Smoke and Mirrors

We have the image burned into our collective consciousness; a muscular guy in a karate uniform striking his toughest pose (named for an animal, of course), his luscious mullet blowing in the wind. If I could go back to the 80s and tug that guy’s headband off, I’d send him packing back to New Jersey with his single mother and adopted Asian grandfather who taught him that “waxing off” is an effective method of training for physical combat.

A lot of us can’t shake the idea that martial arts are something magical. Frustrating as it is to someone as short-tempered as I am, there isn’t a whole lot of mystery about why people believe this to be true. Many people are idiots.

That being said, I was once one of those idiots. If someone were to punch at Steven Seagal, Seagal would trap his hand, give him the front fl ip action, and then a swift kick to the neckpiece, while the camera pans up to Segal’s toughest kung-fu face and a guitar squeals really hard.

Meanwhile, in the neon-soaked streets of Hong Kong, Frank Dux is running from Forest Whitaker on little Chinese boats, then fi ghting in the Kumite to avenge his biker friend, which he wins by defeating Bolo with a jump spinning crescent kick. It was SICK.

I was on the trampoline doing super jump spinning crescent kicks until it was dark. I’d have to stop every so often to reset the sensor light before returning to my karate class in the sky. If you were a black belt, you had magic powers, you could glow, and if you knew the magic words (HA-DO-KEN!), you could throw a fi reball. If I could just get my parents to buy me a karate outfi t, and maybe those ninja boots, I’d be set. This was my reality, and with the evidence I had collected through A-Team reruns, Time Cop on VHS, and that story about my friend’s cousin’s karate instructor who had to check his hands with courthouse security staff because they were registered as deadly weapons, I was sold on these ideas. So mystical, so magical.

When you wake up from those dreams, you realize the brutal, ugly, truth. Fighting is ugly. The uglier the style, the more effective it seems to be. No one was making movies about Muay Thai; the knees, elbows, and kicks that entail the art of Muay Thai aren’t exactly the most breathtaking movements, but this ain’t a beauty contest. Muay Thai practitioners had to wait until 2005 to get a badass movie made for them, while we’ve been watching karate movies for decades. Don’t get me wrong, this is good for karate. I’m proud of karate, but its day has passed. Someone wondered what would happen when you asked those fl ashy kickin’, kata practin’, Mortal Kombat watchin’ black belts to fi ght a skinny Brazilian guy. Somehow, the ugly fi ghting Gracie-style opponent (complete with chest hair and pajamas) managed to teabag his opponent to death, even though he won while the other guy was obviously in the lead. I mean, “He had to be winning – he was on top!”

If you think I’m calling my beloved sport ugly, you are wrong. I believe beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Is Bruce Lee’s jump spinning back kick beautiful? Yes, absolutely. Is St. Pierre’s transition from the kimura to the arm-lock a thing to behold? Again, yes. Remember ol’ Stevie Segal’s wrist-lock front fl ip? It is lovely, I mean frickin’ beautiful, but ridiculous to the point of banging your head on the fl oor with frustration.

When you put two angry meatheads in the cage pitted against each other, battling for cash and prizes, you start trimming the fat and getting rid of what doesn’t work. You can’t afford to blow it by getting into a deep horse stance and being punted into a coma by a giant shinbone against your snot-box. When you are educated about actual combat and the most effective forms of it, then you begin to see through the fog of mysticism that surrounds martial arts in movies. Thanks to YouTube, everyone knows what a real fi ght looks like, and nine times out of ten (the clip of the karate kid knocking out the Cholo kid excluded), the beautiful methods falter in the face of more contemporary styles of ass-kickery.

Take me for example. I am far from a bronzed Adonis, but I have spent enough time in the gym to look like Schwarzenegger, had I been pumping iron. Instead, what I have done is spent my time sharpening my skills in the most effective forms of martial arts, which are generally regarded as wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, and boxing. Just like me, they aren’t the most gorgeous things on earth, but they work a hell of a lot better than overgrown muscles stacked on top of muscles.

Ronnie Coleman’s physique is quite impressive, with his rippling striated deltoids, but I’ll take Matt Linland’s farmer body, or Fedor’s stick of melted butter build in a fi ght. Strong enough to perform the techniques necessary to win, without the pretty excesses that get you laid at a pool party.

Back to mullet-man, standing in a deep horse stance in his American-fl ag parachute pants. He teaches himself, through hours of kata, to use shiny metal weapons bought at the fl ea market to battle off attackers from multiple angles. It looks awesome. The problem with traditional martial arts is that they’re like a bikini model with Down Syndrome. They look great at fi rst, but once you are around for too long, you feel guilty for even being involved. When I was doing my katas, complete with meditation, in the backyard of my family’s government housing, I really believed that my moves would translate to the kids in my neighborhood. The ugly truth was, the only person that my karate worked on was my little sister. I once snap-kicked her in the tooth, making her cry and cutting my foot open – my mom walked into quite a scene. I had to graduate high school with a scab on my foot.

The techniques that worked in the constant fi stfi ghts that plagued my neighborhood in my elementary school years were far from the fl ashy kicks I learned in Tae Kwon Do. Real fi ghting turned into a wrestling match with punches, and kicks were reserved for when one guy got the other laid out on the playground. My dad taught me the “Miller right” – an overhand punch thrown from the waistline that can go right into a headlock throw. It was ugly as sin, but got me into and out of a boatload of trouble for many, many years. Much better than the spin kicks parachute-pants showed me.

But after I had awakened from my karate- fueled stupor that lasted approximately sixteen years, I still fell victim to martial arts mysticism. In my fi rst few fi ghts as a professional fi ghter, I still thought there was some type of magical move I could use to win, complete with a musical score permeating the small armory in southern Georgia. Even though most of my fi ght training at the time consisted of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu’s fl oor fi ghting, I always started the fi ght with a head kick – an obvious remnant of my grade school Tae Kwon Do classes. Once I got over that particular obsession, I began to think that it would be a better idea to attempt fl ying triangles or fl ying arm bars, or jump into a fl ying guard of some sort. In this day and age of ultimate kickboxing, going to your guard is blasphemy, but at the time when Jiu-Jitsu still had it’s special cloud of magic dust fl oating all around it, it seemed like a good idea.

I did fi gure out that there was no secret move choreographed by John Woo that could give me a free pass to stardom; there were just the ugly moves. The ugly hard work of mixed martial arts. Chokes, kicks, and punches that are direct and to the point. No frills or ponytails or armless karate gis to rely on, just the tenacity of an athlete who devotes his life to honing his skills so that he can perform at the highest level on one loud, crazy night, in a loud, crazy arena, to thousands of loud, crazy fans.

Oh, crap. I just fi gured out the beauty of our ugly sport. The beauty is in the athletes’ ability to perform real moves under real pressure. The thousands of hours spent kicking a heavy bag, strangling friends, and punching one another, all for the time to shine on a Saturday night.

Although there are no secret tournaments to fi ght for the chance to win a giant golden dragon, what we do have is the beauty of watching the competitor with the best gameplan and best skills becoming champion on high defi nition television. Now we just need mullets and fl ying triangles to come back in style, and the universe will have come full circle.

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