Rolled through the PX today (looking for Copenhagen, of which there was none; go figure) and picked up the new issue of Black Belt Magazine. Lyoto Machida is on the cover, so I’m looking forward to reading the article on him. Machida is a joy to watch, as he employs his classical karate in the MMA game. His kicks are surgical in their precision, and his strategic skills match his tactical ability. He demonstrates the best fusion today of classical martial arts and mixed martial arts.
By design or accident, the “mailbox section” of the magazine (the only part I’ve had the chance to read) is chock-full of the usual debates between classicists and MMA enthusiasts. I think this is one of those unwinnable debates, as you’ll never be able to have all the debaters divest themselves of their personal prejudices and preferences in order to look at the evidence objectively. Each side seizes on those pieces of evidence that reinforce its own point of view, while casually disregarding (often substantive) claims on the other side.
MMA enthusiasts argue that Mixed Martial Arts competitions are the “real deal,” and that they are as close a simulation of real combat as one can get. Yuh, I frequently find myself “really” fighting sweaty, spandex-clad gloved opponents in the real world. Happens all the time. I think though, that it is a good point that one should cross-train enough to have at least some baseline capability at all ranges of the fight. Few classical systems bequeath the practitioner skills that are applicable across the entire spectrum of personal combat. You Tube is replete with examples of the Gracies getting classicists out of their usual engagement area and then demolishing them. A good parallel to combat sports is no shit combat: I expect the Mungadai to be proficient with every weapon system on the team. We train with crew-served weapons, carbines, and side arms at every opportunity, because the Mungadai need to be able to employ whichever system is best suited to accomplishing the mission—and it is frequently the enemy who engages at a time and place of his choosing. I think the MMA paradigm is a great template for cross-training, but would caution its advocates who think that it is the comprehensive “real deal.” The gloves, the lack of significant clothing (or equipment), and the competition rules all impose an artificiality that can be dangerous to the practitioner who thinks that he has an all-encompassing capability because of his MMA training.
The classicists argue that MMA training produces a thugocracy of ground’n’pounders who are jacks of all trades, masters of none. There is some validity to this argument, that the MMA guys have the exact opposite problem of one-dimensional classicists. Also, when viewing classic martial arts, one should realize that part of the reason that they are valuable is because they are old. Back in the old days, when “Bob” figured out that he had invented a groovy new technique (or a groovy new way to apply said technique) to try in the next battle, there was a pretty objective means of assessing the efficacy of Bob’s new toy. If Bob didn’t come back, one could reasonably assume that his theory was (fatally) flawed. [Note: this illustration using Bob was blatantly lifted from a lecture by Hanshi Ron Donvito] Also, classical martial arts instruction will usually include, as a healthy aside, values instruction. I’ve yet to walk into a classical dojo and not see Black Belt Principles prominently displayed on the walls somewhere. While not uniform, these principles help accomplish three objectives. First, they provide the student with a template that will help them mentally and emotionally conquer their physical limitations. Second, they provide values to someone receiving (possibly lethal) combat skills. Finally, “martial” arts are combat systems, originally intended for military use. Martial arts principles help individual students integrate into military organizations (which, when you think about it, also help today’s students integrate into society; good soldiers make good citizens). Even insurgent martial arts, such as Karate and Capoeira, were designed to allow individuals to contribute to group endeavors. Single-point classical systems work great for fighting and self defense—as long as the opponent uses the same system.
One recurring theme that I’ve seen (not just in BBM, but in a lot of classics vs MMA literature) is that classicists, particularly masters in the classic arts, don’t compete. I personally don’t agree with this philosophy, with caveats. Competition is probably the best skills assessment available to the martial artist. This is because the stress of competition replicates to a lesser degree the stress of combat. Dojo proficiency does not equal competition proficiency does not equal street proficiency. One finds ones skills attenuated in a competition environment. Suddenly, techniques and tactics one applies readily and with a great expectation of success in the dojo seem too risky for competition. That is because now the opponent is not a training partner, but a stranger who wants to defeat you and will exploit any weakness he can find. Your “game” necessarily constricts and becomes more conservative when you have to honestly assess your vulnerabilities against a determined opponent. Imagine how much more skill constriction takes place in an actual combat situation. If you cannot confidently employ a technique in competition, then you are not really good at it, and that particular skill is not fundamentally sound and reliable.
Also, competition helps to assess fitness. As you get older, it’s easy to become a legend in your own mind. Tough guys that have been there, done it, know that achieving most difficult goals is a matter of mental, vice physical, strength. However, substituting the attitude of “I’ve done it before, I can do it again, it’s all mental” is a siren song of disaster if one substitutes it for grueling workouts. At least in Judo/Jiu-Jitsu competition, the mats don’t lie. Fitness is a binary option. You either are, or you aren’t. A storied history of kicking ass and taking names, though, can seduce the warrior into self-deception. Just ‘cause you did it before don’t mean you can do it now. Nothing provides a safe means of self-assessment like competition.
The caveat mentioned above is for practitioners of lethal arts. Winning a no-holds-barred competition in, say, Kobushi Sesson Jitsu will earn you a nice little cell in death row. Also, the term martial artist is relative. Artsy artists span the gamut from Michelangelo to the crazy chick that smears her naked body in chocolate sauce and bean sprouts while screaming about the evils of the patrimony. Same concept. If your “martial art” was never intended to be applied to real or simulated (competition) violence, don’t compete. But don’t belittle those guys in the cage, either, Mr. “Artist.”