Martial Art Versus Combat Sport


Several years ago during a martial arts tournament, the host of the event asked me if I would be interested in doing a sparring demo. Now, I hate sparring, but because he was the host I actually considered his offer. However, before I could agree I had to ask him what the rules would be.

Now this instructor happened to be a Tae Kwon Do practitioner, so he made it clear the rules would be those related to the sport of Tae Kwon Do. That meant I couldn’t punch to the face, do joint locks, strike vital points, take the fight to the ground, throw elbows, use my knees, or kick below the waist—all tactics I employ in the art I practice and teach.

In other words he wanted to fight his way, which clearly gave him the advantage.

I countered his proposal by saying that the first round should be fought his way and the second round my way—my way being that the only rules should be no eye gouges, no strikes to the groin, and no pulling hair. I also proposed we shouldn’t wear all the pads normally worn when competing in Tae Kwon Do.

After a few moments of silence, and a look I can’t even begin to describe, he walked away. Needless to say, the demo never happened.

Now, I’ve never claimed to be a fighter and I’m very happy to state I’ve talked my way out of numerous street fights instead of resorting to fisticuffs. With that said however, I know the difference between Martial Arts and Martial (Combat) Sports. I know the difference it takes when training, and to develop one’s mind and body for competition and/or life and death encounters.

Of course, this was before the advent of MMA or the “Reality Based” martial arts that are so popular today.

The problem is, just like in the case of this instructor, most people don’t understand that there is a difference between learning to fight in a contest and fighting in the real world. Just because you’re good, even great, in the ring doesn’t mean you can survive a life or death altercation. There are no rules on the street, and everything goes. There are no points and no referees. Even winners in a street fight can suffer serious, even life-threatening injuries.

Train As You Would Fight

The truth of the matter is that how one trains has a direct relationship to one’s ability to really defend oneself. It also plays a factor in how one will spar.

I’m not implying that this means someone who trains in a combat sport won’t have an advantage over someone untrained, or can’t defeat a “reality” based practitioner. All I mean is that there are major differences between training for a “contest of skill,” and real no holds barred/life and death fighting.

In the example above, if I had sparred according to this instructor’s rules, it would have really limited the tools I have to defend myself. After all, I’ve honed my skills to use my entire body as a weapon and attack any perceived opening weakness. Call it “going for the kill,” if you like, but if I have to fight it’s going to be in a life or death situation and I don’t want to lose.

In addition, notice I didn’t claim to be any more dangerous or skillful a fighter than this instructor. Clearly he had the ability and technical skill to hurt me. However, my point with this example was that we had two completely different concepts of what the martial arts are all about, what self-defense/life protection skills are all about.

Like I said, I hate sparring and I’ll admit I’ve never excelled at it. However, it’s not my lack of skill that makes me dislike sparring; it’s the mind-set most sparring often cultivates. Sure, sparring has its merits: timing, distancing, speed, etc. However all these elements don’t make up for its primary shortcoming; sparring more often than not deteriorates into a game of tag.

Worse yet, sparring instills a mind-set of “give and take.” I hit you; you hit me, and so on and so on. I mean, how many Kendo matches have I witnessed where competitors flail at each other for several minutes, when the first strike with a real sword would have ended the confrontation.

Although I’m no expert when it comes to fighting or combat, it’s clear that in the real world I don’t want to be on the receiving end of an attack. In fact, I practice awful hard to avoid attacks and counter them in a way in which my opponent can’t hurt me. In fact, the joke in my school is that when it comes to a fight I want to be a generous guy and give and give until it hurts.

I don’t want to make a “game” of my fighting skills. If and when I’m forced to fight, it’s going to be to protect my life not to win some trophy. I have no desire to have my hand raised in victory, I just want to make sure I survive with as few injuries as possible, and that my actions are justified according to the laws of my state.

Having said all that, I’m also aware it’s almost impossible for me to practice in a manner where I can test my skills and execute techniques at full force. I would definitely hurt my training partners and quickly run out of people to practice with. I could even end up in jail or face several serious lawsuits.

However, I have to train realistically as possible, and try not to pick up bad habits. I don’t want to be like the police officer who after successfully disarming a suspect immediately handed the bad guy his weapon back, because that what he always had done during training. I don’t want habits such as making overly exaggerate movements/feints, or kicking so high my balance is jeopardized or I’m exposed to a counter-attack.

This means I have to train in a way such that I teach myself to do whatever works at the moment, to go for the “kill,” and do unto others before they have a chance to do unto me. If this mean bringing a knife to a fistfight, or a gun to a knife fight so be it. That’s the true difference between martial art and combat sport.


The debate between martial art and combat sport is a complex one that even the ancient Greeks discussed (see previous essay). This is a debate that the ancient Greeks clearly understood better than we can in our modern world; after all, their need to know hand-to-hand combat was clearly greater than ours.

Of course in order to discuss this debate one first must understand the definition of what a martial art and combat sport are.

A “martial art” is basically the method in which warriors/soldiers are trained in order to carry out their duties in time of war. The sole purpose of these techniques is to kill and/or subjugate the enemy. In order to do this efficiently, these techniques must be lethal in design and flexible enough to be used in any given situation that might occur on the battlefield. This also means that these techniques must be designed in a manner that not only allows a warrior to fight and dispatch another unarmed adversary, but are equally designed to be used against an adversary armed with a myriad of weaponry.

A “martial art” focuses primarily on weaponry, since any soldier going to battle will be armed, only resorting to empty-hand fighting as a last resort. This is one reason many authentic systems of martial arts teach practitioners weaponry prior to or in addition to unarmed skills.

A “combat sport” on the other hand, is a sport and/or contest that utilizes elements of, or mimics those found within martial arts. It is designed to either test one’s ability, strength, or prowess against another, or to be used as a form of entertainment. It is normally practiced as a leisure activity, and as a result the intention of the practitioner is not to kill, injure, or maim their opponent. Because of this, techniques are often unrealistic and “flashy,” often times playing to the zeal of the spectators to the detriment of actual martial form.

Though techniques within combat sports can be lethal, many are taught in a manner that makes them unfit for practical self-defense applications, and would result in the death of the practitioner in a battlefield situation. As the famous Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi stated:

“The Way of the warrior is a Way of life and can never be considered as a hobby unless you are seeking only to impress others with your techniques.”

(Book of Five Rings)

In The World

Let’s face it: few people really have the desire to learn true martial skills, or the perseverance to endure the training that is required to be a real warrior. Even fewer have the necessity to learn actual combat skills, since we have professional armies to fight our battles using guns.

Yes, many people want to learn how to defend themselves if attacked, but even learning self-defense techniques is not fully akin to learning life-protection/warrior skills. Many times these defensive skills are just bits and pieces of what once was a greater puzzle. A puzzle that when completed was a complete martial system that addressed everything the warrior needed to fulfill his professional military obligations.

Returning to the original story I used to open this essay, I could have sparred with the Tae Kwon Do instructor, but in order to do so I would have had to hold back, and fight instincts I’ve worked very hard to develop. This would have put me at a clear disadvantage, a disadvantage that would lead to my ultimate defeat.

Of course that was the same thing I sure he thought we he considered my proposal. He wasn’t prepared to fight. He wanted to “spar.”

He wanted to keep things friendly and polite. He didn’t want to risk unnecessary injury. In other words, he wanted to show he had fighting skills, without showing the inherent lethality of what martial arts are really about. He wanted to throw flashy kicks to impress an audience—kicks that no one in their right mind would or should attempt in a real street fight.

For those that still don’t get it, let me make it simple:

The difference between a martial art and a combat sport is intent and focus. Martial arts were developed for one primary purpose: to kill or cause serious bodily injury. These martial skills weren’t designed or developed as a hobby. They were created, tested, and re-tested with one goal in mind and that was to win during an aggressive confrontation.

Call your martial system what you will, but be honest. If you do a combat sport, be proud of what you do, but don’t delude yourself or others that you are doing more. Know the difference.


Martial Art Versus Combat Sport in Ancient Greece

While this distinction between martial art and combat sport is very clear today (see following essay), historically the two approaches have been very closely associated with each other. In fact, this association makes it very hard to determine what fighting systems were solely utilized for war, and which were used solely as contests of skill. This is especially true in societies that had several variations/styles of unarmed fighting, such as the Greeks who had boxing, wrestling, and Pankration (basically Greek MMA).

Obviously, all three Greek fighting systems had lethal potential. Clearly, athletes and warriors practiced these methods to some degree, either for physical fitness or self-protection.

Historically, according to writers of the period, these fighting skills were all used on the battlefield and in life and death struggles. In addition, Greek literature is full of examples of heroes and warriors who were masters of one or more of these unarmed fighting methods and being skilled in the fighting arts appears to have been a true indication of one’s manhood; it could even confer “godlike” stature.

Since all three fighting methods are viable one must look at the “intent” of the individual and underlying circumstances in any given example to determine whether or not the techniques used are martial or sport related. Even then, making any absolute conclusion is still conjecture.

Arguably, martial arts and combat sports paralleled each other to some degree in antiquity, and ancient artists and writers did not see the need to make any discernable notations to differentiate them for their intended audiences. Clearly, their audiences would have understood their references, and applied them to prevailing knowledge and social practices of their time. Unfortunately, looking at these works in hindsight, and not being fully immersed in the cultures that produced them or the everyday idioms of those periods, both systems seem indistinguishable to us.

The question is, however, whether combat sports prepared a warrior for battle or were detrimental to his ability to really fight in war.

The sophist Philostratos, (circa 170 C.E.), definitely appeared to be of the opinion that there was an affinity between sports and warfare, and he stated that great athletes of the past “made war training for sport and sport training for war.” He professed that the Spartans had developed boxing to learn how to avoid blows to the head during battle, and that the Athenians had found wrestling/Pankration skills very useful in their battle at Marathon after their weapons were rendered useless.

Of course, which method of fighting Philostratos favored most is debated. Some historians believe Philostraos felt Pankration was the “worthiest contest of the Olympiads and the most important preparation for warriors.” After all, Pankration had fewer rules, and resembles real combat more than boxing and wrestling.

Other historians believe Philostraos felt wrestling was the most useful sport since soldiers wearing armor could use wrestling techniques on the battlefield. According to these researchers Philostratos felt that Pankration was little more than a combination of bad boxing and worse wrestling.

In either case, it is important to note that Philostartos’ opinions were based on athletes of the past, and not on the current state of athletics as he witnessed them. In fact, he felt that the athletes of his day were inferior to the athletes of the past. According to Philostartos, athletes of his day spent too much time eating, drinking and fornicating instead of actually training. In other words combat sports were more of a hobby than a way of life.

The famous philosopher Plato also believed Greek sports were an augmentation of survival skills, and that it was important for men to practice them in order to maintain proper physical fitness in case they should be called for military service. In his book, entitled “Laws” he specifically mentions how the practice of some athletics improved military skills. Plato writes:

“Education has two branches-one of gymnastic, which is concerned with the body, and the other of music, which is designed for the improvement of the soul. And gymnastic has also two branches-dancing and wrestling; and one sort of dancing imitates musical recitation, and aims at preserving dignity and freedom, the other aims at producing health, agility, and beauty in the limbs and parts of the body, giving the proper flexion and extension to each of them, a harmonious motion being diffused everywhere, and forming a suitable accompaniment to the dance. As regards wrestling, the tricks which Antaeus and Cercyon devised in their systems out of a vain spirit of competition, or the tricks of boxing which Epeius or Amycus invented, are useless and unsuitable for war, and do not deserve to have much said about them; but the art of wrestling erect and keeping free the neck and hands and sides, working with energy and constancy, with a composed strength, and for the sake of health-these are always useful, and are not to be neglected, but to be enjoined alike on masters and scholars, when we reach that part of legislation; and we will desire the one to give their instructions freely, and the others to receive them thankfully. Nor, again, must we omit suitable imitations of war in our choruses; here in Crete you have the armed dances if the Curetes, and the Lacedaemonians have those of the Dioscuri. And our virgin lady, delighting in the amusement of the dance, thought it not fit to amuse herself with empty hands; she must be clothed in a complete suit of armour, and in this attire go through the dance; and youths and maidens should in every respect imitate her, esteeming highly the favour of the Goddess, both with a view to the necessities of war, and to festive occasions: it will be right also for the boys, until such time as they go out to war, to make processions and supplications to all the Gods in goodly array, armed and on horseback, in dances, and marches, fast or slow, offering up prayers to the Gods and to the sons of Gods; and also engaging in contests and preludes of contests, if at all, with these objects: For these sorts of exercises, and no others, are useful both in peace and war, and are beneficial alike to states and to private houses. But other labours and sports and exercises of the body are unworthy of freemen, O Megillus and Cleinias.”

Book 7 (Translated by Benjamen Jowett)

Clearly Plato believed wrestling was more closely related to the arts of war than then other forms of athletics. Plato even states, “… of all movements wrestling is most akin to the military art, and is to be pursued for the sake of this, and not this for the sake of wrestling.” He also asserted that because wrestling helps prepare men for war, all Greek youths should work out in wrestling-schools (palaestra) whether they were serious about becoming Olympic contenders or not.

Though Plato believed in the value of wrestling, he also believed that the principal purpose of education should be the life-long training and preparation of citizens for the “greatest of contests,” the struggle for the defense of their country, and not the breeding of professional athletes. Basically, Plato rejected the notion of specialized, intensive and exclusive athletic training since he considered it detrimental to the health and well being of the practitioner.

Of course, for every proponent of combat sports there were also those that refuted their assertions.

The Spartan general Tyrtaeus (late 7th century BC) claimed he did not believe that training in athletics could fully prepare a man for battle. He stated:

“I would not say anything for a man nor take account of him
For any speed of his feet or wrestling skill he might have
not if he had the size of a Cyclops and strength to go with it
Not if he could outrun Boreas, the North Wind of Thrace
not if he were more handsome and gracefully formed than Tithonos,
or had more riches than Midas had, or Kinyras too,
not if he were more a king than Tantalid Pelops,
Or had the power of speech and persuasion Adrastos had,
not if he had all splendors except for a fighting spirit.
For no man ever proves himself a good man in war
unless he can endure to face the blood and the slaughter,
go close against the enemy and fight with his hands.”

(Tranlated by R. Lattimore)

Euripides, (480 – 406BC?), one of the three greatest Greek writers also questioned the practice of using athletics to prepare soldiers for war. During the Peloponnesian Wars (a twenty-seven year war between Sparta and Athens that started in 431BC) Euripides wrote a play titled, “Autolykos.” In this text Euripides states

“What man has ever defended the city of his fathers by winning a crown for wrestling well or running fast or throwing a discus far or planting an uppercut on the jaw of an opponent? Do men drive the enemy out of their fatherland by waging war with discus in their hands or by throwing punches through the line of shields? No one is so silly as to do this when he is standing before the steel of the enemy.”

(Translated by Stephen Miller)

It should be noted that while Euripides is famous for his writing, during his youth he was trained to be an athlete, and it is alleged that he was a skilled Pankrationist and boxer. Because of his background, Euripides definitely understood the merits of training in athletics. However, Euripides’ comments regarding the worthiness of athletes as soldiers, was a direct result of the increasing professionalism and specialization he saw within athletics. Euripides felt that this professionalism glorified physical strength to the detriment of spiritual and mental growth resulting in a poor soldier.

In the biographical story of Philopoemen, (a Greek statesman and general 252 –183BC) the Greek biographer Plutarch, (46? –120AD), writes that the athletic body and lifestyle were different in every way from those of a soldier.

According to Plutarch, soldiers and athletes had different types of diet, as well as different forms of exercise. Athletes slept and ate regularly, while the soldiers trained to endure wandering, irregularity, and lack of sleep. According to Plutarch, athletics was something that distracted a man from more important things, such as waging war or earning fame.

What’s even more important in the story of “Philopoemen,” is the evidence that asserts certain Greek generals disapproved of using combat sports and athletics for training soldiers. Not only does Philopoemen not practice wrestling he develops a “contempt” for it.

“He (Philopoemen) was strongly inclined to the life of a soldier even from his childhood, and he studied and practiced all that belonged to it, taking great delight in managing of horses and handling of weapons. Because he was naturally fitted to excel in wrestling, some of his friends and tutors recommended his attention to athletic exercises. But he would first be satisfied whether it would not interfere with his becoming a good soldier. They told him, as was the truth, that the one life was directly opposite to the other; the requisite state of body, the ways of living, and the exercises all different: the professed athlete sleeping much and feeding plentifully, punctually regular in his set times of exercise and rest, and apt to spoil all by every little excess or breach of his usual method; whereas the soldier ought to train himself in every variety of change and irregularity, and, above all, to bring himself to endure hunger and loss of sleep without difficulty. Philopoemen, hearing this, not only laid by all thoughts of wrestling and contemned it then, but when he came to be general, discouraged it by all marks of reproach and dishonor he could imagine, as a thing which made men, otherwise excellently fit for war, to be utterly useless and unable to fight on necessary occasions.”

(Translated by John Dryden)

Clearly, Philopomen despised athletics, and when he became a general was noted for saying, “men who are otherwise fit for war became, through athletics, too delicate for battle.

Furthermore, Philopomen is not the only Greek military commander asserted to dislike “sport” related athletics. Both Alexander the Great and Epaminondas (418 – 362BC) show ambivalence and/or disapproval of combat sports.

In Plutarch’s biography of Alexander the Great he writes:

“Indeed, he seems in general to have looked with indifference, if not with dislike, upon the professed athletes. He often appointed prizes, for which not only tragedians and musicians, pipers and harpers, but rhapsodists also, strove to out vie one another; and delighted in all manner of hunting and cudgel-playing, but never gave any encouragement to contests either of boxing or of the pancratium.”

(Translated by John Dryden)

In the tale, “Life of Epaminondas,” written by the historian Cornelius Nepos, (100 – 24 BC), Nepos asserts that while Epaminondas practices wrestling, and realizes its benefits, he still spends most of his time doing military exercises. Nepos writes:

“After he grew up and began to apply himself to gymnastic exercises, he studied not so much to increase the strength as the agility of his body; for he thought that strength suited the purposes of wrestlers, but that agility conduced to excellence in war. He used to exercise himself very much, therefore, in running and wrestling, as long as he could grapple, and contend standing with his adversary. But he spent most of his labor upon martial exercises.”

Another example providing evidence that someone skilled at combat sports wasn’t always seen as effective on the battlefield can be found in Homer’s “Iliad.” In Book twenty-three, Epeius admits that while he is the best boxer among the Achaeons, compared to the rest of the Greek warriors he is an ineffective warrior.

“Son of Atreus — all you Achaean men-at-arms!
We invite two men — our best — to compete for these.
Put up your fists, fight for what you’re worth
The man that Apollo helps outlast the other —
clearly witnessed here by Achaea’s armies —
he takes the beast of burden back to his tents
but the one he bets can have the two-eared cup. Line 740
And a powerful, huge man loomed up at once,
Penopeus’ son Epeus, the famous boxing champion.
He clamped a hand on the draft mule and shouted,
“Step right up and get it — whoever wants that cup!
This mule is mine, I tell you. No Achaean in sight
Will knock me out and take her — I am the greatest!
So what if I’m not a world-class man of war?
How can a man be first in all events?
I warn you, soldiers — so help me it’s the truth —
I’ll crush you with body blows, I’ll crack your ribs to splinters! Line 750
You keep your family mourners near to cart you off —
Once my fists have worked you down to pulp!””

Book 23 (Translated by Robert Fagless)

Lastly, there is evidence that the gap between athleticism and military training was also considered one of the reasons the Greek empire fell. According to Plutarch, he felt the Greeks should have spent more time practicing military arts instead of sports, even if those sports did involve personal combat.

Plutarch definitely makes his opinion clear that the Romans, “who live for war,” beat the Greeks who “engaged to extensively in athletic contests.

Plutarch further asserts:

“The Romans considered nothing to be the cause of the Greek’s enslavement and degeneracy as much as the gymnasia and palaestras, which gave rise to much time wasting and laziness in the cities, and also profligacy, pederasty, and the ruination of the youths’ bodies through sleep, strolls, eurhythmic exercises, and precise diets, because of which they stopped practicing with weaponry and were happy to be called nimble and wrestlers and handsome instead of hoplites (Greek infantry men) and good horsemen.”

“Moralia” (Greek and Roman Questions)
* * *

So in the end what does this all mean? Clearly, training in combat athletics had/has merit, but as these athletic events became more specialized, as athletes became more focused on winning contests a natural deterioration of actual fighting (battle/warfare) skills has to occur.

It’s the same scenario we face today. As more and more martial art systems become sport-oriented, or are practiced solely as a hobby/diversion, the martial aspect of them becomes less and less viable. Studying the Ancient Greeks gives us a good analogy to understand what is happening to martial arts/sports in the modern world.

The Other Side of Hojo Jutsu

Hojo Jutsu is the traditional Japanese martial art of restraining prisoners with rope. Since the “Yachigusa” family were involved in law enforcement, likely as doshin, hojo is part of the Yachigusa-Ryu curriculum. However, it is a secondary art and we only practice it once or twice a year. I enjoy hojo in a Boy-Scout-merit-badge-in-knot-tying kind of a way.

Some years ago a group of us went to a seminar by Don Angier of Yanagi-Ryu where he spent a whole day teaching hojo techniques and history—as well as another day of jutte and tessen. It was an excellent seminar and I would like an opportunity to learn more of this art.

So I thought it’d be worthwhile to throw up this link to this upcoming seminar, even though I don’t expect to be attending. After all, what better place to learn hojo jutsu than from a Rope Dojo? Although they seem to call the art shibari. And they give a discount for couples. And there’s a section on “Visions and Perversions.”

It’s actually really amusing just how much the arts of hojo jutsu are being kept alive by the bondage community. The traditional art was very intricate, with increasingly elaborate knots for highly ranked prisoners. They took pains to make ties elegant and symmetric with intertwining loops—since “knots” would be dishonorable (if there are no knots, the prisoner is not techinically tied up, so he saves face, right?). Yet the restraints are very efficient and tight (in case the prisoner is a ninja or something). All these qualities are very appealing to certain subsets of society.

In that vein, perhaps our neighborhood hojo opportunities could be expanding now that the SF Armoury down the street from our dojo is going to be opening under new management(nsfw) as a bondage and fetish film studio.

Or perhaps not.

Ah, San Francisco.

No Bullshido, the Trademark Violation

A few months ago I posted about a short film named "No Bullshido" that used our dojo as the set for a scene. It was an amusing little piece thrown together in just a weekend for the “48 Hour Film Project.”

I had always wondered what reaction the folks at the message board (famed for calling traditional martial artists LARPers) would have to the film, given its name and the theme of making fun of ego-inflated martial arts. I was expecting them to slag on it, but I didn’t expect them to be quite so upset about the name as they are in this thread. The owner of stated that the film committed “[t]rademark infringement, and we’re pursuing options.”

This is quite staggering to me… a few non-martial artists make a short film for a competition that coincidentally has the same name through the obvious combination of bullshit and bushido (together at last) and they are talking about legal actions?

I often tell people that as passionate as I am about the martial arts, I really can’t stand most martial artists. This is a prime example of why. You collect a bunch of people who love to fight together and they attack everybody else. After all, you cannot win unless others lose.

Given that most folks practice the martial arts for love not money, why would anybody possibly take this issue so seriously?