There are a few videos floating around the Web of old-time catch-as-catch-can wrestler Billy Robinson. In one of them, he recounts easily handling a famous strongman in the early 1970s. After beating him over and over, Billy Robinson claims the bewildered powerlifter asked him, “What makes you so good?”
Billy Robinson’s response: “It’s not me that’s so good. It’s you that knows nothin’!”
The point of the story was to show that catch wrestling is more about skill and knowledge than it is about strength, but it sums up why any martial artist succeeds or fails in a fight.
How Important Are Self-Defense Techniques?
Lots of factors determine success or failure in combat—your level of fitness, how you handle fear, your skill set and so on—but in a very real way, knowledge precedes and determines all of them.
The obvious example is your skill set. Whether you’re in the ring or in a self-defense situation, you have to know a set of fighting techniques to succeed. If you want odds that are better than a mere chance of winning, knowledge is key. You need to study a collection of self-defense techniques and make sure they fit with the kind of fight you’re preparing for. Then you learn to integrate them into a seamless whole so you know how to set up and transition between different fighting techniques. The better your self-defense techniques are and the better you integrate them, the better you will be at fighting. To many people, this is the kind of knowledge that defines a martial art.
Unfortunately, those same people often fail when they fight. Does it mean their skills are sub-par or that their knowledge is false? Perhaps, but it’s also likely they’ve been defining what they need to know a little too tightly. It’s what they don’t know about fitness or psychology or something else that’s losing fights for them.
The Value of Fight Psychology and Workout Routines
One thing martial artists often dismiss is the value of strength training exercises and conditioning workouts. They’re frequently viewed as superfluous, things that make you look good but don’t affect your skills much. The problem with that attitude is the people who hold it display ignorance about what exercise is and what it does. Any martial artist who takes the time to learn the benefits of weight training and plyometrics is simultaneously learning ways to improve as a martial artist. Real knowledge can help you do everything better, from an aikido wrist throw to a heel-hook submission.
Martial artists can also have a blind spot when it comes to fight psychology. They get accustomed to practicing in the relative safety of the training hall and are surprised by their own fear and paralysis when they actually need to fight. This is as true in sport fighting as it is in self-defense. But plenty of research has been done on how people react to aggression and conflict. Some self-defense experts have made it the basis of whole systems. If a trained martial artist fails in a fight because of paralyzing fear or some other mental glitch, he should blame his lack of knowledge—specifically, he doesn’t understand the automatic responses all humans share and doesn’t know how to handle them, so he can’t perform well under stress.
The main thing that distinguishes a martial artist in a fight is knowledge. It’s knowledge of self-defense techniques, basic exercise science, fight psychology and a host of other things that make him good. And it’s what the other guy doesn’t know that makes him beatable. The question we all have to answer before fight time is, Which one am I? Making sure you know as much as possible is the best way to ensure you’ll come out on top.
(Keith Vargo is a freelance writer and martial arts instructor who lives in Japan. For more of this martial arts musing, check out Philosophy of Fighting: Morals and Motivations of the Modern Warrior.)