Wednesday, June 9, 2010

David vs. Goliath

The martial arts are full of myths and legends.

Perhaps the most common is 'David versus Goliath': a huge, hulking brute, beaten by a small, mild-mannered master. This is Yoda, Mr. Miyagi, and every other stereotypical tiny, mystical authority.

The reality is usually a little different. Martial arts do help us to overcome limitations of size and strength. But only by becoming stronger, faster and more skilled ourselves. There's no magic to it.

A good example of this is Mirko Filipovic versus Bob Sapp. Filipovic (right) is a big man: six feet two, and one hundred kilograms. But Bob Sapp (left), a former professional footballer, is huge: six feet four, and close to one hundred and forty kilograms. Sapp makes Filipovic seem small. Looking at a photo of them together, it looks like doom for Filipovic.

But the smaller man won. How? By keeping his distance, picking his shots, and - I suspect - having better cardio-vascular fitness. He got close to neutralise Sapp's power, or just got out of the way. He set up his final punch with a low kick, following it up with a single, solid left (he's left-handed).

And how did he do this? As in writing, it didn't happen with magic, or short-cuts. Decades of training in boxing and kickboxing. And training regimes something like this: cardio and strength training Monday through Friday, mixed with grappling; mixed martial arts training every evening, except Wednesdays; another session on Saturdays, with rest on one day, Sunday.
No doubt Filipovic also watches what he eats and drinks, and has to sacrifices hours with friends and family.

The point? As I've argued elsewhere, the martial arts encourage genuine moral virtues, including courage, perseverance, pride. But they also demand physical virtues, which are painful, exhausting and frustrating to acquire. There are certainly epiphanies, as in martial art films: moments of insight and understanding. But most of the time, it's the banal job of getting fitter, stronger, and more skilful with techniques.

Again, it's just like writing: much of the job is quotidian and workaday, with the odd minute of reverie.

I'm certainly nowhere near Cro Cop's level, and never will be. But I know it - I don't think purity of mind or heart alone will make me a better fighter. I acknowledge how much unglamorous and uncomfortable work it takes to be David facing Goliath. This is perhaps the healthiest way to start any pursuit, with the pen or the fists.


scott-o said...

Interesting article - however I'm not sure that there has ever even been a pop martial arts movie [eg., The Karate Kid] that suggested that the moments of perfection came from anything other than hard work. All that 'wax on, wax off.'
Even Luke Skywalker had to work hard in the swamps of... where ever that was ... before he was even near ready.
My experience in the martial arts is that the realisation that there is lots of work involved is the main thing that stops people from coming back for a second look.

Damon Young said...

Thanks, Scott.

The films nodded to work, but they stressed the changes of character: spiritual lessons, existential insights. And I think this is certainly part of many martial arts (e.g. Budo).

But the craft of fighting is often a lot more brutal, repetitive and mundane than films (or our imaginations) suggest. They often offer short-cuts, tricks, or substitute psychological change for physical transformation. Daniel-san was a better man, but a poor fighter - so the writers give him a crane kick or drum block/strike to make up for his deficiencies.

It makes for good drama, but poor insight into fighting.

Daniel Keating said...

yep, it's just hard work like any other pursuit.

i often get new BJJ students who expect to be as good or better than the experienced students. especially if they're quite fit, strong and have been successful in streetfights. some are disheartened when they realise that it's going to take them a few years to even begin to be a threat to me in sparring.

they ask me if i'm going to have an MMA match in the future. i'm not sure i will, because it's just so much damn work. i don't know if i could be bothered training like a professional athlete for months to have a single fight.

someone like crocop has trained his entire life, while bob sapp was a relative newcomer to martial arts, and it showed in the fight.