Anyone who’s been involved in martial arts for any length of time can tell you there are a lot of schwag schools out there that will promise you the moon and deliver a back-alley ass-whooping. For some reason, the martial arts seem to attract a lot of self-aggrandizing whack-jobs who don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground but talk a good game.
History is replete with names like George Dillman (who says he can shoot Chi balls out of his hands), Count Dante (the self-proclaimed “Deadliest Man Alive”), Frank Dux (whose lofty tales inspired Bloodsport) and countless others.
Unfortunately, people like Dillman, Dante, and Dux have watered down the fighting arts to the point of fantasy fit only for Wuxia stories and high fantasy fanfic. Meanwhile, MMA has captured the imagination of the country and the rallying cry has become, “If it doesn’t work in MMA, it’s crap.” And stuck in the middle are a whole bunch of systems that are really damned good at what they do, they’re just not geared for MMA’s ruleset. So, just to get this out of the way, Dante, Dillman, and Dux can all suck it for spreading their nonsense, but the rest of the traditional arts deserve a bit more respect than “If it doesn’t work in MMA, it’s crap.”
A few days ago, I was reading an article I found posted in a martial arts group on Facebook. The article was about the five worst martial arts on the planet and how they were totally useless. I see articles like this every now and then and they all lay out the author’s distaste for varying fighting arts. Among other systems, Wing Chun, Kung Fu, Aikido, Ninjutsu, Krav Maga, Karate, Shaolin, Sumo, and Tae Kwon Do are common entries in these lists.
In case you’re wondering, yes, I have seen Wing Chun, Shaolin, and Kung Fu in the same list. For the unitiated, Kung Fu is basically a blanket term for the Chinese fighting arts which includes styles like Shaolin, Hun Gar, and, yes, Wing Chun. Always be wary of authors who aren’t even familiar enough with what they’re dissing to get the names right.
Articles like these include a variety of reasons why this, that, or the other style is a waste of time, but most of them come down to the fact that no one has ever won an MMA title using that system or that system didn’t work very well in MMA.
Wait. Let’s back up a second here.
MMA is a sport style. Don’t get me wrong, the people that do it are talented, tough, and I wouldn’t want to walk into a ring with any of them, but the whole of MMA is geared around keeping fighters intact, alive, and able to fight again. For a thing that bills itself as no holds barred as close to real fighting as you can get, it’s still a sport system. And that means things like poking the eyes, punching the throat, and doing all manner of nasty things is forbidden. And for good reason. You can learn to take a punch or a kick and shake it off, but a thumb in your eye is a whole different ballgame.
Not to say that people don’t get seriously hurt in MMA, just that the rules are in place to minimize the number of times a fighter gets crippled in the ring. The idea is to pit a fighter against someone roughly his or her size and approximate skill set. It’s a great test of skill, truthfully, because it eliminates a lot of variables and focuses on the fighters.
Less sport-oriented fighting covers a different kind of ground. Most of those aforementioned Chinese systems grew up in a different kind of arena and they focus on doing the most damage in the smallest amount of time and getting the heck out of danger’s way while the opponent is still clawing at their eyes and wondering why their throat doesn’t work anymore. They’re largely upright styles because you don’t want to go rolling around in a Shanghai alleyway and, besides, the guy you just kicked probably has some buddies lined up waiting to break your knees.
Krav Maga grew out of fighting Nazis. It’s a nasty, mean system designed to keep someone alive in a harsh environment where the opponent’s waving a broken bottle in your face. It’s wartime stuff, modified to be a little friendlier to civilians, but at its heart, Krav Maga shares the same philosophy of get in, hurt someone badly, and get away. Kenpo has the same philosophy, as do a lot of traditional arts, because traditional arts were about survival, not winning in the ring.
There are, of course, outliers. Sumo is pretty against Sumo and not much else, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone offering Sumo classes for self defense. It’s a very ritualized sport, seeped in tradition, and does what it does very well. But pushing an opponent out of the ring or getting them off their feet does not translate well in MMA’s fighting world.
Which leads us to everybody’s favorite punching bag: Ninjutsu.
After a spate of increasingly bad movies in the 80s, Ninjas took on a strange reputation of being the ultimate badasses. Schools claiming to teach the secrets of the Ninjas popped up in every strip mall in the country, and enough books to deforest the Eastern seaboard were published about the subject. Here’s the deal: Ninjas were real, they had some capable fighters (and doubtless some true badasses), but Ninjutsu is about a whole lot more than fighting. It’s movement, it’s concealment, it’s a lot of sneaking around, and if you want to get traditional about them, Ninjutsu was about stealing state secrets and assassinating people. Fighting skill was important, but it wasn’t as important as being invisible. Any school claiming to teach traditional Ninja fighting arts should be taken with a grain of salt. I don’t doubt that there are some out there, but the vast majority are run by guys who got their training from stuff they found in the classifieds in the back of Black Belt Magazine.
In the end, it’s important to realize what the goal of a system is before you start saying it’s worthless. MMA is cool, but it’s not the end-all-be-all of fighting and a lot of its ground and pound stuff is flat-out dangerous to do outside of the ring. In the ring, it’s just you and your opponent. Out of the ring, it’s you, your opponent, his buddies, some drunken idiot who wants to get in on the game, and probably the cops. Going to the ground in a situation like that is begging for a head-stomping.
And, let’s not forget, MMA itself is comprised of things learned from those traditional martial arts. So, if MMA is your bag, go learn it. It’s definitely useful, but don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s the perfect system. It’s the perfect system for what it’s trying to be.
On the other hand, everyone should take a good, hard look at MMA training techniques and realize a couple of hours a week in the dojo ain’t gonna make you a pro fighter. There’s no reason Wing Chun, Shaolin, or Krav Maga can’t be effective; they’re all fine systems. Because, in the end, it always comes down to the person doing it. Practice, practice, practice. Train, train, train.
And you still might get your ass kicked.
And now, your moment of Zen.