The boys are fighting. Or aren’t they?
By “boys,” of course, we mean tech billionaires Elon Musk, who owns Tesla, SpaceX, and most recently Twitter, as well as Mark Zuckerberg, who founded Meta (formerly Facebook), which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp.
They are 51 and 39 years old, respectively — and back in June, we regretfully informed you that they were gearing up for a cage fight at an unconfirmed location (but possibly in Las Vegas?) on a to-be-decided date. Elon Musk signaled his interest in the match on Twitter; Zuckerberg, naturally, confirmed that he was in through Instagram.
There was always a question as to whether this match would even happen, despite the back-and-forth social media trash-talking between Musk and Zuckerberg, and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) president Dana White’s assertion that “both guys are absolutely dead serious.” It would be a big spectacle of an MMA fight, but to an extent, Zuckerberg and Musk have already gotten the benefit of publicity by just talking about fighting.
Last week, Musk stirred up new interest by claiming that he had been in talks with Italy’s prime minister and culture minister and that the fight would take place at a historic site in Rome, sparking speculation that it would be the Colosseum. (The culture minister later said that the fight would not happen in Rome.) Musk, in his tweet, emphasized that the fight would be a philanthropic effort and proceeds would go to “veterans” and “pediatric hospitals in Italy.”
Now, Zuckerberg, who has been posting pictures of himself training and readying for the fight, has signaled that volleys between him and Musk have come to an end, posting on his Twitter-competitor app Threads that Musk wasn’t “serious” and it was “time to move on.” He said that Musk wouldn’t confirm a date — Zuck says he had proposed Aug. 26, which is just days away — and instead had asked for a “practice round” with Zuckerberg.
Their shared plea for attention could have been a means of distracting from news they might want to bury: Just before the cage fight news broke, Meta announced that it would cut off access to news on Facebook and Instagram in Canada following the passage of a law that requires such tech companies to compensate domestic media outlets when linking to their content. Meanwhile, Musk’s reputation has plunged in the last year — data from Morning Consult from late 2022 indicated that his net favorability had fallen by 13 points among US adults, and even Tesla’s reputation has been dinged by his behavior.
But entertaining a fight like this also just seems to be a reflection of Musk’s and Zuckerberg’s sheer vanity. The younger generation of MMA fans in particular are “willing to fanboy for billionaires,” said Nate Wilcox, the owner of Bloody Elbow, a news site that covers MMA and other combat sports. Musk has done stunts like this before to successfully win media attention, like smoking weed on Joe Rogan’s show or naming his dog the CEO of Twitter. And Zuckerberg is the kind of guy who reportedly cuts his hair to look like Augustus Caesar.
“I think that narcissism can’t be underestimated,” Wilcox said.
How much meat is there to this beef?
This entire idea might sound like a worrying fever dream, but it is in fact real — and the Musk versus Zuckerberg faceoff has somewhat of a history. What set the stage for their “beef” was a SpaceX rocket carrying a Facebook-owned satellite in 2016. The launch failed, and the satellite — which the company now known as Meta had been planning to use to provide internet service in parts of Africa — was destroyed.
Things have been arguably a little frosty since then. Musk is on record saying social media apps like Instagram negatively impact mental health. In recent months, Musk has said that one of his goals with Twitter is to maximize “unregretted user time” — perhaps a swipe at Meta.
Zuckerberg, for his part, has not tweeted in over a decade. In the aftermath of the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which troves of Facebook user data had been misused by a private data firm linked to the Trump campaign, Musk deleted the Facebook pages for Tesla and SpaceX.
But while the two men aren’t exactly friends, the promised Musk-Zuckerberg fight was actually about the competition of two similar businesses, which ramped up after Musk entered the social media arena last year by (reluctantly) buying Twitter. Since then, Twitter’s declining stability, its ploys to charge users for features like identity-verifying blue check marks, and increasingly visible right-wing vitriol and hate speech (earlier this summer, Musk declared “cisgender” a slur on Twitter) have been the subject of nonstop complaining and mockery.
In March, tech newsletter Platformer reported that Meta was working on a Twitter-like, text-based social media app. A top Meta executive boasted that their version would be “sanely run,” nodding to countless reports of Musk’s seemingly impetuous decisions since taking over Twitter. Musk referenced this comment in the lead-up to the cage fight suggestion, tweeting, “I’m sure Earth can’t wait to be exclusively under Zuck’s thumb with no other options.”
It’s true that Meta is the much bigger company, with a market cap of almost $747 billion and 3.8 billion monthly active users across all of its apps. In contrast, Twitter’s market cap (before Musk took it private) was around $41 billion and had around 368 million monthly active users in 2022. But the rhetoric is also classic Elon, positioning himself as the champion of the everyman — who promises to create an egalitarian, free-speech town square — standing up against tyrannical monarchs.
Who would win in a fight between Musk and Zuckerberg?
It’s difficult to predict whether Musk or Zuckerberg would emerge victorious.
“Whenever you have amateur, non-athletes trying to compete in fight sports, it’s always a crapshoot,” said Wilcox. “You don’t really know what to expect since you’ve never seen these people fight competitively before.”
In Zuckerberg’s case, the closest he’s come is the lowest level of amateur competition in jiu-jitsu, in which he has earned a white belt — the first rank of five in expertise. That might give him a slight edge over Musk, who seemingly has never done anything of the sort. Zuckerberg is also younger by 12 years, suggesting that he might be more agile. That has some people in the MMA world putting their bets on him.
But Musk (though he’s recently lost weight, reportedly due to his Ozempic prescription) is larger, and that can prove a big advantage in MMA. The Twitter owner himself acknowledged as much: “I have this great move that I call ‘The Walrus,’ where I just lie on top of my opponent & do nothing,” he tweeted. Musk weighs an estimated 187 pounds and Zuckerberg less than 154 pounds.
Still, putting money on either of them is a risky proposition. And while neither of them likely has the skill to knock the other out, it could still be an ugly fight, reminiscent of some celebrity boxing matches in the early 2000s, such as the particularly brutal beating that ’70s sitcom star Ron Palillo took from Saved by the Bell’s Dustin Diamond. Wilcox likened that battle to “the story of when the Romans put elephants in Gladiator cages with lions, and the elephants put up such a sad spectacle as they were mauled to death that the crowded Roman Colosseum actually had their stomach turn.”
If Musk and Zuckerberg duke it out under the UFC, it would have to be regulated, which would likely include safety requirements such as headgear that would put an upper bound on how dangerous it could be.
“The only fight outcome I can really promise you is that both men will embarrass themselves and that if one of them has a distinct physical advantage over the other, it will not be pleasant to watch unless you enjoy watching beatings,” Wilcox said.
Why would two billionaires known for their intellectual property throw fists, anyway?
We’re all immersed in the hamster wheel of the attention economy, and the owners of two popular social media platforms know this. Tech billionaires have received the treatment of modern-day gods for decades now; their net worth is determined not just by the technologies they purport to “disrupt” but also how cool, savvy, and genius their audience perceives them to be.
Take, for example, Elon Musk’s legions of loyalists, who seem to accept everything he tweets as gospel to live by. Long before the Twitter acquisition debacle, Musk had already attained a cult of personality not unlike the fervent fascination that has surrounded Apple founder Steve Jobs. (Jobs’s biographer, Walter Isaacson, is also working on an accounting of Musk’s life so far.) Over the years, Musk has also made abundantly clear that he wants to be seen as a shitposter, a casual internet troll who’s not taking any of this too seriously, and a cool guy who is definitely not mad about anyone insulting him (as evidenced by his abuse of the cry-laugh emoji).
In contrast, Zuckerberg has never enjoyed a vast tide of popularity, particularly after the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal. The Morning Consult study showing Musk’s fall from favor also showed that Zuckerberg had the lowest public favorability among the CEOs studied. The public has often received him as somewhat awkward and hard to relate to; he’s been the butt of several memes. Unlike Musk, he doesn’t have a habit of blurting out everything his prefrontal lobe tells him to. Zuckerberg’s more buttoned-up persona has likely saved him from further controversy, but it also means there simply aren’t Zuckerberg fanboys in the way that there are Musk fanboys.
Tech companies often soar to blistering heights dizzyingly fast — just look at what’s happened with AI just over the past six months, and how many people now know ChatGPT creator Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI — but they can plummet just as quickly too. The world witnessed such a fall from grace last year when billionaire crypto darling Sam Bankman-Fried was arrested for fraud in the Bahamas. Or Elizabeth Holmes, who has just begun serving an 11-year prison sentence.
The point is, Silicon Valley stars rise and fall at light speed, and much of it depends on hype, which in turn can be bolstered or muted by how likable — or, at the least, entertaining — a promising startup founder is. In retrospect, it might seem unbelievable that anyone ever believed Holmes’s out-of-thin-air nonsense, or that no one scrutinized Bankman-Fried and FTX sooner. But when the people spouting such consequential, expensive lies are powerful influencer-celebrities with a large audience and the media industry is primed to amplify their words, is it much of a surprise that fraudsters are treated with not just credulity, but adulation, raking in billions as a result?
Clout, in other words, is a considerable asset, especially for the CEOs and founders hustling in the mercurial waters of the tech industry. Musk and Zuckerberg know this. When the attention is on them and they go viral, that usually makes them richer and more influential. Dangling an absurd cage match in our faces, they asked, “Are you not entertained?”
Update, August 14, 1:55 pm ET: This story was originally published on June 23, 2023, and has been updated to reflect comments from Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg that the fight would likely not happen and that people should “move on.”