Traditional Arts in the Modern Martial Arts World

GunslingerAndAndy I love watching the UFC these days. It’s progressed and developed to the point where a good bout looks like sparring from old-school martial arts. Lyoto Machida’s fight against Mark Munoz was pretty much exactly what I learned to do in Shotokan Karate. Control the distance in the fight, look for the perfect opening, and strike to finish. I love traditional martial arts. I think they are wonderful repositories of technique and tactics.

A good teacher of a traditional art is a walking encyclopedia of mayhem. They should be capable of devising a solution to any martial problem from within their own system, as was handed down to them from their teacher. Put a traditional martial artist in the cage with an experienced MMA fighter? It’s going to be a bloodbath. Or at best, the traditional fighter is going to look like a raw beginner with a heavy dose of flail in his system. I’ve seen it time and time again.

On the internet, the group-think is that this is because traditional arts suck. That’s not true. They don’t suck, but their training has one big flaw.

In last nights class, we taught a side-step counter to a punch. Pretty straight forward…punch comes in, you drop your lead hand, pull your head back a smidge, and drive out to your right. When you land, you respond with a overhand right. I’ve done this in a few other arts, but you usually throw a block in with the left hand. It’s a technique that works for boxers, but not for traditional artists. Why? It’s the same technique, basically. Could even argue that the traditional way is better, since it provides an extra bit of “smother” and safety to counter from. You could argue that, but the traditional technique will still fail every time, while the boxing one works.

Teaching the technique last night, I first taught it as a technique. A punches, B responds. Nice and easy. I made corrections to the gross errors I saw, and cleaned up some misconceptions. It looked crisp and easy. As a traditional teacher, that would a checkmark for being done teaching that technique. Just follow up with polish, counters, further corrections and what-ifs. We weren’t done, though. Nobody every throws one punch and then stands still while you hit them back. Not gonna happen.

The classic boxing technique is the 1-2, jab and cross combination. I will pop a jab in your face, and then I will take advantage of my arm being up and in your way, and your lean back or hand lift for defense, or whatever you do, and I will use it as an opening to hammer in a right cross to your chin. And as I do that, I’m pasting my left hand back my chin, and cranking my right shoulder up because I expect you to be firing something right back at me. If you haven’t responded correctly to those two punches, my third punch is going to a hook to your liver that’s on it’s way to you about the same time my right cross is bouncing off of your face. And I’m still leaning back to keep my head out of reach off your expected counter. Boxing anticipates a clever and gifted opponent, and tries to win anyway. It makes the assumption that every technique will draw counter-fire that has to be respected and dealt with.

And that is pretty much the only real difference between traditional arts and modern MMA-focussed art. Traditional arts are taught and practiced in a turn-taking fashion: I do this, you will do that, then I will do this. Combat arts are taught in a parallel fashion: I will do this while you are doing that, and then I will do this while you do that other thing.

Much historical swordplay instruction fails for the same reason. And the fix is pretty easy. When you start to work on a new technique, after you have gotten your personal mechanics down, make it work in the worst possible conditions. Think about the 1-2. What if your opponent doesn’t stop to respect your counter? What if they have launched a follow-up on pure reflex? Can you deal with that? You should be able to.

You have to take the body of knowledge that you have and adapt it for your own responses, to work for you in any situation. You wind up having far fewer techniques that you can rely on, but you can rely on them absolutely. It’s not a bad trade. It takes a ton of work to actually achieve, but what in martial arts doesn’t?

I highly recommend checking out Jack Slack’s website and books for all martial artists. If you really want to learn more about striking arts, he’s the guy.

Leave a Reply