The Asian martial arts have received a tremendous amount of exposure in the past century and are now almost universally known. Meanwhile, we in the West have neglected many of our own martial arts traditions, which in some cases have fallen into obscurity—much as the Asian systems had at the end of the 19th century. The Japanese martial arts were rescued by Jigoro Kano, Gichin Funakoshi, Morihei Ueshiba and others, who modified the older martial arts techniques and combined them into curricula that would appeal to the public. Likewise, Cheng Man-ching introduced tai chi chuan, a once secret and obscure Chinese style, to America, which led to its spread around the world. Similar success stories pertain to the arts of other Asian nations.


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One reason the Asian fighting methods have flourished is they’ve changed with the times. Many were “modernized”—in other words, they were altered from methods of pure combat to means of self-improvement and spirituality, based mainly on Buddhism but also influenced by Taoism and Shintoism. Witness aikido, which borrowed extensively from the Shinto sect of Omoto-kyo, and iaido (sword drawing) and kyudo (archery), which use physical action as a form of Zen meditation. In China, Taoist styles of kung fu such as tai chi and pa kua have become physical illustrations of philosophical principles. And in Korea, the arts have been molded to reflect the Korean ideals of patriotism and sportsmanship. The above-mentioned founders wrote scores of books describing their martial arts techniques, as well as their ideas for self-improvement and spirituality. That no doubt helped spread the message of the Asian martial arts to the masses. But what of the Western martial arts, the ones that originated in the countries from which most Americans come? Do they have as much to offer the modern practitioner? It is the opinion of many that they do.

Combat Sports vs. Martial Arts

Boxing, wrestling, fencing, archery and javelin throwing are the best-known forms of Western martial-like play, and although they’re somewhat limited by safety rules, they’re still extremely effective in their own way. They are sports that haven’t developed as methods of self-improvement and spirituality to the extent the modern martial arts have, but they do teach sportsmanlike behavior and build character. This idea of sport goes back to the ancient Greeks, who believed that a beautiful body was as important as a sharp mind. Sportsmanship is concerned with fairness in competition and grace in defeat. Character involves putting forth one’s best and abstaining from immediate gratification for the sake of later rewards. This Protestant-like value develops self-discipline and the ability to suppress one’s appetites, as well as the capacity to function as part of a team for the greater good, rather than pursuing personal glory and ambition. It also promotes self-sufficiency and the ability to think on one’s feet. Submitting to authority in the form of coaches and referees serves as a model for social conduct. Unfortunately, those qualities are seldom seen these days in professional and college sports. Boxing and wrestling are at least as well-known as karate and judo, and they can hold their own against any Asian striking and grappling style. They can easily be made more combative and dangerous by incorporating martial arts techniques that are considered fouls in their sports. The two sports were used for combat in the past, but the dangerous techniques were removed for the safety of the players. The fouls can be practiced as prearranged drills in much the same manner as kata from Japanese martial arts. Known as “dirty fighting,” they’re what thugs and ruffians used before the introduction of the martial arts in the mid-20th century. Bruce Lee held an extremely high opinion of the Western martial sports and drew heavily on boxing and fencing while developing jeet kune do.

Boxing

Boxing as practiced by the ancient Greeks involved minimal science. It consisted mainly of swinging- and looping-type blows and little defense other than the ability to “tough it out.” The Romans added a leather hand wrap or glove called a cestus, sometimes with metal studs to inflict more damage as their tastes grew bloodier. As boxing evolved in England, it was influenced by fencing, which added more accurate and powerful linear thrusts rather than swings, and more effective parries rather than simple blocking. The shuffling footwork of boxing is nearly identical to that of fencing, as is the use of strategy to allow one to strike a target rather than just lash out at it. It’s interesting to note that in Japan, swordsmanship also influenced aikido. The sport of bare-knuckle fighting used many methods that are no longer allowed: the “chopper,” or hammerfist strike; a technique that utilized the head to block and break the delicate bones of the opponent’s hand as well as to strike his face; and the cross-buttock throw. With the introduction of gloves and the rules of the Marquis of Queensbury, the “manly art of self-defense” developed into the “sweet science” of boxing.

Wrestling

In addition to being a type of play for children, wrestling is the most ancient and universal form of combat. Humans love to grapple and do so all over the world. There are images of wrestlers from ancient Egypt, references to it in the Bible and the continuing popularity of the Greco-Roman style (which was actually developed in France in the 1860s). Probably the most widespread and varied are the many ethnic and folk styles of wrestling. All forms of the art offer numerous skills and techniques—including takedowns and grappling techniques effected from the bottom and top positions—that are deemed valuable for street fighting. Most also include plenty of illegal techniques that can hurt and maim, which makes wrestling supremely useful in ground encounters.

Fencing

Fencing developed into the academic study of the sword and later into a sport. The sword was the preferred weapon for combat and self-defense, and its use continued even after the introduction of firearms. Military officers still carry a sword as part of their dress uniform. The tradition of dueling with the sword continued in Europe into the 20th century. Fencing parallels kendo in that it’s associated with refined people, as well as the noble ideals and higher values (chivalry, bushido) of an elite fighting class of knights. The foil is not a weapon but an instrument to learn how to fence. There are two main styles of foil fencing: the French style is refined and precise, while the Italian style is more powerful and athletic. A good foundation of foil technique is a prerequisite for learning the epee (sport version of the dueling sword, or rapier, a thrusting weapon) and then the saber (a cavalry sword mainly used for cutting while on horseback). The Italians and Hungarians are said to have developed the best saber technique. Several books about medieval and Renaissance sword fighting have been published. They’re based on solid research and reflect the combat applications rather than the sporting aspect of the weapon. There are also many translations of old sword-fighting manuals from the 12th century to the 18th century from England, Germany, Italy, France and other countries. Those manuals teach combat methods for the sword, sword and shield, two-handed sword, rapier and dagger.

Projectile Weapons

Part of most modern track-and-field events, the javelin has distant origins as a projectile weapon for hunting and waging war. It was most effectively used in combat by the ancient Romans. The weapon had a heavy wooden handle connected to the point by a thin metal shaft that would easily bend. It wasn’t necessary to pierce the opponent’s flesh; it was enough simply to get it to stick into his shield. The shaft would bend so he couldn’t throw it back, and before he could pull it out of his shield, the Roman soldier would charge with his sword drawn. The bow has been decisive in determining the outcome of battles throughout history—although Greek and Roman armies usually prevailed without depending on it. The English made effective use of it, as did the Persians and Mongolians, but the modern bow owes its development to the Turks. Archery is now practiced mostly as a sport, but bow hunting and even bow fishing remain popular. Modern special-forces operatives sometimes use bows for clandestine missions. Part of most modern track-and-field events, the javelin has distant origins as a projectile weapon for hunting and waging war. It was most effectively used in combat by the ancient Romans. The weapon had a heavy wooden handle connected to the point by a thin metal shaft that would easily bend. It wasn’t necessary to pierce the opponent’s flesh; it was enough simply to get it to stick into his shield. The shaft would bend so he couldn’t throw it back, and before he could pull it out of his shield, the Roman soldier would charge with his sword drawn. The bow has been decisive in determining the outcome of battles throughout history—although Greek and Roman armies usually prevailed without depending on it. The English made effective use of it, as did the Persians and Mongolians, but the modern bow owes its development to the Turks. Archery is now practiced mostly as a sport, but bow hunting and even bow fishing remain popular. Modern special-forces operatives sometimes use bows for clandestine missions.
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