Why Learn Martal Arts? Hint… Fighting?

Posted by: John W. Zimmer
Under: karate, martial arts, Self-defense
6 Jan 2011

The more I have entered into this quasi social networking blogasphere I have come to realize that there are plenty of the more esoteric karateka that seemed to have divorced themselves from the notion that the end goal of any martial art is to ultimately defend oneself! I mean on the one hand it is good that one has the option to fight or not in today’s society but are we in danger of losing sight of the prize?

In this post I will list some arguments for learning how to fight (whatever you call it) and conversely learning a black belt as one might earn a doctorate. No disrespect to doctorates but there are two kinds – the scholarly professors that don’t have to practice real world skills (just teach them) and the practicing professional doctors, JD, MD, DVM, DBA and such that provide a real service!

The previous example might be a bit of a stretch but I am hearing about and have known black belts that cannot and some that even do not think it is important to fight themselves out of a paper bag.





I was tall for my age as a boy but I do remember kids picking on me in the fourth and fifth grade. That is until my mom and dad told me it was not only ok to stick up for myself but my right! After that talk (and learning the old one – two from my dad) kids soon learned that I was not going to be their scape goat anymore.


The point I am trying to make is having the will to defend yourself only goes so far but what do you do if a real mean, street-wise (been in a lot of fights) bully picks on you? Your options are generally to give up your lunch money, take the black eye like a man (or woman), tattle (and become the object of ridicule) or fight back (assuming you think you can take the heat)!


Let me just get this out of the way – the reason I wanted to learn karate, judo, jiu-jitsu, boxing, kick-boxing, mma, and wrestling was to learn how to keep ME SAFE!!! I wanted to learn how to fight! If martial arts were not about fighting – I and most kids wanting to learn how to defend themselves would have passed.


Let me also say that when I was growing up black belts (in any discipline) were highly respected because they supposedly good fighters. Back then a black belt meant something. It did not matter if one had a long lineage going back to the Shalon Monks or one learned from Parker’s or Tracy’s Kenpo schools… they all had something in common – a black belt could fight their way out of a paper bag in most circumstances.


I have no beef with formal, non-formal, Western or Eastern Martial Arts or full, semi or non contact fighting methods. The one commonality with them all that use or do not use the belt systems – is the expert level practitioner can at the very least – protect themselves in a self defense scenario!


I think some schools have lost their way a bit since the old days (1960’s to me)… I have witnessed kata champions that were technically very good but could not spar worth a darn. Does this mean that could not use their skills in self defense? I’m not sure but I will say this – if they don’t believe they could – then no – they are worthless.


When I was teaching I understood that some students did not like fighting much. Part of the belt system in the kenpo style I taught was learning how to spar/fight at blue belt level. This was not a huge part of the lessons but for the ones that liked sparring and went on to sport karate tournaments – they practiced sparring on their own and special sparring sessions/classes.


What about the students that did not really like sparring but wanted a black belt? They continued to learn sparring in the private lessons and had to take some of the group sparring classes while learning their green belt. You see sparring still was not a large part of the grading process at green belt (the one under brown belt) but it was part of the curriculum.


Now sparring was about a fourth of the grading at brown belt level. One did not have to win all of their fights but I did not allow anyone to test for brown belt that was not comfortable fighting/sparring because what was the point? Brown belts and black belts meant something. One had to spend about two years to get a brown belt and three years to get a black belt. Why would I entertain promoting someone that could not fight? The thought never entered my mind at the time.


I was amazed whenever I heard about a child brown or black belt promotion at another school. My criteria was clear – a brown belt or black belt fighter had to be able to hold his or her own with most other adults – male or female in a self defense situation. Loving to fight was just a plus but not really necessary. If a 16 year old kid could do it – then fine but anyone younger could not reasonably have the adult frame and power needed to hold their own with most people.


Did I demand that my students were the best fighters around? No but I did not want any of my brown or black belts to be wimps.


What about schools that teach non-contact fighting? I don’t have an issue with them if they are teaching true martial arts philosophy – meaning teaching their students how to throw powerful kicks and punches is what karate is all about. Many formal styles practice kicking and punching pads and breaking boards as well as non-contact fighting. Students from these styles have the full skill set as well as having the confidence to act if they ever had to in a self defense situation.


One good thing about most formal karate styles is they teach self restraint. Students are taught to walk away from verbal and even physical attacks (if possible) to keep in harmony with their spirit. There is no great reason to fight ever except to protect life and limb for you and your family.


So what about people that just want to buy their pretty colored belts from an unscrupulous instructor? I had some of them around in my day. How did I handle that? Well let me just say that I gave any black belt reasonable respect but untested I did not let them instruct any of my students.


If a black belt from another school wanted to be more involved at my school I would have them sign a free style waiver and fight with me or any other of my instructors for verification. You see even legitimate black belts might not be any good because they were taught by poor instructors.


As an example one of my friends had learned some karate at another school and was at brown belt level. When he heard I had a school he started coming down at sparring class for some fun. I quickly noticed that he did not know anything about critical distance (meaning I could punch or kick him easily with initial movement to bridge the gap) and he did not cover his ribs. My side kick rearranged some of his ribs over several months until he got more proficient at fighting.


What about some karateka today that just want to learn the belt system to get revered black belt? Karate, like other martial arts have some diploma mills. I’m sure you all have heard of non-regionally accredited (in the US) colleges willing to hand out a doctorate in three weeks for a price with the promise of converting “life experience” for grades? They exist just as do the shady karate schools.


What about this notion that karate is not about fighting? Lets define terms, karate or any eastern or western martial art is about fighting unless one is just doing some version or aerobic or stunt work. If it is the latter two – why would they offer any kind of belt system? That would not be honest or in the best interest of the student.


So lets agree that martial arts are about learning how to fight in some way. One could learn just self defense moves, non contact sparring, semi contact sparing, full contact sparring, for amature or professional matches but martial arts are about fighting.


Further more if one is a brown or black belt (or the non belt equivalent) in any martial art – you and the public expect and I think rightly so – you should be a good fighter of some sort. If fighting of some kind is not at least one expectation of your martial arts goals and achievements – you or martial artists of this ilk are giving the rest of us a black eye in my opinion.


I love the stunt work and movie martial artists. Many of them can really fight if they had to as can many kata champions. I don’t think artsy martial artists are any less of a fighter then the bad bad leroy brown… baddest man in the whole darn town… badder then old king kong… meaner than a junk yard dog…. sorry – I got off on a tangent. :) I like both the hard and soft, ying and yang and they both CAN be effective.


So here is the deal, if someone tells you he has a black belt in karate today – it may or may not mean anything. The only way you can tell is if you are a proficient fighter is if you are willing to step onto the mat with him. Beyond that – just be polite because talk is cheap. Give him the minimum respect but don’t send friends and family to him to learn karate unless you check him out. Black belts don’t really mean anything today in many cases. As the karate kid guys so aptly stated – it is just a belt. Its meaning depends on you and your instructor. 


By the way I did not mean to bad mouth PhD’s at the beginning of the post… I think most PhD’s could survive in the real world unlike someone that got the quicky doctorate from the diploma mill.


To close this out many of you might remember the first karate kid movie. The overview is a kid moved to a place where he was bullied and then learned karate to defend himself.



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22 Responses to “Why Learn Martal Arts? Hint… Fighting?”

  1. Adam Says:

    I agree with you John that fighting skills are important.

    But one often overlooked martial aspect is knowledge of how violence happens and a true knowledge of awareness. Knowing when you are in a higher threat area, recognising behaviour that may indicate someone is preparing to launch an attack of some type as well as the in control ego which enables people to walk away from heated arguments which often lead to needless and petty fights. This is in my mind, the higher level skills.

    Any dumb and immature person can learn fighting skills ( with practise and determination), but it takes someone with true self control and martial knowledge to recognise likely violent behaviour and the mental self confidence to walk away from useless and petty small arguments before they progress to toxic wastes of time. My 2 pesos.

  2. Matt Klein Says:

    As an instructor, I feel it is our duty to prepare our students for the street, and learning how to fight is an important part of that. The respect, both for self and for others, and the self-restraint, is another important part. It all goes together. I will respect you, and avoid violence at all costs, but if you give me no other choice, I have the means to protect myself. That is the mindset I want to give my students, and sparring is an essential part of it. Not all students may like it, but it is the closest they will ever come to real-life violence, without experiencing it. You learn how to fight, so you will never have to fight. Like your experience in high school John, once you learned something as simple as the old one-two combo, you were left well enough alone.

    Loved the Karate kid videos, and yes, the Phd’s of this world fill a very important need. Someone has to teach all those doctors, lawyers, vets, and engineers. I prefer that their teachers be the best. Enjoyed the post, John.
    Matt Klein recently posted..Just Start Drawing- Kids Karate Sensei Becomes White Belt Again–Part TwoMy Profile

  3. Dr. J Says:

    That was a wonderful read, John!

    I initially began my martial arts training because I wanted to defend myself from bullies! At the end of my first beginners class from a MP trained while stationed in Korea, I’ll never forget how he reminded us how we were all martial artists now and of the responsibility we all had to use our “skills” (after one class lol) with honor! I was lucky to start with that man. I sometimes think my first promotion which was green belt meant as much to me as any of the ones that followed. Certainly black belt was significant as my sensei took off the belt he was wearing and tied it around my waist. The belt I still wear to this day, Very gray around the edges :-)
    Although I was already a black belt when I discovered Tracy’s Kenpo, in many way I went from kyu to dan (boy to man) in their system, something that I am grateful for and apply to this day. If I am bullied now, I will apologize and walk away, if they take this for weakness and challenge me twice, I will “tear their heart out.”

  4. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Adam,

    Good point about the usage of fighting skills. I’ve walked away from plenty of conflicts that could have easily turned into fights… kind of why maybe that I survived. One never knows what the other guy is going through – you know maybe he lost a loved one and is looking for an excuse to unload on the world. Thanks for commenting Adam.

    Hey Matt,

    Yep the fighting is and should always be part of the training – even those that don’t think they will ever need it… good instructors like you have to inject a little reality check at times maybe to let them know the world is not always a clean sanitized place and one might just have to depend on their training to pull them through a tough scrape. Thanks for the insightful comment Matt!

    Hey Dr. J!

    I think many servicemen learned good skills in the far east… I know that’s were Joe Lewis got his start too.

    Thanks for the visual of your first black belt… quite an honor to get it that way.

    Most martial artists have learned the lesson of humility and they just might have to back it up someday. I like you do not like giving the bullies of the world free reign! Thanks for the comment Dr. J

  5. Marius Says:

    You do write very well and everything is absolutely true in what you are saying BUT, please get rid of all those Karate Kid clips. While some of the concepts shown are good, you, given the fact that you have training, should know that the movie is a bad inspiration for anyone that wants to learn how to protect themselves.

    Nowadays self defence is much more than Karate!
    Marius recently posted..How to Find a Good Self Defence InstructorMy Profile

  6. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Marius,

    I don’t see how the movie clip are mutually exclusive. I mean who cares nowadays what martial art one likes… karate, judo, boxing, wrestling, or whatever.

    Karate in the quazi traditional sense still exists and movie displays the classic motif of a kid getting bullied, learns how to fight and then makes good.

    Thanks for your comment – I think we may have to agree to disagree on this point.

  7. Kadri Says:

    Very good to read. It´s very important to know how to protect herself when it´s necessary.
    Kadri recently posted..Why is women self-defense differentMy Profile

  8. Ryan Says:

    Really interesting post!
    I did not know that about most black belts. Thanks for the info!
    Ryan recently posted..How To Become A Real Estate AgentMy Profile

  9. Jon Says:

    I once heard a woman in a Tai Chi Chuan class refuse to believe a story of how an old master killed a thug while defending his daughter from “a fate worse than death”. The only martial arts I have ever done are practical self defence. Sparring is always a key area of development. Yang Ma Lee said of tai chi that without the martial training you lose most of the health anyway.
    Jon recently posted..Herol Bomber Graham Seminar Announced at 5 ElementsMy Profile

  10. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Thanks Ryan.

    Hi Jon,

    Sage advice for anyone – keeping the martial in martial arts. I think self defense created the need for the arts in the first place so while I appreciate the hard and soft styles – it would be good to keep some practical aspects.

    Thanks for commenting.

  11. Zara Says:

    I fully support the notion that martial arts are about fighting first and foremost otherwise it’s pointless activity, that is why training should be conducted with discipline and intent: when kicking or punching imagine a real opponent and kick and punch with speed, accuracy and power (at least on the pads or bag), when throwing be quick and decisive, when locking put him down immidiately without superflous movement. If you don’t consider violence an appropriate solution to extreme situations involving violence employed against you or a credible threat in that direction you have no business being in the martial arts… Even soft or internal arts like aikido and tai-chi are about learning to protect oneself from attack: obviously there are many other advantages to studying a martial art (health, relaxation, fitness, social contact…) but its essence is the efficient and effective employment of violence: those who are not very proficient will often resort to fuzzy logic and pseudo-mystical bullshit to make up for their shortcomings while forgetting true spirituality comes from the influence of religious and philosophical systems that have littel to do with the martial arts. Fighting is a skill that is in itself amoral (depending on the context it can be good or bad) but being a good person is no excuse for a lack of skill due to fawlty training, lack of character or a bad teacher.

    I fully agree higher belts should be able to spar with a minimum level of profiency, otherwise all they have is mere technical skill (mimicking the movements of the teacher) or even worse time spent in training with little to show for it except a piece of clothing that can be bought quite cheaply at any convenience store. All good teachers I’ve met so far have one thing in common (regardless of style): they are confident and able to destroy you should the need arise, obviously they are not violent men (usually quite the opposite) but they know their art is not a dance or a spiritual exercise but a means of damaging and defeating those who mean harm to the innocent. I’m not violent and the prospect of hurting another human-being does not appeal to me but I respect myself too much to allow others to threaten my safety and honour and that is partly why I train. As a man I’m of the opinion you should be able to protect those you love so you’d better acquire some means of defense, can’t count on the cops 24/7 and martial arts are a good way to induct young boys into manhood by steeling their character, teaching them how to deal with hardship and defeat and to allow them to learn about responsibility before life does it for you. Obviously this is only feasible through real training, not a nutered parody taught by frauds or misguided idealists. There is evil in this world and you’d better know what to do to keep it at bay should it find you or yours, to me martial arts is a good way to prepare for this especially since the laws forbid me to carry a firearm. Enjoying myself, keeping fit, meeting new people etcet. are bonusses but not the main reason why I train. If not I might aswell have chosen football or athletics.

  12. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Very well spoken Zara! As you say there are other reasons to take martial arts but they should all lead to self defense at a minimum.

  13. Jon Says:

    Zara, if this was Facebook I’d “like” that comment. Very well said.
    Jon recently posted..Pay As U Go Gym – New Way To Workout Without A ContractMy Profile

  14. Brason Says:

    Hey John —

    I’ve been occupied for a while and just had some time today to enjoy with my family and reflect on things — my life-long friends from the karate world are all priceless.

    I’m glad to see that you’re continuing to write about things that you enjoy and things that make others think. This was a nice article. You continue to make good points and other nice distinctions.

    I’m always in touch with Chicken. I must let him know to get in contact with you and maybe we could have a visit at the school on El Cajon Boulevard. Maybe we could one day write an article together.

  15. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Brason,

    Thanks for continuing to read the blog. The cool thing about blogging is it can lead to a better understanding as it is peer reviewed. Although not everyone will always agree – we come away with a better understanding of everyones positions.

    I missed Chicken on Saturday – I heard he was in working out.

    I’d love have you guest post on the blog as I would from any UKF, AKA or Tracy’s black belts. There is a lot of expertise out there and I’d like to be one forum for their voice.

    Thanks for commenting Brason!

  16. randombloke Says:

    I agree with you here, doing martial arts for way over half my life, and will continue most likely till I can’t move around on my own no more.
    My first sensei told me something when I was 9 years old which I didn’t understand till much later.
    “We learn and practice how to fight in order not to fight”
    I’m still young just under 30, and today it makes sense. I got my Shodan YAY doesn’t mean anything. It’s the training in it self, it’s clarity with which I can approach people because I know I can defend my self that counts. When I see some of the martial art schools around the world when I travel I’m again again genuinely shocked to see 10-12 year olds run around with black belts in a Dojo. Shodan is a sign of coming ‘age’ in my book the color of the belt doesn’t matter, once you’re a good proof of ‘age’ skills and wisdom then you may call your self Shodan

  17. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Randombloke,

    Sounds like a wise sensei you had. I’m surprised by how young some black belts are too. I would be hard to imagine that they could truly be an expert at fighting.

    Thanks for you comment.

  18. Ryan Says:

    Interesting article! I totally agree with you on the subject of black belts needing to be able to fight. I also agree that it is hard to believe that someone who is younger than 16 would have the body frame to hold their own against an adult. Lastly, I think that non-contact schools don’t really teach their kids martial arts and how to defend themselves. If you get in a fight and you’ve never actually punched or kicked someone for real before, I’m not sure that you’ll do too well.
    Ryan recently posted..Laptop WeightMy Profile

  19. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Thanks for weighing in on this Ryan. I’m conflicted on the non-contact schools because on the one hand they teach all of the moves but on the other kids don’t get a chance to feel what it is like to punch and get punched.

  20. Ryan C Says:

    John and Ryan I agree with both of you. I practice kyokushin karate and we definitely believe in contact at our dojo. Knowing Kata and practicing Kihon help get improve your overall all technique but it is important that any practicing martial art know what it feels like to hit and be hit.

  21. Marc G. Says:

    Great Post John. I think most of the problem with martial training is that fighting itself has become so frowned upon socially that noone wants to even think about it…even if it is at the core of the art they are practicing. Don’t misunderstand me, fighting was never a good thing. But, to be so apprehensive about the concept that people start inventing other reasons (almost like excuses) to train cuts the most valuable assets out of the art from the outset. Couple this mentality with the fact that so many “instructors” today are themselves barely competent in the arts the are meaning to teach and/or willing to sell belt rankings, and you end up with a great deal of confusion about the value and original intention of the martial arts themselves.

    Essentially, the more you are able to defend yourself, then (for the most part) the more confidence and stability you project to others out in the world…therefore, greatly reducing the chances that you will need to actually fight. Don’t look/act like a victim and most likely noone will try to make you one.

  22. Zara Says:

    I fully agree with Marc G.: in my old dojo we didn’t even practice striking pads and mitts, obviously this will not lead to effective striking and so for years I walked around doubting if I could ever really defend myself (regardless what system or style you practice: it’s always a good idea to hit hard, hit fast and hit often) if the shit hit the fan. The statement about the lack of competence in a lot of teachers is true imo: it’s pretty sad when you go to seminars and see higher belts that basically can’t defend themselves (obviously the result of poor teaching) or training with black belts only to reach the conclusion you’re much better than them. I still remember the time I had to tell a Nidan when attacking he shouldn’t leave his fist hanging… Clearly his belt wasn’t worth much more than the price you’d pay at a convenience store.

    The outlook of martial arts schools (whatever the style) should be pacifistic (meaning violence is only to be used as a last resort) but combined with a professional mindset: train hard (develop yourself both mentally and physically), respect your training partners and your sensei and never forget the ultimate goal of the techniques. A well trained martial artist should be a credit to his teacher, himself and his art and should be able to give a good account of himself regardless of the reasons he started training in the beginning. To me this is the least you can expect, I think we can all agree on that.

    The observation in the last paragraph is paradoxical but true: ultimately you learn to fight so as to never have to use it. Those who are fundamental pacifists and abhor violence even in self defense will be clueless when fists start flying (or worse) and ironically expect others to use force to defend them and their homes. Some would call this hypocrisy… If we lived in a perfect world there’d be no need for fighting but unfortunately the world’s less than perfect and there are a lot of bad and stupid people out there. Reminds me of an old samurai saying that still holds true today: ‘the sword that cuts down evil is the sword that gives life’.