Martial Arts America, Chapter Two

Martial Arts America, Book Cover


    The system is not a fancy martial art, but a street-oriented brand of fighting. Hair pulling, neck grabbing, kicks to the back of the knee joint – they're all fair game in the system. . . . No rules. No Belts. No nonsense. The system is a fighting art without all the needless baggage.

— Mike Sturman, 1995    
Black Belt magazine    

Capital 'I' n cyclical fashion, self-defense skills and systems of combat move through phases of evolution and devolution. During periods of violence and brutality, they evolve rapidly upward, gaining in sophistication and effectiveness. During times of relative peace and prosperity, they stagnate and slowly devolve downward. This chapter discusses where we are today in the evolutionary cycle and its impact on modern martial art training and development.

Yin Yang and Evolutionary Cycle



Any student of history knows that weapons of war and the skills to wield them only improve (if you can call it that), increasing in their destructive capability during periods of conflict and war. (Only in the most militaristic societies do they continue to evolve during peacetime.)  This growth in military weapons and tactics has a parallel in the development and evolution of combat skills for individual and personal protection.

Fighting Methods to Fighting Arts
In an environment where fights are frequent, sudden, and often life-threatening, one does not have the luxury of practicing pain-compliance and control techniques. In this kind of environment, only those methods that are guaranteed to work, and work the first time, are studied and practiced. Collected and organized, these  fighting methods become  fighting arts.

Fighting arts are characterized by three words: focus, reaction, and counterattack. As a matter of survival in their harsh environments, practitioners of fighting arts must react to threats quickly and decisively – their focus is always on survival. Like the crocodile, the fighting art practitioner, when threatened or surprised, reacts. Assault is met not with defense but with counterattack – and one that ceases only when the opponent is vanquished. Fighting arts are violent, brutal, unforgiving, unrepentant, and extremely effective.

Fighting Arts to Martial Arts
As societies move from periods of conflict to periods of relative peace, fighting art development slows, and the system of combat gradually evolves into a  martial art. Martial arts differ from fighting arts primarily in their sophistication and social interaction. Free from the pressure that demands an unwavering focus on survival, the martial artist devotes part of his valuable training time to actually understanding his art: analyzing its techniques, discovering why they work, and investigating their underlying principles.

Knowledge of an art's underlying principles is very important, for it yields the fruit of versatility. Versatility is the ability to apply a given movement (part of a technique) in more than one way. For example, one may practice a horizontal elbow strike to the head in such a way that uses a shearing action – one that applies two opposing, but parallel forces (figure 1) and be completely unaware of the shearing principle.1 However, once the underlying principle is understood, the movement is applicable to any number of targets (figures 2 and 3) and can be executed from more than one angle or plane.

Horizontal elbow-strikes head
Figure 1   Shearing horizontal elbow strike to the head.

Beyond the benefit of deeper knowledge and the versatility that goes with this, martial art practitioners also benefit from the development or rediscovery of completely different combative techniques – alternatives for dealing with confrontation and physical threat. To see what I mean, let us compare two techniques: one from a fighting art, the other, a martial art alternative.

Figure 2
Figure 2   Shearing horizontal elbow strike to the upper arm.
Figure 3
Figure 3   Shearing horizontal elbow strike to the thigh.

In an environment where even peace overtures often precede ambush, the following technique makes perfect sense. Extending his hand in a gesture of peace, the antagonist declares a willingness to defuse a tense situation. Accepting his hand (figure 5), the defender remains cautious. Feeling a slight pull from his opponent and believing the gesture is only a ploy, the defender reacts quickly and decisively. Slapping his clasped hand to his right (figure 6), the defender lifts his opponent's arm, quickly slips under it (figure 7), and with a sharp pull down over his left shoulder, breaks his assailant's arm at the elbow (figure 8). Not only does this destroy his opponent's ability to continue his attack, but it also places the defender in a position where he can easily use his badly injured foe as a shield between himself and his assailant's still-capable partner.

Figure 5
Figure 5   In a mock gesture of peace, the antagonist shakes hands, but his intent is to thrust his knife (in the circle) into his intended victim.
Figure 6
Figure 6   The defender slaps the clasped hands to his right.

Figure 7
Figure 7   Lifting assailant's arm high, the defender prepares to step under his assailant's extended arm.
Figure 8
Figure 8   Stepping under assailant's outstretched arm, the defender breaks it over his shoulder.

I call this approach to personal defense the shotgun method. This is because, at the slightest provocation, the defender (figuratively) blasts his attacker – as if with a shotgun. He makes no attempt to deter the opponent, gives no second chance; his goal is simply all-out destruction of the assailant's ability to fight.

If this technique appears particularly brutal, remember that it is used in a highly charged, hostile environment where violence is a way of life (and death). In such a situation, you do what you must to survive. However, in an environment where the threat is normally not as great, the trained martial artist, with his broader arsenal of techniques, may find that the following technique works just as well – and without permanent damage to the antagonist.

As before, the antagonist extends his hand in a mock gesture of reconciliation (figure 9). Sensing a trap, the martial artist chooses a measured response (a choice the practitioner of the fighting art lacks). Slapping his clasped hand to the right, the defender pulls his antagonist's hand down and to the defender's hip (figure 10). Before his hapless opponent can respond, the defender reverses the pull, lifting his opponent's hand, and applies a painful wrist lock (figure 11). This maneuver gives the antagonist something to think about without (necessarily) inflicting permanent damage, while keeping the defender in the most defensible position (actually using the antagonist as a shield against his partner).  

Figure 9
Figure 9   In a mock gesture of peace, the antagonist shakes hands, but intending to pull his victim into his partner.
Figure 10
Figure 10   The defender slaps the clasped hands to his right, pulling them
to his hip.

The martial artist really practices techniques from both camps: all-out counterattacks (figures 5 through 8] and pain compliance and control (figures 9 through 11]. The value of the fighting art technique is not lost on the martial artist. Although he initially responds with the pain-compliance technique, should it become necessary (as when a weapon is produced), the martial artist can quickly shift from his control tactic (figure 11) to one that completely destroys his assailant's arm (figures 12 and 13). The difference is that the martial artist has this option; the practitioner of the fighting art does not.

Figure 11
Figure 11   Feeding his hand back to him,
the defender shoves the antagonist into
his opponent's partner.
Figure 12
Figure 12   Defender continues pressing pressing his assailant into his armed partner, simultaneously preparing to slip under his arm.
Figure 13
Figure 13   Careful to keep his assailant between himself and the knife-wielding partner, the defender quickly neutralizes
his grasped thug.

Options allow the martial artist to respond rather than react. Doubtless, under the tension of serious threat, with adrenaline flooding through his veins, the martial artist will, like the fighter, react. However, unlike the fighter, the martial artist's response is not limited to a narrow range of techniques designed only to kill or maim. The martial artist can, at any time, alter the direction of his defense anywhere along the way. Figuratively speaking, he may use the fighting artist's shotgun, but he can also choose a stick, a staff, a knife, or any other weapon in his broader arsenal. The fighting art practitioner, on the other hand, cannot. His shotgun is his only weapon, and it does not easily wound; it can only fire or hold fire.

Looked at another way, a martial art is a mature fighting art. It is polished and refined; sophisticated. Another military analogy is useful here. Fighting arts, with their methods of defense, are like saturation bombing – a brute-force method that strikes terror in the heart of the enemy. However, it does this only with maximum effort and resources. Martial arts are more like surgical strikes. They also get the job done, but like laser- and radar-guided precision bombing, they consume fewer resources with significantly less collateral damage. Both methods are effective, and both are still used widely in modern warfare; however, one requires a significantly greater level of sophistication than the other. That one represents the martial art.

Social Interaction
Not to be lost in all of this is the fact that a martial art also differs from the fighting art in its social interaction. Socially, martial artists are made aware of the consequences of their responses to conflict. This awareness manifests itself in (among other things) the installation and teaching of codes of conduct – simple methods of controlling the behavior of the practitioner. Fighting arts, on the other hand, almost never have such codes (collateral damage is not their concern). Remember, a fighting art practitioner's only goal is survival; social responsibility is not his concern. A martial artist's primary purpose is also survival, but unlike the fighting art practitioner, this crocodile looks before biting.

Figure 14


Figure 15

There are other differences between fighting and martial arts, but from the self-defense perspective, these are the major ones. A martial art, with its emphasis on understanding combat principles and its recognition of social responsibility, represents the peak of the evolutionary cycle. It is a proven and effective fighting art that has matured.


From this top of the evolutionary cycle, martial art development begins to stagnate. Its original focus shifts from that of providing its practitioners with effective self-defense skills, to one that is more socially acceptable. As part of the natural cycle, the devolution now begins, and the art moves from martial art to either a martial way or martial sport. In the United States, we have entered this regression phase of the evolutionary cycle. Let's look for a moment at the latter half of the twentieth century and see just how we came to where we are today.

Much has changed since the days when Asian masters of fighting and martial arts routinely tested and practiced their combat-proven techniques. After World War II, global social developments altered the evolution of classical martial arts and, with it, martial art training. A new order of global peace and personal security was declared. To be sure, there was still violence, and too soon the nations of the world found themselves caught up in a cold war. But affluent Western powers still convinced their citizens that there was little need for personal self-defense.

Figure 16

This Pax Romana of modern time, coupled with the ban on Japanese martial arts during the American occupation of that country, meant that the days of empirical study of martial arts, there and elsewhere, were numbered. Challenges and fights-to-the-death to see whose art was the best went the way of the Old West gunfighter. All of this left contemporary martial artists with little more than legend and lore as the bases of their art's self-defense effectiveness and authenticity. Only those nations where one's life still depended on his martial prowess witnessed any continued martial art development.

In the West, martial sports have surpassed martial arts in both recognition and popularity. In the United States, for example, emphasis on the sporting element means that techniques and training methods are developed that teach the student how to score points. Martial effectiveness is sacrificed for sporting performance and trophies.

In the East, much of the art has been replaced by the martial way. For example, in Japan the degradation from martial art to martial way began with the restoration of the Meiji Emperor in 1867. Now, more than a century later, we find that warrior arts are no longer taught for development of martial skill. Martial arts like ken-jutsu, iai-jutsu, and kyu-jutsu became the martial ways of kendo, iaido, and kyudo – martial ways whose purpose for practice is self-development and perfection of character.2

Modern wushu player

Martial Sports

In China, modern wushu, with its extended stances and gymnastic acrobatics, replaced many of that nation's previously effective classical fighting arts. Wushu players, like circus performers, are entertaining to watch and amazing in their physical ability, but the efficacy of their art as a self-defense system of combat has greatly diminished. This is because the understanding and interpretation of the original function and meaning of the classical movements have eroded with the passing of each master. For many Chinese systems today, masters of the classical period are the last practitioners of their arts who were intimately familiar with their arts' effectiveness, for they tested and witnessed their application, firsthand.

What this means to American practitioners is that while fighting continues on its ever-changing course (neighborhood thugs continually update their skills, and tournament players sharpen their skills for excellence within the narrow confines of the arena), the self-defense student is left to study and practice the techniques and tactics of the past. Canonizing these observations into a "law of the art," we are forced to admit the following: As the distance between the past and the present increases, the effectiveness of any classical fighting art decreases. The result of all of this is that, with each new generation, actual knowledge of tested and proven combat and self-defense effectiveness moves ever-deeper into the realm of myth.

Breaking the Cycle

The deterioration of martial art effectiveness would likely have continued unabated for some time, were it not for the efforts of modern martial art pioneers. These dedicated individuals broke the yoke of tradition to focus and shape martial arts in America. Like the masters of the past, these men studied their arts empirically. They experimented, observed, and experienced the theories they discovered. (And yes, a large amount of their experimentation, observation, and experience came from real head-thumping fights.)

Notice I said that these men "discovered," and not that they developed or created. This is because practically everything that can be done to the human body with regard to personal self-defense has already been tested or experienced. For example, there are only so many ways a fist or hand can come at you: hook, cross, straight, over the top, and uppercut. In response, there is only a finite number of ways to deflect, defend against, or otherwise manipulate the attacking arm. Because these things remain constant, there is really very little new, revolutionary development. There is, however, rediscovery.

Rediscovery results from analyzing classical techniques and patterns of movement in context. Contrary to some of what Bruce Lee advocated, the intelligent martial artist actually discards very little. He may take a classical technique, movement, or form and set it aside to be revisited later, but he will only rarely discard it outright. A jump sidekick, for example, had a specific purpose when it was first developed, and we need to understand it in the context of that period of history – learning why it was necessary – to discover any usefulness and applicability today. Banishing any work as useless only demonstrates the martial artist's lack of understanding. We may not have experienced or understood the conditions that spawned a classical technique and proved its effectiveness, and we cannot go about testing our theories by pounding everyone we don't like into the dirt, but we do have some advantages that past masters did not.

Modern Advantages

Growing up in Indonesia during World War II, my Dutch-Indonesian instructor did not enjoy the luxury of training with safety equipment. If a student in his day made a mistake when practicing his technique, it often cost him dearly; he could be scarred for life or, worse, crippled. While this harsh training environment made fighting art practitioners tougher, it also made for fewer of them.

To help us in our quest to understand and apply classical techniques, modern practitioners make full use of technological advances not available to previous generations. We use specialized training equipment, safety gear, and video technology. Modern training equipment helps us improve our quickness and timing, stretch our muscles and joints with greater frequency and less chance of injury, and do all this for many more years than was previously possible.

Advances in safety equipment allow us to try techniques and movements hundreds and thousands of times without the risk of serious injury. Practitioners today can repeatedly practice techniques that, just a decade ago, would have prematurely ended their training if they made even the smallest mistake. Technology, then, gives modern practitioners a considerable advantage.

Training "safety" equipment

Equally significant is the fact that, in the United States, we may train in many different fighting and martial arts. The "shrinking of our world" means we have access to many, many more arts than our predecessors did. Greater exposure to different approaches to combat gives greater flexibility in confrontational situations. You can choose, for example, from an aikido redirection technique, a pain-compliance from jujutsu, or a leg kick from Thai-boxing. Open access to so many arts is something only dreamed of by past masters.

Video equipment, a modern training aid

Modern video equipment is another benefit today's martial artist enjoys. Access to video cameras and tape players allows us to study techniques, forms, and patterns of movement over and over again. Training tapes sharing other arts were unthinkable just a generation ago. What do you think Okinawan karate masters would have given for this kind of resource?

All of this means that today's martial artist is in an excellent position to study, analyze, and comprehend classical martial art techniques and their underlying principles of movement. Parker and Lee, both well ahead of their time, made excellent use of video equipment. As American martial artists, then, it is in our best interests to bring the study of martial arts into the twenty-first century, using every tool available to us. This means utilizing technology and other advances in training equipment. More importantly, it means using our God-given minds. In other words, don't park your brains at the dojo door.



We can see how self-defense skills and systems of personal combat develop and decline in cyclical fashion. They evolve rapidly upward, gaining in sophistication and effectiveness during periods of violence and brutality. In peacetime they stagnate and slowly devolve downward into either martial ways or martial sports. Asian martial arts in America are in the devolution phase of the evolutionary cycle. Actual knowledge of the classical Eastern combat skills that American students are learning is beyond our reach. This is because most of the men who were intimately familiar with them have passed away. Our fascination with martial sports only compounds the problem. Many practitioners today learn how to score points instead of how to survive real confrontations. Martial ways, with their emphasis on character perfection rather than self-protection, offer little help for the self-defense motivated martial artist. This is the current state of martial arts in America. However, we need not settle for the status quo.

Our culture and environment may be far removed from those that spawned the potent arts we are so fortunate to have available to us today, and we may not be able to test our fighting theories as past masters did (empirically – by busting heads), but development and discovery are still available to the dedicated student of the art. This is because we in the West enjoy unprecedented access to more Asian fighting and martial art systems than any who trained before us. Further, we have technological advantages that would boggle the minds of past martial art masters. Used properly, video recording equipment and modern training gear can do for students of Asian martial arts what similar advances have done for modern Olympic champions. Even the downward slide in martial art development in America need not continue; the status need not remain quo.


  1. Shearing  is the application of opposing forces along parallel lines. For an in-depth study and explanation of this principle, see our book,  Indonesian Fighting Fundamentals  (Paladin Press, 1996).
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  2. It goes without saying that the availability and use of firearms played a large part in rendering such fighting skills as swordsmanship and archery ineffective for self-defense, but equally important was the conscious shift away from self-defense training in favor of self-development and perfection of character.
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Last update:  Aug. 6, 2016
by Bob Orlando
Web Site of Bob Orlando: Instructor in Kuntao-Silat (Chinese kuntao and Dutch-Indonesian pukulan pentjak silat), author of two popular martial art books: "Indonesian Fighting Fundamentals" and "Martial Arts America: A Western Approach to Eastern Arts"; and producer of four martial art videos: Fighting Arts of Indonesia, Reflex Action, Fighting Footwork of Kuntao and Silat, Fighting Forms of Kuntao-Silat. Offering practical martial arts instruction to adults living in and throughout the Denver metropolitan area including, Lakewood, Littleton, Morrison, and Golden Colorado.