I don’t know what woke me up that night. It was late and I’d been sleeping like Chris Christie after Thanksgiving. But when my eyes snapped open, I wasn’t just awake; something was wrong. My limbs were rigid and trembling with ancient caveman strength.  I looked to the right, toward the meager light spilling through the blinds. There was a man standing next to the bed.

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Every martial artist wonders about this moment. Faced with a serious threat, will the training actually save our lives? And by “martial artist,” I don’t mean me. I stopped training a while ago. It was sweaty and hard. But, at this point I was whole-heartedly, and yet still pathetically, doing MMA. My pudgy physique was routinely stomped by other dudes who were in shape and committed to full-on ass-beatery.

Interest in mixed martial arts exploded years ago. There have always been arguments against it, most of them coming from karate and Tae Kwon Do schools where spinning axe kicks are still considered legitimate personal defense. These objections often center on the horseshit idea that MMA is only a sport and not an efficient combat system soaked in Chinese magic juice. This resistance continuously arises from traditional martial arts like those already mentioned, but also including Kung fu, Wing Chun, and the elegantly silly Aikido. Aikido was actually developed as exercises to warm up ballroom dancers before a big competition. Nowadays, these arts are lumped under the heading of TMA, so as to distinguish them from MMA, which is comprised mainly of boxing, wrestling, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, and Judo.

Most TMA arguments seem to come from insecurity. Its participants have seen the raw blood and guts inside the cage and all the pain and sweat involved in such violence. It’s brutal, it often lacks any grace or style, and it has absolutely none of the comfy, philosophical aspects that make TMA so turd-wrenchingly awful. Whether its opponents will admit it or not, MMA looks a lot more like real fighting than the gymnastic hoedowns at their local dragon-themed, pseudo-Asian schools. With that realization, I’d imagine they’d have to question the viability of their arts.

MMA is no longer in its infancy. It’s enjoying a huge boom that is directly related to its awesomeness. In the 70s and 80s karate and Kung Fu schools were filling up mainly because of Hollywood. Audiences were star-struck by Bruce Lee’s power and speed and Chuck Norris’ rambunctious body hair. They wanted to do what those guys did. Today, more kids want to be Cain Velasquez than Jet Li. And, thankfully, nobody wants to be Jackie Chan. The MMA craze that started a decade ago has only gotten bigger because MMA is constantly moving forward. It’s not hampered by ritual or tradition and it will keep evolving and getting more effective. Karate today is basically the same as it was five decades ago. MMA today is faster, harder and craftier than it was five years ago. Combat always progresses, which is a notion that TMA has disregarded, along with the willingness to fight in modern clothes instead of silk nightgowns.

” Karate today is basically the same as it was five decades ago. MMA today is faster, harder and craftier than it was five years ago.”

Now that MMA is so popular, I think a lot of traditional artists are very uncomfortable. There’s only so much one can do without a fully resisting opponent before one has to sit down and have a pretty serious (hopefully silent) discussion with oneself. With the shocking destruction of time-honored arts at UFC 1 by a Brazilian guy with the body of Iggy Pop, a lot of folks had to come to terms with some serious issues. Primarily, “Holy shit, it’s almost the 21st century and I’ve spent more money on nunchuks in the past decade than I have at the dentist.”

Over the years, traditional artists watched as MMA found its feet. It developed legitimacy by relying on what worked in a fight, and rejecting what didn’t. Soon, the Brazilian Jiu-jitsu that dominated the early UFCs wasn’t enough. Grapplers had to learn to strike just as strikers had learned to grapple. Eventually, it became true mixed martial arts, and it was more versatile, more practical, and more innovative than anything else. It was also way fucking scarier.   

I like to imagine that all the TMA leaders got together for a meeting. To attend, I expect everyone had to have at least two fancy stripes on the sacred red belt their master had given them on his deathbed. Further, that red belt was probably passed down from one teacher to another, all the way back to that creepy furry guy that lived in the enchanted forest and perfected the five thousand forms of Shaolin. Whatever the rules, I bet a lot of super-secret masters of the mortiferous arts were there. How they managed not to kill each other in miniature whirlwinds of neck-snapping fury I don’t know, but this was their final decision: “It’s too late to turn back now. We have to pretend like nothing has happened. Let’s just go back to our caves, monasteries and strip-malls, break some fucking boards, and forget this whole thing.”

And that’s how it went. Most of their arts hadn’t changed in 500 years and they weren’t about to start fiddling with them now because of some crude, uncivilized sport for Christ’s sake. How long could this MMA fad last?

They kept an eye on the “fad,” however. Usually it was to point out that their particular system could never be used in full-contact competition because it was “too deadly.”  They would gouge eyes, shred tracheas, vaporize testicles, and just generally decapitate motherfuckers. Somewhere, a prominent karate instructor put down his meatball sub and said, “It would be irresponsible for me to compete in such a contest. I would kill my opponent before I even knew what I was doing. This art has hardened my mind and body until I am an unconscious Oriental killer robot. My ki alone would slay a rhino.”  To which his class of 8-year-old black belts responded in unison, “YES, SENSEI!”  Fear did not exist in that dojo.

 

I had been a long-time MMA fan before I began training. I loved watching it on TV but I thought Karate and Kenpo, with their frightening “too lethal for the ring” moves were where I belonged. But the deeper I got into TMA, the more I feared it wouldn’t get my back off the wall if someone ever put me against it. I donned my foam-dipped battle armor and sparred like a cornered lemur. I spent long minutes pimp-slapping the heavy bag and I still wasn’t convinced. Here was a bunch of out of shape guys, teaching a bunch of out of shape guys how to fight without ever really fighting. What was this accomplishing? The sparring was far too specific and regulated. It was an unrealistic stance, with low percentage moves designed to work against someone else who’d agreed on the same moves beforehand. It wasn’t combat. It was the tango. You know, because it takes two.

“Here was a bunch of out of shape guys, teaching a bunch of out of shape guys how to fight without ever really fighting. What was this accomplishing?”

I was learning self-defense by rote. At home, I practiced moves by myself, and at the school, I practiced on compliant partners. The moves were drilled into us like dance steps and repeated over and over until they were ingrained as muscle memory.

All of this led to unavoidable questions. Could I survive a real life-or-death situation? Was I at all prepared? Whatever natural instincts I possessed, was this training enhancing or crippling them? Did I, like, always have to wear these black pajamas?  

Eventually the doubts overcame me. I dropped out of the TMA school and signed up at a local MMA gym. I immediately loved it. This was the real stuff. I was trying to punch guys that didn’t want to be punched; I was trying to choke guys that didn’t want to be choked; I was going nearly full-speed, full-force and so were they. After so many wasted years, I was finally learning how to fight.

Still, I wondered…how would I handle myself if the shit got real? I found out the night I woke up with a stranger next to my bed.

One galvanizing jolt of aggression blasted through me like lightning down Zeus’ boner. There was no fear, just that enormous blaze of fury and the instant, insane urge to attack. I shot out of bed in one feline leap. My left hand clawed out to hold the intruder in place and my right bunched into an instinctive fist. A primitive growl rumbled in my throat, like Mr. T just before he pitied someone (generally a fool).

My clawed hand sunk into fabric just as my fist crashed into the flesh above it. Or so my atavistic fight-mind thought. The second blow met almost no resistance and the third did nothing but cut the air. There was a clattering sound. The adrenaline washed out of me and I stood victorious over my mangled foe. He was broken and bloody and actually a goddamn lamp.

I had mistaken the shadowy form of the lampshade for a night-stalking madman. My mind created the rest in an instant and I tore off in full berserker showdown mode.

I stood breathless over the viciously disassembled lamp. My wife, supremely unimpressed at my heroic defense of her person and our arguably valuable possessions, muttered “What?” and went back to sleep.

The next day I bought a new lamp and decided I was a writer, not a fighter.