Context In Evaluating Martial Arts

Posted on by & filed under Essays.

Everyone loves to talk about ‘practical martial arts’ and ‘real martial arts’ as if watching a video from their living room makes them an expert on the entirety of that style.  What no one mentions is that each combative system is a tool made for a specific job and, just like you wouldn’t pick up a hack saw and declare it the single greatest tool, you cannot say one martial art is superior to the others.

At best, one style could be argued to be more suited for a specific context. For instance, if you are looking at close range combat, then Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a fantastic system. However Brazilian Jiu Jitsu might not be a good idea if the person you are fighting has buddies that can kick you in the head while you’re on the ground. Similarly, if you are looking for a quick way to learn how to hurt someone than a striking art is a good choice. In a couple of weeks you’ll be able to throw a decent punch, however, striking arts assume an unarmored opponent; and size will be a factor in your techniques effectiveness.

Those weak points are evidence of the context theses martial arts were designed for. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu isn’t focused on multiple opponents because the Gracie family carried it around Brazil and honed it through one-on-one matches and exhibitions. In contrast, aikido’s context is rooted in the fact that it was synthesized from old Japanese war arts. Accordingly, its techniques were meant to quickly disarm while either maiming or tossing an opponent to the ground. One could then move to the next attacker or could easily finish off the downed enemy who was encumbered by heavy armor. That is why, even with intensive training in ukemi and controlled resistance, it’s so easy to accidentally injure an uke. Our techniques were designed for highly efficient violence, not sports, not movie sequences, and definitely not for friendly sparring.

Aikido was also made with the understanding that there could be multiple opponents. That is why we stay standing and emphasize finishing every technique balanced and ready to immediately begin the next. It’s also why every move must be smooth. To stop mid-technique and struggle against an opponent is all the pause needed for one to be surrounded and stabbed by a group.

Another core premise of aikido is that your attacker might be stronger than you. That’s why we focus on small joint manipulation and concentrate the entirety of our body’s force into a single strategic point. The other reason why our art focuses on locks and throws is because Aikido came from techniques a samurai would use when disarmed on the field. You cannot safely punch a man in armor but you can still preform a wrist lock on them.

Keeping this in mind, it is understandable why someone looking from a groundwork perspective would find Aikido impractical. Grappling was not a reasonable answer for our art’s context. You would quickly be trampled or stabbed if you fell in the field. Because of that, we do not train for or against grappling. (It is worth noting, however, that our sister art, Kodokan Judo, offered extensive ne waza or groundwork for situations where grappling was prudent. Still, no one would look down on a boxer who lost a fencing match, or a Kali practitioner who lost a sport tae kwondo tournament. Similarly, we cannot judge others by our criterion and should expect bad results when judged by standards not our own.

There can never be a ‘best martial art’. Be it ring, street, mat, or movie, there are only skilled martial artists who have learned to apply a specific tool for the specific context they have chosen to work within.