The State of the Arts
State of the Art — the Martial Arts, Combat Sports and Truth
“ Show me a man of violence who came to a good end, and I’ll take him for my teacher” Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu
Many of you are perhaps to young to recall the disdain that the Traditional Martial Arts community held for No Holds Barred and Reality Fighting during the 1990s.
Magazines were filled with bloated egos and black belts wrapped around just as bloated bellies proclaiming how expert masters in certain styles and systems had the answer to stop the grappler, whether wrestler or BJJer. That a frail master of Dim Mak could stop Mark Coleman or Kerr, if they had to. Or a swift elbow to the back of the spine would stop Royce Gracie from getting the take down. All were silly boasts but many paid serious attention to them.
The Gracie challenge of the 1980s was not enough to show that martial arts and fighting required a ground and clinch component to it. It would take the UFC and the subsequent clone events to really hit the nail on the head for many proponents of the arts.
While the 1980s had its Ninjas and Jeet Kune Do plain clothe experts, the 2000s soon saw the military systems from Russia, Israel and USA suddenly thrive. Though they had no belts or gis they sold certificates and seductive answers to real world violence. They were after all used by special forces the world over.
The 2000s saw the UFC and Pride becoming a legitimate sport, clumsily named Mixed Martial Art, though it was not an art. It was a craft and combat sport. It did allow many inside the TMA community to shift their focus and embrace the popular trend, incorporating MMA and reality elements into their style or dojos. The public was interested now, and the public buy belts and memberships.
So traditional martial arts, fitness centres and exercise institutes suddenly sold belts and certificates in the sport. One could become a qualified instructor in a very complicated combat sport in weeks, months or years. One could then go on to sell such knowledge to others and should they wish to become an instructor, well you get the multi leveled nature of such a pyramid like structure of selling a product that matters less than those facilitating the selling.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu which was in many ways instrumental in the early days of Vale Tudo and Anything Goes fighting suddenly meandered into its own version of sport competition. Though always popular, many schools, especially those franchised out dismissed the early Vale Tudo elements of their ‘art’. And instead almost solely focussed on the sport aspects.
With the success and structure of Tae Kwon Do, the once feared martial art of BJJ has now found itself in the realm of the very Traditional Martial Arts community which it decades ago defied and upset. It is now gladly accepted as part of this fraternity.
So much so that now ‘masters’, self-proclaimed and regarded, claim the supremacy of sport JJ over MMA or that MMA has no merits for self-defence. That one simply needs BJJ only and so on. Mimicking the very words that Black Belts from the TMA world were claiming in the 1990s in regard to NHB and the Gracie led threat.
Though it is complicated, as not all schools are the same and not all instructors are as sinister in their commercial deceit. The trend from an outsider’s perspective is somewhat consistent. Vale Tudo is a dark past that helped to forge an effective ground system. Now it is not even known by most practitioners of the sport. The rivalry of Lutre Livre and BJJ is a piece of archaic history that is not known. Yet found in such violent rivalries were methods that helped to define BJJ and its early heroes.
Just as Karate, Judo, JuJitsu, Tae Kyon, Wing Chun, etc all had origins that were drastically different to their current doctrine based systems. More modern ‘reality’ styles born in the late 20th century are also finding the same rigid mess, just so that they may sell another belt or bolster membership. The need to keep the public interested has forced a more homogenised set of training that keeps it simple to both teach and learn and the rankings attainable so that the student may find gratification in an ‘accomplishment’ and the school may keep its doors open. At its heart, it is a consumer driven factor steered by apathetic, lazy, ignorant or sinister elements. It is the sinister deceivers that are the vilest.
Despite this many still regard Bruce Lee as the ultimate harbinger of modern MMA and MA, despite the history of both existing before him. He did have an immense impact on many that are both actual combatants on the battlefield and inside the arena. Along with those who are either timid or ill-suited for either. Yet it seems that many simply did not appreciate the real impact of Bruce Lee, his philosophy and its relevance for the individual and combat.
Those that have read the Tao of Jeet Kune Do will see that while it was an incomplete manifesto, it was about Lee’s personal approach to combat and how one should seek their own path. Yet, since his death most that practice JKD, Jun Fan gung fu, concepts etc merely to emulate the ‘style’ of Lee. What was depicted on the screen for thematic impact and what he hand drew or was pictured doing over the years as he himself was growing.
The philosophy itself is lost. The Taoism, the essence of being a scholar warrior, of seeking the way, of being formless. All less important than the emulation of another man. And the bitter irony of his untimely death was that many went on imitating him, whether this was in the form of exploitative films which are being made even to this day. Or inside the various dojos where the Karate gi is not worn but more street friendly attire is. Where the JKD method is rigid, interpreted and stagnant. Everything against the philosophy of Lee.
Just as many of the martial arts that found success on the battlefield centuries ago, have lost their experienced teachers and dwindled in their objectivity. They seek a course of self-perpetuity, a look, a feel for the sake of its own identity. The student is to be moulded and shaped according to the methods and doctrines of the style. No matter the nature or physicality of the individual. Then the student must memorise certain patterns, templates for violence that long ago lost real essence. They are then graded upon these motions.
In doing so the master or instructor can grant them a promotion, a level up. Though in many cases, if not all. None of the students are any closer in knowing how they will perform under desperate violence. They may feel safer but often they are on a journey that steers them away from the original purpose of their joining a martial arts school in the first place, self-perseveration under combat.
And so, we have martial arts like Judo that had a very specific origin, as an alternative to the rigidity of Ju Jitsu. A system of throws and falls, of submissions and holds that would empower the smaller person over the larger aggressor. Nearly always the sole aim of most martial arts, giving strength to the physically weaker.
And with success and the death of the founders Judo in many schools is not dissimilar to traditional Ju Jitsu and other Japanese grappling systems. It is only thanks to the aggressive pursuit of Judo competition that certain schools and aspects of the sport retain a truth and an effectiveness. Though as the sport goes down a specific Olympic route, just as other combat sports have, the original essence will be lost.
So too is the case for the grappling styles that rode the curtails of success thanks to the early NHB events. Many clones arose and the more obscure to Western audiences, such as Sambo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu suddenly became popular and thriving. And in doing so, many of those that benefited steered away from the violent uncertainty of combat. And embraced the safety of their own padded sport.
The focus of a martial arts own sport variant is to reinforce the strengths of its style, while forbidding its flaws and weaknesses. It is why punching is no longer an element to sport Tae Kwon Do, slams, strikes and supplexes forbidden in BJJ for example. For combat sports such as kick boxing, boxing, wrestling this is fine it is a sport first and foremost. It is only with observation and practice inside of this sport that one can then adapt it to real world fighting.
For the martial arts that embrace the lucrative realm of sports their no longer remain the original seed of purpose. They forsake the important elements and pursue more competition geared ones. It is with a confused logic that a martial artist while proclaiming the strengths and benefits of their own sport version while at the same time claiming the limited aspects of MMA. And yet, one can guarantee that they have never dared to experience the cage for themselves, despite such bluster.
MMA is a sport, it is also a laboratory. It was originally a place for masters, experts and fighters to test and exhibit themselves under a public and sanctioned format with as few rules as possible. With legitimacy and popularity, the sport slid away from this origin and became the sport we know of as today. Where combat athletes compete against one another, though few are still fighters many are sports stars. This does not detract from the effectiveness of the methods and the real-world application that one can draw from it.
The more rules that are in place then the less effective a lesson that one can draw from the competition. The more specific and cultivated the rules then the focus can be valued, think of boxing and wrestling for example. Though incomplete self defence systems within a specific scope they do have highly specialised lessons that need to be contectualised. Many martial art sports it can be harder to do this with due to a confused mish mash of being both sport and martial art.
MMA needs to drop its link to martial arts, it is not a hybrid of styles or other combat sports. It is its own sport. Certainly ‘puritans’ can have success in it, though few if any enter by solely practicing their original sport-martial art. And should a fight end with a technique that is found inside their martial art, then congratulations. It was performed alongside of millions of others.
And if a grappler enters the cage and takes his opponent down and submits them with no strikes, then this is excellent. I have done this myself personally on a few occasions. This can for some prove the effectiveness of BJJ, Judo etc over actual MMA in some minds. Just as under the same limited perspective that a 10 second head kick KO can also prove the effectiveness of TKD, Karate and so on over MMA. The nature of fighting is complicated and nuanced. It is simple in objectivity but extremely difficult in overall implementation.
For those out there, the few that are concerned with personal growth and individual self preservation then consider with honesty the journey that you take. The experiences and answers of those in the landscape. If someone is there to sell you a one size fits all methodology to a very savage and complicated set of questions then steer clear. But the seduction, the comfort and the social prominence is hard to defy. If it is for fun, a release or a hobby then so be it. It does have the abstract word ‘Art’ in it, an expression of self though. Art is not true if it is rigid and absolute.
And should those selling the sweet treats of such arts while condemning the sport of MMA or those with less than simple answers as being boorish and thug like then never forget what the word ‘martial’ means. It is a far less gentler word than Fighting. It is a brutal and objective term for war and combat where the consequences transcend mere sport.
You do not need to climb inside the cage or stroll the back alleys of a city to fight brute after brute to gain knowledge. You can do this with guidance and insight, but those offering such cannot do so without the experience gained under contested struggles. The perspective is extreme. One cannot know what they simply do not know, experience fills those gaps and with one who can offer you such truth then you can gain and advance on your own personal journey.
Never for one moment forget that fighting is both ugly and violent when it is real. The martial arts and combat sports were born in this bloody reality. It is only over time that they were defanged and lost that essence. Some may harken back to their roots, while most ignore them and pay bland homage to a mythic past. Knowledge cannot be certified or graded, it is simply gained.
The tragic truth is that most instructors are themselves timid when it comes to confrontation. They are most likely very aware of this. They conceal themselves beneath belts, rank and the culture of martial arts wearing it as a faux deterrence but also to bolster a masculinity in themselves because of the toxicity of fear. When confronted by the most horrible elements imagined, when a moral need to stand up and fight back bigger and numerically superior foes is needed, most would shiver in their legs and shirk from the call to violence.
If what you do is simply a sport that happens to have combat or martial in its name then enjoy it. You play and participate in a splendid thing. Rugby does not exist at the expense of Soccer. Though they both kick balls, they are drastically different. And any crossover appeal for the players is limited. In fact, they as sports have more in common with one another than most combat sports do and yet because of the ‘fighting’ attachment a petty them vs us creeps in. In the end, the only way to ever know that answer as to who is best at fighting. Is to fight.
It is a sad reality, but one should constantly be reminded that fighting is thankless. It is inglorious and vulgar. One may hope to capture the fury and harness it, weaving it into a poetic prose of motions the reality is that this is most often not the case, especially if one does not practice with savagery in mind. It is with moral and principled philosophy that one can seek a composure despite the moments of calamity. Not with the promises of a cure all or doctrines of deceit. Individuals do the fighting, styles and systems come later, after the storm.
Kym Robinson, July 2017
“Be self aware, rather than a repetitious robot.”
“Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own.”