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Friday, June 19, 2009

Well, What Did You Expect?

In my Google Reader box the other morning, there were two posts raving about Lyoto Machida and the effect he's having on karate's reputation. Apparently, he's a mixed martial arts fighter--MMA fighter--with black belts in Shotokan karate and Brazilian Jujitsu, and apparently, after years of people watching the grapplers have much the best of it in the MMA ring, he's making karate look pretty fearsome.

I wouldn't know, for I don't watch MMA. Not really interested. To my mind it looks like a slightly-elevated schoolyard brawl. Very little of what I've seen touted as "karate" in the MMA ring bears any resemblance to karate as I have been taught it. You're entitled to your opinion, and thank God above there are some things that we don't really need to fight about--our opinions on MMA, for instance. So if you think I'm full of it, fine, say so and be done with it.

The thing that interested me is that both of these posts talked at least a little bit about how karate's reputation has degenerated over the years. Once it was held to be a ferocious fighting art. Now, it's widely perceived as something little kids do, along with scouting and Little League baseball and soccer.

And all I could think to myself was, "Well, what did you expect?"

I'm not trying to run anyone or any style down here, but when I was in Taekwon-do, in which I was this close to getting my first-degree black belt before I up and joined the Marine Corps Reserve, Taekwon-do was much rougher stuff than what it seems to be now. And even then--man, it almost hurts to say this...

I never--never, never, never--got more than extremely cursory and wildly unrealistic self-defense training. Kata applications were so wildly unrealistic that looking back on them now, I can't help but think they were pulled out of someone's backside. The attitude seemed to be that if you could kick someone in the snout, that was enough self-defense for anybody.

I kid thee not: I learned more about self-defense and kata applications in three months with RyuTe than I did in several years in Taekwon-do. The emphasis on vital points was, and remains, so intense that more than a few times I've almost felt--well, it's intense. Everything in RyuTe seems to take advantage of some weakness in the human body. Not so in Taekwon-do. A shot to the torso was a point, and that's all that anyone seemed to care about. It was just assumed that that type of skill would translate well to real self-defense situations.

Oh, you might say, "MOTW, you were just the victim of bad teaching." Well, I don't blame those instructors. They were just teaching what they knew. But "bad teaching?" One of them, to this day, runs a dojang here in Tulsa and is frequently held up as one of the greatest TKD coaches in the world. As a matter of fact, I know that he's trained world champions. Another of my teachers was, while he was alive, one of the most highly-rated point fighters in a four-state area. Another one was one of the most highly-rated full-contact fighters in the state of Oklahoma. I had third-dan teachers, fourth-dan teachers, sixth, seventh, and eighth-dan teachers, from associations ranging from the ITF to...well, an association I won't name here.

It's not the teachers. It's the system. Real self-defense knowledge has largely vanished from Taekwon-do and most other modern forms of karate. The point, the tournament, is now all. And when you make a dadgum game out of it, what do you expect but that kids will play? And that when they get tired of the game, as kids do, they will drop it for another game?

No wonder karate's reputation has suffered. People made a game out of it, dropping what self-defense orientation it had right out the bottom, largely for the sake of enrolling more children in classes, and now people see it as a joke.

I'll be blunt: if real karate is concerned with real self-defense, with life-protection skills, it will never be popular in this country, I don't care what Lyoto Machida does. It will always be the peculiar interest of a handful of people who are highly motivated to be able to improve both themselves and their odds of making it home alive and unharmed.

(I am not, by the way, suggesting that children should not study martial arts, only that we shouldn't confuse "martial arts" marketed as a sport or children's game with martial arts.)


  1. Well my friend, I am in total agreement with you on this post. I too was a TKD guy, second Dan. The best thing TKD did was get students used to hard slamming contact. But you are right, the self-defense skills degraded when the international organizations got TKD into the Olympics. It was a great base for training, but anybody interested in really learning martial arts needs to move out of TKD at some point, if only to Hapkido, for instance.
    Your Kenpo is the way to go, I did Kenpo to third Dan. Now I'm older, and softening things up with the Chinese Internal stuff.
    Good post.

  2. I'll take all the compliments I can get, DR.

    I agree: Kenpo is good stuff, at least if you can find a good teacher. Here in the Tulsa area, you are taking your chances. One fellow--the guy who, long ago, used to run the local "Tracy's Karate" franchise, IIRC--is actually pretty good, but I believe he's moved to Tahlequah and only teaches a handful. There's another local guy (who shall remain nameless) who, in my opinion, lies so much that it's a miracle he remembers his own name. I doubt seriously he knows much kenpo at all, but he thinks he's the bee's knees, founded his own system an' all that.

    The big problem for most would-be serious martial artists in this area is that almost every school and club you can easily find is devoted to sport karate. It's for that reason I've put so many links to local martial arts organizations in my sidebar. I hope that someone finds them useful.

  3. Without getting into a discourse of what a martial art is. I would remind you that one must look into the purpose of the art. The level of self defense needed by children is often not much more than a need for awareness of the world around them and a need for conflict avoidance. Most who do TKD do not look for what some stylist would call a martial art. They are looking for a sport and extracurricular activity. Most parents do not want their kids exposed to the true nature of fighting. The art (TKD) serves a purpose and provides an entrance to the world of martial arts for many who go on to other styles and teachers in their lives.

    I study and teach Filipino and indo-chinese martial arts, and I can tell you that even in Manila there are more TDK schools than FMA schools. Many Filipinos do not even know that their culture has a martial art. This relates to the times when public chalaenges, death matches and dojo vs. dojo fights that often left the participants either dead or scared for life, were commonplace. What parent would want to send their child to such a place where knives and machetes were the norm. It wasn’t until the birth of the “modern” styles that placed an emphasis on stick to stick contact during training that the systems began to experience rebirth. Now even “sport escrima” is being taught in the middle schools across the country.

    You should watch the Machida fight. You might be surprised, I was. Kenpo and traditional karates are great systems, but they have their limitations too. Your thoughts of TKD may mirror some of mine of several karate schools who appear to fight one armed men. Does it diminish the art of Kenpo or karate? No not in the least. Not everyone receives complete training. Some training was not ment for the masses. Not every black belt has the same skill set. If an instructor has what you’re looking for then great, if not keep on looking. The state of martial arts in the Tulsa area is not much of my concern. It hasn’t made a difference in my training, and won’t make a difference in my student’s. I am just happy that I have a real teacher, real arts, and real family. And I know how lucky I am.

    Guro K
    Tulsa Arnis Club

  4. I'm not sure that I would disagree with a whole lot of that. It's not that I object to Taekwon-do per se, or sport karate per se, it's more that it strikes me as sad that, having deliberately marketed TKD and sport karate to children, karateka are now looking to some MMA fighter to rescue our reputation. And, too, I have always had an objection to sport karate being marketed as a self-defense art, a practice engaged in (perhaps unwittingly) by far too many schools, TKD perhaps more than others.

    If people want to do sport karate, fine; that's their business and more power to them. I would--as long as I'm wishing--just prefer that people not get it confused with the real thing.