I’m reading a great book by Dr. Jonathan Gottschall titled The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch.

It’s about an English professor who tires of the academic ivory tower of “safe spaces” and deeply yearns for unsafe spaces.

He takes a two year journey beginning with stripping away the tweed jacket by entering a local MMA (mixed martial arts) gym and eventually ending in a real MMA cage match.

Along the way he reports his findings in a humorous and academic style.

Gottschall’s Thesis: Men are Programmed to Sport Fight

Dr. Gottschall Thesis: Male homo sapiens are biologically wired to have sporting duels that do not end in death.

He observes that the males in most mammal species (and others) have dominance battles. Mammals perform “sports battles” to determine who gets this food, this land, and these females.

They do not usually end in death. Rather, they have rules engrained into their instincts. For example, it would be more effective for a male elk to gore another male elk from side and kill him. But they don’t do that. Rather, they charge head to head. Horns against horns. It’s a natural sport. Nature has provided them with their natural weapons and natural rules. Similar sporting bouts occur is so many species (from beetles to muskoxen) that it would be tiresome to recount.

Dr. Gottschall, observing human history, asserts that homo sapiens are no different. In fact, male homo sapiens are especially designed for sporting battles mano a mano. The entire hierarchy of a family, village, tribe, and nation was once arranged by sporting contests between men. The most advanced and ordered societies had official state-sponsored competitions between men. Why? When men are encouraged to compete, society is more peaceful. Each man knows his place and is less likely to act out.

Regretfully, we now live in a time where male contests are discouraged as macho, insecure, toxic, and even evil. Or if there are contests, everyone gets a trophy and everyone gets a star. So we tell all our sons (and daughters) not to engage in this way and to report everyone who does so.

And the result? A suffocating tidal wave of bullying. I’m leaving the script of Dr. Gottschall and making my own observation. Bullies now thrive because there is no apparent hierarchy of dominance. If you turned back time 60 years, all these bullies nowadays would be defused. When boys wrestle on the playground or go to boxing classes (once common even in Catholic schools), every boy knew precisely where he stood in the male pecking order. We aren’t talking about internecine blood-sports on the playground. We are talking “spirited play” where wrestling occurs, and perhaps an occasional fist or kick flies.

I knew of a Catholic school where if the boys had a problematic rivalry or even a scuffle, the male teachers would have each boy put on boxing gloves and arrange a real match with all the students and teachers watching. This is honorable and civil: “If you boys want to fight, then let’s really do it, with rules and everyone watching.” By the end of the match, everyone knows in clear day light how it was settled. No gossip. No sucker punches. No false bragging about how tough you are. Just settle it for real and we will watch.

Bullies do not thrive in these environments. 

Back to Dr. Gottschall. I also live in a world of books and ideas. I work through a keyboard, writing books, articles, and scripts. I love what I do, but I also want to enter a realm where Latin and HTML and plug-ins and manuscripts are meaningless. I write about gladiator bouts in my novels, but I want to experience real combat. I’ve been training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for a bit over a year now…and it has changed my life for the better. It’s not raw MMA, but it is sports combat. And it has humiliated me and humbled me. I’ve been wrestled to exhaustion and choked out by opponents 50 pounds lighter than me and some 15 years older than me. At the same time, I am also more confident, but I bear no illusions that I am invincible. I have won contests, but I have been squarely defeated in public hundreds of times.

Dr. Gottschall’s thesis is controversial, but worth a look. It’s very Maccabean and I encourage the Maccabee Society readers to check out his book: The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch. It puts a finger on what is missing in culture and why the UFC has exploded in popularity.

All this relates to an observation by Navy Seal Jocko Willink that goes something like this: Every human male in human history had likely fought in a war/battle before his 18th birthday. Many of the great saints (St Martin, St George, St Francis, St Ignatius) also began as scrappy soldiers and transformed that military angst into great sanctity.

Unless a man were physically handicapped, he had been trained to fight hand to hand, and he had used his skills to fight for his people – whether he were Nigerian, Chinese, French, or Aztec. Can this identity easily be removed from humanity or should we find ways to civilly channel it, now that we all work in cubicles and cars? From the pre-Christian Greek Olympics to the High German jousts, it seems that the best way is to funnel it into civilized bouts and contests.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thought and comments on both his thesis and perhaps your own perspective on combat as a sport. Leave a comment below.

Dr Taylor Marshall