The chants are deafening. More than a hundred people scream from a circle several bodies deep. Beer cans fall from high arcs into the middle and surround the combatants. The two shirtless men are locked against each other, their shoulders pushing the other one back as blow after blow land on their torsos. Finally, one is knocked to the ground. The other takes the advantage, wrapping his arm around his opponent’s neck and applying pressure. After a long 10 seconds of feeble struggling by the downed man, the match is called. The victor raises his hands and lets out a warlike shriek as the crowd roars.
Off to the side, there’s a tall, sandy-haired boy in glasses. His thoughtful, elfin features and slim build set him apart from the screaming masses, though he watches more intently than any other. A dried spot of blood mars his white v-neck. His name is Garrett Pelton. Never one to resort to violence or anger, his interests tend towards the intellectual. He loves writing poetry. He has a hidden passion for primatology. And he’s as surprised as anyone that his fight club turned into this.
Pelton had a childhood defined by adaptation. His family moved all over the world as he grew up, and while he found it hard to make long-term friends, his family became close as could be. His childhood memories are of sword fights with his brother, catching lizards with his father, and being held in a papoose by his mother at a Renaissance fair.
When he left his family to come to college, Pelton felt a deep hunger for meaningful connection. His friendships at school have been defined by their intensity, as he tries to mimic the familial relationships he finds so important. “Garrett is a really thoughtful person,” says Lisa Francis, his friend of several years. “Spontaneous, but in a very thoughtful way. He needs people who can be around that all the time.”
The Liberal Arts Fight Club originated predictably: with the movie “Fight Club.” Upon watching it for the first time in high school, Pelton didn’t know how to process it. “It blew my mind,” he says. “All I did for the next 45 minutes was run around the house with a blanket on. I still don’t think I’ve processed it totally.”
Francis uses a different word. “He was bewildered by ‘Fight Club.’ Intrigued, but bewildered. He’s still bewildered.” Regardless of the characterization, it left an impression.
There’s a story that David Fincher, the director of “Fight Club,” tells sometimes:
“My daughter had a friend named Max. She told me ‘Fight Club’ is his favorite movie. I told her never to talk to Max again.” It’s telling what Fincher thinks of his own fans.
Contrary to what one might expect from someone who wants to spend his Saturday night getting bruised and bloodied, Pelton’s reasons for wanting a fight club had nothing to do with competition. He never mentions masculinity (the thought never even seems to cross his mind), he never mentions winning, he never mentions trying to prove superiority over someone else. For him, it all goes back to relationships.
It’s not just interpersonal relationships that are important to Pelton. He relies on a feeling of connection to feel close to himself, his spirituality, and his personality. “Oh yeah,” says Charlie Grayson, another friend of Pelton’s, “Garrett seems to have some kind of epiphany every other week.”
“Garrett seeks things that make him uncomfortable in some sense,” Francis adds, “and he was already used to being uncomfortable relationally and spiritually. This was trying to more physically understand his relationship with himself and others.”
“I’m not a violent person. I consider myself largely a pacifist,” Pelton says. “But I was at a place where I was questioning my relationship with my body, where I had this strange fear of being hurt. I didn’t have any relationship with my physicality, and I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. I thought that starting a fight club at a liberal arts institution was a really, really good way to get myself and others out of our comfort zones in a really experiential way.”
The first night of Fight Club (years ago, now) was fairly subdued. Restricted to Pelton and a small group of his friends, it was closer to wrestling than fighting. Gathered together on a grassy field near campus, they created a crude bracket and began wrestling. Everyone involved was like Pelton—a brainy college student who simply wanted to experience a physical challenge beyond a tough jog or a new workout. Eventually, at the encouragement of an RA, they stopped for the night. Over the next week, however, machinations took shape. After the success of the first, Pelton’s vision grew.
When Pelton first arrived at Colorado College, he formed a series of incredibly intense friendships with some of the oddballs of his classes. They became Pelton’s confidants, his family surrogates. Even so, they never felt the same as his family.
“He was lonely at CC. He, I think, really felt stuck,” Francis remembers of Pelton’s freshman year. If a relationship wasn’t familial, he didn’t want it. And if he didn’t have a real relationship with someone, they weren’t worth his time. In his eyes, there wasn’t any unifying community at Colorado College, and he didn’t know how he could feel at home. After that first night of Fight Club, he identified not just a unifying community he could be a part of, but one he could be at the center of. “He was able to get out of his head for once because he was surrounded by people who were so energetic in this totally similar way,” Francis concludes.
When Pelton lay on the grass that night, with his clothes muddied and muscles exhausted, he connected beyond the small group of friends he’d had for the last two years.
Grayson recounts how Pelton, on the walk home after the first Fight Club, couldn’t stop talking about it. “He was just ecstatic and felt like he had reached a new level of understanding of himself.”
And Pelton wanted more.
After the first night, Pelton, in violation of the famous “Fight Club” rules, began mentioning the Fight Club to a few people. The first night had gone so well, he wanted to repeat it. And why not get a few more people in on it? Reaching out to other friends who he knew could match his energy and enthusiasm, Pelton prepared for a similar night. A bigger bracket, perhaps a little more energy in the air, too, still just a group of friends wrestling in the grass.
But something unexpected happened. The rumor of a “Liberal Arts Fight Club” began to leap from person to person like a flame, igniting some violent desire within every person who heard it. Soon enough, people who didn’t even know Pelton had heard of Fight Club, and in turn told their friends. Along the way details were lost. What had started as Garrett Pelton’s Liberal Arts Fight Club, a group of friends wrestling in the grass, turned into just Fight Club. And while Pelton expected to just be wrestling with friends again, students across campus expected something else. They expected Fight Club.
That night’s Fight Club was different. Where before there had been a group of seven or eight friends, there now stood a crowd of dozens. A portable speaker blasted the sports arena anthem “Sirius” by the Alan Parsons Project as more and more people arrived. Over the sound of the music and excited conversations of spectators, Pelton’s friend Jack took it upon himself to become the announcer, commencing each match with a shout of “Welcome to Pepsi Field! Let the fight begin!”
Where the first Fight Club was composed of close friends, this had clearly grown to something more. Looking around, Pelton saw faces he didn’t recognize, people he had never seen at CC. Some of them weren’t even students.
“There were some guys in the military at the second one,” says Grayson. “Like off in the corner these big Army guys and I think an Air Force cadet or two were talking to each other.” Two of the soldiers eventually fought. And while none of the students knew them, they cheered nonetheless.
The fighting this night was different too. Now people were throwing punches and bloodying noses. Over the next week, attendees would walk into their Just War Theory and Music History classes, quietly bragging to their classmates that they were bruised from the already infamous Fight Club.
“It was just shocking to see people there, and people coming. The draw was insane. It was like a moth to a flame, I’ve never seen that kind of … ” Pelton trails off. “I overheard one person say, ‘That shouldn’t exist. But it does, and I’m coming back.’”
And come back they did. Next weekend, at the third Fight Club, over a hundred students showed up. This one wasn’t advertised, Pelton barely mentioned it to anyone. Its fame had just grown that fast. No speakers this time, since the noise was too great for any music to be heard. “It sounded like a stadium,” Pelton later recalled. Every time a new person arrived, a dozen more people heard about the event. The spectators, growing by the second, demanded blood.
The first Fight Club was composed of friends who thought of themselves as intellectuals. There was no actual fighting going on, just wrestling between friends. They had no ill will towards one another and no interest in hurting anyone. Now, as Pelton watched strangers throw kicks and punches at each other, he saw how the space had changed.
This wasn’t what he had wanted. “It became this really immoral space where we dehumanized everyone,” he recalls. In one particularly memorable fight that marked a turning point for Pelton, one person lost control and ended up choking out the other until they lost consciousness. Luckily, everyone was fine, but the image stayed in Pelton’s head.
“There was a way in which you lost sense of being in a circle with another person and it became a gladiator game. It was psychological in this really powerful way, overwhelming to the point that you’re no longer just fighting. You’re trying to win.” The community Pelton had sought was gone. What he saw now was the absent-minded destruction of community, students willingly hurting each other and being hurt in return just to feel—what? Victory? Adrenaline? The students fighting each other didn’t whoop with joy or excitement during fights. It didn’t look like they were getting pleasure necessarily. If anything, they grew colder when they stepped into the ring.
Many CC students who had lived their lives far removed from the threat of violence were now the enthusiastic members and spectators of the Fight Club. The absurdity of this shouldn’t be lost. The soldiers there certainly saw it. Since the previous week’s Fight Club, the military presence had increased. A few other young soldiers from Fort Carson had heard about the CC kids fighting, and made the trek to come watch and laugh on the sidelines. One soldier, built like a tank, got bored of watching. He walked into the ring and challenged anyone to fight him.
His friends chuckled when no one responded, until one CC student, a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, agreed. It ended up being the shortest match of the night—a series of vicious kicks to the soldier’s side sent him back to his group in less than a minute. But the air had changed. A tension rose, as the soldiers’ amusement from only a minute before fell. The hundred plus CC students around, meanwhile, erupted in cheers. One of their own had beaten a soldier.
Several of Pelton’s friends advised him that the situation was getting dangerous. As the military group seethed, the students were growing cockier and cockier by the second. The night seemed to be heading towards a CC-military brawl. And Pelton was helpless.
“He was never really in control. Yes, he created it,” Francis says, “but he wasn’t in control.” Now everyone, including Pelton, agrees that he lost control long before the third Fight Club—probably only minutes into the second Fight Club. But it took until then for him to realize it. No matter what he said, no matter what he or anyone else did, the situation would be the same. One person against a chanting, hungry mob.
The brawl never happened. When a white SUV pulled up nearby, the vast majority assumed it was a Campus Safety car and dispersed. But the significance of what had happened remained. The silence of the field, so dominated by cheers and cries earlier that night, was conspicuous. Pelton and his friends hung around, picking their way through the abandoned beer cans, discarded shirts and shoes, and torn-up grass where the fights had been.
“People would come up to me in the hallway and ask me about it,” Pelton says. “People still come up to me and ask me about it. I’ve heard people talking about it who I don’t even know.” He sighs, looking back on the experience.
“I heard later, like months later, that someone had done a copycat fight club. They’d posted in a group chat, ‘hey, fight club is still happening!’ But I haven’t heard anything about that since. I really hope it’s not happening. I really hope it’s not happening.”
The Fight Club that Pelton started, at least, was short-lived. He reached out to the attendees he knew and advised them that Fight Club needed to end, that it had become something toxic and truly dangerous.
Garrett Pelton may have been a main character in the Liberal Arts Fight Club, but he’s not the story. The story is that over a hundred CC students watched their peers beat each other up. The participants in Fight Club were, by and large, the stereotypical students at CC. Upper-middle class kids, mostly men, who pride themselves on a healthy view of their own masculinity. They contribute in class, they share thoughtful articles from The Atlantic about violence, and it barely took two words to convince them to start trying to hurt each other. Even with the full context of everything that transpired, most people learning about the Fight Club for the first time confess that they are excited by the idea.
What turned Fight Club into the bizarre, violent phenomenon it became was not Pelton’s idea. It wasn’t an obsession with the movie “Fight Club.” It was barely even alcohol. It was that a crowd of CC students who decided that at this one place, at this one time, violence could be without consequence. And that was all they needed.
Lights Out Issue | May 2019