Everyone is talking about MMA versus traditional martial arts and the effects that MMA is having on martial arts schools around the world. Here are my thoughts on the subject, as a non traditional, traditional martial arts instructor.
I just finished watching an excellent documentary about mixed martial arts. Like many lifelong martial arts I’ve watched it grow from its infancy to where it is now and like most of my peers I have mixed feelings about it. It is probably the fastest growing sport in the world today. It is definitely a lucrative business and a serious money maker. Promoters and some fighters have made a fortune in the business. Say what you want about it, it is successful beyond anything most martial artists would have ever expected. Like it or not, for better or worse, it is probably here to stay.
Most traditional martial artists look upon MMA with a jaundiced eye. It doesn’t have the esoteric appeal that classical martial arts have boasted over the years. Gone is the spiritual aspect that has been attributed to the traditional martial artist. Gone is the almost ethereal calm of the martial artists of the past. In its place you have a lot of loud in your face competitors more reminiscent of pro wrestlers than the long held image of the martial artist of yore.
My foundation is in the traditional martial arts but I’m not a traditional teacher or practitioner. Like many American martial art instructors I teach an eclectic approach to the arts that are for all practical purposes a mixed martial art. Even so I have a love hate relationship with MMA.
I’ve never been much of a competitor. I studied the martial arts for a completely different reason. I was attracted to the mystical appeal and spiritual air that the arts wore back in the day. I grew up in a tough neighborhood in the inner city on Chicago’s mean South Side. I was a competent street brawler and was considered tough and brutal in an atmosphere that bred tough fighters. Amongst some nasty brawlers and street fighters I stood out. I didn’t really need martial arts for self defense. I could take care of myself.
I started studying judo and jiu jitsu at about the same time that I started boxing. Eventually I changed my focus in the martial arts to karate and kempo. I was a good boxer and enjoyed the sport but it was just that; a sport. I wasn’t into sports. I liked karate because it added other practical weapons to my natural arsenal. I was initially attracted to karate because of its potential as a fighting system. I wanted more than the unfocused aggression of the average street brawler. I wanted science rather than raw violence. With my stint in the military during the Viet Nam conflict the nature of real combat impressed itself upon me. Combat was a reality. Violence is a fact of life and I wanted to be the absolute best.
By the time I came out of the military I had been involved in the martial arts for well over a decade. I had studied with several instructors in a number of systems and was beginning to form my own ideas about combat and the martial arts. Tournaments didn’t offer the opportunity to put my theories to the test. There were too many rules and sparring was still mostly no contact or controlled contact. I didn’t want to spar. I wanted to fight. I found what I was looking for in the underground pit matches that were cropping up during that time. Such fights have always existed. They were popular during the depression but they have never completely died out. They were fought in old barns, warehouses or wherever they could take place away from the watchful eye of the law. They were illegal and money was made mostly by side bets. They were brutal and bloody but few martial artists were attracted to them and the skill level wasn’t that high. However what they lacked in skill they made up for in brutality.
I make no boast about a great fight record. I was effective in the streets where it counted and I did well in those underground matches but they were a far cry from the bloodsport matches that some of my peers fought. They were more like brawls than matches but I made a little money and I learned what I wanted to know. In those matches and on the streets I’ve sat straddling another fighter’s chest and tried to punch his lights out. Never did I dream that something like that would be embraced in a sport setting.
Had MMA been popular when I was young enough to compete I probably still would have avoided the sport. Like I said I’m not a competitor. I’ve never been shy about fighting. I did a lot of it and I didn’t lose fights. Not so much because of my skill level but because I’d do whatever was necessary to win. In my mind the only rule that governs a fight is don’t get hurt and don’t lose. With all of the skill and knowledge that I’ve accrued since I started this journey in the late fifties I’m still basically a street brawler. That mindset is hard wired into my DNA at this point. I look on my martial arts like I do a pistol. Don’t pull it out unless you’re willing to seriously injure or kill someone with it. It isn’t a contest with me and it definitely isn’t a game. Fighting is about survival or at least it was where I grew up.
I don’t train fighters for tournament fighting no more than I train competitors for MMA. As brutal as MMA is, it’s still a sport. Sports have rules. Fighting doesn’t I teach a combat oriented system. I’m not interested in turning out tournament champions or MMA competitors. For the most part I train individual in high risk professions.
I’ll watch the occasional MMA match as I will a boxing match but I’m not particularly enamored with either. They’re beautiful for what they are but they aren’t real combat. Please understand; I’m not saying that I could stand toe to toe with some MMA champion. Perhaps I never could have. However my system has served me well and kept me safe in a very violent environment. My skill and abilities have seen me through a war and have helped me survive life in some tough neighborhoods. In the long run that’s what a martial system is designed to do.
I’m up in age now and in spite of the implications of a hundred Saturday morning kung fu flicks I realize that the old wise eighty year old kung fu master can’t go toe to toe with a young fighting champion. As I’ve said to my competent young students in the past, I can be your worst nightmare for two or three minutes but if you can last beyond that you’ve got me. Of course, you have to last those few minutes.
I won’t criticize MMA or its competitors though I don’t care for some of their attitudes. MAA is a fact of life and as much as I would like to see the traditional martial arts at the pinnacle of the martial art movement MMA will have its day. Whether it stands the test of time remains to be seen. I just hope that there will always be a place for the traditional schools of martial arts. Those schools have the ability to shape and change young lives. The traditional arts are more than a punch or a kick. They are treasures that offer more than competition or violence. They offer an opportunity of self discovery and growth that MMA doesn’t.
It would be easy to become discouraged having to compete with the popularity of MMA but the traditional arts are treasures hidden in plain sight. Those who teach them realize that and those who pursue them and what they have to offer will be greatly rewarded. Don’t throw in the towel, my brothers. Keep on doing what you are doing. We must see that there is always a place for the traditional martial arts.
Keep the faith, my martial art brethren. Train hard and go with God.
Rev. Dr. Donald Miskel