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Musical Violence, Combat Calligraphy, and Kinetic Chess

Kinetic ChessSo I watched "Hero" (Yimou Zhang) recently and two of the themes struck me, (1) martial arts and fighting within the framework of a game or artistic creativity, and (2) fighting within the mind's eye so well realized that the physical conflict is already decided. They are both pretty big ideas, so I'll save the second for a subsequent blog.
Many parallels have been drawn between being a fighter and an artisan; fighting has been alternatively described as music, dance, painting, and more. Fighting can be rhythmic, transforming, balletic, or even performed on a canvas (pun intended).
The creator of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee was one of the first people to formally document discussions of broken rhythm, cadence, tempo, and half beats in "Tao of Jeet Kune Do" (pp. 62-65) (see also "Jeet Kune Do: Bruce Lee's Commentaries on the Martial Way (The Bruce Lee Library, Vol 3)" (Bruce Lee, John R. Little)). Music is a key element in training for Brazilian capoeira ("Capoeira: Roots of the Dance-Fight-Game" (Nestor Capoeira)), Western boxing, and Muay Thai. This concept was modernized (and diluted) by cardio kickboxing and Tae Bo. In a competitive arena, entrance music can be used to calm or energize a fighter as well as giving them a unique auditory signature for the crowd (no one does this better than professional wrestling organizations such as WWE or TNA).
I believe that by nature competitive martial arts are a creative enterprise. Our "old masters" invented/discovered/created concepts and techniques that have remained as solid back bones of functional martial arts. However, younger, "rebellious artists" have challenged the traditional framework of their martial arts. They provide a new perspective and revitalize the system by testing new strategies and tactics in the competitive arena as well as the street. For example, Van Gogh brought a new style of painting that challenged existing artistic beliefs and was largely unappreciated in his time. He died penniless, but his artwork is some of the most valuable in the world today. Bruce Lee's philosophy of "no way as way" in Jeet Kune Do, a "new" style that had no ranks, no kata, and no lineage was widely scoffed at as a hodgepodge of martial arts by traditionalists. The evolution of mixed-martial arts (MMA) started to show that traditional theories and closed mindedness were not as effective as an adaptive, expansive arsenal as described by Lee.
Art evolves, for example, at the turn of the the twentieth century impressionism (what I see) faded and expressionism (what I feel) arose. Similarly fighting evolves, before the UFC, at least in the US, grappling was a largely unknown and disregarded art (with profuse apologies to "Judo" Gene LeBell). Then a skinny Brazilian named Royce Gracie came along and pretty much defeated all comers in the anything goes competition of the UFC. The grappling game became the thing in early MMA, but then high-level wrestler's began to dominate so that freestyle and Greco wrestling came to the forefront. However, as the sport and rules evolved striking stylists returned to popularity both because better fighters (the subtle difference between muay thai and American kickboxing) became interested but also because they knew enough about wrestling and grappling to stymie this game and play their own. A good read on the sport's development is "No Holds Barred: Evolution-The Truth Behind the World's Most Misunderstood Sport!" (Clyde Gentry III).
Rumino Sato wins with a flying armbarHigh-level competition can be beautiful and more stirring than brilliant artwork or dance. This is gained by a long process of solid technical mastery and combat creativity. Creativity within the context of functional martial arts has one caveat, functionality. Looking good is unimportant, doing good is the critical judgement. We drill basics for this reason, they are the technical aspects of the art, like good brushstroke technique or line drawing. By string these basics together into a meshwork we create the designs and patterns of a fight, the pale copies of which are the kata/poomse/forms of traditional martial arts. The development of new strategies, techniques, tactics and game plans is also part of this creativity. However, I cannot count the number of useless and downright foolish "new submissions" I've seen from people with abysmal fundamentals and poorer competitive records. Art demands technique as much as it does creativity. Teachable artistic ability needs utilitarian technical skills. You cannot be taught to be a freakish athlete (a lá the Mark Hunt head kick defense) but you can learn core skills that, with time and practice, well allow you to create your own masterpiece.
Mark Hunt demonstrates a new defense for the head kickAt the same time that fighting is an art it is treated as a scientific discipline with parallels in both games of strategy and chance. Chess and its relatives are often used for relaxation, concentration, and as a source of figurative comparisons to fight sports. But moves are often described as "high percentage", doffing a cap to Mr. Murphy's games of chance. Neither overwhelming strategic superiority or incredible luck will win a fight or a game all the time. A gifted fighter, a skilled chess player, or a cardsharp must hone strategic skills both in practice and in competition. Although the game of chess or poker have far fewer physical skills and attribute requirements the same intellectual and emotional factors in those games are essential for fighting.
In chess there are strategies involving the opening move, trapping pieces, and the endgame that are diligently studied and trained. The player must see several moves in advance and accept or discard numerous alternatives to win. Strong players can finish with more pieces on the board using any combination of their pieces. Weaker players wage a battle of attrition, whittling each other down to a game of pawns or can only checkmate using two rooks. Fighting then is a painful version of speed chess. There is an opening that test one's opponent and one that wins instantly, an early flying knee can be seen as Fool's Mate. By provoking reaction in their opponents, talented fighters can set up damaging blows and submissions, essentially forcing their opponent to sacrifice pieces. Finishing, be it by KO, TKO or submission is an endgame, it can happen at any time, but must be based on the structure of the preceding game. Novice fighters are more likely to engage in the weak chess player's whittle down strategy, relying on athletic constraints to achieve victory at great personal cost (not to say that even phenomenal fighters do not have to fall back on exceptional physical attributes).
Poker is a wealth of psychological tactics for fighting. The "poker face" is a facial expression that provides no information. Fighters have a "poker face" that can lack or be full of expression, but they cannot reveal what they think or plan to do. The Maori warrior custom of yelling wide-eyed with their tongue sticking out was used to strike fear in their foes and probably also for sympathetic nervous system stimulation in the fight/flight/posture/submit model ("On Killing : The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society" (Dave Grossman)). Artificial "poker faces" have been created by the use of masks, e.g. samurai or fighters coming to the ring in masks. "Looking" that is concentrating on the weapons of your opponent rather than their chest reveals your attention has wandered. "Tells", such as additional, inefficient, movement before an action, are fight (and life) enders. Poker has the greatest appreciation of fickle Lady Luck, even an "unbeatable" hand has lost, such is chance. The same happens in competition things don't go your way but still you never reveal that something hurt or was close; no change in breath, no facial grimaces, no anger, no joy, no limping, no cringing, save it all for the locker room.
This discussion has been largely theoretical, what does it mean for applied training. Well first, it might be an admonishment that there is more to life than martial arts and fighting. As humans we need other interests and other forms of stimulation. In addition, appreciation of other activities can be considered a unique form of cross training. For example, surgeons who play video games are more adept than those who don't (although age and workload may be a confounder). Let's consider some of the factors discussed:
  • Can you control the tempo/texture of an engagement, either slowing it or speeding it up as you need?
  • Can you break or change rhythm?
  • Given a situation where a technique ("theme") is not working efficiently can you improvise a solution?
  • Can you create ("compose") functional new material?
  • You must drill small pieces of superior technique and string them together in the fight. Just fighting is as useless as just doing technique. My friend and instructor, Jack McVicker, calls this self-perfection vs. self-preservation.
  • You must understand what you are doing and why you chose this course over the viable alternatives. Blind adherence to doctrine is traditional not functional.
  • How is your opening, your engagement, and your endgame?
  • Can you use all the "chess pieces" in your arsenal or do you rely on a certain side, position, or type of technique?
  • The twisted couple of Lady Luck and Mr. Murphy can and will screw with you, you health, and your ability to win.
  • How good is your combat "poker face"?
  • Do you have any "tells"?
  • You have to bet to win, without risk there can be no victory.

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