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Book review: “The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch”

The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch

By Jonathan Gottschall

Penguin Press

288 pages, $26.95

By Lee Coppola

It’s amazing what some authors do to authenticate their work.

You want to write about what it’s like to guard inmates? Take a job as a corrections officer. You want to write about what it’s like to endure the bitter coldness of Alaska? Go live in Alaska. You want to know what it’s like to play a professional sport? Join a professional sports team, if only for training camp.

Jonathan Gottschall might just have taken such authenticity to new lengths. He wanted to write about mixed martial arts, what it’s like to face an opponent in a no-holds-barred battle in a ring enclosed in fencing. So, you guessed it, he became an MMA fighter.

He trained for 15 months to learn the ins and outs of the increasingly popular sport where men – and now women, too – punch, kick, grapple and often bloody their adversaries into submission.

Writes Gottschall: “To do MMA is to hurt. The sport is one-on-one tackle football – with the addition of punching, kneeing, choking, and cranking. It leaves you so sore, bruised and chafed that sleeping hurts.”

Gottschall’s journey ended one night in Johnston, Pa., when he entered the cage to face a fighter 15 years his junior.

Along the literary way, Gottschall, a college adjunct English professor at the time, explores the history, mores and means of fighting. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, America’s most famous duelists, pointed pistols at each other not for money or machismo, but for honor.

“To be seen a duel dodger was, in many ways, a fate worse than death,” Gottschall writes.

Dueling wasn’t big business, and it didn’t take place for entertainment. But, as Gottschall points out, the world has long been fascinated by competition, sometimes the bloodier the better. How else to explain the success of Bruce Lee or Lee-ilk movies like “The Gladiator,” “Mad Max” or even “The Karate Kid.”

Speaking of “The Karate Kid,” the author relates his encounter with a fellow professor schooled in the time-honored oriental art. The two were into their cups at a faculty party when the discussion turned to what method of fighting was more, shall we say, persuasive.

So the two shed their sports coats and went at it on their host’s lawn. Not once, not twice, not three times, but six times, each time MMA prevailing. Unfortunately, the loser never accepted MMA as the more effective combat, instead citing his mistakes as reasons for his defeats.

Gottschall smoothly transitions into why fighters vie for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the Holy Grail of mixed martial arts. Money, of course, heads the list, although not for Gottschall. Headliners can make millions and the newest sensation, Rhonda “Rowdy” Rousey, has parlayed her MMA fame into movie roles and product endorsements.

Gottschall’s goal was to get fired, from a job he disliked, from a profession – in academia –he saw as depressing. It didn’t work. He quit after being a writing professor to concentrate on more literary work. Had he stayed, he muses, the inelegant and unacademic pursuit he was undertaking most surely would have resulted in him not being asked to return to the classroom.

Gottschall’s writing proves much smoother and easier to digest than the mayhem he undertakes in the cage. He buttresses his work, as all academics do, with 35 pages of endnotes and bibliography, attesting to the research he undertook to complement his road to the ring.

The reader learns why animals fight, why women don’t, and why eye contact and facial expressions often win bouts before the bell rings.

“Fighting can be seductive,” he writes. “It seduces men, and it helps men seduce women, who have always been drawn to the blood on a duelist’s hands. But the more I immersed myself in the history and social science of men’s fights, the less seduced I felt.”

Still, he continued his quest. He worked out daily in the gym across from his college office. He fought mock bouts with skilled MMA fighters, urging them to hurt him if that’s what was needed to conquer him; then, when they did, he regretted it.

Eventually, the training, the strict dieting to get down to a reasonable weight class (meaning not against really big opponents) and the sheer gore he watched other cage fighters endure caused him to throw in his gloves.

“So you’re pussying out,” one of his sparring partners told him. That and other similar comments in the gym made him reconsider. They made him realize why his colleagues looked at him differently when they learned what he was doing in the name of literature, albeit not quite the kind of literature English professors write, and he liked how others looked at him when he showed up at a social function with a purple welt under his eye.

The final chapter of his saga, his one truly competitive bout, was written before friends and family and strangers in that ring in Johnston. It lasted 47 seconds, the professor-turned-cage-fighter surrendering before his opponent broke his arm in a classic MMA hold called the arm bar.

Lee Coppola is a former Buffalo print and broadcast journalist, a former federal prosecutor and a former dean of St. Bonaventure University’s journalism school.