Thursday, December 9, 2010

Mixed Martial Arts: A Conversation

After my recent Sydney Morning Herald column on martial arts, I received an email from a reader.

She liked my points about martial arts, but thought they clashed with my introduction: surely my ideas don't apply to the Ultimate Fighting Championship?  Surely there's a 'vast dichotomy' between Japanese arts like Karate-do, and mixed martial arts?  One's for warrior-sages, the other for thugs?

It was a good conversation, which probably echoes many others going on in homes, gyms and online.  With Em's permission, I've reproduced it below.
Hi Damon
I enjoyed your article in the SMH but it seemed a trifle specious. The more you discussed the practice and philosophies behind martial arts the more you widened the gap between that and your initial subject, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. There’s a vast dichotomy between them: wouldn’t you agree?
Best regards
Em

G'day Em,
Thanks for your email. Can you elaborate a little? In particular, can you detail how my points don't apply to mixed martial arts?
My background's in the so-called 'traditional' martial arts, but I've certainly see no contrary evidence in mixed martial arts classes. (My book illustrator's an MMA competitor.)
Cheers,
Damon

Hi Damon, thanks for your reply. I hope I’m not wasting your time! Sorry for my delay. Have been a bit swamped.
I only wrote to you because I enjoyed your article so much - but was confused toward the end as to the point you were making, considering the way you opened.
For instance you opened with the description of the Ultimate Fighting Championship: ‘Fallen fighters were mounted and punched. Cut combatants kept fighting and bleeding’ and then moved onto your excellent descriptions of martial arts and how violence / fighting can complement philosophical inquiry. In simple terms, I got the impression that there is a ‘gentlemanly’ way of fighting ‘martial arts require reliable, robust co-operation’ and an aggressive, crueller way of fighting ‘Research reveals that the character of the teacher and school is important: the more vicious gyms or coaches can encourage anti-social behaviour’.
By the end of it I still had the feeling that your opening example of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and the fighting it exemplifies fell in the camp that encourages anti-social behaviour. You say ‘Screaming ultimate fight fans might look bloodthirsty, but the competitors can be restrained, thoughtful and courteous in daily life - chivalrous if not philosophical.’ But isn’t the point you are trying to make that in martial arts, combatants should be restrained, thoughtful and courteous even in combat?
But as you say, perhaps I am just ‘the uninitiated’! I do see the benefit in types of fighting, and agree wholeheartedly with the benefits you describe ‘discipline: we control our darker urges, instead of being controlled by them. We abide by rules, follow etiquette, manage impulses’ but you haven’t won me over to the no-holds-barred approach!
Have a terrific weekend and thanks for your article and research.
Best regards
Em

Thanks, Em. I see what you mean now.
But I do think you're mistaken. Mixed martial arts looks vicious and inhuman. But this is what full-contact fighting always looks like to me. Traditional Karate is often courteous, philosophical, calm. But its 'knock down' tournaments are brutal. Tai Chi is slow, meditative. But its San Shou competitions are tough. Judo was explicitly developed with an educational philosophy in mind - Kano was an educationalist. But Judo tournaments can be nasty to watch (particularly for me, with a Judo injury). MMA is the same, only it combines grappling and striking. To anyone familiar with MMA, it's just another full-contact competition.
Now, a few important points:
1. In all these examples, the fighters are restrained, courteous, mindful. They still bow, touch gloves, follow the rules, and listen to the referee. They still release holds when their opponent taps, and stop punching when they're asked. It looks vicious, but it's a very well managed and policed sport. Hence: less head injuries than boxing, according to John Hopkins research.
2. We don't see the competitors before and after. These guys are often very polite, humble, and sometimes well educated. There are doctors, lawyers, academics - in the amateur ranks, at least.
3. The Ultimate Fighting Championship is a competition, not a style. And mixed martial arts is a ruleset, not a style. Within both, there are karateka, judoka, thai boxers, kung fu boxers, and so on. In other words, many fighters are 'traditional' in origin - but they compete in an MMA ruleset, in a UFC competition (or equivalent). They still retain the virtues of their styles, but they compete in a different arena.
Overall, my point's a simple one: the dichotomy is not as vast as you suggest. Many MMA fighters have 'traditional' links, and many 'traditional' styles also fight full-contact (which can be brutal).
So if 'traditional' martial arts can encourage virtues, so can mixed martial arts. The most important thing is the teacher and school.
Whew. What do you think?
-Damon

Hi Damon,
Whew indeed! Very exhaustive, but not exhausting. Please consider this a tap! 
What do I think? I think I’m a pacifist who admits that force is sometimes (even, often) necessary, and that fighting can, as you say, be part of a broader educator of the human condition and our darker nature. But I don’t think I’ll be attending any championships any time soon! Perhaps it’s partly a gender difference… but there I go, opening up a whole new can of worms!
Best of luck with your book and wishing you a speedy recovery from that Judo injury.
Regards
Em
(Photo: US Army)

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