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Cultivating Contact FMA in the Age of MMA
A Report for a Baltimore Area JKD Instructor
© 2013 James LaFond
I am not an FMA practitioner. I am not even a self-defense student or a martial artist. I’m just a fighter, coach and writer. I do, however, train and compete with numerous FMA practitioners. I have recently been working with Sifu Tom Clark, a JKD and FMA instructor under Richard Bustillo. We have had little luck attracting interest for FMA among area JKD people. In this report I will outline my local and historical observations and make some general recommendations. I am posting this on my website in hopes that it might reach an interested fighter or instructor.
My Position
In 1998 I cofounded an experimental weaponry format with TaeKwonDo practitioner Chuck Goetz. Since then I have fought in over 600 stick fights and 200 machete duels, and am currently training with 8 fighters with the following backgrounds, listed in the order that they began training with me from 2002 to 2013: 2 JKD; 1 hockey; 1 judo/karate; 1 wrestling/Tang Soo Do; 1 Kenpo; 1 FMA; 1 cycling.
Note that five of these eight people came to me after seeing an ‘agon’, our combative get-togethers often done to raise money for charity or martial arts programs we are affiliated with. I cannot stress enough that our group is a consensual team effort, not a hierarchal one, and that we are only able to function year-round thanks to support from the Kenpo, FMA, JKD and Tang Soo Do programs from which some of our fighters are drawn.
Only five of these people are weekly, and their motivation for engaging in weaponry training falls into three categories: self-defense, sport, and experimentation, expressed in the following three activities:
1. Sparring with safe training knives is the primary activity of the group, in which all engage, logging 4,350+ hours of full-contact sparring since 2003 without a single injury. Survival scenarios are part of this aspect of training.
2. Sparring and competing with pain-inflicting rattan rods without armor, and associated bag-work, foot-work and two-person drills are an activity that is only vigorously pursued by three of the eight.
3. Experimental combat and demonstrations with injurious oak, pine, steel, and other unforgiving substances, is an activity only pursued by three of the fighters, and not with a high frequency.
This three-tiered pyramid is what keeps this activity going. If the hockey player doesn’t get to ‘rock and roll’ with the sticks at least a round per a session, or the kenpoist does not get to do her survival drills, we run the risk of pushing them out of either end of the group. He helps her learn how to deal with predation, and she keeps track of his gear and scorecard when he is competing on the floor. We use a team approach. This points to the source of the ‘bleed-out’ for FMA live-stick fighters since the 1990’s when it looked like stick-fighting might gain wide acceptance, even as boxing and kickboxing fragmented. MMA, with its popularity and strong team orientation, is booming, and now it is the FMA community that is fragmented, not just into rival organizations, but along the lines of defining the parameters of the very activity.
The Overall Dilemma
Note that there is a successful FMA WEKAF affiliate school run by Aaron Seligson at the Baltimore Martial Arts Academy in Catonsville. I would suggest that anyone interested in forming an FMA program in the Baltimore area visit Aaron’s program and see what he is doing. Aaron fields excellent fighters and has never wanted for students.
However, where JKD and other hybrid programs are concerned, the 1990’s impulse to find combat expression in the stick-fighting arena has been largely supplanted by the MMA craze. During the same period I have seen boxing enrollment plummet, and, most tellingly, a near total absence of young men in traditional karate programs. Nearly everyone who is interested in activities in which they might get hit has entered MMA. But why have they? In the 90’s there was no huge rush to MMA. Successful MMA fighters toured on the seminar circuit because they had to make ends meet.
Largely the issue was settled when Dana White gave his famous ‘Do you want to be a *&#%@*! fighter’ speech. This brings us to the crux of the problem with promoting non-contact weaponry programs to MMA oriented people, and the equally hard sell of contact-weaponry to those martial artists traditionally attracted to the weapon arts.
Contact Aversion
Traditionally, martial arts weaponry has been seen as a non-contact pursuit. Hence it has ever been, and continues to be, the refuge of the martial arts enthusiast who is not willing to sweat, hurt, or God-forbid, bleed for his art. I fully accept that some weaponry must be practiced in a non-contact format, and do not wish to stigmatize contact-averse practitioners. This type of student wants rank, certification, application theory, esoteric digression and meditation. Let me get back to them after the next paragraph.
The problem with having a weaponry program set up to cater to those contact-averse students most inclined to embrace weapons, is that the best athletes, the toughest fighters, and the most gifted sets of hands, will not take these arts seriously, as there is zero risk and little excitement; no thrill of combat, no test of courage—just technique. Although technique, application theory, and philosophy are cornerstones of all fighting arts, arts that only supply these aspects tend not to attract the type of young men who possess the drive and physicality necessary to adapt to a contact-setting. Imagine how an MMA gym would empty out if there was never sparring, never competition, and rarely bag work; just drills?
A Suggested Solution
Based on my own experience I suggest using different marketing strategies to attract the two types of potential weaponry students. The curriculum-based person who attends the traditional sessions, wants to earn rank, and needs to be able to do this without a sparring or competition requirement. There should be no stigma attached to not fighting or sparring. [Another big problem here is that martial arts people tend to equate sparring with fighting based on the karate tournament wording used to slide events past state athletic commissions.]
Likewise, fighters should be attracted by having them attend events, or staging events for them. At our recent agon we had 25 spectators, 10 of which were athletes and martial artists I had invited. They all liked the event and had enthusiastic comments about it. Now, eight of these ten potential recruits said something very similar to what Trent said to me, “I loved the show—it was great. And I am very glad I finally saw what you guys do. Because now there is absolutely no doubt in my mind…I know for certain that I will never do that!”
A Historical Note on Parallel Training Tracks
In the early 1800’s during the boxing craze in Regency England, boxers came in two extreme varieties, and trained side-by-side. The first type were the ‘pugilists’ who fought hideous blood-drenched battles that lasted hours with their bare fists. There were also the ‘sparrers’; gentleman fighters who only practiced with gloves. It was as if Donald Trump got to spar with Jose Aldo, and rewarded Aldo for not hurting him by sponsoring him and backing his side-bets. The modern sport of boxing grew out of a later attempt to sanitize boxing so that ‘gentlemen’ could box, not just in the gym, but in the ring as well.
What Attracts Fighters?
However, two of those ten approached me, eager to try their hand at what they had seen. Just as you attract the two types differently, you will only be able to retain them with equally divergent methods. The guy that has a desire to get out on the floor and cross sticks with an opponent to test himself, generally does not care about rank. I don’t know how two parallel tracks can be made to work as one in a JKD or FMA program. But it has been the key to the continuation of what Chuck and I started 15 years ago. He insisted that our motto should be ‘as real as you want it’.
What attracts the young fighter to a combat art is his perception that he will be seen testing it in a competitive setting before an audience—even if small—that will appreciate his skill and admire his spirit. Could this audience consist of your non-contact practitioners?
I hope this has been some help to Sifu Clark and any other instructors who are trying to salvage weaponry programs in the face of MMA sucking the talent out of one end of the martial arts world, and ‘karate’ day care programs sucking the soul out of the other end. A final thought: if a Dana White-like character ever gave a ‘do you want to be a fighter’ speech at a weaponry seminar, it would be nice to think that the entire room would not immediately empty; that perhaps two guys would stick around and at least think about the proposition. I know some of those guys, have worked with 96 of them over the past 15 years, and am certain that more are out there.
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