“Reality-based” Martial Arts Not So Reality-based? by Wayne Muromoto


“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” — Mike Tyson

I’ve taken swipes at traditional martial arts systems in the past, but I’ve done it out of concerned love. It’s like an intervention to try to stop someone you care about from further harming himself: “Stop eating that whole chocolate cake, you’re already overweight!”

I think it’s one thing to try to critically assess a martial art system and indicate points of weakness in training or personalities, and another thing to make blanket statements about how it compares to your own particular martial art. Or at least, that’s the difference I make to myself. I try not to denigrate other martial arts on a wholesale basis. I try, instead, as a writer and observer, to make critical observations about how individuals or groups often go astray when they misappropriate the original intent of their systems.

Of course, we all think our OWN martial art system is the best, or we wouldn’t be doing it, right? That said, I always tell my own students to have a healthy respect for other martial arts for what they do, or attempt to do, if within their own context, they are doing it well. I often point out differences in how we execute a throw, for example, or a punch, comparing it to judo, aikido or karate techniques. Different, same or indifferent. Here’s why and how. I explain, discuss and then quantify and qualify. We do it this way because we are concerned with an armored or gear-protected assailant. The other guy may do it this way because it’s primarily a sport done in shorts. The roundness of an aikido throw really is good at teaching disbalancing and force redirection, more so than the shorter, simpler throw we do, which may seem more practical, but it’s basically the same. And so on.

One recent post to my blog, however, felt that I had rightly criticized all of aikido for being “unrealistic.” I reread my blog and that’s not what I meant. I was criticizing one particular interpretation of aikido that weakened its technical and martial integrity.

But aikido as a whole wasn’t combative, the poster said. It won’t work in “reality.” He’s seen it fail miserably in a combative situation. Uh-huh. “Combative situation”? I take the Rory Miller definition of combative, in which you are in imminent danger of losing your life or limb, such as in actual wartime combat, or in a violent crime. Did you see someone get all dressed up in a white keikogi and then try to put a textbook kote-gaeshi on a terrorist armed with an AK-47? Or against a rioting violent prisoner? I thought not. The person probably didn’t see aikido attempted in the midst of a shootout at a Taliban stronghold, I bet.

Challenge matches between different martial arts stylists, any contest in a ring with rules and regulations, fist fights in the back of the high school gym, bitch slapping festivals in the girls’ bathrooms, or barroom brawls are not combative. They are, as Miller says in his books, examples of the “monkey dance.” You know: two or more apes puff out and slap their chests, bang the floor, hoot and holler over who’s the baddest dude in the tribe, and then start shoving and hitting each other for more access to food, booze, mates and/or status.

The comment did put me on a bizarre Internet search to look up “combative” and “reality-based” martial arts schools, though, including that of the poster. What I concluded was that most of them weren’t worth the effort. They were pretending to be more “realistic” and “combat-tested” than, say, traditional aikido, judo or karate. Yet, for the most part, I saw videos and photos of unathletic teachers huffing and puffing through “kadda” that seemed cribbed from aikido, judo and/or karate, with a hefty splicing of MMA and Brazilian jujitsu DNA. The techniques not quite well executed by themselves, and all made worse when they were tossed together into a mish mash.

Guys, what’s going on here? You’re talking about “reality-based” but you dress up in white or black karategi, barefoot, and sit in seiza and bow and conduct yourselves in a parody of a traditional Japanese dojo? You should be dressed up in street clothes and shoes, which is what you would be dressed up in a “reality-based” martial art that trains you for fighting in the “streets,” shouldn’t you?

The “kadda” themselves looked like the worst pastiche of techniques, done in a robotic, step-by-step rote: attacker steps in and punches like a karate gyakuzuki. Defender blocks. “Esa!” he hisses through his lips. Defender slaps the face. “Usu!” Throws attacker down with an Osoto-gari. “Hiya!” Does a flurry of slap-punches. “Yata!” Maybe throws in a groin kick or rear naked choke. “Kee-yah!”; all the while moving like Robbie the Robot from the old TV series “Lost in Space.” Barefoot. On a heavily padded mat. Indoors.

Fellahs, where’ the reality in that? Do it in street clothes. Outside. In the parking lot. With shoes on. Have the attacker come in with a “false crack” (as we say in Pidgin English), not a well-advertised step-in punch or kick. If the defender loses a couple of teeth because he doesn’t see it coming, well, that’s reality, son. Be in danger of getting your face scraped on asphalt, of getting Hepatitis if the guy bleeds on you. Wrestle the guy down but let other students beat on your head if you’re not watching out, like an attacker’s gang buddies would if you were tussling on the ground unobservant of your surroundings. That’s reality-based.

The posted displays got worse the more I dug. There were displays of odd grappling exercises. They may have made sense in a high school wrestling practice, or in competitive MMA grappling, but really don’t add much to one’s combative repertoire. There were videos of belt promotions. The so-called “reality-based” modern combatives martial art saw fit to retain its idea of “traditional” martial arts by giving out colored cloth belts, making the students strut up to the instructor in really poorly done shiko movement, and then sitting in seiza to change belts. Why do it that way if it’s a modern combatives program? Just ditch all that mystical, mysterious Far East mumbo jumbo, bro. Wear your overalls with a leather belt from Kmart, same as you would out there in the “street.”

I’ve critiqued different traditional martial arts before. Here’s my critique of many “reality-based” martial arts: they aren’t reality based. They’re a pastiche of different techniques, thrown together by people fantasizing about being a movie-star type action hero in the mean streets. What you learn in them could get you killed if you were truly in a life-and-death combative situation. And I say this not to denigrate them just to raise up my own system. I say this because if real self-defense is a concern for some people, they’re not getting it. At least not from most of the examples I’d seen.

Now then, contrary to popular views of the martial arts, they are NOT primarily meant for self-defense. The accusation that traditional budo is not entirely for self-defense is a straw tiger argument. “Self-defense” is a component of most martial arts but that aspect is only one of many other ingredients that are just as important to the integrity of the art. In classical, traditional Japanese budo, provenance of the art, the tradition itself, and the stylistic elements are also important. In modern budo, the sportive aspects often supersede all other aspects. All such arts stress the development of a healthy body, mind and spirit over purely self-defense purposes. This is not good or bad. This is just how it is. For a classical or modern martial artist intent on plumbing the depths of “self-defense,” he/she would have to make an effort to dig deeper.

One good way to start would be to be a good student and to have a good teacher. When I mentioned my critique of aikido done by people who had lost the martial “flavor” of aikido, one of my friends told me his own aikido story. He was training at the Aikikai Hombu, the main aikido headquarters in Japan, in an intensive group.

One day, he was asked by his teacher to join a select group of higher ranked students. They assembled in a quiet, small training room. The teacher told them that he was going to show them what some aikido techniques REALLY meant, and they were not to teach or display them without first carefully vetting anyone so the techniques wouldn’t be misused and misappropriated.

My friend, who had been exposed to different koryu and modern martial arts, said he was shown of the meanest, most “effective” uses of aikido for use in a fighting situation. Those were techniques that could maim or kill a person, done at full speed. Aikido as a “la-di-dah” touchy feely powder puff feel-good pastime? Nope. Aikido as a martial art? Scary effective. So mean you can’t show some of the stuff to the general public.

The thing is, my friend said, if someone who knows the real meanings demonstrates a regular aikido technique, an observer who knows what to look for will SEE the intent and realize that this guy would not be someone you want to tangle with. The demonstrator knows the intent, hidden beneath a velvet glove.

In a similar way, in our system of martial art, there are a core set of a few kata that are only taught when you attain a particular high rank. They are never taught or shown to beginners or outsiders. They are taught only after years of training, for various pedagogical reasons. Technically, if you have gone through the curriculum, the movements should be very familiar, so they are relatively easy to learn by that time. Mentally, your teacher needs to know you well enough to feel that he can entrust you with techniques that can maim or kill someone. You don’t want to give a loaded gun, by way of metaphor, to someone you know is a psycho case and then plead, “I didn’t have anything to do with him shooting all those people! I just gave him the gun!

However, lest I sound down on ALL such combative systems, I will say that I am impressed by modern combative systems like Krav Maga, the modern martial system developed by Imi Lichtenfield. It was developed as a no-nonsense approach to combative self-defense for the Israeli military, so its effectiveness was of primary importance, due to Israel’s frequent skirmishes and battles with its enemies. It HAD to work. –Not to get more students or fill up a dojo, but to enable basic survival for soldiers in a Middle Eastern battlefield.

There are other people who are investigating and systematizing modern combatives training, including an email acquaintance of mine, Kit LeBlanc. They are smart people doing smart things to enable law enforcement officers and American military personnel to survive combat and violent encounters. They are not doing it to make money off Saturday morning hero-wannabe’s. They are exploring undiscovered country, trying to dissect the roots of many martial arts and seeing if and how they apply to solutions for modern, truly “realistic” combative applications.

For any practitioner of any martial art, modern or classical, traditional, sportive or eclectic, who is truly interested in the combative aspect of martial training, I would also recommend a reading list of different authors. My own library has books by the aforementioned Rory Miller. Miller has had actual experience in violent altercations as a prison guard and police officer. Interestingly, his experiences seem to have given him a healthy dose of respect for classical martial training, because a lot of his ideas echo the heiho theories I learned in my own classical systems.

Miller coined the term “monkey dance” for any kind of fight that is by nature social-aggressive. And, he says, you do NOT want to be involved in any kind of monkey dance, because only bad things can happen if you act like an emotion-driven status-seeking primate. Even if you win, you stand a chance of getting sued for hurting the other guy. The only time you should apply physical force, he says, is in truly combative situations: when you are being physically attacked by a predator, in military combat, or in any other unprovoked encounter where you cannot run away or extricate yourself. His books discuss the psychology of violence, avoiding the “monkey dance,” and even simple methods of “self-defense.”

Other writers on my shelf include Ellis Amdur, who discusses the psychology of aggression and violence. He has also written several books that illuminate interesting aspects of aikido and Japanese martial history. Dave Grossman approaches surviving combat from the POV of a military officer. What is the “haze of combat”? How do survivors recount what it really felt like to be caught in a violent encounter?

I am sure there are other books and authors worth a look. I also have some books on “survival” psychology. How do people survive not just a violent encounter with a human predator, but what makes human beings survive any kind of disaster, man-made or natural? What kind of attitude characterizes people who are able to weather and thrive in the storm of natural, eventful daily life with a positive attitude?

By reading widely, I found that there are similar characteristics that a successful dog owner has (as outlined by Ceasar Millan, the dog trainer who said he learned a lot about projecting confidence from a judo teacher he studied with as a child) shared by an effective law enforcement officer, shared by a teacher who has good classroom management skills. These characteristics go beyond rote technique but are the core mental skills necessary to survive in those professions. Classical martial arts stylists may call it forms of zanshin, or presence. But books from such diverse fields explain it in different ways and make sense of what can often be thought of as an esoteric topic.

In any case, the true key to “reality-based” combat is to see things as they truly are, in reality. The experience of violence, as Miller says, is like stepping through Alice in Wonderland’s Looking Glass into a world that is topsy-turvy compared to our usual everyday world. Criminals may live in it all the time, but most of will find a true violent encounter totally bewildering. None of the rules of everyday life applies. Proper training in a properly conducted martial art will help one’s odds of survival. But it must be engaged in properly, with training in both mental, spiritual and physical aspects. But it’s no cure-all.

Improper training with bad teachers is worse than innocuous; it will give you a false sense of security and lull you into thinking you are “combat-effective.” Given a choice, I’d suggest that “unrealistic” aikido, if taught with emphasis on proper zanshin and technique, executed with an eye to overall physical and mental well-being, is much more “realistic” than any faux “combative” martial art that does not have a handle on an integrated training system, deep philosophy or coherent pedagogy. But I’m just sayin’…

This article was originally published on “The Classic Budoka” blog website.


  1. “Fighting” is, imo, exactly what Pranin Sensei elaborates. It is interesting that even in movie choreography (Twilight Samurai for example) it is the egotistical dominance-seeking which is the downfall of the “strong swordsmen” in both cases. This is not to say the winner was submissive. NOT. He was, however, “centered” rather than pushy. The objective of the pushy person is to disturb your mind, either into submission or foolish combat. In a real sense, at least imo, if the opponent wants to kill you or has so little respect that he simply wants to crush you into submission, it is easier to work your aikido.

    • Twilight Samurai is great. After the Rain also features a main character who exhibits very Aikido-like attributes, both physically in his moves and in regard to his attitude and personality. I love how the things I learn in Aikido apply to all aspects of life. As for your last sentence, I think that explains nicely what I have been struggling to understand about Aikido’s “effectiveness” against real attackers.

  2. I just read Stanley Pranin’s article from today entitled “The Apologetic Martial Artists”, and posted a comment asking if Aikido was really effective for self-defense (Pranin implied that it would not be if confronted by an “MMA” combatant). I think this article answered my question. I feel like I’m getting mixed answers from different sources about whether or not Aikido is “effective” for self defense, but it stands to reason that every situation is different, therefore, no single martial art can be said to be better than the next.

    • I’m going to reply to my own comment to say that since writing the above comment, Mr. Pranin explained to me that I had misunderstood his comment. He did not mean that Aikido was ineffective against someone trained in MMA, but that the rules and criteria for “success” against an MMA-trained person would be quite different in a ring as opposed to a real situation on the street (at least that’s what I think he meant). I’m thick-skulled, but I’m starting to get it, I think. Thanks again for your comments, Mr. Pranin.

  3. I’ve tried to find statistics on knife-attack survivors to see how many were involved in any type of martial arts, and what their experiences were, but there isn’t much posted on the net that I can find.

    Incidently, while searching, I came across the Chai Eun Hillman case where he was stabbed by an ex con outside a saloon back in 2010. Apparently he was a karate instructor and attempted to wrestle the knife away from his attacker.

  4. Tom Militello says:

    Wayne, sorry I missed this the first time around. I can not agree with your insights more. Tom

  5. I’ve been in one or two scuffles in which my Aikido was effective. These were monkey dances wherein the other monkey insisted on dancing. (And had I read Miller I might have been a smart enough monkey to avoid even those.) but I haven’t, and don’t want to try my luck at the high-end violence.

    That said, I suspect that one of the reasons that people doubt the martial effectiveness of Aikido come from watching demonstrations. Those are usually to show smooth, elegant techniques, and so uke usually “attacks” with a shomenuchi. I’m pretty sure that real street fights don’t feature attackers who run in waving their arms in the air. The non-aikidoka will think “What about a short, low, punch? A kick to the balls? A knife slash?”

    Another aspect of demonstrations is that uke is highly trained and is being thrown onto mats. Uke rolls, hops up, and comes back for more. The throw seems harmless! It is not immediately obvious to the viewer that an untrained attacker thrown into concrete might not bounce back so fast.
    Both these factors mean that demonstrations give a misleading idea of Aikido.

  6. Mark Winter says:

    I appreciate these comments but would like to see a more realistic attack rather then the standard attacks we use in Aikido. The punch is a standard method of attack and you can’t suppose that an attacker will grasp your wrist when you are expecting it. At one of the last seminars I attended the sensei showed the techniques by way of the punch rather then Shomenuchi, and roundhouse rather than the Yokomen strike. I liked it and think that it should be incorporated into training.

  7. Peter Howie says:

    As a student who hasn’t been in a fight since my teens I am very conscious that a good pair of running shoes and a good radar to spot trouble are the main things I have developed to protect myself and those around me. Your article reminds me that as an uke I am often pretty useless. My sensei who has been in numerous real life fighting situations continues to coach me about how a ‘fighter’ orients himself. He has a perspective that I lack. It is frustrating for him and at times for me.

    “Why are you bending over?” he asks.

    I know it is a rhetorical question but inside I am saying to myself “Because you pulled me down!”

    “If you stay there you will get hit on the head and kicked”

    “A fighter would try and stand back up”

    “Would they?” I say to myself. So I stand up and he applies the technique that is appropriate to my response, and I fall over.

    This type of situation has been repeated many times and slowly I begin to understand what he is teaching though I am not confident I would do well in a street fight. My size and weight would probably keep me safer than my zanshin, though I am pretty good with dogs.

    I do look at those videos you mention and other ones and do wonder about how real they are so your blog is welcome.

    The Shodokan randori competition process has also taught me how difficult aikido is to apply to someone in the know, and how difficult it is to think when someone attacks me, my adrenalin is up, and I am completely exhausted. Practicing near competitive level is a lot of fun in the dojo but it is sport, real sport but not real fight.

    Thanks again and I’ll check out your blog.


  8. Excellent article. I would just like to add one point and that is that the real problem with martial arts is not whether or not it works in ‘reality’ but how you train in the dojo or whatever you call your training space. The training place should be dedicated to developing the whole person and enabling them to find their centre, their place of balance and self-awareness.

    That will begin the process of conquering the violence within. The method by which the inner conquest happens is by training with others to find the point where intention, action and movement are perfectly combined. This needs to be done realistically, e.g. something genuine actually happens, and safely, e.g. it can be done repeatedly without anyone ending up in hospital. From this ambition to perfection in the dojo the student can realise that self-defence is actually a matter of clear intention (yours and understanding that of your opponent), movement and action. The key factor is of course conscious intention realised by the most appropriate combination of action and movement.

    If you have no centre you cannot formulate intention and without clear intention you will not act and move appropriately. How do you find your centre? By training in techniques which require intention, action and movement and provide realistic feedback. It seems that Aikido provides this training when appropriately taught.

    I personally have never studied Aikido but my teacher and a lot of my students have done so I am writing as an outsider here. If you do want to discover more about violence then do a workshop with someone like Geoff Thompson or Marc McYoung, they will teach you about the psychology of violence and the best way to behave in dangerous encounters. Take careful note of what such teachers say but do not neglect your core training. It is your centeredness and confidence as a human being which is always your best defence.

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