Literary sources such as the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 BCE) – though not decided whether this writing was a fictional or non-fictional account – outlines at least a passing familiarity with grappling; though in the tale, Enkidu and Gilgamesh wrestle in a type of street fight. There are other records of combat sports such as the wall painting found at Beni Hasan in Egypt (c. 2000 BCE) depicting various sports-like grappling techniques. From Ireland to the Mediterranean, martial competition has been around for a VERY long time.
Why Does Martial Competition Exist?
Soldiers need to know how to fight. It’s in the job description. There is no reason to deplete your fighting force by allowing them to go all out with weapons for the sake of honing their martial skills. So, (mostly) non-lethal forms of sparring became a supplement to individual training so the soldiers could practice their skills under stress with a resisting opponent. You find records of such sparring throughout the histories of almost every culture.
There were also the Grecian Olympic Games – the Games first only had running sports, but combat events were later introduced – where martial competitions and feats of strength against other participants were intended to please the gods – specifically Mars or Ares – so they could have glory in battle.
One of the first spectator martial sports where even women could attend were the gladiatorial contests. Here, armed and unarmed combatants would compete for supremacy or for their lives against single, multiple and even animal opponents. Losers would often loose their lives, but impressive combatants could gain their freedom. It was a source of great entertainment for the populace.
In modern times, martial competition comes in many forms; from armed and unarmed skills demonstrations to armed and unarmed combat for entertainment. As cultures became more “civilized”, the need for warriors to prove their mettle for the gods’ recognition waned or the weapons used no longer worked within that society (such as katana or the rapier). Competitors still continue today to pit their skills against each other in armed or unarmed simulated – and highly regulated – combat either for themselves or for the entertainment of others.
There also seems to be the human need to test themselves and be given “proof” of their skill level of whatever they do against the skill level of others. They want to know where they are at in comparison to others and whether what they are doing works under stress.
Martial Systems Intended for Competition
Though today you will find the bulk of the known martial systems in MMA (mixed martial arts) tournaments, there are really only a few that were created with the concept of sport competitions in mind. Boxing (multi-cultural), Wrestling (multi-cultural), Judo (the sport form of Japanese Jujitsu) and Brazilian Jujitsu (taught to the Gracie family by a Japanese Jujistu/Judo practitioner) are the only systems this writer knows about that were created expressly for the purpose of competition.
All the rest are either authentic combat forms modified to fit the rules of competition or demonstration forms of traditional martial arts performed in front of judges who rate the practitioner’s skill level in multiple categories. This is, of course, not including the myriad of “period-specific” re-enactors who dress up in costume and beat on each other with mock-weapons designed to look like authentic ones.
The Benefits of Martial Competition
Leaving out the obvious benefit of keeping a traditional martial system alive, there are many other benefits to having martial competitions.
A safe outlet for aggressive tendencies. Martial arts are violent by nature and having a safe location to take out aggressive tendencies serves both the individual and society as a whole.
Gives a martial practitioner a dynamic environment to practice his/her skills against a resisting opponent. This helps hone the practitioner’s skills and enables him/her the chance to learn how to operate under stressful conditions and at fast paces.
Is a public platform to showcase a martial system. Royce Gracie used the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) to introduce the world to the Gracie system of Brazilian Jujitsu. Judo was made an Olympic sport in the the late 1980’s. If promoters can find a way to present other systems to the public, we may eventually see Kendo (the Japanese art of swordsmanship), Silat or Shaolin Kungfu used in a competitive manner.
Helps create a “no-quit” attitude in the practitioner. This thought process helps a person work through adversity instead of buckling under stress.
The Drawbacks of Martial Competition
Very little resemblance to real life. Seldom in real life will you find even terrain and only one opponent to deal with facing you. In real life, there are no weight classes, no rules and the focus is on either trying to get away from or killing the opponent/enemy.
Misrepresentation of martial schools who teach martial competition as “self defense”. You will do in real life what you train for. A point fighter will back off after hitting their target. A cage fighter will go for the tap out, avoid eye gouges, fish hooking and many other methods because they are illegal in tournaments.
Martial athletes are not prepared for multiple attackers or surprise attacks from around a corner because that’s not what they train for. They train – and very hard, I might add – for the ring only against a single attacker who is right in front of them.
Martial Competition Has a Purpose
Many other martial artists have a low opinion of martial competition and martial sports. They believe that the two competitive aspects of martial arts serves little to no purpose. They would be mistaken. Not only is it entertainment for those who do not practice martial arts, martial competition has inspired new generations of martial practitioners around the world.
On a personal level for the martial practitioner, the competitions are wonderful character-building exercises. They help build confidence, the ability to conquer fear, a no-quit attitude and the feeling of self worth within the individual.
A successful martial competitor, however, needs to guard themselves against the illusion that their skills will keep them safe on the streets in the event of an attack. Street-level personal security, environmental awareness and other “self defense” aspects require a different mentality and skill sets than what martial competitors prepare themselves to face. It’s like asking an eagle to swim underwater. While they excel in their environment, they are ill-prepared for others.
Still, the competitive environment is recommended for ALL martial artists. The real experience of facing another living being and having that person resist the “techniques” of a system quickly help to dispel the illusion that the techniques taught by martial instructors have any combat value.
The principles illustrated by the techniques, however, have immeasurable value and martial competition brings those principles to life in a high-pace, high-stress environment. Handled properly, it is this author’s opinion that martial competition – sparring, tournaments, etc – are almost a necessary part of a well-rounded martial practitioner’s experience.