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What's So Bad About Martial Sports?

By Herb Borkland

Venom-dripping hate speech or plain common sense? Readers' opinions clashed over my inaugural column, "Are Martial Arts Dead?", except concerning one point. One flash point.

Let me quote from a typical email. Everybody agrees I "...say martial arts are better than martial sports, but," you insist I am "...wrong. A punch is a punch. A kick is a kick. There's no difference."

The difference consists in precisely this, that the sport's kick and punch may be almost all that remain of the original art.

Think of Japanese judo and Korean taekwondo and Brazilian ju-jitsu. Pop quiz: What's the first thing that happens when a martial art morphs into a big-time international sport?

Answer: The art's historic wealth of techniques gets stripped down to two or three fast, effective moves that are easy to teach and quickly learned. What before had passed from generation to generation as an honorable way of life now gets reduced to glory days for young athletes.

So, to start with, as between a martial art and a martial sport, lies the loss of physical sophistication. And you ask: What does it matter?

First, sportsification taken far enough for long enough will suck all the life out of the original art. A dwindling number of old masters end up training fewer new teachers who, in turn, attract ever smaller numbers of students.

What is there to be lost? Everything. Masters and grand masters of traditional styles are living museums who keep alive centuries of fighting forms containing thousands of techniques; advanced skills in up to a dozen classic weapons; entire sub-styles – whole systems in themselves – such as drunken boxing, monkey, or "cripple"; encyclopedic medical and herbal knowledge; plus, each arts' generations-old secret teachings, known only to its grand master.

But even supposing you're young enough and shallow enough a person, that you are willing to throw away all that a grand master knows, something more important, something vital to you and all of humanity, is at risk whenever a traditional art dies.

What we approach now is the single most pregnant question ever raised about classic fighting styles: whether or not martial arts truly are a path to enlightenment, as the old masters always swore they can be.

You're a sportsman? Ending up stranded on the simplest, most brutal level of a denatured, stripped-down fighting art is, to me, worse than tragic if what is lost might have led you one day to touch on... what? Call it "ultimate reality."

We are not talking about "getting religion" or having "faith" in chi – nothing soft and subjective. No, at their highest cultivation, classic martial arts explicitly promise an on-going, life-changing encounter with an "ultimate reality" as tangible and undeniable as a kick in the face.

In that case, here is what we must ask ourselves. Is there any logical, present-day proof that this stupendous claim is true? Yes. To me, our arts' miraculous longevity in itself constitutes a species of proof.

Here is a motto I've repeated so often, it's starting to crop up in other writers' books. Martial arts are the world's oldest unbroken chain of human learning.

In truth, nobody really knows the age of the arts. I think, tens of thousand of years. They are documented in Chinese chronicles for at least three thousand years, having been taught mostly by men to boys, from generation to generation, while entire civilizations rose up, conquered the world, and then slowly crumbled back into dust – the chain unbroken.

How old are we? Let's say, poetically, today's traditional artists are nothing less than the fruit of an immortal tree whose roots grow back into the unimagineable mythic darkness out of which mankind itself appears.

Now I ask you. Does not the very fact of the arts' historically-unprecedented survival imply some involvement with a supporting, sustaining "ultimate reality"?

How can it be otherwise? Certainly, it's not just fighting savvy which upholds the arts over the millenniums. After all, a thousand other fashions in combat have come and gone. Where today are the lineage gladiator schools?

And so to those young mixed martial sportsmen I talk to who scorn by their yawning disinterest the very arts they come from, listen up...

A hung-over strip mall master teaching a small class in a failing school is more profoundly connected to the mystery of human being than is a priest. I say this, not as cheap blasphemy, but anthropologically, simply as a way of emphasizing that our arts are older than our 2,000-year-old gods.

And sports break the chain.


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About The Author:

Washington, D.C. native Herb Borkland has been called "a martial arts pioneer" because he was an original student at the first taekwondo school in the United States. After taking his degree at The University of Virginia, Herb went on to become a closed-door student of the legendary Robert W. Smith, author of the first English-language book about tai chi. An Inside Kung-Fu Hall of Fame writer, he was the first journalist ever invited to train in SCARS, the Navy SEALs fighting system. Herb scripted "Honor&Glory" for Cynthia Rothrock, featured on HBO, as well as winning the first-place Gold Award at the Houston International Film Festival for his Medal of Honor soldier screenplay "God of War." For three years he hosted the national half-hour Black Belts cable-TV show. Herb and his wife, the Cuban-American painter Elena Maza, live in Columbia, Maryland.


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