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Exploring the Evolving Landscape of Combatives: Tradition, Technology, and the Influence of Social Media

OK, Boomer
Black Belt Plus

Recently, someone said to me, “The combatives landscape is changing.” I immediately thought, That’s interesting. What exactly is changing?

SO I LOOKED UP some examples of this person’s training, and lo and behold, there wasn’t anything that could be called groundbreaking or that could be construed as “forward leaning.”

There were obvious influences from boxing, escrima and Brazilian jiu- jitsu, as well as other disciplines — as there is in most combatives instruc- tors’ curricula. The “attacks” used to set up the

demonstrations weren’t novel or unique in any way. Some incorporated weapons, some were multiple-assailant situations, some were transition events (standing to ground, ground to standing) and some were confined-space situations.

I THOUGHT A LOT about his statement and remembered World War II foot- age of U.S. Marine Raiders training with Filipinos to learn the essential elements of escrima, arnis and kali. Similarly, I remembered James Hip- kiss’ World War II–era instructional charts and books on incorporating jiu-jitsu into the training of the Brit- ish forces. Another resource that came to mind was Lt. Jack Dempsey’s (U.S. Coast Guard) contribution to World War II combatives by way of boxing. I could continue with more examples because the list is long, but you get the point.

There’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to fighting. The pursuit of how to best and most efficiently protect yourself is one of the longest-running concerns of human beings because everyone is aware that predators exist and nothing will ever change that.

Nevertheless, I came to agree with the person I mentioned in the opening paragraph in some respects because the landscape is changing — just not the way he meant it.

THERE’S CERTAINLY nothing new about assault, robbery, rape and murder and the myriad ways these heinous crimes are committed. But there are some things that are very different about learning how to cope with them.

The first is the notion that self- defense, combatives or traditional martial arts (when someone intends them for use in self-defense) can be learned effectively without actually fighting. Although you can certainly practice a technique or learn a princi- ple without fighting, that’s only half of what’s required to achieve proficiency.

The other half of the equation is to actually perform under duress in situations that have consequences. Being able to do this reliably and consistently in a variety of situations indicates true proficiency.

THE SECOND CHANGE is the advent of the “influencer” age. Today, virtually anyone with a smartphone can put themselves forward as an authority on any subject. There are many aspects to this phenomenon, but I’ll try to capture a few here.

Consider any technique that’s relatively simple. We can agree that there are probably only a handful of ways to do the technique, and although there are always nuances and variations, the technique would remain unchanged. Now think about how many tens of thousands of Instagram and Facebook personalities post training information, each trying to distinguish himself or herself from the others. How do they achieve that?

Well, in a variety of ways. Some efforts to be noticed have no impact on the technique itself (training back- drop, use of props, the way they dress, etc.). But some have a direct impact on the technique, and when the attempt to distinguish themselves is done by people who are demonstrably incompetent, it becomes problematic because the technique is unnecessarily corrupted — not for the sake of efficiency but for the sake of bringing attention to the instructor.

So the narrative becomes long- winded. The instructor impugns other more-qualified sources to attract attention. And so it goes. 

I’ve written before about the “buyer beware” mentality that’s needed when you’re learning self-defense, but for someone who’s seeking answers to questions about dangerous situations and has no experience to base his or her judgment on, this is a real issue.

ANOTHER LANDSCAPE change is that people have come to view YouTube, Instagram and Facebook as replacements for firsthand training with qualified instructors. This is nothing new, but in the recent past, at least they would have to find and then purchase the information on VHS or DVD. At least it required an effort.

Nowadays, however, as a result of free and instantly accessible information, people believe there’s no need to actually attend training. They believe they can mimic performances to full proficiency.

Having published more than 30 training courses over the years, I always explain that although remote learning can be effective, it can never — and should never — replace in-person instruction with a qualified teacher. Everyone needs someone else’s eyes on them to make adjustments and speed up the proficiency process. I’m including instructors in this statement, as well. Any instructor who doesn’t routinely have his or her peers review relevant performances isn’t operating at peak efficiency. No one is above that.

So, yes, I agree. The combatives landscape is changing. But it’s not necessarily in ways people think. Part of the issue is undoubtedly rooted in the millennial “boomer” discussion.

Some of it is in the way we look at analog and digital differences. Some of it is the mental block associated with accepting how anything in black and white could be relevant in an HDMI reality. I get it.

Just remember, however, that murder has always been murder. And a fight is always going to be just a fight.

To order Kelly McCann’s Combatives for Street Survival, go to blackbelt To sign up for his online course, visit

This article originally appeared in a 2020 edition of Black Belt Magazine.

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