Here’s an experiment: visit a selection of web sites dedicated to discussion a particular martial art—any martial art. Once there, check out the forums to see what visitors are talking about. Odds are, within a few seconds, you will see discussions on topics such as:
<Martial Art> versus…
<Martial Art> in a real fight…
And, as you might expect, if you actually bothered to read these topics, you would find pages upon pages of posts saying how martial art X does or does not work against another martial art or in a real-world scenario. Often, these discussions degenerate quickly into personal attacks, or endless rehashes of previously-made points. If you’re lucky, very lucky, you might get a good war story every now and again. But mostly, these conversations have very little merit in and of themselves. However, what drives these posts to come into existence in the first place does have some merit, as it can force you to define for yourself what types of physical conflicts exist, and what your stance is on those conflicts.
Physical conflicts essentially fall into one of two categories: competitions and fights for survival. In the competition category, we have a seemingly limitless number of variations: from two people testing each other out at a YMCA, to Olympic competitions, to the ever popular UFC-style fights. These competitions often do show the physical prowess of the individuals involved. They can be a good representation of how hard they have trained and how much they have studied. And I think it is a disservice not to respect those individuals who do participate and excel at these competitions—just as we would respect those who participate in other sports, such as baseball or basketball. The fact that it is a competition, and as a result has rules that govern what is acceptable and what is not, does not diminish the accomplishments of the participants. Yet, we must also remember that it these are, in fact, competitions. They do have rules, they do have guidelines, they do have limitations. As a result, we should try to remember that what we see when we watch these events (or, for that matter, when we participate in them,) that we are only seeing one facet of a particular martial art or a specific martial artist. We are not seeing, nor can we expect to see, the full story.
In the other category we have fights for survival. These are situations that are not televised (at least not often). These are the situations in which your life, or the life of someone you care about, is in mortal danger, and you have no other recourse other than to physically defend yourself. There are no trophies for surviving these encounters, no bragging rights, only the grateful realization that you have survived. Rare is the person who seeks these situations out—and for good reason. A real fight does not have rules, nor judges, nor points. There is no one who will critique you afterwards, saying: “You did well, but your finishing pin lacked proper zanshin.” You do what you need to do in order to get out of the situation as safely as possible.
If these are the only real categories of physical confrontation, then it renders these constantly-recurring threads discussing this art versus another, or how this art would not work in a fight, absolutely useless. This art is better than another? In what context? In a ring? In a competition? If so, it is very true that there are some arts that are better suited to these environments than others. Judo, Tae Kwon Do, to pick two easily-recognizable examples, are well-suited to the ring, whereas other arts, such as Aikido, are not. This art does not work in a fight? In what kind of fight? A fight out on the street? That situation calls to mind a Karate instructor that I knew when I was growing up. He taught both Karate and Tae Kwon Do, and, when giving a student his or her first test, would ask the question: “If a Karate student and a Tae Kwon Do student got into a fight, who would win?” The answer: the better martial artist. Out on the street, you are not going to have clean technique; you are going to do whatever it takes to survive the encounter. If that means running away, then do it. If that means using a stepladder Jackie Chan-style, then, well, good luck. The point is, as many before me have pointed out, real fights are not won by martial arts, they are won by martial artists.
And, in the end, I think that is what these posts are getting at. The question that is really being asked is: “Does this martial art train you to be a good martial artist?” Does it provide you with the physical ability, the repertoire of technique, and the mental discipline to serve you when you need it most? The answer is, in fact, highly dependent on the individual. If the movements make sense to you, if you can prove on the mat that the techniques work to your ever-increasing critical satisfaction, and if the fundamental strategies of the art are sound, then you have found your answer, whatever art you might be studying.