Why men need to fight

If you have not yet read Jonathan Gotschall's excellent book, The Professor in the Cage, I cannot recommend it highly enough. I finished it a few days ago, and I'm very pleased to say that I have finally found a book that clearly articulates exactly why it is that men not only want to test themselves against each other in martial combat, but in fact need to do so. I've written about this at some length before, but never before had I come across a more well-formed set of arguments demonstrating just how pervasive that urge is within men.

As Prof. Gottschall points out, the urge to fight is ingrained in men down to practically the genetic level. The reality is that this desire- more properly defined as the urge to compete for status, women, power, material wealth, etc.- is as much a part of a man's psyche and being as is his need to breathe, to live, and to procreate.

And as Prof. Gotschall repeatedly points out, attempts in the last 40 years to weed out male aggression, to neuter it and to render it harmless, have backfired and continue to backfire in truly spectacular fashion.

His own personal journey is chronicled within the book, going from a pudgy, out-of-shape, bored and unhappy adjunct professor who lacks meaning and direction in his career, to a pretty fit, reasonably skilled amateur mixed martial artist. And in the process, he has a very great deal to teach those of us who are willing to listen and learn from him.

Here are some of the most important lessons that I learned from reading through his journey, and contrasting it to my own within martial arts.

1. Martial Arts Is Therapeutic

As the book goes to great lengths to point out, men have always competed against one another in physical combat. Doing so has tremendous benefits- not just for men, but for society as a whole. Men- all men- can and do feel tremendously powerful impulses to do violent things in order to achieve violent ends. By redirecting that energy within the confines of a rules-based environment, by giving men an outlet for that natural energy within a (relatively) safe environment, the martial arts give men like you and me a way of releasing pent-up frustrations and anxieties in ways that do minimal damage to us and those around us.

Think about this. There have doubtless been moments in your life when you have been so full of rage and violence that, if anyone had dared to say or do the wrong thing at that instant, you would have exploded into a whirlwind of fury. You, and those around you, would have suffered terribly if you had lost control.

Yet, if you were given the opportunity to take out that rage upon an inanimate object- or, better yet, in a sparring class with men who are not afraid of you and who can keep up with you, teach you, and make you a better fighter- would you really be able to stay angry?

Certainly I have seen a huge difference within my own life in this regard. Even the Iron God, mighty though he is, cannot bestow the kinds of gifts of self-control and self-knowledge that a truly difficult and challenging martial art can. I love powerlifting, but within the gym there are certain protocols that must be followed. I cannot simply go crazy and throw weights around like an angry gorilla for an hour while screaming at people in the gym- that would be absurd. (Not to mention dangerous to others.)

On the sparring mat, though, it's a totally different story. I can, in fact, go as fast and as hard as I want against higher-ranked belts. As a consequence of this, I have become far more calm, far better at taking things in stride and keeping a good sense of perspective. The reason is simple: if I lose my head on the mat, the punishment is swift and severe. It involves taking a serious beating from men with greater skill, control, and balance than me.

Things that a few years ago would have severely upset me, now are simply obstacles to be overcome. Strangers and business associates who have met me have commented on how I seem to have this odd zen-like calm, even in stressful situations. And that is because I know that I always have a release valve in the form of the sparring mat, the muay thai pads, and the heavy bag.

2. Bonds of Brotherhood

The book goes into some detail about how Prof. Gottschall made some very good and very close friends in his MMA gym, despite the fact that most of the guys there were younger, faster, stronger, and considerably more skilled than he is. Even though he was getting the crap beaten out of him early on, he persisted, and in the process, he forged lifelong bonds with good and decent men- even while those same men were making him squeak and tap out, or pummeling his face into hamburger.

This is an experience that, as far as I can tell, is unique to men. Women do not punch each other in the face and walk away as friends. The very concept is alien to them, because women fight, if they do at all, very differently from men. Women fight using subtle tactics of intimidation and outmanoeuvreing; the concept of head-on collisions designed to quickly and effectively settle scores is not something that they understand.

I started doing martial arts because I wanted to learn how to defend myself. I am achieving that goal- remember, as a paleolibertarian, I regard self-defence as a duty, not merely a right. But that is only part, and a small part at that, of what keeps me coming back- even though I find myself routinely working with guys with more experience and skill than myself, who could easily beat me to a pulp if they wanted to.

What keeps me coming back is the fact that I have met good men who have become good friends.

These men were and are there for me when I need their support. And they know that I am there for them when they need me. These are bonds forged of mutual respect, trust, and platonic affection- the kind that can only be experienced by men who have faced difficult trials together, and come away from those ordeals wiser, stronger, and better able to trust each other.

When you're testing for a higher belt with a training partner, your physical safety is very often going to be in someone else's hands. If you do not share a bond of familiarity, trust, and respect with your training partner, serious injury and public humiliation are almost sure to follow. Full-contact martial arts makes brothers out of the most unlikely men for this precise reason.

These are bonds that are critically important for men, especially young men, to form. Growing up, I never experienced anything like this. I moved around a lot as a kid, and that transient existence affected me deeply. To this day, I find it impossible to make friends with random strangers; it takes a very great deal for someone to get past my standoffish reserve and make friends with me. I have very few real friends, and almost none remain from my childhood. And I am perfectly happy with that state of affairs.

Yet, on the sparring mat, I share a bond of common respect and trust with men that I barely know otherwise. I admire their skill; I treat both higher and lower ranked belts with respect; I work hard to meet the standards that our school sets; and as a result, I have made friends that I will have for life.

And all because we punch and kick each other in the face, put each other in rear-naked chokes, and do our level best to smack each other over the head with sticks (which don't have foam padding at our school, by the way).

3. Honour, Hierarchy, and Dominance

There are many fine qualities to be found within the martial arts. One of the most important- even more important than its ability to make firm friends out of men who might otherwise hate each other in daily life- is the fact that martial competition establishes hierarchy like nothing else can.

Think about it. Which men do you admire, and why? These are men that you admire for any number of reasons, but I'll bet anything you want that a big part of the reason that you admire them is the fact that these men are dominant in their chosen fields.

That dominance is not always easy to establish. In the world of technology, for instance, it's usually the guy with the biggest bank account. But in arenas where fierce competition is encouraged and physical prowess is the yardstick used to measure dominance, there is nothing easier to figure out.

In mixed martial arts, it's really simple: the champion is the man to be. Women want to jump his bones; men in his division want to break them; and men who watch him want to be him.

MMA and contact-based martial arts establish dominance and hierarchy in a way that is easy to understand and fair, insofar as anything can be called such. If you are getting your ass kicked by someone with more skill than you, then you will cede authority, respect, and position to him- because he is measurably and demonstrably better than you. There is no shame or dishonour in this.

There is, however, another side to this that most people don't bother to touch on- even Prof. Gottschall barely mentions it in his book. And that is the concept of honourable combat.

There is a big difference between being an honourable champion and a blood-crazed berserker. The former is worthy of admiration and is to be emulated; the latter is little better than a rabid dog. The difference isn't always that stark; in MMA, the comparison is basically between those fighters who carry themselves well and act as role models for their sport, and those fighters who like to promote themselves while putting down their opponents.

A good example of the former is the current UFC middleweight champion, Chris Weidman. You will rarely come across a more fundamentally decent, hard-working, down-to-earth man than this. He loves his family, his people, and his country. He works insanely hard to be good at what he does. He does not take his success for granted. He respects his opponents and fights cleanly, within the rules of his sport.

Contrast this with former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. There is no question that the man is a supremely talented pugilist. There is also no question that he is a very dirty fighter. And because of his cosmic arrogance and evident belief that the rules just don't apply to him, he has lost his championship belt and forfeited whatever regard that his fans might once have had for his awesome talents.

4. Badassery Versus Bullshido

"No Can Defend"? Then how come this doesn't work in real life?
There is a rather good section of the book that explores the difference between "traditional" martial arts, like karate and tae kwon do, and modern MMA. That section asks just why it is that practitioners of the older arts have such a hard time in MMA.

The answer lies partly in the fact that older arts were designed for entirely different purposes. Karate, for instance, is big on stances and forms and spirituality; you have to go to a truly old-school karate dojo in order to find real full-contact sparring. Traditional styles, like shotokan or kyokushin karate, both encourage and allow full-contact sparring. There are several modern MMA greats who have backgrounds in karate- Lyoto Machida comes to mind, as does Georges St. Pierre. But the key to their success is that they recognised the shortcomings of karate, particularly with regard to its more showy techniques and its utter lack of groundfighting, and compensated for them by incorporating other styles and ideas into their repertoire.

Another older art, aikido, was designed for use on the battlefield against weapons with a long reach. Its emphasis on disarming with minimal contact using small-joint locks and throws is great when you're up against pikemen with long poles, or samurai wielding katana and wakizashi in horizontal, diagonal, and vertical movements.

It is of rather less use against a man with his hands wrapped so tightly as to make his arms into potent 20lb clubs designed to beat you senseless at close range. That is partly why you don't see many aikido practitioners in MMA- the stance that they teach is dangerously out-of-date for the sport, the techniques don't stack up well against BJJ or sambo or wrestling, and the wrist- and finger-locks are ineffective against people with hand-wraps in 4oz gloves.

And aikido is of very little use indeed against people with short, sharp knives that are used to poke holes in you at very close range, rather than slash you open at medium range.

A separate, but related, reality is that a pure stand-up striker is, roughly 80% of the time, going to lose against a skilled ground fighter.

The book tells a rather interesting anecdote about how Prof. Gotschall got into an argument with a friend of his who practises karate. The two of them agree to settle it like gentlemen- by stepping out onto the lawn to beat each other up, subject to certain rules. His friend steps in to kick, hard and fast- and finds himself flat on his back getting choked out. This happens six times in a row. At the end of the episode, his friend still cannot quite believe that karate alone was not sufficient when pitted against a ground-based style.

This mirrors my own experiences. I'm a decent stand-up striker- not great, not very good, just decent. But there are green and blue belts at my school with backgrounds in wrestling and jiu jitsu, who routinely go for takedowns when I spar with them. And if they succeed, then I'm usually SOL.

The ground is a striker's worst enemy. Put a really dangerous muay thai or tae kwon do kicker on his back, turn him turtle, and you've got him. He's out of the fight. You might take a lot of damage in getting him there, but every advantage that a stand-up fighter has is immediately nullified once you get him on his back.

The flip side of this coin is that ground-based styles, especially jiu jitsu, are NOT useful against multiple attackers. The very same things that make BJJ such a potent foundation art for MMA, also make it nearly useless in a fight with multiple assailants.

In fact, BJJ has some rather significant weaknesses even against other ground-based styles, as Kazushi "Gracie Hunter" Sakuraba so ably demonstrated back in his day.

The lessons are clear: don't limit yourself to just striking or just groundwork, or to any one particular style or art. Experiment. Learn. Adapt and cross-pollinate. In the process, you'll build your own style, that works specifically for you and your body, temperament, skills, and preferences.

The Painful Lessons Learned

It's important here that I close with a caveat. Martial arts is, in general, absolutely terrible for you in many ways.

It is a terrific way to get injured, for instance. As I write this, I'm recovering from two nasty injuries picked up in the space of two days. I've got a jammed joint in my left index finger, from checking a kick incorrectly; as a result, I can't really bend that finger properly. While doing groundwork on Saturday, I hyperextended my right elbow and heard a crunching sound as the ligaments popped; that was painful, to say the least. Even now, four days later, I still can't straighten my dominant arm without pain.

My left shoulder has a chronic rotator cuff injury that has never fully healed. My right shoulder acts up from time to time. I have injured both knees by colliding with other people's limbs while sparring. I have bruised my toes and shins and forearms and biceps. I have injured my lower back. I have bled on the mat from taking hard punches to the face. My entire body hurts after a hard session on the muay thai pads in a way that is impossible to describe to anyone who has never experienced that kind of fatigue and pain.

Yet there is also no denying that martial arts is, at the same time, amazingly good for you too.

Full-contact sparring builds character, resilience, tolerance for pain, and endurance like almost nothing else can. Few things in life will ever scare you as much as your first full-contact sparring session. And as you get used to being beaten to a pulp, your confidence will go up. Your skill level will increase- I used to be one of those clueless yellow belts who had no idea how to defend against a punch or kick; now, I beat up on other yellow belts for fun. Your fitness will skyrocket. Your resolve and tenacity and grit will improve.

These are all things that modern men desperately need. As society becomes ever softer and more feminised, men need to rediscover and re-emphasise the martial virtues.

So go find your nearest MMA gym, muay thai school, BJJ training camp, or Krav Maga organisation. (If you're interested in the latter, drop me a line- I can tell you which ones to avoid. There are an awful lot of "cardio-Krav" boxes out there that will BS you into thinking that you're learning "self-defence", when all you're really learning is how to do jumping jacks with kicks.) Learn how to punch and kick and wrestle other people. And become a better man in the process.


  1. Thanks by the way.

    I'm deficient in a good training school here (not a lot of full contact around here), and still looking as I hadn't had the opportunity for years and wanted to get back into it, but you are one of the few I know who point out the one huge downside to the ground styles common in one-on-one matches.

    If you're down on the ground against guy A, his buddy B is whaling on you while youre a sitting duck.

    Now I need to go read that book


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