox.
Why would two billionaires known for their intellectual property rights throw fists?
We are all immersed in the hamster wheel of the attention economy, and the owners of two popular social media platforms know this. Tech billionaires have been receiving treatment from modern gods for decades now; their net worth is determined not only by the technologies they purport to “disrupt,” but also how cool, savvy, and genius their audience perceives them to be.
Take, for example, Elon Musk’s legions of loyalists, who seem to accept everything he tweets as gospel to live by. Long before the Twitter acquisition debacle, Musk had already achieved a cult of personality not unlike the fervent fascination that has surrounded Apple founder Steve Jobs. (Jobs’ biographer, Walter Isaacson, is also working on an account of Musk’s life so far.) Over the years, Musk has also made it clear that he wants to be seen as a shitposter, a random internet troll who doesn’t take any of this for granted seriously, and a cool guy who definitely isn’t mad at anyone insulting him (as evidenced by his misuse of the cry-laugh emoji).
In contrast, Zuckerberg never enjoyed a huge surge in popularity, especially after the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018. The Morning Consult study charting Musk’s fall from favor also found Zuckerberg to have the lowest public favorability among CEOs studied. The public has often received him as somewhat awkward and difficult to relate to; he has been the subject of several memes. Unlike Musk, he doesn’t make a habit of blurting out everything his prefrontal lobe tells him. Zuckerberg’s more buttoned-down persona has likely saved him from further controversy, but it also means that there simply aren’t Zuckerberg fanboys in the way that there are Musk fanboys.
Tech companies often rise to great heights dizzyingly fast – just look at what’s happened with artificial intelligence in the last six months, and how many people now know ChatGPT creator Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI – but they can plummet just as quickly also. The world witnessed such a fall from grace last year when billionaire crypto darling Sam Bankman-Fried was arrested for fraud in the Bahamas. Or Elizabeth Holmes, who has just started serving an 11-year prison sentence.
The bottom line is that Silicon Valley stars rise and fall at the speed of light, and much of that depends on hype, which in turn can be amplified or dampened by how likable—or at least entertaining—a promising startup founder is. In retrospect, it may seem incredible that anyone ever believed Holmes’s out-of-the-air nonsense, or that no one investigated Bankman-Fried and FTX earlier. But when the people spouting such consequential, expensive lies are powerful celebrity influencers with large audiences and the media industry ready to amplify their words, it’s much of a surprise that fraudsters are treated with not just credulity, but scorn, and raking into billions as a result?
Clout, in other words, is a significant asset, especially for CEOs and founders wading in the mercurial waters of the tech industry. Musk and Zuckerberg know this. When attention is on them and they go viral, it usually makes them richer and more influential. Dangling an absurd cage match in our faces, they ask, “Aren’t you amused?”