There are often occasions when students come to me unsure about the differences and similarities between martial arts and combat sports which creates a situation where both are seen to be one and the same thing. This is not so. There are clear distinctions between martial arts and combat sports that require clarification, especially considering how their lines have become blurred in recent years to such an extent that it is difficult to determine one from the other. Despite their similar appearances martial arts cannot be regarded as combat sports and combat sports cannot be regarded as martial arts. Blurring the lines between the two leads to situations where the nature, purpose and attributes of each become ambiguous and the original intention of the art/sport risks becoming lost. In the name of preservation their similarities and differences must be recognised, understood and accepted for what they are for both to progress. This article aims to clarify these similarities and differences to determine the most appropriate route for the practitioner to take in their training and goals. This article is not designed to claim superiority for either the martial arts or combat sports as this would produce an entirely subjective viewpoint which moves us away from the development of knowledge and meaningful discussion. Instead, I will focus upon their characteristics in order for future practitioners to have a clear understanding of each and determine which is most suitable for them.
Martial arts are designed first and foremost as a means of self-defence whereas combat sports are designed as a means of competition. This difference distinguishes the two more than any other aspect and largely determines the path that the practitioner should take. Martial arts are designed for real fighting whereas combat sports are designed for controlled fighting. What is meant by real versus controlled? Real fighting is vicious and unforgiving. There are no rules, no referees and rarely are fighters evenly matched – size, skills, age, environmental conditions, etc. Real fighting is most often sudden, spontaneous and over very quickly. Most of all, real fighting is extremely dangerous and should only be engaged in as a last resort. The worst-case scenario of engaging in real fighting is death, and due to its unpredictable and dangerous nature, death is a real possibility which must be accounted for. Martial arts were originally designed around these concepts, as a means of unarmed combat that could defeat an aggressive opponent as efficiently and safely as possible.
Combat sports by comparison have rules and referees, and fighters are evenly matched. Protective clothing is worn and there are time limited rounds which provide the fighter with time to recover. Whilst the ultimate intention of the fighter should be to knock the opponent out, point scoring is generally the intention which is most widely trained. These factors create a situation which although dangerous, is not nearly as dangerous as a real fighting situation devoid of these control mechanisms. This is not to say that controlled fighting is not dangerous or emotionally and physically taxing. The element of fighting still remains after all and there are many examples of sporting fighters who have died or been seriously injured in the ring or after. Indeed, out of all sports, combat sports are certainly the most demanding and dangerous and require the highest levels of skill, fitness, emotional strength, intelligence and spirit, the same factors which are also required in martial arts. Where the difference lies, however, is in their applications under certain situations. Would a combat sportsman be able to effectively fight an opponent on the street, with no rules? Maybe, but training a limited skill set designed for use under a controlled environment and against a similarly matched opponent puts the combat sportsman at a serious disadvantage against the street fighter, whom one would argue is more well versed towards this situation. Similarly, can the martial artist adapt to a sporting situation to overcome the sportsman? Again maybe, but many of the skills and techniques that martial artists rely upon will most likely be banned from use in a match situation, limiting the effectiveness of the martial artist and giving the advantage to the sportsman, who can spend round after round keeping the martial artist at bay through point scoring and possibly wearing him out before the knock-out. Both are designed primarily around their intended use – martial arts for the street, combat sports for the ring – and to regard these two situations as similar and interchangeable is unwise.
The nature of real fighting – sudden, spontaneous, unpredictable and vicious – creates conditions which cannot be bound by conventions or limitations and because of this neither should martial arts be bound by these same factors. There should be no limits to what the mind and body can do to defeat the opponent. This would include: the types of strikes and attacks that can be used; the targets that are available on the opponent; the use of effective fighting strategies; and the use of the mind to mentally and spiritually overcome the opponent. Martial arts should be limitless in their theory as well as their application. For instance, every part of the body can be turned into a weapon. Punches, palm strikes, elbows, forearms, finger strikes, kicks, knees, shins, head-butts, shoulders and hips can all be used as weapons to defeat the opponent. So too can grabs, locks, chokes, throws and sweeps. Also, biting, pinching, gouging, scratching and small joint manipulations are effective in certain situations and should never be discounted due to their viciousness and perception as ‘dirty’ fighting techniques. There is no place for such morals when faced with a situation against a dangerous opponent who wishes to kill you. The targets of attack follow a similar path. Limiting your attacks to the face and body limits your potential to defeat the opponent. Other effective targets include: the joints (elbows, knees, shoulders, hips, wrists, ankles and fingers), the back of the head, the spine the neck, the feet, the eyes and the testicles. Broadening the targets of attack broadens the opportunities to defeat the opponent. This is especially useful when considering why a fight is initiated in the first place. Generally, the only reason why somebody starts a fight with you on the street is because he thinks he can win. This is usually down to this type of person feeling superior than you – size, strength, fitness, skills, etc. The real fighting situation almost always begins as an uneven match and because of this the martial artist must use every possibility at his disposal to overcome this uneven engagement, which includes using an unlimited array of attacks at effective targets.
By comparison, combat sports are limited by their attacks and targets. Even in a sport such as MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) there are many rules which outlaw effective attacks and targets. Rules are implemented for two reasons; safety and fairness. The professional fighter’s career would be severely curtailed if there were no rules and how many practitioners would really want to enter fighting matches time and time again where they could be seriously injured of killed? Indeed, could our modern viewing public stomach the return of colosseum type fights to the death? In both cases this answer is most likely no. Modern day human beings have progressed beyond spectacles of death and there are much safer career routes than to fight in these types of matches. Sports are still desired by society, however, by both viewers and participators, combat sports being the most exciting and attracting larger events and sums of money than any other sport. The public and participators want to see a fair and even match though, where the best fighter comes out victorious. This adds to the excitement. It is no fun watching two unevenly matched fighters and knowing from the start who will win. In an even match, the fighter that overcomes their opponent is revered as the man who overcame all odds through their fighting spirit, which leads to a huge sense of achievement for the fighter and inspires the viewing public. Because society still desires competition there will always be a place for combat sports. This place is in the ring, however, not on the street. For the street, martial arts are the effective choice.
This leads me on to a discussion on the mental differences between martial arts and combat sports. Because competition is the nature of combat sports, a competitive mentally is developed within these fighters. This mentally is extremely necessary for use within the ring but can be dangerous when used on the street. It is unwise to turn a deadly engagement on the street, against an opponent who seriously wants to hurt you, into a competition. The opponent will certainly not recognise the fight as a competition and will most likely attack you suddenly, viciously and with everything they have. A different mentality is required for situations like these. The martial artist must develop a mentality which is more ferocious than the opponent, and ready to explode into action attacking the opponent with everything they have. We call this mentality ‘intent’ and the martial artist must develop the intent to defeat the opponent no matter what happens. Combat sportsmen rarely develop this mentality. It would be impossible to maintain this level of intent for more than a few minutes, let alone twelve rounds. It is simply too draining. It would be like asking the one hundred metre sprinter to sprint an entire twenty-six-mile marathon. The body simply cannot maintain this level of high impact exertion for more than a few minutes at a time. As well as this, in order to truly let go of all of your inhibitions and attack with everything you have you cannot be limited by rules. Rules hold the fighter back from giving it all. If a combat sportsman was to truly let go of their inhibitions to give it their all they would most certainly be disqualified for an illegal shot/technique. This letting go is necessary, however, for real fighting, which should be finished as swiftly as possible by using all of your power, skills and intent in an explosive and ferocious manner.
Spiritually, martial arts are not just an effective fighting system but are a lifestyle, their theories and philosophies permeating into all aspects of our lives. Whilst combat sports should incorporate their concepts into daily life they rarely do so outside of career progression. This is not to say that career progression is unimportant. We all need careers to progress through life and the combat sports have the infrastructure in place to earn vast amounts of money in a short space of time, much more that the martial arts do. The martial arts, however, generally focus much more on personal development, where through training you learn much more about yourself and the world around you, developing your character, personality and attributes alongside strengthening your weaknesses. The philosophies of the martial arts are designed to help the practitioner traverse through the complexities of life with confidence, determination, resilience, self-sufficiency and decisiveness. These are also key spiritual concepts that should be used when fighting on the street and a lapse in any of these can determine the outcome of the fight. The concepts used in fighting in the martial arts are one and the same as the concepts used to live successfully in life.
I have only briefly discussed some of fundamental differences and similarities between martial arts and combat sports to aid in beginners making the right choice on the path more suited to them and in doing so I have clarified a number of ambiguities that exist between the two. Martial arts and combat sports should not be compared as being better of worst than one another but seen as distinctly different activities for use under equally distinct situations. What path you take is largely down to your character, personality and goals. Some people are looking for a martial art, others for a combat sport, but where the boundaries between the two have become blurred making this choice has become more difficult to make. I hope to have clarified this subject in order for beginners to make the right decision that will benefit their lives and allow them to reach their full potential.