Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg’s cage fight vow is the latest example of how martial arts are taking hold of Silicon Valley tech bros

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  • Tech executives including Mark Zuckerberg and PayPal’s Dan Schulman have taken up martial arts.
  • The combat techniques mirror the pace and intensity of the tech industry, one former exec said.
  • Here are the key transferable skills drawing in some of the industry’s biggest names.

Mark Zuckerberg is one of a wave of Big Tech leaders to have swapped the boardroom for the dojo, as the tech elite continue to search for ways to boost their efficiency while attempting to crack the code of immortality.

The Meta CEO seems to have taken a particular shine to Brazilian jiu-jitsu, recently winning gold and silver medals in his first tournament in Redwood City, California. A report said Zuckerberg was choked out during the same fight – but that claim’s since been firmly denied by both the Facebook founder and his coach.

Zuckerberg is now sizing up Elon Musk as his latest opponent, as the pair agreed to go head-to-head in a cagefight. The Tesla CEO challenged Zuckerberg to a showdown earlier in June, and he appeared to accept by writing “Send Me Location” on his Instagram story. 

The big tech chiefs’ MMA skills will be put to the test in the fight, which the boss of UFC claimed the pair were “absolutely dead serious” about. 

Appearing on the “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast, Zuckerberg said he started his martial arts journey after looking for a sport that would develop both his focus and body.

“What’s a thing that’s both super engaging physically and also intellectually and where you can’t afford to focus on something else?,” he said.

“To some degree MMA is the perfect thing because if you stop paying attention for one second you’re going to end up on the bottom.”

Martial arts mirror tech’s dynamic, high-pressure industry

Martial arts appear to have such a draw for tech workers because they mirror the pace and intensity of the tech industry, according to leadership coach and former tech executive Joris Merks-Benjaminsen, who has a black belt in judo and aikido, a Japanese martial art.

An article in Forbes also highlights “adaptability” and “context switching,” which it says is the ability to quickly shift mindset and refocus priorities, as key skills for tech executives.

“There’s a fast pace, ambiguity, and pressures everywhere, and then somehow you need to do the right thing and invest in the thing that pays off in the long run,” Merks-Benjaminsen said.

Danny Zelig trains PayPal CEO Dan Schulman in Krav Maga, which was developed by the Israeli army.

Zelig told Insider that he trained other high-profile CEOs and tech executives who were looking to build skills like problem solving and managing their responses in fast-paced environments, he said.

“Part of our training is to reprogram our brain to create a better response system that will give us time to make a better decision,” he said. “For a person like Dan, who has this constant pressure and a changing environment, it’s about how you can look into the eye of the storm and respond correctly.”

Zelig added that Krav Maga helped to build self-awareness, which is important when it comes to decision-making, especially under stress.

The Krav Maga philosophy is rooted in self-reliance and shifting your mindset from passive to active, he said.

Zelig said that in sparring sessions, Schulman would often wait to for him to strike, which let Zelig dictate the fight. He said that in his training he tried to reverse this thought process, teaching Schulman to act first and take control of the situation.

They develop mental resilience — a key skill in big business

Zelig added that he liked to expose the CEOs he trains to situations that they “cannot win,” hoping to impart some lessons on how to deal with failure.

“What happens to our mind when we do everything correctly but we still fail? It’s an amazing platform for self-growth and performance,” he said.

Joanna Pineda, CEO of Matrix Group International, said practicing taekwondo and hapkido, a Korean martial art, for more than a decade helped her develop “mental toughness.”

She said that while she initially took up the sports because she felt out of shape, she quickly became hooked by the sense of accomplishment. “It’s the discipline, the training, the mindset that have been important to me, less so the ability to have beautiful kicks and forms.”

She added that the training helped her to focus on the present and develop distance from her work in her “own version of mindfulness.”

Bob Rosin, a partner at the venture-capital firm Defy, has trained in aikido for more than 15 years.

He said it’s been “invaluable” in helping him negotiate complex partnerships in his former business-development roles at LinkedIn, Microsoft, and Skype. He was also head of partnerships at the financial-services startup Stripe.

Rosin said the classes helped him to clear his mind and free his body: “I would always emerge re-energized and ready to take on any new challenge.” 

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