With the popularity of MMA (mixed martial arts) and with the internet as a magnifying glass, it has become ever more difficult for so-called ‘traditional martial arts’ to hide behind tradition-for-tradition’s sake without being able to back up that tradition with martial effectiveness. All martial arts these days, it seems, are judged on the basis of whether or not they, or their techniques, would work in MMA. Even Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), the martial art that, through the Gracie family and the original Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), made MMA famous, is sometimes criticized as no longer being effective within the context of MMA. I have seen boxers, sport grapplers, judo players, not to mention aikido practitioners all criticized, usually by people who do not themselves do MMA, as not having skills that would translate to MMA.
A friend and training brother said something to me recently about this seemingly omnipresent impact that MMA has had on martial art culture in America. A Marine combat veteran who got into martial arts some years ago, this friend’s concern was that MMA has shifted the marital art culture so that martial arts are now marketed to exactly the types of people that many folks join martial arts to learn to deal with or get away from. In his experience, and mine as well, one of the main reasons that many people seek out martial arts is to get away from the jocks and bullies they encountered in school and to learn how to fight back against them in the process. With the popularity of MMA, however, there are a lot more jocks and bullies finding their way into martial art schools, thus giving those who need it most no where to go to.
Beyond this, there is also a relatively new phenomenon of what I will call ‘budo shaming.’ That is the criticizing, mocking, and shaming of people who choose to train martial arts that are not considered effective in MMA. This ‘budo shaming’ is often masked as benevolent manipulation, a means by which to encourage people to train in ‘MMA friendly’ martial arts such as BJJ, Muay Thai, boxing, or judo, but it is more a choice based on peer pressure, as opposed to one’s own free will, because the alternative is ridicule and exclusion. If a person is looking for a way to overcome bullying in his or her personal life and then faces this type of ‘budo shaming’ when looking for a martial art, he or she is likely to either not pursue martial arts at all or to take the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ path of lesser resistance, simply to avoid the risk of conflict.
My martial art journey began in traditional martial arts before the internet became ubiquitous and before I had ever heard of MMA. If things were then the way they are now, I would have probably just opted for a different path. I was not, and am still not, interested in associating with the types of people who picked on, shamed, and bullied my friends and me when I was a kid. I found a lot of value and some true friends in traditional martial arts. I then sought out BJJ, again not really having any clue about MMA, as a fun way to test and refine my skills and found many more friends, valuable skills, and lessons. My goal, however, was not to run away from my traditional martial art roots and to abandon that which had given me so much. My goal was to bring that knowledge and those skills back to the nerds, the geeks, and the goonies like me so that we could be stronger versions of ourselves, not so we can be like the ‘cool kids.’ Like Steve Albini said, the purpose of alternative culture is not to mimic the mainstream, but to make it irrelevant.