‘We don’t do sport, sport is limited’ … ‘traditional arts are not realistic’ … ‘How would you use that flipping stuff in a street fight!?’ …. ‘Why would you want to fight on the ground’ …. “there are no rules in a street fight” … “ we train for self defence not to fight professionals”
If you are a martial artist, the chances are that you have considered these positions, responded to them or perhaps even said them to others. In the endless debates online or in person, these sorts of comments abound when discussing the merit of various martial approaches.
It is natural for us to bias our position towards our ‘team’, be that our preferred political candidate, our preferred dietary choices or our preferred Martial Art. And just like in many other areas of life tribalism and the defence of our preferred approach is extremely common in the Martial Arts. Be that the Traditional Martial Artist claiming efficiency of method due to the deeds of past masters, or the MMA fighter rubbishing traditional techniques because they wouldn’t work in the ring, biases abound.
In this article I will look at some of the common ground between Traditional Martial arts, self defence systems and modern combat sports with the aim to bring together some of the viewpoints and address some misconceptions as I see them.
Although this article may diverge from the usual ‘Body Methods’ focus of this Blog, I am in the relatively unique position to look at this topic. I have had well over 100 real life combative encounters during my time as a night club doorman, often against armed or multiple opponents, but have also competed in hundreds of sport fighting matches at a national and international level. To Top it off, I studied very traditional Martial Arts for a long time, in fact this would be most of my training history, but I have also fully immersed myself in combat sports, and have a long history in ‘self-defence’ training. So with that context lets dig into the subject.
How much do ‘Rules’ Matter?
Perhaps the biggest area of misunderstanding and confusion I encounter in the debate around various martial arts is the ‘sport vs street’ debate. This goes along the lines of ‘we don’t do sports, there are no rules in real fighting’ from the traditionalists or the Self-defence instructors, and then on the flip side ‘I know how to have a real fight unlike those guys doing staged attacks’ from the combat sports athletes.
There are, of course, differences between the approaches to combat found in sport fighting, traditional martial arts and self defence. These differences are apparent in many different areas, even down to the clothing worn or the goals and tactical objectives of the various individual techniques.
Of course, we must accept that Sport fighting is different to the sort of violence we see in a ‘street’ encounter. Let me get that out of the way from the outset. The way the combat occurs, the setting, the types of techniques used, the goals and objectives can all differ to varying degree’s. I would, however, say that the levels of relative skill are vastly different, the MMA bout has a higher degree of skill than does the common street encounter.
However, there are some major benefits for self defence that combat sports bring to the table that are very hard to achieve in other settings. I will dig into a few here.
One of the first areas of tension in the ‘sport vs street’ debate is the presence or absence of ‘rules’. In the street there are no rules, there is no referee, there is no chance to stop until things are finished. This is a true statement. I used to say this ad nauseum when I was deeply involved in the traditional arts.
However, it is very important to understand that ‘Rules’ of some form or another are present in literally every martial art, combat sport or self defence class. No style I have ever seen, from the close quarter combat methods of the British Military to the Traditional ‘Killing’ techniques of China’s elite fighters, to the knife fighting techniques of south east Asia, have ever been absent of rules of one kind or another.
These rules may indeed be ‘unwritten’. You wouldn’t actually kick your training partner in the balls or slam your thumb into their eye even if you pretend to do so, you wouldn’t continue your attack when the instructor says ‘break’ or jump your training partner after class. There is a ruleset you are working too, there is a distance between using the methods in ‘real encounters’ and practicing the methods you want to use. This distance between ‘applications’ and reality is of vital importance, it is a ‘ruleset’.
In a similar way to the combat sport encounter, where there is usually a referee to slow things down, pause things or stop things, in a non-sport martial art there is normally and instructor or coach to slow things down, pause things or stop things. So, in this regard there is really no difference when we adjust our viewpoint to a wider perspective.
You don’t see non sport styles tell the attacker ‘keep attacking with everything you have until its done’. No, there are rules that dictate the encounter in ever martial sphere. Even in the most advanced self-defence training scenarios where you have people in full body Armor attacking each other ….. they are in full body Armor, there is a level of security, there is a coach … ready to stop things. So, we can say that ‘rules’ are in fact present in both outlooks. This is a very important first change of perspective.
The important part of realism is not ‘ruleset’.
So, understanding that ‘rules’ are not as big a difference as we thought, what can we say is the important point when looking at martial efficiency for ‘real’ encounters? I would suggest that the most important aspect of training, if real life self defence is a priority, should be the presence of an uncooperative training protocol where one can experience determined pressure. This means that you and your opponent are trying as hard as you can, within a given context, to ‘win’ the exchange. I have seen good examples of this across multiple disciplines, from Taiji schools who competitively grapple to self defence schools who fight for rounds to Kendo schools and of course Judo or BJJ schools. It isn’t the actual style or indeed the format that is important necessarily, it is the approach itself that provides the insights.
The un-cooporative training scenario provides us with something that is often overlooked but vital for street encounters. A familiarity with the strength, intent, and determination of your would-be attacker. This simply cannot be trained with set applications or repetition of ‘fighting sequences’. It is impossible to get across to those who have not felt it. But people feel like super humans when they are REALLY attacking you, be that in a sporting event or in a street encounter. Imagine two lions Fighting, they REALLY fight, like it is life or death, they are ready to expend all of their energy to overcome you. Have you ever been on the receiving end of that type of intensity?
The only two places that I have personally felt it are, in grappling competition, and in real fighting encounters as a doorman. No other environment has provided this insight. With this reality at play, we should be asking ourselves, what are we doing to familiarise ourselves with that sort of intensity in a real-life encounter? Does our art prepare us for that intensity?
One thing that I can say for certain about sporting endeavours, in spite their obvious limitations due to format, is that they familiarise you with completely uncooperative people … your opponents. In a Grappling competition for instance, the opponent is trying to choke you unconscious or break your limbs, and believe me they are REALLY trying to do this. In this regard there are aspects that are trained in sport environments that are translatable to the real violence of a street encounter.
Traditional Body Method Development has merit…
One area of training that many traditional arts will develop to a better and deeper degree over time, compared to more modern systems, is body method and mind development. Some of the most powerful and ‘strong’ individuals that I have met have come from very traditional ‘internal’ systems like Taiji. When I say this to my Brazilian JiuJitsu students they are extremely surprised of course, thinking Taiji to be the art of old people in the park slowly waving their hands around. But nevertheless, the traditional arts will often produce profoundly ‘strong’ individuals with very ‘deep’ levels of strength.
I must make it clear here that although this is true, it is rare, and there are many more traditional schools without this understanding, than with. But here I would like to focus on those that do understand body method and its importance. The traditional arts usually have a long and detailed history sometimes spanning centuries. This history is often strongly focused on perfecting the development of the practitioners bodies so that the ‘engine’ for their martial method is as powerful and efficient as possible. We need only look at the flamboyant training methods of Shaolin to see how some of these systems evolved.
Under examination it is often found that the old methods found in legitimate traditional arts are of great utility in the development or Martial Power and body skill. Many of which have been re-purposed or copied into modern times as their merit is exposed by a few select individuals.
Traditional Systems also often have the most advanced levels of mind training as a core component of their method. This could take the form of meditation practices, awareness practices or other such techniques.
But one area where the combat sports have a special aspect that is rarely found in the traditional arts is in the management of ‘stress’. Sport fighters understand the mental stresses of imminent combat, something not to be overlooked and an area of fighting that can see the biggest, most skilled people crumble.
In the training environment, even where there is a sparring or scenario based attack method we are training with people we know, people we likely go for a pint with after training, people we have a personal relationship with. This inevitably taints the environment and provides some level of comfort in the mind … in fact if someone goes too hard on you, they will often be reprimanded afterwards. This is correct of course and the training environment should be relatively safe for those practicing, but we should recognise the limitation baked right into such safety.
This limitation is the comfort of mind that comes from familiarity.
In a sport competition environment there is no such comfort. The person you are facing you have likely never met before, they don’t care about you, they don’t mind breaking your arm to win, or Knocking you out. They are there to do those very things … and this creates an environment where the pre-fight nerves are tested to the extreme. Similarly the stress during the build-up in a real fight is palpable, this is often where people may win or lose the battle .. not in the exchange but in their ability to ride the wave of nerves that precede the encounter. As a doorman I witnessed many an collegue fail the pressure test of the pre-fight. How can we train to understand this non physical part of the fight process? That is a very hard puzzle that the best self defence trainers in the world have been trying to fix for decades.
I contend that there is a relatively simple first step and that is to compete in some way. Try standing by the refs table at a major Grappling event, about to walk out to face someone in the finals who has submitted everyone prior … who you have seen choke several people unconscious, who you have seen break someones arm. Knowing you must face that person and they want to do that to you … this is stress! And importantly it is a very similar kind of stress to the stress I would feel when I was facing someone I had just thrown out of a club for bottling someone or fighting .. .who then had turned their attention to me.
The feeling of ‘strength’
The feeling of real intent to overcome – when someone is REALLY trying to hurt you vs someone pulling everything in a training environment is fundamentally different. The feeling of a sporting encounter is shocking to most people the first time they feel it. People feel twice as strong as you expect them too, the savagery of the encounter is shocking and usually after their first bout, people who will spar for an hour in the gym environment without issue, will be completely spent after 5 minutes. This familiarity with intensity and the strength of the determined opponent is not to be underestimated in real combat.
The first night I worked on the doors, myself and another doorman had to throw 3 men out who were fighting. These 3 then proceeded to kick the door in so we had to go and subdue them until the police arrived. In this moment I experienced the stress of the pre-fight, knowing I was walking into a situation where I was outnumbered, I then experienced the full intensity of the uncooperative person really trying to hurt or even kill me. That intensity was enormous and after the work was done and the individuals had been carted off to either hospital or the police cells, I was sweating profusely, drained of all energy and shaking. The only other time I have felt this intensity again, despite many years of martial arts training was in my very first competition.
But the insights from these encounters provide a solid foundation for us to build our practices around. One of the first insights is that the cardiovascular cost of fighting with full intensity leads us onto an understanding that our flabby out of breath ass needs to be in shape to survive real encounters! That is an excellent start point! We can then begin to work on how we maximise the efficiency of our training, so that we can remain calm under pressure, and bring relaxed, efficient full body power to bear on our would be attacker.
The frame of reference problem
The lens by which someone views a technique, method or approach is entirely their own. It is predicated on their personal perspective of what a Martial art is, or should be, regardless of the stated goals of the thing they are looking at.
It is, however, paradoxical that this problem is not present in all martial arts. Very few people will watch an Iaido Master, performing their kata and talk about how ‘That would never work in MMA’ or ‘That wouldn’t work on the street’. But when those same people view empty hand work from a traditional, highly stylised source, they are all too quick to comment the same.
The reason here is that Iaido, the art of the Japanese Sword, has little to no frame of reference for the MMA fan or athlete. Indeed, most wouldn’t know good Iaido from bad, unless they themselves had trained it sufficiently. This lack of reference means that they are unable to judge the merit of the practice in any way other than ‘interest’ or comments like ‘that’s cool!’.
Conversely when a self defence expert or combat sports athlete views a traditional style of Kung Fu, or old style Japanese JuJutsu, they will have a direct frame of reference. They are punching, kicking, locking and throwing, all of the things these ‘practical’ arts also do, so there is a shared concept of reference. Invariably the meeting of the conversation then goes to ‘That wouldn’t work’, They would just punch him, etc etc
But I think it is quite clear that most of the time there is a mismatch between the actual purpose of the style and the context someone brings to it. Is traditional Japanese JuJutsu specifically about ‘self defence’ or ‘fighting ability’ for instance? No, I would say it absolutely isn’t, and if those skills come from the training in some measure, that is merely a side effect. There is something else going on that captivates the practitioners of these arts that is not about fighting. Think back to the Iaido practitioner, do we really think that this individual is learning their art to be able to ‘Fight’ with a sword?! I highly doubt it.
The same motivations that fuel the exploration of Iaido are often found in the exploration of very traditional JuJutsu schools and many traditional schools in general, and as such the combat sports athlete would be well placed to remember such when they are judging the methods on display. I wonder, do those same combat sports critics watch a medieval demonstration of horseback archer and have the same critique? I highly doubt it and so contextualising what you are seeing is important for the athlete wishing to understand the world of martial practices outside of the sporting realm.
How can we draw together?
Frankly, its unavoidable to maintain biases, our frame of reference will always colour our ability to perceive things. We all want to defend the arts we love, shun the arts or practices we believe inferior, disregard the new, preference the old, stand on the shoulders of long dead masters, point to the UFC, etc. There is always a valid reason why you do what you do.
But how can we find shared bother/sisterhood in these myriad and often profound arts? I content that it is through the exploration of our common movement patterns, our common striving for better control of ourselves that we can break though the divides. Through understanding that we must all move our bodies to make our arts work. This common ground is the linchpin that can draw together various strands of martial arts. I have seen it with Yoga, with Internal Power teachers, with strength coaches, and movement teachers … they have rooms filled with people from every corner of the martial arts, from capoeristas to aikidoka, from MMA fighters to silat experts, all sharing the same space and working together with smiles and a shared purpose.
This is the rare occasion that Martial tribalism gets left at the doors and we are able to find a common ground. That we are able to enjoy our time with those whom we may usually argue with regarding the merits of this method or that.
It is also an environment where everyone truly is on the same page, but also a place where they are working to enhance themselves for often completely different goals. This divergence of goal from a common source is the perfect start point in the search for commonality among the ranks and files of martial artists of the world and a great place to find common ground with your fellow exponents. It is my hope that this article highlights some of the merits of both the traditional and sportative approaches and that those from both camps are not so quick to judge the merits of other practices as a result.