I want to take a break from my regular scriptwriting rambling to talk about one of my other passions, martial arts. I may find some vague link to writing at the end, but probably not.
If you’re not involved in the world of hitting people for fun there’s a weird running argument online about the value of traditional martial arts, (things like Karate, Kung Fu, Aikido, Taekwondo … etc). The main thrust of the argument is that they’re inherently useless because nothing except for MMA or possibly Brazilian Jujitsu will win a fight. Maybe boxing at a push.
I tend to disagree with this. I’ve trained in a few different martial arts over the last couple of decades, picking up the odd back belt here and there. I’m currently learning Tiger Crane Kung Fu from Neil Johnson in Lewes and will (hopefully) continue to do so until one of us gives up or dies.
One of my black belts is in what the internet deems the ‘most useless’ of martial arts, Aikido. You can never win a fight with Aikido, goes the refrain.
I have two issues with this line of thinking.
1) How do you define useless?
At no point during my Aikido training did I think I would eventually be able to use it to square up to a trained professional in a ring and win a fight. I did it because I enjoyed, because it made me happy, because I made friends doing it, because we used to stop in the middle for a biscuit and a cuppa, because it kept me supple and active, because the black skirt looks like Darth Vader’s, because my Sensei was a lovely, lovely bloke, because … well, lots and lots of reasons really.
It was so clearly not a fighting art that it wasn’t even taught as a martial art, it was taught as a physical philosophy. My classes were intended to be physical exercises which helped promote a way of thinking about life and confrontations. The principles of Aikido work equally well in verbal confrontations as in physical ones and I use them to improve my interactions with people on a daily basis.
As fun as Aikido was, Kung Fu has always been my first love (Lau Gar from Carl Jones in Swansea, Wing Tsun from Paul Hawkes in Crawley and Lau Gar again from Carl Sims in Brighton before switching to Tiger Crane – each change being necessitated because either I or my instructor moved rather than me being fickle!) Kung Fu doesn’t really have a direct translation into English (or so I’m told), it kind of means ‘good health’ or ‘self improvement’ or something like that.
I tend to like the idea of it meaning ‘self improvement’. This, to me, is one of the most important aspects of a martial art. I think humans are happier when their life has direction, that we all need achievement and progression to be happy, whether that comes from work or a hobby. Martial arts help provide that, you’re always working towards something, improving on old skills whilst learning new ones. You have grades or belts to achieve, giving you a way of marking your progress over time.
Kung Fu is a fighting art, yes, but more than that it promotes health, vitality and fitness. It’s good for both physical and mental health, for concentration and confidence. I’ve seen students start a class barely able to look people in the eye but a few years later have the wherewithal to actually interact with humanity.
Fighting is a game for the young, Kung Fu can be practised for an entire lifetime and can help extend that lifetime. I struggle to see this as ‘useless’.
Which brings me to my second niggle:
2) You can’t win a fight with traditional martial arts.
I suspect the problem here is the definition of the word ‘fight’.
What is a fight? Is it two highly trained professionals squaring up to each other in a ring? Or is it someone taking a swing at you in a pub? Is it a shoving match in a takeaway restaurant? Is it a verbal argument? Perhaps one that escalates?
Is it, maybe, all of these things?
Here in the UK we’ve spent the last two years screaming ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘Leave means leave’ at each other without bothering to define what either of those things mean, rendering the whole argument pointless.
A ‘fight’ can be many things. Sometimes several different things in quick succession.
Could a twice-a-week Aikido practitioner hope to win a cage fight against a six-hours-a-day MMA fighter?
Probably not. Almost certainly not, but I guess nothing’s impossible.
Can someone use the principles of Aikido to deflect a drunken swing and immobilise an assailant?
Yes. I’ve done that. Was that a fight?
I’ve also stopped someone hitting me in a night club brawl simply by adopting a Kung Fu fighting stance. The guy in question was charging at me with his fist raised, as soon as I dropped into a fighting stance he stopped, lowered his fist and pretended to be interested in a nearby section of wall before selecting an easier target and hitting him instead. Was that a fight?
I’ve de-escalated a verbal argument which was getting very aggressive and threatening by calmly offering to fight both of the shouters. They backed down and then sent one of their girlfriends to apologise. Was that a fight? Did I win?
Did I win the fight when one of a group of teens attacked me and knocked me over? I performed an Aikido roll and came back up to my feet right in his face … at which point he shit himself and ran away. Who won that one?
None of these things are a ring fight, but all of them perhaps come under the umbrella term of ‘a fight’ in which traditional martial arts were useful. I’ve had people try to punch me and fail because I blocked it or stepped out of the way. Techniques which would never, ever work against a sober, trained fighter work perfectly well on a night out.*
I see people on YouTube debunking all sorts of breakaway techniques by grounding themselves in a firm stance and gripping someone in a completely static manner … and then looking smug when the technique fails. Which is a little bit like someone opining that a hammer is a useless tool because it can’t be used to change a plug.
The correct Aikido technique to use if someone grips you in a solid and completely static grip†, tensing their muscles and holding on for dear life is to … wait. Maybe have chat until they get bored and let go? People who grab you with threatening intent will probably try to push or pull you or hit you with the other hand. Either don’t let them grab you or react to whatever else they’re doing. If they’re just holding you without doing anything else then maybe they want to be friends?
Most people I’ve ‘fought’ against in a real situation can barely stand up, not in a martial arts sense. They don’t have perfect footwork, they don’t have a balanced stance and they’re usually drunk. Almost any body movement, trained or not, throws them off balance or makes them fall over.§
I guess the other side of this argument comes from the people who think training a couple of nights a week in a traditional martial art makes them Bruce Lee or Batman or something. The kind of people who go on forums and yell ‘my art’s better than yours’ without ever having trained anything else. Or ‘we don’t compete because our art is too deadly!’ which always smacks of bullshit to me.
Some arts are better for fighting than others, but it’s really more dependent on the person than the art. Realistically the only way to be great at fighting is to get into lots of fights. ‡
If I have a point at all in this long ramble, it’s that traditional martial arts aren’t useless and they can be used to win a fight, depending on your definition of ‘useless’ and ‘fight’. If nothing else, martial arts should give you an understanding of balance, a stance to work from, the confidence to stand face to face with someone who’s aggressive, an awareness of how people move just before they hit you, a familiarity with being hit and the ability to react rather than freeze.
All of these things are useful, but perhaps not so useful as doing something you enjoy with people you like. I don’t really get into fights anymore. I’m never really in a situation where that sort of thing happens, but I still train because it’s fun and that to me is all the usefulness I need.
* Let’s be perfectly honest here, if you want to win most ‘street’ fights then your best option is just to stay sober. You’re more likely to see trouble coming, less likely to inadvertently cause the trouble in the first place and it’s far, far cheaper than training all day every day.
Hurts less too.
† If you’ve let someone grip you and root themselves in a firm, static stance then you’ve done the equivalent of letting your opponent in chess take all of your pieces bar the King before you decide to make your first move. Mind you, if they settle into a static grip it’s a bit like they’ve got to that point and decided not to make any more moves anyway.
§ Which I guess is where the oft-touted wisdom of ‘most pub fights end up on the ground’ comes from. They probably do, mainly because neither person knows how to stay on their feet. I don’t want to end up on the ground. It’s dirty down there. I’ll stay standing while the other person sprawls on the floor, thank you very much.
‡ There was a Karate club in Swansea which used to engage in what they called Kingsway Katas on a Friday night after training (The Kingsway being a street with lots of pubs and clubs on it). Basically, under the watchful eye of their Sensei, they would go out after training, get drunk and get into fights. I’ve no doubt they won a lot of these fights … but fucking hell. These are the kind of people who watched The Karate Kid and thought Cobra Kai was a cool club.
I feel they’ve missed the point somewhat, but each to their own.