Classical Martial Arts Vs MMA: The JKD Perspective


I grew up with movies like The Karate Kid. I remember offering to wax my brother’s car to practice my “moves”. I’m sure he loved it. And the rest of my family liked the fact that I was interested in something that wasn’t just about fighting. Karate, according to Mr. Miyagi, had much more to teach than just how to beat someone up.

Contrast that with today’s MMA craze. Now the pinnacle of martial arts mastery is the ability to stand up against any opponent, with any set of rules, and overcome any obstacle to beat him. And often the more viciously, the better. Tenacity and grit are looked upon as the highest of virtues.

Now, I have a deep regard for both the Classical Arts and MMA. I believe that they have a lot to teach us about life as well as fighting. I also believe that they each have potential potholes to watch out for.

As for the Classical Arts, I hold a black belt in Shotokan Karate so I have some room to speak. Classical Martial Arts were designed for real life battles to the death. There were no rules to consider. It was just kill or be killed. So there are techniques that would make anybody wince if they were applied to a real person. The Classical Arts also took into account multitudes of opponents and even changing environments in some cases. And they weren’t always about self-defense. One of the things I’ve admired about the ancient arts are that they were often used to protect others. There are even some “sacrificial” moves, moves that were designed to put you in the heart of danger long enough to give someone else a chance to escape–even though it meant almost certain suicide on your part. There’s also a strong philosophical side to most martial arts (though often it’s been lost through westernization). They enriched the soul of the individual, teaching principles that would strengthen every aspect of your life. This made sense, since these arts were often passed down from father to son or through other close teacher-student relationships. There was often a Code of Honor or Virtues to live by as a disciple of a particular martial art.

As for weaknesses, many of these Classical Arts have no way of testing their arts except through live combat, which isn’t too much of a concern for most martial arts schools these days. So many schools have opted for the flashier, fancier techniques over the more effective ones. And some of the most effective techniques have been lost from these styles. Also, since deadlier moves are hard to practice (you can’t keep killing your training partners or you run out fast) it’s hard to know if you would be able to effectively use them in an actual fight. Another pothole is the lack of adaptation to our modern world environment. Originally, these ancient arts were designed to deal with the actual conditions of their times. Nowadays many of the techniques are impractical and can actually put you in a world of trouble if used out on the street.

MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) comes out and says, “How do we know what techniques work and what ones don’t? Let’s get in the cage and test them.” So many of the superfluous, flashy techniques have fallen out of use and only what can be proven most effective has stayed. Also, the importance of athletic training has been put in a high place in MMA. Physical conditioning is considered as much a part of martial arts training as the learning of techniques. Then there’s the holistic approach that MMA takes to fighting. No more training isolated ranges of fighting. No more “A boxer can beat a wrestler” or “Kicking is better than punching”. It has been well proven in the cage that, though it is good to specialize in one specific realm of fighting, the most effective fighters are comfortable and skilled in all ranges of a fight–from kicking range to punching range to the clinch to going to the ground. And finally, the techniques the MMA fighter trains he KNOWS how to use. He applies them full speed against fully resisting opponents, so there’s no question about if he could use it or not.

On the downside, being a sport, MMA has had to cut out the most effective techniques for a street fight. Why? For the very reason that they’re so effective. In a street fight eye gouging, groin shots, biting, small joint manipulation, pressure point strikes, etc. all work VERY nicely and can reek serious havoc on an adversary. So obviously they have to be outlawed in sport fighting. Also, the imposition of weight classes changes some of the emphasis on training. Out on the street chances are the guy who attacks you will assume he has the advantage.

This may be due to his size, having buddies around to help gang up on you, or he may have a weapon. None of these are accounted for in the cage. Against a much larger opponent there must be a greater emphasis on techniques based highly on leverage. Also, what happens if you take someone to the ground and get him in a submission (assuming that you didn’t crack your head on the curb as you took him down, since there’s no padded mat to fall on) and 10 other buddies decide to put their steel toe boots into your head? Or what if you lock him up in your guard and instead of trying to escape the guard and get the mount he reaches for his belt and pulls out a knife? Or he just punches you in the groin? So there are some realities of combat that go unaddressed in MMA fighting.

What I love about Jeet Kune Do is that there’s a strong emphasis on training the most effective, deadly techniques, preparing for various situations, AND sparring in controlled but full contact conditions. It’s sort of “the best of both worlds”. The only pothole I really see is that JKD can easily go the way of many Classical Arts. That on paper JKD is about reality training and evolving to fit today’s environment. But in actual practice there can be a neglect of actually evolving. For instance, like it or not, nowadays ground fighting has become popular enough that even people who’ve never trained in any martial art understand the basics of guard, mount, and a submission or two. So being able to at least defend yourself against these when taken to the ground must be a natural evolution of JKD training.

Leave a Reply