Sometimes I see arguments between traditional martial artists and sport fans when comparing sport martial arts and traditional martial arts. Usually it’s pretty biased on either side, where your side is cherished and the other side is trashed.
That Old Argument
People in favor of sport arts often claim that traditional arts are useless and better off forgotten about; then a MMA fighter pulls off a traditional technique in the cage and all of a sudden they have to grudgingly admit that move at least has some merit. At one point MMA fans even thought striking in general was useless, but thankfully that was like 15 years ago. More recently, there’s been a resurgence of solid striking, including the jab, the backfist, the front kick, the oblique kick, the axe kick, and really for kicking in general. Jon Jones pulled off a traditional shoulder attack against Glover Texeira, where Texeira’s shoulders were damaged enough that he couldn’t throw power strikes anymore for the rest of the match. The traditional Karate stance made a comeback with guys like Machida and McGregor; McGregor even used his Karate stance to fight Floyd Mayweather in a boxing match and actually fared ok.
Likewise, traditionalists often disparage sport fighting because it isn’t ‘real’ and because there are rules. Usually if these guys try out a sport fight themselves they get a reality check; turns out it’s real enough if you’re in there. A really weird thing I’ve seen from traditionalists is this attitude that sport fighters are all meatheads or something because they don’t have the calming mindset and meditative aspects of traditional arts. But then if you see a match between a traditional guy and a sport guy on Youtube, it’s usually the traditional guy who’s really nervous and flying off the handle because he has something to prove. The sport guy’s usually been through enough that he doesn’t have to get worked up over a simple match. Often the sport guy shows more calmness under pressure and is a pretty good example of the ideals espoused by traditional martial arts (please keep in mind that it’s often the case, definitely not always).
Sport ‘versus’ Tradition
Both sides do have valid criticisms of each other, but really I think they each miss the point when they frame the comparison as an argument. The main difference between sport and traditional martial arts (or at least traditional martial arts as they were originally conceived) is that sport arts are all about preparing for duels and traditional arts are all about preparing for ambushes. A duel is a 1-on-1 match that has an even playing field so you can see which person’s better at the end of it. An ambush is a surprise attack, usually with the purpose of taking something, like a predator killing prey so it can eat.
Dueling is easy for everyone to picture in their minds, and it’s emotionally satisfying. Two people square off and we find out once and for all who’s better. A key feature of duels is that both fighters have agreed to engage. If the duelists keep fighting better opponents, they’ll keep improving. Eventually the best fighter gets through everybody else, and has become the best by going through the best. The whole concept is easy to understand, and I think it’s hard-wired into the instinctual part of our brains. Sport fights, schoolyard brawls, bar fights, and backyard BBQ shenanigans usually fall into the dueling category. (A quick side note: people usually think of fighting bullies as a type of duel because a guy being bullied often wants to face off with his bullies to prove he’s better. But there’s a disconnect here because the bullies aren’t dueling, they’re just having some fun. I’d say bullying uses ambush tactics and social humiliation to freeze prey in place so they can be pawed around with; in some ways bullying resembles dueling because the bullies are trying to engage with their prey instead of just smashing and grabbing.)
Although you can learn a lot from duels, the traditional critique against them does have some merit because real-world attacks are hardly ever duels, they’re usually ambushes with unfair odds. One example is criminals, who usually try to attack people by surprise. They break in at night when you’re asleep, they distract you from the front while a partner attacks you from behind. From the outset, they want you to have no options to fight back. The reason I say ‘real-world’ attacks though and not just criminal attacks is because this mentality holds true for most real-world engagements, not just for criminals. The military calls this type of attack ‘asymmetrical’; the violence is all going in one direction. When police detain a violent criminal, they use pepper spray, handcuffs, batons, stun guns, superior numbers, squad tactics, and body armor. In my own personal experience, when a client was escalating he’d often focus on one staff member, which allowed another staff member to sneak up and subdue the client from behind. Having a head-on fight was actually the least desirable scenario, for a number of reasons.
Another critique that traditionalists have against dueling which does hold true is that in the real world, since there usually aren’t agreed-upon rulesets a duel can easily turn into an ambush. A guy who’s losing a duel in a bar or in the street might pull out a knife to ‘even the odds’, but really they aren’t even anymore. Somebody who lost an argument or a duel on the street might leave the scene just to grab a gun so they can come back and shoot people. They might grab some friends, too, and they might follow you home. They’ve stopped ‘playing fair’, they’ve stopped dueling.
Goals in Training
The goal of a duel is to win, and the goal of a person being ambushed is usually just to escape without suffering much damage. These goals really factor into strategy, and strategy determines how you train. Somebody who’s training for self defense or for a dangerous job probably won’t find much direct use in a lot of dueling strategies just because the goals of each are so different. A lot of dueling revolves around a back-and-forth give-and-take where over time you get your opponent to think you’re about to swing left, but then you swing right. An ambush by its nature is a trap that’s sprung, so back-and-forth strategies don’t factor in as much. (Sometimes there are lulls in an ambush where you find yourself temporarily squaring off though, and these moments could be where dueling strategies might come in handy.)
But really, how do you directly train for a random ambush that could come from any number of criminals or wackos in the world? I don’t really think you can, and it’s kind of a source of frustration for me to be honest. The reason I started martial arts was to use something that would keep me safe at my old job, and self defense is still in the forefront of my mind when I practice, even now.
The Best Answer I’ve Found, So Far
Several years out from when I had my old job, the best answer I’ve found (so far) in training for self defense is actually to use different types of dueling to train your techniques as well as you can. The main goal, though, isn’t to win the duel but to learn from it; to view dueling as another training method instead of as an end goal. Our group’s primary form of dueling practice is free-form push hands, which is basically grappling in a standing clinch. I used this training tool to stay safe at my old job, so I’ll stick with something which I know works. In addition to this, we’ve practiced light sparring without equipment and harder sparring with pads and gloves.
I think the most important thing to keep in mind for self defense is that whatever you’ve learned, practiced, or studied, the best tools for self defense will always be paying attention, listening to your intuition, and leaving the area. Everything else in martial arts is just cool stuff heaped on top of those three things.