Will the Real Martial Arts Please Stand Up by Peter Yates

martial arts


Although I wrote this article several years ago I still stand by the message that there are distinct differences between combat training for survival, combat sports and martial performance arts. I wish to make it clear that i have absolute respect for those in the combat sports such as boxing, wrestling, [which I have participated in] and modern systems such as MMA. Those taking part in such events are highly dedicated athletes in top level condition and in most cases very tough individuals. As an ex doorman in Australia during the 1970s I encountered many situations were my skills had to be put into practical use. I worked with many who trained for the ring and found the best guys to have by your side were the wrestlers and those martial artists who had trained for combat rather that tournaments. Of course there were exceptions but for the most part it held true. I was also aware that many of those who buckled on the door could have wiped the floor with me in the ring where rules etc. Were in place. However I always felt confident that the outcome would be in my favor down a back ally.

Peter With Mentor Maurice Ainsworth (Standing to Left of Peter) and Students , Isle of Man 1978
Peter With Mentor Maurice Ainsworth (Standing to Left of Peter) and Students , Isle of Man 1978

Knowing of my long time interest in and involvement with the martial arts, Rob asked me if I would be interested in writing some articles for M.O.I.            

I would like to begin with a brief self introduction and relate some of my opinions on the martial arts as practiced today. My opinion may ruffle a few feathers but I can only state things as I see them and all other opinions have equal validity. My opinions however are based on 40+ years of practice, observation and investigation.            

My first introduction to fighting systems was via Boys Club Boxing and Wrestling. I liked the feel of mixing it up and the basic skills I learned helped me somewhat in the frequent schoolyard and back alley brawls I encountered. However I was a skinny little runt so the skill without strength only got me so far. Besides I learned one big lesson: ‘in and out of the ring there is a world of difference.’    

Knowing I needed to add some muscle to my frame I joined the local weightlifting club at twelve years of age. I came under the tutelage of a man who would have a major impact on my life. A veteran weightlifter and boxer, Maurice Ainsworth had recently opened the first karate club in town. Maurice was way ahead of his time in thinking outside the box and was a master of functional combat. However it was four years before I was allowed to study any martial arts as he first required I build up with weight training.

One of the first and most important things I learned from Maurice is that any activity is based on certain principles. If you understand and master those principles then you can become successful. This sentiment was echoed much later by another teacher in China, Luo Guo Hua who told me, “Do not learn songs, first learn how to sing.” (I will be writing more on some of the teachers I have studied with in future articles.)      

martial arts kickFrom my early twenties onward I travelled to many lands always with the intention of learning something new, not just martial arts but the language, history, philosophy, healing arts and general culture. I had left school a few weeks after my fifteenth birthday so this became my High School and University of life. I have had no cause to regret the lack of formal education.      

 Seen left - Peter Practicing With Friend And Fellow Martial Artist Greg Winder, Japan 1991     

At first I would study with anyone willing to teach a foreigner. However as I encountered what to me were sub standard teachers I learned to become more discerning. Fortunately my training with Maurice had given me a good base in knowing whether what was being taught was authentic and useful or not.

Believe me, the West is full of bogus martial arts teachers but so is the East.  Many a foreigner ends up in Thailand, China or Japan and spends a lot of time and money learning styles and techniques that are often worse than useless. My early introduction to principles helped me separate the wheat from the chaff.        

While it would have been highly discourteous of me to ask a teacher to show me their skill (in fact this would in Asia amount to a challenge), by observing the senior students and how they performed you knew if the master had any goods to actually impart. Whenever possible I would ask for a personal demonstration from a senior student (a notch down from an actual challenge). Occasionally I received an injury from this but I also had a good idea if this was a worthy school to study at.

With The Indonesian Karate Team Bondi Beach Sydney, Australia 1981. Peter is Third From Left.

I learned early on that many of the best teachers were also knowledgeable in a wide range of subjects, the foremost being the Traditional Healing Arts of their particular culture. It is important to understand that until the late 19th and early 20th century the only medicine available to the general population in many Asian countries was from the local martial arts master. Certainly all of them could mend broken bones and repair damage to muscles, tendons and ligaments. Many also knew acupuncture and herbal medicine. As one Chinese master said to me, “If you know how to break a limb you should also know how to mend it.” This of course epitomizes the Oriental idea of Yin/Yang, supporting and complementary opposites.            

A seeming misfortune in 1976 allowed me to begin my studies in East Asian healing arts. I had sustained an injury to my leg in training and was taken to the clinic of a traditional doctor in rural Japan, where I was living on a rice farm, the home of one of my instructors.            

Dr. Kobayashi was a high ranking Judo teacher, a traditional bone setter and acupuncturist. We seemed to have an instant rapport and although my Japanese was limited, communication between us was easy. After he had fixed my leg and seeing I was really interested he agreed to teach me his family’s medical arts.            

I also picked up from him what he termed “Old Judo.” This was nothing you would be likely to see in the Olympics. It was all about doing as much damage as possible to an aggressor in the shortest amount of time - good old basic dirty street fighting.            

All together, I spent a total of fifteen years in the Orient. Japan was mostly my base but I spent a lot of time in Mainland China and shorter periods in Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore. I was never interested in the sporting aspect of the martial arts and sought out teachers who concentrated on teaching life saving combat effectiveness. Often these teachers had very few students and were not easy to contact. Most of the time, it was necessary to have an introduction and someone to vouch for you.

Training with these masters was never easy but always rewarding. No fancy uniforms, badges or colored belts giving one a sense of false security.            

So what opinions have I formed over these many years of involvement in combat arts?            

To begin I should explain what I feel is a combat or martial art and what is not.

Combat Sports       

martial artsI need to point out that most of the people involved in combat sports such as boxing, M.M.A, etc. are tough, conditioned and dedicated athletes. They know how to take punishment and keep on fighting. However going back to one of my earliest lessons that the ring and street (or bar), are completely different experiences. Some of these guys can fight in different situations, yet I have seen numerous examples of combat sport athletes taking severe beatings when out of their fight element.

Seen left - Peter Practicing With Friend And Fellow Martial Artist Greg Winder, Japan 1991

I worked as a club doorman for a few years in Australia in the early seventies. I was able to observe how the various systems held up in no rules, no holds barred attacks.            

I believe boxers have great hand techniques and the worst thing that happened to boxing as far as combat is concerned is the introduction of heavy gloves. This of course offers some protection in a contest. However, I feel prolonged training and fighting in gloves can have a negative impact on bare knuckle punching ability. Also in a real fight punching is not always the best way to use a hand to do the most damage.            

I saw more than one good ring man go to the ground while working side by side with them on the door.            

combatMost of the competition style karate and Tae Kwon Do guys who tried their hand on the door just could not take the tension. There was always this fear that push come to shove they would not be able to perform with their ‘deadly” tournament techniques. Needless to say they seldom could.   

Seen right -  Peter Practicing With Friend And Fellow Martial Artist Greg Winder, Japan 1991          

Without a doubt the toughest and most capable doormen I ever worked with were wrestlers. I mean the traditional, Greco-Roman and catch as catch can players. Although a sport and played to rules, I found that wrestlers could translate what they had learned into a street situation. Interestingly to a man, even though their sport contained a lot of ground work, they would at all costs never go to the ground if at all possible. The motto was, “The ground is where the other guy belongs.” I saw some of the best throws, takedowns and controls from this group.            

So in my opinion combat sports are not martial arts.

Martial Performance Arts

martial arts stanceIn this category I include first of all the modern Wu Shu that started to evolve in China in the early 1950’s.

Training for this is tough and starts at a very early age. There is no doubt that only the most talented, hard working and dedicated performers make it to the top, although it is something that can be participated in at any level. Many schools have a Wu Shu club as an after school activity.      

There is no denying that some of the moves are spectacular and beautiful to watch. Unfortunately the emphasis on performance and style has almost completely severed it from its traditional roots as a combat system. Modern Wu Shu now has more in common with gymnastics and ice skating. China is pushing to have it included as an Olympic event.            

Secondly what is known as Xtreme Martial Arts is similar to modern Wu Shu in that it has its roots in traditional East Asian fighting arts but again has become much more focused on flashy, gymnastic type moves often  with weapons. Most of the techniques demonstrated in the forms would leave anyone performing them in a real life situation in a very vulnerable position. There is one exception to this and that is the guys who take part in the breaking competition. These guys are mostly hard core, seasoned martial artists.            

So while modern Wu Shu and Xtreme Martial Arts are entertaining to watch and obviously enjoyable to participate in and will most definitely develop some high level fitness and coordination. In my book they are not martial arts.        

Peter (Seated) With Fellow Martial Artists Who Meet to Practice Their Skills And Deepen Their Understanding Of Combat Applications. Front Row Right To Left - Al Ferber, Kim Rosado, Jim Vitale, Back Row - Dorian Kramer, Mike Talish, Boris Litinov     

There are also many fine and dedicated persons teaching what they believe to be traditional martial arts. However I have observed at many of these schools and it is clear to see that much of what they are teaching is too stylized to be really effective. One thing in particular that I have noticed is that the forms taught and practiced, the sparring matches and self defense techniques often bear little resemblance to each other. It is as if three separate systems are being taught. In a truly effective combat system the forms will contain all of the fighting elements of a system and can be broken down for sparring and self defense. (I will be writing in more detail on this topic in a future article.)

I must emphasize that I am in no way belittling any of the above. All of them are worthy pastimes and much can be gained from one’s involvement in them. Everyone is free to choose any activity as they please - if they enjoy and gain from it then that can only be good. However thinking that those types of practice will enable one to overcome an aggressor or aggressors in a deadly encounter is very naïve and dangerous.            

As far as I am concerned a martial art should have the following components:

  • As martial arts first developed as a means of staying alive on the battlefield and later to protect clans and village property a martial art must have clear, simple and effective fighting techniques based on sound principles of combat.
  • Contrary to popular belief, religions such as Buddhism do not go hand in hand with martial arts. Certainly martial arts were taught at some monasteries or monasteries employed martial practitioners often ex-soldiers to protect their grounds but this does not mean that all monks practiced martial arts or fighting men necessarily had religious tendencies. (This did affect some groups though as in the Japanese Samurai adopting Zen Buddhism.)

    However if one is engaged in martial affairs with the potential of causing damage to one’s fellow man there needs to be some code of conduct to determine correct behavior or an individual could degenerate into a thug.

    Therefore I believe that a true martial arts practitioner should seek to develop his/her humanity. A calm, quiet demeanor, respect and consideration for others should be cultivated. While it is true that many martial artists were uneducated and illiterate there too has been a tradition of the scholar/warrior. This is the ideal – again a perfect example of the Oriental concept of yin/yang.

    As the old saying goes,
"A true warrior never shows his skill until he has to, then he shows it all.”
  • A true martial artist keeps quiet about skills possessed and never demonstrates for entertainment or showing off. They are always seeking a peaceful resolution to conflict, avoiding confrontation if possible and only as a last resort using damaging techniques to protect self or others from harm.
  • It is important to cultivate the whole person.
  • If we choose to term something an art then it must of course have some artistic value. It is easy to think of this in terms of the performance arts of modern Wu Shu or Xtreme Martial Arts but this is not what I mean.
  • When I speak of art in relation to combat systems I am referring to the way an individual has absorbed the principles of a system, internalized them and expresses them in a unique manner. I have observed multiple times when a student has been with a master for many years, outwardly to the uninitiated seems to possess high level skill. Unfortunately this type of student has only become a carbon copy of the teacher. This would be like studying with Picasso and then being able to do an almost perfect reproduction of his work – no life, no soul, no art.
  • To summarize, I believe a true martial art should have simple, effective combat applications, should have a way to cultivate the total person, should allow each individual to express the principles in a unique way.

As I stated at the beginning these are my opinions based on a lifetime of involvement in combat arts. They are no more or less valid than others’ opinions but just as I truly (at this moment in time) view things. In future articles I will look at some popular misconceptions about the martial arts, introduce some of the teachers I have studied with and present some concepts from Oriental philosophy that have permeated the arts in East Asia.


Special thank you to my friends and fellow martial artists, Kim Rosado for typing  the article and Boris Litinov for help with the photographs.

©Will the Real Martial Arts Please Stand Up By Peter Yates

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