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10 Universal Truths of Martial Arts

Updated: Feb 16

Black Belt List

Old Martial Art master in action

Consider the following: “None of Morihei Ueshiba’s students has reached his level in aikido, and none is likely to.”

“Since the fighters of the Gracie family at times seem virtually unbeatable, their art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu is also unbeatable.”

"Taekwondo is more functional for self-defense than wing chun kung fu.”

The correct interpretation of these and other controversial martial arts statements almost always depends on whom you’re asking. This might lead you to wonder if there are any absolute truths in the martial arts. Many would argue that there are not.

The problem lies with the lack of historical accuracy and scientific provability in the martial arts field in general. From great masters long ago learning secret breaking techniques to obscure tribes in far-off deserts to the mysteries of the delayed death touch, there’s plenty of smoke and obfuscation.

Occasionally, however, a fresh wind clears away some of the haze — as in the case of the Gracie family and the rise of MMA, both of which have inspired many to examine their own art more closely.

If there are any absolute truths or guidelines in the martial arts, what might they be? Sit back and sink your teeth into the following. Here are the universal truths of martial arts.

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Universal Truth of the Martial Arts No. 1

Any art or technique will work in a fight if the difference in the skill level of the opponents is sufficiently large.

Quite a few articles have been written, mostly by taekwondo practitioners, about how and why high kicks and flying kicks work on the street. There may well be an occasional taekwondo champ or instructor who can successfully apply such a technique against an inexperienced or drunken attacker.

Surely, however, any survey of people with street experience — such as bouncers and police officers — will reveal that elbow strikes, eye jabs and the like are better choices. Consider this: How many high kicks have you seen being used in a bar brawl or UFC match?

Universal Truth of the Martial Arts No. 2

Royce Gracie & Opponent

Any martial art or martial arts technique will work if you have the element of surprise on your side.

The element of surprise can have two applications. The first occurs when your opponent is not aware that you are about to strike. An example of this would be a sucker punch used in a street fight.

The second application occurs when your opponent is not aware of certain techniques that you might use. For a memorable example of this, think back to UFC 4 when Royce Gracie caught Dan Severn in a triangle choke.

The element of surprise is used in other circumstances. Think of how many martial artists have been defeated by an opponent who was pretending to be injured. And imagine how many muggers have regretted picking on some harmless-looking old man who turned out to be a martial arts master.\

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Universal Truths of the Martial Arts No. 3

two martial artists demonstrating kata

All training is specific; the closer your training is to the envisaged application, the more efficient it is.

This notion is widely accepted in sports science. For example, to become a great marathoner, you need to do a lot of long-distance running. The days of a power lifter training by lifting light weights frequently are long gone.

In the martial arts, however, some people still firmly believe — and it is a matter of faith rather than knowledge gained through experience — that years of kata (forms) practice on a wood floor will prepare you for a nightclub brawl against multiple opponents and weapons.

That is incorrect. To prepare for a fight, you need to include some form of fighting in your training.

Universal Truth of the Martial Arts No. 4

combat action

Real combat cannot be trained for in a completely realistic manner.

In times of war, special-forces units have been put through war games and combat drills using live ammunition. Predictably, this has led to many training casualties. Equally predictably, the survivors of such training were some of the toughest and most vicious combat soldiers the world has ever known.

In civilian martial arts practice, the price of such training is clearly too high. This is understandable, and furthermore, not everyone studies the arts for self-defense.

What is not understandable and in many cases not responsible is how some instructors sell their martial art by telling their students that non-contact sparring using a limited repertoire of often-nonfunctional techniques does prepare them for the street.

It follows from this that MMA is not a street fight. It’s one against one, no weapons, a large clear floor, some rules and a referee. The differences between this and what may happen in a back alley late at night are obvious.

On the other hand, as a testing area or laboratory, MMA is about the best that’s available — and that’s morally and legally acceptable.

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Universal Truth of the Martial Arts No. 5

Morihei Ueshiba and Rickson Gracie

The ability of an occasional outstanding martial artist does not prove the superiority of a martial art.

Looking at the myth-filled history of the martial arts, it seems doubtful that there ever was a style that did not have at least one exponent who became famous for his exploits as a fighter.

There are, however, a few things one should remember. There have always been people who, because of their physical attributes, mental attitude or both, would have been superb fighters even if their training had been in classical dance.

Furthermore, we will never know how valid such legends really are.

How would the ancient Shaolin monks have fared against modern muay Thai practitioners? We will never know, but we do know that often in modern times, muay Thai fighters have beaten teams of kung fu fighters.

How would aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba have fared against Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Rickson Gracie? A silly and unanswerable question perhaps, but the point remains that a style, represented by one man in challenge matches long ago in a possibly limited environment, may be fairly useless on today’s mean streets.

Aside from this, it is doubtful the average aikido instructor of today trains like Ueshiba did — in terms of technique and intensity.

Universal Truth of the Martial Arts No. 6

martial arts action

The fighting ability of an instructor does not guarantee the fighting ability of the student.

The fact that an instructor has a certain amount of experience means that his or her teachings will be that much more realistic and the training may produce some ability in the student.

It is wrong, however, to assume that the student of an experienced fighter will automatically be competent. Furthermore, fighting ability does not automatically imply teaching ability.

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Universal Truth of the Martial Arts No. 7

martial arts master

Many creators of new martial arts fail to produce students who equal them in ability.

There could be many reasons for this, ranging from teaching incompetently to leaving a secret ingredient or two out of the recipe as it is handed down, but one reason seems to occur frequently.

A master teaches a final product that he has created over a lifetime, forgetting that much of his own ability comes from the learning process itself and from the techniques, drills and exercises that he learned but subsequently discarded.

In the martial arts, ability comes from the many experiments that have failed and even from challenge matches that at best could have been described as a draw.

In other words, ability is a matter of drills executed and techniques tested over time, thus resulting in the development of certain attributes and the acquisition of experience.

You can teach techniques and drills that develop certain attributes, but you cannot teach experience.

You can tell students about your experiences and you can encapsulate your teachings on paper, but in the end, the students have to create their own experience.

Universal Truth of the Martial Arts No. 8

hand and stick combat

Nothing beats experience.

Seeing Rickson Gracie when he dominated his matches in MMA, watching Eric Knaus of the Dog Brothers when he would stick-fight an opponent to the ground or witnessing a boxer come back to win a bout after getting knocked down shows grace under pressure.

It is the ability to remain calm in the worst circumstances. The best fighters make it look simple because they have been in such situations so often.

Some martial arts teach students to use meditative techniques to enhance relaxation and increase their performance under pressure. As useful as meditation may be, if it is not combined with realism-oriented competitive drilling, it might not be able to override the emotional response you experience in a life-threatening situation.

martial art drills

Universal Truth of the Martial Arts No. 9

Cacoy Canete

Morality and ethics in the martial arts vary from style to style and instructor to instructor.

There are many who prefer the earthy directness and hands-on experimentation of Choki Motobu to the schoolteacher ethics of Gichin Funakoshi.

Well-known Filipino martial arts master Cacoy Canete (1919-2016) was interviewed many years ago. “The only way to prove that your style is the best is to accept any challenge," he said. "How can you claim that your style is the best when you do not accept any challenge?

"That is why in our group whenever there is a student who refuses to fight, I always ask him to retire. What use will our techniques be if he has the technique [but] doesn’t use it in actual fights?”

Many doce pares students of Canete’s owe their lives to this philosophy.

In our modern Western society, however, it is not only unethical but also illegal to look for a fight. Yet it is also extremely foolish for martial artists not to be prepared to the best of their ability in case they are forced into one.

Ethics and morality are often used by instructors to enforce discipline on their students — and sometimes even to hide the fact that the instructor is incompetent in combat terms.

Universal Truth of the Martial Arts No. 10

combat action on mat

The one basic quality or attribute that underlies martial arts ability is awareness.

A high level of awareness enables you to avoid a crisis rather than solve it after it begins. In any crisis situation, your awareness tends to shrink to a pinpoint of perceived danger. Open awareness in this context means staying relaxed, continuing to breathe deeply and remaining peripherally sensitive to other potential threats.

With open awareness in such a situation, you often experience the so-called “master’s phenomenon” of everything seeming to move in slow motion. This can give you ample opportunity to respond appropriately.

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The Verdict on the 10 Truths

Are these really martial arts truths? One way of testing them is to turn them around and see what the exact opposite sounds like.

In the case of the first truth, for instance, it would be something like this: “There are techniques that will work irrespective of the difference in skill between two opponents.” The only solution that springs to mind is a gun. An eye jab may be a great equalizer, but first you have to get to your attacker's eyes.

It’s a useful exercise to examine the other nine truths in the same manner.

Of course, some martial artists will disagree with several of the 10 truths, or even all of them, but whether or not they are actually truths is perhaps not even the ultimate issue.

What is of much greater importance is that martial arts students ask questions and think about what they are doing and why they are doing it. It is exactly this process of continuous questioning and experimentation that leads to growth and to the finding of truth.

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