What are the Martial Arts?

Part 2: What’s wrong with the martial arts? – Traditionalism

Last time I discussed ‘what are the martial arts?’ and this time I’d like to discuss what’s wrong with them? Wow! Where do I start? After 50 years of martial arts study I have seen many changes but almost none that were needed. For instance, back in the 1970’s people like Bruce Lee, Joe Lewis and Bill Wallace were experimenting with ‘full contact karate’ or what is known today as kickboxing and what has developed into K1 and MMA. The reason they were doing this was because they knew that their traditional arts didn’t work. I was of the same frame of mind when at 14 years old I watched my karate instructor sparring and was surprised that he didn’t use any recognisable karate techniques? Others had the same idea.

I recently watched what is probably the first full contact karate match between Joe Lewis and another contemporary (insert name). they were both high ranked black belts and ‘points’ competitors. They were both very strong and fit looking but they had no idea how to fight in a continuous boxing like way. They didn’t know how to combine techniques, technique priority, tactics, footwork etc. the question is: ‘why did two fit, strong, young and highly trained ‘traditional’ martial artists not know how to fight?

Traditional martial arts are based on sets of techniques combined together by ‘masters’ of the past who supposedly knew much better than we do today about combat. They have left us sets of techniques in the form of kata or forms and traditionalists practice these over and over with a view to becoming a master as judged by their peers.

This is not so different from effective martial arts or any kind of study method whether it be physics or sprinting but it has some important differences:

  1. Do you understand what he intended in the kata they left behind?
  2. Is what is left of the teaching he left; fit for purpose today?

If we teach what we have been taught without questioning and testing what we have learned, then we can never move forwards. Everything develops and evolves if it is alive or acted upon by some outside force. A rock changes its form if you run water and wind over for many years. Children grow into adults; technology improves as we understand it better. Newton was the greatest scientist of his day but Einstein took that knowledge further than Newton ever could have. Everything evolves and adapts if it is to survive.

This is life so why is it that we think that traditional martial arts should be fixed in time and simply seek to copy what we think the ‘Master’ meant.

I hope it seems obvious that if the martial arts don’t develop and evolve like everything else in the universe then it ceases to be relevant and fit for its purpose. If it is not relevant it is not useful and if it is not useful it is not necessary.

I teach what I feel is the best and most useful techniques and strategies that I know based upon my experience and the situations that are most likely to occur in self-defence. However, what I teach may not always remain as relevant as I feel it is now just as swords were once relevant in warfare and were replaced by knives and automatic weapons. I teach my instructors to improve on what I have given them; to ask questions and to test what they find to see if it works. If we find a better way to do what we do, then it must be incorporated into our system. If the system ceases to be relevant, then it is no longer fit for purpose and will consequently let people down in serious situations where they could be hurt or worse.

This is one of the things I think are wrong with the martial arts. The martial arts are only about efficiency and nothing about tradition. The martial arts must strive to be efficient and this can be painful because we become sentimental and attached to the parts that are comfortable or that we like. But we must never become attached to what we know, just like a pig farmer must not become attached to his pigs. Pigs, like techniques are the tools of our trade and they must adapt and improve or they must be disposed of.

Seek to adapt what you know to the real world; to what might happen based on your personal knowledge not what your instructor or someone else says. Find out for yourself, ask questions and test. Throw away what doesn’t work and only keep what does. This is the only way to become a master, because a true master knows that he never knows enough, he is always seeking to know more and understand better.

Have a great day

Tony Higo