Walking down the “sports” aisle at Barnes and Noble, I found myself wrapped over the knuckles by the cover of an eerie, jaw dropping image on a book’s cover; the title, however, was what won me over: The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch (2015) by Jonathan Gottschall. I perused the aisle to satisfy my thirst for knowledge in combat sports, and it seemed Gottschall could provide an education I have yet to receive. My intrigue for the various forms of martial arts is heightened when they’re all patched together upon one quilted canvas: mixed martial arts. Cracking open the book to reveal Gottschall’s syllabus, I grabbed my pen and notebook and set to task on a violent study session.
When I first joined the gym, I expected to write a book about the rapid rise of cage fighting in America and what its massive popularity says about us—not just as a nation, but as a species. I thought MMA was bad for the athletes who did it and bad for society at large. (p. 5)
This is a book about the “monkey dance,” a term I use to encompass all of the wild and frequently ridiculous varieties of ritualized conflict in human males. (p. 50)
Nowadays, gender roles are viewed through a kaleidoscope, blurring and meshing distinction into a speckled landscape of wondrous colors. I’m not advocating a hard line one way or the other, but, using historical contexts, data, and observation, Gottschall artistically scribes eye-opening information when discussing males’ infatuation with the fight game—the monkey dance.
Sport is another form of the monkey dance—a form of ritual combat that is equivalent to animal contests. (p. 139)
Removing myself from a screen showcasing hand-to-hand combat is more difficult than yanking the sword from the stone. It’s always felt instinctual to be hypnotized in five-minute chunks interlaced with sixty-second breaks, however, describing my fanfare to such an exponential degree of passion seemed absurd. Gottschall proposed any future therapy sessions may not be super necessary:
The stereotypical fight fan is a troglodyte grunting for blood. So when I attended my first UFC event, I expected to find myself in the Roman Colosseum with spectators hooting madly. But to my great surprise (and even greater disappointment), I found fifteen thousand fans who were extremely knowledgeable, well behaved, and even a little quiescent. The standard UFC event is so tame compared with rabid hatefests of big-time football, soccer, and hockey games. This is true at the top professional level, and it’s even more evident at amateur MMA shows, where the crowd’s basic civility is pronounced. (p. 227)
Phew, I realized I’m more normal than I thought. The craftsmanship of Gottschall’s prose sheds light on the polarity of perspective in relation to a sport like mixed martial arts. With such strong north and south separations, there’s plenty of space in the middle for entertainment that runs centuries old:
A fight twists viewers hard in opposite directions. On the one hand, a fight seems like a Hobbesian metaphor for the human condition: nasty, brutish, and short. But on the other hand, a fight displays virtues that can reveal themselves only in a dire struggle. (p. 226)
It’s In Our Blood
After reading Professor In the Cage, I feel more equipped to defend my innate inability to blink or be distracted when I’m anywhere in the vicinity of an MMA match. It was jarring when Gottschall detailed the violence and gore of what many in the past chose as a form of leisurely viewing. He described Europeans in the 1600s sharing pleasure in watching an executioner carry out the lethal consequences:
…witnessing such spectacles was viewed as good wholesome fun. And since it was morally instructive fun, children were released from school to learn the wages of sin. Thousands of people would flock to London from the countryside to attend executions, buying expensive tickets for seats in hastily built bleachers, drinking beer, and gorging themselves on carnival foods. (p. 189-190)
A far stretch from the sport of MMA today, yet many turn their heads and wretch at the barbarism they perceive. The men, and women, of MMA are, in fact, practicing a form of what anthropologists would refer to as sham warfare:
Anthropologists estimate that roughly a third of the world’s tribal societies practiced “sham warfare,” which refers not merely to rough sports—or rough team sports—but to sports that were directly based on the typical activities of war. In sham warfare there was no score keeping. As in real war, the winners simply inflicted more damage than they absorbed. For example, in the Marquesas Islands men played a violent game of team dodgeball, hurling coconuts or stones, until one side or the other was so depleted that it had to give up. (p. 164-165)
Securing the finish, earning the victory, and achieving bragging rights of dominance—team sports or individualized—these are the moments that set everyone’s hair ablaze. The length at which athletes will stretch to reach their goals and fans’ efforts to support them is age-old. Gotschall chronicled the chariot racing of Roman times to reflect this level of intensity:
In Roman times some men were so wild for chariot racing that they hung out at the stables fingering and sniffing dung to make sure the horses were being fed properly. (p. 161)
Prior to indulging in some study hall time with The Professor In the Cage, I would unleash an assault of opinions as to why the fans of team sports should inch closer to those featuring an individual. Now, I possess a schema of Gottschall’s research and firsthand experience as a guide to potentially lure more stares onto a brightly lit canvas. For arming me with dense instruction, the fodder found in blind territorial pride affords me no choice other than to award The Professor In the Cage five out of five stars.
Before crossing the fencing’s door jam and meeting the Professor In the Cage in the middle, I assumed that I was going to engage in a different story of a guy, Gottschall, discovering a deeper passion for an already addictive sport. Instead, I gained an acceptance of my own maniacal fancy of mixed martial arts, and even though I didn’t think was possible, I noticed myself attached even closer to the most exciting athletes, and sport, in the world.
The relationship between fighter and fan is not one of exploitation. It is symbiotic, not parasitic. The fighter desperately wants to be a hero, and the fan desperately wants to worship heroism—and neither can get what he needs without the other. (p. 229)