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When one begins to talk about practicality, application and usefulness in the world of the martial arts we enter onto a slippery slope. People start talking about "street fights" and "what REALLY happens in a fight". We Begin to theorize about reality, instead of living and training in it.
Training in the martial arts is not fighting. No matter how much we want it to be, no matter how much we pretend or don't pretend it simply isn't fighting. You can not do or experience the things you would in a life or death struggle in a Dojo. It's not possible, for many reasons.
First, a Dojo is a controlled atmosphere. No one is going to have buddies waiting outside the door, to help them beat up another student. A car isn't going to drive through the school. People are not going to begin shooting at you in the middle of class. Most everyone knows each other and are working together, not plotting to harm one another.
Second, the Dojo has a teacher/coach who sets up the scenarios, decides when things have gone on to long, or are not appropriate. The teacher dictates what is safe, good practice and the direction he wants the school to go in. If it were a sporting event he'd be the referee, there are no referee's in life or death struggles.
Third, there is a lack of intent to truly do harm to one another. Not that there aren't occasional Dojo Scrabbles. Maybe a few people don't really like each other, but there is no real intent to do life threatening harm. The students are there to work together, even in very competitive sport martial arts Dojo's.
In a Dojo, we can only study and train for fights. We don't experience them. Experience is the key to understanding something. So because of this lack of fight experience, Martial arts are an imperfect system for learning to fight. A perfect system for learning to fight would be regular class sessions followed by going out and attacking or making unknown people attack you.
This kind of fight training is dangerous at best, and most likely insane. It would be a huge disruption to the community to have a school like this enter your aria. It's students would be known as thugs and murderers. Its teacher would likely be jailed. Students would regularly die or take serious injury. It would not be an enjoyable fulfilling life practice because it requires that you regularly cause harm to innocent people. It wouldn't be practical or fun.
Experiencing a fight is the only way to experience a fight. It is not practical to include life or death fights in your training. This renders most traditional martial arts imperfect systems for teaching fighting. In sport martial arts there is an attempt to remedy this imperfection by making their own clear definition of what a fight is. This allows them to experience "fighting" regularly and safely. Sport martial arts gear their training toward their definition of what a fight is.
A sport fight will be some sort of event with a referee in a controlled atmosphere. For example in western boxing, a "fight" is when two people of approximately the same size and skill level meet at an exact place and time, after a period of preparation. Agreeing to rules set forth by an organization and enforced by a referee. The competitors punch each other until one is unable to fight, or they reach an agreed on time period. A Brazilian Jiujitsu "fight" is similar except instead of punching they wrestle until one of the two is unable to fight or they reach the time limit.
Because there are many different elements to fighting: kicking, punching, throwing, wrestling, submissions, etc, people always wondered what elements of fighting were better. Could kickers beat punchers? Could Wrestling beat striking. These types of questions always lead to a clear understanding that sport fighting was also imperfect. You couldn't see all the variables in one match. This meant sport fights were interesting, but clearly still not a perfect school of fighting.
Currently there is a trend towards what is being called: Ultimate fighting, Cage fighting, No Holds Barred (NHB), or Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). This sport martial art allows competitors to use all of the major methods of unarmed combat. Competitors are no longer limited to just punching, or punching and kicking, or wrestling, or submissions. By allowing competitors to "fight" with grappling, projecting, and striking all in one event "Ultimate fighting" has managed to come closer to a "real fight" then its sport predecessors.
There is however still an inherent flaw with "Ultimate fighting", it is a sport. Being a sport means that it's definition of what a fight is, is still very limited. A wise man once said "If you want to win a fight, you'll want weapons, numbers and surprise on your side", good advice. However in "Ultimate fighting" using weapons, surprise and multiple attackers is against the rules. Clearly the man who made the first statement was talking about a kind of fighting that doesn't match the definition of "Ultimate fighting".
"Ultimate fighting" has rules, just like any other sport fight. The rules are good. They keep people relatively safe. They establish it's competitors as athletes, and sportsmen, not thugs and murderers. The rules make "Ultimate fighting" a practical, noble endeavor. However these rules also limit the system. Turning a blind eye to things like weapons, surprise, multiple attackers, and environment. This blind eye is it's unavoidable imperfection.
The military is a true method of learning to fight. Military combatants learn technique, and also regularly go out and fight-without definition. The military will give you knowledge and experience. Making it a complete method of learning to fight. However it's not a school, but rather a life style.
Being in the military means having to kill, and taking the very real risk of being killed yourself. It is not something that can be done part time, it is a full time career. You will be fighting at the discretion of someone else, for their values which may not match your own. Military life carries a heavy emotional and physical tax.
Other occupations like: Law enforcement, security/body guard, etc. provide "fight" experience as well. The fact is most of those who study martial arts don't really want to devote the whole of their lives to physical combat. We want to live normal, interesting lives. We have a curiosity, or need to know about fighting. We are students of fighting, but we don't want to constantly face life threatening danger.
Because of the inherent flaws in our systems, all of our schools are lacking. They lack the ability to impart the complete experience of physical conflict. Martial arts systems can't make us a complete physical fighter. They do however teach us about struggle and conflict. This training and understanding is most useful to us in our most important endeavor: life
We are all participants in life. The martial arts is a way to learn about struggle and conflict (fighting). Struggle and conflict are inseparable parts of life. We struggle to get up in the morning. We struggle to get to where we want in life. We struggle to become better people.
The martial arts are a way of challenging ourselves to meet and enjoy the struggle. The martial arts provide a means of learning and training for hardships. Hardships are a regular part of life. The martial arts prepare us for the ultimate experience; life.
We must strive to make our system more challenging. We must seek to get closer to what we would experience in a fight. We don't do this so we can simply win a "street fight". Or brag that we study a "complete" martial arts system. We must make our training as difficult as we can safely and ethically afford. We should do this not in an attempt to become the greatest fighter of all time. Not to delude ourselves with a fantasy. We do it in order to become a better person. We study physical conflict in order to understand real struggle, life's struggle. This is Budo.
What we train when we study any martial art is Budo. We train not to be physically unstoppable, but spiritually undefeatable; Budo.