While most of my notoriety these days revolves around the firearms world, I have been practicing, studying, or teaching some form of Asian martial art (mostly Japanese) for 42 years now. Most were traditional systems, a few have been anything but. From early bare knuckle matches to a stint as a sparring partner for a former Midwest Kick Boxing champion my experience (some would say folly) has been varied. Everything from breaking bats with my shins to kicking apples from the tips of katana has been accomplished, and I have the knuckles, injuries and scars to prove it. As my experience and age increase my focus becomes staunchly traditional with little use for competitive martial arts. It brings with it an occasional question of hypocrisy, as my firearms training focus is a bit different. Recently asked”whats the difference between competing with a firearm, and Karate”I decided to answer that here. So, lets start with some clarification.
Fighting is well, fighting.
MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) to me is an organized fight with rules, similar to what we did in the “old days”. Are they competing, ya, but it cannot be compared to what is seen in typical “contests”. When asked to “teach me to fight” I send students to an MMA gym, especially if they want instant results. The best way to learn fighting is to fight, and that is what they do. There are some Japanese arts like Ashihara, Kyokushin and similar that are close, very close, but nothing at this point is more focussed on pure fighting as MMA. Properly taught traditional martial arts offer many things, fighting skills being one of them, but are simply not for everyone – especially if you lack patience. But you cannot compare MMA to”sport karate”.
Martial Arts designed to be Sports
Sports formed from martial arts are great. Judo for instance is a sport, as is olympic Tae Kwon Do. Much of the modern Kendo world remains focussed around its use as a sport. Some of these systems also provide training in more traditional fighting, but as a rule they understand the difference. Training, philosophy, and focus are all geared towards scoring points with the actual ability to fight secondary or non-existent. Most students know that going in. It is especially true in America with many arts bearing little resemblance to their Asian counterparts. Its not that these competitors cannot fight, some are excellent, it’s just not the norm nor the focus of the training.
Most Karate competition today is exactly the opposite of its early adoption as a training tool. Originally focused on application with competition a means to increase stress and safely test your skills, the reverse is often true – and there in lies my issue. Much of Karate today has tournament attendance and accomplishments the primary focus with practical application all but extinct. A recent conversation with a mother of a friend solidified this. She based her daughters entire ability on the fact she won her division at a local tournament? In fact, she calmly explained how she must be good because of all the medals accumulated. This is no neophyte to traditional training, yet she completely misses the entire point to martial arts training.
Power and focus are abandoned with many schools nothing more than organized babysitting. Kata(forms) are altered to look more like gymnastics. Low ranking students are taught advanced kata in order to “compete” – even our system recently experienced this. Emphasis during kumite (fighting) is on scoring points, posing for the judges, and “looking” like your punch had effectiveness. Contestants grunt, scream, stomp, slap their sides, yell, and contort themselves trying to simulate power and intensity. It can be quite entertaining to watch. Don’t get me wrong, if that turns your crank have at it, but don’t call it a martial art. It provides many of the same benefits of soccer, baseball, gymnastics, or any other sport, it is just not a martial art.
Competing with a Firearm
So, why is it I find competition with a firearm different? On its face it seems the same, and although similarities are present there is one significant difference, the gun. While firearms are often used at close distance, they deliver their lethality at range. The training is all about how to point (aim) then operate (manipulate) the firearm. Unless used as an impact tool, it is a delivery mechanism for the bullet, plain and simple. Firearms are nothing more than projectile launchers. Everything else is about how to launch the projectile, and it can occur at six inches, or six hundred yards. All the doctrine and dogma is nothing more than a means to an end. Whether delivered from a wheel chair or following a 10 mile hump through the mountains it boils down to proper aim and a trigger press that does not disturb that aim – or just dumb luck. Having investigated a number of shootings, skill is generally a non-factor. Sure it helps, but the bullet can’t tell whether you are a tactical guru or couch potato – it does its thing either way.
There is no better equalizer when it comes to the application of force than a firearm. Providing the most frail the ability to deliver a killing blow it is the ultimate in force equalization. Competition with a firearm not only provides fun, camaraderie, and a challenge, it provides a means to practice operating that equalizer in various conditions. Whether fighting paper or an attacker, being fast to target and accurate is a good thing. All the rules in the world don’t change the fact you must bring your gun to bear, aim, and fire hitting your target – preferably before the other guy in a fight. You can argue application, tactics, equipment, philosophy or anything else ad-nasuam, but the bottom line is you get better at the basics. The end result is the same, accurately applied fire, something incredibly valuable in a real fight.
Karate is Different
The same cannot be said for applying that force with your hands or feet. There is no tool to provide some equalizing factor, it is all up to you. If you never actually hit anyone, or get hit, how cool you look or fast you punch means nothing in a fight. Practicing kata without power, focus, or application (bunkai) makes it a dance and dancing does not prepare you for a fight. Applying techniques against the wind neither prepares you to make contact, or accept contact. Grunting or screaming looks great on video (sometimes) but is mostly just noise, ignoring the very principals of their application (Kiai and Kime). Winning tournaments means you are a great competitor, not necessarily a martial artist. Can you be both, sure, but is is rare these days. Having competition is great, so long as it is supplemental, not the primary focus of your training, at least if it is a martial art.
Bottom line, competition with a gun can improve your ability to win a gunfight, or survive a shooting (they are different). Having trained with some of the best pistol competitors in the world many of their skills transfer. The same simply cannot be said of the vast majority of martial arts competitions or competitors. So, is competition evil, of course not, like all things it is in the application. Like any tool, it is how it is used, and the mindset of the user. Used properly it offers great benefit, improper use just may get you killed so “choose wisely”.