Thursday, August 1, 2013

In Search of the Ultimate Style

In the 1983 movie War Games, Mathew Broderick teaches a computer (named Joshua) the concept of futility by having it play tic-tac-toe, over and over.  Joshua quickly realized that if you avoid a few key mistakes, the game ended up with no wins for either side, and applied this concept to thermonuclear war more quickly than humans.  Global extinction was avoided, and Mathew Broderick got the girl.

Let's hear it for learning lessons from kid's games.

There's another another game that we all learned as kids, and which holds similarly applicable lessons.  However, I'm not convinced that we've really absorbed them.

That game is rock-paper-scissors.  Its a simple concept.  Rock smashes scissors, scissors cuts paper, paper covers rock.  Winning the game is largely a result of chance, or, if you're really good, knowing your opponent and predicting what he or she will do.  However, the deeper lesson of this game is inherent in its structure: there is no ultimate weapon.  In the world of martial arts, this could also be described as there is no ultimate style.

Have we really learned this lesson?

For many years, the Gracie family claimed that their style of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) was superior to all other styles.  In the 1990s, they finally decided to prove it.  Joyce Gracie entered the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), and for four years running, he proved the superiority of BJJ by defeating opponents who were sometimes significantly larger than he was.  While Joyce Gracie finished UFC 5 in a tie, and has since been eclipsed by other fighters, BJJ remains a very strong component of every mixed martial arts fighter.

Is it the best?

While modern mixed martial arts remains a much more dynamic and less restrictive form of tournament fighting than we've had for a long time, its worth bearing in mind that it is tournament fighting.  When you see two professional fighters going at it, you can expect:
  Each of them has known the exact time and date of this fight for months in advance, and has timed their fitness and weight to be at its peak at this point in time
  The fight will be held in a ring, with no furniture or obstacles, no glass shards on the ground, no pipes or bottles that might be grabbed and used as weapons
  The ring will be well and evenly lit.  There are no shadows to hide in, no areas of the ring that are especially susceptible to glaring lights that might blind one of the fighters
  Despite allowing a wide variety of techniques, there are very strict rules.  No kicking the groin.  No biting.  No driving an elbow into your opponent's spine
  Each fight is one on one.  There's no chance of your opponent's buddy hitting you from behind while you slowly maneuver into position to apply a choke

Changing any of these conditions might yield results very different from what we see play out in an MMA bout on television.  I find the last point particularly intriguing.  Karate's reputation has suffered in recent years, as people have pointed out how ill equipped it is to deal with an attack from a ground-fighting opponent.  However, there's an interesting asymmetry that shows up when you consider non-tournament conditions.  A master Karate fighter facing two mediocre opponents will likely destroy his competition.  However, an equally skilled BJJ fighter will be in serious trouble facing two mediocre opponents.  He'll easily begin to choke one of them into submission, but will be stopped short when the other starts kicking him in the back of the head.

I had a personal experience of the rock-paper-scissors effect a few years ago while sparring with some friends.  I was easily defeated by one of them, who was then easily defeated by the third.  Logically, this third person should have been the best of any of us, but it wasn't so.  I fought him, and won.  Each of us had a skill set that could be effective on one person, but was vulnerable to the other.

There is no "ultimate" style.  There's the one that works for you.  It supports your body type, leverages your strengths, and minimizes your weaknesses.  But most importantly, its the one that gets you excited and keeps you training, day after day, year after year.   In the end, that's what it's really all about.

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