Of Masters and Myth-Sellers Part Two

Continuing my exploration of fraud in martial arts, I’ll finish laying out some of the worst warning signs in this article before I try to quantify good martial arts in part three.

Some of the most visible hacks in martial arts follow the same pattern as most other posers. It’s a pattern half in what they say and half in what they don’t. That is, hacks make sweeping, authoritative statements in order to sound confident, but will provide little or no detailed backup for any of these statements. In martial arts, this translates to saying that everyone else’s technique is bad without specifying whats bad about it. Unlike unwillingness to explain the reasoning behind one’s own technique, there is no excuse for this. Any honest martial artist knows the importance of constructive criticism. If we go so far as to call someone’s technique bad, we understand that puts a burden on us to justify our opinion. Hacks, on the other hand, will justify their generalizations with more generalizations, often trying to change the topic entirely. If challenged on their rhetoric (which, again, broadly assaults entire groups of practitioners), they frequently play the victim as if they didn’t know precisely what they were getting into.

One particularly egregious fraud is Antony Cummins, a man who recently made the humble assertion that the entirety of Japan’s koryu martial arts is “a sport.” Koryu is the closest thing we have to the original Samurai schools. Though none of the lineages are totally intact, they’re by far the best we’ve got. Cummins was effectively saying that one of the few surviving martial arts traditions on the planet is a complete fabrication. He made a video explaining how one particular sense(who he did not name) said that his school (which Cummins did not name) was a sport, as well as all of koryu. This sensei supposedly praised Cummins in glowing terms for being the only person on the path to resurrect the “true” martial arts of the Samurai. Then Cummins went through the archives of the sensei‘s school and found a treasure trove of scrolls that the sensei and all before him had missed. These scrolls supposedly show a totally different “original” version of the school.

If you’re not throwing up by now, you’ve a stronger stomach than I. This is a Mary Sue story without even the tiniest hint of nuance to salvage it. Cummins all but portrays himself as a chosen one.

There’s more, of course. Cummins’ “school” is an Idiot’s Guide to Bullshido. He encourages a hunched-in posture which impairs breathing and ruins body structure (also, the spine). Instead of the cut right out of the scabbard used in real Iaijutsu, he devised a three-stage motion where the swordsman draws out to the side, moves the sword around his entire body and swings with both hands. Remember, this is in a scenario where someone has launched a surprise attack. This is Cummins’ idea of how a swordsman should defend himself when he has less than a second to defend himself (even a slow two-handed cut takes less than a second.) Instead of proper cuts made with the whole of the body, Cummins is fond of pushing the guard of his sword at the target and then twisting his wrists when the movement’s already ending, making a teensy-tiny draw cut. He also sometimes does a thrust out of the hunched posture, which manages to add a start-up time to a thrust. This is an attack whose main merit is that it normally requires no wind-up.

This is the system which Cummins claims as a period-accurate reconstruction of Samurai technique. He spouts grand but meaningless lines about “the real Samurai” and “Samurai battle” while making attacks that any first-year student could fend off. When he failed to cut through a piece of ham, he attempted to claim that it wasn’t a failed cut just because it didn’t go all the way through. A practitioner attacking the same target would’ve gone all the way through it. Being unable to meet the standard of martial arts is failure. Instead of accepting this and studying to become successful, Cummins tried to completely redefine success.

Most koryu practitioners have said very little. This isn’t because they approve of Cummins, but because of something far more basic: They’re busy training. They don’t want to spend the time they’d need to argue with a two-bit snake oil salesman when they have technique to refine.

This brings us to another point: frauds are often far more vocal to the general public than real practitioners. A driven martial artist wants to study and refine his arts, not spend a bunch of time telling others how amazing he is. If he decides he wanted to awe people, the best approach is still to grow his skill. He’ll often (though not always) be wary of practicing in front of others because he doesn’t want to show off. Most serious practitioners are, well, serious. They don’t necessarily have a moral objection to being highly visible, but something about it feels wrong. This also means that they’re often reluctant to film and upload video of their practice. And that, in turn, means that relentless spam by the talentless inevitably reaches more people than good martial arts does.

Charlatans likely spend inordinate amounts of time on self-advertisement. For many, martial arts (or their bad version of it) is a potential money-maker. They’ll charge fees at least equal to those of legitimate instructors to offer appallingly low-quality training. If they have low-quality equipment, they’ll try to avoid the issue or pretend it’s not an issue at all. A legitimate practitioner will apologize profusely, and try to make up in passion and skill what they don’t have in money.

On the note of equipment, it’s actually the worst possible way to gauge whether someone is a practitioner or a parasite. Just about any uniform you care to mention can be bought online for a moderate sum of money, and hacks are often the most eager to put one on. Just because someone has a gi on does not mean he has been trained. It only means that he knows where to buy a gi. A quality sword is such a visible sign of “competence” that only the lowest will lack one. In many cases the more diligent practitioners will be the last to pick up a live weapon out of respect for what it signifies. For an honest practitioner, “the first sharp” is a rite of passage. It symbolizes that by hundreds of hours of practice, they have finally become skilled enough to be trusted with something that can kill. For a fraud, it’s just another way to buy credibility he hasn’t earned.

Just as equipment proves nothing, a poser can cite a lineage as well as any martial artist. I said that koryu represent one of the most intact traditions, and that’s true. That doesn’t mean all of them are equal, or that all of them meaningfully resemble the schools that they came from. The instructor I referred to in Part One of this piece has a named school and claims he was instructed by the teacher of an original Japanese school. But on examination, I found that his techniques have absolutely nothing in common with the school he claims they came from. It’s one thing for an instructor to tweak some things after his teacher passes the school to him, but I know of no reason for throwing out an entire style and replacing it like this.

Hacks are some of the main purveyors of martial arts myths. From obvious nonsense like the use of “ki” in certain McDojos claiming to teach Aikido to more insidious ones like a fascination with “small” movements, they play into the public’s existing biases about martial arts. Yet they’re often so eager to do this that it creates contradictions you can spot if you’re careful. Cummins’ supposed obedience to the nature of “real” combat falls apart if you’ve read any of the countless historical accounts addressing how inconsistently humans respond to trauma. Now, yes, you can occasionally put someone out of the fight by a superficial cut to the arm. But real martial arts teaches you to assume the worst. It teaches you that even if you almost split the other man in half, he may still try to cut you back as he falls over.

The instructor I keep mentioning who advises to push the other person down by running the sword of their shoulder also claims he uses very small movements to stop the other person from seeing what he’s going to do. This fails on several levels. First off, many of his school’s techniques involve starting a cut by holding it in the exact position and at the exact angle where the cut will begin. There’s no point in making a small movement if it’s obvious what small movement you’re going to make. Secondly, attacking in a comparatively small area makes it easier for the other person to stop the attack. They have to move their sword very little to intercept yours. The movement will be slower in order to stay small, and we already find it easier to follow small motions than large ones. And of course, since the attack has very little kinetic energy, stopping it and countering is easy.

To the layperson it sounds good because movies, TV and comics have them primed to think that martial arts is a quasi-mystic thing that ignores basic physics. But ultimately, a sword stroke needs kinetic energy just as much as the chop of an ax. Pretending otherwise is romantic, but silly. Most martial arts myths are like this: they play into your expectations, but fall apart immediately if you analyze them. Again: no amount of technique makes someone invincible. Even if a man found the exact timing to catch a sniper bullet coming through the air towards him, it’s unlikely he’d get it right every time. If his reflexes were that good, he’d be better off stepping out of the way.

If someone’s statements about martial arts line up too easily with your own expectations, you should be suspicious. I already said in Part One that there are many different “correct” approaches to martial arts. If someone doesn’t account for other points of view when they’re talking about their school, that should tip you off that they’ve probably never discussed it. Of course, this is highly subjective. They may just be trying to give a focused presentation, and there are some very skilled martial artists who just don’t want to talk about other traditions. But for most, comparing and contrasting methods is half the fun of martial arts. Try bringing up other martial arts traditions. If they politely explain that they’re just not interested, that’s one thing. If they start trying to tear down those traditions, you may be dealing with a fraud.

Official sanction by public authority has no meaning either. Even in Japan and other countries which have (or try to have) a strong root in tradition and the culture of their ancestors, the average person rarely knows anything about martial arts. Once again, hacks may even be more likely to gain it purely by persistence. A martial artist seeks to validate his art by practicing it; a fraud seeks to validate himself by accruing titles. They’re not really interested in the ins-and-outs, the subtle differences and major methods of kenjutsu or HEMA or any other historical combat system. They just want profit, authority, fame, or all three. When talking about those things is at least as reliable as actually practicing them and far less work, why bother practicing?

This leads me to the final point I have about hacks: they almost never make nuanced statements. Even this is not wholly reliable, but it’s the best I can do for you. Every practitioner I know of admits the possibility of being wrong even as they deny that they are in the moment. For the fraud, saying that he is right this time is never enough. He attempts to put himself in a separate category (usually without saying as much) where nothing he says can be criticized. He uses no qualifiers and acknowledges no context. He will never discuss any situation in which his opponents (verbal or otherwise) might be right. He frequently goes so far as gaslighting, either tacitly or openly attempting to reconstruct reality to avoid giving any ground to detractors.

At the end of the day, there are simply too many potential tells and too many variables for me to give you a step-by-step guide. You might yet find someone who meets more than half of my criteria, but somehow turns out to be a skilled practitioner. Do I think that’s possible? No. But I only think it’s impossible, and I’m a fallible human same as you are.

Next time, this fallible human gets around to question he’s built up for two articles: how do you spot good martial arts?

2 thoughts on “Of Masters and Myth-Sellers Part Two

  1. Very well written. Thanks for furthering my education. I kept thinking through the first part especially how much the substance relates to ALL charlatanry; as in, “45” and ridiculous ways to grab money like the so-called Trump University.

    1. Yes, I’ve been thinking that as well. Many of the root causes carry over as well. A lot of people want fame, money, power or all three without wanting to work for it.

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