The delusion of grace under pressure

Surprise! Fighting looks like…. fighting

This blog post grew from a discussion on RSF, a discussion forum on internal marital arts where I’m a pretty active user. Some members were expressing their displeasure at what they saw as low-level skill displayed in the recent 2012 Olympics Judo contest in London.

I was incredulous, since competing on an international stage in a tough sport like Judo requires the athlete to have levels of skill far beyond those of the mere mortal. Yet phrases like “low level” and “muscling” were being thrown about with abandon. The standard thing the detractors of modern Judo say, while explaining how Judo has entered a state of decline from which it can never possibly recover, is that modern athletes are not as good as the old timers. Then they post a black and white video of Mifune (The “God of Judo”) practicing with his students back in the day.

I have one right here:

As you can see, he’s effortlessly controlling his opponent, and demonstrating what is clearly agreed upon as “high level skills”.

Well, for a start, since Kyuzo Mifune was considered the greatest Judo technician to have ever lived, nobody would compare well to him, but that’s beside the point. Their point is that it looks nothing like Olympic Judo, and of course they’re right! Competition Judo will never look like the Mifune demo, because… (drum roll please) it’s a demo!

It’s exactly the same in every martial art – put a Tai Chi fighter in a sparring contest and inevitably people say “that’s not Tai Chi” because it doesn’t look like the super smooth demonstration their instructor does every Friday night at their class, as he effortlessly repels a doddery middle-aged gentleman who is gently pushing on his arm… Quite simply, competition fights do not look like martial arts demos and never will! I am truly perplexed that people can’t understand this… it’s a sort of collective human delusion. And it’s not just martial artists that have this delusion, it’s seeped into the popular consciousness too because of movies like Enter the Dragon, The Matrix, or James Bond. Most people think that if you “know kung fu” you’ll be able to pull some Jackie Chan moves out of your ass in the middle of a real violent encounter. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There are plenty of clips of martial arts masters under real pressure on YouTube, if you look for them. They all have one thing in common – it stops looking like the perfect martial art demo and starts to look scrappy as soon as they have to deal with real resistance, and not a willing student.

Here’s the thing: We’re confusing the training methods with the end result time after time.


Here’s Kochi Tohei looking graceful, poised and in control while doing a demonstration of Aikido:

Now here he is working against an opponent offering real resistance:

Totally different, right?

This comment on that last video from YouTube is typical of the collective human delusion I am describing:

“if tohei used aikido techniques against this man,which he is not doing until the last bit of the clip,serious injury to uke could have resulted. this was only an exercise in balance.”

It’s time for people to wake up.

7 thoughts on “The delusion of grace under pressure

  1. Pingback: Full contact Tai Chi. A painful lesson in reality. | The Tai Chi Notebook

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  4. Thanks for that.
    I used to be bemused by this huge manual of Wingchun I once borrowed. It was full of perfect standing techniques from face on and side angles and there was sparring volleys that reminded me of logical chess exercises. The one give away was a blured picture of the author in an international competition rolling around on the floor with his opponent.


  5. A relieve to read this blog.
    I practice practical Chinese sword play. When people see movies on YouTube from a tournament you get all these wise cracks saying they block to much, they do not use their waist enough etc etc. When we train that’s just what we do, but when your standing there and somebody tries to hit you on the head with a piece of hard wood all your technique seems to go down the drain. The real skill is to keep some of it.
    I don’t say we’re expert jianke but there is a hell of a difference between a controlled game of sparring and a real match where everything goes.
    Thanx again for this blog.


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