A few years ago, someone on the radio asked, “Could Larry Allen beat a chimpanzee in a fight?” For those who don’t know, Larry Allen was the Dallas Cowboy’s Pro Bowl guard from 1994-2005. He was famous for his enormous size and incredible strength. At his career peak, he stood 6’ 3”, weighed 325 pounds, and could bench press 700 pounds. Humans don’t come much bigger or stronger than Larry.
So what was being asked on the radio was, “with no weapons or technology, could a human at their peak strength and size beat a primate in hand-to-hand combat?” Would the human stand a chance?
As I learned when I posed this question to friends and coworkers, most people believe that a primate—be it chimpanzee, baboon, or ape—would make quick work of a human in a fight. Primates are five times stronger than humans, they’re faster, they have sharp claws and canine teeth that can be used as weapons, and they have thick skulls, making it hard to knock them out. Perhaps the most common bullet point in favor of a primate is that monkeys and apes don’t give a sh*t. They’ll fight like someone on PCP. No regard for personal safety. Humans, as the argument goes, would not be as ferocious.
Countless news stories and a handful of scientific studies back up the primate proponents. It seems like every year a story comes out about a chimpanzee maiming or killing their owner. There’s also the famous study from the Bronx Zoo where scientists tested the strength of chimpanzee against football players and found that the primate could pull five times the amount of weight as his human counterparts. Because of these results, scientists concluded that evolution had bestowed intelligence upon humans. Monkeys got strength.
In spite of these news stories and scientific studies, I’ve always felt that a human could beat a primate in a fight. Not all of the time. Not even most of the time. But one out of four times? Sure. To me, someone like 280-pound former UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar could take down and incapacitate a male chimpanzee weighing 150 pounds at least some of the time. Lesnar could just fall on the monkey and hold it until it exhausted its energy. Right?
Here’s the thing: there’s no way of knowing if I’m right or wrong. In a perfect world (Alright, imperfect. This world would be horrible.), we would have a tournament where we’d stick 100 of our toughest humans into cages with primates—gorillas, baboons, chimpanzees—and if the humans incapacitated their opponents with some level of consistency—say 20 percent of the time—then yes, a human could defeat a primate in a fight. If the primates won more than 80 percent of the time, the few human victories could be disregarded as flukes.
As we all know, this tournament will never happen. No one is stupid enough to step into a cage with a monkey. If somehow you convinced someone to fight, it wouldn’t be Larry Allen or Brock Lesnar. It’d be a meth-head who wouldn’t last thirty seconds against a primate. In addition, monkeys are expensive and most are loving companions to their owners. No one would put his or her chimp in a fight. Even if you did get a monkey in a cage, the ASPCA and Humane Society would shut the event down in a heartbeat. This is good. We should never see animals fight for our amusement or curiosity. Even if it would answer one of the greatest questions of all time.
With a contemporary tournament out of the question, I decided to see if a circus promoter had ever put on a fight between a human and a chimpanzee. I’ve run across accounts of humans wrestling lions and boxing kangaroos. Why not monkeys?
No such luck. If a human has ever fought a primate in controlled setting, I didn’t find it.
I did, however, discover that newspapers in the late 1800s and early 1900s were chock full of stories about monkeys attacking humans. This likely owed to European colonization of areas with monkeys, insufficient safety measures at zoos and circuses, and fewer government and private organizations to ensure that animals were properly caged and well treated. Monkeys were cheaper, mistreated, and they escaped more often in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Hence the wealth of news stories about human-primate fights.
I looked at nine of these news stories to see if they could validate my belief that a human would be able to defeat a primate in combat. I disregarded articles with multiple combatants, as well as those where humans used a firearm. Although I would have preferred to use only stories with hand-to-hand combat, there weren’t enough available. When attacked, humans seem to have an uncanny ability to make a weapon out of anything.
Finally, there was no scientific methodology involved in writing this article. I picked detailed newspaper stories and skipped short ones. This may skew results. Also, it should be mentioned that I’m not a zoologist, so I may confuse the proper title of certain animals. Fights are listed chronologically.
Case Study #1: Chimpanzee v. Unarmed Man (1880)
A zoological garden in Chicago kept a seventy-five pound “cross between the gorilla and ordinary monkey,” named Jim, tethered on a chain for public display. One day in 1880, Jim broke his collar and attacked the zoo manager. When a man named Harry Martin attempted to break up the assault, Jim stopped attacking the manager and leapt on Martin. Using teeth and claws, the monkey ripped up Martin’s legs, apparently severing the man’s femoral artery. Martin tried to stop the assault by hitting the monkey, but he collapsed due to loss of blood before he could inflict any serious damage. Jim continued his attack on the floored Martin, fleeing only when a large crowd gathered around the two combatants.
Results: Easy victory for what was probably a chimpanzee.
Case Study #2: Baboon v. Man with Sharp Stick (1891)
A superintendent and monkey trainer at the Woodward Gardens fought a primate in 1891. One day while working in his office, the trainer heard a child scream. Rushing to the source of the noise, the man found that a baboon had broken his chain, grabbed a little girl, and had begun shaking the child like “a terrier does a rat.” Reacting quickly, the man snagged the baboon’s neck and squeezed. The animal let the girl go, and turned to bite the man choking him. The trainer held the primate at arm’s length and dragged it in the direction of a picket fence, where he hoped to beat the baboon’s “brains out against the pickets.” Before reaching the fence, however, the trainer’s strength gave out and the baboon escaped his grasp. Displaying the wherewithal of a ninja, the man kicked his opponent under the chin, stunning the animal and sending him flying into the air.
The break in the action allowed the man to grab a pointed wood bar lying nearby. After the baboon landed and recovered his senses, he rushed. As the animal closed in, the man swung his wooden stick with all of his might. He missed, allowing the baboon to bite his leg just below the knee. The primate ground his teeth into the leg, splintering bone, and refusing to release his grip, even when the trainer started stabbing him with the pointed end of his weapon. Only after upper and lower teeth met one another in the midst of the man’s leg, did the animal pull back, bringing a two-inch chunk of leg with him. During the brief reprieve, the human grabbed the baboon by its heels, lifted it off the ground, then swung it with full force into the fence. The blow knocked the animal out. The man later claimed that he would rather fight a bear than another primate.
Results: Human victory, but he used a wooden stick to achieve it.
Case Study #3: Baboon v. Man with Pen Knife (1892)
In 1892, a 62-year-old farmer in South Africa wrote his local paper concerning an encounter he’d had with a baboon. One day when the man was out walking with his dogs, he heard a group of baboons raising a ruckus on a nearby hill. The dogs set off in the direction of the noise. The man did also, unholstering the rifle he carried on his back during walks. When the farmer reached the top of the hill, he found a horrible sight: in the time it had taken him to reach the top of the hill, the baboons had killed all but one of his dogs. The farmer fired his entire cartridge at the primates, hitting one baboon in the shoulder and sending the rest fleeing. The surviving dog and the man chased after the wounded baboon, the farmer pausing just long enough to grab a rock to kill the animal. Just as the dog overcame his prey and sank his teeth into the primate, a second, much larger baboon separated from the fleeing pack and ran towards the man.
The farmer managed to hurl the stone he was carrying at the approaching animal, but it did nothing to slow him. The baboon closed in, grabbed the man, slammed him to the ground, and bit his leg so hard that multiple bones snapped under the pressure. The man kicked the animal with his undamaged leg, but this only enraged the primate.
An attempt to choke the baboon also failed. And when the man managed to take his small penknife from his pocket and stab the animal, again, the baboon remained unfazed. After an hour of struggling in this manner, the farmer prepared to give in and accept his fate. Just then, his dog finally killed the primate that he had been struggling with and seized the primate that was attacking his master. Faced with a second opponent, the baboon fled the scene. The farmer barely managed to return to his home alive.
Results: Baboon victory over old man. Man saved by his dog.
Case Study #4: Small Chimpanzee v. Unarmed Man (1897)
In 1897, a forty-five pound primate named Pat, described in a newspaper only as a “monkey,” broke out of his cage in order to seek revenge on a zookeeper who had teased him earlier in the day. The keeper was in an adjacent room with his back to the door when Pat found him. Without alerting the human to his presence, the monkey sprang high enough to sink his teeth into the man’s cheek and chin. The keeper managed to fling the monkey to the ground, but the animal kept up his assault, jumping and slashing at the man with his paws. With no weapons nearby, the human defended himself with his hands, which were shredded by the monkey’s claws and teeth. In spite of his injuries, the keeper was able to “subdue the brute” in “a desperate battle.” The manner in which the human bested the monkey is unclear, but he did enough damage that once the animal recovered, he immediately fled to the safety of his cage. The keeper’s injuries required stitches but were not life threatening.
Results: Unarmed human defeats a small primate.
Case Study #5: Gorilla v. Man with Tamer’s Fork (1902)
In 1902, in Marseilles, France a large gorilla named Francois grew jealous when his keeper, Journoux, started to bring his new wife to the zoo with him. Whenever the wife came around, Francois would act surly, sit in his cage, and refuse to acknowledge visitors. After one particularly affectionate visit from the tamer’s wife, Francois grew depressed for two days. When Journoux entered the cage to comfort the ape, Francois leapt on the tamer and began to pummel him with his massive fists. Thankfully for Journoux, he had a small “tamer’s fork” and was able to fend off Francois long enough to escape the cage. Unfortunately for Journoux, Francois came through the cage door before it could be shut.
The ape and Journoux continued dueling outside of the cage, with the tamer using his fork to tear chunks out of his opponent’s flesh. Francois responded to the attacks by ripping one of Journoux’s eyes from his skull. The gorilla also used his teeth to bite off the tamer’s chin, lower lip, and part of one of his hands. In spite of the damage, Journoux kept stabbing with his weapon. The fight lasted for twenty minutes, witnessed by three children who were too scared to go for help. Finally, with both opponents rapidly losing blood, Francois, the ape, collapsed. When help finally arrived, they found Journoux crawling away from Francois on all fours. The tamer died of his wounds five hours later.
Results: Draw. Human uses metal tool to kill ape, but dies of wounds suffered in the fight.
Case Study #6: Baboon v. Unarmed Man (1905)
The Ithaca Zoo witnessed a fight between a man and a baboon on February 4, 1905. That day a zookeeper named Edward Stillwell entered the baboon cage to feed the animals as he had done many times before. For reasons unknown, a large male baboon attacked Stillwell while his back was turned. Using teeth and paws, the primate “tore the skin from Stillwell’s head and face and held him fast with his arms pinned to the side.” The zookeeper was unable to escape the cage, but, in spite of losing tremendous amounts of blood, he managed to wrap his hands around the baboon’s neck and get to his feet. Holding tight to the primate’s neck, Stillwell dragged the animal across the cage and submerged its head in a water bucket. The keeper held the animal underwater until it drowned.
Results: Human defeats baboon.
Case Study #7: Baboon v. Unarmed Man (1909)
A similar incident occurred in the off hours of an animal show in Portland Oregon in 1909. When trainer Fred Wilson entered the baboon cage at feeding time, a particularly vicious primate named Kokomo attacked him. In this instance, it wasn’t the human, but the baboon that did the choking. With the other baboons screaming wildly, Kokomo grabbed and clawed at Wilson’s neck. The trainer, however, was able to stay on his feet, preventing the animal from obtaining a good hold. Over time the weight of the baboon hanging on him, as well as a loss of blood from his neck, caused Wilson to collapse to the ground. Kokomo took this as an opportunity to gnaw on Wilson’s legs. After thirty minutes, fellow employees finally came to Wilson’s aid. They found the man in a pool of blood and transported him to the hospital where he was placed in intensive care.
Results: Baboon defeats human.
Case Study #8: Gorilla v. Unarmed Man (1911)
In 1911, the merchant ship Pathan sailed from Yokohama carrying an unnamed 200-pound gorilla in a cage on its deck. The ape was docile until a Malay sailor named Pedday started teasing him. What exactly the sailor did is unknown, but it threw the gorilla into a fury. The ape ripped off his cage door and went after Pedday. He grabbed the sailor, tossed him to the deck, and began beating him with his fists. Somehow, Pedday—whom the article describes as “brawny” with “almost superhuman strength”—fended off the animal, but in the process, the fight carried over to the edge of the ship’s deck. Just as it appeared that the gorilla was about to drive Pedday overboard, sailors arrived and beat the ape about the head with deck equipment, eventually crushing the animal’s skull.
Results: Draw, but the gorilla probably would have defeated the human had help not arrived.
Case Study #9 Unknown Primate v. Unarmed Human (1911)
A man and a primate fought in 1911 in Baltimore, where customs inspectors had confiscated four “monkeys” from smugglers and stored them in a local warehouse to await sale. On April 30, one of the female monkeys—it’s unclear what kind of monkey, exactly—escaped its cage. After all efforts to return the primate to its cage failed, customs workers called in animal trainer Arthur Marriott. When Marriott tried to grab the monkey, the animal bit him. The trainer was bitten a second time, but in this instance he “choked the monkey into submission” and was able to return the monkey to her cage. Marriott’s hands required stitches but he was otherwise fine.
Results: Human defeats unidentified monkey using only his hands.
So can we take anything away from these incidents?
1. Primates are vicious and should never be teased or kept near small children. Everyone loves monkeys. They drink beer, wear funny hats, and display human-like emotions. As seen above, they are also capable of horrible violence. Leave primates in the jungle or the zoo. Don’t keep them as pets.
2. If you get in a fight with a monkey, grab a weapon, but know that it doesn’t mean that you’re safe. The man who used the wooden stick and the man who had a tamer’s fork damaged their opponents, but the animals continued to attack. The man who stabbed the baboon with a penknife claimed that it had no immediate adverse effect on the animal. The primates will bleed out, but it will take awhile.
3. Choking seems to be the best way to stop a primate if you can’t get a weapon. My guess would be that primates don’t understand that the symptoms of a lack of oxygen are associated with hands around their neck. If someone were to invent a martial art exclusively for fighting monkeys, it’d have a lot of chokes.
4. Primates are much stronger than humans are, but not five times stronger.The “chimpanzees are five times stronger than humans” stat comes from a 1920s study that has since been refuted. Studies that are more recent find that primates do have advantages over humans. They can jump higher and move faster than humans, but not by much. And while primates are stronger than humans pound for pound, a larger human can still overpower a smaller primate. Which leads to….
5. Weight matters. In all of the examples where weaponless humans came out on top, they did so over an opponent that was fifty pounds less than they were. Brock Lesnar and Larry Allen would probably have little chance of defeating a 400-pound silverback gorilla that outweighed him by over 120 pounds, but a human fighter weighing 160 pounds would have little chance against Lesnar.
6. Based on the historical record, a human could defeat a chimpanzee in a fight. It wouldn’t be easy—the human would have to know to go for the choke—and the primate would win more battles than it would lose, but a human victory is possible.