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Martial Sport or Combat: 7 Things to Know

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Sifu B is a former US Marine, with almost 40 years of martial art training. He is ranked in 4 styles.


There are a number of great martial sports in the world. These sports can teach many things. In addition to physical conditioning, we learn discipline, and it is possible that we can even learn some defense techniques. But there is a definite difference between arts that were created for combat use and those which are for sports.

The majority of martial arts that we have today started as combat. For example, the art of jujitsu can trace its origins to the samurai of feudal Japan. The samurai (or “bushi” class) were elite warriors who served higher ranking nobles. They were like soldiers for hire, with their own ranks, codes, and skills. With the modernization of Japan, there was no need for horse mounted heroes with swords. The martial skills were broken apart and taught mostly as sports (Kendo, Judo, etc.).

Combat or Sport?

Here are some things to consider when deciding if a style is sport or combat.

1. It Calls Itself a Sport

This might seem obvious, but I must say it. If you can play this in the Olympics, win a trophy, or belt, then you are playing a sport. There is nothing wrong with martial sports.

2. It Requires a Specific Training Environment

If the art is only trained in a ring, with a padded floor, or with gloves and pads, then this is a sport.

3. There Are Rules

Many years ago, I had met a guy in my platoon, and we found out that we both studied martial arts. He was an advance practitioner of Taekwon Do. He asked me if I would spar with him. He was definitely better than me. Finally, I began to see how he fought and how he attacked. I was able to sidestep his forward kick and land a reverse heel hook to the kidney. He complained that hitting to the back was “forbidden.” I had great respect for his abilities, but I immediately lost respect for his art. This rule is the epitome of sport versus reality.

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4. If You Have to Take Off Your Shoes, You Are Playing a Game

It could be argued that removing one’s shoe will toughen the feet. That perhaps is true. But thick soles will not help you much in war or in self-defense. No standing army in the history of the world has ever taken off its shoes before fighting.


5. There Is No Consideration of All the Ranges of Combat

You may be surprised and even confused by this point. If so, then you are proving my point. Real world fighting is not limited to one range of combat. It flows from being outside of the range of attacks to being chest-to-chest as you grapple. The majority of sport arts take place in one or two ranges, and there is no discussion of ranges or the appropriate weapons and targets for each range.

A perfect example would be the great sport of boxing. Boxing, called the “sweet science,” only takes place in one range. The extension of the fist is the only acceptable range. There are no kicks, elbows, ground techniques, etc. Clinches are quickly broken apart. The only permitted weapon is the front of the fist. Therefore. the only range of combat is punching range.

6. Children Can Play

If a six-year-old can achieve a black belt ranking, then the art you are studying is a sport. Martial arts can be great for children, but kids and unarmed combat do not go together.

I should say here that I am appalled when I see instructors offering self-defense lessons. They show a 25-pound child preforming a rear naked choke on a 180-pound adult. This is fantasy at best and very irresponsible.

7. There Is No Consideration of Lethal Force

Martial arts started as a way to kill and not be killed. If the goal of the art you are studying is to get the person to cry “uncle” (“I surrender”), then you are not fighting a combative art. Those in the world who would do you harm for whatever reason will have no mercy. If you show mercy, they will perceive it as a weakness and turn against you again.

This is not to say that taking a human life is the goal. A defensive response should always be appropriate to the level of the threat. Nonetheless, real martial combat must consider the possibility that you may lose your life and, sadly, that you may also be required to take a life.

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