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The Indoor Kid's Guide to Choosing a Martial Art
Combat effectiveness for frequent library patrons
I am trying to do a book club read-a-long thing; I have been really bad at actually keeping up on the book selection process, but I made a new section of the site for it and you can find the voting for which book we will read here.]
I’m not sure how common it is now, but there was a period of time where 9/10ths of the nerdiest people I knew were desperate for people to know that they were secret ass-kickers. I don’t know why. We were white suburban middle-class Baptists; nobody fought. Nobody even really knew anybody that fought. In all likelihood we wouldn’t have liked them if we did.
But it was also the era of martial arts movies; Jackie Chan was still in his prime. Jean Claude Van Damme had apparently negotiated a deal with all of cable television to ensure at least one of his movies would be playing on the high-number channels at all times. Dragon Ball Z’s roided-guys-screaming-their-way-to-punching-harder style was still widely considered to be rad.
Like the poor, normal people will always be with us; not everybody got caught up in this, and a lot of people I knew just went on shopping at Hollister and having girlfriends. As you’ve probably guessed, I was not immune. In fact, I didn’t have a girlfriend so very hard that at this point I’ve amassed a vast and untested martial arts knowledge base that in terms of sheer size and inaccuracy rivals the economic understanding of every member of The Squad and Wesley Snipes combined.
Beyond simple nerdiness, there are a lot of reasons you might (or might not) want to begin learning a martial art. Various arts promise (but do not always deliver) benefits ranging from physical fitness to self-defense prowess all the way over to more mental/psychological benefits like discipline, spiritual well-being and social belonging.
While these alternate reasons lack the flair of being able to fight underwater in Thailand while maintaining an effective defense against sudden coconut attack, they are nonetheless valid, and deserve to be addressed. First we will talk a little about martial arts themselves, and then get into what might be right for you.
Sport vs Art
Some of you know this and others don’t, but traditional Japanese Jujitsu and Judo are almost exactly the same thing. Jujitsu was purportedly a battlefield art originally, and supposedly includes a couple deadly techniques Judo doesn’t. Judo was a late-comer to the game, specifically diverging from Jujitsu and focusing instead on non-lethal competition.
If that’s all I told you, you might think that learning Japanese Jujitsu is going to be broadly better for real-world fighting, since it still includes what afficianados sometimes refer to as “the deadly”. The reason this isn’t the case is because real-world conflict has long since moved away from hand-to-hand combat, and because things wither without occasional reality checks.
Judo is a sport, and one that funnels its students towards frequent reality checks in the form of competition. The same is true of things like boxing, kickboxing, and muay thai; if you are trying to use a technique that doesn’t work particularly well in any of those sports, someone will eventually take advantage of it and knock you down.
Traditional arts usually don’t have bullshit-clearing moments as frequently. A good example of this is videos purporting to show how to defend against a hook. I have a few adult years in chinese kenpo, which might advise you to deal with a hook punch like this:
Before we move on, note that everything in this video makes complete and total sense to nerd-brain. He throws a punch, and you get out of the way; he throws another, and you intercept. Then you use that opening to launch into a cooregraphed and practiced sequence of precise blows carefully designed so each blow flows into the next, creating a cascade of exploitable openings and pain. It’s like a grandmaster’s chess game, but played on the other guy’s face.
I want to be very clear: If you try to do a single thing this guy is telling you to do against anybody who is anywhere near as strong and fast as you, they will beat you so mercilessly that cake batter will send you get well soon cards.
For this to work, you have to first have a guy who throws two haymakers. Note I said haymakers and not hooks - despite the sensei not knowing the difference, the real world does. You then have to dodge the first, passing up a perfectly good opportunity to hit the over-extended guy. Then you must notice he’s throwing a second punch quickly enough to initiate your master plan.
You then must land an impossibly precise palm strike on the inside of his arm (note: if you can do this, you could have just hit his face), hope he stops throwing punches forever once you do this, move in and only then does the sensei think you have done enough nerd stuff to attempt to hit the other guy.
For context, here’s how actual hooks look when an actual boxer throws an one:
None of that kenpo stuff works here at all, for a lot of reasons: he’s in the right range for the punch. He has actual body weight behind it. The path of the punch itself is different in a way that doesn’t lend itself to interception with your hand. If you try to block in the way kenpo guy did, this guy’s 220 of mostly muscle is going to blow right past your extended bad-leverage arm position and knock your chin loose.
Point being, kenpo guy’s plan isn’t the kind of thing you do in real life - it’s the kind of thing you do if you don’t know what reality is actually like. The closest kenpo ever gets to a real test is light-contact tournament point-fighting, which resembles a real fight about as much as stepping over matchbox cars resembles sprinting across a four-lane highway.
You can call this RC’s law of pretend battle: Any martial art sufficiently removed from competitive, full-force testing devolves over time into dance.
Note that I say all this as a guy who is pretty good at kenpo by kenpo standards; I like kenpo. A lot. It still doesn’t work, as was once taught to me outside a hookah bar by a big football lineman named Omar. I landed that same initial block from the video perfectly, and then I tried to figure out why I was laying on the ground.
The valid objection you might have to this is there’s a lot of space between kenpo guy’s compliant assistant’s shitty punches and the trained boxer from the other video, and that’s true. If you are lucky enough to get an opponent who doesn’t know how to fight at all and throws maximally crappy punches at all times, the situation might be a little different.
But then you have to ask yourself why you care enough about martial-art-that-doesn’t work to be willing to have to hope the guy you are fighting doesn’t know how to fight OR lift weights, which leads right into our next topic.
The many reasons to still take martial arts
I was bagging on kenpo above, but it does one thing really well: It looks cool, and it’s really fun to think about in a “he will do this, and then I’ll do this, and this, and then he will be defeated!” way. If you think I’m going to tell you that’s not worthwhile, you are wrong; that’s almost the entire reason I took kenpo.
Like ice cream, wanting to do martial arts comes in a lot of beautiful flavors, listed here in ascending order of how much they restrict your choices:
You know that fight you were in last week? No, you don’t, because chances are you’ve either never been in a fight or you stopped doing it when you got your first real job like everyone else.
While you probably don’t actually need to know how to fight, that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t feel better if you thought you could. You know that scary guy in the parking lot? The one on drugs who asks you for money when all you want is to drive home with your oreos? He’d be a lot less scary if you knew how to roundhouse kick faces.
This might sound like hyperbole, but do you know who the nicest, gentlest guys I regularly meet are? Guys who are good at brazilian jujitsu or boxing. You know why? They know to a very high level of certainty that most people don’t pose a physical threat to to them, and they themselves don’t have much left to prove in the “tougher than average” department. It’s a recipe for chill behavior.
The best part about confidence as a martial arts goal is that the martial art you take doesn’t have to work at all for you to get this benefit. You just have to believe it does, and avoid any dangerous situations that could prove you wrong, which is a low cost -you were probably doing that anyway.
So, just to be completely honest, if your goal is looking cool to others, dance classes are really a better bet for you. You know who is really maximally cool? A person who is comfortable dancing with people at weddings, and who is visibly good at it. I’m not that guy, but I’m kind of jealous of him. Dance is a better bang-for-your-buck as far as external perception goes.
That said, what matters here is that you are an adult person and you can do whatever the hell you want, the perceptions of others be damned. Just as with confidence above, you have broad leeway to choose whatever martial art you want here, since none of them are objectively cool looking. And some objectively useless arts, like every chinese martial art, are that way because they’ve been optimized for looking cool for hundreds of years.
Getting into shape
Technically, any school in any discipline might get you into shape. Pure exercise, like running, would get you into shape faster but isn’t as fun. If this is your goal, you are either looking for basically any gym that teaches a western sport-oriented martial art, or making sure whatever non-sport gym you are looking at emphasizes cardio.
Technically, anything that requires prolonged focus does this. But let’s be honest: if you thought the words “Builds Discipline”, you either meant “for my kids, so I don’t have to” or you’ve already been taking martial arts classes since you were a kid yourself and your parents put you in them so they wouldn’t have to.
This is an odd balance that’s really highly dependent on your kid; nothing is going to build discipline as fast as “doing stuff to avoid getting actually hit in the face, and also running a lot to get cardio”. That implies boxing, but there’s a good chance your kids are too soft to stick to something like boxing; if they were going to do boxing, they’d already be on the wrestling team, and they aren’t.
(My kids (and probably me myself) are currently soft in this way, so I’m not judging.)
Once you get past the added-discipline-building aspect of being out of breath all the time, though, you can pretty much choose any art you want; an afterschool activity is kind of an afterschool activity any way you cut it.
To meet women
This is not a great plan.
Besides the last, these are all legitimate reasons to take a martial art. I really mean that. I took martial arts initially because I didn’t have the kind of childhood where I would have had much chance to, and even as an adult thought they were rad.
I may have developed other reasons later, but those were reason enough. If you want to go take a class, do; why even have that grown-up job if you can’t use the money to learn how to kick sternums?
I promised to tell you how to select a martial art
I really, really didn’t want this article to devolve into a bare hierarchy list. That said, I really like the title of the article and don’t want to change it, so I am at least somewhat obligated to tell you what actual martial arts might work for you. So, fine, no problem.
Since you have certain things you want out of a martial art, it makes the most sense to organize this list in a particular way that reflects that; I’m going to assume combinations of needs you might have, and the martial arts that satisfy them. With no further ado:
You have an actual, real concern for your life that is statistically likely to result in a need for a martial art that absolutely works.
Get a gun or a bodyguard or stop leaving the house. I’m not even kidding. The best boxer in the world might be able to avoid getting stabbed to death by a knife, but even he’s not immune to it. This level of personal risk isn’t normal. Why haven’t you called the cops on these people?
This isn’t a movie; if people are trying to hurt you on a regular basis a gun/cops/bodyguards are the bare minimum thing here. Did you think they were going to wait around for like six months for you to get competent at kickboxing? Good lord.
You want to be able to beat people in fights, like if that were to come up at a bar or something.
Boxing: Boxing is widely available, generally cheap to learn compared to eastern martial arts and keeps people in excellent shape. Most of the people who hang around boxing gyms love it and are really dedicated to the craft, and in my limited experience are surprisingly friendly.
Kickboxing: See above, but make sure it’s a place that actually does the “fighting” part of it, and not like a cardio kickboxing class or something. Though he has many wonderful qualities, Billy Blanks1 can not teach you to be a deadly killer of men.
Muay Thai: Expensive asian kickboxing, but also just better than kickboxing in most ways2. Focuses more on hitting with elbows, knees and shins than hands and feet, which you’d probably want if you had ever broken your hand hitting something.
Judo/Japanese Jujitsu: All about slamming your opponent into the ground. Things called Judo are typically better than things called Jujitsu (note: not Brazilian Jujitsu, though) but there’s some overlap. Good for putting your opponent through tables or on the ground without actually going there yourself.
Brazilian Jujitsu: Hyper-expensive to learn, at least anywhere near me. Better than anything else on the list, but you have to go down to the ground with the guy you are fighting, which broadly sucks, especially if he has a friend who then kicks you in the head.
BJJ has another advantages that most martial arts don’t have, which is that as a ground-based submission grappling art, you can pretty much train it nearly-full-force at all times in a way that isn’t an option for striking arts. Judo has this to a lesser degree, as well. It’s something you want if you can get it, because it means the way you train is really close to the way you’d use it in a high-stakes situation.
Getting really big and strong: Not an option for everyone, but being big and strong is a very underrated martial art. You know what’s hard to defend against? A guy who can bench twice his body weight. I have a friend who I used to be able to beat up who can now deadlift approximately one compact sedan; I do not fight with him anymore.
Pretty much anything that’s not on this list doesn’t work at all.
You want your kid to be able to defend against bullies.
Same list as above, but with a special preference to BJJ/Judo/Jujitsu, as your kid is a lot less likely to get suspended from school if he has options that don’t leave bruises on the other guy.
Brazilian Jujitsu actually has some programs that are specifically designed for this, both from a philosophical and ability perspective, like Gracie bullyproof. I’m not getting paid for this in any way, but from what I’ve seen of that program it’s pretty good.
You want to look cool and feel like an action star, and you don’t care if you don’t get better at fighting.
Same as the lists above, except now including things like:
Kenpo Karate: The martial art of choice for both young-adult me and coked up Elvis Presley. As stated above, it does not work; with that said, it’s an excellent fantasy.
Other Karate: There’s a lot of different flavors of Karate, but all of them let you yell really loud while kicking things. You do not work a full time job without gaining the right to kick things while yelling.
Sambo/Krav Maga: These are martial arts associated with the Russian and Israeli armed forces, respectively. They are probably real somewhere but in the US they are both trendy enough that you are probably getting repackaged-something-else rather than whatever Sayerets learn.
Tae Kwon Do: This one is actually a lot better than advertised, and would be real in the same way boxing is real except for one important thing: Tae Kwon Do has no short and midranged techniques/attacks that work well. If you are fighting anything but a really top tier Tae Kwon Do guy and you get within like four feet of them, they don’t have anything for that.
If people couldn’t get close, TKD would be the deadliest martial art ever. Since people can, it’s a bit like fighting Lü Bu in a closet; his many accomplishments really genuinely are impressive, but he’s not for that.
I’ve highlighted these martial arts, but there are many more that fit the bill at this level. You shouldn’t feel restrained; looking cool is the main thing for this category, and at the least most things that involve moving around and exercising aren’t going to make you actively worse at fighting.
Things that make you actually worse at fighting but look exceptionally cool
Animal Form Kung Fu: At some point, the Chinese decided to observe how animals fight and develop martial arts from analyzing their movements. From that, you get things like “Mantis Style”, which loosely mimics the motions of a preying mantis. The problem here is that actual preying mantises fight in a way that only works if your arms are swords, which yours aren’t. Ditto Tiger claw. Ditto Crane. Just lots of stuff you don’t have, folks.
What you actually want is some kind of human style martial art that looked at humans, analyzed their movements, and built a martial art from that. Since this is every other martial art, you should probably go with one of those.
Capoeira: Imagine you wanted to make a fighting style, but it was absolutely imperative that nobody ever mistake it for something that might possibly hurt them. Could you still make a dangerous, effective martial art under those circumstances?
The history of Capoeira says no. It’s an awful lot of spinning, punctuated by kicks that cannot actually be aimed at anything. I’m not sure that anyone has actually struck another person on purpose in the entire history of Capoeira. Even in sparring, they just spin at each other without making contact, like flag-football beyblades.
That said, once every couple of decades someone does accidentally land a capoeira kick. As is the case with most things that only happen every couple of decades, this is an event. Legend claims the kick carries with it all the accumulated spinning of every capoeira practitioner in action since the last kick landed; the fact that all this stored potential is released on someone’s face only serves to enhance the spectator experience.
By all rights, no capoeira practitioner should have ever kissed a girl. But by merciful coincidence, it’s also one of only two well-known martial arts originating in Brazil, which strips it of much of its rightful sexlessness.
One day, it might come to pass that a child will look out on a burning wasteland of rubble, smelling the charred stench of the scorched potential of humanity. In that moment, the child may ask why I chose to guide you to the fighting arts which you used to tear down the very foundations of this world.
As cool as that would be, I’d be satisfied if all you did was go watch a Jean Claude Van Damme movie.
As I hinted at above, a lot of the western world seems to have shifted its attitude towards martial arts. What used to be a mystical set of forbidden techniques that would allow you to defeat armies but were nonetheless available to learn at your local strip mall are now demystified; nobody likes them quite as much as was possible in the 90’s.
We now have MMA, which is great; I watch it sometimes, and I think it’s cool. It’s definitely far more “real” in the sense that it’s been developed in a very broad, all-encompassing test environment. On average these are probably the best hand-to-hand fighters of all time. But they aren’t magic; they themselves will tell you they can’t beat up an entire army. For a while, we sort of thought Jackie Chan could.
Don’t let that magic die. Take a class. If you can’t do that, watch some videos; there is no shortage of guys who have spent 20 years training to fight who have nevertheless never known what it feels like to be punched. Find some kids (yours, hopefully) and make them watch Bloodsport. They deserve it. You deserve it.
Whatever you do, just keep the magic alive. I don’t know how to fix the entire world, but I doubt making it a little bit more rad would hurt.
Weekly plug: I spend a lot of time hoping people will link to the blog to help it grow, so I’m trying to link to someone else’s stuff every week as well. Sometimes this is a reciprocal thing, sometimes’s it’s just something I want to see grow.
Waxbite is the latter. It’s an app that converts newsletters to podcast form, and I like the format and the potential. It’s still very much in beta with a no-credit-card-entry one month trial.
If you get the chance, give it a shot and let the founders know what you think; I know they are currently hungry for feedback.
[If you need a free plug, let me know at residentcontrarian.substack.com; no promises on any individual thing, but it’s worth a shot at least.]
The amount of ways learning about the specialty tae-bo videos described in this wikipedia entry made me happy are uncountable.