Bill tells me that this traininng has all but absorbed him.
Yes. To the detriment of my two other organized martial arts: aikido and kali. I completely walked away from both. But, I am beginning to see that it is only temporary and that at some point, I must return. See my reply below ...
Yet he wonders who among those he is involved with will ever really pursue it and get anywhere with it.
Pursuing it is different than getting somewhere with it. As noted by a few high level martial artists in various arts, training with those who don't have aiki doesn't really get one very far. Oh, enough to impress those without. But it's not really enough to stand out among high level jujutsu people either, let alone good fighters.
How do you not only pursue aiki, but actually get quite good at it? Takeda: sumo training (competition), kenjutsu (competition), jujutsu (people testing skills), and fighting.
Ueshiba: Had people test him continuously from all ranges of arts and fighting.
Aikido great Tomiki: Judo (competition) and people testing him.
Aikido great Shioda: fighting and people testing him.
Today, with certain people: Judo (competition), MMA (competition), people testing them, and fighting.
It really isn't that hard to view back through history and come to a conclusion that to get great like Takeda and Ueshiba you have to:
1. Train aiki compulsively (solo and paired)
2. You have to use it in competition (not necessarily MMA but high level randori in aikido would work as would judo training).
3. You have to train aiki with weapons.
4. You have to fight with it, armed and unarmed.
As you can see, Aikido can
be a vehicle to get to some level. I think some solid training in aikido with #1 and #2 will appease most people. Some will add in #3 from various sources and get a bit better. But, to progress beyond that level, one must take that next step and find an environment to fight. One doesn't *need* to do that, though.
That makes me come back to my two organizational martial arts. The vehicles are there in aikido and kali. I can actually train #1 through #4 using both. Albo kali/silat is built such that you have to freestyle "fight" to get better.
Was it ever any different?
There are major differences today. Huge differences.
1. The Internet. Worldwide communication makes a tremendous difference in gaining knowledge. Without that, word of mouth would never inform such a large number of people about aiki.
2. Training methodologies. American training methodologies are better (for the most part) than Japanese ones. (Generalization) And that has made a difference in how people are being trained -- for the better. Some genius devised a systematic approach through hard work and many students. That approach creates aiki from martially-trained people and nonmartially-trained people.
3. Aiki vs aiki. Historically, this has very rarely happened. And it should be a subset of #4 above. This is the area where I think one can push the limits even higher for skill level. And this is where Ueshiba's aikido can truly shine. It is built for an aiki to aiki encounter in freestyle environments with the option of two outcomes: in, down, disabled or pass-through, appropriately matched.