Head Games

Rams do it. Stooges do it. Even rude soccer stars do it. Let's do it. Let's . . . butt heads


It's a guy thing.

The head-butt reared its ugly head over the weekend when Zinedine Zidane, captain of the French soccer team, head-butted the chest of Italian defender Marco Materazzi during the World Cup final. The aggression, seen by a billion viewers around the world, caused Zidane to get ejected and left Materazzi writhing on the ground before Italy won the championship in a shootout.

"Most animals that fight that way have skulls built to take it. We don't appear to be built that way," says Katherine Ralls, senior scientist at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington. "But I guess when you get so much adrenaline and testosterone going, it's butt first and think later."

Before we harshly judge Zidane (voted best player of the tournament), let's explore the anthropological and cultural origins of the head-butt. As old as the dinosaur, the head-butt is the universal male symbol for territorial aggression when hands and words just aren't enough. The message it sends, in so many words is: I'm angry and don't feel like punching you or beating you fairly, so I'm going to launch my head at your nose, cheekbone, hinge of your jaw, temple or eye socket. And the idea, roughly speaking, is to establish dominance and win the girl, or the soccer match, whichever comes first.

Zidane joins a who's who of other male creatures who, in striking moments of desperation, frustration, lust, passion and even silliness, resorted to the primordial act. The list includes just about any professional wrestler, cartoon dad Homer Simpson and Star Wars bounty hunter Jango Fett who head-butted Obi-Wan in Episode II -- Attack of the Clones. In one of the most celebrated such incidents, writer Norman Mailer head-butted literary opponent Gore Vidal for suggesting Mailer was a violent man. There's a move in the children's card game Pokemon called a head-butt and, not surprisingly, a punk-rock band named Headbutt.

The Bible makes no mention of Adam attempting the first head-butt, but a thick-headed lizard called Pachycephalosaurus, which lived 65 million years ago, was a skillful head-butter. Its cranium consisted of a very thick bone (not unlike many modern-day professional wrestlers).

"Within a species, it's mostly the males that will head-butt for territory and social dominance," says Stephen Zawistowski, chairman of a New York-based board of animal behaviorists. "They will do this to gain access to a harem of females."

Rams, mountain goats and antler-locking deer come to mind in the animal kingdom, but hippopotamuses are also notorious headbangers. They evolved into butting at an angle so not to damage their frontal lobes. Pigs developed dermal protrusions (not covered by any known HMO) for their head-to-head attacks. Cetaceans such as whales and porpoises are also natural headbangers but stick to head-butting sharks.

Which brings us to the Alaskan musk ox. During breeding season, the males achieve dominance by head-butting rivals. Musk oxen throw in grunting and bellowing for full machismo effect.

Oh, and cats head-butt, too.

In sports, pro wrestling has long featured the move. Old-timer Harley Race innovated the "diving head-butt," delivered from the top rope or turnbuckle. As other styles emerged, such as the "swan dive" head-butt, spinal injuries arose. With the exception of pro wrestling and something called Burmese boxing, head-butting is generally illegal in sports. But some martial arts and self-defense programs include head-butting, if done properly.

"Effective headbutting revolves around striking a sensitive area with a less sensitive area," according to online encyclopedia Wikepedia. "A misplaced headbutt can cause more damage to the headbutter than the headbuttee." Lacerations, concussions, that sort of thing, it points out.

In boxing, Roberto Duran practically head-butted Davey Moore into submission in their junior middleweight fight in 1983. Mike Tyson was also known to head-butt when not chewing off an opponent's ear. During the National Basketball Association playoffs in 1993, the Knicks' John Starks head-butted Reggie Miller of the Indiana Pacers. And former pro basketball and MTV star Dennis Rodman was suspended for six games for head-butting an NBA referee in 1996.

The head-butting bar, however, was set highest by Curly Howard of the Three Stooges when he knocked a bull out with his head in one episode.

As an animal behaviorist and soccer coach himself, how does Zawistowski explain why players resort to head-butting?

"It's an expression of anger," he says. "If you can't use your hands, there isn't much left."


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