The Professor in the Cage

Originally published at

I downloaded Jonathan Gottschall’s The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch and started reading it the morning it came out. I stopped two chapters in, because I had to head to my boxing class.

Gottschall and I aren’t the same, but we know something about each other.

When a man on the far side of thirty-five decides to learn how to fight, he’s got some reasons. He doesn’t do it because he’s already good at it, and he doesn’t do it on a whim. He’s not trying to keep his lunch money away from the school bully and it ain’t about impressing girls.

When you’re in your twenties, if you have any sense of self worth, you figure you could to do just about anything if you really put your mind to it. After that, you start to realize that doors are closing behind you, and you can see more closing doors in front of you. Thirty and forty aren’t nearly as old as they seem when you are twenty, but they aren’t twenty, either. You can probably still do almost anything, and you can still surprise yourself, but you know that you can never go back and do some things as well as you could have if you’d started earlier. Fighting is one of those things.

Gottschall did two courageous things in the process of writing The Professor in the Cage. First of all, the man took a fucking MMA fight. That takes a plumper sack than you’ll find between four average football fans. It doesn’t matter if he won or lost. And that courage only reached its pinnacle in the octagon. As he wrote in one of my favorite passages, it would have been much safer to avoid training altogether:

“The very last thing I feel like doing most nights after dinner is getting in a series of fistfights with a bunch of twenty-year-olds — is doing anything requiring strapping armor to my genitals. But since I began work on this book , trading punches with twenty-year-olds has kind of been my job , and so I drag myself to the gym like a shift worker dragging himself to the factory. I limp onto the mat feeling tired and old, and after I warm up and get going . . . I have so much fun. The blubbery, congested sensation of incipient middle age gives way, and I feel young again, and strong. When I’ve competed well, and especially when I’ve held my own in the sparring, I leave the gym feeling so awake, my whole system revving with something purer than a runner’s high. I drive home knowing that I’ve been going through life half asleep, and I feel a euphoric gratitude for my living muscle and bone and blood.”

The visceral joy of a man being a man, of this beautiful thing that we are losing and that fewer and fewer men will ever feel or know or understand — it is right there, exposed and palpable.

The book wasn’t all like that. Gottschall’s accounts of his fears about training and fighting felt overplayed to me, and were a little cringey in spots. It even seemed like he wanted to lose his fight — like it was a kind of good-guy writer’s martyrdom. But he still fought, and I’d buy him a beer for that.

Social courage, on the other hand, is a lesser form of courage, but the metaphorical beatings come from more angles and the bruises hang around longer. If only the bitchy snipings of critics were as clean and simple as a punch in the face…

The second courageous thing Gottschall did was dismiss a lot of civilized groupfeel about gender, men, and violence. While he unconvincingly argued that manly bloodsport is no threat to the feminist project, he convincingly argues that men are and have always been more inclined to violent competition than women, and that it has as much to do with nature as it does with nurture. The increased male tendency to pursue violent competition is not merely verifiable in our species, it is consistent with animals with similar reproductive abilities and behaviors throughout the natural world. “Across species,” he writes, “most male aggression is ultimately tied to a shortage of female reproductive supply relative to male demand.” We do a lot of the same “monkey dances.”

And humanity hasn’t “evolved” past the point where this sort of male violence is no longer necessary, as many spoiled and sheltered airheads like to believe — it is simply contained and suppressed by state-sanctioned violence.

Wrapping up one of several entertaining and informative tangents in the book, this one on the rise and fall of dueling culture, Gottschall makes the point that the disappearance of the kind of honor cultures that made fighting and dueling a normal part of life is not owed so much to the “evolution” or “moral enlightenment” of modern people as it is to the rise of the efficient Leviathan. The highly policed state protects families and property, and punishes men who take matters into their own hands, so demonstrating publicly that you will stand up for yourself is not only unnecessary, but potentially more costly than doing nothing. In early America and pre-20th Century Europe, this was not the case, and it is not the case in failed or weak state pockets of the world where honor cultures thrive in various forms.

In several statements sure to be deemed heretical by his Chardonnay-sipping academic peers, Gottschall sketches out a familiar definition of masculinity that is rooted in both biology and evolutionary psychology. It’s not different everywhere, or completely subjective. The differences are differences of degree. He writes, “Masculinity is simply strength and toughness— of body and mind. There are many valid ways to be a man, things that cultures respect or disrespect, but there is no masculinity without strength.” Check. “…in every culture, men were seen as more active, adventurous, dominant, forceful, independent, and strong. And in every culture except for one (but not always the same one), males were seen as more aggressive, autocratic, daring, enterprising, robust, and stern.” Check. Further:

“stereotypes about masculinity became so entrenched for a reason: they are mainly true. To be timid, muscularly weak, and emotionally shaky is now and has always been unmasculine. Masculinity is not a cultural invention. It is not the result of a conspiracy by men against women. It is a real thing that has evolved over millions of years as a response to the built-in competitive realities of male life.”

Strong, Courageous and Able. He also notes that, everywhere and always, masculinity has been something that needed to be proved through rites of passage. Women simply became women through reproductive maturity, but, “To earn the status of a real man, not an ersatz one, a guy must prove he has the right stuff.” That is to say, he must prove himself to other men. He must earn his reputation, and be willing to defend it. He must have some sense of… Honor. The Professor in the Cage is the first mainstream book I’ve read that verifies the cross-cultural reality that the tactical virtues I listed in The Way of Men — Strength, Courage, Mastery and Honor — are the most basic components of human masculinity as a universal concept.

Gottschall also explores the connection between masculinity and violence, and the lingering desire in men to find something to fight, even if they don’t have to. He compares modern men to Don Quixote. “They conjure dragons just so they can try to kill them,” because something in them still wants to prove, “they have inherited the legacy of their grandfathers, the pure stuff of manhood: courage and strength.”

The Professor in the Cage is supposed to be about MMA, but it is more about masculinity than mixed martial arts. MMA fighters and fans won’t find much they don’t already know, though they may walk away with some academic ammunition for arguments about why they do what they do and like what they like. As a narrative about a nerd learning to fight, I enjoyed Sam Sheridan’s more straightforward and less self-deprecating A Fighter’s Heart more. But as Gottschall and I are in the same age range, his experience was useful in helping me reflect on my own. As a book about masculinity, it deserves a place on a shelf right beside Harvey Mansfield’s Manliness and James Bowman’s Honor: A History. Like Mansfield’s Manliness, though, it ultimately seems to have been written more for women and fellow academics than for a general male audience. It’s more apologia than manifesto, explaining to “others” why men, despite strong efforts to turn them into nice little girls, still persist in being…masculine. It’s not because we fear the mystical power of women, or because we secretly hate women and want to oppress them. Men still want to behave like men because we like ourselves better that way.

I won’t ruin the story of Gottschall’s fight for you, but it is worth noting that the book wasn’t just a stunt. He may never take another real fight, but he’s going to keep training and sparring until he finally leaves the gym on a stretcher.

I’d buy him a beer for that, too.

Buy The Professor in the Cage on Amazon.