70. “Reality-based” Martial Arts Not So Reality-based?

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

–Mike Tyson

I’ve taken swipes at traditional martial arts systems in the past, but I’ve done it out of concerned love. It’s like an intervention to try to stop someone you care about from further harming himself: “Stop eating that whole chocolate cake, you’re already overweight!”

I think it’s one thing to try to critically assess a martial art system and indicate points of weakness in training or personalities, and another thing to make blanket statements about how it compares to your own particular martial art. Or at least, that’s the difference I make to myself. I try not to denigrate other martial arts on a wholesale basis. I try, instead, as a writer and observer, to make critical observations about how individuals or groups often go astray when they misappropriate the original intent of their systems.

Of course, we all think our OWN martial art system is the best, or we wouldn’t be doing it, right? That said, I always tell my own students to have a healthy respect for other martial arts for what they do, or attempt to do, if within their own context, they are doing it well.  I often point out differences in how we execute a throw, for example, or a punch, comparing it to judo, aikido or karate techniques. Different, same or indifferent. Here’s why and how. I explain, discuss and then quantify and qualify. We do it this way because we are concerned with an armored or gear-protected assailant. The other guy may do it this way because it’s primarily a sport done in shorts. The roundness of an aikido throw really is good at teaching disbalancing and force redirection, more so than the shorter, simpler throw we do, which may seem more practical, but it’s basically the same. And so on.

One recent post to my blog, however, felt that I had rightly criticized all of aikido for being “unrealistic.” I reread my blog and that’s not what I meant. I was criticizing one particular interpretation of aikido that weakened its technical and martial integrity.

But aikido as a whole wasn’t combative, the poster said. It won’t work in “reality.” He’s seen it fail miserably in a combative situation. Uh-huh. “Combative situation”? I take the Rory Miller definition of combative, in which you are in imminent danger of losing your life or limb, such as in actual wartime combat, or in a violent crime. Did you see someone get all dressed up in a white keikogi and then try to put a textbook kote-gaeshi on a terrorist armed with an AK-47? Or against a rioting violent prisoner? I thought not. The person probably didn’t see aikido attempted in the midst of a shootout at a Taliban stronghold, I bet.

Challenge matches between different martial arts stylists, any contest in a ring with rules and regulations, fist fights in the back of the high school gym, bitch slapping festivals in the girls’ bathrooms, or barroom brawls are not combative. They are, as Miller says in his books, examples of the “monkey dance.” You know: two or more apes puff out and slap their chests, bang the floor, hoot and holler over who’s the baddest dude in the tribe, and then start shoving and hitting each other for more access to food, booze, mates and/or status.

The comment did put me on a bizarre Internet search to look up “combative” and “reality-based” martial arts schools, though, including that of the poster. What I concluded was that most of them weren’t worth the effort. They were pretending to be more “realistic” and “combat-tested” than, say, traditional aikido, judo or karate. Yet, for the most part, I saw videos and photos of unathletic teachers huffing and puffing through “kadda” that seemed cribbed from aikido, judo and/or karate, with a hefty splicing of MMA and Brazilian jujitsu DNA. The techniques not quite well executed by themselves, and all made worse when they were tossed together into a mish mash.

Guys, what’s going on here? You’re talking about “reality-based” but you dress up in white or black karategi, barefoot, and sit in seiza and bow and conduct yourselves in a parody of a traditional Japanese dojo? You should be dressed up in street clothes and shoes, which is what you would be dressed up in a “reality-based” martial art that trains you for fighting in the “streets,” shouldn’t you?

The “kadda” themselves looked like the worst pastiche of techniques, done in a robotic, step-by-step rote: attacker steps in and punches like a karate gyakuzuki. Defender blocks. “Esa!” he hisses through his lips. Defender slaps the face. “Usu!” Throws attacker down with an Osoto-gari. “Hiya!” Does a flurry of slap-punches. “Yata!” Maybe throws in a groin kick or rear naked choke. “Kee-yah!”; all the while moving like Robbie the Robot from the old TV series “Lost in Space.” Barefoot. On a heavily padded mat. Indoors.

Fellahs, where’ the reality in that? Do it in street clothes. Outside. In the parking lot. With shoes on.  Have the attacker come in with a  “false crack” (as we say in Pidgin English), not a well-advertised step-in punch or kick. If the defender loses a couple of teeth because he doesn’t see it coming, well, that’s reality, son. Be in danger of getting your face scraped on asphalt, of getting Hepatitis if the guy bleeds on you. Wrestle the guy down but let other students beat on your head if you’re not watching out, like an attacker’s gang buddies would if you were tussling on the ground unobservant of your surroundings. That’s reality-based.

The posted displays got worse the more I dug. There were displays of odd grappling exercises. They may have made sense in a high school wrestling practice, or in competitive MMA grappling, but really don’t add much to one’s combative repertoire. There were videos of belt promotions. The so-called “reality-based” modern combatives martial art saw fit to retain its idea of “traditional” martial arts by giving out colored cloth belts, making the students strut up to the instructor in really poorly done shiko movement, and then sitting in seiza to change belts. Why do it that way if it’s a modern combatives program? Just ditch all that mystical, mysterious Far East mumbo jumbo, bro. Wear your overalls with a leather belt from Kmart, same as you would out there in the “street.”

I’ve critiqued different traditional martial arts before. Here’s my critique of many “reality-based” martial arts: they aren’t reality based. They’re a pastiche of different techniques, thrown together by people fantasizing about being a movie-star type action hero in the mean streets. What you learn in them could get you killed if you were truly in a life-and-death combative situation. And I say this not to denigrate them just to raise up my own system. I say this because if real self-defense is a concern for some people, they’re not getting it. At least not from most of the examples I’d seen.

Now then, contrary to popular views of the martial arts, they are NOT primarily meant for self-defense. The accusation that traditional budo is not entirely for self-defense is a straw tiger argument. “Self-defense” is a component of most martial arts but that aspect is only one of many other ingredients that are just as important to the integrity of the art. In classical, traditional Japanese budo, provenance of the art, the tradition itself, and the stylistic elements are also important. In modern budo, the sportive aspects often supersede all other aspects. All such arts stress the development of a healthy body, mind and spirit over purely self-defense purposes. This is not good or bad. This is just how it is. For a classical or modern martial artist intent on plumbing the depths of “self-defense,” he/she would have to make an effort to dig deeper.

One good way to start would be to be a good student and to have a good teacher. When I mentioned my critique of aikido done by people who had lost the martial “flavor” of aikido, one of my friends told me his own aikido story. He was training at the Aikikai Hombu, the main aikido headquarters in Japan, in an intensive group.

One day, he was asked by his teacher to join a select group of higher ranked students. They assembled in a quiet, small training room. The teacher told them that he was going to show them what some aikido techniques REALLY meant, and they were not to teach or display them without first carefully vetting anyone so the techniques wouldn’t be misused and misappropriated.

My friend, who had been exposed to different koryu and modern martial arts, said he was shown of the meanest, most “effective” uses of aikido for use in a fighting situation. Those were techniques that could maim or kill a person, done at full speed.  Aikido as a “la-di-dah” touchy feely powder puff feel-good pastime? Nope. Aikido as a martial art? Scary effective. So mean you can’t show some of the stuff to the general public.

The thing is, my friend said, if someone who knows the real meanings demonstrates a regular aikido technique, an observer who knows what to look for will SEE the intent and realize that this guy would not be someone you want to tangle with. The demonstrator knows the intent, hidden beneath a velvet glove.

In a similar way, in our system of martial art, there are a core set of a few kata that are only taught when you attain a particular high rank. They are never taught or shown to beginners or outsiders. They are taught only after years of training, for various pedagogical reasons. Technically, if you have gone through the curriculum, the movements should be very familiar, so they are relatively easy to learn by that time. Mentally, your teacher needs to know you well enough to feel that he can entrust you with techniques that can maim or kill someone. You don’t want to give a loaded gun, by way of metaphor, to someone you know is a psycho case and then plead, “I didn’t have anything to do with him shooting all those people! I just gave him the gun!

However, lest I sound down on ALL such combative systems, I will say that I am impressed by modern combative systems like Krav Maga, the modern martial system developed by Imi Lichtenfield. It was developed as a no-nonsense approach to combative self-defense for the Israeli military, so its effectiveness was of primary importance, due to Israel’s frequent skirmishes and battles with its enemies. It HAD to work. –Not to get more students or fill up a dojo, but to enable basic survival for soldiers in a Middle Eastern battlefield.

There are other people who are investigating and systematizing modern combatives training, including an email acquaintance of mine, Kit LeBlanc. They are smart people doing smart things to enable law enforcement officers and American military personnel to survive combat and violent encounters. They are not doing it to make money off Saturday morning hero-wannabe’s. They are exploring undiscovered country, trying to dissect the roots of many martial arts and seeing if and how they apply to solutions for modern, truly “realistic” combative applications.

For any practitioner of any martial art, modern or classical, traditional, sportive or eclectic, who is truly interested in the combative aspect of martial training, I would also recommend a reading list of different authors. My own library has books by the aforementioned Rory Miller. Miller has had actual experience in violent altercations as a prison guard and police officer. Interestingly, his experiences seem to have given him a healthy dose of respect for classical martial training, because a lot of his ideas echo the heiho theories I learned in my own classical systems.

Miller coined the term “monkey dance” for any kind of fight that is by nature social-aggressive. And, he says, you do NOT want to be involved in any kind of monkey dance, because only bad things can happen if you act like an emotion-driven status-seeking primate. Even if you win, you stand a chance of getting sued for hurting the other guy. The only time you should apply physical force, he says, is in truly combative situations: when you are being physically attacked by a predator, in military combat, or in any other unprovoked encounter where you cannot run away or extricate yourself. His books discuss the psychology of violence, avoiding the “monkey dance,” and even simple methods of “self-defense.”

Other writers on my shelf include Ellis Amdur, who discusses the psychology of aggression and violence. He has also written several books that illuminate interesting aspects of aikido and Japanese martial history. Dave Grossman approaches surviving combat from the POV of a military officer. What is the “haze of combat”? How do survivors recount what it really felt like to be caught in a violent encounter?

I am sure there are other books and authors worth a look. I also have some books on “survival” psychology. How do people survive not just a violent encounter with a human predator, but what makes human beings survive any kind of disaster, man-made or natural? What kind of attitude characterizes people who are able to weather and thrive in the storm of natural, eventful daily life with a positive attitude?

By reading widely, I found that there are similar characteristics that a successful dog owner has (as outlined by Ceasar Millan, the dog trainer who said he learned a lot about projecting confidence from a judo teacher he studied with as a child) shared by an effective law enforcement officer, shared by a teacher who has good classroom management skills.  These characteristics go beyond rote technique but are the core mental skills necessary to survive in those professions. Classical martial arts stylists may call it forms of zanshin, or presence. But books from such diverse fields explain it in different ways and make sense of what can often be thought of as an esoteric topic.

In any case, the true key to “reality-based” combat is to see things as they truly are, in reality. The experience of violence, as Miller says, is like stepping through Alice in Wonderland’s Looking Glass into a world that is topsy-turvy compared to our usual everyday world. Criminals may live in it all the time, but most of will find a true violent encounter totally bewildering. None of the rules of everyday life applies. Proper training in a properly conducted martial art will help one’s odds of survival. But it must be engaged in properly, with training in both mental, spiritual and physical aspects. But it’s no cure-all.

Improper training with bad teachers is worse than innocuous; it will give you a false sense of security and lull you into thinking you are “combat-effective.”  Given a choice, I’d suggest that “unrealistic” aikido, if taught with emphasis on proper zanshin and technique, executed with an eye to overall physical and mental well-being, is much more “realistic” than any faux “combative” martial art that does not have a handle on an integrated training system, deep philosophy or coherent pedagogy. But I’m just sayin’…

15 thoughts on “70. “Reality-based” Martial Arts Not So Reality-based?

  1. I think even Musashi had something to say about teachers “selling” the arts and strategy inadequately learned…

    The psuedo-traditionalist “combat reality” types have kinda missed the point altogether – rather aping the later developments of budo away from combative purpose. One guy – I kid you not – has invented his own modern firearms system where they wear keikogi and holsters on their obi. Foolish, and the fact that the inventor is a police officer/military vet with actual shootings under his belt only underscores the wrong-headedness of the whole thing…

    I think you explain well that budo/bujutsu/martial arts is not about combat application or self defense, only a small piece thereof. I firmly believe that society has a vested interest in seeing to it that the men it is training to use force on its behalf are also inculcated with values that keep them from becoming thugs. It also stands to reason that those men who can come to terms with their possible death in the line of duty might also serve better….but those aspects have largely been stripped from the martial arts, though, and its “spirituality” is now more akin to hipster Zen and self-help psychology.

    Worlds apart.

    I do as the question, though “whose reality?”

    Certainly there is overlap, but what a modern soldier or police officer needs to be baseline functional is a far cry from what the average citizen may be interested in. The average martial arts practitioner, that is mainly concerned with awareness, verbal de-escalation, and evasion versus an aggressive panhandler will rarely even need physical skills, and if so, not much.

    And what the average cop or soldier needs is still different that what a special operations soldier in a low visibility assignment may need, where he may have to deal with a kidnap attempt or ambush by terrorists, or an undercover cop discovered and about to be executed by a coupled of cranked up bikers. Few are willing to undertake the extensive force on force work in firearms and hand to hand to support functional skill in the latter – and even that will only improve your chances a bit and not by any means guarantee success.

    My interest in the older schools is that clearly, early on, the focus was on the latter. While I think a great deal has been lost with the ensuing “budofication” of ALL martial arts, I think the simplicity, the congruence, the overlapping of so many of the early teachings is like the proverbial “finger pointing to the moon” when it comes to the originally intended combative applications.

    Trained in a similarly appropriate format – with progressive use of force on force and an opposing will – I think the lessons will have a lot of commonality.

    1. Good points, Kit, that extends the discussion from your own particular perspective. One really good point you make is “whose reality” are you talking about? Combatives for military, law enforcement, and civilians would be quite different from each other per the existing laws, conditions and situations. A “one size fits all” “combative reality” martial art would need to address the differences, discuss the legal ramifications, and train its exponents really, really hard to reach some level of possible usability. I’m just glad I make no such claims. I just teach an archaic antique martial art that makes no such “combative reality claims. I’m reminded of what the current soke of the Hontai Yoshin-ryu told me. He taught judo on alternate nights to his jujutsu classes. Even as a future soke, he said self-deprecatingly, “Oh, Hontai Yoshin-ryu; that’s an antique. But I enjoy it.” Observing his class, I thought the “antique” was quite impressive, but he was humble about his style.

  2. For a while when I was training in Yoshinkan Aikido, I worked in security at a hotel on the border of Detroit. I had my share of opportunities to test my training under “real” circumstances. My training never failed me once; not one time.

  3. Well said (and written)… these “we’re more real, more better than everyone else” types have been around since the late fifties. I started judo practice in 1953, and then along with Shoreikan Karate at twelve years of age, and Danzan ryu jujutsu at fourteen and ranked shodan in all three at seventeen. I studied with a Hsing-i master at age nineteen for almost two years and then jumping feet first into aikido when I was twenty one. While walking these paths and growing in my practice I saw more of the types you describe above Wayne, and they never, never seem to change any and even use the same claims and silly demos. Those personality types will never stop creating these pseudo martial arts to cover up their inability to do the real thing.

    Thanks for calling it like you see it.

    1. Boy, Chuck. It’s somewhat depressing to realize that those kinds of folk have been around that long, and probably will always pop up forever and ever, with their silly claims. On the other hand, your post actually made me feel good in a weird way. You’re still doing martial arts but you are senior to me by a couple of decades. That means I’m still relatively a spring chicken!!! 😉

  4. Rereading this I am reminded of how many “kung fu” experts who had been taught by some mysterious old Chinese teacher (some even called them sensei…) and promised that they would never reveal their name right after the Kung Fu TV series had been on for a few weeks. A few judo and karate dojo that were in store front locations repainted their signs or window advertising with the words Kung Fu. It was entertaining to see the ones who had done a bit of karate doing similar forms but now they were more dance like and circular movements with the arms, etc. Guess what? The public bought many of them hook, line, and sinker. Their were more “Shaolin Priests” running around then, glad that they could finally show their true colors. Then there were the types that my teachers called “NCO club black belts” that had came back when their tour was over as a shodan and then changed arts two or three times getting shodan somehow (or not) and called themselves a sandan or yondan. At least they could add… Really comical stuff.

    When you get to be my age, memories come back and then leave quickly… 🙂

    1. Chuck, you remember those days?! Wow. Yeah. These were very, very weird times. A couple of years after “Kung Fu” died on TV, I started naginata class. This guy showed up to join the class and very quickly, I suspected (and he admitted) that he was on medications for his mental issues. That didn’t stop him from claiming that he knew kung fu and his teacher was (in all seriousness) Zatoichi and seven secret Chinese monk brothers. He eventually dropped out because he couldn’t even remember the basic movements, let alone the first kata. Last I saw him, years ago, he was wandering around the seedier side of Chinatown in Honolulu, wearing a black jacket with a dragon embroidered on the back, a red headband and kung fu “slippers.”

  5. Excluding blatant charlatans, I don’t have any issue with RBSD people training indoors on a padded floor barefooted. You cant practice throws on concrete because you’ll get your vertebrae cracked after one week and ordinary shoes tend to shred mats. And mats, of course, are required by some insurance companies when someone wants to teach martial arts.

    Like their TMA cousins, they just want to get as close to the world of violence as possible while keeping their students safe and law abiding and this is how they’re doing it as of right now. And with some success, too; I’ve recently written about some of what they’ve improved upon along with what they’re currently missing.

  6. Good post – I’ve experience of perhaps too many JuJitsu styles over my life. I’ve trained in one which was, in my opinion, one of the better ‘reality based’ styles, to the extent you were even graded on your performance during ‘realistic scenarios’. My more recent training has been with a true Koryu JJ style – whilst at first glance the whole kata style of training looks heavily removed from anything people may class as realistic, when you take the kata beyond the technical and move to the true application of the techniques, I think the same applies that you discuss about aikido – it can be dangerous, fast and perhaps more suited to true self defence than many of the modern ‘self defence’ martial arts get even close to.

    1. Thanks, Chris, for the note. Just for the record, I’m not dissing all “modern” training systems; I’m just critiquing anyone who says one system is implicitly “better” than another based on false assumptions. In the end, it boils down to a lot of individual expertise and effort.

  7. The author makes very good points. The “traditional” martial arts have survived for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, and quite often battle-tested. The purpose is good health, yes (warriors cannot take a day off); but also to develop the combination of muscle memory and reflex to deal with any variety of attacks. When you read modern “martial arts” magazines, and note that most of the ads are related to making more money by attracting more students, you see where the focus has gone awry. Your attacker, however, will likely NOT be in your age, weight and talent level grouping—nor will you be wearing foam padding as you stroll to your car in the parking ramp some evening after working late. The reason for practicing “rote” repetitions is ingrain them in your subconscious responses, mentally as well as physically. But you cannot practice “full intent” on each other without serious potential for injury, which in itself is detrimental to further training. Thus, the “do” emphasis rather that the “jutsu” version is often seen. My best sensei—be they police instructors, FBI-trained people, or just classical traditional ones when I was in Japan & China—all know how & when to apply techniques with devastating force. I have been lucky to have these insights given to me; I can only hope to be either lucky enough to never be tested or lucky enough to survive when the chips are down. Even some of the top experts—I’m thinking the late Masatoshi Nakayama of the JKA—state that there are no 100% guarantees. Indeed, much of our protection is the confidence we project, the awareness we acquire that prevent some attacks from developing. The predator looks for an easy mark, not trouble. What we might never is know is how many attacks were prevented by our training.

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