Thursday, June 19, 2014


"Your kung fu is... bizarrely strong"

A modern trend in film that annoys me is the need to give every single character super martial artist skills.  James Bond is some kind of Bruce Lee expert these days, Sherlock Holmes as well.   Every single person who has to get into a fight at some point in any film automatically is a skilled 9th dan black belt super ninja.  Nobody just boxes or uses their fists any more, they all have these amazing spinning gymnastic maneuvers.
Its sort of interesting to watch, but after the 90th action hero does some improbable spinning maneuver, it starts to get a little stale, like watching John Wayne get in yet another fist fight in his movies.  Yes, Sherlock Holmes knew a little jiu jitsu.  Yes, James Bond would have some training in martial arts, given his background and skill set.  But they're not all super-duper kung fu masters.  They don't have time to learn that much skill and keep it up.
Like anything in life, being really, really good at martial arts takes near-constant effort and practice.  You can't take a class and suddenly be the best fighter ever, unless you download it into your brain like Neo (and honestly that wouldn't work either, because it requires muscle memory and reflex, which isn't in your brain).
There are a lot of myths involving martial arts that movies, TV, and books embrace wholeheartedly.  Its easy to see why, because they usually make it seem more exciting.  One of my least favorite images in film is the little guy beating the tar out of the huge hulking guy.  Kids beating up gigantic weightlifters because they know karate!  Sorry, no.  Big guy shrugs at the puny hits from the kid and slaps them across the room.
Now I'm no expert on mortal combat and have had only a very little amount of actual martial arts training, but I have talked to a lot of guys who have, and read even more, and this guy's analysis of martial arts myths rings not just true, but is repeated by all of the people I know in the field.
Myth 1: Size and strength don't matter much.

I hear this all the time, almost exclusively from people who haven't tried full-contact sparring yet. The tiny little Chinese master kicking the ass of the huge, uncouth bandit. A very compelling image. Unfortunately, real life doesn't work that way. It is possible for a smaller, weaker person to beat a bigger, more muscular opponent, but it is very difficult, especially if there is a large size difference.
Its not that a very skilled little guy cannot take out a big hulking tough guy, but its not easy, and if they're trained too... you're probably going to see a horrible beat down leaving the little guy in a Beetle Bailey heap.  Being big and strong makes up for an awful lot of training.  In fact, everyone knows this at some level, because they think all that martial arts training makes up for being small and weak.  Now think that through: if your training is to compensate for not being huge and strong... that means huge and strong is an advantage that only extensive training and expertise can match.
Which means you just admitted that the gigantic guy is a really tough fight just by being huge.  Which means that any skill at all in the big guy and he's going to be very tough to beat.  And while martial arts gives you more power in your punches, there are limits.  A little kid or a little girl simply cannot generate more power than a given limit, no matter how black their belt is.
Myth 2: Strength and speed are a trade-off. Big, strong people are slow.

I have several bodybuilder friends. Besides being stronger than anyone has a right to be, they are also obscenely fast. This makes sense, if you think about it: when you punch, your muscles (your triceps, to be precise) accelerate your fist forward. If you develop more powerful triceps, your punch will be both stronger and faster. This also applies to everything else: kicking, running, dodging, etc. The real trade-off is between strength and endurance; big muscles need a lot of oxygen to sustain them. The way to beat a steroid-enhanced mountain of muscle is to wear him down. Unfortunately, unless you're very strong, fit, and trained yourself, your chances of doing so before he crushes you are slim at best.
Its not that you can't become musclebound and slow by working out, it just depends what you're trying to achieve.  The problem is, big and strong does not necessarily equate to slow and cumbersome.  Most of the time being really fit makes you just physically much more capable and faster than other people.  That's why athletes work out to be really ripped: its part of their job.
Baseball fans know that getting huge can also mean having an incredibly quick bat: consider Barry Bonds.  That means the huge guy with the arms like tree trunks isn't necessarily going to be slow, he probably will be even faster than you.
There are several other myths such as how a crotch kick isn't man kryptonite - a well trained fighter can ignore it, and if your adrenaline is really high, you may not even notice it until later.  Ladies, be warned.  Pepper spray is much more reliable and doesn't require as much aim.
And as any fan of Mixed Martial Arts knows: almost every fight, unless the rules demand otherwise, ends up on the ground wrestling.  Think back to school and all the fights you participated in saw. How many of them were two people on their feet exchanging blows like in a boxing ring?  How many ended up with two people rolling around on the floor?
There are several others, but the much of what people presume about martial arts is simply not true, or distorted significantly.  The biggest myth of martial arts is that its a special magic thing that only the far east ever figured out.  That's simply nonsense.
Every culture that had any sort of regimented, teachable, and structured system of combat had martial arts.  Roman legionnaires learned martial arts with a sword.  German knights learned martial arts.  Cherokee braves learned martial arts.  Martial arts is not restricted to karate or kung fu or other far eastern disciplines, and it wasn't invented by Shaolin monks.
Martial Art just means a way of fighting which is trained and specific.  If you learn how to stab sandbags and shoot straight as a Marine, you've learned martial arts.  Some are more extensive and stylized than others (Kung Fu, for instance) and some are much more simple and freeform (wrestling) but all are martial arts.
Its related to the piece I did on swords a while back; the west had really, really good swords and combat training too, all that just was supplanted by guns and largely forgotten.  It takes years of training and expense to get really good with a sword, but any idiot with a pistol can kill you from a dozen yards away with the first shot they've ever fired.
So when I see a movie and little teenage heroine beats up hulking special forces guy, I just shake my head and sigh.  Its not that it is utterly impossible, but its about as likely as your cat killing and eating a great dane.

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