Something is happening to martial arts in Russia. Something bad... As a friend of mine likes to say, "the core has been rotting". Then again, maybe I'm just in a bad mood?
Things were good when I just started doing karate. No, not even the - when I did judo in my school years (I started training after I saw "The Unbeatable" [this was the first Russian martial arts flick, came out in 81, I believe] - where some unnamed samboist tossed around big fat Uzbeks [a nationality native to Uzbekistan, formerly, a republic, now a country] and then got praise from the Party and the government. Unlike his prototype, Oshcheprov, the main character even survived in the end. Back then, the people believed that this was the best and the only Way. That bullets are afraid of the Brave, and bayonets don't cut the Strong. That a man with a black belt (different dans were, at the time, unknown to the general populace, the only thing that counted was a piece of cloth, dyed black, and wrapped around the waist) knows things about life, that are secret to the rest...
And the actual practitioners believed that with a true passion. They studied with persistence - treating their knuckles with various crap, smashing them to the point of chronic polyarthritis, yes, out of all the possible moves they only knew the straight punch and the front kick - but they placed their faith in these two moves, and worked them literally till near-fainting.
And Faith does wonders.
In Uzbekistan, on a small city, where I spent a few years, there was a TKD school. It was opened by one guy that learned some TKD from some Korean visiting students in the 70's. The showed him a couple of forms, the basic strikes, blocks, and footwork. Then he went back to Uzbekistan, trained alone for a couple of years, and then, little by little, he started acquiring students. About 11 or so people. And they worked those forms, strikes, and blocks till exhaustion. And they fought exactly the way their sensei (he was supposed to be a "sabomnim", but the Koreans forgot to teach him that, so he was a "sensei") taught them. He had very little idea about how you're supposed to fight in TKD, so he fought the way he thought he should, that is he religiously kept to the forms, paying no heed to black eyes, injuries, and fractures (and there was quite a few of those). He honestly believed that he could take any boxer or wrestler just because he did TKD, and the funny part is, that he could. He has shown that on numerous occasions. Every single strike and form that he knew, he worked in combat. Some five years after he started teaching, some of his students brought him a tape, where karateka broke boards and bricks, and asked him, why don't we do that. The instructor practiced alone, in his back yard, and to his amazement learned that he can break bricks. The real Russian building bricks. He also noticed that it's easier to do them with the heel of the palm, and not knife hand. The only thing is that he didn't break them neatly like in the videos - he smashed them to pieces. His students took longer to learn how to do that, but they did. They smashed boards and bricks with every single strike they knew, punches and kicks. And they always believed that one glorious day, the real Masters from Korea, with real belts, will come and show them the true way.
Faith does wonders.
A lyrical digression. In 91, they were finally visited by a group from Korea, I think from the Dzhun Ri fund. 6 guys all no less than 3rd dan, their leader was 5th dan. And about 10 more guys to de demonstrations on. The local TKD students, who thought these were higher beings of some sort, demonstrated all they knew. All of their two forms, and whatever else they came up with on their own. The group from Korea didn't bother hiding their disdain. Then their leader asked the instructor "Where did you see this?" He told them. Then he said "This isn't TKD. This is bullshit. No one does forms like that. You need to go to Tashkent, and learn from our authorized instructors, then you have to get certified, and then..." And so on and so fourth. Then they did their own demonstrations. According to their sparring rules. What was going on in the instructors mind there and then, no one knows. What was going on inside his students, whose "sensei" was made to look like a fool in front of their very eyes is also unknown. The instructor, though, acted rationally. He asked the Koreans to let his "kids" spar with the big boys, you know, to see what they should aspire to become. The Koreans agreed. Then he picked out 10 of his best students, those that could with a punch smash a raw potato that was thrown up in the air (This was a rite of passage of sorts among them).
When the Koreans, beaten literally almost to death were being dragged into the bus, the instructor called over their leader. He cautiously approached. He handed the Korean a brick, told him to hold it out, snapped out with his fist. The Korean looked at the two neat halves of the brick. The instructor looked him in the eyes, and said "This is TKD. What you call TKD is fucking worthless". Adjusted his "unauthorized" black belt, turned around and left. Needless to say, the Koreans never returned.
Faith does wonders. Wounded pride, even more so.
A contact karate guy, that started doing pushups in 79 and has been fanatically doing pushups, with occasional breaks for prophylactic ass-kicking for 7 or 8 years, becomes a scary opponent. The three or four strikes that he knows are worked until they become truly automatic and reflexive, would almost guarantee his opponent some serious injuries if he ever connects; and the footwork, that has been worked so much that it is now second nature guarantees a good percentage of connections. Equally dangerous is the self-taught wushu guy, who worked the two or three forms for bagua or tai chi in some gym for years and years, and capable of striking at a simply amazing rate. I knew a guy once, that created his own hybrid of tai chi and boxing, and let me tell you, it was one hell of a hybrid. That psychopath didn't really need weapons, and wasn't afraid of weapons. He said, "a fist is not a gun, it doesn't have a safety". People like that have no safeties. Their fuses were all blown out while they trained.
Here's another lyrical digression. One of my acquaintances studied karate. Nothing fancy, but he studied very hard. And one night, he ran in to some local badasses, three of them. They came up to him, took out a razor blade, and asked for money. The poor guy got scared shitless and ... killed all three of them. Literally. In the process, he got stabbed in his side, took a nasty cut on his forearm, and was left with a broken knee - he roundhouse kicked someone in the head that hard - the knee joint went out. It was quite a sight - three bodies spread out on the ground, one with a broken windpipe, one with a broken neck and gouged out eyes, and one with a smashed skull. The police that came to the scene, sufficiently late as always, asked him where he served. It took them a while to believe that he was just a college student.... He came out alive, and even got well relatively quickly.
A man who studied martial arts commanded respect. And not without reason. This was because, given the conditions, an almost complete lack of information, no known training methods, and chronic problems with the police and the government, the only people who would stick with it were true fanatics, whose perseverance, in the end, paid off.
I'm not saying that these people are gone. Thank God, the fanatics are still fanatics. It's just that there didn't get to be any more of them. And they are no longer the ones that define the attitude towards martial arts.
Now, things are worse. Russia is flooded with federations of sports "eastern martial arts". There's a lot if instructors now, and their level naturally decreased. The spread of the dan system, and testing fees made a real upheaval in the minds of the martial artists.
In principal, there's nothing wrong with dans. The upheaval that happened in the heads of the people that live in the territories of the Former Soviet Union happened as a result of the market economy. For people that have never seen a normal economy, it was a shock that you could buy and sell things for money. And the changes that followed this shock reverberated in the world of Martial Arts.
The Russian Federation of Easter Martial Arts had to act quickly - before the competition beat them to the punch. The had to deal with organizational problems, quickly issue themselves belts and dans, often a few at a time, which gave them a chance to sell their services at a higher price. But the technique... Well what about the technique? Technique takes about 7 or 8 years, well maybe 5 or 6, give superhuman health and talent, of hard work. When you do something fast, you do it poorly. But it's profitable. And what do you think is more important?
A contact karateka, who started doing pushups in 97 no longer wants to do pushups for 10 years, and considers himself to be a good fighter after 3 or four years of training. A few dozens of strikes and techniques are mastered... well they're not quite mastered, but they're not bad either. His trainer, remember the guy that started pushups in 79, got smarter, and began accepting money for colored belts. Now, you can stab your average karate or TKD guy with a knife, or smash his head in with a bat with relative ease. Or you can simply kick the **** out of him. All you need is a reason.
We get a pretty funny situation. The student, who now needs to learn countless forms and techniques to make his next belt test, now knows these forms much better than his instructor, who just looks them over, presents the to his class, and then forgets them right back after accepting money for the next belt. When they spar, however, he can take any of his students. With ease. And he will always be able to do that. Thatís why he's the teacher and they're the students. And it's not even the teacherís fault - it's just that when he learned his ****, he didn't hurry.
And please, for God's sake, donít' look at the way things are don in the West. They have their own fate, and we have our own. They are civilized. They, in principle, donít' really need to learn applied martial arts. When your cell phone is always on you, the police responds to calls within minutes, and suspicious characters get reported to the police by the "vigilant" citizens, you don't really need to know how to throw a punch.
Actually, let's examine the state of martial arts in the West - so that we can see how we're different.
They really have good working systems there, as reliable as a hammer. Judo, for example, some Karate, some Jujitsu. They don't look all that pretty, but are damn effective. Not martial Arts, but martial professions. And they are taught by true martial artists. Those that weren't in a hurry to get their belts. And now, they slowly and surely, train their replacements.
On his forums, Stan Bereznyuk [a famous figure in Russian reality fighting] is talking about the Lion's Den fighting. Quick, reliable, and simple. Krav Maga is like that as will. [I swear I didn't put that in - it's in the original article :)]
In the US special forces, they went even farther - started, as an experiment, teaching Eskrima, where the main weapon isn't your fist, but a nice big knife. That's actually shrewd - because a special forces soldier would rarely be found without his knife while on mission, and, knowing escrima, he could wreak some havoc with it...
But this is for those, that have to get training because it's their job. For the cast majority of the public, beating the **** out of each other is way too much - they don't really need it, and are simply too lazy, and afraid of pain. And basic psychological training is also too much for your average consumer - it involves making significant changes in their mindset. And they value their mindset. That's why martial art studios in the west are mostly recreational. They offer a pleasant way to spend time - to jump around in a gi for a little while, far apart from each other, and kick the air two feet in front of each otherís faces. Or you can beat each other up with toy rubber nunchucks (I saw these in a store a couple of days ago, I was laughing for about 20 minutes - they look like a porn-movie prop - two dildoes tied together with a string) or with plastic sticks. They do this in protective gear, by the way, so that not only they don't get hurt, but they also don't even get scared. You can slowly move your hands around in the air, and perform the 24 forms or tai chi. Incorrectly, but with satisfaction. Then you can satisfy your vanity by regularly getting the next colored belt.
There's nothing wrong with all of that : it's a good way to spend time, healthy, safe, and fun. That's exactly what it is - a way to spend time. That is, you can go to the movies, or dancing, or to the dojo. Sports oriented martial arts are very compatible with day to day things. They have this thing, for example, called cardio kickboxing - you swing your hands and feet in the air to music. Or capoera - you can teach that with only minor adjustments - just get rid of any difficult stuff, and fit it to more popular music.
The US Bando Federation handles things well. They give out belts not after strenuous tests, but after being with the federation for set periods of time. No one is upset, and everyone is crystal clear as to their perspectives in the "art" - every year, you get a new belt. You want a black belt? Wait 6 years. After that, you get a dan every two years. I think that whoever designed this system not only was a smart guy, but also had a great sense of humor. You can't even think of a better way to make fun of the western consumers. You want 3rd dan? Pay us for this many years, and it's yours.
Western style Martial Arts organizations have nothing to do with martial arts. They are commercial structures that make money in the field of recreation. It's not a bad thing to do, they deserve all sorts of respect for that. They work the same way as movie theaters, nightclubs, or restaurants. They advertise, open locations, organize seminars and events, pay their instructors ,etc. To them, the martial arts training is a certain resource consumed by their members, and transformed into money. For example, if you add any real contact, there will be injuries, and many students will drop out. Or file suits, and that could be really expensive. Unjustifiably expensive. It would be much better not to have any contact, and make them swing their hands and feet in the air. And maybe, just maybe, use something like focus mitts. That way the instructor doesn't need any real training, he just needs how to talk, you don't need mats on the floor. What you get is maximum profit with minimum expenditures. This goes back to good old Adam Smith.
The general public won't know the difference anyways. Because, chances are, they won't ever get to test their skills in real life. And without any real tests, the advertisements define what works and what doesn't. I mean these people managed to turn even Hapkido into a "martial art for the elderly and the disabled". That's taken right out of the WHF website.
Ok, the West is the West. We live in Russia, and things are somewhat different here, right?
They're not even a little different - they're very different.
Here, the general public actually needs effective combat skills.
That's because here, even if you have a cell phone, you can call whoever the hell you want to, but don't expect help. The roads are bad, the police cars are bad, and the police won't bother hurting their cars because some nobody is being mugged by another group of nobodies.
And the cops are human too. They're also afraid of coming out into the streets. Especially at night. They could themselves get robbed of their money, or, god forbid, their gun.
When a country can not provide for the safety of its citizens, the citizens need to provide for themselves. However they can. You can solve this problem the way it's solved in the Caucasus, or South America, by de facto or eve de jure free spread of firearms. This only works in the case that the firearms are cheap enough, or the people are rich enough.
Do you know what the average income is in our country? It's not the worst, by the way. There are poorer places : Namibia, for example, or Burundi or Mongolia, or even North Korea, but that's already getting close. That is, the cost of owning a gun, even a shitty one, is still too high. Not to mention that you also need to know how to use a gun. That's a subject for a separate article.
I have a friend that has a brown belt in Sito Ryu. He's been studying there for longer than I've been doing Conten. How long, do you think, he can last against me in sparring? So far, he never got to 10 seconds. This is not because Sito Ryu is such ****, or that Conten is so great, or that I'm a monster. The schools are pretty similar, if you look at them, and I'm not that great of a fighter. It's just that the fighting skill of a karateka has very little to do with the color of that thing that prevents his gi from flopping open. Because he got that thing after passing a test developed THERE, sparring according to THEIR rules, but he has to fight HERE, with me.
The sparring rules were developed outside of Russia. They were developed by people that did not want or need contact. The WTF rules are like that as well. And the Hapkido rules, where the aesthetics of the performance are evaluated, along with the partners ability to fall. It's cool. If you know how to take a dive, you know about half of Hapkido. If you know how to jump up before taking a dive, to make it more scenic, you know just about all of it. If you know how to hold your partner's hand while he jumps up and takes a dive, you're a Master. If you mastered the way of sitting for a long time in the same pose with a serious look on your face, you are now a master of internal self-improvement.
I mean, I completely understand that these rules were introduced with the best of intentions. To prevent the "masters" from hurting each other and, at the same time, give them a chance to show off what they can do. The coolest thing they can do is break plastic boards and bricks. The business card of Aikido or Hapkido is inertia based throws through pain inducing control techniques. These are throws where the enemy flies high up, actually he himself, not thinking straight from the pain, jumps up and falls on his back with great force. This is a most difficult, and quite effective tactic. It's also hard to demonstrate and practice, because the opponent, even if he's your partner, can easily be hurt. You can, however, demonstrate it with a cooperating partner, who trains in the same group, and knows exactly how he needs to jump and fall so as not to be hurt. And the higher he jumps, the prettier it looks.
Yep - that's pretty much how it is.
But the managers in the Federations don't need to understand these nuances. They see this: whoever jumps the highest, falls the best, and breaks the most "bricks" comes out a winner. He's a winner, his school is a winner, it got more students, they could now raise prices and sell more T-shirts, souvenir swords, and ultimately make more money. Then it's obvious what to do: quickly teach people to take dives, jump high, and hold each others hands. He will bake the bricks in ovens, or freeze them in freezers, that way our students will looks good. Our competitions will attract more visitors, our schools will get more students, and we will sell more T-shirts and plastic swords.
And you're never going to be able to explain to the manager that Hapkido is not about jumping up and taking dives. Because he's right. When you buy a TV, for example, you look at how bright it is, how clear the picture is, and a couple other parameters. And if a TV is the brightest and the clearest, you don't give a damn about the elegance of design of its internal electronics - that's not a parameter that it's evaluated buy. To market yourself effectively, you have to conform to the standards by which the society judges the product. And in the case of Hapkido, it's jumping, falling, and breaking bricks. And if you want to succeed, you best make sure your are good at doing just that.
This works exactly the same way in both the East and the West. The only difference is that in the west, there is no other external factors influencing the world of martial arts. Unlike here, where they actually have to be effective in real life altercations. This is where the conflict arises. On one side, our federations try to be like their Western counterparts, they use their certifications, training programs, and what not. On the other hand, these programs lose much of their value in Russia. But in the mind of a Russian martial artist, a black belt is not good enough, you need a high "dan", which you can get from the westerners. The circle is now complete.
Is there a solution?
Sure, here's one, as simple as 1-2-3. To hell with all of these federations an associations - they do more harm than good.
I understand, that for many they provide the bread and butter. Sometimes even caviar. I'm not mocking, I honestly understand them. Business is business. But gentlemen, at this rate, you will soon not have bread nor butter nor caviar. Martial arts will soon degrade to the point where they will inspire nothing but boredom in the public, and telling someone that you're a martial artist will be as good as proclaiming yourself to be an idiot. You won't make any money then. And this is where we're heading.
We could just train, forget about buying belts, dans, and certifications. Just train. You can still make money this way. Many did.
There's another solutions, a more complex one.
We can adjust the structures of these federations to fit the Russian reality. The way we adjust Mercedes not to fall apart on our anti-tank roads.
I explained why martial arts became so strange. But this works both ways. If there are guys smart enough to make these rules that essentially castrated karate, Hapkido, aikido, then there will be guys smart enough to make rules that will revive them. We can find an economic model that will make them effective and yet profitable. We need to completely reengineer the system.
It will take a long time, and it will be hard.
But it will be good, and in the end, quite profitable.
Logically, everything should be the other way around - the westerners should not be judging out level. We should be judging theirs. Because the people who understand combat techniques are the ones that apply them. And we apply them more.
We still have plenty of good teachers. Those fanatics from the 70's are still around, and many of them are willing to teach. They are now fitter and better prepared - they finally got the information that they so lacked when they were starting out. And even if some of them gave up from all of this mess, many of them had students, and some of the students were just as fanatical.
To quote Forest Gump, "That's all I have to say on this matter".