What is a Martial Art compared to a Sport?
This morning I read a great article on kung fu. It was written well and was insightful, but a few things about it troubled me so I thought I’d run down some of the mostly overlooked basics that most people on the outside, and many on the inside of martial arts, don’t know. With the popularity of the MMA fighting we all see on TV there is much to go over.
One statement I want to make before I start. There is no one martial art that is better than all others. In my opinion, being in the worst martial arts class available is better than not being in martial arts at all. In other words, its good for everyone, and it’s not about fighting. A good school weeds out the non hackers and trouble makers and in the end the students learn that fighting in martial arts is merely a side effect to your training. This point is one thing that separates a martial art like karate or kung fu, from a sport like MMA fighting. MMA is not a martial art. It is a sport that the contestants use various martial arts against each other, whatever is brought to the table. It’s main goal like a boxer is to train to win one fight. A martial artist one goal is never ending, and that is to better one’s self through discipline. Fighting is a side effect.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg
One common issue in martial arts is the attempt to classify which art is older or better or more powerful. Which ever the argument is, one can normally find enough evidence to prove one’s point, whatever it is, by using google to make your case. For example, most people are not aware that karate in it known “modern form” has only been around since 1920’s when it was made the national sport of Japan only after it was discovered on the island of Okinawa by high ranking people in the Japanese government who wanted to use it for physical education in the Japanese school system. Had it been on the island the whole time? Yes, but it was not discovered as you know it until 1922. Those people on Okinawa learned it from shipping and trade with the Chinese main land. The fact of the matter is simple. All of the Asian arts come from China in one way or another and at one time or another. In China alone there are 1000’s of Kung fu styles. Some are family systems and very private only taught to family members.
When you study kung fu you quickly learn it was all about watching the animals in nature “live” The forms and styles are based on animal movements. These movements are why it is used in Hollywood action scenes. They are pronounced and vivid, They are easier to see and more entertaining to watch, but the one thing that gets lost watching kung fu in film is the “why”. In martial arts all styles use forms or kata’s to teach. They are sequences of movements the student must master to advance. Hidden in these movements are micro movements and hidden in these are even more subtle movements. Depending on your skill level you may only be aware of a fraction of the things going on in each form. Hollywood doesn’t use kung fu for these reasons, they use it because it plays well on film “it looks cool” Different styles display different moves and attitudes. Hollywood likes to borrow from many styles to achieve the look we see in movies like “The Matrix”. Another thing that makes this happen is the Chinese culture and mythology. Unlike western schools of thought, there are hidden meanings when we see people flying through the air on wires, to us in the west we dismiss it as a cool effect with artistic license, but in China these visuals have a mythology and a meaning.
Real fighting vs Fake fighting
MMA is a controlled fight sport. It’s not no holds bared as you might think. Fighting each other at your martial arts school is also not real, or at least it shouldn’t be. We train to help each other, not hurt each other. The one thing I get more than anything else from all my years in martial arts, mainly from karate guys, (sorry karate guys) is that kung fu is a dance, it’s all show and that the movements are too pronounced and the positions are impractical. Most people get this idea from watching a movie like “the dragon” on a Saturday afternoon. This is the main reason I decided to sit down and scribble this out. Lets get some misunderstandings out of the way first. The most important point I want to make is that in a fight, a martial artist studying kung fu for example isn’t going to “dance” at me in a fight. No, they are not going to get into a cool pose and wave you in, nor are they going to have wires attached to them and fly into the battle. If it was a trained fighter he or she would likely wait for the attacker to come in and the outcome would be a dislocated joint or compound fracture depending on how hard they came in. You see most people don’t understand that Kung fu is defensive art, meaning literally all the forms, sequences and kata’s revolve around the idea of “being attacked”, not being the attacker. You may ask yourself, “what good is that?” If you are an aggressive asshole, you are right, it serves no purpose at all. If you are protecting yourself or your family, it’s everything and then some. It’s the “then some” that hurts.
I’ve been studying Kung Fu for almost twenty years. When I started out, in the first year of my studies, I lost my job and was forced to take a bouncing job at a very rough getto bar to make ends meet. Needless to say this made me look at my kung fu class as more than a hobby. My martial arts studies suddenly became on the job training that very well could mean the difference between life and death. I did this for over ten years. I can’t say many things in life with certainty. This is a humbling fact. One thing however I can speak on with absolute wisdom and clarity is how martial arts are applied in a “real life” situation. Not Hollywood, not MMA, not some crazy cage fight or a flying kick 12 ft in the air, not breaking bricks, but real life. You see, in western society the only place you can go to find a real fight on a regular consistent basis is “a bar” This is the one place you can be sure that given enough standing around time you will be assured a real live fight. There are no rules or codes. No referee, no help. Watching a room of people get drunk over the coarse of four or five hours is fascinating. I would urge literally anyone to do it, without drinking yourself of course.
When I started I was the first full time bouncer in all the bars in Harrisburg PA. Yes some of them had weekend muscle bound guys in squads of 5 or 6 as bouncers, but I was the only Monday through Saturday bouncer, and I worked alone. I didn’t work alone because I was super skilled, I did because they couldn’t afford more people, and I couldn’t afford to complain. At first it was very scary. When the shit would hit the fan, all eyes would turn to me and I’d have to walk down to the scene. It was more like an old western movie than a kung fu movie, trust me. Most of the time however you would be surprised what skills were the most effective. They all came from my training n martial arts, but most of them were not rockem sockem robots, it was skills like observation, patients, negotiation and temperament. If these didn’t work, then we get out the kung fu bag of fighting skills. This was not easy as I said before, kung fu is reactionary, and the job of bouncing is very much confrontational, but I made it work. Many times it became very physical. As the years went on they did hire people to help out on the weekends. Many didn’t cut it. Taking an ID was one thing, stopping a fight or ejecting a human who doesn’t want to go is quite another. Many martial artists tried to work with me, not one was able to do the job. Many people thought they would do great, until the moment of action. At that moment the fight or flight reaction kicked in, and they flew. Because I wanted to keep my job and not have my employer get sued, many of the tools were off the table from the start. While this is true some of them were never on the table to begin with, like
- dancing at them
- waving them in from a sideways horse stance
- making weird chirping sounds
- starting from a fixed position like crane
- kicks to the head, of any kind
- flying kicks
- brick breaking
Given those exceptions, there were some epic fights, all out brawls, some great judo throws and some people did literally sail through the front doors back out onto the street without ever touching the ground. While those facts are true, every time it was real and the reality of it is what had to come out of me when handling each situation. The reason I was kept on for almost a decade is that 95% of the time I was able to walk them out calmly. I grew and became the voice of reason. After a while, even the worst people that came in that bar knew better. It may have been because of something they saw weeks before, or just word of mouth but the purpose was served. I used a martial art to keep fights from starting and only an art form can do this, not a sport of fighting.
So when you are looking at the different styles of martial arts understand that the movies are not real. A good school will teach you far more than fighting they will teach you about life.