Note: this is a first post in a series I want to do on fighting sports, women in martial arts, and media like modern MMA. Like my series on women in Japanese film, this one will be multi-part. I've been really interested in discussing the topic more since this article came up years ago on the site. Bear with me! Parts II, III, and IV are linked on the right and here! I've tried to make it as easy as possible to jump between articles and get everything want or need!
I love martial arts. In fact, outside of work, I probably spend more time training and learning about martial arts than anything else at this point. My wife and I spend hours training, learning, and studying how to be better martial artists. I think that martial arts transcend age, gender, race, politics, language, and any other things that divide us. It is the only hobby I know of where you improve your body and mind in equal measure.
Unfortunately, I also think that, thanks to media and culture, a lot of people have many misconceptions about training in a martial art and what it can mean for someone as a person. There are two main images of martial arts: first, the graceful and flowing kung fu fighter, like in Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Or there's the raw, violent energy of Bruce Lee or UFC/K1. The truth is, martial arts is both of those, and more. It is learning how to use your body and mind together as a weapon. The best martial artists aren't just strong: they are incredibly smart.
And it has never been better to be a woman in martial arts than today, with a few caveats that I will discuss in later posts. But, if you want to learn a martial art, then the odds are that there is a good supportive school near you where you can learn how to fight.
Note: I realize that self-defense isn't always a good topic— people argue about the very need of it in the first place. But it is inevitably a topic that comes up with regards to martial arts, so I'll just get it squared away.
Should you learn a martial art for self-defense? Yes. That is, you should be open to the idea that it can be a tool in keeping your person safe. I do not agree with people who say that martial arts have no applicability in self-defense. Like all other weapons or precautions, a martial art can be an important tool. But I do not believe that defense should be your first, or even primary goal. I see many people who start learning a martial art, only to quit soon after because the learning curve can be steep before you actually see real-world applicability. Which is why, while it is a meaningful goal, it shouldn't be the primary goal. You'll likely burn out too quickly.
So then why do a martial art?
Because you will grow as a person, and it's really really really fun. Also, you will grow as a person, likely develop confidence, and usually make a ton of great friends.
Choosing a Martial Art
There are basically two main types of martial arts: striking and grappling. Striking is about using parts of your body as a weapon to literally hit the weak points of your opponent and cause them direct damage. Grappling is about redirecting energy to either subdue or indirectly damage your opponent. Both are great, but I believe that a new student to martial arts should focus on one area first, as mastery of one is better than lack of mastery in both.
Striking Art: Muay Thai
What can anyone say? This is sort of seen as the "big dog" of striking arts today. Through popularity in several kickboxing and MMA organizations, Muay Thai has come to be seen as possibly the most effective striking art in the world today. While I do not personally practice Muay Thai, I have nothing but respect for its practitioners, because they are usually tough, tough, tough. If I am not mistake, most if not all of the women in UFC are mainly MT trained.
I have never walked away from a match with a Muay Thai fighter, male or female, and thought, "that was easy." And I say this as a proud kyokushin karate practitioner. And I have no doubt that people with MT experience can easily leverage it in real-world situations.
Unfortunately, because of the popularity, this tends to attract a lot of wannabe UFC fighters who are good at spoiling the fun for everyone else.
Upsides: Almost universally great for fitness, if you do any hard sparring or fighting you will become a machine of pain, very consistently strong style.
Downsides: Meatheads. Meatheads everywhere.
Karate (mainly kyokushin)
Everyone knows karate, right? It's that stuff that Daniel learned with Mr. Miyagi. But modern karate, like kyokushin and its offshots, is closer to Muay Thai in philosophy than it is to fence painting and thoughtful crane kicks. Kyokushin became famous in the martial arts world precisely because three of its practitioners went to Thailand and fought— and beat— two of the three strongest MT fighters at the time. It is known for no pad fighting and tough, sometimes painful training.
And this is my style. That woman on the left, by the way, is one of my sempai (seniors). World champion in both fighting and kata (forms).
However, kyokushin and pretty much all karate have one downside: longer return on investment. Because of the philosophy of slow, deliberate training, it's often much longer before you see serious returns on your training. It took me almost 3 years to even see decent performance in a tournament fight, and I'm only now starting to understand how to apply many techniques in actual fights. This is a something you do for life. It's as much a philosophy as it is a fighting style.
Also, because of the lack of pads, we don't punch to the face since that pretty much ends most fights in five seconds. It does affect how you fight, so you have to sometimes pick up heavy gloves and fight hands up to learn how it works. That said, plenty of kyokushin and karate practitioners do fine outside of the dojo. Georges St.-Pierre is one such example.
However, most kyokushin/karate schools do teach a great deal of defense and I believe that in most situations, most people can learn how to use their skills to take down opponents many times their size. Tournament rules aside, karate can be incredibly useful in real-world applications.
Upsides: Fewer meatheads than MT, tough training teaches you how to accept and also give out pain, generally supportive community, lots of philosophy
Downsides: Long-haul ROI, lots of hierarchy (lower belt? help clean the dojo!), no gloves means no face punches and you have to be careful not to drop your hands.
TKD is probably the largest and most-practiced striking art in the world today. It is also the most structured, and one of the best represented internationally. If you join large TKD organizations, you gain access to huge communities of practitioners and schools worldwide.
TKD has some of the best kicking in martial arts today. I have taken side kicks by TKD people that have hurt for days. While I am against the body armor and significant padding worn in most TKD fights, I have no doubt that the powerful kicks used by TKD practitioners are painful.
I have, however, doubts about how well it translates in real-world applications, unfortunately. Because TKD tends to have significant rules in fighting, people fight based on the rules. Kind of like full-contact karate, but more structured. Rules take people out of "real world," and the padding worn by fighters reduces the awareness of what a full-contact strike actually feels like. You can't give out pain unless you experience it.
That said, TKD has very few "I'mma wreck it!" types, and you can usually train without worrying that some UFC wannabe is going to go full crazy on you.
Upsides: amazing and usually supportive organizations, there are great schools everywhere in the world, amazing kicking technique
Downsides: many TKD schools have minimal or no contact, rules make real-world applicability hard to gauge, relatively worse punching
The so-called "sweet science." Boxing has been around in some form or another for about forever. I refer to it as "Western boxing" here to separate it from kickboxing and other punch-focused striking arts.
Boxers have probably the best punches of any martial artists in the world. Combine that with usually incredible stamina and great footwork, and many boxers are absolutely terrifying to fight, kicks or no kicks.
Ah, but the kicks. Because of the "no hits below the belt" rules, boxers sometimes open their legs up too much. But that's the price to pay to have such devastating upper-body striking ability. And boy can boxers take punishment. In fact, they take so much that there are concerns that the sport is a serious danger to people's brain health.
That said, I wouldn't want to fight most boxers in a ring.
Upside: Incredible striking, amazing punch defense, stamina and speed
Downside: no kick work if not kickboxing, large gloves change how you defend against strikes, little experience with defense of legs and groin.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the striking arts. There are myriad other forms, including the various Chinese arts, modern kickboxing, and more modern arts like krav maga. I merely tried to cover the broadest forms for the sake of a general outline.
Whew! Sorry that this is so long! Lots to cover, and if anyone has any suggestions on how to make this more interesting I'm all ears. The women and martial arts topic should be good, but I need time to build it up more!