Martial Arts vs Combat Sports

I tend to use the terms “Martial Arts” and “Combat Sports” interchangeably because in my mind, they are. I realize there are purists out there who get weirdly pedantic about that. “Wrestling and Boxing aren’t martial arts.” Yes, they are. I don’t care, dude. They are. Generally it seems like this distinction is important to guys who are into “traditional” martial arts, such as Karate, Kung Fu or Tae Kwon Do. I put the word “traditional” in quotes because I think that term in this context is also ridiculous, but I’ll expand upon that a few paragraphs down. My main point here is that in each fighting style, there is a sport component and an artistic component. For purposes of this discussion, “sport” refers to the physical and competitive aspects; balance, strength, conditioning, cardio, flexibility, speed, etc. and “art” refers to the mental and internal aspects; strategy, timing, technique, creativity and emotional control.

I don’t what the fuck is happening in this picture but it looked cool so I used it. And that’s what makes me a pro. 😀

I acknowledge that Boxing and Wrestling are most definitely combat sports. This is not in dispute. There is most definitely an art to them, however. And they are martial in nature. On the flip side, what people refer to as “traditional” martial arts have a sport element to them, and the sport aspect is most definitely combat related. The way some have explained the distinction is like this: a combat sport focuses on athleticism and competition whereas a martial art focuses on kata, meditation, and the tradition and history of the art. Okay. Interesting. I would contend that for combat sports, the equivalent of kata could be the movements they drill repeatedly eg footwork, shots, sprawls, jabs, crosses, hooks, uppercuts… just like kata in Karate but more specific to what that athlete/artist will be doing in that specific discipline. The meditation part of Karate or Kung Fu for example is equivalent to the mental preparation that a wrestler or boxer puts into their discipline. What really is the significant difference?

A quick aside, regarding the term “traditional” in this context, I find it funny that Karate, Kung Fu, Aikido, Tae Kwon Do, Judo, etc are considered “traditional” whereas Boxing and Wrestling are not. Look, for fuck sake, Wrestling and Boxing are older than any of those disciplines. They are the oldest disciplines out there, how are they not steeped in history or tradition? This is also why the term “traditional” in reference to other martial arts is silly. They all have long and storied traditions, even a comparatively new art like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has deep traditions. They are all “traditional” in nature.

So when I talk about the topic of martial arts, to be clear, I am talking about all fighting styles; Boxing. Wrestling, whether it’s Greco Roman, Freestyle, or Folk, or Pankration, which is basically Submission Wrestling but with kicks and slaps. Karate in its many styles. Kung Fu, also in its many styles. Tae Kwon Do. Judo. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Vale Tudo. Japanese Jiu Jitsu. Russian Sambo. Muay Thai. Muay Boran. Savate. Lethwei. Pencak Silat. Jeet Kune Do. Tang Soo Do. Dambe. Fencing. Escrima. Senegalese Wrestling. Mongolian Spatula Fighting. Antarctican Snowshoe Boxing. Martian Bacteria Flagellum Wrestling. Whatever. It’s all good.

It’s up to us as individual martial artists to find our own balance between art and sport. The sport aspect keeps you healthy, strong and durable. The art aspect keeps your mind sharp and your techniques on point. Drilling your technique over and over gives you a chance to find your rhythm and get into the proverbial “zone.” It helps unite body and mind, programming muscle memory to fire the technique automatically, and learning to see and anticipate multiple scenarios from that position. Sparring, or rolling, also unites body and mind, teaching us to stay calm and focused under pressure. There is a Zen to both drilling and sparring. 

If you focus mostly on the sport aspect of your fighting style, you are most likely capable of effective hand to hand self defense in a street fight. But I would implore you to focus on the artistic aspect of it whether it’s boxing, wrestling, Judo, Jiu Jitsu, Karate, Muay Thai, whatever… If you’re athletic and get by mostly on having greater strength or speed, take a moment to slow down. Focus on technique, and staying calm. Roll with less strength or speed, and see if you can still execute the moves. Treat your drilling like a meditation. Showing up at the gym and taking the class should be as much mental and spiritual development as it is a physical workout.

Conversely, if you attend a school or study a style that focuses mainly on the art, but little on the sport, then how do you know your training is at all effective in a combat situation? It may be worth your while to visit a gym that focuses on sparring and see if you can try a few classes there. How does your Karate hold up when you go and spar at the local kickboxing gym? How does your Aikido hold up when you try a few trial classes at the local BJJ academy? A little live sparring against fit, calculating, skilled humans can be a real eye opener. And, your mind will be sharper and clearer in a high stress scenario if you spar, because you will be used to getting hit. You will be used to having an opponent try to take you down and strangle you. 

So, in summation, athletes need the art, and artists need the sport. Engaging both the art and sport aspects of your discipline is a must for becoming a more complete fighter. And making the distinction between “Martial Art” and “Combat Sport” is, these days, trivial and petty (although I realize the irony of me holding that view point yet writing an article this long on the topic). Enjoy your martial arts journey, and remember to breathe. Happy training.

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