Is traditional martial arts dying? Just in my own country of South Africa I have seen countless traditional martial art schools close their doors for business. One of those which I pass each day to drop my kids off at school, that had been open for close on three decades and mostly catering to adults, has now closed its doors too. Those in the traditional martial arts who seem to be surviving have melded into the modern world of martial arts such as MMA or reality based systems. For those who have crossed over 100% to the other side, it may be due to simply trying to keep their doors open (many are full time teachers and make a living from martial arts), or for some the realisation of the truth of functionality in the modern martial arts approach has set in.
Many people don’t know this about me as they immediately equate me to Crazy Monkey, but I was, although a very long time ago a black belt in karate. I taught karate at age 17 at the local schools in my area. I even fought for what was then the Northern Transvaal military karate team during national service in the army. Although I had started western boxing around the age of 17, it wasn’t until 19, driven by my experience in western boxing that I found Muay Thai, and slowly moved away from my traditional routes so to speak. The rest as they say is history.
Increasingly though as I have aged, and gained some hard earned wisdom, I regret not fully embracing the healthy, positive philosophy offered by my traditional martial arts training when I was younger. Consumed by anger, fear, and simply trying to survive the mean streets of my neighbourhood — I began to mistrust my traditional training, simply because non of it seemed to work in a real fight. As Maslow would agree, when all you are trying to do is survive, any talk of self actualisation fell on deaf ears. In the years to follow and in the race for effectiveness, I lost the Art, and in doing so, I lost the true transformative potential of martial artistry. Personally I feel this is the same thing that will happen to traditional martial art teachers who shift to the more functional realm, and in doing so leave the very thing behind that made them so special, the Art, the philosophy of martial arts as being more than just about fighting. I also think that many traditional martial artists have resisted the move, because they realise what they have to lose and don’t want too. Those who don’t make the move of course, will likely end up going bankrupt.
The question then is, what is the future of traditional martial arts? Does it even have a future?
I think traditional martial arts in the end will have no choice but to change, and to move to a more functional platform. The days of hiding behind secret techniques, death touch and unsubstantiated performance claims hidden neatly in a kata are coming to an end. The world is changing to, people are no longer so easily bullshitted into believing something is truth because a master says it’s so. All they have to look is on YouTube to find dozens of real examples of fights, and what really unfolds.
For a long time, traditional marital arts got away with peddling falsehood in effectiveness, because then as it is now, the vast majority of people who take up martial art practice will likely never be called up to use what is taught to them. But today, unlike a few decades ago, not only is the UFC everywhere, but as noted earlier examples abound all over the net of what fights actually look like, and what works. Change then for traditional schools of martial arts are inevitable, and to not change, to not evolve will mean they will become extinct, or at best find the only market they still have is kids (my prediction is that in the next decade that will change too). One of my BJJ students who lived in the Shaolin temple since the age of eight, now runs a successful kung-fu school not far from my home. Even he has realised that he has no choice but to evolve and what he now teaches resembles for the most part something akin to MMA than those old Jackie Chan movies.
One of the things I have personally tried to do in my own work is to move with the present, but honour the past. I feel that it will be a sad day when there is no longer anyone around to teach martial arts as an experience that transcends the fight, as a life performance vehicle. I know Crazy Monkey Defence is doing this, and there are others of course, but it seems to be far and few between. I now realise that although I don’t agree with the methods taught by Funakoshi, Ueshiba and others — they were onto something. To focus only on the Martial (which is the prevailing approach these days) to the exclusion of the Art can and will have disastrous side effects.
One of the reasons I have written this piece is that increasingly I have traditional school owners contacting me to either join Crazy Monkey or our Monkey Jits program. All of them say the same thing. They know they have to change, and evolve, not only for themselves, their students, but also to stay in business — but yet their greatest fear is to lose the traditional values of martial arts they have held so dear for so long.
If there is a future for traditional martial arts, which I believe there is, it will necessitate that they move into the world of functional martial arts, without losing the life affirming philosophy that made them so unique and special. This will not be an easy task. At present it does seem that everyone just wants to fight. But my message to traditional schools of martial arts is to have faith. My message is likely a few years ahead of its time, but I am certain the day will come when people who have come through the rinse cycle of purely martial athleticism will realise that what they wanted most out of martial art training never happened.
I am convinced that the vast majority of people going into modern martial art training, as those who did the same in traditional martial arts decades ago, do so (although mostly unconsciously) because they seek personal transformation (self actualisation). Beyond the obvious reasons for training functional martial arts, such as fitness, and self defence, there has always been a promise of becoming more as a human being through martial artistry. No one is ever going to find this in a fight school. My advice then is, stay the course, don’t buy into the status quo. If you are a traditional school of martial arts, work towards becoming functional, but ensure you integrate the healthy philosophy that has always been apart of your martial art teaching. You will thank yourself that you did.