Thoughts on Martial Arts

I think about a lot of things.  One of them has been trying to determine which martial art truly is “the best.”  This is a challenge that has been taken up time and again, and even served as something of a premise for UFC 1.

Photo by Edward Dalmulder
Photo by Edward Dalmulder

Yesterday, something occurred to me about the effectiveness of martial arts.

When someone is considering a martial art, many will wonder how effective it is “on the street.”  They want to know if the art will work in a real fight outside of a sports setting.

Many instructors, with the utmost sincerity, will say that what they teach has real applications in an actual fight.  Some may actually regale you with tales of them or their students whooping up on someone who decided to start something with the wrong person.  The thing is, they may well be telling the truth.

Does that mean that art is the best, though?

Maybe.  Maybe not.  What these anecdotes usually miss is what they’re up against.

The average person, even a wannabe tough guy, does is talk a big game.  If they’re serious about being a tough guy, they might lift some weights.  Maybe they played football and can take a hit.

What they don’t do is actually train for a fight.  They might have learned the mechanics of throwing a punch, but barely.  Videos of street fights show awkward punches from even the victors of the fights.

We can tell that few of these “fighters” are really skilled at fighting.  They don’t really practice.  If they’re really bad boys, they’ve been in a lot of fights and aren’t afraid of being punched in the face.  That’s about it.

So what happens when someone with actual training gets into it with someone on the street?

Now, this would convince a lot of people to learn karate (though he may actually be using something else).  Just looking at this, I doubt I’d blame them.  But then, what happened with Royce Gracie took on karate fighters?  It didn’t work out all that well for the karate guys.

So what’s the difference?

First, in the embedded video, our “karate warrior” was taking on untrained or relatively untrained fighters.  Note the awkward punches and half-assed kicks.

Even if the art he studies is less than ideal, it’s still better than what 90 percent of the people out there study, which is nothing.

All else being equal, even a modicum of training in any martial art, from tae kwon do to boxing, will make the difference in a street fight.

The problem arises, however, when all else isn’t equal.

Many of you reading this know some guy who was getting pushed around, so he studied some martial art (which one is irrelevant, but let’s say a true fighting style and not something like Tai Chi) and, after a time, decided to fight back, only to get his butt kicked royally.

This would easily lead someone to conclude that either the art doesn’t work, or the teacher is crap.

However, is everything else being equal?

For example, the young victim may not really know how to take a punch yet.  Maybe he’s just a crappy student who isn’t really retaining what’s being taught.  There are numerous reasons why such a thing might happen, and none of them have anything to do with the art itself.

And this is why it’s hard to determine which is “best” in any appreciable way.

While UFC 1 sought to answer the question, and Brazilian Jiu Jutsu seems to have won out, we’re left asking whether Royce Gracie was just a better student than everyone else, or whether BJJ really is the stuff.

I’ll continue to ponder it, just like a million other people, but I understand that I’ll never really have a definitive answer.  There will always be variables beyond anyone else’s control, and so we don’t know for sure.

However, we can see a few things worth remembering when selecting a school of martial arts to study.

1. Availability

Yes, this is common sense, but it bears mentioning.  It doesn’t matter if you found the perfect martial art to study if you can’t find a school within a reasonable distance.

Of course, the term “reasonable distance” is subjective, but so be it.  For some, 100-mile round trip is worth it.  For others, it will eventually become and excuse to drop it.  Know yourself and know your tendencies towards something like this.

2. Sparring

If you’re going to get into a martial art, then for your own sake, make sure the school actually has sparring as part of their training.  It shouldn’t be necessary to mention this one, but if the school you’re wanting to attend doesn’t spar, then you don’t really get an idea of how to use the techniques learned in a real fight, even if it’s more sports focused on the street.

If at all possible, actual contact sparring is preferable to no-contact sparring.  Anything to make the combat more realistic so you’re more comfortable if you happen to find yourself in a fight.

3. Contains Grappling

A lot of fights go to the ground.  It’s part of why BJJ is so effective for so many people.  It knows the fight will go to the ground and plans accordingly.

It’s also why wrestlers and judokas do so well in the UFC.  They already have a ground game going into MMA.

Of course, keep in mind that going to the ground isn’t always a good idea.  For example, if the guy you’re fighting has friends who might get involved.  Be smart.

4. Striking

This makes up all of the punching and kicking that martial arts are known for.  Most fights start upright, and that’s when striking comes in handy.  Further, there are times you want the fight to remain upright for as long as possible as mentioned above.

That means anything you learn needs to also teach you how and when to punch, kick, etc.



No, this isn’t complete.  I’ve studied violence in various ways for decades, but I’m not exactly the world’s foremost expert by any stretch of the imagination.  If an actual expert contradicts me, depending on whether they’re trying to sell you anything or not, then you may want to listen to them.  Of course, in all things, use your own brain as well.

Some folks, unfortunately, don’t have access to anything they consider workable.  Others just can’t afford classes.  I get that.  I’ve been there.

For those, about the best I can recommend is for you and a partner to watch a lot of videos and pay very close attention to what you’re watching.  Then you need to see if you can replicate it.

If you’re unsure of what you’re doing, video your attempts and put them up on the internet and ask for critiques.  The internet loves to criticize, so you might as well put it to use.  If possible, share it in a Facebook group for that art.  At least you’re more likely to get help from people who have a clue.

No, this isn’t ideal, but you know what’s worse?  Not knowing anything and getting your butt beaten.