On “The Best” Martial Art

On “The Best” Martial Art

Nothing is more harmful to the world than a martial art that is not effective in actual self-defense.

Choki Motobu (1870-1944)

After thirteen years, I recently got back into my first martial art: Karate.

Technically speaking, the school I received my shodan in was “Shudokan” karate, whereas what I have delved into recently is “Goju” karate. But the overlap is strong, compared — for example — to a hypothetical transition between Karate and boxing.

But those who begin taking Karate or Kung-Fu or some other “traditional” martial art classes are likely to encounter a particular kind of criticism — that they aren’t “real,” in terms of their self-defense value, and that the only legitimate forms of martial arts are Mixed Martial Arts, or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (or, if the critic is particularly autistic, handgun training). I myself have received these kinds of comments from friends who are more oriented towards MMA.

As someone who has variously studied Karate, Capoeira, Kali, and experimented with Kung Fu, Boxing, Jiu-Jitsu, Krav Maga, and Muy Thai, I think these criticisms are misguided.

The original purpose of martial arts was to kill an attacker — or, at the very least, to ensure that you survive the encounter. But a great problem poses itself upon all attempts to strategize and train for this (to create a martial art): how does one do so in a sustainable fashion? Acquiring the skills necessary to dependably defend oneself in a fight requires repetition, and repeatedly maiming and/or killing one’s training partner would eventually dry up all interest in learning, or else gradually reduce the pool of students to nothing.

All martial arts require rules to make training safe and sustainable. And while not all such rules are equal, they are difficult to compare because no comparison of martial arts is complete unless the contestants are allowed to kill each other.

Even a comparison where the contestents were allowed to kill each other would be incomplete because sometimes, street encounters involve multiple people, or weapons. Many arts have developed with these possibilities in mind, whereas an art like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu seems to be developed solely for the purpose of submitting an opponent in one-on-one contest, with no weapons or possibility of interference.

The point is not that BJJ is better or worse, but that its limitations are hidden by the current favored standard of comparison: the MMA one-on-one fight.

Such fights can be useful tools of comparison, but they are — as stated above — incomplete. While they certainly weed out “fake martial arts,” MMA style fights have their own constraints which make them imperfect as a comparison against other styles.

Example: gloves.

People have the wrong idea about the gloves. They think they civilize the sport, but they are the soul of its barbarism. The fine bones of the hand are no match for a heavy skull. Knuckles shatter on heads. But if you wind the hand in ribbons of gauze and tape, then armor it in foam and leather, you turn the fragile fist into a fearsome club.

Jonathan Gottschall, The Professor in the Cage

Most people don’t go about their ordinary day-to-day lives wearing 14oz boxing gloves, or even 8oz MMA gloves. A punch that wins a fight in an MMA match might instead destroy the hand of the puncher in a back-alley attempted mugging.

Perhaps victory is worth a broken hand. But perhaps victory isn’t certain… and now you have a broken hand.

By contrast, Goju Karate in particular was famous for taking the time to mold the hands into weapons even without gloves, by use of repeated strikes on a makewara training target over years.

Does this make Goju Karate superior to MMA or BJJ?

Short answer: it’s hard to say. Probably not.

The problem with many “traditional” martial arts is that they have become transformed into sports, or leisurely activities (Tai Chi in particular comes to mind). This is a problem that is slowly besetting even MMA fighting, although its no-holds-barred origins are more recent. But the problem isn’t the rules. The rules, after all, are necessary to training. The problem becomes a blindness to the existence of the rules, and the belief that one’s own art is in fact unconstrained by such rules, and that it is therefore the most deadly.

MMA and Boxing are limited to one-on-one fights and utilizes gloves.

Karate, Boxing, and Kali do not employ grappling.

Kung Fu does not even spar.

Boxing does not allow kicks.

Capoeira… where even to begin.

All martial arts contain constraints, and there is no way to train without programming that training — training evolved around these constraints — into ones’ responses in a life-or-death scenario. There are stories of police officers picking up their spent brass in the middle of a firefight without even realizing it, because that was how they trained. One could easily imagine an MMA fighter simply not even thinking of picking up the stick on the ground to beat an attacker with, having programmed his body to think of only his limbs as weapons. Conversely, one might imagine a karate practitioner — so trained in striking — being taken completely by surprise by an opponent who simply takes things to the ground in a Jiu-Jitsu fashion. And the BJJ-supremacist might be in for a rough night if they take down their drunken antagonist in a bar, only to be beaten to a bloody pulp by his opponents’ friends (who may not have had as easy of an opening against a striking strategy).

So which martial art is best?

None of them.

No martial art is complete, not even so-called “Mixed Martial Arts.”

This is something of a cop-out, of course.

If I had to choose which I thought was objectively the most dangerous, I would say Kali – the Filipino striking style that is most prominently used by military special forces.

But even Kali is incomplete as a method of self-defense. As excellent as it is with hands, sticks, and knives, it still needs grappling (like BJJ); it needs handgun-training, and — perhaps most of all — it must be supplemented by training in situational awareness and avoidance. Every true fighter must take some time to familiarize themselves with all four of these dimensions, and master at least two. The most important of these is not striking, nor grappling, nor firearms, but situational awareness.

So why Goju Karate? Why Kung Fu? Why MMA? Why Jiu-Jitsu?

All of these are partially effective. But the reason to choose any one of these in particular is — in my opinion — largely aesthetic.

In his essay “The Pleasures of Drowning,” Sam Harris describes the joy of mastering Jiu-Jitsu completely apart from its self-defense application, even though self-defense may have been a motivation and justification for taking it up in the first place.

This corresponds somewhat with my own preference for Goju Karate, which has more to do with my interest in the physiological and spiritual effects of breathing outside of a combat environment than it has to do with any supposed superiority of Goju Karate as a method of self-defense.

But that doesn’t meant that Goju Karate isn’t a serious tool for self-defense.

Sam Harris, like many others, fell for the BJJ-supremacy myth, and believes — along with millions of others — that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is better than other martial arts.

…to the martial arts community the first UFC events were a science experiment that had been centuries in the making: Finally, there would be an answer to the one question of perennial interest to fighters everywhere: “What is the best method of fighting?” After a few hours, the answer seemed clear—and it wasn’t boxing, wrestling, karate, or kung fu. Whatever a man’s size, strength, skill, and prior training, a relatively diminutive practitioner of BJJ, Royce Gracie, could completely dominate him.

As a matter of fact, wrestling is a strong contender with BJJ, as Kazushi “the Gracie Hunter” Sakuraba demonstrated. But again, this doesn’t make wrestling better than BJJ. BJJ is a very good self-defense tool. But it isn’t the best.

To make such a claim is to misunderstand the nature of self-defense and fighting.

In all probability, what is “best” in a martial art will come down to seriousness in training more than which art is chosen. Eight times out of ten, the serious Kung-Fu practitioner will beat the half-hearted MMA fighter in a fight to the death, and the serious MMA fighter will probably beat the weekend-warrior Kung-Fu student nine times out of ten.

Yes, the incongruity in those subjectively judged odds reflects a difference in combat application… in principle, if not necessarily between these two arbitrarily-chosen examples. But if you are looking at the difference between 9/10 and 8/10, rather than at the more dramatic effect of effort in training, then you’re looking in the wrong place, and no martial art will be effective in as a tool for self-defense.

Conversely, with the appropriate mindset, discipline, effort, and appreciation of the constraints which define distinctive martial arts, any legitimate martial art may be effective as a tool of self-defense.

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