The Case Against Martial Arts Tournaments

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?


  1. I appreciate your perspective on this topic. Perhaps a more appropriate headline might be “The case against SPARRING/FIGHTING in Martial Arts tournaments”?

    When it comes to Sparring/Fighting in tournaments, I tend to agree with much of what you have said. After you dilute your technique, based on the various rules and limitations of the format, pad yourself up, and throw on a cup, only then get clocked in the head with an illegal spinning back fist, you come to realize that there’s very little “Art” left in such a Martial Arts exhibition.

    However, I think that competitions where people compete in performing hand and weapon forms/katas can be very good for your development as a martial artist and person — if well conducted and promoted. I grew up competing in many competitions in the New England area (such as those put on by KRANE), from elementary school through high school. I sparred in some of these competitions as well, but what I always did and always enjoyed was competing in forms.

    Being able to go through a form, under pressure, in front of peers and senior instructors, helped develop my confidence for all kinds of “real world” situations that require a similar element of peak performance. I also feel that forms are really the heart of any style, and showcase someone’s development much better than the rock ’em sock ’em world of competitive sparring. Students may learn more from sparring when they are in their own school / dojo where there’s no trophy in the waiting and they are among fellow students who they can count on to respect safety.

    Therefore, I’d encourage people of all ages to get out there and compete in forms competitions, if you can find a reputable venue – they are out there. Read more articles like this, so you can weigh the pros and cons of extending that participation into fighting as well.

  2. I would like to see a sort of “Burning Man” type of total theater, 10 days or so of martial exchange. All styles welcome, put all the schools in one place as mutual hosts and let people wander around. Half of every thing on a schedule, half spontaneous engagement–with time to develop rapport.

  3. J. Young–agree with what you say about forms. It will definitely make you a better martial artist by participating in tournaments. The stress, the preparation, the practice, it all works to make a great martial artist. Not sure I agree with regard to sparring. You only have to look at the success of Raymond Daniels and Jason Bourelly in the world combat league to know the value of many years of tournament fighting. Although these guys were point fighters, their footwork, timing, speed and technique enabled them to outclass guys with kickboxing experience and dominate the league. Chris–your definition of “sportfighting” or looking for fights for the sport of it is for fools who have no honor. I agree, and yes it is dangerous because there is always someone badder.

  4. Perhaps another way to look at tournaments/competition fighting of any type is that it serves a specific purpose. Self Defence is nothing like point sparring however the lessons learnt by the student when they undertake such activity (especially in the beginning) are invaluable in producing effective self defence skills. Ie remember way back to the first time any of us stepped onto the mat and fought (even at the most basic level) – the overcoming of fear, ability to stay focussed and perform under pressure (or in my own case the highlighting of those areas that needed development) against an opponent who had intentions of fighting back. All these and many more benefits (the confidence to stand and make a stand in front of a crowd of judging (at least it felt that way) on lookers; the ability to deal in public with our successes and loses (failures) whilst under scrutiny) have all been expereinced and should be considered very positive aspects of competition training – rather than just the fightng and if it is god for self defence etc. At the end of the day I personally would like to think that all our martial arts training leads to not only good physical skills but assists us to be better people, if we look for the positive.

  5. Totally agree. Fighting is dangerous!
    And we should always remember that our martial knowledge is to be used only in case of extreme need, not for show (or fun).

  6. “”Now they believe televised MMA competitions are real, and nobody uses a karate chop in the UFC.””

    Hum, so how about Lyoto Machida? or Andy Hug?

    Karate can be very effective my friend…

  7. This is Sunny James from pennsylvania
    I agree that what we use to see years ago on television with the older martial arts movies vs what you see now is two different things.
    you could not possibly have a regular competition without rules & safety gear or else people would be killed or paralyzed


  8. “You have to think that if you kick, you try to kick the enemy dead. If you punch, you must thrust to kill. If you strike, then you strike to kill the enemy. This is the spirit you need in training”

    Choshin Chibana

    Is sincere “competition” in martial art conceivable at all?

    I doubt…

  9. Training to fight without ever fighting is like trying to become an expert marksman by just playing Duck Hunt.

    Of course sport fighting isn’t a perfect replica of the real thing, but it’s far closer than kata. It’s the best way to keep the art dynamic and to separate the wheat from the chaff.

  10. I just lost a fight in a poknt karate tournament. I live in a small rural area with relatively small tournaments. That being said there are no weight divisions. There are fairly loose age and experience level divisions but narrow it down too much and you just won’t have opponents. I am a sho dan and fought a 5th degree black belt who was 8” taller than me and a hundred pounds heavier than me. I got off the first point. A side kick right in between the ribs. But with perfect control. A couple exchanges followed and my opponent lost control and landed a full contact punch with all his weight into my ribs (I didn’t walk into it…it was all him). I actually hit him at the same time but with control. It was devastating and sucked the gas out of my tank and after some very close exchanges he ended up winning. I then didn’t perform as well in my weapons kata because of the pain (already everything hurt when your rubs are busted up) and placed 2nd. I now have either cracked or simply bruised ribs and it’s going to be harder to take care of my family for a few weeks because of it. I look at that experience which is similar to other experiences I’ve had…and it simply doesn’t make sense. If it were a REAL fight, that first kick I cleanly landed would have shattered his ribs. Or if I had behaved the way he did – same outcome, or it at least would have decreased his advantage and I probably would have won. So I’m essence, the experience was neither realistic OR competitive. I have people who count on me. That’s a risk I don’t think it’s wise to take anymore. And it doesn’t help my confidence any.

  11. Sorry to hear that, Zach.

    Referees typically allow one cheap shot per match. It must be in the unwritten rules.

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