Friday, November 13, 2020

Martial Misgivings: The Problem with Systems & Styles

Years ago I came across a quote I really like. It was something along the lines of,  “There are no martial arts styles, only human movement.” Either Bruce Lee or Dan Inosanto said it; I can’t find the original source anywhere online. Maybe I just made it up.

No matter where the quote came from, it reflects my own point of view. I have long been somewhat disenchanted with the idea of martial styles and nomenclature, something I’ve written about previously.

Specific styles of martial arts styles are, by their very nature, limiting. The idea of a “complete” style is fallacious; all of them have their strengths and weaknesses, no matter how seemingly well-rounded they are. A problem arises when those teaching an art refuse to acknowledge the gaps and holes in the curriculum and instead teach questionable techniques that reflect the style more than real fighting.

While this is especially an issue with traditional, closed systems, more modern, open systems are not immune. A perfect example is knife disarms. Both Aikido and Brazilian Jiujitsu have knife disarms. In my experience, none of them work very well against an aggressive, resisting opponent. They sure look nice though, and the Aikido knife disarms look like Aikido and the Brazilian Jiujitsu knife disarms look like Brazilian Jiujitsu. The style — not efficacy —  is dictating the technique. The basic knife disarm I practice and teach doesn’t really look like anything. Actually, it’s rather ugly. But it has been repeatedly pressure-tested and it works.

Another problem with systems is the fact that any martial art is effective against someone practicing the same martial art. This can lead to a false sense of security. If you are totally wedded to a specific style, you decrease the chances of training with someone with a different way of fighting. If you’re strictly a striker but have never gone to the ground, that’s a problem. The same goes for a grappler who’s never had to deal with punches. And note: Having one guy at your Karate dojo pretend to be a boxer so you can learn how to defeat a boxer is not the same as training with someone who actually knows how to box. Incidentally, I consider it imperative for anyone practicing unarmed self-defense to get some direct exposure to both boxing and Brazilian Jiujitsu. Many bad guys are would-be boxers and/or would-be UFC fighters.

Earlier I used the terms “closed” versus “open” styles. What did I mean by that? Closed styles are more or less done changing. They already have set curriculums, and while there may be some variations from school to school, in general there will be more similarities than differences. A Shotokan dojo is a Shotokan dojo no matter where you go. If you take a 5 year break from Aikido and then go back to it, the art probably hasn’t changed at all.

Enson Inoue
Open styles, on the other hand, have curriculums that are always changing. Sure, the basics remain the same, but techniques are regularly being added or dropped based on trial and error. A good example of this is reflected in Enson Inoue choosing to demote himself from Brazilian Jiujitsu black belt to purple belt. (He later reversed his decision.)  Inoue explained that he hadn’t trained exclusively in BJJ for a few years, and “didn’t want to go roll somewhere and be so out of the loop that it would put shame on the people who gave me my black belt.” He was legitimately concerned that the art had moved on without him, which it undoubtedly had. Essentially, if you take a 5 year break from training in an open style, expect that things will have changed when you go back, even if you go to the exact same school.

Closed systems are nice for historic preservation, but not for self-preservation. When it comes to real-world self-defense, techniques must change and adapt based on experience. I’ve come across instructors who teach techniques they acknowledge are, at best, questionable, and at worst don’t work, but they teach them because it’s part of the curriculum. I don’t subscribe to that approach. Anything I teach has been pressure-tested against aggressive, non-compliant training partners. If I don’t know first-hand that something works, I don’t teach it. If I learn a way to refine or improve a technique, I’ll change the way I teach it. To paraphrase retired United States Marine Corps general and former U.S. secretary of defense James Mattis, you can’t expect success fighting tomorrow’s conflicts with yesterday’s thinking.

It should be obvious that I have a strong preference for open, evolving systems of martial arts. What arts fall into this category? In general, combat sports such as Brazilian Jiujitsu, Muay Thai, Sambo, Krav Maga, and of course Mixed Martial Arts tend to be open systems. Filipino arts such as Kali usually are, but not always. Jeet Kune Do should be the most open system in the world, but alas, that often isn’t the case. Too many JKD schools insist on simply copying what Bruce Lee did, which totally goes against his philosophy. Lee wrote, “I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or molds. Remember that Jeet Kune Do is merely a name used, a mirror in which to see ‘ourselves.’”

Speaking of Bruce Lee, I find it interesting that there are still some Wing Chun practitioners who resent the fact that Lee moved on from the art before he finished learning the complete system. That sort of sentiment is echoed in a rather arrogant, reactionary book by Forrest E. Morgan called Living the Martial Way: A Manual for the Way a Modern Warrior Should Think. Morgan, who for some reason believes he can tell his readers how they should think, argues that a student shouldn’t leave their current martial art to pursue a new one until they’ve obtained black belt level.

Walk on....
All of this is nonsense. If Lee felt he had gotten all he needed out of Wing Chun, why shouldn’t he move on? Similarly, why should anyone waste time with any art that they feel isn’t worthwhile? In Brazilian Jiujitsu, you will generally learn the bulk of techniques relevant to real-world self-defense by the time you reach the blue belt level. After that, you’ll mostly be refining your skills and focussing more on advanced techniques for competition. In fact, and I could be wrong, but I think the Gracie Combatives BJJ curriculum only goes up to blue belt. I’m not saying people should stop training in Brazilian Jiujitsu after achieving blue belt status, and I’m not saying they should keep training either. I’m simply observing that someone could get quite a bit of practical knowledge from Brazilian Jiujitsu without earning a high rank.

Black belt?
(Let me note in passing that I’m ambivalent about ranks and belts. Sure, it can sometimes be a useful way to track progress, but people put way too much emphasis on this sort of thing, such as the aforementioned Forrest E. Morgan and his “you can’t quit until you’re a black belt” dogma. Earning a black belt sometimes means a lot, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not like you’re a magic-user in Dungeons & Dragons and go up a level and can now cast new spells.)

Reading this, one may construe that I am essentially in favor of training in mostly open systems, changing arts when appropriate, not being a slave to tradition, and altering techniques based on information gained from pressure testing. That’s exactly it. I am totally in favor of Bruce Lee’s mantra  “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.” 

It’s important to note that I am not uniformly opposed to the idea of martial arts systems. Having a system with a name and general curriculum is a quick, convenient way to convey some basic information to prospective students. If it were up to me, I’d describe my own style as bladed and impact hand-held weapons techniques from the Philippines; striking techniques based on boxing, Savate, and Muay Thai; stand-up grappling using Silat, Brazilian Jiujitsu, and Greco-Roman wrestling; and ground fighting based on Brazilian Jiujitsu. Alas, all of that won’t fit on a business card, so I just say Kali, Jeet Kune Do, and Brazilian Jiujitsu.

Friedrich Nietzsche
I think a good example of the right approach to martial arts styles can be to look at genres in films, fiction, and music. Both Public Enemy’s Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black and A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory came out in 1990. Both are examples of East Coast hip-hop. Yet while the two albums do share some characteristics, both is very much its own thing with its own sound.

I’ll close with a quote from one of my favorite philosophers, whose writing has had a profound influence on me and helped me to overcome my nihilistic tendencies, Friedrich Nietzsche. In The Twilight of the Idols he wrote, “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” 

Nietzsche wasn’t writing about martial arts, but he sure could have been.