World famous martial artist Hee Il Cho makes a strong case: blending the sport of boxing with the art of tae kwon do.
The bloodied contestants treas through the last moments of their bout. Jab. Cross. Wild left hook. in the stands an oriental man shrugs and turns to his neighbor. "They disgrace the art of karate," he says. His partner cannot help but ageree, though his eyes do not leave the ring; and secretly he wonders how he would fare in a match like this.
Full-contact. The bugaboo of traditional martial arts. So often decried by so many traditional instructors that to ridiculle it is a casua; form of introduction in some circles. But could any good technician destroy these wearied contenders. with their sloppy blend of karate and boxing" Or is it possible, as internationally famous champion and teacher Hee Il Cho insists, that full-contact fighters are the modern martial arts elite, comparable only to the swordsmen and bare-handed monks of olden day?
"I challenge any one of these traditionalists to go up against the heavy bag for three minutes‹just three minutes‹and pound on it without stopping, with all his power," Cho says. "If the next day his arms are not sore, then he is really in good shape. I've had traditionallytrained black belts come into my studio and fall apart after one minute with the heavy bag.
"Karate was developed long ago," he adds, "when you could not actually practice the arts of self" defense, because the risks were too great."
Those were the days before invention of modern training and safety equipment. And it was to compensate for lack of actual sparring that a whole slew of substitute training methods were devised: kata, makiwara boards, one-, two- and three-step sparring drills, and so on. Together, they comprised a network of training concepts we now think of as "the traditional way."
But all these had only evolved to meet the needs of a specific time. "They can be abandoned now," says Cho.
According to Cho, a traditional tae kwon do master who has also train ed in boxing, some timehonored methods‹ while perhaps the best for
the era they served‹are decidedly not the best today. Better than endless repetition of a single technique, is pounding on a heavy bag. Better than kata is full-contact sparring. Better than deep breathing exercises are long-distance running and jumping rope, combined with a dose of weightlifting, American-style. "You want to know where the best physical conditioning is? Look where the money is," says Cho. And the money, needless to add, is not in karate at all. The money is in boxing, from which fullcontact has borrowed heavily.
It is no secret among advanced martial artists that a good boxer would present a very serious threat indeed in a fight. "A boxer will see that reverse punch coming from a mile away," says one worldclass traditional karateka. "And he's just going to sidestep, hook to the head, maybe follow with a right cross, and bring you down. That's why fullcontact fighters tend to use boxing hand techniques. It's not because they can't do a reverse punch, it's because the boxing works better."
But does this mean that martial artists should all quit their classes and sign up at boxing gyms, engaging in full-contact matches occasionally to test their progress? "No," says Cho. "Boxing and full-contact are not for everyone, because not everyone is a born fighter. Not everyone can take the pain and punishment. But martial artists can learn a lot from boxing, even if they still prefer their own art. And when the two are truly blended, taking the best from each, that's when we will have developed the martial art of the future." Full-contact is a step on the way, Cho feels, but it is still primarily a sport for the gifted, motivated athlete, still comparable to boxing rather than true martial arts‹whose ultimate goal, after all, is not creation of a fighting machine, so much as refinement and strengthening of character.
The big difference Cho sees between full-contact and the traditional arts is the people who do them. "The full-contact fighter does his sport because he wants to fight. Same as the boxer. He wants to make money doing what he's good at. But most people taking traditional karate nowadays are in it because they don't want to fight. They're afraid somebody might jump them, and they want to know what to do about that.
"Or else they're into it to get a little exercise, to work out once or twice a week. They don't want to give their whole lives to training. They don't want to get up before dawn every day and run five or ten miles, go to sleep earIy, give up their social life, work out for most of every day. That's what boxers and full-contact fighters do, though."
And then there's full-contact sparring. Probably the next closest thing to real combat, it may therefore be the best preparation for real combat. But how many people are willing to go through it? "Some trainers think you can take anybody and stick him in the ring, give him a little experience in full-contact, and he will be a better fighter." But, as Cho explains, "That just isn't so. You have to gauge the individual. If a student is cocky, you can put him in the ring with a better or bigger fighter‹ bring him down to size. But if he's afraid anyway and you do that to him, he may quit the class; or he may never recover. With someone who's afraid, it's better to train without contact for a longer time."
And that's the beauty of traditional training. It can take average people, who don't want to train for full-contact fighting‹people, that is, who are worried, not eager, about fighting, and bring them to the point where they can defend themselves. Thanks to a time when full-contact was too dangerous to be a practical training tool, average people today can raise their physical and emotional level and live in fear of no one. No doubt about it, Cho claims, modern training methods are the best for developing a fighter... if he already has the desire to fight; and if he already has the selfdiscipline and the motivation to dedicate himself to it. But for getting the student to that point, there is nothing better than the traditional way.
Through training in the basics, through kata, through breathing exercises and controlled sparring matches, the student can at least become familiar with his body's movement, with his own capacities, and with the fundamentals of attack and defense. Then, if he wants to go on from there, he can always take up fullcontact and a singleminded training regimen.
"It's really not a good idea to compare martial arts with full-contact or boxing," Cho says, "because they are such entirely different things. Fullcontact fighters and boxers are athletes, who want to be in the best possible physical condition for their sport, which is a form of fighting. But martial arts try more to develop the whole person.
"You have to have a tremendous amount of discipline and courage to be a full-contact fighter or a pro boxer, but it's a very specialized, narrow form of courage. Just like some Viet Nam war veterans‹ they were heroes in war, but when they got home from the war, they fell apart. They were great men in a certain environment, but when you got them in an environment that was different, maybe more difficult for them, they couldn't handle it." That's what bothers Cho most about traditional martial artists denigrating the abilities of full-contact fighters: they don't really know what they're talking about. "Let them try it once," he says, "and see how hard it is, before they go talking so much. Let them stand in the ring and fight for a few rounds, with the crowd screaming, and see if they can take it." And that's one thing the full-contact fighter has over the traditionalist: he has actually experienced full-contact fighting. He doesn't have to wonder about his techniques, either‹he has seen them in action, and he knows they work. Besides, he's probably in much better physical shape than the traditionalist. He is an athlete, honed to his sharpest edge, ready and training for a fight.
His techniques may very well be more scientific, too, as far as they go. While many karate systems pride themselves on retaining old techniques, performing, say, the standard reverse punch much as it was performed by the original founders of the art, boxing (and full-contact) prides itself on adapting to experience. No boxer strives to emulate the style of the 1920s, because boxing has come a long way since then. The stances have become more mobile, the movements quicker, the strikes more powerful and more balanced.
Take for instance that old standby, the karate reverse punch. Yes, this is an extremely powerful punch, no doubt about
that. When performed correctly, it is altogether capable of breaking bones and obliterating opponents. But what if it misses? The body remains upright, the shoulders do not help block a counterpunch to the face, the whole body is still committed to the motion of the technique. You're wide open, in other words.
The boxer's standard right cross is just as (or nearly as) powerful, with a great deal more mobility to the sides and a greater amount of security after the technique. It gives you a greater chance of a quick follow-up or defense it hits as hard and doesn't commit as much. One or two punches might indeed be enough to finish a streetfight, as the classic karate dictum goes‹but shouldn't you train anyway in recovering from a miss in following punches with other punches, in ducking, weaving, sidestepping?
What about "closing the gap" on an opponent? Does it make sense, in terms of the physical confrontation, to wait for the slightest opening, then rush forward in karate style and put the whole body into your one or two most powerful techniques? Or is there something to be said for the boxer's method, of feinting, darting, dancing forward and back, creating the weakness you hope to exploit?
Strangely, there are traditionalists who agree that boxing can be as effective as karate hand techniques, yet who still reject adopting boxing's methods and insights. They argue that physical movements of the body have a spiritual or mental effect on the fighter. If you bob and weave and fake, in other words, your mind is not as strong and admirable, your discipline not as powerful, as if you were standing stock-still, allowing your opponent the first move. This sort of argument encapsulates the whole difference between a fighting sport, with its attitude of lively, sporting competition, and a traditional, ethics-oriented fighting art, undertaken for purposes of self-development.
Of course, those who argue that "a boxer will wipe out any karate expert"‹and it's a fairly common argument in the United States‹simply aren't very familiar with their subject. Hee 11 Cho teaches boxing hand techniques to his students, because he believes they are superior. But he also adds that boxing is only a sport‹it neglects the allround fighting aspects covered by martial arts. What would a boxer do against a sweep, a low kick, a grab, takedown, pressure-point or jointlocking attack?
One of the most effective techniques available in a fight, Cho says, is a good, sharp kick to the knee; but boxing or American-style full-contact give the fighter too much a feeling that only his upper torso counts in a fight. Cho, in contrast, spends nearly half a volume of his two-book instructional series The Complete Martial Artist just on kicks, detailing and explaining them from the learning to the perfection stage. The martial artist, he feels, must be able to strike with any of the four principal weapons of the human body‹he may not limit himself to two. The martial art of the future, then, will learn not only from boxing but also from the most traditional systems.
But what do the two types of training, when all is said and done, actually have to give each other?
First of all, the traditional arts certainly have a few things to learn about physical training, according to Cho. He agrees that each instructor should find the optimum level of physical conditioning for his own students and their desires; but he does insist that far too little attention is paid to pure physical exercise in the traditional dojo. Students should take up running. They should learn to work out on the heavy bag and get a feel for actually hitting a heavy object at full power. Small students should take up weightlifting, to increase their strength and bodyweight. In general, someone in better overall shape is going to be faster, stronger, more agile and better able to withstand punishment in a fight‹ regardless of the quality of his technique.
The traditional arts should be willing to incorporate the lessons of fullcontact experience, he insists. This means watching full-contact matches, engaging in them, looking for techniques that really work against a ready, willing, qualified opponent ...not huddling around one's traditions and rejecting anything that smacks of modern times.
But it also means introducing students to fullcontact sparring. "Today we have wonderful fullcontact equipment," Cho says, "and students will not be seriously injured by sparring. Most people are not ready to step into a ring and go at it fullcontact, even with protective gear. But we do not say, 'well, go home then, the martial arts have nothing for you.'We build them, using the non-contact methods of the past, to where they have the confidence and training not to be totally lost out there‹maybe brown belt, or for some people, black belt level. But then they have to have some fullcontact training. How else are they going to understand hitting a moving person, getting the timing and distancing right and still hitting hard, not just tagging them? After a certain rank in training, everybody should have some fullcontact experience."
This doesn't mean going into a concrete-walled dojo where they lock the door behind you and you see bloodstains on the floor. You don't have to be hurt to spar full-contact. You don't have to train exclusively with full-contact. In fact, most professional boxers only spar once a week when in training for a fight. That tends to be enough to keep their timing and rhythm sharp. But, Cho feels, there are lessons to be learned in fullcontact that simply can't be learned elsewhere.
On the other hand, the traditional arts have their own lessons to teach. Like taking a non-fighter and building his confidence and attitude, his body and his techniques, to the point that he loses his fear of confrontation. That is probably as remarkable a feat as taking a nonscientist and teaching him theoretical physics. It can be done, but only as the end-product of a long and arduous training process, whose methods, proved over the years, should not be abandoned lightly.
Cho argues, too, that both traditional and modern fighting systems have things to give each other in the realm of pure technique. Boxers' hand
techniques, he feels, are better all-round than the old hand techniques of most karate systems. But, of course, the kicks of a kicking system like tae kwon do are as refined as kicks can get‹and in streetfighting there is definitely a place for kicking.
The traditional arts also generally teach a variety of grappling moves besides striking; and both boxers and full-contact fighters have plenty of room for learning in that respect ... since such moves are thoroughly illegal in their sports but not on the street. And while Cho feels that boxing's maneuverability is mostly an asset in fighting, it can't just be adopted as is by the martial arts. "Some of that low ducking and bobbing is only practical in boxing because of the rules of the sport," he explains. "You try that low duck in the street against a street fighter, and he's going to knock you out with a good knee to the face."
It seems clear that mar tial arts should be more than fighting. They should carry their unique benefit farther than the battlefielr farther than the dojo or the tournament. They should develop discipline in the individual, courage, the ability to harmonize mind and body, so that th body can carry out the mind's purpose without a lowing fear or self-doubt cripple the will. These arc all the sorts of benefits f~ which the traditional arts are renowned. They may some cases be developer also by the rigorous train ing of the full-contact fighter or boxer. But his form of training is not for everyone; and it runs the risk of no longer being a' art. The blending of both these forms will create a martial art suitable for th modern world. It will be c martial art, says Hee Il Cho, which will be capat of taking anyone and giv ing him a real and justifi self-confidence. It will make him a martial artis comparable to any, with the physical techniques and the mental attitudes worthy of his long heritage.