What is a martial artist?

The word martial arts has been getting used to define a completely new category of sport in recent years, due to the popularisation of MMA (mixed martial arts) by the UFC. Now that this new type of fighter who competes in MMA exists, the term martial artist has been broadened to cater to the expanding sport, but where does that leave martial artists such as the Bruce Lee, or Rickson Gracie? Can we really use the same word to describe them, as we would use to describe Brock Lesnar or even ferocious strikers like Ramon Dekkers?

Martial artist

The idea of MMA is to combine the use of whichever martial arts the competitor decides to use, to try and defeat another competitor who may be using a whole other set of martial arts. Or, the competitors may use exactly the same martial arts, with an emphasis on different aspects (both fighters may train in Jiujitsu, boxing and wrestling, but one fighter chooses to rely predominantly on his striking, and the other chooses to take the fight to the ground and use his wrestling and submission skills).

The early intention of MMA was to finally put to rest the argument of “Which martial art is the best?”, and in the early UFC and Vale Tudo bouts, we would see boxers fighting wrestlers, and kickboxers fighting Judo players, or a number of other combinations of martial arts facing off against each other. It didn’t take long for competitors to figure out that they would need to expand their skill set to compete with other martial artists, and this is where the new sport developed. But somewhere along the way, the tradition and spirituality of many of the founding martial arts became lost.

The same thing has happened with the westernisation of Muay Thai. In Thailand, the nak muay (Thai boxers) will perform the “wai kru” before every bout to pay homage to their gym, family, and teachers, but in Australia we rarely see them performed anymore. This puts the sport one step further away from traditional martial art, and one step closer to just plain “fighting”.

Now, I don’t believe that being a fighter rather than a martial artist is a bad thing. I think that being a fighter is exactly what some people need as an outlet. A good example is Mike Tyson. Although his behaviour has still been more than questionable over the years if he did not have the discipline of boxing to keep him occupied and off the street, who knows what would have become of him? Another great example in the Brisbane kickboxing scene is Rob Ferguson. He doesn’t train very consistently, doesn’t have a perfect fight record, and he doesn’t have the finesse or skill that some of his opponents have. But he is always ready to fight, and he has beaten people that are better than him because of this never back down attitude. This outlet of being able to fight some of the best guys in the ring has most likely given him less of a point to prove, and less reason to go out hunting a fight at a bar every night of the week. This doesn’t mean he is now an angel, but if being a fighter in a controlled environment like the ring or cage with another trained and willing participant has caused him to be in one less fight on the street, then I believe it has had a positive effect.

Just because what guys like boxer Jake LaMotta and local hero Rob Ferguson do isn’t “martial arts”, doesn’t mean it isn’t “art”.

Google’s definition of art is:

the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form… producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
By reading that definition, it could easily be argued that what they are doing is art. They are expressing themselves by willingly going to war with an opponent, sometimes for reasons they may not even understand, and many people appreciate it for its emotional power. I am the sort of person that looks at the Mona Lisa and feels nothing, but I watch round 9 of Micky Ward vs Arturo Gatti: Fight 1 and I feel that on a deeper level emotionally than any painting has ever made me.

But, although it may be art, it isn’t Martial Arts.

Georges St Pier once said:
“There is a difference between a fighter and a martial artist. A fighter is training for a purpose: He has a fight. I’m a martial artist. I don’t train for a fight. I train for myself. I’m training all the time. My goal is perfection. But I will never reach perfection.”

What Georges is trying to say is, he is not trying to be better than any opponent, he is trying to be a better version of himself. Martial Arts to me is the quest of trying to master the body, mind, and for lack of the better word “spirit”. It is not just about being the best fighter, in fact, many martial arts principles discourage violence and instead teach students to put ego aside and walk away if necessary. To be a Martial artist is to master yourself and not an opponent so that you don’t feel the need to beat someone to gain a greater sense of self-worth.

I don’t consider myself to be a martial artist as I think it would undervalue the meaning of the term, but I also don’t consider myself to be just a fighter. Before fights, I get nervous and worried about losing or what others will think of me, but I remind myself that I fight as a test of my own personal character. This test allows me to push my limits the little bit further than I thought possible each time I fight, both mentally and physically. On a physical level, most of the work has been done in the gym, strengthening the body and increasing fitness levels, but a tough opponent or a skilful opponent forces us to find a way to keep composure and not become overwhelmed with the task at hand, something that very herds to replicate at training. This is the most important aspect of fighting and can be applied to other aspects of our life every time the going gets tough.

After reading this, some of you may be wondering if you are a fighter or a martial artist. I’m not saying you should be one or the other, but there should be a distinction made between a “fighter” and a “martial artist”. Hopefully, it has made you ask the question “what kind of fighter do I want to be?”, rather than just undergoing a routine to get ready for your next fight. It is stressed in business how important a business plan or goal is, so why would it be any different for fighting? Creating more of an objective than simply “winning” will focus your training, and help you to become exactly what type of fighter/martial artist that you want to be!

Ben Johnston – Fighter & TFC head trainer