THE PROFESSOR IN THE CAGE: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch

By Jonathan Gottschall

Penguin Press. 288 pages. $26.95

Decades before he became a cage-fighting adjunct professor of literature, Jonathan Gottschall was bullied in school. He didn’t really blame his tormentors — “they were just alpha predators in a jungle, and I probably would have behaved the same way if I’d had the fangs and claws for it,” he explains — but he never forgot them, either.

So, in his late 30s, emasculated by his stalled academic career, Gottschall ventured across the road from the English department at Washington & Jefferson College into Mark Shrader’s Mixed Martial Arts Academy. Over two years, he sparred, absorbed punches and kicks, mastered takedowns, and worked himself into the best shape of his life, all leading up to a cage fight against a young stranger. “The Professor in the Cage” is Gottschall’s story, mixed in with a broader examination of the male compulsion to fight — or at least to watch those who do. “I wanted to fight, I suppose,” the author acknowledges, “for one of the main reasons men have always fought: to discover if I was a coward.”

If you think this sounds gimmicky, Gottschall admits it. This is a “memoir stunt,” he writes, with a simple approach: “ordinary schmuck enters an exotic world; suffers humorous setbacks, agony, and shame; learns a lot along the way.”

But even gimmicks can illuminate. Gottschall indeed learns a lot about what he calls “the monkey dance” — organized competitions that have endured through time, whether in the form of gentlemanly pistol duels, mixed martial arts bouts or rap battles. His biological determinism about why men do certain things and women do others provokes more than it persuades, but there is plenty more that makes it worth entering the arena: his history of fighting, packed with anecdotes and details; his insights into the moment of battle; and, yes, deepening curiosity about how things might go for Gottschall in the octagon as soon as “the steel door clangs shut . . . and they drive the bolts home, locking us in to battle until one of us can’t.”

Men fight for many reasons, Gottschall explains, but foremost are honor and respect. He sees this not as silly or antiquated, but as essential. Before Alexander Hamilton was shot down in a duel with Aaron Burr — less than three years after Hamilton’s 19-year-old son was killed in a duel using the same set of pistols — Hamilton tried to wiggle out of the showdown. But the two men had publicly disparaged each other, leaving little choice in their minds. “To be seen as a duel dodger was, in many ways, a fate worse than death,” Gottschall writes. Hamilton’s ambitions and fortune would have suffered, and his wife would have been unable to show her face publicly. “Hamilton fought not because he was brave, but because he was scared of what it would cost him not to fight.”

Honor and respect “represent a group’s estimation of a man’s ability to inflict harm and confer benefits — of his power, in other words,” Gottschall writes. The honor culture of prison is well known, but the literary world experiences it, too: The feud between Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez reached a legendary fistfight, and Gottschall recounts how Marcel Proust traded pistol shots with a book critic who had called him “a pretty little society boy who has managed to get himself pregnant with literature.” (Must remember that one.)

At the author’s gym, many of the fighters have suffered such slights. If you think of MMA as a home for oversize ego-freaks looking to relive glory days, you’re in the wrong cage. Most of them are “distinctively nice” guys, Gottschall writes. “Football captains and bullies don’t need martial arts. They already know they are strong and tough. Guys turn to martial arts when they feel they are weak.” One of the toughest fighters at his gym started there after being humiliated by his girlfriend’s ex. The coach had been a skinny kid in a rough neighborhood. The author likens the place to Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club,” in which damaged men do battle to prove their worth. And it is almost invariably men. Gottschall flicks at female MMA fighters such as Jena “Jenacide” Baldwin, but he concludes that women prefer to hurt each other with words, not fists.

The author has a convert’s zeal for MMA. He disparages traditional martial arts and gets into lengthy debates — and one fight — with a black-belt colleague from the chemistry department over the merits of the two styles. Gottschall is skeptical of “Karate Kid”-style mysticism in Asian martial arts. “In real life,” he writes, “the Cobra Kai guys would have kicked Daniel-san’s ass, and Mr. Miyagi’s, too.”

And he explains how, in bone-crunching detail. “The main objective of fighting sports is to temporarily shut down the other guy’s brain. Head punches hurt what they are designed to hurt, not the face, the brain.” And this is why protective headgear probably doesn’t make things safer, he argues, because it means you take more shots before going down. Gloves provide a similar illusion. “Knuckles shatter on heads,” Gottschall writes. “But if you wind the hand in ribbons of gauze and tape, then armor it in foam and leather, you turn the fragile fist into a fearsome club.”

Far from revealing our barbarism, fighting civilizes us, Gottschall writes. Ritualized, rule-bound competitions “help men work out conflicts and thrash out hierarchies while minimizing carnage and social chaos.” He cites the Amazonian Yanomamö tribe, in which men from rival villages take turns hitting each other in the chest until one side has no men standing. The defeated men know that if it came to real war, they’d probably lose. Now the winning village can intrude on the other’s hunting grounds without having to battle — they’ve already proved themselves.

His MMA comrades feel he is too nice, but Gottschall has some Cobra Kai in him. “To physically dominate another man is intoxicating,” he writes, in one of his occasional overwrought, macho lines. And he recalls his rages, when he punches walls, steering wheels or, oddly, refrigerators. The gimmick of the cage-fighting prof falters somewhat when you learn that Gottschall was a dedicated weightlifter in college and eventually built himself into a 210-pounder with a 300-plus bench press. He got serious about karate in his early 20s, too. Though he’d left such interests behind, this guy knew some monkey dance steps ahead of time.

But that hardly undercuts the anticipation of his fight. When Gottschall finally enters a cage in Johnstown, Pa., exhilaration, pain and confusion spatter all over the mat. I won’t give away the outcome, except to say that his fight lasts less than a minute, and that the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat both make cameos. Gottschall also overcomes his true fear — not of losing or of getting hurt, but of backing out.

The first time I got into a fight — a real one, with other boys in a semicircle and your heart pounding so hard it hurts — was in elementary school. The main damage I suffered was to my school windbreaker, with a pocket nearly ripped off. I was less worried about the wrath of our assistant principal than about explaining the rip to my mother. (The jacket was expensive.) At the same time, the tear was proof that for once, this slim, short boy hadn’t backed down.

I thought about that moment while reading “The Professor in the Cage” — not with pride but not with regret, either. Mainly, I wondered if my 7-year-old son will someday recall a similar memory. In Gottschall’s telling, it’s inevitable. In some ways, this is the ultimate mansplaining book — a toughened-up guy telling weaker men and docile women what’s what. But it’s hopeful, too. “I set out to write about the darkness in men,” Gottschall writes, “but I ended up with a book about how men keep the darkness in check.”

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