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Home > Columns > George S. Ledyard > March, 2005 - Ultimate Martial Art?

Ultimate Martial Art? by George S. Ledyard


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Human beings are obsessed with conflict. Conflict attracts us just as a light will draw a moth into its orbit, even it ultimately means the destruction of the moth. Conflict of all sorts dominates our entertainment. Increasingly every aspect of our social life is viewed through the filter of polarization, us and them, winner and loser, right and wrong. As human beings we are virtually incapable of simply holding a pair of opposites, of allowing that two points of view can exist simultaneously, that twp interpretations can illuminate one another rather than negate each other. Any contradiction demands some sort of outcome in which one side or the other "wins", comes out on top, prevails over the other.

There was a time in which martial arts had something to do with ones survival. If one were male and born into the warrior class, one would be the recipient of knowledge pertaining to combat which would directly relate to surviving on the battle field. If one were less fortunate, one would be a member of the lower classes and would be apt to find oneself conscripted into an army which would in turn fight some other army the purpose of which was to slaughter as many of the enemy's peasants as possible. Survival in these circumstances might come down to techniques learned in village wrestling matches, competitions with cudgels or staffs, tricks passed one from father to son, etc but would have little to do with coherent systems of combat or systematic training.

As the technology of modern warfare has been developed, these skills have had less and less to do with survival in combat. In fact in many ways the attitudes necessary for success in hand to hand combat, the will to go straight at the enemy, the strength of spirit required to break the enemy's will to stand and fight, all essential in traditional warfare, became counter productive in modern combat. Starting with the Battle of Rourkes bluff in the Zulu Wars in South Africa in which a handful of British troops and native levies held off several thousand Zulu warriors, slaughtering more than a thousand... moving on to the WW I bayonet charges by the French against German machine guns in which their famous "Úlan" was to win out over heartless modern technology it has been obvious that the traditional elements of warrior combat skills are somewhat irrelevant for modern combat.

In real combat most of the casualties are caused by artillery and air bombardment. The vast majority who die do not even get to see their enemy. Survival depends on the ability to hunker down in some bunker and survive under the most mind numbingly horrible conditions for some period of time before emerging with some small will to fight still intact. Even here, one air fuel bomb can suck the air out of the hiding place and kill everyone inside without elements of "will" or toughness ever entering into the equation.

Most of us are middle class, educated persons living in relative peace and opulence (compared to most parts of the world). For most of us in the West and the developed East, the likelihood that we would at some point in our lives be called on to engage in face to face combat with another human being extremely unlikely. Yet many of us seem to be obsessed with the possibility. The vast majority of our entertainment revolves around violent encounters whether domestic as in police dramas, military in actions films, fantastical as in fantasy and science fictions epic combats.

A single serial killer lose in our midst can cause an entire community and even those beyond its confines to react in fear, arm themselves, flock to local self defense classes... Yet every single year thirty to forty thousand people will die in their cars within twenty five miles of home. An equivalent number will routinely die of the flu without either of these facts causing undo concern despite the vastly different threat level to the average person.

Fear that our government might revoke our right to arm ourselves with all manner of firepower so that our trips to the supermarket can be made without fear of disadvantage when the next gun fight should break out will actually cause whole segments of American society to vote against their own economic interests siding instead with a political Party whose principals share virtually none of the same socio economic concerns of the blue collar, working class folks who make up a huge chunk of our citizenry. This is part of "mass culture" in the United States. There are more Federally licensed firearms dealers in California than there are Mac Donald's.

Only about one percent of the population has any interest in pursuing martial arts training. The factors motivating these people are complex. The vast majority of the martial arts taught today have almost nothing to do with survival in the modern combat environment. At most they might be somewhat geared for that extremely rare but potentially dangerous self defense encounter between the individual and some sociopathic, predatory element of society but most have little or nothing to do with actual combat, having undergone several generations of modernization and simplification which has left the majority of the martial arts geared for competition within a style but not for actual application on the street and not even effective in competition against martial artists from other styles.

The extent to which this had become true was made obvious when the Ultimate Fighting Challenge was first televised pitting exponents of the Gracie Jiu Jutsu system against practitioners from various other martial a styles. The resulting total dominance of the grapplers over the strikers was and still is seen by many to mean that the mixed martial arts are superior fighting systems and that on some level their exponents are more able to "fight" in some hypothetical "street" confrontation than the misguided souls who are training in more traditional styles.

This conclusion is misplaced and represents an almost total misunderstanding of what combat and even street self defense is all about. Despite the representation that these are "no holds barred" encounters, the fact is that the competitors are professional athletes who encounter each other on the competition circuit. There are a whole set of stated and unstated rules about what is appropriate in these fights. One does not see the types of striking techniques which exist in combat oriented martial arts targeting vital points. The use of these would produce serious injury and these competitors all know that if they utilize any techniques of that sort, these techniques will in turn be used against them. The same is true of joint oriented techniques as found in traditional jiu jutsu which are designed to destroy the joints, connective tissues and even limbs of an opponent. These competitors are not, in truth, trying to injure or kill each other but are instead trying to defeat each other in a fairly rough and tumble form of sport martial art.

The fact that the most devastating and disabling techniques are not used in mixed martial arts competitions gives a distinct advantage to competitors who are larger, stronger and have a high pain tolerance. This allows fighters like "Tank" Abott of UFC fame to win the title when their only real qualifications are that they can take more punishment than any human being should be able to take. Further, the fact that these competitions are limited to empty hand confrontation and are not geared for the weapons environment serves to further separate them from the realm of real violent confrontation.

One of my students was acting as a role player at our local police academy when he was taken to the ground by a cadet who had studied Gracie Jiu Jutsu. As the cadet went for the classic sit out arm bar, the role player simply reached in and grabbed the cadet's "blue gun" which was on his belt as it would have been on the street. "Bang! You're dead" produced a look of consternation as the cadet realized that his much practiced sport grappling moves were completely inappropriate for combat in a weapons environment.

Imagine what the UFC would be like if the fight was with knives... do you think the same folks would win? Would you see the "big bench press boys" in the winner's circle or would you see a leaner, faster, lighter touch fighter who survived? Eric Knause and his "Dog Brothers", famous for their full contact stick fighting (their motto is higher consciousness through harder impact") are tough, strong, and fast. While they are the first to admit that in a one on one with sticks, grappling skills are important, you tend to see a much more balanced set of skills favoring speed as well as power, ability to move as well as the intention to go straight towards the opponent. This is because with the use of the stick makes the risk of taking a hit much greater than it is in empty hand fighting. One good shot in the head with the stick and the opponent is potentially down and out, one shot to the hand and that limb can be rendered useless. So you see a different type of competitor being successful than in the mixed martial arts competitions.

So what is my point? I would maintain that these arts (BJJ, Mixed Martial Arts, Pancration, what have you) have no more to do with combat and "street" fighting than Aikido does. They all share the same basic problem from the standpoint of combat, namely, they aren't practiced in a weapons environment. People in Aikido are largely of the impression that their art is an empty hand form of self defense. They fail to remember that the art came directly from its parent art of Daito Ryu Aikijutsu which had been created out of the traditional combat art of the Aizu clan as interpreted by Sokaku Takeda.

The Samurai were walking weapons systems. The only time you would have had an unarmed Samurai would be if he was knocked out on the battle filed and disarmed. The martial arts as developed for use by the Bushi, the classical warrior class, revolved around weapons, mainly the sword. The styles of jiu jutsu or aikijujutsu were geared towards weapons retention during close range fighting, temporarily immobilizing an armed opponent and accessing a back-up weapon (when one has lost the primary weapon), and disarming an armed opponent when both armed and disarmed. So from the standpoint of practical combat related training virtually all of the modern martial arts are equally irrelevant. Each art may contain an emphasis on some set of skills or techniques which would be required in combat or life and death self defense but no one art can be considered a system of unarmed combat much less a complete "fighting system".

From the standpoint of a modern warrior who does need to function in a combat environment (in which firearms are the primary weapon) Aikido has quite few skill sets which would be relevant to the modern warrior; more than most jiu jutsu styles, mixed martial arts or kick boxing no matter how good the training might be. Because of its close relationship to armed systems of defense Aikido's basic movement system contains everything for a comprehensive weapons retention system. There is a stronger emphasis in most aikido dojos on weapons disarming techniques than in most other systems. The kamae and use of space is all designed to deal with an armed opponent. The emphasis on movement and the focus on dealing with multiple attackers makes Aikido training quite appropriate as a component of a comprehensive fighting system.

But the bottom line is that there simply is no "ultimate" martial art amongst the modern arts. The perennial discussions of which art is the most deadly, why the BJJ practitioner will beat up the Aikido practitioner, etc. are simply a waste of time. These arguments take place, year after year, because people are focusing on the wrong elements in their training. Just like the fire arms wanna-bees who spend countless hours discussing the stopping power and other technicalities of the latest loads these arguments about which art is the most deadly, could O-sensei have defeated Ken Shamrock, is Aikido deadlier than Muy Thai, etc. completely miss the point that the ultimate goal of training is to prepare you for leading a good life.

The vast majority of us will never use a technique for self defense in our whole lives. Yet we act like our training is preparing us for some inevitable confrontation with the forces of evil. We seem to care far more about the extent to which our art will allow us to fight with another human being than how the training increases our wisdom, how it makes fighting less likely, how it can teach us to be connected with our environment. This because Aikido people, like the rest of the folks in our culture are obsessed with conflict. We worry about the fight to come with some hypothetical bad guys, we fight with other styles about whether Aikido really is effective as a martial art. We fight with each other over which Aikido styles will be better in a fight, which style is closer to the Founder and somehow more authentic, etc.

Training oneself is the point of martial arts in the modern age. Losing ones fears and developing strength of character is much more what training is about. Learning to live honorably during the years one has allotted is important. Perpetually anticipating the future conflict with the Great Unwashed reveals a fear of being in the present and facing up to the difficulties of life as human beings which we all share. If you never let go f these fears then your practice will be fear based. It might help you handle yourself in a fight but it won't be of much help to you in any other area of your life in which not fighting is a more important skill than fighting.


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