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Best martial art?


"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?""Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.""Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit."Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.""Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?""It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.""I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled."  
- Excerpt from "The Velveteen Rabbit" by Margery Williams
What is the best martial art? This is an often-argued question. The simple answer is, "The one that works best for you." However, more may be said about the subject.


Practically anyone may become proficient at anything if they do it enough times. Just because a person seems to be an expert at what they do, it does not mean that what they are doing is effective for anyone else, including you. As with everything else in life, you should research and check out any martial art, martial art organization, martial art master, martial art school, or martial art instructor before you commit your time and money, and possibly your future wellbeing to it. The one you chose first will probably be the one to which you will commit yourself and stay with your entire martial art career. Therefore, be careful in making your choice.

If you want to know which movie to go see, ask people what is the worst movie they have seen recently. If you ask, “What movie is the best one to see?” you will get varying reviews based more upon the persons’ personalities, personal preferences, and emotional statuses at the time they saw the movie than upon a true assessment of the movie. However, if you ask what bad movies they have seen recently, you will find that there is an almost universal agreement as to what is a bad movie.

When it comes to assessing most anything, people may not know what is good, but they most always know what is bad. In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart tried to explain what is obscene, by saying, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it . . . " [Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964)]. Basically, he was saying “I cannot define what is obscene but I know what it is when I see it.”

The same applies to the martial arts. If you ask people “What is the best martial art?” they will usually think the best martial art is the one in which they are involved. However, if you ask, “Which martial arts are bad?” you will usually get a more accurate answer. A person may know nothing about tennis and may never have seen it played, but after watching a group of players play tennis, the person will be able to separate the good players from the bad.

Anyone with a basic understanding of science, physics, anatomy, physiology, etc. who uses logic and reason and does not let emotions, friendships, loyalty to instructors, etc. interfere with his or her thinking will be able to discern what martial arts are good and which are frauds. Sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes, when you step back and objectively analyze your own art, you find it is completely wrong.

Way vs. science

The Japanese terms budo (martial way) and bujutsu (martial science) are different ways to view a martial art. Martial art styles based on the martial way focus more on the development of moral character. In contrast, martial art styles that are based on martial science focus on the functional value of an art as a method of combat. It is difficult to sell the parents of a prospective student on the claim that their child will be learning one of the most effective scientific fighting methods in the world. However, is easy to sell them on premise that the child will be learning "self-discipline," "self-confidence," "courtesy," etc. as well as getting lots of exercise.

Many people say taekwondo is just a sport and is useless on the street. They say that the best self-defense style is grappling, as popularized in Brazilian jiujitsu seen in MMA matches. Other mixed martial arts claim to be the best for the street. However, is there one "best" art for the street?

For the sake of this discussion, "street" refers self-defense situations that common people may have to face on the street, not street fighting, or other supposedly no-holds-barred (NHB) fighting. In NHB fighting, there are written rules that help prevent serious injuries, such as no eye gouging, biting, or weapons. In street fighting, there are also rules, unwritten, but still strictly enforced. Street fighters like to street fight, so they must have rules to prevent serious injury so they may keep street fighting.

Martial arts development

Karate and its Korean counterpart, taekwondo, were developed as a civil system of fighting. They were never intended to be used on a battlefield or in competition. In their truest forms, they did not include ground fighting. Patterns contain locks, armbars, chokes, etc. but no ground fighting. Why? Was it a mistake, or was it intentional?

When the civilians designed the original techniques, the techniques were for use against violent and unprovoked attacks. There were no sparring competition techniques and, since there were no attackers that were planning to grapple with you, ground fighting was not needed. In a self-defense situation, your goal is not to win, but to safely protect yourself and escape.

Most modern ground fighting techniques were derived from competition fights. Even judo, which was designed as a sport, did not originally have ground fighting techniques. Jigero Kano founded judo in 1882. It was based upon the tenshin-shinyo-ryu and kito-ryu systems of jujitsu that were well-known for their striking techniques and throws. These were battlefield arts that were designed by samurais who would probably be decapitated by another opponent if they remained on the ground very long while on the battlefield.

In 1900, Kano arranged a competition against a fusen-ryu-Jujitsu school. In a strategy developed to confuse the judo fighters, the fusen-ryu fighters fell to the floor when the matches started. The confused Judo fighters joined them on the floor and were quickly overcome by the locks and chokes of the fusen-ryu fighters, bringing the first losses for the judo fighters in eight years. To help regain judo's superiority in competition, Kano added ground fighting.

As demonstrated in the movements in patterns, karate and taekwondo were developed as brutal martial arts. There are few controlling techniques, some throws, and virtually no pins. The techniques use kicks, punches, gouges, pokes, crushes, etc. that were designed to end a fight quickly and efficiently. When a fight went to the ground, the strategy was to kick and punch until you could get back on your feet.

Until the late 1900's, no modern military fighting system was based upon ground fighting. Captain Fairbairn, who developed a system of unarmed combat that was used by the Shanghai Municipal Police, British Commandos, U.S. Marines, British Special Operations, and American OSS during World War II, wrote in his 1942 combat manual "Get Tough!" that, "You will have noted that no holds or locks on the ground are demonstrated. The reason for this is: THIS IS WAR." No soldier wants to go to the ground where rocks, mines, or bobby traps may be present. Visibility range is limited, and one is helpless against another attacker.

Beginning in 1995, the U.S. Army began a revision of its combative techniques (hand-to-hand) training program. The program begins with the basics of Brazilian jujitsu ground fighting and progresses into the throws and takedowns of judo and wrestling and the strikes of boxing and muay thai. All this training is combined with marksmanship and contact weapons training from kali and the western martial arts into yet another integrated system of close quarters combat. I have not seen the entire training course, but from what photographs that are available on the Internet, the program seems to stress ground fighting.


I find it difficult to believe that ground fighting would be an effective method of combat for a U.S. Army soldier, wearing full-combat equipment, who is attacked by an insurgent who is wearing practically nothing. Due to the combat equipment, the soldier's movements are very limited, especially while on the ground. When in a combat situation, who would want to be on the ground fighting one attacker while other enemies are all around. If taken to the ground, a soldier needs know how to fight from the ground, but a soldier would rarely choose to go to the ground.

As in other types of military training, soldiers train for a short time in combative techniques and then rarely train in it again. When ground fighting is stressed during training, especially during the beginning stages, a soldier in a hand-to-hand combat situation would tend to revert to the techniques that were first taught, and stressed the most, during training. If these techniques were ground fighting, then, during an individual attack in a combat situation, the soldier is most likely to go to the ground. I for one would not want my fellow soldiers on the ground grappling with the enemy during an attack. In combat, the goal is not to kill one enemy to protect yourself but to kill as many of the enemy as possible before you are killed.

Remember, a good grappler knows how to grapple, a great fighter knows when to grapple. Grapple when you must, but on the street, it is strategically safer and wiser to remain on your feet.

So, what does an ordinary person do when attacked on the street, usually by a thug who has no rules and would just as soon kill you as not? Thugs do not grapple, they attack in the quickest, easiest way they can, usually with a weapon. In this case, you do what your art has trained you to do! Some questions to ask are:
  • What does a grappler do when attacked on stairs, on a subway, in knee-deep snow, or on a crowded street? 
  • What about an attacker with a knife or other concealed weapon? A person in a submission hold may not have an empty hand way of getting out of the hold, but a knife in the kidney will end the hold and the holder. Thugs do not walk around with just one weapon. You may control the arm with the gun, but the other arm may pull a knife. 
  • When dragged into a broken glass filled alley, do you want to grapple on the ground? 
  • Do you want to get into a test of strength with an attacker who is high on psychoactive drugs? 
  • What does the grappler do when the attacker has a friend? Do you want to be on the ground holding an attacker, when a friend comes to his or her aid? 
  • While you are holding down one attacker, what will the other attacker be doing with your date or spouse? 
  • Where is the attacker's face while you are grappling? An attacker may not be able to escape from your hold-down, but he or she can still bite and humans are capable of deep ripping bites and can bite off fingers, noses, ears, etc. 
  • If you are a law enforcement officer, do you want to grapple with a suspect and give him or her an opportunity to grab your firearm or another weapon? 

Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee, the 10th-degree black belt who introduced taekwondo to the United States in 1956 was asked in an interview "What types of martial arts training will get me in shape and boost my confidence?” He answered, "If you had asked me this question 30 years ago, I would have said taekwondo was the best to keep you in top shape and build confidence, but now I say the differences are not in the styles but in the individual instructors. If an instructor has the knowledge, integrity, and takes the students sincerely, the results will be good."

The martial art you choose is like insuring your house. Hazard insurance for your home is expensive, so when you insure your house, you only ensure it against reasonably expected calamities. Every homeowner insures against fire, but if you live on a hill, you do not need flood insurance. If you live in Maine, you do not need wind insurance. However, if you live in Florida, you do need flood and wind insurance. You only need to ensure against reasonably expected calamities. You may insure against more if you choose, but it is basically a waste of money.

Risking your time, money, and injury to train for a situation that is not likely to occur is a waste. Most people have never been in a fight and will never be in a fight so training for one is a waste. Train in a martial art that serves your purpose, not the purpose of the martial art. This does not mean you should not be prepared for the unexpected. Every martial art teaches self-defense techniques as a part of its curriculum. These are simple, easy to learn techniques may be used in extraordinary situations. You should choose a martial art that fits your lifestyle and your likelihood of using it for its intended purpose.

So, which is the best martial art?

According to Walter Eddie, the United States Heavyweight Taekwondo champion in 1981 and a 6th-degree black belt, "Under proper instruction, an individual develops the key elements of focus, balance, coordination, speed, and power." As long it is learned from an experienced instructor, who is respected amongst other local, regional, or national martial artists, and is accredited by some legitimate organizations, any martial art may be the best.

Do you even need to be proficient at a martial art to be an effective fighter? Many traditional martial art weapons began as farm or work implements used by pheasants. To defend themselves against attackers, they learned to use the implements as weapons, for example, the nunchaku and tonfa. Pick any type of modern profession that uses a lot of physical effort and you will find a fighting style amongst the workers that uses the movements or tools of that profession. Farmers who use shovels, hoes, pitchforks, etc. developed a style of fighting with those implements. Railroad workers, mechanics, truckers—no matter the profession—they all have a style of fighting that uses the motions and tools that they use on the job every day. When you work at something every day you become good at using the motions and tools of your job.

While in the navy, I lived in Iceland for four years. The Icelandic economy revolves around fishing and sheep products. Icelandic fishermen work every day for months at a time fishing in the North Atlantic, pulling nets, lines, etc. Some do not look physically threatening, but they are still very powerful and hard as rocks. Every time I responded to fight in a club that involved sailors and Icelanders, I found the sailors had gotten their butts whipped by the Icelanders. I played judo with Icelanders many times. Their arms were like steel pipes. Even with their inexperienced players, it was nearly impossible to get an armbar on one of them. I trained an hour or two a day, five days a week, while they had been pulling nets and lines 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, for months.

The bottom line is: any fighting style is better than no fighting style, and a fighter who is highly skilled in a fighting style is usually a better fighter than one who is merely proficient in another fighting style.

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