My Style Is Better Than Yours


I actually saw this in the theater. It was awesome seeing Chuck get his ass kicked.

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.

8 thoughts on “My Style Is Better Than Yours

    • Yeah, it took me a long time to realize I was never going to be able to pull off all the dazzling displays in martial arts, but I learned to accept that and find other aspects to get good at. 🙂

  1. I don’t know anything about martial arts, but we did watch “The Foreigner” over the weekend and really loved it. I can’t believe how long Jackie Chan has been making movies and while he’s visibly slowed, he’s still out there doing it.

    • Jackie Chan is an unbelievably tough dude. He went to a Peking Opera school, which was basically institutionalized torture for kids, but it turned him into an amazing guy. How was “The Foreigner”? It looks like it’ll be good.

  2. I can’t believe that guy was such an ass in front of your son, when you both had obviously come from something you do together and love. I don’t know much about martial arts, but my sons have been enjoying learning a variety of styles from friends of theirs who are very involved in MMA. One acquaintance has a black belt in TKD and is forever bragging about how tough he is (he’s like that anyway, on almost every topic), but my kids said he wouldn’t be able to do crap to anyone unless he was far enough to kick them (which he is actually skilled at). As an outsider, my observation is that each discipline has its merits, but the main point of each one is to use your body to a high performance level by a combination of physical and mental discipline. Would that be accurate, for the most part?

    • That pretty much sums up martial arts. You just have to figure out what you’re good at and go for it. There’s no one system that has every possible thing, but they all claim to have all the answers. MMA has been good for showing the stuff that works, but it’s limited to what works in the ring since there are a ton of rules designed to keep the fighters alive and non-crippled. Not that I’d go messing with an MMA fighter, mind you. Those folks are tough. Holly Holm apparently used to be in Kenpo at some point in the past and one of her trainers (Winklejohn) was a Kenpo instructor in our system when I first started. Everyone has something they’re good at, the best people know how to develop that and use it.

  3. So it is very true that some martial artists are better than others. One on one anything can work. If you are in a group fight – try to stick with a striking martial art. Boxing, Muai Thai, Kung Fu, Karate… That is my advice to people today as mma, wrestling and BJJ seem to be the rage. Ground fighting only works well in one on one (as any bystander could kick one of the ground fighters in the head and end the match).

    But more to your point – that guy was probably like most people, only the top 20% excel at stuff – including the martial arts. The rest of the students have to work at it and if they get a bad instructor or they are bad students – they will think martial arts are no good.

    So as a life time martial artist – you have to ignore most people as they don’t know what they are talking about. Find out by doing, and then you won’t worry if people disagree!

    By the way I think most any martial art is better than a scaled down version such as the military has. They have the challenge of trying to get a lot of people minimally qualified to fight and not make experts out of everybody.

    We used to have SEAL’s in the Viet Nam era come in to our school to learn more stuff – so they could take it back to war on the next re-up. So again some individuals are great practitioners.

    But a traditional martial art takes a long time to learn. Good luck!

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