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Is Sport Martial Arts Bad For Martial Arts Overall?

Updated on January 14, 2017
Many fighters being seen as the stereotype of the fighter in a gi and fighting by the rules insulting.  There can be a perceived lack of respect.
Many fighters being seen as the stereotype of the fighter in a gi and fighting by the rules insulting. There can be a perceived lack of respect.

There was an episode from an old martial show called Fight Quest, where two experienced fighters go to different countries to learn native martial arts and fight in their styles. I guess these shows were a thing back then. Anyway, this episode had them in Israel learning Krav Maga and there was one exercise that apparently divided people watching it. One of the new guys was put into a small grove and told that he had to fend off several opponents who would come out from behind the trees. He had fifteen seconds to beat each one before the next would come out, regardless of the outcome.

Needless to say, the visitor who was versed in one vs. one fighting where going to the ground was par for the course, admitted that he struggled with adapting to the training. Many martial artists who watched it were split. Some felt it was all bullshit and that a striker could never take an experienced wrestler or grappler, even with lethal strikes allowed, referring to the early UFC fights as proof.

Others felt that it was accurate and that in a death battle, grapplers and sport martial artists would stand no chance in hell. The gripe between grapplers/wrestlers and strikers is nothing new and has been going on since before UFC 1. However what got my attention was the inclusion of sport practitioners as being weak. Some were attacking them because it appeared as their just-stopping-short of lethal strikes watered down styles originally meant for killing and maiming.

I have written before about how most styles originated as combat forms. Karate and Taekwondo are famous for it, but the same has happened in Kung Fu with Wushu and Silat with Pencat Silat. The last one is notable because Silat has a reputation for lethality. The question that the above arguments raise is has the adaption of turning martial arts into sports degraded the style, making them shadows of themselves? Sure early UFC matches played a part in making this question legit, but others have been asking this before then.

Krav Maga is one of the modern fighting styles that tries to maintain its extreme techniques.  Many of which would result in legal repercussions if done.
Krav Maga is one of the modern fighting styles that tries to maintain its extreme techniques. Many of which would result in legal repercussions if done.

Broken Record, New Record

Bruce Lee developed his version of Jeet Kun Do more from his experiences in street fights than competitions. In Japan, when the feudal wars had ended, samurai who lived in the rural areas and mountains regarded other samurai from Kyoto and other cities as being weak. They believed they had grown soft living comfortably in a time of peace rather than preparing for war.

There is an argument to be made that if you practice with limitations and don’t prepare for extremes, you will fight with those expectations in real life. When you train in anything, your mind and body subconsciously customizes itself to the expectations your training creates. Actually reacting to totally different scenarios or parameters such as fighting to kill and with no rules can be a hard habit to suddenly do if you haven’t done it. Or visa versa if you learned to fight to kill but then find yourself in a situation where you must only restrain.

It is also true that decades of adapting martial arts to western norms by nature involve limiting what you teach to begin with. Everyone is familiar with little kids in gi’s learning katas and breaking boards. Now try picturing those kids learning to gouge out their opponents eyes, punch their throats, or coming home battered and bruised every night from training. That old school training isn’t going to fly with parents, let alone law enforcement. There are already some people questioning training kids in MMA because of this.

People take up martial arts to learn discipline, deal with stress, and even self-defense. They’re not initially taking it to learn to kill. So yes, if styles like Krav Maga and Silat want to become successful outside of their own cultures and countries, restraint must be applied.

kerambits are part of the training regimen for many styles of silat, and is as synonymous with Silat as the katana is with Japanese martial forms.
kerambits are part of the training regimen for many styles of silat, and is as synonymous with Silat as the katana is with Japanese martial forms. | Source

Training Prodigal Sons

It is possible this training won’t prepare the body to properly handle extreme situations if they come across them. Going to the ground is not a good idea if someone else is there waiting to jump you. A prepared fighting stance may not work against someone just trying to take your head.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the martial art has devolved.

Some old school training did involve death matches and maiming. This left only the best warriors. If you’re trying to make a sport event out of the style, completely taking out your adversary is not a good idea. If you are trying to train warriors and soldiers to fight for you in the next war, killing them during training is inefficient, even if it prepares the survivors for the realities of war. Those who are weak can still learn from their mistakes and improve. What I am saying is even without civilian martial arts, you need your students, fighters and actors to comeback or eventually none will.

Another point is that, even if you train in extremes like that, there isn’t anything that prepares you for the reality of an actual battle. I’m not just talking about reaction times and move sets. I am also referring to the fear: the fear that this is someone you don’t know. The fear that there can be someone else trying to harm you besides the one in front of you…or beside you or behind you. I am referring to the fear that at any point, weapons maybe drawn, suddenly forcing you into a kill or be killed situation that you can’t back out of.

The human experience is about dealing with our limitations and either adapting to them, overcoming them, or surrendering to them. In all three there is always a margin of error and elements we cannot predict. I find the argument of even learning to fight lethally over sport, a stupid one because the unknown will still exist regardless. I’ve have studied six different martial arts, but all it would take would be a lucky shot, someone jumping in, or simple misstep for me to have a bad day. And yes, I do still feel the fear.

Musashi Miyamoto is considered one the greatest swordsmen in Japanese history, but according to legend, even he trained for the unknown by practicing with one eye closed, in case he was blinded. More over, it is fact that he won many of his victories by exploiting the unknown, taking and manipulating his opponents’ weakness and vulnerabilities.


What is Applicable

Training goes a long way to preparedness, but the person who acknowledges his own lack of knowledge is probably the best one to be able to adapt to whatever situation falls on him/her. Lastly, and I have said this before, martial arts for sports or demonstration should not be criticized for their limitations.

Boards don’t hit back, but I’d rather that than see a twitching, blood-squirting limb on the ground. This isn’t the gladiatorial games of the ancient Roman Empire after all. Spectators can still appreciate the styles in movies and competitions, while acknowledging that it’s not taking it to its full extreme.

Sports martial arts are not damaging for martial arts in general. Combative martial arts are not damaging for martial arts in general. It is a simple matter of give and take. To have one means to give up some aspects of the other, but apply which ever suits your situation best. As for me, I actually like that fifteen second training scenario and plan to use it next time I train someone. If nothing else, it’s a learning experience.

Fighting a sudden opponent or opponents doesn't automatically make sports martial arts obsolete.  But they must be able to adapt to a fighter whom they haven't prepared for and may not fight by rules.  Expect the unknown.
Fighting a sudden opponent or opponents doesn't automatically make sports martial arts obsolete. But they must be able to adapt to a fighter whom they haven't prepared for and may not fight by rules. Expect the unknown. | Source

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