Fighting Skeptic - Of Martial Arts and Magic Arts

By John Clements
ARMA Director

Like an amateur magician still learning to hone his craft, at one point or another every martial arts charlatan who pulls off a trick they attribute to their having “special powers” had to at some time have practiced it on somebody. Before they got it down right and became adept at fooling gullible students (or just themselves), they must surely have failed a lot. I have come to understand that in my youth I was witness to some of these amateur “masters” still trying to figure it all out. I experienced a good many fakes and con artists while they were still working on their various gimmicks. Back then I never fell for those claiming “secrets powers” of the shaolin or ninja or medieval samurai. But now, as a researcher and professional martial arts instructor with 30 years experience, I am disgusted by it and can happily call them out.

What dismays me the most with all the pop-culture martial arts nonsense (or “bullshido”) out there is that many people are all too quick to believe in such illusions.  There is a pernicious absurdity in how readily some will give uncritical acceptance to assertions of martial arts “powers.” As with devotion to so many fringe claims, some people have a desperate need to make themselves feel special or powerful—without putting in the work and discipline real fighting and real self-defense skills demand. They want a short cut. They want “secret techniques” from a privileged source. It’s the same phenomena at work with belief in faith healers and psychic charlatans. In much the same way, student followers of pretentious martial arts frauds are often more than willing to help accommodate and enable their instructor’s tricks.  It’s just another example of self-delusion, I suppose. 

Yet, as an expert fighter and instructor, as well as a long time skeptic, what I find truly pathetic in the tendency towards belief in “mysterious Eastern powers,” is how distinctly it contrasts with the foundation of my chosen fighting art. 

Starting with the ancient Greeks, our ancestors within Western civilization had their own traditional self-defense methods—their own “Arts of Mars” (i.e., the martial arts). They cataloged and recorded these combative traditions in unmatched literature consisting of dozens of systematic technical treatises. They actually went out of their way to call their craft a science (scienta, in fact)—the Noble Science of Defence, based on principia (principles) that could be reasoned and explained through systematic rules and geometry. Their methods were uniformly based on rational concepts —such mysterious esoteric concepts as timing, distance, leverage and perception.  Oooh… How exotic.

Renaissance-era self-defense methods were taught with an ethical and spiritual framework while recognizing the elements of mental and emotional control, as well as physical fitness involved in such study.  They were as far beyond the modern sport fencing style as professional tennis is beyond children’s ping-pong. Notably, this sophisticated knowledge of armed and unarmed close combat was achieved without resorting to the candy-coated mysticism and metaphysics that today so many of the popular Asian fighting arts are camouflaged with. As someone who works to educate the public on the reality of personal violence and recover authentic historical teachings and skills, the strong empirical and rationalist component of Renaissance martial arts teachings is constantly refreshing to me. It stands in stark contrast to so much of the lunacy out there. So much of what is now presented as traditional Asian martial arts are hyped up and watered down, yet are missing the functional center.

Sadly, most all the supposed powers presented by martial arts grifters to the amazement of ignorant Westerners actually have little or nothing to do with effective self-defense techniques. Personally, I can demonstrate all sorts of martial “feats” that, when performed by supposedly “traditional” Asian stylists, are purportedly based on chi or ki or some other nonsense.  But, laughably, they are little more than the simple application of timed leverage along with some physical conditioning (and sometimes a little psychology). Yet Westerners, uninformed of their own martial arts heritage (let alone basic physics), will often fall victim to such hucksterism. 

Over the years, I have met so many martial arts enthusiasts who would claim, “Oh no, I knew a guy once who had a master who could do the real thing!”  If I had a dollar for every time I heard that story… well, you know the cliché.  The facts are: real life combat skills and real world martial history are far more compelling and far more fascinating than all the fantasy myth and modern misrepresentation you can imagine.  Masterful skill and ability at its highest levels can seem wondrous and amazing, but it is nothing paranormal.

For myself, skepticism of martial arts claims is a practical matter of self-interest, if not altruistic consumer advocacy.  Perhaps, then, it is no wonder that I have come to reach a certain observation... For a long time I have been a fan (though not a practitioner) of table magic, street magic, and small-stage magic—slight of hand, card tricks, simple illusions, etc.  Though it might be surprising, I have often asserted that there is actually a strong but unrecognized connection between the martial arts and the magical arts, between the student of magic and the student of fighting. Although they would seem polar opposites, consider:

  • We each employ deception and perception to achieve results.
  • We both depend upon concealing our true actions and movements while reading those of our targets.
  • We both employ adroit dexterity honed through long hours of practice; yet display a sense of sprezzatura—the appearance of unstudied ease and natural grace.
  • We each study concepts privy to a select few that are at once simple yet secret.
  • We each are concerned with how human beings react physically and emotionally to what they perceive and experience as reality.
  • We both acquire mental and physical discipline through exercise of the craft.
  • We each work toward an unattainable mastery over our art.
  • We each seek ultimately to direct the mind of those we engage.

And lastly, I would add that we both must deal with charlatans, frauds, and clowns who, with the complicity of pop culture, influence the uneducated with claims of powers and metaphysical certainties.

Interestingly, I have come to notice how research into the ways human beings trick themselves with their senses so that they can be mislead by magicians reveals a fascinating parallel to what I have learned about misperception in the martial arts. It is a phenomenon, which so far, I have been able only to convey and start teaching to only one highly focused and dedicated student.

Thus, although one art deals with personal self-defence against violence, and the other art with entertainment and education, they are much alike in how each pursues and performs their skill. Each art offers a means of wisdom and self-discovery.  Each sharpens intuition and encourages the search for underlying truth.  And each ultimately teaches the practitioner that there is always more to learn.  Intriguingly, as a martial artist and swordsman, I know of no other activity for which I can observe such an affinity. Curious that…

If you want to learn about our forgotten Western heritage see the online documentary:
“Renaissance Martial Arts” at

This piece is dedicated to James Randi.
March 2010


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