When a mixed martial arts (MMA) gym moves in across the street from his office, Jonathan Gottschall sees a challenge and an opportunity. Pushing 40, out of shape, and disenchanted with his job as an adjunct English professor, part of him yearns to cross the street and join up. The other part is terrified. Gottschall eventually works up his nerve and starts training for a real cage fight. He's fighting not only as a personal test but also to answer questions that have intrigued him for years: Why do men fight? And why do so many seemingly decent people like to watch? Gottschall endures extremes of pain, occasional humiliation, and the incredulity of his wife to take us into the heart of fighting culture - culminating, after almost two years of grueling training, in his own cage fight. Gottschall's unsparing personal journey crystallizes in his epiphany, and ours, that taming male violence through ritualized combat has been a hidden key to the success of the human race. Without the restraining codes of the monkey dance, the world would be a much more chaotic and dangerous place.
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I anticipated this would be a story of a soft professor who climbed into the MMA world and learned about life and love and had a few chuckles along the way.
I was wrong.
It's a much deeper look into masculinity and why men fight. I was fascinated and pleased with his treatment of it if only because as a man who regularly steps onto a jiu jitsu mat, I too feel the primal pleasure of the fight.
All sports bear the unnecessary weight of superstition, but mixed martial arts (MMA) moreso than any other. Partly this is owed to ‘the warfare analogue‘, native to every competitive exercise, being much less figurative—the loser of a fight experiencing, in as many cases as not, an end or preface to an end more approximate (and in closer proximity) to that of one’s life. Mostly, however, it is because martial arts are surpassingly the hard kernel of real-world, bona fide superstitions: systems and traditions of belief held orthodoxically or generically about the conscientious harness of energy with the body. The Professor in the Cage is author and scholar Jonathan Gottschall’s study of these collected and often contradicting combat disciplines, blow by blow, for fifteen months. Disciplines which, when set simultaneously in concert and at odds inside a steel cage, allow for seemingly limitless results, no matter how faithful an outcome may formerly appear.
The book, to its credit, is far from straight-arrow anthropology. Gottschall discourages the romantic notion, which devoted fight fans may entertain in an effort to pacify guilt or stigma, that it is one’s intellectual cupidity which principally drives his or her desire to fight, or (more likely the case) to watch fighting, and he holds it as unenlightened as to believe—as nonfans may—that it is a lack of intelligence or civility. The Professor in the Cage corrects for both these pandemic misconceptions, but not without correcting some of its own. Gottschall, upon first entering Mark Shrader’s Mixed Martial Arts Academy (located across the street from his English department office at Washington & Jefferson College), promptly finds his assumptions about fighting and fighters whited out.
Gottschall’s title, of course, implies novelty. The checker on the chessboard. Columbus discovering his New World. “The main objective of fighting sports,” he writes, “is to temporarily shut down the other guy’s brain,” so why, the reader wonders, would an academic join a brain-damage academy? Why join ‘the savages’? But one of the first lessons Gottschall learns is how unremarkable his lack of qualifications really is. (Even newly minted UFC heavyweight champion, Stipe Miocic, works full-time as a firefighter outside of training.) Violence, Gottschall argues, is simply an appetite that all men have (and here he explores why men and not women, disproportionately, are thus disposed). Oftentimes it is those who were victims in the past, he points out, or whose present vocation is so far removed from even a whisper of such indulgences, that are more likely to strap on the gloves.
A writer able to present the facts with a fabulist’s flare, Gottschall uses mixed martial arts as a kind of literary chariot through man’s history of violence. Because, under these lights, surely, why men fight is not nearly the conundrum that “why don’t they“ is. As for why we watch, Gottschall believes the driving ecstasy of fighting is its being “a genre of staged tragedy”, such as bullfighting was for Hemingway and boxing for Oates. “If boxing is a sport,” Gottschall quotes Oates as saying, “it is the most tragic of all sports because more than any human activity it consumes the very excellence it displays.” Reflecting on, as in the introduction to this review, the simulational talent of an MMA canvas to manifest not only displays of athletic pyrotechny but the circumstances of said athletes’ demise—unconsciousness here generated by choking as well as striking—this is all the more apt.
“A fight,” Gottschall concludes, “is drama sweated to the bones—an enactment of the whole human tangle, with everything lovely and terrible on display.” And with mixed martial arts’ continued rise in popularity, per annum, those stage lights now double as microscopes. There is little tolerance on the modern fightscape for what Gottschall calls “the myth of the martial arts”, the notion that any of these disciplines represents the perfect and sacred schematic for mano a mano combat; the last twenty years have without question illuminated flaws and strengths both relative and respective. As does The Professor in the Cage—which, in keeping with the traditions it grapples, is an education on mind even moreso than body. This, however, in no way keeps the book from earning its title as one of the most engaging, down-to-earth examinations of sport and human violence one will find.
(Quincy Dunn-Baker's narration, by the way, is engaging from start to finish and absolutely perfect for the material.)