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michael rosenbaum
michael rosenbaum's picture
Combat's Fading Shadow

Combat’s Fading Shadow

Though always eager to measure swords with the enemy, there was no enemy for the bushi to fight during the long Tokugawa period of peace and stability.” - Donn F. Draeger

I’m always amazed when someone equates fighting and martial arts as one in the same. Especially when they’ve never had the displeasure of slugging it out in the parking lot with someone drunker than yours truly. This fact was brought to my attention again when browsing through a martial arts magazine that offered video rank courses in cane fighting. Now, don’t get me wrong, a cane can be an effective weapon in the hands of an experienced person. It’s just that when I saw the student’s canes and master’s canes sold separately that my B.S. alarm started to ring loudly.

Combat’s fading shadow affects all fighting arts, though some more than others. Usually those least affected are full-contact styles such as MMA, Boxing, Judo, etc. This is because the contestants have clearly defined goals and realistic feedback that allows them to determine what will and what will not work. “Gee Fred, you got your nose broke. Maybe that block doesn’t work after all.”

The ones affected most are those initially designed for combat/self-defense, but which have become obsolete due to advanced weapons, world peace, or being practiced for reasons other than combat. Unfortunately practitioners within this category do actually believe that they are learning how to fight. Why? Simply put there is no realistic feedback, unless of course they have a competent instructor who makes proper distinctions between what goes on inside class and what happens in the parking lot.

The fading shadow effect usually follows a four step progression. In step one combat spurs forth the development of a technique, or weapon. This is when some bright, enterprising individual has survived a harrowing, near death experience and has an epiphany though which they realize that, “Hey, if I’d done this, or had that, I wouldn’t have all these broken bones.”

Step two is when this bright, enterprising individual establishes a teaching syllabus for their newly developed technique/weapon. Take for instance the cane. During the 19th century cane fighting was extremely popular in both France and the United Kingdom. Gentlemen during this period could no longer carry swords for protection so they used the cane instead. Schools were established, many of which were based on western fencing, and the cane became a formidable weapon.

Step three is when our bright, enterprising individual passes on their system to a new generation of students. Hence we’ve gone from first to second generation and the dangers which existed for the first may no longer exist for the second, due to changing social circumstances. However, since the second generation learned from the first their teachings remain unchanged, accurate and reasonably effective.

Step three is when the second generation passes on the style/system to a third generation far removed from the dangers that originally gave birth to their beloved system. And while the third generation pays homage to the first, the third’s reasons for training change. Therefore what originally began as a combative art enters a phase of peace and tranquility and evolves into either a sport, or spiritual discipline.

Step four is when the first generation (remember our bright and enterprising individual?) has long since been dead, but has just recently been canonized and his system/style is now recognized as one of the worlds’s most deadly fighting arts. More importantly though with world wide recognition commercial potential arises. I mean after all this is the day and age of free-trade, hence our bright and enterprising individual who was recently canonized as a great-grand master- by his commercial savvy sixth generation students- is elevated to a legendary status more mythic than real. And because of this his style of fighting becomes an established product known worldwide with a sales base of a million per quarter.
The moral of my story is buyer beware. We now live in a day and age where sales skills take precedence over combative prowess. The martial arts are a billion dollar a year industry and the more belts, stripes, levels and titles you’re forced to buy, the less you’ll learn about fighting.

miket's picture

Mike I agree with you generally although I would take a couple of different angles/ extensions on your four point analysis.  Personally, I believe your analysis, while correct, somewhat ignores the impact of human individuality, which I feel is an important point to consider.

Step One:  I would add that the determination of 'effectiveness' it's not necessarily 'just' based on a hypothetical NEGATIVE analysis.  i.e., the establishment of a system might also be based in POSITIVE experience, for instance:  "Because I DIDN'T break any bones because I did X, maybe this little trick is worth preserving."

That's a small point but important I believe for a couple of reasons:  The first is, because what 'worked' for the founder in ONE context (surviving a dominance oriented intra-tribe 'fight' for a mate) might NOT work for the founder in a different context (surviving a territorial INTER-tribe battle over a watering hole).  I am using anthropologic examples, but I'm sure you get the idea.  This is important because it emphasizes the absolute RELATIVITY of all combative training; and secondly because it demonstrates that even what worked for someone (who I'll consistently call 'the founder') ONCE doesn't mean that it will work for even THAT person a second time.  And by extension, thirdly, it also doesn't mean that what worked even consistently for the founder will work for their students.  So EVERYTHING we study is subject to the potentiality for failure and entropy, and therefore to the need for measurement, analysis, criticism, and (I would argue) self-validation.

Step Two:  This is where I would say you actually have the formation of an "official style", because you now have our founder TRANSLATING their experience-based method of survival, which may or may not have been intuitive, or based on available resources ("pick up nearby rock") into the IDEOLOGICAL structure of "teaching".  Said founder may be a great 'fighter' but a lousy teacher, resulting in low efficay or teacher-to-student 'knowledge transmission.  Yet again, said founder might be an unusally skilled COMMUNICATOR (which I wouold argue, is instead the primary skill set needed for effective teaching), which results in a comparitively 'higher' transmission.

Step Three:  I would add that not only may the threat context have evolved or no longer exist; but potentially, our founder's 'art' (note the term)--which it is important to note was 'originally' simply 1) his PERSONAL and experience-based way of movement or fighting; and which has now been subjected to 2) his ideas about how best to communicate 'how to do what I do' to someone else-- is now all subjected to a NEW 'step one' all over again.  What I mean is, it is subjected to the direct combative experience--  or lack of experience--  of the next generation of practitioners.

Cane is actually a great example.  Say you are a 'first generation' cane master.  You originally learned, fought and survived with sword tactics, say that they were even 'civillian' sword tactics for dueling and self-defense and not 'battlefield' sword tactics.   But  suddenly, swords are illegal.  So you adapt your weapon-based skill to another similar 'object of fashion'-- which, the only reason people have now decided to carry, is precisely because it has 'legally' replaced the now-illegal sword.  (Kind of important to note that gentleman began carrying 'walking sticks' AFTER the general illegalization of swords, not before.).  But our SWORD master adapts what we will assume he 'KNOWS' from personal experience to be effective.  He adapts those motions to a new tool.  He fighst with them, tests them and confirms that they 'work'.  He teaches that to new students.  We can, at this point, even assume that he does so 'effectively' with a 'high' degree of what I just called 'transmission' to the student group.

REGARDLESS, the effectvieness of his stylistic ART is still now subject to the experience or non-experience ofhis students.


So, say our experienced sword master, who battle-tested his skills in over 78 duels (or whatever Musashi's number was), 'leaves' his art to his three 'top' students, we'll call them Larry, Curly and Moe.  :-) 

Larry likes to drink and is a real knuckle dragger.  He employs his acquired skills in a weekly manner.  He decides-- through painful personal experience, the same way his master did, what 'works' and what doesn't.  He loses a few teeth  and an eye in the process, but Larry LIKES to fight.  He further decides not only what works, but when and why it works.  He both adds to, and takes away material from The Founder's Art (note the specific use of the titled case). He goes on to develop an EVOLUTION of 'TFA' that works FOR LARRY.  He'll even teach it to you, if you don't mind paying him in beer and taking your life into your hands every time you step onto the mat.

Moe is more of a 'cerebral' type.  He inherits the home-dojo and the master's-own cane, and dedicates his life to the perpetuation and spread of TFA.   But, dueling now being illegal and cane fightingh having fallen somewhat out of vogue in polite civilized society he only has a couple of opportunities to 'test' what he has LEARNED to be effective (read: "HEARD TO BE effective").  And because we, the omnipotent reader, 'know' all about the founder, we know that it even WAS originally effective.  But the thing is, Moe has the founder's **KNOWLEDGE**, he does not have the founder's **EXPERIENCE**.  So its inevitable that MOE'S transmission of the art-- even though he is a very competent and well intentioned-instructor-- will inevitably be somewhat less than the founder's experience-based transmission. And that is to say nothing of any errors, misinterpretations or deliberate changes that Moe makes which he feels-- wehether through facsimile experience or not-- are 'improvements' to TFA.

Last but not least we have Curly.  Curly is a roly-poly fellow that mostly only trained in TFA because his buddies Larry and Moe were doing it.  Most days Curly would rather be eating, chasing dames, and playing PS3.  He has never had a fight in his life.  In a word--- from a fighting standpoint-- he has NO EXPERIENCE.  Yet, he also loved and respected the founder, so he dutifully passes on his inheritance of TFA like he is told a good deshi should.

So, at generation one, based on this HUMAN bifurcation and splitting, we have the INEVITABLE fracturing of TFA in to three WIDELY divergent expressions-- all legitimately called "TFA".  And this phenomena is simply compounded over and over and over again across time as this process repeats itself.

Then we come to Step Four, and I agree with you that this is where the rubber really leaves the road.  Now we have a scion in the family line of Stooge-- lets call him Shemp-- who inherits the long standing 'tradition' of TFA.  Shemp might be a crafty, greedy little fellow.  Or, he might be well-intentioned and just want to 'make a living' doing what he loves.  'Shemp' might even be a "first generation" student, along with his cousin's Larry, Moe and Curly.  It doesn't matttter where he fits into the chain.   The point is, Shemp makes changes which are necessary to SELL the art which are not necessarily in keeping with what TFA teaches for 'real' fighting.  He adds in a couple fo flashy demos set to music, and he manages to get two other Stooge-family cousins, one a Hollywood producer and the other a fight promotor to 'feature'  TFA.  Since Shemp's primarily motive is money, he has no problem changing the art on an 'as required' basis to fit new contexts.  So TFA appearing in the latest smash movie looks one way.  Appearing in the ring it looks another.  He also decides that his new chain of dojo's need more students to stabilize their cash flow, so he lowers the testing standards to make it 'easier' for his students to get a much-coveted TFA black belt-- which they want mostly because  they have seen how fantastically awesome TFA is in both the summer's smash 'Rambo #234: Rambo vs. Aliens' and also, in the newest Supreme Utmost Cage Combat Challenge ("S.U.C.C.C.") bout, (now on Spike TV.) 

And like I said, Shemp's motivations to make these changes do not even need to be sinister.  The point is, HE MAKES CHANGES that facilitate the 'saleability' of TFA to a larger audience.  Where, as you said, the 'art' maks its way full circle from the combat tested pragmatic DIRECT EXPERIENCE of one person to what you correctly noted is now a mass-market product.

You know, if the Stooges were alive today, I can totally see "Curly Does Karate" or "The Cage Fighters".  :-)  How far removed from that is the latest "Master Ken" parodies?  Parodies are funny because they mock and make us laugh at the foibles and farcicality in what we know to be a  true generalization.

Nyuk nyuk nyuk.  :-)

And, belated PS:  none of these remarks are meant to disparage the effectiveness or inneffectiveness of any one particular art or combative system; they are insead intended to make the points that 'instruction' in 'an art' is typically instructor-SPECIFIC, as well as to emphasize, in a tongue and cheek way, the inevitable human individuality oif any combative expression.  i.e. The style is irrelevenat, it's the practitioner that counts.

Th0mas's picture

To both Mikes

Excellent posts.. I find the mechanics of ideas and knowledge acquisition facinating, expecially when it comes to the martial arts...

.. and I am not normally one blessed in the patience department (although 25 years polishing in Shotokan might begger that) but your lengthy posts kept me reading to the end, normally by which time I would have wondered off in search of coffee or a sandwich.