Civic Engagement Day


Professor turned MMA fighter shares personal story

Jonathan Gottschall, a Distinguished Fellow in the English department at Washington and Jefferson College brought the story of his time as a Mixed Martial Artist to Bluffton University April 6 as keynote speaker for the University’s annual Civic Engagement Day.

Bluffton’s Civic Engagement theme for 2015-16 is Gender Roles, Relationships, Realities. Each year’s theme is a contemporary issue that is related to the university’s mission and becomes the subject of cross-disciplinary exploration throughout the academic year.

Gottschall’s presentation was titled, “The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch,” based on the content of his book “The Professor in the Cage.”

During the presentation, Gottschall explained why an English professor at a small liberal arts college would take up cage fighting for three years.

“The point wasn’t to do violence. I didn’t have aggression to get out,” he said. “I did it as a way to redeem the boy who flinched when confronted. I wanted to see if I could practice being brave until it became habitual.”

Gottschall’s original interest in MMA fighting began by watching it on television. He was attracted to the spectacle. His fascination turned to participation after a former auto parts store was converted into an MMA gym across the street from his office, and he could watch the men “dancing” in the cage.

“The emotion I was feeling was envy. They seemed so alive in their cage, while I felt so trapped in my cubicle,” he said. What began as a joke – “I thought it would be great for my colleagues to be reading poetry and then look up and see me” – became a passionate hobby.

In the beginning, he expected to write a muckraking exposé on what cage fighting says about us as a species – a metaphor for something rotten and nasty about human beings. “I expected to write about darkness and instead wrote about how people keep that darkness in check.”

Gottschall came to the conclusion that the duels of men are simply the worst forms of male violence and competition. Little boys roughhousing and people participating in sporting competitions, are really ways for people to figure out who is fitter but still walk away friends. Sociologists call this honor violence.

“In a way, the European dueling culture isn’t dead, since the leading cause – issues of respect – are still there.”

Looking back, Gottschall admits that he overdid it. He was punched thousands of times. On top of that he starved and dehydrated himself to make his weight class before fights. “Sometimes I would leave the gym and feel tall and strong and grateful that I got to do this, but most of the time, I didn’t feel like that and felt twice as old, tired, scared.”

After 15 months of training and a major defeat, he realized that he had been wrong in stereotyping MMA fighters as high school bullies, when, in his experience, many were decent and ordinary young men. After trying to kill each other in the cage, hugging each other felt very tender and genuine to him, and he felt mutual respect.

“The 24 year old MMA fighter who whipped my butt in the cage is training to help people as a nurse,” he said. “I feel like this may be a metaphor for what is good and noble in men.”


Meg Short ‘16

“They seemed so alive in their cage, while I felt so trapped in my cubicle."