There Are No Martial Arts

The terms martial arts and self-defense are often used interchangeably.  In point of fact, these are not the same thing.   Martial arts (with some exceptions) refers to a body of theory in which people who have never engaged in fighting another human being (except perhaps in a sporting context) explain to other people how not to do the same thing.  Sometimes this involves the myth of pressure testing; other times it does not.

The world of martial arts runs the gamut from strip mall low- and no-contact McDojos, to full-contact mixed martial arts schools, and everything in between.  The former are fine if you’re looking to build ersatz discipline, give your child a structured, aerobic daycare class, or adopt the forms and kata of a system devolved into a shadow of what it once was.  The latter is the standard against which individual competitors are judged if they want to learn to conquer their own fear while testing their physical fitness, drive, and yes, even skill, against a single unarmed opponent in a controlled environment.

Strip-mall martial arts are ridiculous because they purport to teach you how to defend yourself while doing nothing even approaching that goal.  They don’t teach you to strike with force.  They don’t teach you to fight in a realistic environment.  They don’t even teach you to fight in something resembling your actual clothing.  They are as far removed from practical self-defense as driving a go-kart around a bumper track is from defensive driving.

Mixed martial arts in their sporting context become just as ridiculous when their exponents tout them as “the best” or “the only” means of learning self-defense.  Certainly a large, muscular man who possesses good fitness can use UFC-style methods to defeat an attacker… provided that attacker is alone. And unarmed.  And the fight occurs on a padded floor.  And the fighter doesn’t break his hand fighting without gloves.

Certainly an MMA competitor would be one of the most vicious, deadly opponents you could ever hope to fight on his terms.  Boxers are just as dangerous.  Both athletes train to take a beating while dishing out tremendous punishment.  To use the driving analogy, training in MMA is like training to drive a race car.  You are a highly skilled driver.  You are more skilled behind the wheel than the overwhelming majority of other drivers, in fact.  Yet what you do is no more defensive driving than is piloting the go-kart.  You just have more skills that transfer from your sport to reality.

Where both martial artists and MMA exponents fail is in believing self-defense occurs on their terms.  The mall-dojo karateka believes the way he moves, kicks, and punches, practiced in relaxed clothing and in bare feet, will translate to a real-world scenario in which he can achieve simulated, theorized success.  The Mixed Martial Artist believes his ability to punch hard, fight back from a ground-and-pound, or submit an opponent while fighting for position is what defines a fight.  It isn’t.  What defines a fight is which person thought to bring an ice pick, a revolver, or a razor to the altercation.

Worse, the market is glutted with people who are unqualified to teach for any number of reasons that are separate and distinct from whether the systems they espouse are truly functional.  Any idiot with a worthless mail-order black belt (issued by some other fraud) can show up at his county health fair and pretend to teach “self-defense” for free to unsuspecting housewives.  Any well-meaning professional athlete can teach those same housewives techniques that are perfectly valid… if you’re fighting someone in your weight class who does more or less what you do (and nothing else).

Giving our hypothetical housewives a bunch of made-up-ninja nonsense is as bad as teaching them to use Muay Thai kickboxing against larger attackers.  In the second example, these methods aren’t practical for smaller people even though, on paper, there is nothing wrong with the techniques or the “art.”  Thus, if the context of a martial art is wrong (from the perspective of the environment or from the perspective of the defender), even valid techniques can become a program for utter failure.

Remember that failure in self-defense isn’t a loss on your record.  It isn’t an affront to your honor. It isn’t disappointment or discouragement.  It is death.  Fail in self-defense and you will be raped, maimed, or murdered.

This means that people who claim to teach self-defense while lacking the qualifications to do so — primarily the ability to identify context while separating practical from impractical, workable from unworkable — are deranged sociopaths.  They are people who care more about playing at self-defense, at pretending to be “teachers,” than they care about the lives of the people to whom they are lying.  They may not even know they are lying.  Hell, some of what they “teach” might even work if the planets align, or if the student is sufficiently motivated.

Both MMA competitors and traditional martial artists have used what they do to achieve success in self-defense.  In some cases this was luck; in other cases, this was skill; in still other cases, success occurred despite the defender’s best efforts to undercut his own efforts.  One of the Gracie brothers beat the ever-loving snot out of a mugger recently, then live-tweeted the incident while standing over the attacker’s prone form.  There was a story not so long ago about an MMA athlete who submitted a purse-snatcher and then went on to win his match that night.  But there are other stories, just as true, about failure:  The Russian martial artist who was shot to death on his way to a gun-disarm seminar, for example, or the Brooklyn martial artist who was stabbed to death in a dispute involving his dog.

What any course of study in self-defense must teach you is practical force.  Practical force — the means and the methods to apply it — can be acquired while training in a traditional martial art (sometimes only rarely, and sometimes in spite of it), in a reality-based self-defense environment (if realistic contact and resistance is introduced), in a heavily supplemented mixed martial arts program (provided environment, plural assailants, and weaponry are seriously addressed and not merely paid lip-service) and, rarely, simply through practicing a single, workable method and becoming very, very good at it.

In all cases, the student will acquire much that isn’t practical… and then must spend a lifetime sorting out what is and isn’t.  Those learning “hybrid” arts will probably have greater success than those learning a pure system, if only because their system already has discarded some of the impractical as part of that hybridization process.

You don’t have to hate the martial arts.  You don’t even have to stop training in them.  But you must recognize that the dividing line between art, between system, and practical, pragmatic use of force is there.   It may be wide or it may be narrow.  In some cases, it is so great as to be a nearly insurmountable gulf.  In other scenarios, it is so thin as to be invisible.  In all cases, however, it is real.

Where self-defense is concerned, there are no martial arts.  There is only martialism or failure.   There is only practical force and impractical force.  Martial arts are what you do while you acquire one or the other.  The danger — and the responsibility — lies in identifying which is which.

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8 thoughts on “There Are No Martial Arts

  1. In not so many words: “Garbage in Garbage out.”

    You get out of training what you put into it. If you go into with the wrong focus, a shit attitude or preconceived notions then you’ll suffer for it. Good point.

  2. Phil,

    Excellent points, especially about separating a system from practical application. It’s one thing to defeat an opponent when there are rules governing what techniques can be used in competition. Surviving (or preempting) an attack is quite a different situation. Thanks for your refreshing perspective.

  3. This is a well written article from a person who must have experienced a wide range of the above to see a clear cut difference. Their are always exceptions to the rules of thumb however more likely then not this would be the case. People need to know what they are purchasing an if they are purchasing what they expect great! Can’t over promise and under deliver better to exceed expectation upon delivery is my personal opinion. Regards, Russ

  4. This article might be true for some martial arts. But at least for the three I have started to learn so far (german fencing, combat wrestling, arnis /escrima) nothing of this is true.
    We learn how to hit with force, and whenever somebody asks whether a technique is actually applyable, the instructors prove it at the highest safe speed (except for limb destruction or killing techniques).
    There also is no expectation of the opponent fighting with the same weapon or the same style. We mix weapons (knife vs. a piece of cloth, unarmed vs. stick or baseballbat, rifle with bayonet vs. stick etc.) and spar against people trained in other arts on seminars.
    Also, all of these arts are trained in regular clothing instead of “ninjasuits”. The only change is that we use training shoes, but this is only a difference for those who normally wear boots or highheels.

    If your martial arts training is really as useless as you described in this article, perhaps you should search for a better teacher.

  5. I find this article interesting. I’ve seen and have practiced primarily Karate as well as Aikido at a few different locations due to having had to move several times in my life. I found it strange to have such a variety in styles within the same style, and having to discontinue training at a couple locations due to techniques not being taught correctly, dumbed down in order to make learning a series of strikes and kicks possible within a short duration of time, flinging students through the belts as quickly as is possible. The entire point of the technique was never taught at a couple locations, and only one taught not only the proper technique, but the very subtleties that exist once learned and done correctly.

    I personally have no interest in the color of the belt worn by anyone, and from my first instructor that I had learned from had us for the entire first year do nothing but do a simple punch, block, and snap kick (needless to say, many students left due to the lack of spin kicks and flashy moves). Even through the following years when finally learning techniques other than the basics, they were still always practiced. There is no such thing as absolute perfection.

    From starting at this perspective, I always felt that the entire belt system should be erased in order that striving for perfection becomes the quest vs. being able to brag about the belt color being worn, schools zipping students out in a couple years with black belts. Once an individual can obtain something close to perfection in a technique, only then does it become applicable in real self defense situations in my opinion.

    Just over a year ago my dog and I were randomly attacked one rainy night by a pit bull (btw, one of my favorite breeds of dogs – owners make bad animals, not the animals themselves). For the first time ever I found myself in combat. Not only was this the first time in a real situation, but it was with something that wasn’t even a person, but a solid mass of muscle trained to do but one thing, kill. Due to my training I simply knew that there was no way I was letting my dog or myself become a victim of this abused dog trained to kill. If it had not been for my years of training to cary out effective punches, in this case at the dogs jaw in addition to other effective self defense methods I would have suffered much more severe injuries than the ones that I have received (had deep puncture wounds, but little damage).

    When the police finally arrived at our house (we were attacked 2 blocks from my home, and the dog followed us where it continued to ram it’s head into the front screen door – while making itself stand in a pool of blood, really) it stopped at charged at the officer. The officer shot the dog square in the head, and the animal finally stopped and ran off to it’s owner. If it had not been for knowing how to punch a simple punch properly with force while having your “good” arm being pinned down by an animal, being placed unexpectedly into a situation in which there is very little room to work I have no idea how things would have ended up.

    All that I do know is that the belt worn never did a thing, but learning technique over the course of many years proved to be a life saver. Turned out that the guy who owned the dog owned about nine others all being trained to fight. Due to living in a “nice neighborhood”, there was never in the past need to regulate owners of dangerous animals. I of course helped pass a city code making the owner responsible for their animals actions. Since there was no such law when I was attacked, and the guy made no recorded income there was nothing that could be done legally (other than putting the poor abused animal down). With the city ordinance being passed the owner of course left town.


  6. Hello,
    I appreciate your willingness to candidly express your views. I have read most of the reviews in your archive section. I am wondering if you have an opinion on TFT, a combatives (they eschew the name “self-defense”) seminar. Of course training consistently would be better than any 2 days seminar but if one were to take a short course or purchase DEVD’s, how do theirs compare to others in your opinion? They are quite expensive (2-3K I believe).

    Thank you

    1. I have reviewed some SCARS material in the past, which is related to TFT, and I was not a big fan of SCARS. In previous perusal of TFT training materials I wasn’t really very enthusiastic about the way they chain some of their techniques together, but I have to say that the more I hear from Tim Larkin, the more I like him. The philosophy he espouses about self-defense is very, very good, so his stuff is worth experiencing even if I might disagree with some of the physical applications. If you can’t afford to take one of his seminars, you always have the option of buying some of his DVDs.

  7. McDojos: Heh. Spot on. I studied a hybrid version of a nationally-known sensei’s style for years with my kids. I never assumed that anything I learned was particularly practical in a street fight, not even the full-contact sparring we did (which was done in gi, barefoot, and with head and hand protection). I lost track of the number of soccer moms who came into the dojo asking “if we sign up, how long until my little Johnny gets his black belt?” A 13-year-old black belt? Puh-lease. I would love to find a fighting style that considers the purpose of a belt to be to hold one’s pants up. The current state of martial arts training is a reflection of modern society’s fixation on “credentialism.” It doesn’t matter if you are good at what you do, as long as you have the certificate of participation.

    I later studied Shinkendo from one of the country’s most accomplished swordsmen. Fun? Yes. Practical? Not in the slightest. Try carrying a katana concealed.

    I enjoyed watching UFC matches, particularly Royce Gracie’s. But I always wondered: how well would he do using groundfighting/grappling in a street fight if his opponent’s three friends were standing around kicking him in the head while he was on his back?

    Any teenager growing up in a tough, ethnic, blue-collar neighborhood or inner-city school would probably destroy the average suburban mall-ninja “black belt.”

    I have no illusions of using some mad martial arts skilz to survive in a street confrontation with a thug. That’s why I carry a gun.

    The sensei I bow to? Samuel Colt.

    Love your site.

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