Thursday, May 12, 2011

Martial Arts

Although collar-and-elbow was seen as a common man's sport in Ireland, it was considered a gentlemen's pastime in several areas of the colonies. It was part of the curriculum at the Reverend James Maury's Academy in Fredericksburg, Virginia. George Washington, at the age of eighteen, held a collar-and-elbow championship that was at least county wide. Twenty-eight years later, in command of the Continental Armies, he demonstrated his wrestling skill by dealing flying mares to seven volunteers from Massachusetts. Washington was not the only grappling president of the United States. Zachary Taylor, William Howard Taft, Chester A. Arthur and Calvin Coolidge also practiced at one time or another the style of collar-and-elbow. Abe Lincoln was a champion of catch-as-catch-can wrestling and once referred to himself as possibly the second best wrestler in southern Illinois.

The 'flying mare' mentioned in the quote is basically the same thing as the ippon seoinage judo throw. Although 'George Washington, judo master' sounds like something from a bad webcomic, our first president would have a good chance of winning a judo match with a samurai. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Although martial arts is often associated with Oriental cultures, all European societies also have a long tradition of martial arts. Usually this involved some kind of wrestling or bare-knuckles brawling in a very competitive and brutal environment. Getting thrown into a ring with lots of different people is a very effective training method, if you survive.

Many Oriental martial arts also originated from this kind of atmosphere. But sometime in the last two centuries, western martial arts turned into a variety of competitive sports like boxing and catch wrestling, while Oriental styles lost the focus on intense competition and became more structured, traditional, and philosophical. The result of this was that Western champions usually won fights with Oriental 'masters'.

Ironically, the same attributes that make rigid Oriental martial arts styles ineffective also preserve them. There are a lot of people who would like to learn self-defense and fighting skills but do not want to be thrown into a competitive sport. A structured and safe curriculum is ideal, even if it comes at the expense of effectiveness. A year of high school wrestling will make you a better ground fighter than a year of martial arts, but the wrestling will not help you if you get injured, or simply stop training because the experience is so unpleasant.

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