In the previous post, I addressed the issue of rank and how, in my view, it has corrupted a number of students and instructors alike. I further addressed the fact that one has spent an “X” number of years in the martial arts is not necessarily an indicator of martial expertise or skill. Here, I will point out how meaningless pursuit of rank can be when viewed in the context of the increasing globalization of martial arts.
In recent years, the term “globalization” has become the catch all term for increasing competition between corporations and between nations. Several years ago, Thomas Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote a terrific book called “The World is Flat” in which he analyzed the effects of globalization of commerce in today’s world and how that is driving increasing innovation and competition.
I would argue that globalization has had a profound effect on the martial arts in today’s world and because of that, the notion of rank needs to be re-examined in this context. As stated in the previous post, more importance needs to be placed on skill rather than rank.
If one were to travel back in time to the 1950’s and look for martial arts schools, one would probably find only (as far as mainland US is concerned) judo, boxing, and perhaps karate for the most part. American GIs were just starting to bring karate back from Okinawa. Tae Kwon Do had not yet become the force it is today (not until the 1970’s). Chinese martial arts were, for the most part, taught only to the Chinese. Likewise, Filipino martial arts were not well known and not well spread. Furthermore, FMAs were taught to Filipinos. Brazilian jiu jitsu was not in the US in this time period. Ditto for MMA. Add in Krav Maga, Indonesian pencak silat and many other martial arts. They simply were not available in the 1950’s. Consequently, methods of self defense, as practiced in the 1950’s, were not highly evolved. As an example, I recall seeing an English language Japanese karate book published sometime in the late 1950’s. A section of that book focused on applying karate to self defense situations. Suffice it to say that the self defense techniques portrayed were incredibly unrealistic.
Fast forward to today. There is an incredible cornucopia of martial arts to choose from and study. I have noticed that the trend is to teach more realistic skills for personal protection than those presented in the past. Students are looking for and demanding more realistic self defense skill sets. Another factor not present in the 1950’s is the incredible proliferation of martial arts videos and books. There is an unbelievable amount of information available to anyone who has the time and discipline to learn. Then there is the availability of untold number of videos on YouTube. One can type in virtually any martial arts related term and find some relevant video clips. An additional factor to consider is the popularity of MMA/UFC events, particularly on TV.
What it comes down to is that the globalization of martial arts has resulted in a vast amount of information available to the public through the many different kinds of martial arts, videos, books, YouTube, and other media. It is natural, then, for those who study martial arts to consider how to deal with techniques of different martial arts styles. An obvious example is “what do I do if I’m taken down to the ground” or “what do I do against a Muay Thai kick ?”
The real question is “what do I do if I run into a bad guy who is emulating his favorite UFC fighter or has some knowledge of knife fighting skill ?’ Like it or not, that vast amount of information is going to find its way to the bad guys. Some of the “muscle” guys on the 9/11 plot had trained in martial arts in the months leading up to the attacks on that fateful day.
While rank may be an indicator of skill, it is not the end all be all when viewed in the context of globalization of martial arts and the vast amount of information available. The determining factor as to whether one is successful in a self defense situation (aside from conflict avoidance), is not rank but skill. I have seen black belts who do not possess the bare minimum functional skills to protect themselves. I also have seen martial artists with rank below black belt (mudansha in Japanese) who are extremely well equipped to defend themselves. Ditto for those who have an x number of years in the martial arts and have achieved a certain rank. It may not mean squat, as in the case of the fella who claimed to have trained in the martial arts for 50 years.
The other factor to consider is the evolution of the martial arts since the 1970’s. More specifically, I’m speaking to the evolution of martial arts styles. Take, for example, Tae Kwon Do. In the 1970’s, this art was more or less characterized by who could throw the most kicks in the shortest amount of time. In other words, “the fastest and the mostest” to use a mangled cliche. However, TKD has evolved to include intricate footwork, feints, baits, and lots of conditioning. Suffice it to say that TKD has come a long way since the 1970’s. Another example is Karate. To put it real simplistically, most schools taught a variation “sport karate”, with tournament sparring and perfection of kata. Nowadays, it is common to see Karate folks examining and exploring the kata applications in terms of grappling moves and pressure points. Kata applications are absolutely devastating for self defense purposes.
The next factor to consider is the fact that it is quite common for martial artists to cross train in different arts. A tae kwon doist may be a black belt in that art but what if he supplements his skill by learning brazilian jiu jitsu ? Let’s suppose that he gets blue belt in BJJ. What is his overall rank ? As you can see, it’s meaningless. What we have here is a person who has an impressive skill set, being able to draw upon the classic TKD kicking skills as well as the ground game of BJJ. What really matters is the skill set rather than some artificial benchmark such as rank.
So given the above, it is my opinion that rank is useful only insofar as determining one’s place within a style, school or organization. However, the quality between schools and organizations can vary wildly. So, rank does not necessarily equate to martial skill.
It’s okay to be proud of your rank but I would caution one to not to get too caught up in rank or become a rank chaser. Continue to focus on the skill sets needed to survive an encounter.