When Elon Musk says he’ll fight Mark Zuckerberg in a cage match, most people have assumed that this is just a lot of trash talk, and it’s unlikely the two billionaires will actually slug it out in an actual cage. But there’s precedent that Musk often follows through with these challenges.
Elon Musk had once arm-wrestled a co-founder to decide whether the company uses Windows or Linux, his biographer Walter Isaacson has revealed. Musk had founded X.com in 1999, and it was later merged into PayPal in an acquisition. This meant that Musk and PayPal co-founders Peter Thiel and Max Levchin were looking to together build the service in the early 2000s.
At that point, Musk and Levchin disagreed on whether to use Windows or Unix servers at their company. Musk admired Bill Gates, loved Windows NT, and thought Microsoft would be a more reliable partner, Isaacson says. Levchin and his team were appalled at the choice, because they felt that Windows NT was insecure, buggy, and simply uncool, and wanted to use different kinds of Unix-like operating systems, including Solar and Linux.
One night well after midnight, Levchin was working alone in a conference room when Musk walked in, primed to continue the argument over which kinds of servers to use. “Eventually you will see it my way,” Musk said. “I know how this movie ends.” “No, you’re wrong,” Levchin replied in his flat monotone. “It just isn’t going to work in Microsoft.” “You know what,” replied Musk. “I will arm-wrestle you for it.”
It was an unusual challenge — decisions on which kinds of servers to use are taken after based after long deliberations over their technical capabilities, costs, and their suitability for the job. But when talks had failed, Musk resorted to something that would be more at place in a children’s playground than the office of a high-flying young startup — an arm wrestling match.
Levchin thought an arm wrestling match was the stupidest imaginable way to settle a software-coding disagreement. It didn’t help that Musk was almost twice his size, and would have an upper hand in any sort of physical challenge. But Levchin was perhaps disoriented from working late hours, and agreed to arm-wrestle. He put all his weight into it, and promptly lost. The team decided to use Windows over Linux.
The decision seems to have eventually worked out well for all parties concerned — PayPal went public in 2002 ,and was then acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion the same year. Musk and Levchin both became enormously wealthy from the acquisition, and Musk used his PayPal money to start Tesla and SpaceX.
Musk says he remembers the incident. “Linux in 1999 was still early days, whereas Windows had a whole video game dev community to draw upon. In later years with SpaceX & Tesla, I obviously went with Linux,” he says. “Also, Max was unequivocally wrong that the site wouldn’t work with Windows. It literally did,” Musk now says.
Which just goes to show that it would be wise to take Musk’s cage fight challenges seriously. Both Musk and Zuckerberg already seem to be preparing for the match, and sparring with world-class fighters to get in shape for the bout. And if history has taught us anything, we might actually see two of the richest men on the planet fight it out in a cage for the world to see.