Martial Arts today

Did an interview with a journalism student awhile back. One of the topics was about the difference between Traditional arts and Popular arts and I thought it’ll be good to pen my thoughts down here.
Now what do I mean by Popular arts? Ones that fall into this category are Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Boxing and MuayThai. So why do these fall into the Popular category? In the last decade or so, the popularity of these arts have been growing at an exponential rate. With the UFC, OneFC, K1, Max Muaythai, Tyson, Pacqiao and television shows, these arts have gained a large amount of exposure to the public. Many go to fight gyms to learn these arts simply because they have heard of it and it looks fierce, effective and even cool. I call this following the trend. And this becomes a crucial deciding factor in what Arts the fight gyms offer. Mind you, I’m not saying that this is bad or anything like that. It exposes more people to Martial Arts so this is a good thing. But this is also how the values that are part of the Traditional Arts are slowly being sidelined. Although more people picking up martial arts is a good thing (some just do it so they can “say” they do a Martial Art), we must do our best to teach the arts hand in hand with its values. Without values, a Martial Art is not an art. It is just fighting.

Photo taken from One Championship FB page

Also let me touch on MMA being a Martial Art. More often then not, if someone walks into your gym and the first thing they tell you is that they want to learn MMA, usually they won’t have ANY Martial Arts background at all. So why is someone without any Martial Arts background wanting to learn “MMA”? This is one of the problems with its popularity. People want to pick up MMA but they have no clue what it is. To them its an “Art” that they see in the UFC, OneFC etc… Well, news flash guys and girls, MMA is NOT a Martial Art! It is a name given to a fight sport BASED on the rules of that promotion. Good gyms know this and don’t or should never sell too many MMA Training slots. And MMA slots should only be open to students who already have a certain degree or some proficiency in a stand up striking form and/or a ground or grappling form and want to learn effective ways of transitioning from one form to the other during a fight or fusing them together. Come on! What would you expect to achieve in attending an MMA class if you don’t know a jab from a cross or a hip throw from a rear naked choke? Students who are totally new will be much better off in training a striking form and a grappling form separately until they have reached a certain proficiency before “embarking” on their MMA journey.
Bringing us to the values. Firstly since MMA is NOT a Martial Art, it HAS no values attached to it. The values that you do see, are usually because the exponents have trained in a Traditional Art or two before. MMA is a form of competition between 2 opponents who should have a certain level of proficiency in at least one stand up form and one grappling form, based on a set of rules. So it is that set of rules that MAKE MMA. NOT the art/s. The cockiness, trash talking, name calling, sometimes lack of respect is the “show business” part of MMA. Much like WWE and Boxing. I do try to believe that the Martial Artists who participate in MMA are by nature NOT as such. Martial Artists across all forms generally have a common code of conduct which includes but not limited to, discipline, humility, empathy, courage, perseverance, honor. Nowhere in martial arts are you trained or taught to be a cocky name calling douche. That is a character, sadly brought about due to the need to sell tickets for events. To put spectators in the seat.
But somehow or rather, people forget this and instructors, coaches and teachers even, sometimes forget this and get sucked into the “glory” of being in a “prestigious” event. And this is the reason why you sometimes see cocky and proud coaches who lack empathy and humility in their abilities and actions. The need to market one’s gym and be noticed within the haystack, sometimes cloud the basic character of being a Martial Artist. But why should it be such? Blame it on tv and fight promotions. People get sucked into the showbiz part of it without realizing and sometimes sadly, lose their direction in Martial Arts.

Photo taken from One Championship FB page

So what makes a popular art? That depends on who the current badasses in the MMA fight community are. At this moment, most do Muaythai, Boxing for their stand up and BJJ for their grappling. And because of that, along the way, these arts lose their original character and the character of the individuals who partake in them deteriorate. So how is that happening? Why is that happening?
The main problem is NOT the art or the instructors who teach the arts. The problem lies with the public’s EXPECTATIONS of the arts. MMA has been greatly popularized as a Martial Art. Which we agree IS a good thing. But because it is also a showbiz, the character of a Martial Art is greatly misrepresented to the public. Top that up with the need to cover a gym’s overhead, so the arts are “SOLD” according to the public’s expectations.
Of course, not all are ignorant. There are still a portion of the public albeit small, whom have been in one way or another exposed to a form of Martial Art which still holds the true values and not “commercialized”. And these Martial Arts are which I categorize as the Traditional Arts. Examples would be but not limited to, Karate, Wushu/Kungfu, Judo, Aikido.

Sensei Syed of Impact Aikido in action

Traditional Arts which until today care and emphasize more importance on the individuals learning it, then the amount of fees they need to collect to cover their overhead (this doesn’t mean they don’t have overheads or expenses to cover). And the irony is that learning these arts usually cost less then the popular arts. But still, most want to “look cool”, be “in” or have a fitness regime that isn’t boring (many view the need to build a strong foundation and time taken to do that, “Boring”) so they turn to what they know. MMA and the Popular Arts (much becoming like fast food).
Again, I am not saying that this is bad, but the reason for picking up Martial Arts then becomes the wrong reason. And the wrong reason for picking a Martial Art means you will most likely be unable to grow into nor appreciate what a Martial Art can truly offer.
This is why I feel that it is important for gyms to also offer Traditional Arts in their programs. Hopefully by balancing the popular arts and the traditional arts in the gym, the culture of the gym will be influenced by the humility of the Traditional Arts while at the same time still enjoying the effectiveness to reach the masses that the Popular Arts have at this point.

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Terence Cheah

I am an avid Martial Artist who has been teaching Muay Thai for more then 20 years and have recently earned my Black belt in Shinkyokushin Karate. I run a Martial Arts gym called Transcendence Martial Arts where most of my students are everyday people who want to get better, both physically and psychologically. I also love reading, motorbikes and scuba diving quite earnestly. And not forgetting my ever supportive loving wife and 2 daughters who always make me grateful for my life and energy .

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