Martial Arts' Two-Sided Coin
I am huge fan of the martial arts. Have been for years, starting when I was in my teens living in Rochester and my parents making me take Taekwondo, and then later Karate. I fell out of it and didn’t go back until college, when I joined a martial arts group. The basic reasons for taking it were what you hear all the time: “Learning discipline and control”, or “an outlet” for all the energy I had as a kid.
Those are all fine and good, but that’s where people quickly lose interest. Something as trendy as the new Christmas toy you get one year and forget about the next. However it became something more to me. It became a passion, an outlet, and a way to connect with myself in ways I had not been able to before, good and bad.
You will get a lot of takes and definitions on the term, but at its core, all martial arts are is the native fighting style of a particular group. Traditionally this meant Asia, but it’s safe to assume now that it can be applied to any culture in the world.
One World, Two Cities
Martial arts are usually divided into two camps: traditional martial artists or TMA, and mixed martial arts, aka MMA. And the two stereotypically do not get along to well. Rivalries between schools and disciplines is nothing new in this world, but their back stories are interesting.
TMA would logically apply to your styles that are rooted in specific forms and have a degree of history and lineage behind it. Karate, kung fu, muay thai, and samo would all fall into this category. Meanwhile, MMA’s application of term depends on your history. In western culture, 1960’s/70’s action star and martial artist, Bruce Lee, is considered to be the founder of mix-martial arts. Some TMA artists however argue that the MMA concept has been around long centuries before Bruce came along, often citing the Indonesian style, silat, as an example. By definition, MMA doesn’t stick to one form, style, or kata, but instead draws the best from other styles to be molded into one’s personal variant. This ranges from borrowing techniques, to simple 'ground and pound' fighting.
A Certain Point of View
The prime difference is in how each camp views fighting. In the West, fighting, like much of the components of life, is often seen as a tool to accomplish an end. It’s less honor bound and more practically minded. Last man standing wins and their style is better. Because of this view, many MMA fighters consider TMA to be obsolete. This argument made large strides when UFC made its appearance in the 1990’s. Many fighters of all styles jumped at the chance of live combat with almost no rules. The results were that many traditional practitioners fell victim to other styles that were more modern, exploited inherent weaknesses, or went to simple ‘ground and pound’ fighting.
Though modern UFC and its counterparts have become more diverse, there is still a large amount of fighters who adopt the saying,
“Your kung fu is no good here”.
The more moderate of the camp will acknowledge the value and even past effectiveness of TMA styles, but criticize their failure to adapt to newer techniques and training regiments. Indeed some have questioned the lack of Asian fighters in UFC, crediting it several factors including cultural loyalty to old systems or simply too afraid to fight larger, taller western fighters that are more about victory than technique.
In eastern cultures too, martial arts are a practicality. Despite many of the hemisphere’s styles working from a root system, they are just as brutal as their western counterparts when allowed to be. However, it is also viewed as more than just a simple hammer or tool.
When I took Aikido, one my teachers from Japan briefly spoke about MMA and called it the human equivalent of chicken-fighting. Many TMA practitioners agree with him, and believe MMA lacks substance, soul, and focuses exclusively on the violence of the martial arts. Chatri Sityodtong, head of One Championship broadcast and a muay thai practitioner, phrases it best:
“The reality in Asia is that it (martial arts) is a lifestyle and a platform to unleash your potential as a human being.”
Fighting had to be something that carried over into other areas of a person’s life. And if you were the toughest and baddest mother fucker in the ring, but could not use any of that style outside of it or after you retire, then your MMA is meaningless.
Another side to this argument though is the fear that is said to plague some TMA practitioners that adapting to changing times and new opposing styles, dilutes the significance of their own. If fighting is also considered an expression of your cultural identity, then changing because everyone else is changing might cause your identity to eventually disappear. Then it would become meaningless or a copycat of someone else’s culture.
Both camps have many assumptions about the other. The primary ones being that MMA considers TMA akin to dancing practice, while the other views its rival as perhaps effective, but soulless and with a focus strictly on one aspect of fighting. However what I have found is that it is often the assumptions that can get people in the most trouble.
There are many TMA styles that have extremely brutal tactics that could border on inhuman. And though rooted in a systematic form, were used commonly in warfare where there were no rules. Likewise, there are many MMA fighters who have taken the personal lessons of TMA and applied to their lives as well as their MMA. Many soldiers who have learned more modern fighting techniques like Krav Magra and Systema, have applied the mental focus and spirit into their lives, even if they don’t practice it as much as they used to.
But these oversights are also understandable. Large egos and pride often times come in tandem with learning to fight. These will probably the biggest obstacles both sides will have to overcome as the global community continues to interact and learn from each other. An example of that direction is One Championship which features many bouts with diverse sets of fighters and using modern techniques as well as TMA. Even western fighters are choosing to fight in this arena. So there’s the possibility in the future that perhaps there will be more of a mutual appreciation of what the other offers. The violence is something both sides can agree are a part of their perceptions and that can be a basis of forming a mutual respect.