Nobody karate chops me on the street anymore.
Once upon a time, this was the standard response to meeting someone with a martial arts interest: yelp a few times, wave your arms around, do a judo/ninja/karate chop, then hold for applause. But times have changed. People no longer believe televised ninja movies are real. Now they believe televised MMA competitions are real, and nobody uses a karate chop in the UFC. (It’s illegal to strike the trachea, in case you were wondering.)
Don’t get me wrong–I’m not complaining. The classic ninja pantomime has given way to more intelligent comments and questions, such as, “Have you won any tournaments?”
Common sense dictates that the best martial artists are those who win tournaments, while the middling ones participate and lose, and the worst avoid competition altogether. This is only half-true, but the issues are too complex to address during small talk. So, until now, I have answered the question with a simple No, and endured a stigma otherwise reserved for the tea-sipping pajama dancer with delusions of lethality.
Let this be my catharsis. There are perfectly good reasons to abstain from tournament competition, and they deserve an airing. So here we go…
Tournaments are held in secret. There is no single clearinghouse for upcoming martial arts events. It seems common for a single school or association to sponsor a competition, without formally or informally inviting their peers (or imagined rivals).
Consider a hypothetical martial arts franchise: Master Park’s Hapkido. They announce an “international open tournament” with an eighty dollar entrance fee. Announcements are sent to the Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles branches of his dojang, and nowhere else. In this contest, the winner has been predetermined: it is Master Park. Now he’s a successful businessman who produces international fighting champions!
Most competitions are not quite this egregious, thankfully. Still, for all the effort that goes into organizing these events, precious little time is spent advertising them within the martial arts community. I often don’t hear about local tournaments until after they have concluded.
Teaching to the test. When spectators watch a “traditional” martial arts tournament and observe that competitive fighting looks nothing like a precise and structured kata, they reason that the nominal martial art is fundamentally flawed. Yes, the training is flawed, if its intended purpose is to prepare the student for competitive fighting. But that is obviously not its purpose.
To the extent that traditional martial arts are fighting (or dueling) arts, they are not configured for modern tournament play, which outlaws strikes to the neck (see MMA rules) or to the head altogether (Kyokushin), among other targets. As a result, defending these vital areas places one at a competitive disadvantage. (The hand that covers, is not earning points with a flurry of sloppy punches.) Traditional contenders are thereby pressured to sell out, to drop their fists and spread wide their legs, for nothing more than a chance at a booby prize.
Perhaps this is not a contest worth winning. In the words of coach Raymond Thiberge, “all that matters is to acquire the means whereby the end may be achieved. A powerful technique is certainly not achieved by practicing power, which is just as pointless as any other end-gaining process.”
Sport-fighting is not even the best training for self-defense, much less the full suite of skills and objectives that constitute the world of martial arts. Besides…
Fighting is dangerous! Habitual fighting inevitably leads to one of two destinations: prison, or an early grave. This is one of the reasons that I prefer martial arts to fighting.
It is important to understand that martial artists are not protected by their codes of conduct, or by rules of sportsmanship. If we can train hard in relative safety, it is only due to the vigilance and good will of our partners and our friends.
Challengers at a martial arts tournament are not our friends, and they are not invested in our continued well-being. Some are upright people, who would never bend the rules or risk a competitor’s health for the sake of a trophy; and others, evidently, just can’t help themselves. I’ve never seen a tournament without rule violations and illegal attacks: accidental, intentional, or both.
This, in short, is the case against tournaments. Do you think the benefits outweigh the costs?