Those of us old enough will remember trying to find a martial art club was almost impossible. Many clubs trained in backstreet gyms and halls, were often just a small group of friends. If you knew someone training already, it was easy to get in, if you didn't, well, it was virtually impossible. Fast forward to the early 70's. It was at this time that the 'Bruce Lee Phenomenon' hit the West. Enter The Dragon, a major Hollywood backed film, hit the silver screens. It was explosive, here was a guy who could do almost magical things, at blistering speeds, and so, as a direct result of that film, so was born the modern age of martial arts in the West.
Clubs began to spring up everywhere, people flocked to be trained so they could be like Bruce Lee! The reality of that was somewhat harsher! Soon, may realised that to reach even a fraction of Lee's ability required years of painstaking practise!
The first martial art to really explode as a result of Lee's film was Karate. With schools already well established in the UK, they capitalised on the phenomenon by coming out of the back streets and into the school and church halls etc. Adverts sprang up, and all of a sudden, you could find a club to train at! Karate is perhaps one of the most well known of all the martial arts, with a rich history and tradition spanning centuries. And so Karate clubs began to boom, along with other martial art styles, which began to gain interest from a Western culture suddenly smitten with the lure of Eastern mysticism and legends.
Inevitably, this boom faded, people left because it was too hard, that to get anywhere was a lifelong commitment, not something achieved in a matter of weeks or months, but years of hard graft. And so, clubs lost members, but not to the extreme levels that they disappeared back into the dingy training halls of earlier years. Many thrived with a steady increase in students, losing others along the way, but retaining sufficient to keep going.
Then, as with the Bruce Lee films, along came another Hollywood Blockbuster that was to push martial arts back into the public domain...Karate Kid. The film was simple, a young lad being picked on by a group of Karate school bullies, boy comes across a Japanese janitor, who just happens to be a master in Karate....Mr Myagi. It was a wonderfully simplistic film, where, I am sure we all remember, the young lad, 'Daniel san' was taught the rudimentaries of Karate through washing a car! 'Wax on, wax off'.....marvelously clever analogy, from which he learnt everything he needed to do Karate! Of course, it is not that easy in reality, but here we had a film, which spawned 2 sequels, that suddenly showed that training was not only hard work, but could be fun as well!
And, what this film did that no other film before it had done, it attracted Children to the martial arts! It was truly a catalyst in the meteoric rise of martial arts clubs across the world, with parents rushing to sign up their kids to learn about this wonderful way of looking after yourself, of learning respect and discipline, and making their children better people for when they finally enter the world as Adults. Karate was the main benefactor of this boom, obviously I guess given the film's title, but the knock on effects were felt right across the various martial art styles. Popularity rose through more films, with stars such as Jackie Chan, who, with his unique blend of undoubted skills and comedy, made Chinese martial arts seem fun to learn. And so there we have it, a very brief history of the rise in popularity...But! Here we are in 2008, and despite all the publicity, do you know which martial art is which? I hope the following will give you some guidance:
Karate - Probably one the most recognised. There are several styles, which I will not elaborate too much on here, suffice to say that each does have it's differences, but each also has many of the same characteristics, namely a focus on traditional etiquette, discipline and hard work. Karate (meaning Empty Hand) is a very traditional martial art, where you will certainly learn respect for others. The main styles are Shotokan, Wado Ryu, Goju Ryu, and Shitu Ryu, though there are a great many more. Karate has also become one of the most 'bastardised' styles. There are a great many schools and organisations whose Chief Instructors have studied many of the styles, and have combined this knowledge to develop their own systems. These Organisations have developed their own curriculums and grading syllabus. Essentially they are still Karate, and, with the right club or organisation, you will learn a great deal about yourself.
Taekwondo (or Tae Kwon Do) - This is a Korean martial art, thousands of years old, but only really becoming popular in the past 20 or 30 years. The modern concept of Taekwondo was developed by General Choi in Korea during the 1950's. Today, there are two styles, ITF (International Taekwondo Federation) and WTF (World Taekwondo Federation). Both teach the same basic ideals. Taekwondo (meaning the way of hand and foot) is, predominantly, a martial art based around kicking techniques. Very spectacular and effective techniques, but those learning Taekwondo will also learn valuable hand techniques, and self defense. ITF Taekwondo is much closer to the original concept of General Choi. The WTF style has developed more into a Sport, and is, in fact, a recognised Olympic Sport. ITF sparring is semi contact, whereas, if you fancy your chances, the WTF style concentrates on full contact.
Judo - Judo means 'The Gentle Way'. It is a very modern art, and, in fact, is not really a martial art, but a sport. Judo is, however, a very effective self defense art, teaching you how to put locks and holds on an opponent, and how to throw. There are no kicks or punches in Judo. A well established Olympic sport, it offers an alternative to more traditional 'combat' style martial arts.
Kung Fu - A Chinese martial art. There are hundreds of styles available, the most popular today being Wing Chun. Bruce Lee was a famous exponent of Kung Fu, but he also studied many of it's various styles and developed his own Jeet Kune DO (JKD), a method of fighting that used real life street situations to develop an effective method of attack and defense.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu - This is the fastest growing martial art style in the world today. Japanese Judo and Ju Jitsu masters exported their martial arts to Brazil around the 1940's and 50's, where it quickly gained popularity. A Brazilian family, the Gracies, took this knowledge and developed it into one of the most effective ground fighting systems known today. Although similar to Judo and Ju Jitsu, the Brazilian art concentrates much more on getting your opponent into a submission by locks, holds and chokes. It is, to many, a much more realistic method for the street, where rules do not exist.
MMA - Not really a martial art as such. MMA means 'Mixed Martial Arts'. It's origins are again Brazil, where it is known as Vale Tudo. Today, MMA, or perhaps you would know it better as 'cage fighting' is a huge sport, dominated by the UFC, Pride and Cage Rage. It has, for many, become an alternative to boxing. MMA is a 'no holds barred' sport, whereby opponents can punch, kick, elbow, knee and wrestle each other into submission, or, get a knockout. Very explosive, and certainly not for the faint hearted! Those in MMA will have also trained in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, as well as Karate, Taekwondo or other martial art style, hence the term Mixed Martial Arts.
Kickboxing - Probably the second largest participant club sport in the world. Developed by the Americans as an alternative to Boxing, Kickboxing is, as the name suggests, a Boxing sport, but you are also allowed to kick. Training is hard but rewarding. As well as traditional boxing techniques (jabs, hooks, crosses, ducking and weaving etc), you will also learn a variety of kicks, most of which derive from Taekwondo in style. In fact, many Taekwondo clubs will also run their own Kickboxing clubs, as the two styles compliment each other extremely well.
Choi Kwang Do - Another Korean art, this concentrates mostly on the practical side of 'what works in reality'. Kicks, generally, are not above the waist, and you will learn a variety of hand techniques, all designed to work 'on the street'.
Tai Chi - Another Chinese art. Often thought of as an 'old people's' martial art. Whilst it certainly lends itself well to the older generation, in my personal opinion, it should not be overlooked. It teaches meditation and relaxation, but also it teaches you to focus your inner energy, or Chi, very effectively.
In some ways, it is sad that, as a result of the modern age, there are also some excellent, but increasingly forgotten martial arts worth investigating. Aikido and Hapkido (Japanese and Korean respectively) have become victims of the increase in popularity of the more explosive martial arts. These are predominantly self defense systems, but incredibly effective. If you aren't sure, watch some of Steve Segal's early films. Segal is a world recognised master of Aikido, it is one of the single most effective martial arts for self defense, but, sadly, it receives little publicity nowadays. It's principles are the teaching of using your opponents own momentum for your own gain, it also teaches pressure points and restraints. Even if you study one of the more popular styles, Aikido or Hapkido are definitely worth considering as a second martial art.
Today, choosing which martial art you want to do is actually much easier than you think. A great many clubs will offer you a first lesson free, so take advantage of that fact, and go and try as many as you can. In this way, you can find out which one suits you best.
I will give a couple of words of caution!!
1. Do not be tempted to sign up to a membership or any payment plan on your first lesson, or even in the first 3 or 4 lessons. Make sure it is right for you first!
2. Avoid buying any uniform for the same period. Otherwise, if you decide it's not for you, you will have wasted your money.
3. Go along and watch a few classes first, before actually trying. Most clubs will let you watch. You will get a different perspective on the class teachings this way.
4. Talk to other members, or even the Instructors. Nobody will mind you asking questions. Believe it or not, the vast majority of clubs are not interested in just taking your money only to see you leave. They want you longterm, because they genuinely want to teach you and see you develop.
There are, unfortunately, plenty of organisations out there who will happily take your money. The 'McDojo' as they are derogatorily referred to by our American friends are out there, waiting for the unsuspecting student or parent. These will try the hard sell, some even go cold canvassing onto the streets! Don't be easily tempted by promises of a Black Belt in a few weeks or months, it simply doesn't happen that way.
So, how long will it take to get a Black Belt? Well, on average, you should allow a minimum of 3 years, and that is based upon a lot of hard work, and regular weekly training, at least twice a week! And remember also, a Black Belt does not mean you are an expert! On the contrary, getting your Black Belt is merely akin to completing your apprenticeship of learning...Once you get your Black Belt, the real learning starts, it is your doorway to a wealth of knowledge and experience that awaits you on the other side.
Too many people look at trying to grade every 3 months, which is fine. But, it is not how quick you get your Black Belt that counts, it is EARNING your Black Belt that will make it most satisfying.
Learning to defend yourself, and others, is only one aspect of Martial Arts, but Martial Arts is not about learning violence. It is, and remains, one of the most effective methods of fitness in the World. It will teach you confidence, respect, both for yourself and others, you will learn discipline and above all, you will learn how to become a respected and well rounded individual.
And when you do decide which martial art to practise, don't be afraid to check out just where you can get your equipment. Often your Instructors can supply you the equipment you need, but if you feel their prices are too high, check out the Internet of a Martial Arts Magazine for guidance. Instructors do, on the whole sell to you at the same price, but unfortunately some like to try and make a fair nit more if they can. Fortunately, the boom in Martial Arts has also seen a boom in the choice of Martial Arts Supplies available. So, whatever you do decide to practise, you will also be spoilt for choice as to where you can go to kit yourself out!
So go on, give it a try, and you will never look back!