Ways of the Warrior: Determining “Real” Martial Arts

Finally we come to the real question. Talking about hacks and false martial arts is all well and good, but how do you figure out what “authentic” or “real” martial arts look like?

I need to heavily emphasize this: there is no one right approach to martial arts. We’ve all been conditioned by pop culture and everyday conversation to think that there must be some ultimate perfect approach. A grandmaster style, the martial art to beat all martial arts.

Well, there isn’t.

Even holding up MMA as “best” is ultimately mistaken since there are plenty of things you might do in a real fight that you can’t (legally) in MMA. Attacks to the trachea are right out since murder is murder. Same thing with grappling the opponent for control over his head and slamming his occipital lobe into the floor until the back of his brain is pulp. A lot of joint locks are out out of the question since, again, it’s a tournament fight and you’re not supposed to cause serious injury. Detractors of classical martial arts will often bring up MMA’s dominance as an indicator of its martial superiority. But MMA consists of martial arts that have been specifically modified to function best under MMA’s exact ruleset. This like saying that hockey is the best sport because it’s the only sport that succeeds under the rules of hockey.

(Hockey is the best sport, but that’s beside the point)

Now, this is also not to say that MMA is not a good way of testing martial arts. It  is. But comparing MMA fighters to classical martial arts practitioners is lopsided at best. Most MMA fighters are career athletes. They can not only afford to spend much of their time training physically and mentally, they can hardly afford to do otherwise. Their strength, speed, endurance, and pain tolerance will far surpass not only the average person, but most other forms of martial arts practitioner. As I’ve already said, anyone who tries to tell you that these things don’t matter is romanticizing martial arts.

I may know exactly what I need to do in a given exchange against an MMA fighter (I wouldn’t, I’m not even trained in hand-to-hand martial arts), but if they’re markedly faster and better practiced than I am (they are, I guarantee that), that doesn’t matter. I have to not only identify the correct technique, but execute it quickly enough to either avoid a counter entirely or leave my opponent too little time to pull it off. If they train 5-6 hours a day and I get 3 if I’m lucky, they already have a significant advantage. Most classical martial arts practitioners will have an hour a day, tops. Many only train an hour a week, and that’s assuming they haven’t been ensnared by a McDojo. Again, many have (that’s why I’m writing these articles).

Let me also emphasize: I am not saying MMA fighters are not superior martial artists. Actually, I’m saying precisely the opposite. Given how much time they spend training, it’d be absurd if they weren’t. They’re highly skilled and in excellent physical condition, I don’t question that for a moment. My point is that when you compare MMA with other traditions, you need to remember that the difference in athleticism makes a direct compare-and-contrast of technique very finicky. And of course, since MMA is put to the test as frequently and intensively as it is, it’s nearly impossible for Bullshido to sneak in.

So, what about good stuff outside MMA? How do you separate koryu kenjutsu from the hordes of imitator schools, or good interpretations of HEMA from sloppy and outright bad ones? The first question seems like it should be easy since Japan keeps a registry of koryu. But most of these schools have been at least somewhat reconstructed, so I wouldn’t lean too much on that. You’ll note that I’m not going to talk about “good martial artists” but about “good martial arts” here. This is because the list of good martial arts practices is so broad (again, no Grandmaster style) that giving you a list of traits for good martial artists may lead you to discard excellent people over one or two traits. Most of the hack traits I mentioned are common between hacks; after all, a lot of them are driven by laziness. The more effort you put into something, the more approaches you’ll come up with. HEMA has developed dozens of different approaches to any given weapon within 20 years, and shows no signs of slowing down. Unlike Koryu, where some lines of descent were broken only by a few years of non-teaching, most of HEMA has been dead for several centuries.

First, a style in good martial arts contains good solutions to the kind of fighting it covers. They’re not necessarily the best answers, they don’t necessarily cover every permutation, but they’re good answers. If a school of kenjutsu focuses on fighting in armor (as Katori Shinto Ryu does) it will either base its techniques on attacking and defending in armor, or make a clear distinction between its armored and unarmored techniques. Katori Shinto Ryu incorporates a hanging block that seems plain silly when unarmored. The hands are crossed over on the left and braced awkwardly on the right, the forearms and outside shoulder are completely exposed. Yet in full yoroi (Samurai armor), it covers or closes off all of the weak points in the armor. This is an important point in itself: if you don’t have a background in a particular martial art, you need keen discretion when examining its methods. When I first saw this movement I guessed (based on my knowledge of HEMA) that it might be an armored fighting technique. As you can imagine, I was pretty pleased with myself when I found out I was right.

But I also thought the Krumpfhau was stupid the first time I saw it. This is a move in German longsword and kriegsmesser (“war-knife”) technique where the defending swordsman turns his blade sideways and uses the trailing edge to knock his opponent’s weapon off the center line. I only realized its use in deflecting thrusts or cuts at certain angles after watching it in paired drills and sparring. It’s too easy to write something off without ever realizing what you’re missing.

Following on from this, good martial arts doesn’t try to explain away mistakes. A botched cut (if the sword is decent and the target is a standard one) is the fault of the swordsman. A bad punch is the boxer’s doing, it’s not on his trainer for holding the pad “slightly wrong.” You get the idea. This doesn’t mean that beginners won’t make excuses; no one is immune to ego. But these excuses will generally try to soften the shame of a fowl-up, not erase the fowl-up itself or put the blame on someone else. Even if it would be reasonable to pick on the equipment, good martial artists will go after themselves instead.

Good martial arts will focus discussion on what can be learned from other arts, or at worst will have no interest in them. If practitioners don’t want to study outside a particular tradition, it’s just a matter of personal choice. They’ll avoid attacking other schools unless provoked. Talking shop is common and enthusiastic. There will be debate about what works best, and a lot of it, but it’s sparring with ideas instead of actual word-warfare. I should be clear, usually. Practitioners are still human and some of us can be pretty touchy. If a debate gets hot enough, there’ll be as many ad hominems and foamy curses as anywhere else.

Aesthetics is only of interest as far as it reflects function. A well-executed cut that flows properly from start to finish, with a brisk start and clean follow-through, is a pretty thing. But its beauty is just a happy accident of physics and geometry, not an end in itself. The form of martial arts follows its function, not the other way around. If a movement looks too complicated, it probably is. If it seems too specific, it probably is. Once again, you get the idea. These aren’t absolute rules; there are a few elaborate techniques that still work quite well. But most of the time, one solid kick is better than three flashy ones. There’s rarely an occasion to spin when already facing the opponent, and twirling the sword more than once (from certain angles this helps move between blocks or deflect a strike) is almost always frippery. Even here, though, there are exceptions. Polish saber relies on keeping the sword in constant motion to baffle the opponent and help the saberist strike without warning. Twirling the weapon contributes to the style’s flow. Otherwise, movements should never exist purely for looks. Some, like reiho and chiburi in koryu, exist more for their effect on mindset (and spiritual value if you believe in that) than for function. Even these, however, teach important lessons about respecting and maintaining the sword.

There’s never a time when good martial arts becomes comfortable. Sometimes a practitioner simply runs out of time in the day, sometimes they have to leave the art behind as life changes. But there’s always a sense of loss. If a practitioner has to skip practice or miss an event for whatever reason, it’s one of the first things you’ll hear about. Of course, charlatans can do this too; much of it depends on the delivery. The surest path to success in martial arts is to shred yourself so often that you start feeling like you’ve failed if you can’t find something to nitpick. The best martial artists are always the most critical of themselves.

There are no easy answers, literally. If you ask an instructor a question that seems simple on the surface, you should expect to hear a dizzying swath of guidelines, exceptions, contradictions between styles, and enthusiastic personal theories. “How do you perform cut one?” will produce almost as many answers as there are saber instructors. Use only the wrist, use the whole arm, lock the hips, no, turn the hips, cut at the head, cut past the head, and so on and so forth. “Cut one” is the standard right downcut, the most basic and natural of all sword-strokes. There’s one exception: any practitioner worth a damn, asked about the best starting point for self-defense, will tell you to get a gun if they tell you anything at all. Outside the U.S. you’ll get different advice on this from country to country. British HEMA practitioners, for example, may find the idea of needing to defend yourself silly. As an American I disagree with this, but I understand where they’re coming from.

On which note, martial arts doesn’t try to homogenize traditions. Actually, the multitude of answers, mindsets and body types in this mix leads to things rounding out further on a daily basis. The closest thing to a unifying trait is the idea that the best style for you is the one you’re best at.

This brings us to the last thing: good martial arts is hard to get into. Even the nicest instructor will feel morally obligated to scan you for the slightest faults. The better they are, the more they’ll be able to find wrong with your practice. Some systems are easier to learn than others, but none of them are easy. Especially in sword arts, most people are either raw newcomers or at least journeymen. A lot of people will become frustrated when they realize how difficult it actually is to swing a sword correctly, which means that your odds of slipping neatly in with a group of fellow newbies are pretty low. More likely, most of them will drop off by the time you’re beginning to grasp footwork and it’ll just be you against all the established careerists. You will get your ass handed to you in your first sparring sessions, and you need to decide immediately how much you want to compete.

Let me be extremely clear on this: no matter who you are, no matter where you are, you have only begun to grasp the basics within your first year. For ideas to the contrary, we can thank stagefighting and all the actors and actresses who want desperately to believe they know what they’re doing without taking up a second career. Swordsmanship is not simple. Neither is spear-fighting, using a polearm, or fighting hand-to-hand. All of these are physically and mentally exhausting like few other things. You can no more become an expert martial artist in a year than you can a surgeon or a master chef. A genuine zealot like myself who shows blatant disregard for personal safety and trains to the point of madness may be able to do well by that point (although we usually end up overtraining instead), but that’s not really recommended. You will not be an expert or even particularly skilled in your first year. No one ever has been, and you should feel silly for thinking it would be otherwise.

For this exact reason, you should not accept anyone as your instructor who isn’t mechanically skilled and willing to spar you (unless they’re injured). You’re not doing this to beat them, you’re doing it to see if they try to avoid testing themselves against others. Just because you win a match doesn’t mean they’re incompetent. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it ’til I’m dead, it’s damn hard to fend off someone who only cares about killing you. The best instructors have enough experience and skill to deal with suicidal attackers, but not all. And if it’s your first sparring match, you’re either cowering or suicidal (I was suicidal.) You won’t always recognize good technique early on, but you should be able to see fluidity and comfort with the weapon. A high-level martial artist’s technique has something we call flow. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Movements seem to come one after the other; there’s a sense of relentlessness even at low speeds. When you’re trying to figure out if you want to learn from someone or not, watch for this. See how easily they go from one movement to the next. I do have to mention one exception: kata won’t usually flow like this because their purpose is to break movements up for easier refinement.

Look up as many martial artists as you can and observe the differences in their movements. Listen to the language they use. Good martial arts has its own vocabulary. Frauds may try to use it, but they rarely use it right. “Structure” to refer to good posture, footwork and bracing, “body mechanics” for the way the body moves as one unit or as close to it as possible. “Distance” or “measure” for the space between fighters. “Guard” and “stance” mean the same thing, but “guard” is generally used in Western martial arts where “stance” is more often used when speaking about Eastern martial arts in English. Notice that most of the time, you’ll have little trouble getting the meaning. If a word is in another language and might need to be translated or acted out to clarify it, most practitioners will do just that. You shouldn’t hear any mumbo-jumbo. Martial artists understand that this stuff’s hard enough to learn without using over-engineered word gestalts to describe it. You don’t “form a connection” with someone, you just grab or grapple them. You don’t “shape force through them,” you just hit them, and so on.

Here’s the heart of it: you may not know good martial arts from bad for yourself until you’ve practiced the good and seen the bad. Ideally you shouldn’t have to practice that first too, but you may not be able to avoid it. As much as I’ve tried to offer good pointers here, there’s just too much too sift through. But if you pay careful attention and do your best, you’ve at least got a good shot at making the right choices.

In this, maybe we’re not so far from the battlefield after all.

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