While pursuing his graduate degrees at UCLA, Neil Gong participated in a “no rules fight club,” the core principle of which is reflected in its name.

Soon he found himself distracted from his dissertation on inequities in the mental health system and spending ever more time immersed in the fight subculture.

Members engage in hand-to-hand combat, often accompanied by weapons such as sticks and dull knives, and are not restrained by official procedures or policies. Gong was intrigued and began formulating a paper centered on the activity and those who participated in it.

“My initial question was, why are people participating in this strange subculture?” the assistant professor of sociology and postdoctoral scholar in LSA said. “But what I ended up focusing on more in that paper is how they do it. How do you actually run a ‘no rules’ fight club?

“Supposedly you are creating the most realistic street fighting-type scenario as possible and yet no one is dying. … And so, in order to understand that and the informal rules of the club, I had to actually join.”

Photo of Neil Gong at Final Round Mixed Martial Arts.
Neil Gong, assistant professor of sociology, participated in a  “no rules fight club” while in graduate school, and trains locally at Final Round Mixed Martial Arts. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

Gong received his Bachelor of Arts degree from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where he participated in a program that allowed him to develop his own academic path. Gong’s resulting degree in Individualized Study was a combination of social sciences and humanities.

He then moved to Los Angeles to pursue his Master of Arts and Ph.D. in sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He arrived at U-M through the Michigan Society of Fellows, which he credits with exposing him to perspectives from different fields of study, which in turn broadened his own research.

Initially, Gong was intimidated by the club’s seeming lack of regulations.

“The first fight I participated in was kind of terrifying,” he said. “I did some martial arts as a kid and then Brazilian jiu jitsu, but the first time I saw someone pull a hidden dull metal knife out and stab an opponent I had a very strong visceral reaction in my body. It took me a while to get used to that sort of thing.”

As he became more involved in the group’s community, he realized that there was a much more intricate network of governance operating within the club.

“How do you fight without rules?” Gong said. “Well, from afar it seems quite obvious. You just go in there and beat each other up.

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“But actually, my argument, from a sociological angle, is that fighting without rules requires a lot of tacit knowledge that you learn over time. You learn these norms about how to behave and work with your opponent to create essentially the illusion of a chaotic fight, but it is actually very controlled.

“In fact, eliminating rules and referees is not about celebrating chaos, but generating a different type of order through individual self-control. I found that many participants identify as libertarians, and the club’s emphasis on self-governance over external authority resonates with this deeply American political ideology.”

Due to Gong’s intimate knowledge about the club’s true objectives, his resulting paper was well received by the members. He emphasized that it is important for one to develop a deep understanding of a culture before commenting on its operation.

“Most of the (members of the club) read it and enjoyed it,” Gong said. “They thought it fairly represented what they do, even without regarding the sociological claims I made in the paper. They told me that they had been misrepresented in the past, but felt that someone who actually participated in the club could accurately depict them.”

Q&A

What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

Students noticed some words scrawled on my old, beat-up Converse shoes. I admitted they were cringeworthy lyrics from my teen years, but wouldn’t reveal the song. Weeks later, at the end of a group’s PowerPoint presentation they had a survey for the rest of the class to guess what was on my sneakers. I was impressed that they eventually figured it out, given that the music is from around when they were born.

What can’t you live without?

Family, cats and burritos. And since I moved to Ann Arbor, training at Final Round Mixed Martial Arts.

Name your favorite spot on campus.

Does campus adjacent count? I watch a lot of movies at the State and Michigan theaters.

What inspires you?

Students getting excited about ideas and realizing that some seemingly dry theory helps them see their lives in a whole new light. It’s a thrill I remember from college, and now I get to experience it vicariously.

What are you currently reading?

Carmen Maria Machado’s “Her Body and Other Parties.”

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

My graduate adviser, Stefan Timmermans, who taught me that we conduct empirical research not to confirm our assumptions, but to be surprised. Qualitative research can be anxiety provoking, as you might not even know what you’re looking for until you’re done with data collection. Stefan helped me to have faith in the process, so that when the open-endedness looks like an abyss, you can tell yourself that’s where the fun is.

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