You don’t want a black belt. That’s what everyone wants when they start karate. It’s the first thing they’re thinking about. It’s what parents hope their kids will get if they stick with it. They’re stuck in the contract, and they want it to be worth it in the end.
Imagine working for years to achieve something. You’ve been at the top of your class. You outperform everyone at the test. You’re standing exhausted with your class waiting for the results. You’re sweaty, and your heart is pounding. And then the belts come. They start placing them on a table. There are certificates, too. You’re sure it’s been a rigorous grading process. Only a select few candidates will have made it. That’s how it works, anyway. Then something unexpected happens.
You don’t pass? No, that would be normal. That would be expected. Disappointment is normal. What happens is that everyone gets one. In fact, anyone who joined at the same time as you has just reached black belt rank, too. Sure, you weren’t the only one to really earn it. After all this time, there were other great candidates. That’s what they called the group, right? Candidates. So then why are you being grouped together with students that can’t do a basic kick correctly?
Isn’t that what the training was all about? Being able to hold your own? You had to become proficient at all the moves. Especially the basics. It took dedication, precision, and countless hours of hard work. That’s what they sold you anyway. You signed up because the requirements resonated with you. It shouldn’t really matter what the other students have done since you’re focused on bettering yourself. But something feels wrong.
If you had put in half the effort would you have still passed?
Then dread sets in. Was the school just telling you what you wanted to hear so that you’d stay enrolled? The whole point of it, all of it, was to meet a standard. To overcome impossible odds. To become something greater than before.
Has anyone truly earned their rank? If everyone is getting belts like candy, just for showing up, then where is the standard? How did this happen?
Black belts happened. Everyone wanted one. They signed up to complete a program and get the belt. Pay the tuition. Come to class. Represent the brand. Get the belt. But isn’t it supposed to be about overcoming extreme challenges and unlocking mystical wisdom? Since when did karate become so cut and dry? So…commercialized?
The whole point of business is to make money by giving your clients what they want, in this case, their child’s success. Everyone thinks they want a black belt because of what it represents. They really just want to be a respected and competent martial artist deserving of wearing one. The whole point is learning and getting better.
So what does the belt matter anyway? I find that my students suddenly become less stressed when they understand that. It’s not a race for some fashion statement. They don’t want a black belt in reality. They want to be the kind of person that wears one.
Martial arts businesses are notoriously hard to maintain. They open and close down shop so fast that some clients never get their money back if they paid upfront. It’s a saturated market, too. So, cutting corners becomes tempting.
If they lower their standards, they can artificially increase the success of their school. Everyone is happy their child is a winner and seems to be the next “Karate Kid.” The school becomes more popular and makes more money. That business model of “everyone is a winner” spreads and contributes to generally low standards in martial arts.
Even if a school has no standards, you can still become a great martial artist. If you can do the moves correctly, you can at least exceed their low standards. If you receive a black belt you’ve accomplished something, right?
Here’s the kicker. The worst problem with martial arts today. This is what no one wants to hear. Not the teachers, not the parents, not the students, and definitely not someone wearing a fresh new black belt:
What if what you were learning wasn’t even useful?
Even if you only wanted the exercise, the recreation, the discipline, or a career, you are supposed to get that while also learning actual skills of combat. But a lot of schools in America are giving belts away for showing up. Never mind if the student becomes a good fighter. These schools are teaching a lot of useless fluff and advancing students who don’t deserve it.
By now, you might have a feeling that everything isn’t how it seems, and you’d be right. There is a problem with a lot of martial arts schools.
But what about their styles?
“Because of styles people are separated. Research your own experience, absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.”
This book is focused on striking martial arts. Basically, styles where you hit people. Striking is the most common form of open-hand combat because it’s intuitive. Learning to use strikes for defense will deter further aggression from an attacker. Learning to defend against them will keep you safe in the ring, on the street, or at an out-of-hand cookout.
Many new students lack direction. They aren’t capable of evaluating techniques and schools because they don’t know what to look for. A system, or collection of techniques that work well together, is hard for a new student to judge. They rely on their teacher for everything. Without thinking for themselves, they put their advancement in the hands of someone else entirely. Imagine if that instructor was incompetent?
Your first choice of style will significantly influence your future in martial arts. It may be the only style you ever train in. It might be a catalyst that ultimately leads you to develop your own system and method or to become a career fighter.
Okay, I get it. You just want to see how to Karate-Chop. You want to know what styles and moves are the best so you can start practicing. We’ll get there.
American Karate is both a style and a philosophy. Take the techniques in this style and the principles behind them, and build onto them with your own ideas.
Your intent is the first step in beginning your journey. Small paths you take will make up your complete journey. To begin a path involves choosing an area of study, or a martial arts style. However, not every style is worth studying, or even considering.
Styles and Application
Martial arts are distinguished by styles, ranging from sports-oriented boxing and taekwondo to purely combative military programs like MCMAP and SCARS. Karate exists as a set of principles for stand-up fighting, or striking combat.
Many people seem to believe karate styles, or martial arts in general, are only for self-defense. Martial arts isn’t the way of self-defense; it’s the art of combat and warfare. The martial artist learns how to fight, and can use their skills for self-defense. Professional mixed martial arts fighters don’t seem to be practicing self-defense. Neither did Sun Tsu’s armies. Self-defense is one use of martial arts among many.
If you want to learn to fight for any reason, then you have to understand practicality. The environment you’re in determines what style is most appropriate. The time for sword fighting has passed. Martial arts styles are designed with specific use cases in mind, like taking on a larger opponent, concealing weapons, or even concealing practice of the art altogether.
Practicing a style which has no modern application might be fun. But to what end? If it’s solely for the enjoyment of role-playing practices, so be it. For those looking to exercise, why not get a work out while learning something useful?
There are three big problems with martial arts: merit, commercialization, and originality. It’s not authenticity, which you might have thought.
Before you start your journey and your training, you must choose a style to study. There is, however, a problem. You would be stepping into an illusion. Those who already train (or did) might realize they have been under a spell. Martial arts styles are not what you think they are. They are not what they are commonly presented to be.
First, understand what a “martial arts style” means:
Style: a particular manner or technique by which something is done, created, or performed
Martial: of, relating to, or suited for war or a warrior
Art: skill acquired by experience, study, or observation
A martial artist seriously studies and practices the complexity of combat. The art form comes not from choreography or aesthetics, but the immense depth of skill and expression in the style. This expression is stylistic. It’s knowledge in principles of combat expressed through one’s form of motion and technique.
Martial arts are all, by definition, rooted in war and combat. You can’t separate the martial aspect from martial arts. There are many styles of martial arts. The phrases “martial arts style” and “martial art” are used interchangeably when referring to style and categorization.
Here are a few examples, in some simple categories:
Striking Styles: Boxing, Karate, Taekwondo
Grappling Styles: Wrestling, Japanese Jiu-Jitsu, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
Weapon-Based Style: Sword, Pistol, Rifle, Knife
Hybrid Styles: Mixed Martial Arts
All martial artists should branch out and study other styles, aiming to be as well-rounded as possible. However, I attest to the principle of specialty. I am passionate about stand-up fighting. I am therefore better at kicking and punching than I am at ground game (fighting on the ground).
You can train any way you want. One way is to start with a specific category, adding others in later to fill the gaps. Allow yourself to gain moderate expertise in a type of martial arts before moving your full dedication on to another. I find it works better with your focus and skill this way. Start with too many at a time, or immediately with mixed martial arts (MMA), and you would see yourself overwhelmed and less confident or learned with any particular technique or move.
Many professional MMA fighters have several coaches, all for different skills like boxing (hand strikes), strategy, Brazilian jiu-jitsu (ground game), and strength training. The use of coaches in this way both compartmentalizes and rounds off their training. Those fighters still have more expertise in one area than the rest, though they require coaches to make up for their lack of skill in other areas.
Never learning different types of skills would leave you vulnerable, especially in a mixed martial arts fight. Likewise, learning everything at the same time since the beginning wouldn’t afford you enough time for one skill, resulting in mediocrity in all areas and deep understanding in none.
You will never be entirely well rounded. You will always be better and more comfortable with certain moves and styles. Build a solid foundation in a style with purpose, and move on to another when you see fit. You are in charge of making sure you are the best equipped for situations you may encounter. One style won’t prepare you for everything.
Striking won’t help much if you are constricted on the ground by a grappling practitioner. Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) is an effective grappling and strangulation style that is primarily done on the ground. Practitioners of this style are best able to both defend themselves and launch offensive attacks from the ground. If they don’t practice stand-up fighting, they will be no better fit to fight standing up than a stand-up fighter would on the floor.
Every style can teach you some moves and techniques to defend against other types of fighting. However, the styles you want to defend against will always have more valuable information within them.
If you are not yet well rounded, you must acknowledge this and use your expertise to your advantage. If you are better on the ground, get your opponent there. If you prefer to stand up, don’t let a grappling specialist get a hold of you. Put them at their weakest, so much as you can determine, and put yourself in the best environment and circumstance for victory.
My American Karate is a style without complicated techniques or movements, only practical and straightforward ones. There are no secret moves, death touches, pinky locks, fist catches or eye pokes. There are only moves and concepts that work well in open-hand, striking combat.
The process of declaring your ideas is the origin of style. Every black belt wearer (black belt for short) can teach what they have learned, though they will undoubtedly have a personal flavor and spin to it. Their philosophies, habits, and improvements will be a part of it. No one can teach a curriculum exactly as their instructor taught them because they are not their instructor. Even in father-son dynamics, where the son continues in the same work or art as the father, it’s never the same result.
Black belts, or experts, can teach the same style they learned but must tell their students that it’s their interpretation, or inform them of their changes. The black belt can make a lineage to themselves, but it should never be on the success of the founder that the current instructor gets their merit, but rather on their ability.
Once my students have reached black belt rank and have proven they understand and can perform all the moves, I encourage them all to further their training and teach. They can interpret this style through their lens or develop their own, separate, style. Their reputation will first be based on the completion of the program, and then will stem from their demonstrated ability and proven merit.
Find a style you like, but concern yourself with who is teaching it. Ignore the teacher’s claims and documents and lineage, no matter how impressive. Observe their actual teaching and ability. Judge their reputation by the truth in it, not the belt around their waist.
Seeing belt rank in a distorted way is unfortunately common, and is a direct symptom of an underlying problem in martial arts: attempted emulation. Many schools try to perpetuate the traditions and teachings of a style without understanding them, or even adapting them for modernity. This type of school is the most common in America, and because of that, the populace assumes that schools teaching a foreign martial art are the only schools teaching “real” martial arts.
With the rise of mixed martial arts and its competitions into the center stage of fighting sports entertainment, America is on the verge of a martial arts revolution. Participants can blend and combine different martial arts disciplines and techniques when they fight — for example, grappling, choking, kicking, and punching. This relative freedom translates to fewer rules and restrictions for fighters, and more realistic fights.
I believe this will help to pop the bubble of Oriental emulation that has so permeated the community and public perception. There have always been ways for the American public to watch and take part in fighting events. There are several martial arts in the Olympics, of course, not to mention the ever-popular boxing and wrestling. However, these pale in comparison to the impact Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has had in genuinely bringing MMA to the mainstream. More people know and watch MMA than at any other time in history; indeed a significant feat.
Most people who wanted to see fights of this type would have had to settle for a movie or choose to watch wrestling or boxing, and only get a portion of what they wanted to see. Kickboxing, muay thai tournaments, and other events were of course occurring, though they were not on pay-per-view and YouTube the way UFC and other MMA championships and fights are. Where else could someone watch a professional fighter mount another on the ground and pound their face?
Popular MMA is great for martial arts in America. Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) got hoisted to the forefront with its success in early UFC fights. Most notably, the famous Gracie family. Americans had a taste of what kind of fighting styles work in a “real” fight.
For those in the younger crowd, these matches were the most realistically sanctioned fights ever seen. Instead of watching amateur fighters in a pixelated internet video street fight in someone’s backyard, or a couple of guys after school going at it, we had something better. We had a way to watch excellent fighters of different styles pinned together to win, with limited rules. Ultimately, to survive cancellation, UFC added more rules and safety regulations.
Something else happened and is continuing to happen, across the country. Those who want to fight are seeking to imitate those MMA fighters instead of taking karate lessons. They want to learn to fight and to be able to defend themselves if someone is trying to fight them. There are, because of liability risks, not so many fight clubs, so they don’t have many options.
The public is always participating in “styles” which they think are worthwhile. That is still going to be true, which is why you see branding in any strong new trend.
Sports exercise programs that promote fitness in a specific way are one example of this outside of martial arts. Many companies take fitness and make it into a specialty gym. Some have a particular workout holding a special type of weight. Others require you to do a specific routine or dance. Some of the more successful ones do competitions to see who can do the most reps. Then they brand it and make it more than lifting weights better than other people. They develop their methods and techniques and system and do their own thing until it’s their style of fitness.
I don’t care for those programs, but they exemplify the capability for success when creating a system or style. These programs invariably have rough starts, where they are accused of doing nothing new and “just making things up.” It’s only when something is proven that it’s taken seriously by those who have not tried it. When a new system gains popularity, financial success, or creates great fighters, people will accept it as an original style.
BJJ is a fast-growing martial art. It has been spotlighted and showcased in early UFC (and still is) and has proved itself to be a worthwhile endeavor to study. It directly works for what it’s intended. The Brazilian variant is arguably better in technique than the original purely Japanese version of the art. It’s an improvement. Those Brazilians who started developing and honing their skills in the art began to create something separate enough that it needed its own classification and distinction. Those trees are beginning to bear the fruit of public perception.
What didn’t happen with the rise of MMA was an increase in any other specific martial arts in America. Sure, martial arts, in general, had a new meaning to everyone, rejuvenating the community. Fighters would train in styles they thought would be best for them, often in various disciplines, and mix them to win. Being a well-rounded fighter suddenly mattered.
In MMA fights, there is a blatantly obvious BJJ (or ground game) aspect, so much so that without a background or any basics in it, a fighter could be at a significant disadvantage. If you get pinned to the floor in an MMA match against someone with BJJ experience and you don’t have ground game, then you will have a hard time winning.
There will be, in coming times, a vast disillusionment to other martial arts that can’t prove themselves in the ring. MMA is putting martial arts to the test. Styles can always look great in their tournaments and demonstrations, but not all of them can do what BJJ or boxing can for a fighter.
I’ve spent time learning tangsoodo, a Korean striking martial arts style that is similar to taekwondo. Tangsoodo has moves that would be useful in self-defense or an MMA fight. It does, though, have many moves which are useless in any realistic or modern fight. It has many exercises and forms (memorized sequence of steps) which serve no purpose. It’s not the only style like this. There are plenty more which have this problem.
Question instructors or clueless practitioners about something that doesn’t seem useful, and you will get a similar answer every time:
“This is the art part of the style.”
They fail to realize the real purpose of martial arts. It’s the art of fighting, warfare, and preparing yourself for such. If it isn’t related to that, then it’s not martial at all.
Tai chi, in particular, is a “martial” art style that is filled with forms and slow movements not related to fighting. It’s more popular with the elderly because it works as a sort of light aerobic exercise, or alternative yoga. Many martial artists claim that tai chi movements can be used for self-defense, and so it is a martial art. A pencil can be used as a weapon, but that doesn’t make it a weapon.
Traditional martial arts forms are not realistic. Even if they were, choreography is a waste of time. However, you can still find many schools spending hours and hours a week teaching students forms and other memorized movements. That time would be so much better spent learning fighting techniques.
Some styles and systems are better because the methods give fighters real results, rather than wasting their time. Remember, all art requires skill. Think Mona Lisa, not splashes of expressive, colorful paint.
Two styles come to mind that have continued to prove themselves in the ring, BJJ and muay thai. Neither teach forms; instead, they teach concepts. Both of these styles I’ve studied, and from the minute I stepped on the mats they had me practicing and learning real techniques that had an actual use for fighting and self-defense.4 Neither had a form that had me dancing along to counted movements in an H-formation. Go figure.
Traditional martial arts styles are not entirely worthless. Instead, the methods are worse than the techniques. Nonetheless, there is cutting that should be done to most of them for them to survive the coming revolution of choice in martial arts, where public perception becomes more open, once again, to merit.
The public will begin to choose martial arts that they believe are effective rather than what they have seen in a movie. There is no telling what they will find superior, though grappling is likely to be a leader. Those schools teaching traditional Oriental martial arts must evolve their systems to survive.
The mysticism and prestige of origin have started to fade. Schools must exhibit proven techniques and methods, and produce students that can genuinely demonstrate good moves. Anything else and the school, style, and popularity will slowly die out. For a lot of these styles, the entire system must be uprooted and reinvented to work. BJJ is the evolution of Japanese jiu-jitsu that will supersede it and outlive it.
Taekwondo is a hugely popular style. It will suffer a decline similar to the VHS tape. It fails to evolve because of traditional teaching methods and standardization, leaving a fighter open to style-specific exploits.
Plenty of fighting styles can remain as they are. Perhaps they are entertaining enough to continue to exist in their competitions and sports matches. There are ways, such as with padded sparring, where styles can become more sport than fight. While every martial art has both sportive, self-defense, and fighting aspects, they are usually blended together during training. People looking for fighting skills will stop choosing styles that prioritize sports and neglect real-world applications. Unless these styles change, they await an inevitable death.
The reason these styles don’t change is that they can’t. They perpetuate a system of emulation and rely on mimicking old methods and traditions. Still, there are many teachers of traditional styles that have great skill, above and beyond that which their style provides (or limits them to). These teachers have modified and created new ways, techniques, and methods. They have rightfully created something new. It doesn’t need to be wholly original, but it’s new because it’s different.
If they had a way to drop all the fluff that doesn’t benefit the practitioner, they would have a significant martial art. However, there was no simple path for this to occur, until now.