This is kind of a Catholic vs Protestant argument that still goes on for some reason. What am I talking about? You know – If a school opens up in a strip mall for profit – many of the purists (read traditionalist Karate Ka) will smirk and wonder if the “McDojo” can trace its roots back to the old country (Read Japan or Okinawa). Traditionalists like to recite their lineage to prove their black belt is meaningful.
This is like the Catholics (disclaimer – I am a Catholic) or Orthodox Churches argument of Apostolic Succession (meaning they can trace their bishops back to Christ’s apostles. The thing about having an unbroken line of succession the church (or in the case of this post – karate lineage) is a valid church (or karate style).
The above lineage or succession validity based solely on an unbroken line makes no difference (argued by the new karate styles and Protestant religions). In this post I will evaluate the karate arguments both pro and con but would like to point out my position that old does not mean it is better the new (although it can be). New does not mean it is better than the old (although it can be). My only criteria is what works. Anything else is meaningless to me. Read on if you want to expanded version.
In the old days many fighting styles were created the world over but the orient had fighting styles that were new to Westerners. Many thought these were superior fighting styles and elevated the “black belt” as almost invincible. Well now that MMA is here you know that karate is just one piece of the whole package and nothing special. If you want to learn to fight today – you have to pick striking, transition, or ground work or a combination.
Karate is still good as a striking style but as in religion – there is a lot of infighting between the modern and formal styles. I’ve always been trapped in between because as Tracy’s taught it – Kenpo is a semi-traditional style. We have a lineage and formalities such as bowing but we also have semi-contact fighting (really full contact in the upper belts). We (Tracy’s/American Kenpo Karate, Jiu Jitsu and Kickboxing) understand kata, techniques, and basics (after all they are required for our belt tests) but we only use what works in fighting.
When I ran a school in the 1980’s – if someone came off of the street and wanted to fight me – all they would have to do is sign a freestyle waiver and I’d oblige them in a sparring match. The thing was fighting other stylists did not bother me as I understood that 80% of what was being taught (at the time and I’d guess now too) did not work. That includes formal stylist. Only 20% of the schools turned out good fighters.
When a uptheenth degree black belt came to talk me (I was a first degree black belt when I first owned my school), I would listen respectably but would soon try to get him to spar with me. You see words and belts did not matter to me then or now. The only thing that mattered is what they could do on the mat. If they were too old to spar I would not bug them (as I hope young-ins would not bug me now) but if they challenged me – all bets were off.
Why might it matter what an old Master might say? Well my view is although (no matter what anyone tells you) a person may have a 10th degree black belt – that does not relate to fighting ability. That can relate to them being a great coach that can help you in your quest to learn the martial art. So I always respect old Masters like I would an old boxer or MMA fighter.
So the only question I would have if I was bringing my kid to a new karate school in a strip mall – is the instructors worth anything in a fight? If you don’t think so – politely thank them for allowing you to watch a sparring class and try elsewhere. You or your kid deserves to find a school where you will learn how to defend yourself. The belts from a good school are meaningful but other than that – they are just a bunch of pretty colors.
So I am ambivalent to the type of school you try – Formal, Semi-Formal, or school in the strip-mall. Lineage has nothing to do with fighting. Fighting is the only criteria that one should consider when learning a fighting art. While you have options as the kind of fighting you choose (judo, karate, boxing, jiu-jitsu, wrestling, aikido…) – if you choose karate – find a style that can teach you to fight. Remember if my experience is accurate – you are looking for the 1 in 5 schools that is worth anything – the rest are just trying to get your money.