By Zachary Gaskell
Martial arts exist in virtually every culture on the the planet. The history of martial arts began with a distinct focus on the former rather than the latter. Sheer battlefield effectiveness quickly relegated most unarmed art forms as a means of training. Or in many cultures, a sporting, traditional or spiritual component. Understand that this piece is not intended as attack on those who practice these arts, for the most part. For many the traditions and physical benefits of the arts make them worth practicing. For one reason or another these martial arts are really impractical in a modern sport or self defense situation
The our first candidate for least useful is the Japanese martial art of Aikido. Founded in the 1920’s, the idea was to keep alive the unarmed techniques and traditions that were useful on the battlefields of pre-gunpowder Japan. This martial art assumes that your opponent will be both running at you at full speed and probably screaming his lungs out. Also probably holding 36 inches of thousand times folded razor sharp steel, as they might have on a shogunate battlefield. Aikido is for this situation. If Aikido stuck to this lane nobody would ever object to it.
The problem is as much public relations, as it’s focus on an environment that no longer actually exists. The most popular (or should I say well known) Aikido practitioner in the West is a former movie star who nobody actually took seriously in Steven Segal. When the biggest name representing your art across the world is a cringe worthy action star 30 years past prime, maybe Aikido needs to take a look at what it’s become. Or at least how it represents itself.
Then comes the Russian martial art of Systema. Russians have practiced boxing and wrestling through out it’s long and violent history. Systema however does not have a long and violent history. It arrived in the West with the fall of the Soviet Union and frankly it’s difficult to pin down what it is exactly. Almost all forms of Systema emphasize it’s supposed use against either multiple attackers or attackers with weapons. Any martial art that tells an unarmed person to engage somebody with a knife is, capital Q, Questionable at best. Likely to give false confidence and get you poked or shot at worst. Don’t fist fight people with weapons. Please.
The massive range in quality of instruction seems to be Systema’s biggest issue. It ranges from Spetsnaz to Charlatan and everywhere in between. I’m sure there Systema users who are actual good fighters. But it’s inability to police it’s own, might mean you are taught how to most effectively get shot or stabbed by someone utterly unqualified. It’s Krav Maga’s vodka drunk half brother.
Then there are the hundreds of unique styles that fall under the umbrella term Kung Fu. Kung Fu describes any number of martial arts tradition in China. The oldest historic examples of Kung Fu put it’s origin at around the time Athenian Greece was flourishing. All that history and tradition weighed many of these arts down. Most fell more toward the art half as time carried on. Rigid forms and kata was increasingly the norm and live sparring increasingly seen as below the instructors, or even disrespectful in a deeply conservative Chinese culture.
The most famous form of traditional Kung Fu is most likely the Wing Chun branch. Wing Chun is what the famous Ip Man and his even more famous student, Bruce Lee learned. As Bruce expanded his horizons and started learning boxing and wrestling among other disciplines, Bruce came to see the holes that Wing Chun had in it stylistically. His book the Tao of Jeet Kune Do exists both as a monument to traditional Wing Chun with it’s focus on directness and economy of motion, but also a vast broadening of Wing Chun Kung Fu to “whatever works”. Which is probably how it started. It created a schism between the modernists and traditionalists.\
Nowhere in the world do we more literally see this play out, as in the case of Xu Xiaodong. A Chinese MMA fighter who as been on a one man crusade to prove that many overly traditional styles are just no longer effective in actual fights. After hearing many of the old masters say they look down upon MMA, Xu started challenging these men to fights. They pretty much all ended with Xu in a dominant position raining down punches until he got bored or somebody stepped in. Some saw this as an attack on the traditional martial arts. In a highly conservative and traditional culture like China going against the grain of tradition can be a very dangerous game.
No Touch Martial Arts
Then there are the myriad of “no touch” martial arts that hypnotize a willing idiot into thinking that somehow by waving your hands around, an attacker will just fall to the ground. If you are in a martial art where you have never touched somebody, you aren’t in a martial art. You are in a cult. There is a deep and pleasant gold mine of “No touch” masters getting their noses shattered by real martial artists who aren’t indoctrinated. Always a pleasant reminder to not buy into your own hype too much.
The final martial art of questionable value that might get you killed is Capoeria. In it’s defense Capoeria it is was created by Brazilian slaves who need it to keep the fact they were training to fight under wraps. Their solution was to make the fight look as much like a dance as possible. Hence the showy, extra often acrobatic movements of this unique style. Also important to note that as time passed the martial art grew in the favelas, it was pretty much assumed that everyone trying to throw these wild kicks was also probably armed with a blade of some kind. Nothing works better against Gracie Jiu-jitsu better than a 4 inch Ginsu knife. Or to be more more historically accurate, the straight razor which was the weapon of choice for the early Capoeria artists.
Also worth noting that Capoeria has some incredibly destructive techniques at long range. Those who practice the martial art also come to develop some pretty outlandish athletic ability. The big problem with Capoeria is it’s energy use. If your resting stance is throwing your body around like Spider man swinging through New York, it’s a safe bet they can’t keep it up for long. And will tire themselves out pretty quick. When you start mixing this athletic ability and unorthodox kicks, with more practical footwork Capoeria can add a unique tool in a martial artists kit. I just think the less disguised the martial art the better.