Why Should Practitioners Care About Martial Arts History?

 Why should practitioners care about martial arts history? 


To answer this question, I'd like to divide martial arts practitioners into two approximate, somewhat stereotypical, camps. Division should not be the goal of the martial arts community. However, it is difficult to analyze as broad a group as "all martial artists." My hope is that these terms will facilitate the identification of common characteristics and the formulation of reasonable conclusions.

The first group consists of people who seek excellence by replicating or emulating the original teachings of their art. I call these practitioners emulators. The second group includes people who seek excellence by testing their art against other practitioners. I call them contestants. There is overlap among the groups, but this differentiation provides a rough starting point for the discussion. I seek no value judgement concerning either group and I have personally trained in both modes.


Within the emulator group, there are two sub-groups. The first is the conformists. The second is the technicians. The reason for subdividing the emulators will be clear. Some arts, however, practice as both conformists and technicians, while other arts mainly practice as one or the other.


Steve Mulloy, Kung Fu

Conformists emphasize learning martial arts patterns, also known as forms, kata, poomsae, taolu, and so on. (The term "conformist" is a play on the word "form.") Practitioners of these styles may engage each other through sparring contests, but forms are a core aspect of their instruction, practice, and promotion. For the purposes of this discussion, the emphasis is on the centrality of forms, acknowledging that forms are not the only aspect of their arts. 

One would expect that practitioners who rely on forms as a teaching and training method would have a natural affinity for martial arts history. Conformists seek excellence by replicating patterns of movement that originated with one or more instructors. Some of these instructors lived tens or hundreds of years ago. (None lived thousands of years ago. That is a myth that is frequently debunked by the Martial History Team!) Understanding the true history of a conformist art means developing a closer relationship with the source of the forms. 

Two conformist martial artists provide examples of the role history plays in their personal development. First, Jesse Enkamp, the self-proclaimed Karate Nerd, has visited Okinawa, Japan, and China on multiple occasions to better understand the development of karate. Second, Will from Monkey Steals Peach, a kung fu practitioner in China, has taken similar journeys to understand the sources of his art. Both of these martial artists place forms at the center of their practice. By unearthing the origin of their forms, they develop a closer relationship with their art. They also learn more about what their forms mean, potentially making them a more effective teaching and practice method.

Conformists are the first sort of emulators, because the core of their art depends on faithful reproduction of the forms passed down by their instructors. By learning about the history of their art, they develop deeper insights into the minds and methods of their instructors. If alignment with the intent and practice of the founders matters to a conformist, then an accurate history of those pioneers' lives and stories is a requirement for success and authenticity.


Eyal Yanilov, Krav Maga

Technicians emphasize techniques, but they generally do so without forms. This pattern of instruction and practice is common with so-called reality-based martial arts, or self-defense/protection focused martial arts. Some of these disciplines explicitly reject the name "martial art," as they fear that it conjures images of students in gis performing patterns. Again, techniques are obviously found in all martial arts, but for technicians, these techniques are the core of the practice and identity of the art.

Technicians are still emulators, however. Rather than learning and repeating patterns, they learn short movement sequences to defend against an attack -- or perhaps initiate one. These techniques cannot truly be safely practiced against a non-resisting training partner. One cannot actually strike the groin, throat, or eyes with sufficient force or violence to produce authentic responses without injuring the training partner. 

For technician-themed martial arts, practitioners usually accept that some knowledge of the origin of the techniques is important. Because the student cannot really apply certain techniques against a training partner, it becomes important to accept that at some point in the past, someone did in fact use the technique in a real life encounter. The venue may have been a battlefield, or dark alley, or bar, but wherever it occurred, the student assumes that fidelity to the original technique will ensure that it works again when needed "on the street."

Note that not all techniques practiced by technicians are "too deadly to practice." A throw is still a throw, and a joint lock is still a joint lock. One may knock out a training partner while sparring. Nevertheless, a large proportion of the techniques in the technician arts are executed in faithful reproduction of an instructor's example. Students are graded according to their reproduction of the techniques. (Sparring may be part of the exam, but a great sparring student will fail if his or her techniques are not reproduced appropriately.)

Eyal Yanilov, head of the Krav Maga Global (KMG) organization, offers an example of how history plays a role in his art. Mr. Yanilov emphasizes his personal affiliation with the popularly recognized (although not necessarily historically complete) founder of Krav Maga, Imi Lichtenfeld (1910-1998). (That is another story that deserves attention elsewhere!) Mr. Yanilov and the KMG organization emphasize "training with the source," demonstrating that their technique will be effective because it emulates "authentic Krav Maga" used on battlefields and urban environments. 

Technicians are the second sort of emulators, because the core of their art depends on faithful reproduction of the techniques passed down by their instructors. History is important because it validates (in the student's mind, anyway) that the techniques worked at some point in the past, whether decades ago, or in the case of recent battles, criminal incidents, or counter-terrorism operations, years or months ago. Authentic emulation is the pinnacle of achievement because, at least for many techniques, they cannot be practiced full-force against non-compliant training partners. 

Technicians may also practice arts that are a synthesis of techniques with origins in other styles. For example, the "bump and roll" used to escape from grounded mount position in Krav Maga is derived from Gracie jiu-jitsu. By knowing the history of the technique, Krav practitioners can see how BJJ players learn and execute it. Sometimes this results in better execution, as finer details are sometimes lost when techniques migrate from one art to another.


Brandon Mullins and Stephan Kesting, BJJ

Contestants have little to no forms in their styles. They emphasize techniques for use in sparring against non-compliant training partners. Some of these arts may have form requirements at some point in their promotion processes, but demonstrating technique via drills or sparring is the core requirement. (For example, although there are judo forms, they are often considered an afterthought -- something to be learned in time for testing at a high rank.)

One would expect contestants to have less interest in martial arts history. They are likely to believe that "whatever works" here and now is important. One might hear the phrase "shut up and train" as the answer to a question about history. The reason they reject history is that sparring is the dominant method by which they learn and test their abilities. These practitioners obviously learn techniques, as is true for all of the groups in this essay. However, contestants judge the value of their practice on how well they perform against fully resisting training partners, within the rules created for their arts.

Robert Drysdale is an example of a contestant who has taken an interest in history. His research into the history of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu takes the form of a new book Opening Closed Guard, and a forthcoming documentary film titled Closed Guard. Mr. Drysdale is the only American to have won the IBJJF world championship and the ADCC submission wrestling world championship open division. He pursues BJJ history to show that the founders of the art were not superhuman individuals, but regular people like those practicing now. John Danaher, a phenomenal BJJ coach, expresses an interest in history because it provides him access to training methods and techniques from BJJ's mother art -- judo. Brandon Mullins, another accomplished competitor, told Stephan Kesting in one of their instructional videos how he watched grainy VHS tapes to learn tricks of the trade from others with similar body shapes and capabilities.

Contestants, then, benefit from history in two ways. First, history offers practitioners a means to appropriately align their identities and goals with those who have gone before them. They can draw inspiration from previous generations of competitors for spiritual and motivational purposes. Second, history can be a well from which modern-day contestants draw tactics and techniques for overcoming the competition. 


The author's first BJJ class (August 2016), at a school that offered a five hour "crash course" on jiu-jitsu

Thus far this essay has introduced two types of emulators, namely conformists and technicians, and the category of practitioner called contestants. There is another group that deserves attention. This constituency includes those who are not currently practicing martial arts, but for whom martial arts may be an interest. This group includes candidates.

Candidates are important because they are the new "white belts" or other first-time students that every school and art needs to survive. Everyone reading this post was a beginner at one point. Perhaps the reader did not consider the history of their prospective arts. However, history can be important for any of the reasons previously considered.

Thus far the accuracy and general believability of history has not been at issue. For candidates, though, the nature of the history they hear may help them decide which art to practice. Some candidates may want to study an art supposedly founded by a bushy-eye-browed female master who received a vision from a mountain spirit after meditating without food or water for a week. Others may be more comfortable learning that an art of interest was founded by a teacher from the late 19th century who synthesized unarmed arts that he learned from his instructors. Whatever the case, history can guide students towards a cultural fit for their interests.


The author as a ITF TKD white belt at a competition in 1996

This essay introduced two major groupings of martial arts practitioners: emulators and contestants. Within the emulator group, one finds conformists and technicians, with the former emphasizing patterns and the later concentrating on techniques. Some emulator arts integrate both forms and techniques, and can simply be called emulators. Contestants, on the other hand, stress whatever works against non-resisting training partners. While techniques are part of their practice, their art is less about duplicating techniques and more about using the techniques to achieve a goal in sparring. Every practitioner begins as a candidate trying to select the best art and school to achieve their personal goals.

It is important to realize that emulators can at times be contestants, and vice versa. The image above shows the author as a ITF Tae Kwon Do white belt after competing against the much larger yellow belt on the left. While point sparring is a part of most, if not all, TKD styles, it is generally not competitive performance that is required for promotion. Judo is a compelling contrast, because it basically has no requirement for forms until testing for shodan. The more matches the judo competitor wins, the faster his or her promotion.

Martial arts history matters to all of these groups. In some cases history is relevant because properly emulating forms requires knowing as much about the originators as possible. In other cases, correctly replicating the techniques requires faith that the art's methods worked at some point in an unconstrained conflict. For contestants, history can inspire confidence that past champions were not superhumans, and that their techniques can be learned or adapted for modern matches. Finally, candidates to join martial arts schools can use history to align their attitudes and interests with the right school and culture.

If you like this article, check out our Facebook pageInstagram account, Twitter feed, and Amazon Wish List. Be devoted!


Popular posts from this blog

Did Miyamoto Musashi Say Something Like "There is nothing outside of yourself..."?

December 2020 Book Survey: Miyamoto Musashi

Did Kano Jigoro Ask to Be Buried in a White Belt?