Mark Zuckerberg is a billionaire, and billionaires have their hobbies. That’s probably why the public was not particularly surprised — if nonetheless amused — to see viral images of the Facebook founder zipping around bodies of water on a hydrofoil or electric surfboard, sometimes wearing a ludicrous amount of sunscreen. It’s exactly what a wealthy geek should be doing in his leisure time.

But that was years ago. In 2023, Zuckerberg began making decidedly different headlines with a new pastime: Brazilian jiujitsu. Competing in his first tournament in the Silicon Valley town of Woodside, California, this past May, he took home a gold and silver medal, and his Facebook post about it drew admiring comments from around the globe. Among those the CEO credited for the victory was Dave Camarillo, a judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt who owns Guerrilla Jiu-Jitsu Academies, a chain of gyms headquartered in San Jose. His martial arts school is just one of a dizzying array of options for Silicon Valley residents looking to learn a fighting style, and across the region, tech workers are flocking to mentors like him.            

Camarillo has been training Zuckerberg for a little more than a year, he tells Rolling Stone, with positive results. “He is very disciplined, trains very hard, and understands that this is a process that takes time,” Camarillo says. He sees Jiu-Jitsu as “the most user-friendly of all sparring arts,” which accounts for its widespread popularity. Its particular appeal for people in tech, though, may lie in its reputation as a “dynamic, physical game of problem-solving,” he says. “You are trying to overwhelm your opponent with a systematic approach rich with subversion, leverage, and timing.” Its “attraction to higher-level thinkers,” he explains, lies in this very complexity, and the prospect of “gaining leverage over your opponent by presenting a problem that they cannot solve.” The description might remind one of computer hacking and counter-hacking — a sort of intellectual arms race manifested as the struggle to outwit your competitor in regular old meatspace.

“Mark takes that even further,” Camarillo says. “He is training in MMA, the king of all sparring arts. This is the most dynamic sport in the world. It is also the most dangerous. In a split-second, anything can happen.”

The same is true in business, of course. Weeks after Zuckerberg won those medals, he oversaw Meta’s release of Threads, a direct Twitter competitor. This threw him into open conflict with that platform’s owner, Elon Musk; the two began to mock and taunt one another on their respective apps. Musk had his lawyers threaten legal action over Threads, though in characteristic fashion, he also went one step further, pledging to fight Zuckerberg in a “cage match” if his rival was up for it. On Instagram, Zuck readily agreed, writing “Send Me Location.” Days later, podcaster Lex Fridman — who has a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu — shared photos of an “impromptu training session” with Musk. 

Two of the richest and most recognizable titans of the tech industry, potentially gearing up for physical combat in front of a paying audience? It would be a refreshing change of pace from the online sniping — and there’s no shortage of haters who’d relish seeing one of them seriously injure the other. Alas, the match may never come to pass (there is no set date or venue for this unprecedented fight), but media coverage nonetheless reveled in the sheer absurdity of the scenario. The chest-thumping challenges from both men appeared to speak to a new form of macho aggression in a culture more associated with cutthroat industry practices than hand-to-hand violence. Suddenly, these two were talking not about besting each other in the market or a courtroom, but settling their dispute in the Octagon.

It makes more sense than you might think. Silicon Valley, according to martial arts instructors based in the area, is a hotbed for these sports, with everyone from programmers to managers and executives all looking to blow off steam (and escape their desks) by grappling with one another. The prospect of a Musk vs. Zuck throwdown — and the wild enthusiasm it aroused — just goes to show how entwined these two worlds have become.

Adrian Tandez is the founder and owner of the Tandez Academy in Mountain View, California, and has taught martial arts in the area for nearly 20 years. Over the last year, however, he’s pursued a new gig as an in-house instructor on the Google campus, where employees train with him during midday classes. Sometimes, he says, these students will come in for his sessions even if they’re not scheduled to work that day.

“There’s a lot more people learning martial arts than before,” Tandez says. “It used to be maybe 50 percent of my clients were engineers, and 50 percent were ‘other.’  But now we’re seeing a lot more — like 90 percent engineers, actually.” He explains that he was able to get the job at Google despite an overall hiring freeze because a student from his school happened to be a high-level manager there and pitched him on bringing his talents into the company, which employs several instructors like Tandez. They were particularly keen to bring him aboard, he believes, upon learning that he specializes in the relatively “exotic” Jeet Kune Do style pioneered by the legendary martial artist Bruce Lee, and trained under a mentor taught by Lee himself. With Jeet Kune Do teachers a rarity, Google was going out of its way to grant staff an exclusive opportunity well beyond your average self-defense courses.

As for the Google pupils, Tandez does see something of a revenge-of-the-nerds aspect to their practice. “You want to have that inner badass come out, you know?” he says. “They take off the glasses, and they change persona. They enjoy that feeling of like, ‘Yeah, I’m strong.’ People want to be what they’re not, let’s just put [it] that way. So I give that to them.”

“There has been a definite uptick in people gravitating towards martial arts from tech fields,” says Peter Malik. He runs the acclaimed World Martial Arts Palo Alto, one in a network of independently owned schools around the nation, and formerly worked in the professional MMA fighting industry. “When I’m talking to them, they’re like, ‘Oh, I just sit at a desk all day. That’s what I do. And I’m just looking to get more flexibility and I’m looking to get rid of some stress.’” He’s noticed that these students, when first getting started, can be a bit too analytical in their approach — focusing on the technical side and struggling to get out of their heads. “When you go to ride a bike, you can read how to ride a bike, you can study how to ride a bike, but the only way to ride a bike is to literally get on the bike, start riding and fall,” Malik says. “I’m like, relax, and just let your body go naturally, and you’ll start to figure it out. But the cool thing is they offer a lot of questions that make the instructors analyze the technique in certain ways that we haven’t thought about before.” He and I joke about programmers inventing their own style. After all, when Neo masters kung fu in The Matrix, isn’t it just code?

Malik also sees sparring as an outlet for individuals working and living in an atmosphere of intense competition and affluence. “You got the top one percent going at it,” he says. “This is the ultimate chess match.” With widening economic inequality in the Bay Area, tech executives have also grown increasingly concerned with crime, even if the real statistics do not quite correlate to their fears. “A lot of people realize now that they do need to learn how to defend themselves,” he says, “as an insurance policy, so to speak.”

“Even if you have lots of money, you want to feel confident to walk in the street, and not to get bullied,” says Shlomi Katz, owner of Krav Zone in Sunnyvale, California. Katz previously served as the head of Krav Maga in the counter-terrorism school of the Israel Defense Forces, but in Silicon Valley is sharing his skill set with civilian tech workers — often in more expensive one-on-one sessions. “Because of the money, people can afford to do more private classes to focus on themselves,” Katz says. “They’re getting better, faster.”

Katz agrees with Malik that these students tend to be fascinated with practical physics, and are eager to master the principles that will give them unexpected advantages in a fight. “Even if you are smaller or less powerful, if you go for the right leverage — or when you use vectors, like in math — you will be successful,” he says. “They truly understand that part. And it’s very nice for them to see, ‘OK I’m not strong, but I do something with the technique, which is equivalent to technology. And it works.” He also thinks that in some ways, it’s “almost easier” for the inexperienced underdog who comes from a sedentary lifestyle to start training, because a more athletic person may be more resentful about being dominated at first, especially by opponents they perceive as smaller and weaker (and nerdier). The techies have no problem being humbled, he says — they “just keep practicing and training and learning more.”      

The private lessons, meanwhile, lend themselves to a certain intimacy. “Fighting is a very primal thing,” Katz says. “You know that if you won, you can kill them.” Emotional release is a part of working through obstacles in your progress, and Katz can become “like a psychologist” to his closest pupils, who in an air of mutual respect suddenly open up about subjects they might normally avoid. “Lots of times, they [feel] comfortable to share the things that maybe it’s hard to show people closer to you in daily life,” Katz reflects.

As for what mentality a so-called “nerd” might bring to these sports, Camarillo sees the term as simply conveying a commitment to your passion, whatever it may be. “Anyone who spends a decent amount of time on a specific subject can be considered a nerd,” he says. “It has become a compliment these days. I consider myself a nerd.” Still, he adds, there are obvious parallels between the dog-eat-dog tech industry and what he teaches. 

“Traditionally, people in high levels of business have an aggressive mindset and are competitive, Camarillo says. “They have to be. For those who are looking for that edge, jiu-jitsu makes perfect sense.” He even tailors his lessons to address the overlap between the two disciplines. “I also layer my teaching with a proper mindset I learned throughout my career,” he explains. “[The students] see how similar it is to their business. And it reinforces their day-to-day life and career. The benefits go well beyond getting someone to tap out.” It’s an education “like no other,” he says, and Zuckerberg, for one, is taking full advantage, “showing a growth beyond what you could get with any other sport or activity.”


And what, exactly, do all these masters make of a possible Zuckerberg-Musk cage fight? Camarillo doesn’t care to weigh in just yet. Tandez says he hasn’t really followed the feud as such, but thinks it would be a “fun watch” and that Zuckerberg’s jiu-jitsu training gives him decent odds. “I think it’s funny,” says Katz. “I like the fact that it brings awareness to the martial arts, which is very positive.” He wonders if Zuckerberg is still “too rookie” to take on someone of Musk’s size, though declines to make any prediction, expressing skepticism that we’ll ever see the matchup. “I think it would be the best, most successful fight in history if it happens,” he says. “But I doubt it.” Malik, too, isn’t necessarily expecting a royal rumble between the two executives, though he leaves room for optimism, saying it would “probably bring the most Pay-Per-View numbers ever.” 

“I mean, I don’t know how serious they are,” Malik says. “I think, deep down inside, everyone kind of hopes it happens, because it would be it would be an epic, epic fight for the MMA industry and for the world.” And most of all, perhaps, for the martial arts academies of America’s tech capital, where thousands yearn to ditch their laptops and kick some ass.