Saturday, October 14, 2017

My Black Belt Beats Your Black Belt

A friend of a friend (both guys are longtime Isshinryu karate practitioners) is a part-owner of a successful Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) school in the Hamptons of Long Island, NY. I went to his dojo years ago when he was still doing karate; he was fairly new to BJJ and showed some impressive on-the-ground techniques (his uke [attacker] was 6'8, 300 + pounds). At the time I was dabbling in aikido and tai chi, so the rough and tumble techniques of BJJ were refreshing, so to speak. I had no interest in regular BJJ training, but I respected its apparent effectiveness. My friend's friend has since developed some early onset arthritic joints (he's in his early 30s) from the habitual grabbing of other players' gi (judo jacket), armbars, and the like. His fingers in particular are messed up and will likely worsen, but no cauliflower ears so far.

His new school is a gold mine given that he's in a ritzy area and that he's teaching BJJ. His classes ain't cheap. Because BJJ has more "street cred" (his term) than most traditional martial-art styles, he can charge more — a lot more than the average karate school. I've discussed the efficacy of striking vs. grappling styles in this post, but one thing that really separates BJJ from the rest of the traditional pack of styles is this: for a typical student it takes about 12 years to get to black belt. This is roughly twice as long as it takes to acquire a black belt in karate or many other styles. While BJJ is still regarded as a "traditional" martial art — in that players practice in a gi, go bare feet, and adhere to colored belts for rank — its derision of other traditional arts has become a marketing ploy. From the website of one BJJ school in Texas:

Karate: the vast majority of what is called Karate today is about as effective as interpretive dance. Wide stances, complete lack of takedown defense or awareness of submissions and a general watering down of its belt systems have made Karate kind of hilarious. There are some styles that have proven to be effective, so never assume that someone who does Karate is ineffective, but generalizations can be made.

Taekwondo: perhaps the most popular and most derided Asian martial art, TKD has become a sort of a joke in that it is, on a fundamental level, simply tag played with ones feet. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is superior to Taekwondo because, simply put there is no distance management taught in most standard Taekwondo curriculums making it, on a fundamental level, ineffective…especially when someone that know what they are doing grabs you.

Taekwondo may have surpassed judo as the most popular style on the planet, thanks in part to its inclusion in the Olympics (like judo), but also (unlike judo) for its reputation for quick promotion and prepubescent black belts, resulting in its new moniker "take-one's-dough." In fairness, we have karate "McDojos" doing similar things for the almighty buck. To reiterate, the BJJ guy is raking it in. It's all in the marketing.

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Saturday, September 09, 2017

3D Martial Arts (And An Old Tale)

Here's a visually dazzling site that includes a catalog of some Japanese budo (martial ways), ceremonies, calligraphy and stage performance arts. While the computer graphics and 3D renderings are impressive, the descriptions, interviews and demos provided are comprehensive and well done. Of the non-martial-art themes featured it was the art of the Tea Ceremony — Sado (also called Chadō) — that caught my attention. Tea Ceremony has a long history in Japan which was influenced in part by Zen; Zen also influenced the development of Japanese martial arts. This inspired the fable of The Samurai and The Tea Master:

A tea master came into the service of a nobleman named Lord Yamagouchi. He poured and prepared tea for his master gracefully and with perfection. Lord Yamagouchi was so pleased he presented his esteemed tea master with the robes and rank of a samurai, which was quite an honor. Occasionally, the lord took his tea master with him on trips.

On one excursion, the tea master found himself in a precarious situation while out and about by himself. After turning a corner, he was confronted by a samurai. Appalled, the samurai questioned why the tea master wore the robes of a bushi (warrior). The tea master explained that his lord presented him with the outfit and rank.

Outraged, the samurai then challenged the tea master to a duel to test if he was worthy of this accolade. The tea master, being who he was, could not reject such a challenge. He agreed to the duel, which was to take place the next day. Terrified, the tea master quickly enlisted the help of a local swordsman to teach him the art of combat. But the tea master was no warrior and a crash course in swordfighting proved to be futile. Having an idea, the sword teacher simply asked his charge to do what he knew best — to prepare him some tea. The tea master kneeled in seiza and cleared his mind. With the dignity, grace and calm required of any master he prepared the tea.

"That's it!" exclaimed the sword sensei. "What do you mean?" replied the tea master.

"You don't need to learn anything from me. When you meet your adversary tomorrow just pretend you're preparing tea. Your state of mind when you perform the tea ceremony is all that is required. Just hold your sword like you hold your chashaku (tea scoop)." The tea master could not comprehend how his respectful ceremony would prepare him for a fight to the death, but with no other recourse he took his teacher's advice and prepared for the showdown.

The following morning when he met his opponent, the tea master performed exactly as his sword teacher had instructed. The samurai had expected to see a quivering wreck of nerves, but instead his eyes fell upon a quietly confident, unshaken opponent. In fact, he thought that this was an entirely different person than the one he encountered the day before! So awed was he by the man before him that he bowed respectfully, asked for forgiveness, and retreated from battle without once raising his sword.

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Sunday, May 21, 2017

Little Trouble In Big China

There was a famous bodybuilder from the 40s (I believe it was John Grimek) who as a teenager decided to enter a swim meet to be held at an Olympic style pool in a nearby town. He didn't have access to a pool or beach, so he decided to train for this event by swinging around a pair of dumbbells to mimic the motions of a swimmer. He did this for several weeks, and when the big day came and he jumped into the water for the first time, he nearly drowned before somebody rescued him. It's really reminiscent of the Bruce Lee aphorism, “If you want to learn to swim, jump into the water. On dry land no frame of mind is ever going to help you.”

Lee was speaking of what he saw as unrealistic training that doesn't prepare you for an actual fight. Of course there are styles that don't emphasize combativeness as much as others. It is also contingent upon how the syllabus for said style is presented, and this can vary greatly from school to school. Some clubs train for heavy sparring while others pair up students to work pre-set self-defense drills exclusively. Others still, more closely resemble the atmosphere of a gym. Be careful with that one, as gym is used as a term to describe some MMA and boxing clubs.

Over the past couple of decades, MMA has been held as a crucible for testing the efficacy (or lack thereof) of certain fighting systems. Again, not all styles prioritize fighting, but rather other ideals such as character, fitness, and tradition. A fat, brutish thug can still whip ass, and all the good intentions and knowledge of etiquette won't stop him in his tracks. A point match is not like getting mugged. How you train is how it happens.

Recently there was a match that pitted a retired MMA competitor against a proponent of taijiquan after the former issued a challenge to the traditional martial arts community in China in an online tirade. Taiji (tai chi) with the added quan suffix translates as "Grand Ultimate Fist" but for most people tai chi is not a martial art, but a regimen of slow moving exercises that supposedly enhances longevity and health. Clearly, the tai chi representative who responded to this challenge was not doing this for his health. For the record, the combatants are Xu Xiaodong, a Beijing-based MMA coach and promoter, and Wei Lei, the founder of his "Thunder style" of tai chi. Let the lightning strike:

While not particularly graphic, this was still painful to watch. Most of the spectators were clearly less than enthusiastic with the outcome. I'm glad Wei, the tai chi man, wasn't as seriously hurt as he could've been. But Wei said after fight that the only reason he lost to Xu was because he was showing mercy, fearful that his "internal strength" would prove to be fatal against Xu, the MMA guy. Not to be outdone, Xu remarked that tai chi is a "sham", followed by reiterating his challenge to the Chinese martial arts community.

Apparently this is causing a big uproar in China, including complaints issued by the Chinese Wushu Association, as they see this kind of a no-holds-barred match as an affront to Chinese culture and that it violates the morals and principles of martial arts. For this, Mr. Xu has gone into hiding. "I've lost everything, my career and everything," he said. "I think people misunderstand me. I'm fighting fraudulence, but now I've become a target."

I really thought the debate on this was long settled. I could entertain hard-style kung fu stylists taking up this guy's challenge, but to what end? Tai chi and other neijia (internal) arts were simply not designed for a ground-and-pound affair. Maybe if Xu comes out of hiding we'll see more of this kind of spectacle. I hope not.

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Saturday, April 01, 2017

Trump To Establish Executive Department For Martial Arts

In a stunning decision that comes from seemingly nowhere, President Trump has announced, via executive order, the creation of a Ministry of Martial Arts that will take its rightful place in the US Cabinet. Among other injunctions, martial arts curricula will become mandatory for all able bodied youngsters who attend public or private schools, including those who are homeschooled.

"I just learned that another great Republican, the great Theodore Roosevelt, earned a brown belt in judo. Teddy was scrawny and sickly as a child, but he built himself up. So in this spirit I will make it compulsory for today's youth to learn the martial art of their choice — with the best ones to compete at the highest level. We don't win like we used to and I don't care for losers, but all that will change, let me tell you," said the president. "We'll take so many trophies and gold medals it will make your head spin!"

Candidates to head this new executive office include Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal. "I don't recall Norris endorsing me during the campaign, so I'm thinking about giving Steven a call," Trump said. "He'll get confirmed easily, but I think he'll pass on the title 'Secretary.' That sounds weak."

Sensei Seagal was not available for comment as he's recently taken citizenship in Russia.



Sunday, March 26, 2017

Out Of Print, But Not Outdated

Now available online is a book penned by karate master Gichin Funakoshi, Rentan goshin toudi jutsu (Toudi arts: Polish your courage for self defense). Toudi, or to-te was the term originally used for karate before its codification on mainland Japan in the 1920s.

First published in March of 1925, this version is the sixth printing from just thirteen months later. It's a PDF format and in Japanese. There are over 200 photos, and two things I noticed were the high stances which are not a staple of Japanese karate, and nage waza (throwing techniques) that are given short shrift in most schools of karate. This was apparently before Funakoshi, who arrived in Japan in 1922, made some very deliberate changes to the Okinawa-te he learned back home. Funakoshi's style of karate eventually came to be known as Shotokan, a term the master supposedly never used or felt comfortable with.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part in an introduction into karate's history and formal etiquette required during training. The second part describes — using photos — how to make a fist, open-hand techniques including spear-hand and split finger jabs, stances (again, not very deep except for what looks like a lone illustration of zenkutsu-dachi from the kata Kusanku), embusen (starting point and directional line for kata), and directions for how to use a makiwara (striking post, usually bound with wicker). The third part is devoted to the complete kata canon of his system. The final section is entitled "Karate Research Gossip" which chronicles karate's development dating back to antiquity. [SOURCE]

Replete with illustrations, there are no English translations of this book to my knowledge.

For more works of this ilk go here.

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Sunday, January 01, 2017

Nunes vs. Rousey

Striking is back in style:

The UFC bantamweight title match pitting champion Amanda Nunes against former champ Ronda Rousey Friday night (Dec. 30, 2016) looked more like a boxing event than anything else with each opponent getting off few kicks. Rousey's head movement and defense was non-existent against the superior striking Nunes who scored at will. Rousey was stopped by Nunes after 48 seconds.

A world class judoka, Ronda never got to close the distance to use her grappling skills. Like I've said in earlier posts, I don't really follow the sport, so who knows how Nunes — who like virtually all MMA players has trained in Brazilian jiu-jitsu — would have fared on the ground against the likes of Rousey. The majority of Rousey's wins came by use of an armbar and have lasted on average less than a minute. Nunes lost in her pro debut via armbar submission in 2008. Grappling techniques like those found in judo, wrestling and BJJ dominated the early years of MMA.

Prize money was lopsided as Rousey was guaranteed a 3 million dollar purse to Nunes' $100,000, plus a "matching win bonus."

Ronda doesn't need to do this anymore. Hollywood's calling with even bigger paydays.

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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Glenn Morris: Profile Of A Ninja

Recently I received a copy of Shadow Strategies of an American Ninja Master by Glenn Morris (1996). Morris wrote a trilogy of these ninja books and I've previously reviewed one of them. (This post is not a new review, but an overview of the rather eccentric and controversial author who passed on in 2006.) All three works, which were written during the 90s, discuss the esoterica, history, and psychology of martial arts in general as Morris had an eclectic background. He held rank in Bujinkan Ninpo (a ninja ryu) and something called Nihon Karate Jujutsu, among others. Morris was a fan of mysticism and Jungian psychology. Testimonials from people he trained with credit him with mind-reading and the ability to generate ki (chi, qi) to greatly enhance self-defense techniques.

I realize that Morris' now-dated writing emerged in the aftermath of best selling books in the 70s and 80s by the likes of Fritjof Capra and Gary Zukav, who attempted to fuse hard science and mysticism. If Morris' books were published now there is little chance they would survive the scrutiny of a readership that is the predominantly info savvy critical-thinking crew who frequently visits Bullshido, an online forum debunking spurious claims made in martial arts. Without a doubt, Morris was out there in his views, but to his credit he was no Ashida Kim. Still, his combination of academic achievements and time spent teaching leadership courses and martial arts at colleges and abroad lend to a worldview and writing style that is unique and entertaining.

In his writings Morris laments that ninpo (ninja ways) have been misrepresented in the West, courtesy in part of a string of bad movies depicting ninja as crazed gymnasts (my personal favorite) and resulting in every huckster martial arts wannabe jumping on the ninja bandwagon. Following the ninja craze of the early 80s, comic book ad sales hawking shuriken (throwing stars) and ninja garb went through the roof. Suddenly, ninja masters appeared out of nowhere selling their wares.

(Click on image to expand)

Throughout his trio of works, Morris recounts his travels to Japan to train with the grandmaster of the Bujinkan, Masaaki Hatsumi (who for whatever reason occasionally dyes his hair purple), contacting colleagues via dreams, communicating with kami (spirits), and enduring the awakening of kundalini, the serpent energy that lies dormant at the base of the spine that when activated engenders superhuman strength and a sense of cosmic unity. The kundalini process is brought about by meditation, qigong, and specialized breathing practices associated with certain martial arts.

Before this is all dismissed as woo — let's not throw the baby out with the bath water — Morris does impart some conventional wisdom regarding the martial arts and the art of living. To paraphrase:

  • Finding a qualified teacher in a true bugei (non-sportive combat art) will likely be a daunting but worthwhile undertaking.
  • Take care of your body and mind with a meditation practice, exercise and healthy diet.
  • To get ahead in life use your brain to acquire an academic degree or skill. The alternative is not pretty.
  • Be kind to everyone you meet. Karma.
  • The way is in the training. Keep going. Keep playing.

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