The future of Martial Arts: Where we came from and where we’re going

Before I get to the part where this post is about the future of martial arts, let me explain what triggered it.

I spent yesterday visiting Bruges and Gent with family and an American girl visiting Belgium for a few days. We had a grand old time (you can see some pics on my Facebook Page) and went home tired but we all had fun. Just as we were driving from Bruges to Gent, I get a text message: I urgently need to scan in a copy of my ID and mail it to somebody for a big-ass business project I’m involved in.

It’s Saturday afternoon, I’m in a car, I don’t have access to my scanner or my PC.  I also don’t know if any Internet cafe’s still exist in the area (think they all went belly up a few years ago). So basically, I’m screwed. Either I go home and get this done on my home computer, or I need to find another solution…

Samsung to the rescue!

I pondered it for five seconds and then proceeded as follows:

  • My brother-in-law has a Samsung Galaxy S, which is a pretty good phone with a good camera in it. He also has a cheap, 2Gb a month contract with his provider.
  • I took out my ID, placed it on the back of a bike standing there in the street in Gent and we made pics of it with his phone.
  • I logged on to my webmail and uploaded the pictures.
  • I mailed them on and received confirmation they got through OK about 10 min. later.

The whole process took perhaps 4 minutes: taking the pics, logging into my email account and then sending everything.

Samsung Galaxy S to the rescue!

Here’s the the thing:

  • Today, I didn’t have to break off my day trip and continued to have a great time. It took a wee bit of effort to make sure I didn’t mess up typing the email address but other than that, I hardly had to focus on this task.
  • Five years ago, it would have been both difficult and very expensive to use this solution. Cell-phones didn’t have great cameras back then and uploading data was extremely expensive here (still is too expensive compared to other countries but it’s manageable now)
  • Ten years ago, it would have been technically impossible.
  • Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t even have thought about trying this solution. I’d have gone home to find a copy machine and then driven over to hand deliver the document. Which wouldn’t have been possible either because I didn’t have a cellphone back then so I never would have gotten the text message in the first place…

My point is: life changed drastically in just a couple years time. Compared to twenty years ago, the change is gigantic.

This made me thing about the time when I started my martial arts training, what happened before that and where we’re going to end up. In other words, you’re in for some reminiscing and crystal ball gazing. You’ll have to wade through a bunch of my thoughts before we get there, so please try to hang in there until the end.

Here goes…

Martial arts from the past

When I started my martial arts training, I was 13-years old. That was back in 1985 for those of you who are curious. It was the time of Sho Koshugi and Ninja movies. The whole ninja craze had hit the Western world and we all dressed in black, wore black masks and jumped out of trees with wooden swords. (Don’t laugh, today’s MMA-loving teens wear spandex shorts and fondle each other on the ground. I think my generation did OK compared to that… ;-))

The 13-year old kids form the ’70’s wore black pants and no shirts. They sucked in their gut to look ripped and then hopped from one foot to the other while making weird, high pitched sounds as they launched fast, snapping punches and kicks at each other. Oh yeah, they also made their own nun-chucks and swung them around a lot. That’s how it was back then…

If you go even further down the road in time, you’ll find similar examples for Karate and Judo. These two martial arts were discovered in the ’60s, ’50s and even earlier. They spoke to the imagination of the youngsters of those times and I remember reading the comics, magazine adverts and seeing movies and TV series (Remember the Capt. Kirk fight with Mr. Sulu on Star trek?) from those days: they all featured Judo, Jiu-Jitsu and Karate. Poorly done, but it was in there.

I’m giving this history lesson only to point out a pattern: martial arts came to the Western world in fads. There’s always been one wave after another of a “new” art hitting the spotlight. We’ll get back to that in a bit.

The second wave that always came along with each fad was a bunch of “teachers” cropping up, claiming they had actually been training in this new art for years (yeah, right…) in an effort to make a quick buck. Let’s talk about that for a bit.

Martial arts pirates and the biggest one of them all, Bruce Lee.

From what I learned from my teachers, read from others and in historical research and experienced myself, cross-training in different Asian martial arts was not the norm in the past. Some people did indeed teach several arts at the same time but they often were compatible, supplemental, sub-sets or similar. To put it another way: unlike today, you didn’t find all that many teachers who’s curriculum included both Wing Chun and Ju Jitsu.

This was probably so because traveling the globe wasn’t as easy a hundred years ago than it is now. So there was less of a possibility to cross-train in arts from another country or continent. It was easier to travel twenty, fifty or a couple hundred miles to learn a different style from another teacher. But that meant you only learned something that was similar in flavor (gross exaggeration, but bear with me) to your own style simply because of the geographical proximity. Mixing up Greco-Roman wrestling with muay Thai and BJJ was pretty much unheard of 50-60 years ago.

For the anal-retentive crowd: I’m speaking in broad terms to make a point. I’m sure there are exceptions to this and I’ll go on record to say Donn F. Draeger is the one I like best in this category. But that’s precisely the point I’m making; they are the exceptions, not the rule.

This all changed when Bruce Lee hit the silver screen. He’s credited as being the biggest innovator in the martial arts world and to a degree, I think this is true. He spoke up about much that was wrong with traditional martial arts though I think he missed the mark on a lot of things (but that’s for another time). Regardless, he took a critical view at his art (Wing Chun) and did something  everybody should give him credit for: he tried to fix what he thought was wrong. All of us today owe him a debt of gratitude for doing just that and creating Jeet Kune Do in the process.

As far as we can tell, Bruce “borrowed” both techniques and concepts he liked from many other arts (Western boxing, Savate, muay Thai, Jiu-Jitsu, etc.) and incorporated them into his own style. I’m no JKD expert but from what I’ve seen, he didn’t do a bad job. That said, he still “stole” from other arts so like Marc said: he’s a Pirate.

Arrr! Martial Arts Pirates Ahoy!

Mind you, in my opinion he’s not 100% a pirate the way Marc explains it because to the best of my knowledge, Bruce Lee did acknowledge that he took some of his stuff from other arts. Also, I don’t think he did it to make a quick buck or rip people off. Everything I’ve learned of him shows he trained his ass off to actually master everything he borrowed from elsewhere, which is a far cry from what the real pirates do. But I think we can safely say he put “cross-training” as we know it on the map.

Contrast Lee’s training ethic and study of other arts with all the grappling masters who popped up after UFC1 in 1993…

I remember reading the MA magazines back then and seeing a bunch of these masters show up in the issues after UFC1. All of a sudden, you saw guys who’d only been showing punching and kicking techniques for years teaching all sorts of groundwork. When you re-read these magazines now, you’ll definitely see the lack of quality instruction demonstrated by many of them (not all). A little bit later, a bunch of them (and loads others nobody had ever heard of) put out books and videos about ground fighting and grappling. Again, the quality was often so-so.

These are the real pirates.

Keelhaul the evildoers!

Before you sentence these pirates to death, some nuances:

I don’t really mind as much that people “steal” from other arts. As long as you train hard to master whatever you take and try to do so with understanding of the original art, I’m fine with it. I think many of those who do this are misinformed and “steal” things they don’t understand completely but on the whole, it’s not really a big deal to me. Nor do I mind cross-training. Hell, I do it myself and enjoy it very much.

I do have an issue with those who don’t give credit and claim ideas they steal as their own. That’s just wrong, though sometimes this happens automatically: I try to give credit whenever I can but sometimes, I forget where I read or saw something. Also, nobody reads your stuff or watches your instructional videos when all you write/say is which source gave you which technique/concept. So in a way it’s unavoidable to sometimes present stuff as your own. But there’s a lot of middle ground between never giving credit on purpose and accidentally forgetting it from time to time or leaving it out for practical purposes.

Pirates don’t care about any of this, that’s the difference.

Back on track…

The last few decades saw this trend of cross-training take off and nowadays, pretty much every martial artist thinks this is just the way it always was. Like I said before, it didn’t use to be this way and in many parts of the world it still isn’t. But in most Western countries, it’s now considered normal to practice several styles simultaneously.

This increase in cross-training has accelerated the evolution of martial arts, which is the next piece of the puzzle I need to put on the table.

The evolution of Martial Arts

In a documentary, Dan Inosanto answered a question about why JKD had so many defenses against side kicks (or something along those lines, it’s been a while…)  Mr. Inosanto replied that people back then (1970’s) made extensive use of the side kick. So it only made sense to incorporate defensive measures against it in JKD.  But nowadays, you don’t see this anymore. It’s not like the side kick is gone but it sure isn’t as present anymore than it was back then. In other words, martial arts evolved…

The same thing applies to combat sports. Remember kickboxing in the late 70’s, early ’80’s? I do. I was there. Here’s what happened:

American kickboxing (no leg kicks) had been the predominant format for a while and most champions were, oh surprise, Americans. In the mean time, Dutch and French fighters were going to Japan and Thailand to learn that version of kickboxing, including leg kicks, knees, elbows and clinching. They got their asses kicked but took the lessons from their defeat to heart and always came back stronger. People like Jan Plas and Tom Harrinck were the real trailblazers back then.

Inevitably, American champions wanted a piece of this action so they started competing in Europe, thinking they could get some easy victories against those clumsy looking fighters. The results? Barring a couple exceptions, they got their butts whipped good almost every single time. Why? Because they thought leg kicks were stupid and didn’t think they’d have a problem handling them (This is where I remind you once again that the differences are just as important as the similarities…). The Dutch fighters proved them wrong time and time again. This is a matter of record, by the way. I’m not just bashing US fighters for the fun of it. You can look it up if you don’t believe me.

Most fights looked like this one between Dutch fighter Andre Brilleman and America’s Howard Jackson:

Jackson was by no means a crappy fighter, on the contrary. In American kickboxing, he was a champion. But fighting with leg kicks wasn’t his thing: look at how many of those he blocks in this fight…  Back then, kickboxers thought muay Thai and its leg kicks was crap because it didn’t look like the way they fought. Today though, nobody disputes the supremacy of muay Thai in the ring. The worst part: Brilleman isn’t even showing that much skill in this fight but he still manhandles Jackson.

The same thing happened with BJJ and all other styles that tried to compete in the Octagon: the Gracie’s came in and cleaned house with their ground-based Jiu-Jitsu back in the early days of the UFC. But today, every MMA fighter has a ground game and the Gracies are no longer to be found at the top of the UFC.  In other words, MMA evolved too, just like the martial arts did with the side kick. Just look at how people fought in UFC1 and how they are competing now. The difference is just as big as my cellphone comparison from 5 and 10 years ago I wrote about in the beginning.

Which brings everything full circle and makes it time to wrap things up.

The future of Martial Arts

All the previous was a set up for the following predictions I’ll make today. No idea if they’ll come true or not, nor do I really care. These are just some idle thoughts on a Sunday afternoon. Don’t read anything more into it or the joke’s on you.

Prediction 1: No more fads like we had in the past.

Thanks to the growth of the Internet and particularly Youtube, I think we’ve pretty much “discovered” all the martial arts out there. I’m sure there are still a few left that have been kept “within the family” but in general, I doubt they will be radically different from what is already known. I don’t think we’ll see those huge upsets like Muay Thai demolishing kickboxing or the Gracie’s beating up everybody else. Nor do I think we’ll see brand new arts show up like they did in the past. Not withstanding claims from those who  teach the martial arts of the ancient Egyptians (hehehe.) or Celts (haaaaaaaaaaaaaaahahaaaaa.). A friend of mine would call them necromancers, but that’s also a story for another time.

Prediction 2: Mixed Martial Arts merges with Self Defense.

This is a two-part prediction:

  • MMA will be seen as a valid form of self defense training simply because of it’s dominance in the martial arts world. If enough people believe something, it becomes accepted as truth. Doesn’t mean it’s actually true but it will be seen as such. I’ve harped on about this topic more than enough so I’ll refrain from commenting on it here.
  • Because of the sheer numbers of MMA practitioners and its competitive/testosterone-driven nature, more and more people will actually go out and use MMA for self defense and be successful with it.  This will reinforce what I said in the previous bullet and creates a vicious cycle which will blur the lines between MMA as a sport and as a self defense system even more.

Prediction 3: MMA becomes traditional.

Say what? Yup, MMA will become no different from other martial arts. Instead of only being focused on competing in the Octagon, MMA will adapt its curriculum to incorporate the realities of self defense, weapons, multiple opponents and so on. To a degree, this has already happened.  But it will go further than this. To grow beyond the confines of sports-fighting, MMA will the add elements from the traditional styles it once ridiculed (I was there 20 years ago during UFC1, I remember…): forms, partner work, drills, mental and spiritual training, etiquette, etc. Once again, to a degree, this is already so but it’ll be more common place in the future and go much further. Case in point (from about 5 years ago):

This also sets up my next prediction:

Prediction 4: Traditional martial arts return with a vengeance.

The more MMA turns into a traditional art by becoming more than sports-fighting, the more it’ll borrow from traditional arts. Simply because that’s the best place to borrow from. Why? Traditional martial arts have hundreds of years of experience behind them. UFC-type MMA has only twenty. Remember the comparison between cellphones from twenty years ago and today… If only to incorporate the weapons aspect, MMA will have to go look what traditional weapon styles are doing. I think they’ll use a lot more than just the weapons part but it’s too long a discussion to add to this post. The overall point I’m making is that MMA coaches and practitioners who want to grow will look deeper at the sources they started with and go beyond the modern styles towards the more traditional ones for information and inspiration.

Prediction 5: The future of Martial Arts is bright.

All this leads me to believe we’re in for an interesting ride in the martial arts world. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing MMA or traditional arts, the lines between both will blur and we’ll see a rise in skilled teachers and practitioners. Simply because of the wealth of information available via the Internet, books, videos, on-line training, etc. I’m betting we’ll later look back at the 2000-2020 era as a renaissance for the martial arts. Some more thoughts:

  • There will be lots of crap at first. Traditional arts are easy to misinterpret. They’re also harsh mistresses who don’t give up the goods right away: they make you wait for years until much of what really makes them awesome actually becomes a reality for you. The tendency of MMA practitioners and coaches to quickly swipe everything they see will be counterproductive at first. But it’ll get better after a while.
  • Different styles of MMA will evolve more clearly. This is already a fact: GSP is not a brawler like Wanderlei Silva is. So he doesn’t train that way either. The stylistic differences will become more pronounced with the addition of material from traditional martial arts. Another aspect is that certain MMA styles will focus more on the self defense part than the competitive part: both will be present in the curriculum but the emphasis will not be equal for both parts. The competitive part will be used as a step-up towards the self-defense part. Which is exactly the way I view the Sanda training I teach and why I created my Combat Sanshou system: as a bridge between traditional arts and full-contact sports-fighting. It’s also why I made videos about using the heavy bag and on being a padman: These pieces of equipment can be used for both sports-fighting and self defense. But you need to know how to differentiate between the two, which is what I tried to show in those videos.
  • Pirates are in for rough waters. Pirates will have a hard time in the future, for several reasons.
    • It’s going to be hard to claim you’re an MMA world champion because the standard response today is “Youtube or it didn’t happen!” In other words, you’ll have to prove what you claim. Saying it was an underground tournament won’t cut it anymore. This stuff happened in the ’80s with muay Thai  (and before that with other arts) but that was before the Internet, 24 hour sports channels, everybody having a camera in their cellphone and so on.
    • It’ll also be difficult to claim you invented something because of the wealth of videos and books out there. Students will much more easily know when a teacher is lying. So Pirates will have to be smarter about it and I have no doubt they will find ways. But it’ll be more difficult than twenty years ago.
    • Modern students are less starstruck by martial arts than they were twenty years ago. Because of their presence in the media, martial arts have lost a lot of their mystery and occult appeal. This makes it even harder for Pirates to dupe students because the latter are more rational and critical to begin with.

This turned out to be much longer than I had anticipated but I had to put all the pieces of the puzzle on the table first. Otherwise, without the context, my predictions wouldn’t have made much sense.

Thanks for sticking with me until the end. As always, I look forward to the comments and feedback.


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  1. Great post Wim, though I also think you have to look at why so many prevalent traditional martial arts have become watered down versions of their former selves, and whether the same will happen to MMA. I think the shape of the market is such that many people would like be ‘doing a martial art’ but a very small percentage are actually willing to train hard enough to be successful competitors, particularly for full contact. If I was to make a prediction it is that we will see the emergence of MMA Lite ™, taking market share from all of the Karate dojos and TKD schools, where you send your kids along to do the classes, get the belts (or hoodies?), and feel safe in the knowledge that they won’t get hurt because there’s no real hitting involved.

    A bit cynical perhaps, but I’d guess that a very large percentage of martial arts practitioners train for a fitness, fun, socialising, and a little bit of self indulgent fantasy that if things got rough they’d be a bit handy. Many train just a couple of times a week, and don’t really kill themselves in every session. Sales of Karate gi may slump as sales of tapout hoodies soar, but the average practitioner remains the same. And maybe things are better in Holland, but here in Ireland each successive generation seems a bit lazier and a bit fatter than the last.

    As for the discerning youtube equipped literati not being fooled into parting with their hard earned euros for some recently discovered devastating egyptian or celtic martial art, how about an Israeli one, or a Russian one perhaps. Hey, I believe the special forces use ’em. Why take decades to learn to teach something effective when you can buy a wooden AK47 and charge €120 a pop for a weekend seminar?

    Personally, I see systems like Dan’s PTCC being very effective at meeting the market half way. Plenty of opportunities to practice for with widest range of abilities at a variety of levels, from the part timer to the fully committed full contact competitor. Frankly I reckon that any martial art that expects the bulk of its practitioners to compete regularly in a full contact format will only ever have a small part of the market. It excludes the old, the very young, the feeble, the unfit, the lazy, and those that have an aversion to being hit. Or put another way, the bulk of the population.

    • Shane,

      The Mc Dojo’s have already taken MMA and added it to their repertoire in the US. So MMA Lite is already a fact, has been for a few years now.
      As for the not fooling people part: I didn’t say it was impossible but it will become harder. The same goes for the H2H systems that claim affiliation with military outfits. They’ll have to prove it because nowadays “I can tell you but then I’d have to kill you.” isn’t a credible argument anymore. Most people know better. :-)

      For your last point: Not all MMA schools and gyms cater to competitors. Many of them have non-competitor classes to pay for the bills.

      • In terms of fooling people, whenever I visit this site, the google advert at the top is always for Krav Maga. Now this is a local add, based on what’s been marketed heavily in my area, but still… While I don’t doubt KM is highly effective when trained properly and regularly, breeding fear and paranoia to sell weekend self defence courses seems to be big business. Even worse than the McDojos IMHO.

        MMA has captured the imagination of a generation of martial artists keen to ditch some of the dogma attached to certain TMA schools, and adopt some more modern sports oriented training methods. No bad thing in many ways, although as you say Wim, I’d expect you’ll see a lot of specialisation in the future. You could also see other formats getting popular, which demand different skill sets. Knocking the other guy off a raised platform is becoming a popular theme among a number of sports game shows over here. There might be more going on in the future than the caged octagon, and in many ways this may be driven by what is a good spectator sport as much as by what is an effective martial art. Wonder if we’ll ever see MMA in the Olympics, and would it replace or add the the many MAs already there?

        • I don’t choose the ads Google serves. They have their algorithms for that. I can ban certain ads but the process is pretty difficult and can cause more harm than good. That said, somebody has to pay for all this blogging madness. :-)

  2. Great post Wim. I enjoyed the review (and I too remember well the 70’s – thinking David Carradine(sp)).

    Interesting predictions as well. It will be fun to see how it goes.

    (Going back to watch the videos…)


  3. Great article

    Really liked the review of the roots of martial arts und how it is evolving.

    Look forward to future articles.

    Oh un Jack Sparrow is the most awesummmm pirate evvveeeerrrr.

  4. Hey Wim!

    So that is the reason I can still kick people so easily nowadays (with my side kick) – no one has seen it for a while. :)

    I agree with most of your predictions but after seeing a lot of late night TV – number one will not come true… the martial arts fads will continue!

    Why the other day just when I thought I had seen it all – a new dumb bell was being advertised with a girl pumping back and forth with a sliding weight… quite the improvement from the old thigh-master in my day…

    • Dunno John, I think the fads won’t be like they used to. There is so much knowledge and research about martial arts these days, I doubt ther’s still a martial art hidden that will take the world by storm like judo, karate, kung fu and the others did. But we’ll see. :-)

  5. In terms of fads, I’ve noticed something similar in the HEMA community. Pretty much every European art which left us manuals has several groups of skilled people training it today. Our knowledge and skill could improve, and different arts can change in popularity, but we have a pretty good map of most of the territory that living traditions or how-to books can reach. Its possible that one of the family styles from the countryside could spread widely again, but their original context is gone (Irish farmers don’t have stick fights very often these days!) Come to think of it, the HEMA and MMA movements are about the same age.

    • HEMA is a can of worms IMO. I don’t train in them so I only have limited knowledge; keep that in mind when you read the rest. That said a friend of mine has a living European traditional system, passed on through the generations. IIRC, it’s a Russian or Prussian system. He disagrees with much that is taught in most HEMA schools and can explain why.
      I have another friend who practices a Filipino family style. What he does is very different from what you see in most commercially taught Filipino systems. Some of the differences are very subtle, others not so much. When pressed about them and if he knows you well enough to trust you, he’ll explain the reasons why. All of these have to do with actually killing another human being. Something both he and his family have experience with. In other words, the validity of these differences is proven empirically. And if a family member doesn’t agree about something in the style, the response is: “Ask your dad about the time he fought that guy from the other village.” or “Ask your uncle about the time he was attacked by robbers.”
      To the best of my knowledge, there are no longer regular armed battles or even fights with swords and spears in Europe. And I mean fighting to the death. So interpreting historical texts is extremely difficult without a living tradition or like you also mentioned, the context no longer there. I’m not saying it’s impossible. I’m saying you’ll never know you’re on the right track unless you start fighting to the death again. Which won’t happen, so we’re stuck with theories. Some of them good, others perhaps less so. But unlike my Filipino friend, you’ll probably never know.
      Caveat: I’m not saying all HEMAs suck. Nor am I saying Asian arts are better. Only pointing out things I think are issues with them. Issues I don’t have the answers to either, BTW. I’ve only trained in Asian weapon systems and have been fortunate in my lineage that the knowledge was still there.

      • Of course, living lineages that haven’t been used in several generations have the same problems. Even if they avoid being turned into a sport, and have a large, well organized community to pass down knowledge and slow change, it will happen. All we can do is study the sources carefully, study other sources on violence from the same period, and pay respectful attention to people who have similar experience or train arts which do have a living tradition. And accept that we are almost certainly doing some things wrong, and will never fully understand others. I suspect that you’re right that one reason for the Philippino martial arts boom was that a lot of the early teachers had used blades, or knew people who had.

        I’m definitely not qualified to speak of the HEMA movement in general, or any traditional martial arts community in general.

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