ARMA Editorial - May 2012
Recreational Sportification Ruins Historical Combat Discipline

By John Farthing
ARMA Deputy Director

Thoughts from Our Membership

"The fact that it could be worse doesn't make it good."
-Jeff Hansen, Free Scholar, ARMA Birmingham

"Fighting is not fair just as life is not fair... The mentality of trying to create a fair enviroment for players so they can 'win' and the motives (which generally are ego-boosting) of the people playing the tournament are just as far from the Art as can be."
-Jorge Cortines, ARMA Mexico

"If one wishes to argue that medieval tournaments happened, I think that it would then be their responsibility to make it as close to what was done in the medieval tournament. And that, by its very nature demands that the art be done as honestly and faithfully as it can safely be done which, I submit, is the ARMA curriculum. Therefore, I would say that our own sparring is actually quite a bit closer to medieval tournaments than modern sporting tournaments."
-Frank Zamary, ARMA Columbus Ohio

"[It is] an artificial construct and we are hampered in our efforts to reconstruct historical fencing because we have no 'real' outlet for our fencing skills. Reconstructing historical fencing purely for tournament use will create a narrow interpretation."
-Gene Tausk

"On at least one of the 'Other' forums, there is frequently the lament that sparring and tournament 'fighting' demonstrate a lack of higher skill because the participants don't look like they do when they drill, or look like the illustrations in the manuals. They look forward to the day when sparring and tournaments do look like drilling, in terms of being clean and looking good and conforming to idealized forms.

While some of those people don't go so far as to say people should stop sparring until their technique and form are perfect, that mindset has a lot in common with some of the anti-freeplay folks. Yes, there are certainly those out there who dislike freeplay because of their own inabilities and incompetence. However, the rest of them seem trapped in the preconceived need for idealized forms gotten only through choreographed drilling. They want everything to look like it does in the fechtbuchs, which is good and understandable, but they fail to understand WHY the illustrations in the fechtbuchs look the way they do. Only from actually fighting (or vigorously sparring against an uncooperative opponent) can you understand the physicality of the motions, and I'm sure that like everyone here, I believe that only then can you transpose that back to drilling."
-David Kite, ARMA Indiana

"ARMA isn't about participating in a sport, but about the purity of the martial art itself. The only arguably competitive events I can think of in ARMA would be prize plays, which are necessary as a means of testing potential free scholars (and provosts?). Giving a prize player your best fight as a means of testing them is important, but beyond this, we don't hold formal competitions because sportification of this craft is something we seek to avoid. Sportification leads to rule sets which ultimately guide behavior in competition toward exploiting those rules. UFC is a perfect example. Fighters aren't allowed to kick an opponent when one of their arms is on the ground. So fighters will put their arm on the ground while closing in to prevent themselves from being kicked per the rules, thus taking away what would otherwise be a legitimate tool of hand-to-hand combat. Not that we don't have certain things we avoid for safety's sake, but we include as much as we possibly can, and we do practice with the intent to perform many techniques that we don't follow through on.

Long story short, a competitive ARMA would be a sportified ARMA, and a sportified ARMA would be ineffectual at maintaining a pure combative understanding of this art."
-Michael Bennes, ARMA Las Vegas

"We compete in ARMA in the sense that we have our prize playings and spar against each other all the time. In my time at ARMA, I have racked up more hours fighting against other human beings (that of course are trying to hit me back) than in all my years in TKD. The people in ARMA will challenge you in every way. We don't have sport competitions because we are not a sporting organization. Sports require rules, standardized sporting equipment, third party referees, etc. If we do this, then we are not learning fighting, we are learning a sport. If I wanted to learn a sport, I would go back to TKD or learn modern fencing. We cannot re-create the fighting arts of Europe if we are limited to re-creating the sports of Europe."
-Gene Tausk

"RMA competitions are impractical because in a non-lethal friendly swordfight, the only way to accurately score the fight is on the honor system. Sure, some blows will be obvious, but I've been in and watched many bouts where four things happened all at once and five different observers had five different opinions of what just happened and who won. I have made strikes on sword and head simultaneously that I wouldn't have considered a hit at all if my partner hadn't told me that yes, he had been hit sufficiently hard to cause injury if the weapon had been sharp. A judge and a crowd could easily miss it as well in a fast exchange. I have also landed hits on armored limbs that would have cut flesh, but the guy didn't feel it through thick padding or hard plastic and ignored it, and I've received some like that as well. Now in friendly sparring for learning purposes or a ranking test, I can count on my fellows here to maintain their honor and acknowledge a blow received or called when the outcome is in doubt. The question is, how much will that break down when there's something to win (points, prizes, bragging rights) and no consequences for losing (imagined loss of life)? In most of our members I think it wouldn't, but the risk goes up nonetheless, more than we are comfortable with, and if we let non-members participate who do not necessarily share our philosophy, then that risk goes even higher. In an art where judging is already difficult, somebody who stops playing honorably makes fair judging effectively impossible."
-Stacy Clifford, Free Scholar, ARMA Houston

"I came across the following quote while reading the book, FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the other night and thought it appropriate.

'The challenges of competition can be stimulating and enjoyable. But when beating the opponent takes precedence in the mind over performing as well as possible, enjoyment tends to disappear. Competition is enjoyable only when it is a means to perfect one's skills; when it becomes an end to itself it ceases to be fun.'" -Scott Adair

A dark day has dawned... casting a shadow of greater falsehood upon an already widely misunderstood subject which the ARMA has long struggled to bring 'into the light'. It seems that in our modern world of instant gratification with its internet, its drive-through windows and its many other instantaneous conveniences, that there are few remaining who wish to make the effort to accurately and legitimately understand our craft. Most, it seems, are looking for the easy way out. The ARMA has made every effort to uphold 'integrity of scholarship' even while being shadowed by the dark shadow today of widespread misrepresentation within the study of the Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe. The ARMA remains stalwart and steadfast amongst those few who do not wish to change, alter or otherwise 'water down' understanding and recovery of our Western martial heritage.

It has become the recent trend amongst many enthusiasts of Renaissance martial arts to adopt codified rulesets for competitive tournaments in their practice of Historical European combat teachings. This has resulted in creating a sport out of their activity. There is certainly nothing wrong with creating new and interesting sports but, when it is presented as a legitimate and historically accurate incarnation of a "martial art" though it has been altered and distorted into a no longer recognizable bastardization of a genuine fighting discipline, that is indeed a disservice! It is a disservice in that, by presenting it as anything other than an artificial game, it undermines the greater understanding of the true nature of the combat skills practiced by fighting men of Medieval and Renaissance Europe. This sort of thing, by inherently producing further misrepresenting of this subject, also undermines the work of serious scholars and academics who have struggled to increase society's education on this previously understudied aspect of lost cultural tradition. I could easily rail on about how utterly deplorable sportifiying an effort to revive a martial art is, how truly sad and detrimental to the legitimate reconstruction of our craft such a mockery is. This sort of thing (which sadly, has public appeal) undermines serious efforts to accurately and legitimately reconstruct the source teachings as reputable self-defense methods.

I, for one, am offended to see pretend fighting contests presented as being "historical" European martial arts. If there are those who wish to play sword-tagging games, fine, more power to them. But call it what it is, an artificial modern concocted sport! We in the ARMA work hard at representing our craft with dignity, in the most historically accurate and martially sound manner possible. We attempt to educate by dispelling myths and fallacies and by stressing the nature of Renaissance combatives without pretense. Such is lacking in the sad sporting displays, which claims kinship with our genuine martial heritage. I would not even claim it as our bastard, which is why I encourage all enthusiasts proud of their true Western martial heritage who do not wish to see substitute sporting games sold off as being our legitimate traditions to instead redouble your efforts in your training, in your learning, and in your craft. It is up to those of us willing to work hard, to maintain integrity, authenticity, and discipline to ensure that our fighting traditions are revived and reclaimed accurately, not only for ourselves, but for future generations. To those of you who wish to adopt a new sport, I wish you well, but, I must implore you, please take responsibility for your claims. Do not assert your modern game as a true martial art (historical or otherwise). For no other reason than out of 'respect for history and heritage' I beseech you, enjoy your mock-weapon sparring contests for the pretense they are, and leave the historical self-defense skills to those who will take care to preserve it accurately in the hope that students of tomorrow will inherit the fruits of those students working hard today.

I think part of the 'problem' is caused by the lack of a codified definition of what a martial art really is. For example, I had an interesting conversation with ARMA academic advisor Professor Thomas Green at the 2011 ARMA International Gathering. We agreed that modern terms like 'Mixed Martial Arts' or 'MMA' are misnomers and quite inaccurate. Now mind you, I am not saying that MMA practitioners are incapable of fighting, but rather their motivations for fighting and indeed the very fight itself is quite different from the need-driven defensive encounter. Martial arts are born of necessity, the need to protect or defend one's life or way of life.

MMA, boxing, wrestling and other combat sports are certainly inspired by and even somewhat rooted in martial arts. They can (and have) produced competent, capable fighters, at least within a controlled environment or set of circumstances. Martial or battle arts however, do not have rules, boundaries, etcetera, the stakes aren't limited to entertaining the crowd, winning (or keeping) the title of champion, or renewing one's contract for a predetermined number of additional fights. They are about the earnest need to defend one's life, family, country, etc.

It is, in my opinion, the media hype of promoting combat sport and glorifying it as martial art that leads to many of the modern misconceptions about combat in general. If your general idea of combat is coming from an already flawed understanding, then your core assumptions (and by default, everything else) will also be misguided toward the popular prevailing notions. Once people start to see the difference between combat sport and martial arts, they will more clearly see the marked differences between MARE and tournament fighting competitions.

Tournaments produce and are indeed predicated upon self serving interests. One does not train under the artifice of rules and other unrealistic dogma to display, promote or further a true understanding of historical arts or combatives, but rather to win glory and recognition for one's self, school, club, etc. Tournaments in their present form promote all of the hype of any modern sporting event. They are a breeding ground for the very egocentricism the historical source literature warns us against:

"...the more skill a man hath of his weapon the more gentle and curteous should he shewe himselfe, for in truth this is rightly the honour of a brave Gentleman, and so much the more is hee to bee esteemed : neither must he be a bragger, or lyer, and without truth in his word, because there is nothing more to be required of a man then to know himselfe." -Vincentio Saviolo, 1595

There is still a marked difference between the goals, objectives and training paradigm of martial artists and athletes. Let me say this again: "A tournament is an artificial construct," therefore the training approach and paradigm will, by necessity, be altered from the original intent of a true martial art. Tournaments are, by their very nature, a self serving enterprise. The goals and objectives become doing well in order to make oneself, one's school or club, or one's (albeit now altered) art look good. The training pardigm essentially becomes, 'In it to win it.' Training is catered to the needs of the tournament construct, which results in many real martial techniques being discarded and/or ignored. The argument has been repeatedly raised that "The Art either works or it doesn't," and that statement is completely true and accurate; however, the Art is designed to work in REAL combat conditions. If you are in a real fight you might use such techniques as pommeling to the face or kicking in the cods (techniques which are well documented in the source literature), but since most (and as far as I know, ALL) tournaments disallow such techniques, the result is that those training for tournament remove many martially sound and historically valid techniques. Conversely, our goals within the ARMA are to reconstruct the entire art, maintaining a true martial spirit. We do not shy away from, disallow or discourage techniques such as those listed above from being employed, and neither did our historical counterparts! Martial arts are born out of necessity to defend and protect lives (or way of life), and while we today may never use Medieval weapons in a real life or death encounter, we can still train with a realistic martial paradigm. The tournament mentality of "I'm in it to win it, and I can always come back and try again if not," is an unrealistic and unmartial ideology. Our Medieval and Renaissance forebears knew to train as though their lives depended on the art, because they quite literally did! So, while the combat sports tournament competitor trains to win prestige and glory without fear of death, the true martial artist trains with the understanding and paradigm of, "If I do not win, someone dies" (me, my family, etc.).

It is this 'kampfgeist' or 'martial spirit' that separates the tournament players from the real martial artists. The only questions that remain are, "What are your goals and objectives?" and, "Which type of practitioner are you?"

It is about attitude, intent and your training paradigm. Of course we don't literally gouge out eyes or throw blows that would actually maim, cripple or kill, but we do throw blows (to ANY target ) with sufficient speed, force and intensity that our training partners know we could have maimed, crippled or killed. For example, I have bitten people in sparring matches before; this consisted of applying enough pressure that my training partner knew I could have torn flesh; I didn't have to actually do it to make the point. At the end of each training session, there is NO doubt in my mind (or my training partners) as to how a particular encounter would have ended had it been 'for real'. There are no delusions of grandeur predicated upon whether I 'got enough points,' but rather KNOWING that I either defended myself well against violent aggressive attacks or the very sobering fact that I was struck with sufficient intensity that I would have died. This is achieved through dedicated hours practicing and developing CONTROL.

Just as a point of clarification, I did indeed refer to tournaments as an 'artificial construct,' however, I did not apply this to training. It is well documented and supported in the historical record that training to kill was practiced. Then, as now, people trained to kill in a safe and controlled environment with an emphasis on control. Actual killing is not, and never has been, a prerequisite for learning to take a life. It is also important to stress that while the Art does indeed contain lethal techniques, even our historical forebears recognized it as an art of Defence. Martial arts, then and now, have always been ultimately about preserving life, not taking life.

 
 

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