Martial Arts Is for Fighting

Getting knocked over with a low strike.

Getting knocked over with a solid low strike I didn’t see coming.

The title of this post seems like a no-brainer. Martial arts is for fighting. No kidding, or so you’d think, unless you see how people train in the traditional martial arts, or what passes for them.

In fact, we don’t even have to look very far to get a sense of how alien a statement “martial arts are for fighting” really is. Consider the contemporary definition, provided by Google, for the term “martial arts.”

Martial arts, noun: various sports or skills, mainly of Japanese origin, that originated as forms of self-defense or attack, such as judo, karate, and kendo.

Let’s highlight some of those terms. The current definition of martial arts starts with “various sports or skills,” not a word about fighting, then attributes their origins to Japan (I hope you’re as mystified by this as I am, seeing as essentially every culture ever has had what could be branded martial arts and seeing as Japan’s are heavily influenced, if not outright imported, from China). The big kicker comes next: “that originated as forms of self-defense or attack.” Originated. Originated. Implying that that’s not really what they’re for so much any longer, which brings us full-circle back to the notion of “various sports or skills.”

Granted, I know there are about as many reasons to practice the martial arts as there are martial arts out there, and fighting doesn’t actually have to be one that is very high on anyone’s priority list in much of today’s world. People train for exercise, interest, development, friendship and family, and all kinds of other reasons. Great. Here’s the thing, though: if you train martial arts the way that they were intended to be trained, for fighting, you will get a better result in most of the other aspects of your training as well. Doing a thing right often has that effect, whereas doing a thing wrong only gets it by luck in blindness.

Now, I don’t really want to make this about the martial applicability of sport or demonstration martial arts (sometimes termed “wushu“). Instead, I want to talk about something a lot more practical for training Yin Style Baguazhang correctly, as a fighting art. Of course, there’s a lot that could be said on this topic, but I’m going to focus in on one particular problem.

First, an anecdote

Once upon a time, a couple of years ago to be sure, a couple of us from the Knoxville Yin Style Bagua group were cordially invited out to a local martial arts academy to show them what YSB is all about. After a short introduction and a little talk, they showed us a lot of what they do there, and they had lots of really nice, crisp, good-looking, perfectly-unlikely-to-work techniques, both in forms and “self-defense” application. We thanked them and complimented their technique, quickness, sharpness, and thoroughness.

Then, at their request, we provided a demonstration of a few techniques and their applications (pulling from the holding and lifting sweeping attack strategy within the Lion System), and the audience seemed to be more alarmed than anything else.

Soon after our demonstration, we began talking more about Yin Style with the head of the school and several of his black belts. The owner asked us, point blank, “So, after that demonstration, I have to wonder. What kind of a martial art would you say Yin Style Baguazhang is? Is it more forms, sparring, or self-defense?”

The question actually took us aback. I wasn’t sure how to answer. None of those categories seemed right, even though I should have known that the ubiquitous trichotomy of “forms, sparring, and self-defense,” the holy trinity of martial arts training, would have come up at some point in a “traditional” school. Yin Style, as its practitioners know, doesn’t fit neatly into any of those categories, and despite my many years in so-called “traditional” arts and even some MMA, I hadn’t ever really tried to categorize YSB until that moment.

I responded, “Yin Style is for fighting. It’s a fighting art.”

I don’t think the answer was well received, eliciting a combination of distaste at the brashness and annoyance at the idea that I’d have given such an obvious answer–one that could easily have been taken as insulting if he deemed that I was implying that holy-trinity arts aren’t really for fighting (mostly, they’re not). My companion seemed to sense the sudden increase in discomfort in the atmosphere too, though, because he added his (somewhat legendary in our circles now) two cents.

“You asked if Yin Style is for self-defense. It’s kind of more for self-offense. Like Jim said, it’s for fighting.”

This, as it turns out, was probably exactly the wrong thing to have said if our goal was to nurture a productive and fruitful relationship with a holy-trinity school, but so it was. All I could do is hastily try to add, “What that gets at is that our philosophy is that if you can fight, self-defense is no problem. If you can’t, it’s a big problem.”

The story should have ended there, but the owner of the school wasn’t satisfied. He asked if he could grab my wrist, and I agreed to it. His grip was firm but not strong or painful, and it was clear he didn’t want me getting away easily. He even dropped into a low, broad stance. “How would you get out of this?” he asked, half curiously and slightly defiantly. I hit him in the head (lightly) without bothering to do anything more than pull him to me by the grip on his wrist. …and so much for that relationship.

Note: Most MMA gyms do not qualify as “holy-trinity” schools because they focus on technique and sparring, even some more realistic fighting, which isn’t the same as splitting “martial arts” into three mostly distinct categories, usually forms/techniques, sparring, and self-defense.

Looking for martial arts but not finding it

If you were to ask me if I think that most holy-trinity schools have a lot of martial arts going on, the answer I’d tell you is “no, not really, not to be unkind.” To be fair, if you were to ask me if I thought that I had a lot of martial arts going on for most of my time training martial arts so far (YSB included before maybe 2012), I’d tell you the same thing. If you were to ask me the same thing about many of the the people who have trained with me, for the most part, yet again, I’d have to say the same. No. Not really.

I’ve seen this in every holy-trinity school I’ve trained with, visited, or been involved with in any way whatsoever. I’ve seen it for years and years in myself. I see it from so-called martial arts experts all the time. I see it come up often in the guys that come train with me in our weekly study group meetings. I see it when I attend YSB workshops from the attendees (definitely not from the instructor and his assistant!). I see people doing martial arts in a way totally divorced from fighting, and I was one of them for a long, long time. I used to call it the “knowledge-use gap,” and I had no idea how to bridge it.

I started crossing the bridge probably in 2012, right around when I first named the problem. Martial arts are for fighting, I realized, and that takes something I don’t see a lot of and have been diligently working to correct in myself over the past three or four years. There’s a certain mentality that’s needed, a willingness to make martial arts and the techniques we train legitimately about fighting (some call this a kind of meanness). There’s also a shift in focus that most holy-trinity schools, caught up in nonsense notions of what “traditional” means, seem to lack. Everything has to be made for fighting under some assumptions about realism, and the goals of fighting aren’t usually nice ones.

What we’re doing wrong: doing moves

Especially in traditional martial arts schools, we have a major problem that learning “martial arts” means learning moves, learning techniques, and then trying to do them, usually in highly controlled scenarios. This, in and of itself, is not something that anyone is doing wrong. It’s a great training tool that has been used successfully in every martial art ever trained by anyone (even sparring-oriented arts like Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing, and MMA programs utilize this training tool). The problem is forgetting the point, and it’s far too easy.

Remembering the point is a matter of simply realizing what not to do. Don’t do moves. Moves aren’t the point. The point is winning a fighting-oriented encounter, which may mean defending oneself, winning a contest in the ring, or winning a fight that’s happening for any other reason. The point is fighting and doing it successfully. So long as your intention lies on “doing the move” or “doing the move correctly,” your mind is on what you’re doing with your body and not on what you’re trying to accomplish with it, but it’s what you’re trying to accomplish that’s important. You’re trying to hit the guy; you’re trying to throw him down; you’re trying to knock him over; you’re trying to wreck his balance; you’re trying to beat him in a fight. In other words, you’re trying to manifest a particular outcome, and “doing the move” isn’t it. “The move” is just the vehicle. The point of the vehicle is just to get somewhere.

And here’s the thing: in a fighting encounter, if you enter into a situation intending to do a move, you’re going to succeed in that intent, and so it’s only likely to work if you get lucky. The move is disconnected from the point of the move if your intention is on doing the technique “correctly” instead of appropriately, which often means devoid of context. The context of the fight is the only context that matters when you’re in a fight.

So, if the technique you’re working on is a throw, keep your mind on throwing the guy instead of all of the technical content (which you should have drilled into yourself on your own already–that’s what training is for!). If the technique is a joint lock of some kind, focus on locking up that joint, manipulating the guy to get him to where you need him in order to injure the joint. If you’re trying to hit him, get his defenses out of the way and hit him! Your training experience, sensitivity, familiarity with bodies and reactions, skill with the techniques, and so on, will carry you if you’ve ingrained them, but you have to focus on the result, not the technique when you go to use it for real.

Focusing on “the moves” instead of on the intended results of the movements will invariably produce ineffective martial arts techniques that will never work for you in a real encounter unless they are extremely simple and natural. Focusing on the result will not only help you get better applications, it will also help you make your training and your “moves” more real and more alive, and that’s the only way you have a hope of making them work. You can practice moves all day long, but if your intent is wrong, they won’t help you. So, when you get a chance to try to apply them, work on accomplishing something with them, which will require timing, angles, footwork, and distancing. Over time, when you have the basic mechanics down, you can start to ramp up the realism.

Keep the intent

It is of utmost importance, then, when training martial arts is keeping the mind on the intent of the movements, how they can be used in a realistic fighting situation–at speed and with a resisting opponent (whether you spar as part of your training or not, more on that in other posts). It’s too easy to fall into a trap of trying to learn “moves” in a way that is disconnected from fighting, and that misses the whole point. The movements are for fighting, and getting that right will improve your training immeasurably, even though it’s hard.

Though not every martial artist is or has to be serious about training to that level, anyone who really wants to get things right will do it. The mark of a serious student, at some level, comes down to obvious work on how to make fighting applicability a central focus.

6 thoughts on “Martial Arts Is for Fighting

  1. This is the reason I finally left the school where I had “trained” for over sixteen years. It was clear the focus was not on the “martial” aspect of Martial Arts. I spend a fair amount of time in seminars with He Jinbao, but after the seminar it was never trained the way he taught it.


  2. It is a sad thing that a school can “split” martial arts into 3 like that.

    I think learning about, and really applying eastern basic philosophy can really be help.

    There is no absolute duality or separation in the Tai Ji symbol. And i frankly think that a basic undestanding of Yin and Yang theory could really help people who have think the way that school does. It could help in any aspect of life really.


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