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Author Topic: Are Traditional Martial Arts Dead?  (Read 2122 times)
SB_Mig
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« on: November 19, 2007, 11:36:47 AM »

Would love to hear what people have to say about this article...

Are Martial Arts Dead?

By Herb Borkland

In Chinatown last summer at Tony Cheung's restaurant, Willy Lin passed along his tien shan pei grand mastery to sifu Dennis Brown. Maybe you read my Inside Kung-Fu story.

On that bright, hot afternoon upstairs in the third-floor banquet room, about fifty of us, including grand master Jhoon Rhee, witnessed History being made. Dennis Brown is the first black man to inherit the robe and bowl of a traditional Chinese art.

This great honor was well-earned. Among so many "firsts," Dennis Brown is the first African-American ever to have trained in China. Dennis has always been a pioneer, always stood for tien shan pei. His is the power of one life/one style.

Dennis and I go way back. I did his "Hall of Fame" write-up for Black Belt; and he rode shotgun as my color man back in the late 90s when we were broadcasting ESPN-TV's weekly Black Belts half-hour.

After the traditional tea ceremony, during the banquet that followed, I found myself sitting next to another old-schooler I call Joe Dojo. Old Joe is the opposite of Dennis Brown. I've lost track of what-all ranks Joe holds in how many different arts.

Joe and I played "Whatever happened to...?" But while we chatted and ate Tony Cheung's famous food, I could see Joe was not his usual, smiling self.

"What's eating you?"

"I feel like I'm at a funeral." Joe shook his shaved-bald head. "The martial arts in this country are kaput."

I laughed. That's a German expression for "over and done with."

Joe was serious. "America's fastest-growing sport is mixed martial arts. That's what's driving the last nail into our coffin."

"Then what drove the first?"

"Jhoon Rhee " Joe pointed to the Korean legend seated at the head table "and Educational Funding Company figuring out how to include kids in classes."

This is generally considered to be one of the triumphs of our industry. "Yeah? Then what was the second nail?"

"Lil' Dragons."

"Kimber Hill figuring out how to train three- to five-year- olds... that's a bad thing?"

Joe nodded his lean, gray, wolf's face.

"Joe, you got it backwards. Because of all the kids, there are more schools out there doing better than ever before. Millionaire owners are becoming almost commonplace."

Joe leaned forward, showing the sudden intensity that makes him, even today, a tricky sparing partner. "In these big-money schools, what they're teaching Lil' Dragons is their last name, how to count to ten, basic shapes and colors, and how to call home on a cell phone."

"They're also exposed to basic kicks and punches and holds."

Joe's eyes sparkled with bitter amusement. "Okay, and what are the older kids and the 'tweenies learning? Nonviolent conflict resolution, Stranger Danger, good study habits, clean up their rooms at home, respect for their parents..."

"Joe, today's kids train hard up through colored belts, just like we did, and nowadays they're much better athletes."

Even as I said "athletes," I felt a twinge of conscience. The guy who introduced teenaged Bruce Lee to Yip Man, Duncan Leung, wing chun's dark genius once laughed when I asked if he jogged or what. "I don't run. I don't lift weights. I smoke cigarettes. I am not an athlete. I am a kung-fu fighter."

Joe dropped his fist on the table and rattled everybody's tea cup. "And if these kids do get first dans at the age of ten, what is their belt in? A martial sport. Now tell me again, what's the name of the most popular new martial sport?"

I sighed. "Mixed martial arts."

"You mean Ground & Pound, don't you? Any second-rate Golden Gloves boxer laughs at MMA punching skills. 90% of MMA guys' kicks are the same front-round-house Uzbekistani judo guys use. And MMA wrestling chops come down to shoot and mount. Then it's left-right face-smashing."

A Net-video producer seated on Joe's right looked ready to cloud up and rain all over him. Suddenly, he spoke up. "That's just... ignorant."

Joe raised his voice. "The worst of it is the pro wrestling mouth on these MMA guys. There's no respect, no dignity, no honor. It's all masochists buffing up to show off their tattoos, auditioning for some damn reality show "

The producer snarled, "Masochists?!"

Joe glanced over his shoulder. "If these guys don't like to get hurt, what are they doing there? Martial artists train to get stronger and healthier our whole life. And the entire point of traditional training is to not have to fight at all."

"Now wait just a "

"The truth hurts, huh?" Joe turned back to me. "One more question: What's the millionaires' schools biggest student retention problem?"

But again it was the producer who growled, "Keeping teenage students."

This time, Joe didn't even look around, although the whole table, by now, sat, heads low, studying their fried rice.

"So at exactly the point when young martial artists are finally mature enough to be taught and to understand and appreciate their art's fine points, suddenly wham! they're gone from the school."

In truth, hanging on to teens is a huge concern, and some high-ranking masters are openly wondering where the next generation of instructors is going to come from if you can't hold onto the teens?

"And how many of the drop-outs go off to study MMA?"

Funny that Joe should ask. My 24-year-old nephew, a good kung-fu disciple who grew up in Bakari Alexander's Rockville, Maryland Academy, quit a couple years ago to train in MMA, and he had a few fights on the local circuit. After a lifetime of body conditioning and Chinese fighting smarts, he lasted less than six months.

"Do you personally know any MMA fighters?"

Now my nephew has permanently crimped lower spinal vertebrae which will never get better and can only get worse and also complains of "floaters" in both eyes. That sounds to me like at least one ring concussion. Not good.

Even so, by now I was angrier with Joe than with the MMA guys, who, at least, have hearts like lions and, in today's Chick America, are proud to act like men.

"Listen, Joe, I hear you. You think old-school training is drying up because of children in the schools and the sportsification of our arts. But you don't get it. From coast to coast, the traditional ways are still going strong, and it's the littlest kids making it possible."

"?"

"Whose tuitions do you think subsidize the masters' adult classes? And these classes are for hard-core grown-ups, just like us back in the day, only there are too few of 'em by themselves to keep a purely traditional school alive. In the States, there never have been enough Dennis Browns."

The other people around the table put down their chop sticks and nodded. Joe met their eyes with a shrug and finally broke out that game smile he always flashes when the going gets tough. I looked closer, and it occurred to me Joe is starting to show his age.

"Don't any of you get it? MMA proves to this generation that none of the martial arts is worth a damn in a real fight. And a few traditionalist students out training in somebody's garage is exactly where we started forty years ago. What did Dylan say? 'He who isn't busy being born is busy dying.'"

Joe got up, bowed to our table and threw Willy Lin and Dennis Brown the hand-over-fist shaolin salute. He left the restaurant, walking tall but looking somehow frailer.

The producer gave me a look. "Who is that dude?"

"Ever read Macbeth? He's the ghost at the banquet."
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Howling Dog
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« Reply #1 on: November 19, 2007, 04:21:30 PM »

Woof, I too think this subject is worthy of some conversation.
I for one would hate to see the traditional arts fade, or be smeared into obscurity. It is my hope that there will always be those tradionalists who will preserve the arts.

Having said that, would it be safe to say that Bruce Lee started this?
I'am also not big on evolution....however.....in this case I also think MMA is the natural progression of the arts........I find todays cage fighters to be highley skilled, much more so than the presented article gives them credit for.
Just my opinion...hope to hear more.
                                                       TG
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Howling Dog
Crafty_Dog
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« Reply #2 on: November 19, 2007, 07:18:11 PM »

Interesting question.

May I suggest that we need to define "traditional martial arts" (TMA) as a starting point for the conversation?

The article seems to think that traditional "Chinese Martial Arts" (CMA) is a synonym for TMA, but is this really so?

The word "traditional" to me speaks of  , , , tradition, of unbroken lineage.  In this sense, Dog Brothers Martial Arts is a TMA.

TAC,
CD
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Dog Pound
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« Reply #3 on: November 20, 2007, 02:29:16 AM »

For me, the term "traditional martial art" describes an art that has devolved - where mastery of the art becomes a regurgitation of the recording system that should have been used to transmit the art.  In the article, MMA is presented as the antithesis of TMA.  I think MMA is driving a martial evolution, but the circus/sport/soap opera elements leave a bad taste in mouth (but they maybe needed to drive a mass appeal).

As I understand Crafty's use of the term, a TMA is an evolving art that remembers where it came from (honors its predecessors).  I agree with this goal, but the connotation of TMA leaves me cold.

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I don't know how many of them it would have taken to whip my ass, but I knew how many they were going to use. That's a handy little piece of information.
- Ron White

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SB_Mig
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« Reply #4 on: November 20, 2007, 12:14:41 PM »

I think that the definition of TMA is key to the argument.

To me, a traditional martial art has a traceable and continuing lineage, and embedded traditions. These arts show respect for the past, live in the present, and train their students to carry on the ideals and movements that will define the system in the future. And a large part of that carrying forward has to do with tradition and ceremony. Crafty mentions DMBA as being a TMA and I believe it to be one. What is more traditional or ceremonial than The Gathering of The Pack? Does the DBMA not acknowledge their history and work to preserve it while at the same time evolving the training methodology and thinking? Absolutely.

When 90% of the population thinks "traditional martial arts" they think Karate, Kung-Fu, and Tae Kwon Do. This is not only due to the overwhelming marketing of these arts in the past 25 years, but to the basic lack of information (or dissemination of information) about arts such as Eskrima/Kali/Arnis, the various Silats, Sambo, Krav Maga, etc. To my knowledge, the show Human Weapon (which has definite pros and cons) is the only show of its type to delve into styles like Pankration, Bokator, and Savate. And I'm sure that more than a few of us have received blank stares when we mention Stickfighting or JKD, not to mention Muay Thai (unless you say cardio-kickboxing  wink).

So, the public is only working off of what they know and what they know is limited to 3 arts. What do they know about these arts? Belt systems, belt testing, and a lot of "Hiiiii-yah!" Very few of them know of the arts' lineage (where does it come from?), the traditions embedded in the systems, the meaning of the movements and katas (and we do this why?), etc. Since their exposure to the more "diverse" martial arts is almost non-existent, they do not realize the these other systems also contain rich traditions, lineages, and ceremony. In my mind, this is  the first step in the de-evolution of traditional martial arts: the loss of internal knowledge of a martial arts system.

I think that Joe Dojo's argument in the article is not necessarily with the loss of "tradition" but about the loss of "heart" and true understanding of what it means to be a martial artist. When I began training in martial arts as a young teen, I attended an extremely traditional school. The classes were physically and mentally brutal. The Grandmaster was of the old school: no talking in class, respect for your higher ranking classmates, and strict adherence to all the rules. If you didn't know your training come belt time, you didn't progress. Period. At the time it was extremely frustrating and disheartening. But looking back on it know, I realize that the school was structured to build the character and skills necessary to build strong individuals and serious martial artists. It was not there to be a "Black Belt School" or hand out undeserved accolades. And unfortunately, this mass push to black beltdom seems to be the trend.

The other downside of many TMAs is their inability to evolve, their inability to adapt to the realities of the world today as opposed to the world of say 16th century Japan or China. The root of what Bruce Lee described as the "classical mess". If TMAs are dying it is due to their own lack of forward progression, their inability to even consider thinking outside the box. Their inflexibility brings about stagnation and disinterest, which ultimately leads to loss of students.

The "kids" today want blood, not knowledge. MMA, fight clubs, online street fights, have reduced most conflicts to what people perceive as swinging of fists and ground and pound. For the most part only those trained in martial arts can see the strikes and techniques for what they are, and in some cases even trace them to a particular system. For the general public, it is hard to say "Hey, that was a great PIA entry to a Kosoto-Gari". But then again, for the general viewing public it is about "the soap opera".

When it becomes about the getting the belt/tv show/fight as opposed to getting the knowledge, you have a problem. And we seem to have a big problem.



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maija
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« Reply #5 on: November 20, 2007, 10:21:37 PM »

Aah this is going to be an interesting thread....
SB_Mig said: ....(and we do this why?), said in the context of learning the meaning behind the movements in TMA.
That, to me, just about sums it up.
WHY you do what you do is the reason behind all the traditional teachings, and generally the thing that is lost first before an art stagnates and dies.
In times past it REALLY mattered if something worked or not. Martial arts schools were not esoteric places back in the day, they hired themselves out to protect caravans from bandits and to whoever else would pay. Villagers/ Tribes learned to protect themselves from adversaries and the rich and powerful kept guards to protect them from ambush and assassination....and to do it to their enemies.
Obviously weapons figured largely, bladed and otherwise, and challenges and dueling were common.
Today we live in a society where it is "inappropriate" to test your skills to their fullest extent, so TMA are faced with a question of how to train and pass on meaningful learning that is difficult to use and test in real life?
If the teacher does not understand strategy (...and we do this why?), how is an art ever going to mean anything to the next generation?
My teacher maestro Sonny Umpad taught by directly teaching strategy. In fact he said " I am not teaching you, I am showing you what I do". He did not want you to copy him, he wanted you to take what he did and make it yours by understanding the "why" behind his movements. You learned by getting hit (alot!) until you understood why and how to prevail.
I suspect one reason that MMA is so much more popular is that it is actually "testable". Is Contender A better than Contender B? Well, let's see....
Obviously MMA still has rules to follow, and sometimes the ability to endure getting hit figures much greater than fluid skill, but I do think that the breaking down of the barriers between martial styles (striking/stand up/ground etc) found in MMA could breathe some fresh air into the dark corners of TMA and hopefully get some  interest in researching the "old ways".
"The Book Of 5 Rings" still sells today because strategy/ human psychology has not changed so very much in 450 years. If the "why?" stays connected to TMA I believe they will survive to grow and innovate, if not............

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It will seem difficult at first, but everything is difficult at first.
Miyamoto Musashi.
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