There’s a saying in the martial arts, “It’s not the style, it’s the stylist.” The gist of the saying of the saying is there’s no one system that’s inherently any better than any other. They all focus on different aspects of fighting and emphasize different theories. Some people are drawn to the high kicks of Tae Kwon Do while others like the joint locks of Jiu Jitsu. Some people, myself included, appreciate the varied approach systems like Kenpo, Krav Maga, and the various forms of Kung Fu take to fighting.
So, why are there so many martial arts styles out there? It has more to do with the practitioner’s preferences and predilections. I’m not a stellar kicker, so Tae Kwon Do is right out the window and Jiu Jitsu just doesn’t appeal to me. I’ve always gravitated toward the hand arts because they appealed to some part of my brain and I had a measure of skill with them to begin with. That’s not to say the other systems are inherently flawed, they’re just inherently flawed for me.
The masters that developed these various systems had certain things they were good at – stuff that worked well for them. For whatever reason, those systems prospered and grew into what we have today. Although, new systems pop up all the time and some of them catch fire. Kenpo was born in Hawaii in the 1940s. Krav Maga grew out of the ashes of World War II. Heck, even Aikido was born in the 1920s.
I guess what I’m trying to say is there are dozens – if not hundreds – of various martial arts out there and they’re all pretty good at what they’re trying to do. In the final analysis, though, it really comes down to artist more than the art.
I’ve seen black belts in Karate that couldn’t win a street fight. I’ve also seen Karate students break 2x4s over their shoulders. I’ve seen Tae Kwon Do students who can do amazing kicks get slammed to the ground by one punch, but I also saw one break someone’s back with a side kick. It’s all about the student and the way they approach the art. If you walk into a school hoping to look good throwing high kicks, you’ll probably be less successful than the student that looks at the system as a way of getting out of life or death situations more or less intact.
None of this new thought, though. So, you’re probably wondering why I’m bringing it up. Funny story, really. The other night, my son and I stopped off at Walgreen’s to get milk after Kenpo. We’d just spent the last hour learning to deal with multiple attackers. We were both sweaty, tired, and sore. So, as we get to the checkout counter, the guy running the cash register mentions that he had done some Kenpo back in the day. He then continued on to tell a story about worthless it was and how he only learned to fight once he joined the army.
Nice. Thanks, asshole. Not only did I not need your life story, I didn’t need you to shit all over the last twenty years of my studies. I just needed milk.
But, his feigned badassery got me thinking. There’s a pervasive belief that most traditional martial arts systems are useless for real fighting and only things designed from the ground up for actual combat are any good.
Here’s the thing: Army combatives are designed to be simple and effective. I believe the Army is currently using a system that they’ve put together over multiple years. It’s called the Modern Army Combatives Program and it’s derived from various martial systems around the world. In a lot of ways, it’s similar to the Marine Corp Martial Arts Program. Both are tough, effective systems and, at least according to a Marine buddy of mine, all stem from a single night during the Vietnam war.
Back in the day, military fighting was limited in scope. It incorporated a handful of things like punching and stabbing people with bayonets because that’s what most people could adapt to. It was something that had to be taught effectively during the six weeks or so of basic training so soldiers would have a measure of survivability on the battlefield. Of course, some soldiers already came in knowing some classical fighting styles. Michael Echanis, for instance, was skilled in the little-known Korean art of Hwa Rang Do (Hwa Rang Do was born in the 1960s, by the way) and used it effectively during his stint with the US Army Rangers and later as a soldier of fortune.
Anyway, according to my Marine buddy, there was a particularly bad night where the Viet Cong were desperately trying to overrun a gun position. The Marines guarding that position couldn’t let it fall, but they ran out of ammo. They held that position all night long using hand-to-hand techniques cobbled together from various systems. The brass noticed that and thus was born what would eventually become the various US military martial arts programs.
All born from classical martial arts.
And there’s nothing magical or special about the way the military is training these arts. Someone does this, this is how you respond. Don’t be afraid to get mean, there’s no such thing as a cheap shot. All things that are common in Kenpo. Sure, we have some people who are just there for the belt, but most of our students are pretty damned effective because the instruction is still based on the idea of not pulling punches.
When you look at martial arts through that lens – surviving the encounter – they take on a whole new meaning. Sparring isn’t so much about how to get the point as how to take the hit and find the targets. Bowing and being respectful are just good things to do. But, ultimately, it’s all about how to break an attacker with a minimal amount of effort and keep yourself alive.
So, Mr. Walgreen’s Badass, the problem was never the system. It was always you.
How about you? Got a favorite martial art? I love talking martial arts.