Former English Teacher Explores MMA Life "In The Cage"

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(Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
(Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

"I felt this really strong sense of envy for how alive they seemed in their cage, while I was rotting away in my cubicle."

That's how Jonathan Gottschall reacted when he saw young men sparring in a new mixed martial arts gym that set up shop across the street from the English department at Washington and Jefferson College. That feeling of longing led Gottschall to explore the world of MMA — and the larger question of why humans are attracted to fighting — in his new book, "The Professor in the Cage."

"I’d watch fighting on TV and I'd think to myself, you know, I'm a peace-loving person. I'm civilized. I'm apparently not a sociopath and yet here I am, watching this. What's wrong with me and what's wrong with so many of us who are drawn to this kind of violent entertainment."

[sidebar title="Why A $1 Billion Weekend Won’t Save Boxing" align="right"]The New York Times' Joe Drape explains why boxing is losing out to MMA, despite the buzz around this weekend's Mayweather-Pacquiao fight.[/sidebar]Anyone who's ever watched the Nature Channel knows that many animal species engage in ritual combat to establish hierarchy and dominance. Throughout history, Gottschall says, humans have as well through "everything from pistols at dawn, to deadly duels, to verbal duels, to play fights of boys, to sports."

"People are complicated animals, cultured animals, but we're animals still," Gotschall says.

Gottschall was pushing 40. He was unlikely to become a tenured professor. And so he decided it was time to do something drastic.

"And I so had this kind of funny thought — it was just a joke — to myself, I thought, 'Wouldn't it be funny if I went across the street and joined them?' Me, a college professor, kind of chubby, never been in a fight before. And so, over the next couple of weeks, or maybe even months, I sort of, worked up the courage to cross that street, so get in some fights."

Find out how Jonathan Gottshall fared in his first cage fight — and in a fight during a faculty cocktail party against a chemistry professor with a black belt in karate -- by listening to the audio at the top of the page.


0502_oag_book_coverBill's Thoughts On 'The Professor In The Cage'

Jonathan Gottschall was laboring unhappily as an English teacher when he decided that perhaps he could get himself fired by taking up mixed martial arts. Having signed up for combat at the gym across the street from his office, Gottschall began showing up for work on crutches or with a black eye.

He was not instantly fired, but he did come up with an idea for a book. Thus was born 'The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like To Watch.'

One problem with the book is evident in that subtitle. “We” don’t all like to watch. But a lot of people do, and that provoked Gottschall to explore and develop various theories about human nature – particularly the nature of human males – and about the ways combat sports have served various cultures. The short version of his thesis is that “to earn the status of a real man, not an ersatz one, a guy must prove he has the right stuff.” For Gottschall, such proof is established with flying fists and kicking feet, if not necessarily with tooth and claw.

Gottschall is aware that some of what he assumes and proposes in 'The Professor in the Cage' is controversial, even incendiary. His contention that bullying may be considered a useful – even inevitable – evolutionary trait won’t go over well. He understands how in some quarters his bout with a chemistry professor on the lawn outside a faculty cocktail party might be considered stupid and pointless rather than heroic. But his contention that “the thrill of the fight – for combatants and fans – is worth the horror” will find some adherents.

This segment aired on May 2, 2015.


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Doug Tribou Reporter/Producer
Doug Tribou was formerly a reporter and producer at WBUR and for WBUR's Only A Game.



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