Black Belt Realities

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Black Belt

It is a common misconception that having a black belt is paramount to being a self-defense expert. Unfortunately some Black Belts also believe this. Each martial artist is inherently protective of their own style and training, so much so that many martial artists ignore the realities of the short falls within their systems, sacrificing their own self-defense training at the cost of saving face to their parent system. For over 20 years I have trained in both Traditional Korean Hapkido and Taekwondo. There was a time when I also believed that just because I was a black belt that I was a self-defense expert.

The art of self-defense combines the aspects of biomechanical techniques, mindset, training and tools. Without in-depth knowledge and training in all of these areas of self-defense, a person is unprepared for the reality of violence. Guns, knives, martial arts, violence awareness and prevention seminars, etc are simply tools that one can use in a self-defense scenario, but by themselves they are not the embodiment of self-defense.

One of the largest trends today among martial artists around the world is sports martial arts. Why not, it is fun, exciting and almost everyone can participate in it. Some schools are so focused on Sports Martial Arts today; they ignore the traditional aspects of their Systems forefathers (Unfortunately at the cost of their students self-defense skills). Tragically, just a few years ago, in my hometown, a nationally rated Tournament Champion was beaten to death in the street by three drunken punks. Shock, outrage and disbelief plagued the local martial arts community. Black Belts even went as far as making excuses for their dead martial arts brother such as “he must have been blind sided” or “it wasn’t a fair fight, there were three of them”, etc. People in the community thought that I was being callous by pointing out that he responded the way he trained. I still stand by that statement today. This young man was taught how to tournament fight, with limited contact, where rules were inherently strict as to what actions are and are not acceptable in a tournament. Sadly, he was woefully under prepared to deal with a real life street fight that involved multiple assailants, because his training focused solely on winning tournaments, not surviving deadly attacks on one’s life. There are no rules when fighting for your life on the street and the person trying to kill you will not play by any fair code of conduct.

Most modern day American martial arts comprise some elements of self-defense, but usually within a very constricted system of steps and techniques hidden within, where the modern practitioner is unaware of the actual combat or self-defense application.

This past decade, we have seen an explosion of martial artists training in ground grappling thanks to the popular full contact/no holds barred martial arts championships such as the UFC. With this we saw the shortcomings of some striking and “traditional” systems against a well rounded fighter who could close the distance, control their opponent, take them to the ground and then dominate them with striking and submission holds. Thanks to this, many modern day martial artists realized the importance of ground grappling skills and began to implement these skills into their workouts. Many martial artists realized they needed to supplement their training to become more well rounded because they saw it either first hand or on television. Unfortunately few ever take real life examples to heart, such as the above-mentioned Black Belt who died being beaten to death in the streets by untrained drunks.

Maybe it is the nature of mankind to downplay the seriousness of one’s own shortcomings and have a false sense of security in one’s own ability. Just look at Americans who have firearms in their homes believing that just possessing them in a locked safe will provide them security. Obviously this is not true and the person will most likely never have time to retrieve the firearm if someone broke into their house and tried to kill them in the middle of the night. Have we as martial artists become that complacent, believing that our forms, sparring and traditional weapons work will provide us with all the training we will need if we ever have to fight for our life?

I use to think that, until I was almost stabbed to death by an enemy combatant who I had already shot 8 times. He still managed to take me to the ground and almost kill me. Every day when I look in the mirror I have a scar running across my forehead that reminds me how my own overconfidence and complacency almost cost me my life. Obviously, this event changed my life and way of thinking, especially when it comes to martial arts. Suddenly the traditional aspects were less important to me and the street applications were all I was concerned about. I sought out training from various schools and people who were like-minded.

Many will be offended by these words, and to those I ask you to examine your own self-defense philosophy and how your own style and training prepares you for a life or death struggle. For some martial artists, training is way to improve oneself either physically, mentally or spiritually, they could care less about self-defense and there is nothing wrong with that. However, to think one is a self-defense expert just because there is a black belt around your waist is a dangerous self-illusion.

If self-defense is an important outcome of your martial arts training, make sure that your training involves simple and realistic techniques that are easy to use. Avoid complicated self-defense techniques that involve multiple steps and fine motor skills. Do not be biased and ignore other self-defense tools and training such as knife and gun skills. Attacks on your life are quick, devastating and brutal, your response to these attacks should be the same.