Most styles of martial arts attempt to give themselves a deep history. In the game of martial art legacy building, every art attempts to be more storied, more ancient, and deadlier than all other arts. But the fact of the matter is that many of the styles practiced today are newer than we wish to admit.
Greco-Roman Wrestling was so named to give it a connection to the ancient wrestling of Greece and Rome, but in fact was developed in the 1800s by a soldier in Napoleon’s army. Judo was formally founded in 1882 when Jigoro Kano founded the Kodokan. Some in Taekwondo claim their jumping kicks were created to take Mongol invaders off their horses, despite the fact that Taekwondo was officially adopted as a martial art in 1955, a period notable for its lack of Mongol raiders.
Some practitioners of Aikido claim their focus on wrist locks comes from the fact that in Medieval Japanese warfare soldiers were covered in armor up to the wrist, ignoring the fact that Aikido was founded in the 1920s, around the same time Karate began to spread around Japan. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a product of the 20th century, and the modern sport of Mixed Martial Arts has a history that can be measured in decades.
This isn’t to say that the techniques in those arts aren’t old. Often the techniques are older than the art and are connected or grow out of older traditions, but there is a meandering path that those arts needed to walk to reach the modern day.
The arts that are legitimately ancient tend to have to make compromises to survive that long. The Chinese and Japanese martial arts that have lasted centuries tend to focus heavily on forms and lose much of their combat effectiveness. While this prevents large scale changes to the art, actual combat experience within the art is diluted.
Western arts that have survived tend to do so in the form of sports. While this does allow a great deal of aliveness, the development of rules and competition can dramatically change an art. Different forms of submission wrestling turned into Freestyle Wrestling, losing the submission aspect. Different punching arts distilled into the organized sport of Boxing. Rapier and saber fencing were turned into Olympic Fencing, which is not a martial art at all but purely a sport. Other soldiering skills such as throwing spears or other heavy objects were incorporated into track and field events.
Most martial arts are born as those with combat experience attempt to form what they know into something repeatable and teachable. The founder or founders can instruct students, and it is possible for these teachings to turn into a defined system that can be spread. Some arts become widespread and transform into combat sports, while others do not.
There is much that can go wrong in this process and in the vast amount of fighting knowledge that has been gained in the history of martial conflict, only a small percentage has weathered the years to reach us to this day. Many fighting arts have been discarded, either for cultural reasons or because the style had become outdated.
But that does not mean these lost arts do not have an impact on the arts that come after them. The techniques, tricks, and traditions still useful from these abandoned styles often are seen in arts that they preceded, implying that there was some transference of knowledge.
To understand these lost arts is to better understand the development and growth of fighting technique and strategy, and thus better understand how we came to the techniques and systems of the modern day. If this seems a bit tangential from our normal MMA coverage, it is. If this is something that interests you, then welcome aboard. If not, then please leave it be, and don’t make a stink in the comments.
This series will strive to provide insight on some of these different styles and approaches to combat. To define the possible scope of this series: any form of fighting that was practiced widely enough for there to be several reliable sources, and that has either fallen out of practice or has suffered a lengthy break in its instructor lineage in the case of an art experiencing a revival.
I plan on tackling both weapon focused and empty handed arts. This series will not be super regular due to the fact that it isn’t directly related to our normal coverage. I have a few ideas on what I’d like to cover, but I’m open to suggestions.
Special Thanks for Patrick Wyman who is assisting with this series with his historical and medieval expertise.
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