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Apologies to Martial Sports

By Herb Borkland

After my last column "attacking" martial sports, I received fewer death threats than usual, and most of those were along the well-worn lines of "You bleeping-deleted-censored, I'll be waiting outside on your lawn tomorrow morning!"

"And you're going to do exactly what, sportsman? Out point me?"

But I got a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger phone call from my Grandmaster. And I knew I was in deep kimshi when he spent the first few minutes quietly reminiscing about the great old days training at his dojang. Then, off-handedly, he mentioned my Kukkiwon fourth dan. (Seoul's Kukkiwon is the world headquarters of Korean taekwondo; and, thus, at the epicenter of Olympic sport TKD.)

What the Grandmaster hinted was clear enough and very damning. Since I hold international master's rank in sport TKD, and yet go about publicly criticize martial sports, I am a honking great hypocrite.

Guilty, Your Honor – with extenuating circumstances. Please, may I address the court?

First of all, when I started training under Jhoon Rhee in the first TKD school in the U.S., we were studying a combat art – the big switch-over to Olympic sport had not yet occurred (with, when it did come, the unhappy consequence of briefly corrupting everything Kukkiwon had stood for... but that's a different column).

Moreover, high-ranking instructors I know mock me for only being a fourth dan, after all these years. The reason is, in truth, I have little interest in claiming mastery of a sport. But even so, even so...

Let me start by publicly apologizing to martial sportsmen, to "karate instructors," and especially, to the teachers of our children. Over the years, I have TV-interviewed and written dozens of articles about some of the best and most successful among you. My admiration for what you have accomplished as career blackbelts and martial business people is unreserved and genuine.

I visit schools where, for example, I watch with whole-hearted admiration the spiritual disciples of Kimber Hill, creator of Lil' Dragons, working magic with pre-kindergarten-age boys and girls.

Some of these kids, too many, are products of broken homes, or from families that were never together to begin with: kids who drift unsupervised through aimless, ignorant days of junk food, gangsta rap, and first-person-shooter video games.

Especially sad, to me, are the boys whose unhappy single moms once bought into the PC crap that boys and girls are exactly alike, it's only "our sexist society" which makes them act differently.

Once single mothers began to realize they have been lied to, they started showing up at karate schools – there are hundreds of thousands of these mothers, nationwide – desperately grateful for a strong male figure their sons actually respect and want to emulate.

Let me tell you about "casserole moms."

I'm proud to mentor a first-class, street-credible TKD instructor, master Roosevelt Shephard, who owns a fighting school in small-town Texas, outside an Army base. He talks about "casserole moms." The home situation of fatherless boy students became clear to him when shy, grateful mothers began showing up at school with casseroles, gifts for the master, as a way of saying thanks.

"He says 'sir' and 'ma'am' now," these hard-pressed, well-meaning women say. "He keeps his room clean." The sparkle in their eyes may be a misting of tears. "He's getting good grades in school."

This phenomenon of role-model martial arts instructors has become unique in a society where the public schools and even The Boy Scouts no longer teach the simplest human values. That it should end up being, of all people, the strip-mall masters who are helping save a lost generation, makes me proud as hell.

Yes, I have written in praise of traditional martial arts. Tradition is profound and important in ways sports do not pretend to be. But, ironically, the "karate" instructor, often the purveyor of a sport, has become the living fulfillment of the highest promise of traditional martial arts – that we can forge strong, healthy, alert, honest, can-do, unafraid, and self-respecting students.

Okay, Your Honor, then what am I, the defendant, kvetching about when I rip martial sports? I'm saying that, important as it may be, this new kid-friendly mission is itself as reductive of the original meaning of the arts as are MMA bouts. And by "reductive," I mean that some crumbs of the vast harvest of the arts are having to be served up as the whole banquet.

This unhappy situation is nobody's fault. On the contrary, the kids benefit, the schools profit, the instructors are justly proud of their contribution to our communities. I'm not saying you martial sports people are bad. I'm saying, while my guitar gently weeps, that we are cheating ourselves blind.

Courtesy bow – shaolin salute. The defense rests.


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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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Values in martial arts,mixed martial arts, MMA, traditional martial arts


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