A Brief, Personal History of the Head Butt 

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Canadian actor-cum-mythopoetic terrorist hunter Kiefer Sutherland was charged last week with misdemeanor assault for head butting fashion designer Jack McCollough, after the latter is alleged to have bumped into Brooke Shields. That the head butt is Mr. Sutherland’s chivalric corrective of choice is not surprising, given his Scottish heritage (he is, in fact, the grandson of Canada’s legendary and beloved father of socialist populism, the late great Tommy Douglas, recently voted The Greatest Canadian). Full details have yet to come out regarding the style of head butt Mr. Sutherland employed, though Mr. McCollough’s broken nose would indicate the classic, full-frontal surprise attack. As such questions arise, the moment seems right for a brief, personal history of the head butt.

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Why personal? Like Mr. Sutherland, I too am a Canadian of Scots-Irish heritage, with an avowedly socialist grandfather; furthermore, my father grew up in Glasgow (spiritual home of the head butt); also, I have been head butted, and have delivered same. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? [NB: a popular study of the head butt was essayed by Daniel Engber in 2006, for Slate, on the occasion of Zinedane Zidane’s infamous head butt (upon which, more later); though Mr. Engber does a decent job outlining the kinetics of the move, he clearly has never delivered one of his own, nor, I would suggest, has he received one.]

The History of the Head Butt

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It’s difficult to attribute the first recorded use of the head butt in the history of intra-human violence — though it is a fairly specialized move in comparison to the punch or the kick, one supposes it was rather more common in the primitive era. This supposition fits well with the evolution of the skull, specifically, the slow erosion of the Neanderthal ridge, that prognathic promontory which serves like a small shed roof of hard bone over the eyes and, in moments of violence, can function as a battering ram. I myself have an above-average prognathic ridge, and should you choose to crack wise about the relative pace of my evolution, I shall apply it to your own ridgeless face.

As with other questions of specialized adaptation it is difficult to say precisely if the head butt came to prominence because of the prognathis or if the prognathis came about because of the head butt. Whatever the case, as the brain (and its vessel, the head) comes into prominence as a valuable weapon in the arsenal of man (between 8,000 to 5,000 BCE, the time of the Iliad and the Pharaohs), the head butt likely moves from standard combat maneuver to specialized—and gratuitous—attack strategy. (For some reason, the head butt will never quite fade from use among northern Europeans, particularly the Vikings and the Celts; one can still see a higher preponderance of prognathis among those peoples. The relatively retarded development of scholarship and erudition among these northern Europeans, in comparison to the Mediterranean cradle of learning, is likely a factor in the ongoing popularity of using the brainpan as concussive weapon among people who freckle. In fact, my own Scottish lineage can be traced to a Norwegian named Gunnir Thorson, who crossed the North Sea in the 11th century, whereupon he raped a Pict and settled down to wait for the invention of rugby.)

It isn’t really until the Enlightenment (and in this case, the Scottish Enlightenment) that northern Europeans come to accept the reality of the head butt, specifically that — despite the deeply satisfying efficiency of its bloody power — it often does as much harm to the butter as it does to the buttee. (Insofar as this is a brief, personal history of the head butt, it is necessarily focused on northern Europe; I should point out here that the head butt does show up in certain Southeast Asian martial disciplines—Burmese lethwei and Thai muay boran—but only as a precisely described movement among a series of ritualized strategies.)

The head butt survives today mainly among bar patrons and soccer fans, for whom it is a first and signal move in any serious confrontation, more readily applied in the economically depressed areas of Scotland and Germany (there is a good reason the head butt is known as a “Glasgow Kiss”). It is also, no doubt, available to more expert hand-to-hand combatants, but less as an opening gambit than a gesture in extremis. If you are grappling with CIA or Mossad, they will head butt you if they have to.

The Head Butt in Popular Culture

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As briefly mentioned above, the head butt received a good deal of attention in 2006 when French soccer player Zinedane Zidane applied it to the chest of his much larger opponent, Italian Marco Matterazi, in the dying moments of the World Cup final. Insofar as the match was being watched by a billion people, it is hard to imagine a head butt ever surpassing this one for notoriety and/or prominence. The moment itself was almost Greek in its tragic drama: Zidane, playing at the end of his brilliant career had, only minutes earlier, slipped through a crack in the spacetime continuum (like a Jedi or Matrix dude), floating in front of goal and coming within inches of ending of the game. And then, behind the play, he flattened the much larger Matterazi (who, without question, embellished the moment with customary Italianate flair). Many have speculated as to why Zidane committed such an obviously illegal act, his last moment on a soccer field, with the primary theory still being that Matterazi made indelicate comments about the women in Zidane’s family. Though it’s clearly stupid to allow oneself to be goaded by puerile slander, there is also something pure, something compelling and defiant, about setting family honor above international glory, and using one’s skull to defend it. Oddly enough, this brazenly self-destructive head butt just made me like Zidane even more.

This intensity, this purity, perhaps, is why the head butt intrigues us: it is an act of sacrifice that channels millennia of human struggle into one primeval moment of barbarism; it is dumb and brutish, but in its way, it is selfless. “This confrontation,” it says, “matters more than my brain. My skull is my hardest weapon, and so I must use it.” There is existential gravity to the head butt, a seriousness of purpose that transcends the slappiness-at-a-distance of the punch or the panicky self-preservation of the kick.

Speaking of dumb and brutish, the head butt enjoys particular prominence in Scottish tradition, so it is no surprise that two other examples of the head butt in popular culture arise from films set in that godforsaken, thistle-choked blight of land. The first occurs in the 1996 Danny Boyle film, Trainspotting, in which the character played by a young Robert Carlyle wanders around poor urban Scotland looking for any excuse to use his head as a weapon.

The second is in the 1995 Mel Gibson film, Braveheart, in which the head butt is used often as a close-quarter battlefield solution, mainly by the Scotsmen, and their pint-size Australian leader, Mel Gibson. (The head butt has also survived in those British colonies populated by Scots and Irish, with Australia taking a slight lead over Canada in usage, but not by much.)

The head butt appears in hundreds of other films, usually used by fight choreographers to raise the stakes of any given tussle, letting us know that the loser of the fight is facing more than just shame and headaches, but possibly death or imprisonment.

The head butt is not funny and is rarely, if ever, used in romantic comedies.

The Mechanics of the Head Butt, Revisited
As I mentioned above, Mr. Engber did a decent job outlining the techniques of the head butt, but for a bafflingly exhaustive study of the head butt, I recommend Gerald Moffat’s masterpiece of internet prolixity on the subject, Head Butts or How to be a Nutter. I shall, however, try to briefly add to the above two readings.

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Speed, efficiency, and surprise: these are the cardinal virtues of the head butt. Unlike a punch or even a kick, very little back swing is required to generate the necessary concussive force to an opponent’s nose (which also adds to the element of surprise). As most of the literature indicates, the mouth and the forehead are not ideal targets, as they offer more potential harm to the buttee than do the soft, cartilaginous nose and the vulnerable joint of the jaw. Of course, when facing an opponent, one must take into account height and angle when considering the target (for Zidane to have reached Matterazi’s nose would’ve required an improbable, no doubt comical, leap).

To engage with the head butt is to anticipate, even invite, an intensity of conflict outside the average bar tussle or playground donnybrook (though you can’t always be sure what might happen once a fight starts). The head butt precludes the standard face-saving rituals of sidewalk tough-guy talk and moves straight to blood; it is a preemptive strike and should be used only when violence is a foregone conclusion. If you’re willing to commit fast and early, it can be an invaluable tool in moments of crisis. However, you must also accept that you’re introducing a level of barbarity into the situation that cannot be withdrawn, paving the way for eye gouges, groin shots and biting — it’s as close as you can get to introducing a foreign object into the proceedings. As Mr. McCollough himself described it, a head butt can seem "vicious, violent and unprovoked."

A Personal Note to Kiefer Sutherland
Mr. Sutherland, while I feel a certain shimmer of nostalgia and a brief frisson of vicarious pleasure at your use of our shared ancestral approach to conflict resolution, I must ask you to employ a bit more common sense in the future. You are a guest in this country, Mr. Sutherland, as am I, and you are a public figure. Also, you head butted a diminutive fashion designer, and fucked up his nose, which, frankly, seems like an asymmetrical response. Sure, this might’ve been what Jack Bauer would’ve done, but is what your Dad would’ve done? Your granddad? Next time, please just consider a gentle shove to the chest, won’t you?

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