Martial arts in the US, what happened?

27 Jun

PLEASE NOTE: this blog is most definitely NOT just nostalgia with rose colored glasses, that see’s the “good old days” as the “time of giants.” However, it should provide some perspective and raise some serious questions about martial arts in the United States over the past three decades or so. Perhaps it is a wake up call, or perhaps it is an ominous warning about our true character. Honestly, I am not sure which yet. But as always, my blog is here to ask hard questions, get people’s attention and start conversations.


I frequently cite my own biases and wrong perceptions as a young boy and young man. Despite the fact I had done western boxing around 8 years old, in my mind I didn’t start “martial arts” until I joined the late Pong Ki Kim’s Dojang in Woodside, Queens. The one thing I can definitely tell you was that I fully expected that learning martial arts was not going to be easy, and that there was going to be a lot of work involved.


Of course, back in those days all Americans sought that elusive goal, the black belt. Perhaps the first mistake we ever made as a community was elevating that concept to such proportions. There is nothing magic about a black belt, in fact it should be considered the standard goal, i.e. proficiency. The industry discovered to its horror that by putting the black belt on such a pedestal, it created the “black belt drop out.” Many people stayed to get the belt, then quickly dropped out.

That wasn’t my problem. I loved training, I wanted to keep learning. But for a variety of reasons, many either too complicated or too personal to discuss right now, I began to move on. I had a brief flirtation with Japanese martial arts, then returned to Chinese martial arts (which I had already begun simultaneously to my Taekwondo and Hapkido training). Once again, I fully expected hard work, perhaps even more so. Chinese martial arts at that time had an even more mysterious reputation. Ironically, when I started, it also had a reputation for a lot of FIGHTING.

The clip above comes from a Bruce Lee tribute film which I found on VHS as a boy. I literally watched it until the tape wore itself blank. This was the standard, this is what I expected, this is what I WANTED. Yet strangely, this clip can seem very strange and foreign to many martial artists who began training in the last two decades?

Now please understand, I am NOT saying these were superhumans. I am NOT saying these people were the best fighters ever. I am NOT saying to old, tired cliche “that if one of the real kung fu people had shown up at the first UFC…” MOST DEFINITELY NOT. I have previously posted actual “kung fu fights” from this era.

Watch the clip a few times. There is MUCH to be fixed here. Effective combinations are missing. The conditioning is clearly suspect. They need much better defense. However, it is full contact and they were fighting.

I must also note that during this very same period, the so called “hard styles”, the Gi-clad Japanese and Korean arts, were also much more realistic than the “point sparring” we see today. Watch the next clip…

The above matches, which include sweeps, low kicks and even throws! are a distant cry from the absolutely ridiculous “point sparring” we see today. I won’t even begin to discuss the “forms competitions” and how martial arts has become circus and gymnastics.

We see in the above two clips a foundation to do something more. I must note that in the “hard style” clip we see Benny “the Jet” Urquidez, who went on to become one of America’s best kickboxers. In other words, we were in that era on the 2nd floor of the building called “fighting.” We could have all climbed the steps, like Urquidez and a few others did. Instead, by a large, the community took the easy way out. They walked down the stairs, into the lobby and left the building.

People suggest all kinds of reasons for this; lawyers, insurance, people not really being interested in fighting, people not wanting to do hard work, etc. Unfortunately, all these suggestions ignore the increasingly popular and successful fighting communities we presently have in the United States, both Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and Muay Thai (Thai boxing). And the claim that people don’t want to “work hard” ignores that in the fitness industry right now, the “extreme” workouts like bootcamps and crossfit are the big draws.

So what happend?


2 Responses to “Martial arts in the US, what happened?”

  1. thekuntawman July 4, 2014 at 8:24 pm #

    I hate to say it, but I do all the time–but along with commercial ism, is Bruce Lee influence. Here is a young guy who had good athletics and good work ethics, and good skill… Who was a young guy with very little foundation, who made his own path. In other words, he had a little training and made the most of it then he taught himself and made his in style–and then he became famous. Then the worst thing happen, he preached the message to fire your teacher. Your teacher is wrong, make a style of no style, my way is more practical and you can do it look at me. So today we have people who don’t have the commitment who look for the easy path to skill. Just take some of this some of that (“best of all styles”/COMPLETE arts) and train/fight hard. Then on the other end of the martial arts community, we have the “anyone can learn” community. It’s not about fighting it’s about good grades and listening to parents, let’s made it swallowable for everyone. We lost our way…

  2. gpyrois August 14, 2014 at 2:31 am #

    Martial Arts is taught backwards! When a student first walks into a Martial Arts facility they are most likely wanting to learn to fight, self-defense, or their parents are pushing the issue.

    With this in mind their are few Martial Arts schools that will keep the novice students attention due to the slow progression of learning forms, basic punches, and or kicks. And if the student does forge ahead and attain a level which they are allowed to begin sparring, they quickly learn that they are ill prepared to deal with the speed and proficiency of say a novice Muay Thai student. This is because a Muay Thai student has from day one been practicing at real time and sustaining the normal knocks and bruises of full contact fighting.

    I believe that if students were turned loose from the moment they walked into the Dojo to practice, spar, and drill at real time. This would quickly calm the savage beast and adhere to them wanting to later-on slow down and learn the Kata’s and technical movements of their art.

    And lastly, you are correct! Once most people begin sparring they quickly realize that it isn’t the walk in the park they once believed. They then look to only work with easy targets or walk away from the discipline all together. It takes a dedicated and passionate Martial Artist to stay the course in all aspects, and we general find that it is a way of life for them and not a hobby.

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