Dueling Mantras: Competing Tactical Tenets in Martial Arts

There are many rules of thumb that are used to convey useful generalizations to martial arts students. One that I’ve heard for years is:

“Use as big a movement as you have time for.”

The idea is that big movements are more powerful and, thus, more likely to be effective in damaging/dissuading the opponent–if they land. Big movements use major joints and muscle groups, and allow one to put one’s body-weight into the target. There is, of course, a trade-off that’s recognized in the latter part of the tenet, and that’s that big movements are slower movements and slower movements are less likely to succeed. (i.e. One needs to streamline one’s big movements.)

Like any generalization, this tenet can be valuable only as long as one recognizes where its truth falters. I think this rule of thumb is great as long as the student does sufficient sparring / randori (after they’ve learned the basics.) If one doesn’t (e.g. if one only practices forms,) one can easily develop a false impression of how much time one has against an opponent who doesn’t practice the same art–and how big a movement one can make work. In other words, one’s enemy may dance about pummeling one about the head and neck as one lunges with big (futile) movements.

The aforementioned tenet isn’t the only way of looking at the question of whether to favor big (long/slow) or small (short/fast) movements.

One might also suggest:

“Use as small a movement as will sufficiently damage the opponent.”

Again, there’s a trade-off. While small movements offer relatively high odds of success–they are hard to see and counter–they aren’t as likely to achieve a much sought-after coup de grace (meaning a fight-ender, not necessarily a killing blow.) The risk one faces if one follows this second tenet too blindly and without sparring is becoming extremely fast while unable to punch one’s way through a wet paper sack. This is kung fu movie style martial arts, very impressive to look at but not so so effective in a combative sense.

I would argue that one should take advantage of any opportunity to deliver substantial damage with small movements (quadrant IV of the first graph), but be aware that these opportunities don’t grow on trees. How does one defy the trade-off? As an example, I have found that moving an elbow into the line of attack of an incoming limb can destroy said limb’s effectiveness briefly, offering one an exploitable opportunity. This is extremely hard for the opponent to see and respond to once they are committed to an attack.


Size v Damage


So the ultimate question is whether one favors big/slow/low probability/high consequence movement over small/fast/high probability/low consequence movements. As per my second graph I would suggest one finds a way to employ tactics that are as close to quadrant II as possible, while realizing they’re a tall order in a combative situation.

Likelihood v Damage


Figuring out how to manage these trade-offs requires a journey to the intersection of accuracy and power.  It’s extremely difficult to be precise in a combative environment, everything is in motion and time isn’t aplenty. However, as one  fine-tunes one’s technique, one should consider what trade-offs are being made and how one can increase power without sacrificing accuracy and vice versa. Ultimately, it all boils down to practicing conscientiously, constantly, and with as much realism as is safe.


Now I know what you are thinking, “What kind of nerd puts three graphs in a martial arts blog post?”

This kind [Jutting both thumbs in my own direction simultaneously.]

5 Differences Between Muay Boran and Muay Thai

IMG_4014What is Muay Boran? It’s “ancient boxing,” and is considered an ancestor to the more well-known Muay Thai. Muay Boran isn’t a single unified system. Practicing Muay Boran is a bit like practicing “Karate,” which is to say there are a number of different and distinct systems that go by that generic name—some of which bear little resemblance to others. Muay Boran was originally a combat martial art, but came to be practiced as a sport as well. The latter practice included some rules, though relatively few in comparison to Muay Thai. Instead of padded gloves, they fought with their hands and wrists bound with hemp rope.

When I was in Thailand, I had an opportunity to participate in a couple rudimentary Muay Boran classes. I’d just read about this system in the June/July 2013 issue of Black Belt magazine, and was interested in seeing for myself how the discipline was distinct from Muay Thai. I’m fascinated by how martial arts that are more jissen (real combat) oriented differ from systems whose primary objective is something else (e.g. sport, wellness, etc.)  If one looks at a sport martial art such a Muay Thai, one can see how the nature of the rules and equipment subtly shape the nature of the movement. For example, if crotch attacks are illegal and one wears a cup to handle the occasional accidental crotch shot, one won’t worry about that vulnerability and–as one focuses on gaining advantages or minimizing disadvantages–one may end up with a vulnerability that would be disconcerting in jissen martial arts.

Before anyone gets huffy, I should point out that this isn’t a criticism. Sports must have rules so that they can be enjoyably practiced (and watched.)  Given the rules that are in place, one should optimize one’s performance to being as fast, powerful, and effective as possible. In other words, it would be silly to make one’s stance optimized to protecting one’s groin if the opponent can’t attack it (plus one has a little insurance policy against accidents) and if protecting that [non-existent] vulnerability made one any slower, less powerful, or otherwise less effective. I’m also not saying that combative sports are completely ineffective as self-protection. For sports like Muay Thai or MMA there is a huge space of overlap with the no rules combative situation, and—furthermore—the athleticism developed will allow one to adjust to the non-rule environment quickly.

That being said, I’m curious about how Muay Boran is different from Muay Thai and what that might mean in terms of jissen-optimized fighting versus sport-optimized fighting. Here are a few things that I noticed both in the classes that I had at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, in the aforementioned Black Belt article, and from a few videos and articles that I could find on the internet from what I believe to be reputable sources. [I should disclaim that I’m far from an authority here. Full Disclosure: I’ve had 3 hours of MB training and done some reading and research.]

1.)    The basic Muay Boran guard covers the centerline. In other words, one’s hands are one fist in front of the other with both fists aligned on one’s centerline. This is as opposed to the boxing or Thai boxing guard in which either hand is to the outside of one’s head. Practitioners of Wing Chun or the system I am most familiar with, Gyokko-ryū will be familiar with what I’m talking about. I have vague theories about why protecting the centerline might be more advantageous in combat than sport. For one thing, it might help one make contact with incoming limbs in a way that supports transition into grappling. For another, it allows one to protect against coup-de-grace attacks more efficiently.

2.)    The basic stance of Muay Boran is lower and wider than in Muay Thai. I suspect this has to do with ranging and protection of vulnerabilities (e.g. the groin is harder to hit.)

3.)    While Muay Thai is considered the style of “8 weapons”: (leg (X2), knee (X2), elbow (X2), and fist (X2), Muay Boran is based on 9 weapons (i.e. it includes the good ole head-butt.) This isn’t a surprise. Without a head-butt prohibiting rule, one would expect people to use this devastating close-range weapon.

4.)    Muay Boran utilizes attacks against the limbs. In sport Muay Thai, there is little to be gained from this, but in a combative art if one can deaden limbs one gains a big advantage.

5.)    One thing that perplexed me at first is the fact that Muay Boran supposedly uses flying knees and flying elbows prolifically. (I should note these are used in Muay Thai occasionally as well, but they’re relatively rare as they are hard to land and to use without having mid-air vulnerabilities exploited.) What I found strange about this is that jissen martial arts tend to be much less flashy and rely on much simpler techniques than do sports. The old motto of KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is often spoken in jissen martial art dōjōs. However, I do have a theory about why the power generated by such tactics might have made them appealing. One mindset difference between sport and jissen martial art practitioners has to do with the role of time. In combat, time is not on your side, and pacing yourself can be a lethal strategy. You want to try to land strikes that have a high probability of putting the enemy out of commission, even if at a risk. That is, of course, just a neophyte’s theory.

I enjoyed learning a few Muay Boran techniques, and I can see how it was an effective combat system.

BOOK REVIEW: The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi

A Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to StrategyA Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy by Miyamoto Musashi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Miyamoto Musashi is probably the most famous swordsman in Japan’s history. Oddly enough,he’s not known for his experience in battle(he lived at the tail end of the Warring States period and was only in a couple of battles), but for his time spent in musha shugyo (warrior’s errantry), during which he engaged in over 60 duels. It is The Book of Five Rings that largely accounts for his continued fame. That being said, Musashi was quite the renaissance man, a painter and sculptor of note. He also left behind a school of swordsmanship, Niten Ichi-ryū.

The Book of Five Rings is divided into five parts: earth scroll, water scroll, fire scroll, wind scroll, and void scroll.

The earth scroll provides an overview of martial science and an introduction to Musashi’s school, which is noted for its simultaneous use of both the large and short sword. A section is devoted the rhythm of martial arts, a crucial topic. It also includes what might be considered Musashi’s 9-point budō kun (a list of warrior precepts.)It’s worth mentioning a couple of these.
#7 Become aware of what is not obvious.
#9 Do not do anything useless.

The Water scroll describes Musashi’s approach to swordsmanship. It covers a range of elements of a martial art including footwork, the focus of one’s eyes, physical posture, mental posture, techniques,kiai (spirit shout), and approaches to cutting and thrusting.

The Fire scroll deals with the strategic or interactive aspects of the battle. Among my favorite quotes from this scroll is, “If your own power of insight is strong, the state of affairs of everything will be clear to you.”

The Wind scroll teaches us about other martial arts. Musashi discusses martial arts that use an unusually long sword, an atypically short sword, that focus on powerful strikes, and those that focus on many rapid strikes. He contrasts other martial arts with his own on subjects such as their focus with the eyes and their footwork.

The void scroll deals with, well, emptiness.

Musashi had great insight into strategy from his career of dueling. His book is worth being read and reread.

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