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The 5 Types of Martial Arts



I always find myself amused by the arguments and debates that I come across in various forums and social media regarding the effectiveness of various styles of martial arts. The age-old debate of “my art is better than your art” seems to go back to the ancient times of various masters challenging one another to a duel to determine whose style is superior.


Then along comes the Ultimate fighting challenge to settle the debate with Royce Gracie dominating the competition with his family’s unique style of Jujitsu. Suddenly everyone wanted to learn ground fighting because “most fights go to the ground.”


Fast forward a couple of years and people are realizing that just ground fighting was not enough and thus MMA was born. (I know it is a simplified chain of events but this post is not about history). And as a result you started seeing MMA gyms and fight clubs spring up in every town with more than 10,000 people living there.


Now here more recently there is a huge surge in the popularity of “reality fighting.” Military Combatives, Krav Maga and the like are starting to surge in popularity.

Now on all the message boards we constantly see the debates of could a boxer defeat an MMA fighter, can an old school karateka hold their own in a street fight. We see in the news of MMA fighters being robbed and defending themselves. I also see articles of trained fighters getting their ass handed to them in a street fight.


In these debates I constantly see the same arguments over and over:

– You can’t do Kata in a “real fight!”

– That is a pretty move, but it would get you killed if you were fighting a (insert your choice of style here).

– Your style wouldn’t do any good in (insert wild environmental conditions here).

…and so on and so forth


The problem with these debates is that most people arguing are comparing apples to oranges. In order to really understand the effectiveness of a style or fighter you need to compare on equal terms. And in order to do that you need to know and understand the 5types of martial arts training:

Martial Arts for Show

Martial Arts for Sport

Martial Arts for Fitness

Martial Arts for Historical and Cultural Study

Martial Arts for Fighting

1. Martial Arts for Show



This type of training is designed to look good. These are your kata and weapons events in the tournament. This is what you see in the movies. When you observe the demo teams at the local martial arts festival, this is what you will see.


Make no mistake. I’m not dismissing the value of this training. It takes tremendous focus and athleticism to perform well. Working on your kata has tremendous value in progressing in your art and developing your fighting abilities.


Yes, the critics are correct in that you will not do kata in a fight. However, you are not fighting in a kata; you are drilling down your form, flow, power, balance, focus, and technique. All of which you will use in other aspects of your art as well in life.


A lot of your traditional martial arts focus very heavily in this area.

2. Martial Arts for Sport



This is the part of training where most people have fun. This is where you get to square of in a ring with another fellow martial artist and see who comes out on top. This type of training is what you see in the Kumite events at tournaments. This is what you see in the MMA cage matches. Your Boxing and Olympic Judo and Tae Kwon Do slip into this category.


Did I just put Cage fighting in the same category as light contact point karate? Yes I did! Sports are simply a comparison of skill and athleticism. But they always have rules designed to make sure that there is a fair competition. The rules are also there to protect the combatants from serious injury.


Even unsanctioned underground bare-knuckle fights have some unwritten rules. Granted those rules are less about safety and more about a fair fight than anything, but they are there nonetheless.

But no matter how intense the action gets, it is still just a sport with set rules and the objective of “winning” in some manner.


This is a weakness in this training that so many martial artist forget. In a street fight for your life, there are no rules. As such, athletes can have a false sense of security that can lead to their defeat against an experienced street fighter.


Most of the popular styles of today focus very heavily on this area of training.

3. Martial Arts for Fitness



This type of martial art practice really has little to do with actual conflict and is little more than a themed exercise class. Your cardio kickboxing, Tae-Bo and most of your Tai Chi classes will fall into this category.


Please note that I am not knocking these classes. Some of them are intense and grueling workouts that will challenge your intestinal fortitude on a level that will make you question your sanity and regret some of your life choices the next day.

4. Martial Arts for Historical and Cultural Study



This category was what really got me into studying the martial arts.


I grew up watching Kung Fu Theater every Saturday after the morning cartoons. And from that exposure I grew to love the Asian cultures. Then come the 80’s and everybody was crazy about the Ninja and their secret fighting art.


I was crazy too. But while all my friends were telling their parents to sign them up for karate I was hungry for the historical ninja. My fascination led me to read every book I could get my hands on. I wanted to learn about the clans and how their individual styles developed. As I eventually had the honor of training with teachers who studied under the grandmasters my appreciation for the lineage and the tradition only deepened.


Today many nations have a national pride surrounding a style of martial arts and teach it in the schools to keep the ancient traditions alive.


I have also met many martial artists that make regular pilgrimages to the birthplaces of their arts, and part of those trips are not just to train but to soak up the culture and atmosphere surrounding the art.

The traditional Okinawan Karate styles, and Japanese Bunjiken Taijitsu would fall into this category.

5. Martial Arts for Fighting



This is the most serious of the three types of martial art training. This is the raw, down and dirty, win by any means available fighting. This is for those times when your life is on the line. This is training that the military and law enforcement officers depend on.


There is no silver medal for second place. This is REAL fighting.


This is for the street. This type of martial arts is where you explore the lethal killing techniques in detail. (if your training doesn’t, it should, I will discuss why in another article)


This style of training is making a comeback. Krav Maga, Systema, Military Combatives are slowly gaining popularity.


I must confess that I find this somewhat amusing as this is the original purpose for which all the martial art styles and systems were created.

The Best Type of Martial Arts Training

In short… There isn’t one!


The longer answer is that it really does depend on your personal goals and objectives. The parents enrolling their kid at a local dojo to build character have a different expectation from the 40-year-old gentleman who is trying to get back in to shape.


But regardless of your objective, they all have value and compliment each other. Your Kata training will serve as great mental and physical conditioning for when you step into the ring at the next tournament. The experience in the ring will lead to an understanding of distance and timing that could save your life in the street.


The truth is that every style has something amazing to provide to its practitioners. The value gained from any art will enrich your life beyond measure.


And keep in mind that training in a style that seems to mostly belong in one category doesn't mean that there is no crossover. Training in traditional Shotokan Karate will get you in great shape. There are plenty of MMA fighters that can handle a real life self defense situation.


But be honest with yourself with what your art is focusing on; and if you find yourself lacking in one of the five types of training that we have discussed, consider seeking out some training to fill that gap.

Because there is no superior martial art. There are only superior martial artists.



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