Fake Martial Arts

By: Steven Barnes, Black Belt Magazine Archives Circa 1988

There is a fine line between showmanship and deceit, and between meeting human needs and abusing trust, and in some of my columns I have attempted to define this line.

Most readers have appreciated my efforts, but several disturbing letters, combined with the recent release of a martial arts movie,· motivate me to speak again, I hope for the last time, on the subject of fraud.


Two letters were especially noteworthy. One, from N.D. in Pennsylvania, described a chi demonstration at a resort in the Poconos. In the show, a man stopped his heartbeat, performed a sword exhibition blindfolded, push-ed needles through his flesh without bleeding, walked on glass; and stomped through ten inches of flaming concrete. N.D., who witnessed this demonstration, was rightfully impressed. It is reasonable to assume that the per-former is an unusual man who had worked hard for his skills and deserves respect.

But is it chi? There is no concrete definition of chi, but it is commonly understood to be a mysterious power harmonizing mind and body which makes it possible to accomplish amazing things. Unusual levels of autonomic control, mental focus,. and other skills would clearly be demonstrations of chi. But what about levitation? (Especially since a picture of a martial artist "levitating" one of his students was printed in several martial arts magazines.) Well...

Dominick Giacobbe

Photo: Dominick Giacobbe demonstrates his amazing ki power, lifting buckets of water attached to spokes in his arms, and using his teeth to lift his daughter Tammy.

And what does any of this have to do with the martial arts? Tangentially, quite a bit; to demonstrate the stagger: ing potential of the mind/body interaction is no mean feat. But to imply that learning these things will make a per-son more capable of defending home and family, or surviving an encounter with a mugger, is misleading. These stunts are just that-stunts. Indian fakirs and Chinese medicine sales-men have been doing these things for centuries, often as demonstrations of a wonderful medicinal tonic that supposedly delivers longevity or virility.

Always ask yourself one vital question when confronted by powers and abilities seemingly far beyond those of mortal men: So what?

The second letter, from J.M. in Ontario, Canada, dealt with an unethical instructor. One primary destroyer of martial arts schools, ashrams, and therapy clinics is sexual impropriety. It is common for spiritual teachers to be-come devastatingly attractive to their students. If the teacher is not in control of his drives, the entire school can become a seraglio, with students promoted or taught based on their attractiveness and availability. This situation is pitiful at best, and hideously abusive at the worst. If you see this behavior in your school, get out fast.

The question of fraud Is also raised by a recent martial arts movie. Touted as being "based on a true story," the film stretches credulity to the breaking point. In it, an American martial artist attends a "secret" tournament in Hong Kong presented as being a knockdown, drag-out, bareknuckle, loser-carried-out-on-a-stretcher affair. At the end of the film, it is stated that Our Hero was the undefeated champion between 1975 and 1980, and that he was undefeated in 327 matches.

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Oh yeah? Let's examine the mathematics of this for a moment. If the tournament was held once per year, that means an average of 60 matches per tournament. In order to estimate the number of competitors necessary to have 60 elimination rounds, the number two must be multiplied by itself 60 times. That's one trillion martial artists in Hong Kong for the weekend, fighting in a secret tournament. Good trick.

But wait - it gets better. The movie states that the tournament is held only once every five years. That means 163 elimination matches. Take that trillion and add another 18 zeros.

Big tournament, huh? And this movie, thanks to its admittedly excel-lent fight choreography, is making big bucks. Students will no doubt flock to this man's studio, dazzled by his "true-life" story.

In the middle of all this glitter, it is more important than ever to ask "How can I find a good instructor?"

It's not easy. First, ignore the trophies in the window and the instructor's personal flash. How good are his students? Do they move the Way you would like to? Is the atmosphere in the school relaxed, and friendly, but with a serious edge to it?

Are there students of both sexes, or is It a macho-men-only club? Unless it is a very soft style, the students should break a good sweat and keep sweating for at least an hour.

Does the school differentiate between tournament fighting and self-defense? Between forms and function? Does the instructor teach how to think, or merely what to think?

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