An English professor begins training in the sport of mixed martial arts and explores the science and history behind the violence of men
When a mixed martial arts (MMA) gym moves in across the street from his office, Jonathan Gottschall sees a challenge, and an opportunity. Pushing forty, 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?
In The Professor in the Cage, Gottschall’s unlikely journey from the college classroom to the fighting cage drives an important new investigation into the science and history of violence. Mixed martial arts is a full-contact hybrid sport in which fighters punch, choke, and kick each other into submission. MMA requires intense strength, endurance, and skill; the fights are bloody, brutal, and dangerous. Yet throughout the last decade, cage fighting has evolved from a small-time fringe spectacle banned in many states to the fastest-growing spectator sport in America.
But the surging popularity of MMA, far from being new, is just one more example of our species’ insatiable interest not just in violence but in the rituals that keep violence contained. From duels to football to the roughhousing of children, humans are masters of what Gottschall calls the monkey dance: a dizzying variety of rule-bound contests that establish hierarchies while minimizing risk and social disorder. In short, Gottschall entered the cage to learn about the violence in men, but learned instead how men keep violence in check.
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.
While working as an adjunct English professor Gottschall (The Storytelling Animal) found himself drawn to the mixed martial arts (MMA) gym across the street from his office, as this fascinating book describes. Having avoided fights for most of his life, and working in a profession that associates masculinity "with everything oafish, bullying and oppressive," he felt ready to try something new, particularly since he'd long admired but never himself performed acts of "physical courage." While beginning his training, Gottschall realized that ritualized, rule-bound competitions what he calls "the monkey dance" are essential to helping men work out conflicts. With humor, literary allusions, and a casual, unprepossessing style, Gottshall explores such related subjects as duels, bullying, English football, men's "love-hate" relationship to war, and violent entertainment from gladiator games to MMA. Noting that without a dominant hierarchy, his gym would be a "grisly bloodbath," he nevertheless finds that his fellow fighters are not at all what he expected. Many are "downright sweet," and none have gotten into fights outside the cage in years. By the end of Gottschall's thought-provoking study, he enters his first and only official fight after 15 months of training, thinking very differently about masculinity and the rituals of manhood.
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An excellent reflection
As a long time practitioner of the martial arts, this book made me reflect on my interests. It's also quite entertaining to hear what is in many ways the author's spin on a "Rocky" style story. Well written, funny, thought provoking and entertaining, I would recommend this book to martial artists or people looking for a unique look at human nature.