Dale Peck in Book Forum:
IT'S BEEN YEARS SINCE I took Muay Thai; years, too, since I thought much about Stanley Crouch. Nevertheless, this was my obvious point of entry to Jonathan Gottschall’s The Professor in the Cage, which the author describes as “part history of violence, part nonfiction Fight Club, and part tour of the sciences of sports and bloodlust.” In fact, The Professor in the Cage is a straightforward work of popular science bookended by what Gottschall himself calls a “memoir stunt”: One day in his late thirties, Gottschall, a “cultured English professor,” decided to join the mixed-martial-arts gym that had opened across the street from his campus office, with the ultimate goal of engaging in at least one professional fight. By Gottschall’s account, the decision was motivated by dissatisfaction with his job as an adjunct teaching freshman composition, but the subsequent narrative complicates this explanation. Gottschall refers to his 2012 fight as “the culmination of a [two-year] journey,” yet he seems to have been “fascinated by fighting,” at least since the mid-’90s, when he watched a video of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s inaugural bout, between Teila Tuli and Gerard Gordeau. At the end of that twenty-second bloodbath, “Gordeau left the cage with . . . one of Tuli’s front teeth broken off inside his foot.” Gottschall likens the experience to watching porn for the first time. He was “sickened” by the spectacle but “couldn’t look away,” and “in the ensuing months I frequently visited the video store, where I guiltily lurked through the section that included UFC tapes.” Finally there is the admission that “from grade school through high school, I attracted bullies.” But lest you pity the younger Gottschall, he hastens to tell readers: “I probably would have behaved the same way if I’d had the fangs and the claws for it. I wasn’t a good kid, just a weak one. In high school I occasionally managed to identify someone even weaker and more isolated than me, and I did my small part to make his life even harder and sadder than it already was.”
In college he “hit the weights,” building himself into “a 210-pound heavyweight who could bench-press more than 300 pounds”; afraid that strength alone wasn’t enough, he “took up karate” and studied it for more than fifteen years.