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
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
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
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
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.
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