“There is no reason to think that all people will evaluate themselves as the equals of other people. Rather, they may seek to be recognised as superior to other people, possibly on the basis of true inner worth, but more likely out of an inflated and vain estimate of themselves. The desire to be recognised as superior to other people we will henceforth label with a new word with ancient Greek roots, megalothymia.”

– Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man.

The need for humans to defend themselves against those who desire to be more than equal is unavoidable and ever-present. In fact, many of us are the antagonists ourselves, looking to throw our fists against something or anything that stands in our way. Do we not imagine that we are ready to stand up to or teach a lesson to whoever wrongs us? The reasons for fighting, for war, however, are irrelevant. Hindsight may be 20/20, but in the moment it is how, not why, which matters. Fighting is emotive and, to the reader on the street, usually instinctive.

Only, it need not be. For each of the thousands of years men have been pounding other men’s faces into the dusty ground, there have been as many ways to do it. Some are mere skills, sets of choreography ingrained into the muscle memory of the body. Others have been moulded into physical extensions of the philosophies of the era and region from which they originate. Either way, the practise of martial arts allows one the necessary abilities when facing physical altercation at ground level.

Now readily available to everyone, martial arts are no longer confined to militarism or the realms of some members-only centuries-old culture. The public interest in Karate, Kung Fu, Judo and many other codes overcame the somewhat traditional boundaries of the arts during the middle of the 20th Century, so much so that these codes now form part of the fastest-growing sport in the world, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Even though the credibility of MMA as a valid combat sport, versus boxing for example, is under debate, it remains that all competitors in the sport have had some kind of martial arts training. Furthermore, in recent years MMA has been swallowing up prized pay-per-view numbers in the United States, overtaking boxing as the most watched combat sport.

However, for all of MMA’s brutality, some say that it misses the point of martial arts. Put two guys who cannot fight in a cage and chances are that it’s going to look pretty much the same as a championship MMA bout, a few punches, some vicious kicks followed by lots of wrestling on the ground. The core of traditional martial arts is missing – there is a lot more martial and a lot less arts in MMA. Is South Africa just not attracting the kind of MMA stars as yet? Or is MMA the natural evolution of an amalgamation of hand-to-hand combat techniques, or a regression and complete clusterfuck of punches, kicks and submissions?

Yet millions still flock to their dojos each year, learning the traditional fighting methods, all of which with their own nuances, their own advantages and disadvantages. Some are still isolated, many are influenced by each other, whilst others have been enforced, or diluted, over years of adaptation. One thing is for sure, each and every one would come in handy should megalothymia rear its ugly face.

Muay Thai

In the 1989 hit Kickboxer, Jean Claude Van Damme crosses paths with what must be one of his most vicious villains, Tong Po, Thailand’s undefeated Kickboxing champion. In a memorable scene, Van Damme’s character wanders into Po’s dressing-room to find the champion slamming his shins not into a heavy-bag but shaking the dust off a concrete pillar. That’s because Tong Po did not do Kickboxing, Tong Po did Muay Thai.

Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand, and one of the most brutal and comprehensive forms of combat sport. Unlike many other striking-based codes, together with hands and feet, Muay Thai allows the use of knees and elbows, hence its traditional name, “the art of eight limbs.” As kickboxing may be considered a logical evolution of boxing, by adding knee and elbow strikes into the melee, Muay Thai may be considered an extreme form of kickboxing. Originally Muay Thai even included head-butting as a weapon, but in modern training and competition the use of the head is no longer allowed.

Before every fight, a Muay Thai fighter has to perform an ancient ritual and boxing dance called the “Wai-Khru” as a sign of respect to the authority in charge of the bout. Each dance is unique to a Muay Thai school and it is used to pay homage to the master who taught them their skills. Should two fighters perform the same dance they would not fight each other, as they would realise that they have the same master. Furthermore, to dance is one way to warm up before starting the fight. It also helps alleviate the stress that has built up and to prepare body and mind to enter the battle.

Relatively new to the Western world, Muay Thai has found a home in Mixed Martial Arts competitions, becoming a favourite style for fighters who focus on striking rather than on Judo or Jujutsu-style grappling and submission moves.

Kung Fu

Fact: there is no martial art simply called Kung Fu. Kung Fu literally means “accomplishment through hard work” and, in China, this hard work does not necessarily have to refer to the set of fighting styles we associate with the term. Wushu is another example of a borrowed word, and it has only recently come to represent a full contact sport using the hands and feet, but technically it really means “martial arts” in Cantonese. Kung Fu and Wushu both encapsulate the vast martial arts styles found and taught across China. So when Neo says to Morpheus in the first Matrix movie, “I know Kung Fu,” what he really means to say is, “I know Wing Chun.” And that is what he uses when Morpheus challenges him.

History subscribes to the legend that Chinese Yellow Emperor Huangdi, who took the throne in 2,698 BC, is said to have introduced martial arts to the country during his reign; tens of thousands of forms of Kung Fu have existed since then. Traditionally taught by Shaolin monks, known as Shaolin Kung Fu, philosophy and morality are important to the practitioners of this martial art, with virtues such as humility, respect, trust, and patience being emphasised.

Currently there are hundreds of styles that fall under Chinese martial arts. Shaolin, Wing Chun and Drunken Monkey are some of the better-known styles. The legendary actor and martial arts icon Bruce Lee was initially a student of the popular Wing Chun style, translated as “eternal springtime” but also known as the snake-crane style. However, Lee would go on to create his own martial arts style known as Jeet Kune Do, “the art of the intercepting fist,” which focuses heavily on counter-attacking, literally attacking an opponent through interception.

Whatever style, Chinese martial arts are undoubtedly the most athletic and attractive. Even though their practicality in a real-life fighting situation has been questioned they do offer the most in terms of variety, athleticism and focus. They are also the martial arts with some of the strictest philosophies, with each style presenting its own way of relating to practical and spiritual concepts.


The world’s most famous and practised martial art is the Japanese code of Karate. Estimated to have originated as early as the 14th Century, Karate is a highly technical, striking-based martial art that uses no weapons. Hence its name is derived from the Japanese word meaning the “empty hand.” Karate is described by its founder as structured around simple bases and stances and aims to turn the hands and feet of the practitioner into “spears,” bursting from the stance with speed and power. The system of modern day Karate can be attributed to the 10 Precepts of Karate, written in 1908 by Anko Itsou.

However, due to its popularity, Karate is not without its criticisms. Some, usually those who practise rival codes, claim that the ranking system, called Dan, of Karate is impractical, as students are graded on aspects such as stance and balance, then later on speed and coordination, and may be able to progress through the ranks to a higher Dan without ever striking another person or object.


A Korean martial art which was in 1990 the world’s most-practised martial art as well as being an Olympic event since 2000, owes much of its character to other codes, specifically Japanese Karate. The quick, linear movements that feature in Taekwondo are found in almost every Japanese martial art.

Translated as “the way of the fist and foot,” Taekwondo flourished after World War II, when Japan ended its occupation of Korea. Known for its kicks, this martial art combines physical skills with mental strength, often shown when the follower breaks boards with a foot or hand. Like most martial arts, Taekwondo practitioners are skilled in strength, stamina, speed, balance, and flexibility.


One of the oldest forms of grappling martial arts was founded as a type of Plan B for Japanese Samurai should they ever find themselves without their trusty Katana blade. Although it is known as the “art of softness,” in reality Jujutsu was anything but gentle. Initially, Jujutsu was somewhat of an “anything-goes” style. Unlike most of the other “soft” or “gentle” martial arts from Japan, students were initially thought to use tactics like eye-gouging, biting and pinching which, when coupled with the standard techniques of throwing and locking, turned Jujutsu into one of the deadliest martial arts.

Jujutsu formed the basis for all the so-called “gentle” forms of the martial arts, predominantly those that focus on grappling, throwing and submission rather than striking with hands or kicking. Judo, Aikido, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu all evolved from traditional Jujutsu.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

The Americas may not have the initial pantomimic association with martial arts, which we attribute to the far East, but some of the world’s most widely practised arts come from North and South America. The most notable of these is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which originated in Brazil during the early 20th Century. Based on Kodokan Judo and similarly traditional Jujutsu, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu teaches grappling and groundwork, using an opponent’s strength and momentum against him. The code shares these similarities with Judo and traditional Jujutsu, owing to the fact that its co-founder was Japanese.

Mitsuyo Maeda developed Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu after touring the world, showcasing Kodokan Judo, before settling in Brazil in 1914. Maeda took on students from what would become the famous Gracie family, founders of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, probably the most common variant of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. It is also one of the fastest growing of the traditional forms of martial arts, along with Muay Thai, becoming one of the most common systems of fighting at MMA competitions worldwide.


As a response to childhood bullying, a teacher from Japan founded Judo sometime during the 1860s. Kano Jigoro took basic skills, such as stances and grapples, from other Japanese martial arts, particularly Jujutsu, and combined it with his own innovative throws to create what we call Judo today. Like Jujutsu and Aikido, Judo focuses on using an opponent’s strength and momentum against him.

The primary objectives of what is called “the soft method” are throws followed by groundwork. Strikes are only allowed during training as a form of kata, or choreography, and not in competition. A Judo practitioner aims to throw his attacker on the floor, using the attacker’s own momentum, then to immobilise and defeat him by initiating a hold, grapple or a joint-locking manoeuvre or a choke. Ideally this should cause the attacker to submit.

Some famous followers of Judo include the great comedian Peter Sellers, English film director Guy Richie and former American President Theodore Roosevelt. Furthermore, Judo, together with Taekwondo, has been one of the most prominent of the traditional martial arts to feature consistently in the Olympics, having first appeared in 1964 for men and then in 1992 for women.


Popularised in Western culture by action film star Steven Seagal, Aikido is a Japanese martial art that was created in the early 20th Century by martial arts guru Morihei Ueshiba Aikido followers learn how to use an assailant’s strength and energy against them. Interestingly, students are taught to care for the well-being of their potential attacker and are trained to disarm, but not seriously wound them. Ueshiba wanted his students to respect their assailants, and formed what must be the only martial art which aims to protect an opponent instead of beating them stupid. The founder of Aikido declared: “To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace.” A number of Aikido practitioners, therefore, interpret Aikido metaphorically, seeing parallels between Aikido techniques and other methods for conflict resolution.

Tradition and Future

As long as men look at each other’s girlfriends in pubs, as long as we keep supporting the wrong sports teams and as long as others continue to take our parking spots, men will continue to fight. It seems inherent and mostly unavoidable. And as long as men continue to fight, institutions will exist which will show them how to do it.

What the great martial arts do, however, is focus not just on brute strength or sheer agility, but on the practitioner’s mental state. For all its violence, one of the most important aspects in the teaching of most martial arts is the need for discipline and respect. Discipline for training, discipline in themselves, respect for the art, respect for their teachers and most importantly, respect towards others. Tell that to the two guys in the cage!

by Luka Vracar
Published by Playboy South Africa November 2011