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.