Competition – How Relevant is it?

I’ll say right at the outset that I have no real experience of Competition Fighting, and I’ve never been a particular fan of it – at least in oriental martial arts – but like any aspect of the arts, it’s worth exploring our attitudes towards it.

I’ll address different competition formats in a moment, but perhaps I ought to first explain why I think it is an issue that students and teachers of the arts should have an opinion on, and why that opinion – like most – needs to be revisited from time to time.


May I start by saying, that opinionated wee soul that I know myself to be, I’m not at all competitive in mainstream terms.  Personally, I’ve always believed that the most – maybe only – useful form of competition that martial arts promotes is the contest with the self.  It’s meaningful in my opinion, to continue to challenge one’s own limitations – in contrast, ‘defeating’ an opponent in a tournament is less significant.  As to whatever significance it may have – more on that later.


From my perspective, all ‘winning’ in that ‘title-winning’ context means, is that on the day you performed better than your adversary within the rules laid down for that competition, in the judgement of the tournament officials. 

Dan Inosanto, in his book on the Filipino Martial Arts, tells a story about attending some of the early Eskrima tournaments in the U.S. with Jack Santos, an eskrimador and former Filipino police officer with plenty of real-life combat experience.  Watching the beginning of the contests, Mr. Santos would select a competitor as being plainly superior to the others, only to find that exponent would more often than not be eliminated in one of the early rounds.  Did this signify poor judgement on the part of Mr. Santos?  No, it was simply an expression of the fact that he was looking at different criteria to those of the tournament judges – from his perspective, it was the first fighter to land a telling blow that would win a real-life fight, not the one scoring the most points within the competition rules!


Organisational ‘Shape’

Obviously, format is a factor in how representative of a real-life encounter any combat sport contest is.  In this context, format refers to the structure and organisation of both the individual bouts and the competition as a whole.  Where a competition form may be ordered over a single occasion or a longer season or ‘league’ format also has a bearing on judging the significance of the results.

Where a championship is held yearly – or even four-yearly as in some World or Olympic championships – factors such as the particular rules and how ‘on form’ the individual competitor is at the time of the deciding tournament become paramount.

Likewise, it may be significant if within a tournament there is a ‘repechage’ round, allowing competitors eliminated in earlier rounds to have a second opportunity to reach the final rounds.  Equally so, if competitors are ‘seeded’, on the basis of past performances, this can have an impact in contrast to a straightforward elimination process.  This latter factor plays a significant part in tournaments from the UFC to Olympic Wrestling and Boxing, and even Professional Boxing, though the rankings are slightly less formal and more subjective in this last case.

Contest Rules

The specifics of the contest rules, from how long a bout will last (whether divided into ‘rounds’ with rest periods in between or as a single encounter), what techniques and target areas are permitted, the judging guidelines, how many judges/referees and other officials are present and active, to what, if any, technology may be part of the judging process, may radically alter the outcome of the competition.

Of course, it is necessary to have defined rules – how else will you decide the winner – but it should be borne in mind that they are as much a factor as the fitness of the contestants or the quality of their techniques.  Even NHB (No Holds Barred), Vale Tudo (Anything Goes) or the UFC, which is a sort of hybrid of formats, have rules – despite their names.  My only concern is that in working within any rules format, there is a narrowing of the judgment of the competitor’s ability – both on the day and as part of their ongoing development.  However ‘real’ i.e. how closely it mimics real-life combat conditions, a format is, it still isn’t real combat, at least in the sense that you are highly unlikely to die, barring accidents of course, and so while you may learn valuable lessons in the ring or on the mat, they are not the same lessons that martial arts are purportedly focussed upon.

Success in competition, while essentially positive, can also prove to be very seductive.  If you are a young, physically talented martial artist and you experience success in tournaments early on in your development, there is a natural tendency to seek further success.  Not in itself a bad thing, but it can lead to a narrowing of focus in your training.  Training to do that which ‘scores’ can never be the same as training for the totality of the art or your individual potential competence.

Balancing the Equation

When I was in my teens – in the 1970’s – there were many accomplished martial artists who were successful tournament fighters, who nonetheless continued to train for the complete art: Terry O’Neill; Eugene Codrington; Steve Babbs; Steve Cattle; Bob Breen in the UK; Bill Wallace, Joe Lewis, Fred Wren et al in the US – the list is very long so I hope no-one will be offended if I have left them out.  I’m sure there are others who are equally at home in either role today, but certainly the martial arts press here in the UK give much more credence and emphasis to various format ‘champions’ than they did when I was young.

Just another facet of training

My teacher in Kalis Ilustrisimo Repeticion Orihinal (Kalis Ilustrisimo – Original Version), Guru Shamim Haque is himself a former World Champion in the WEKAF stick-fighting competition format.  He won the Flyweight division in 2000, but doesn’t place any great significance on it.  He does encourage members of our training group to try competition – several of the more senior members have gained championship titles over the years, and two of his students, Andy Tyler and Tony Hands have had considerable success in the FMA tournaments in recent times – but he emphasises that it should be understood as just another training experience.  Even with the armour on, a weapons competition bout (however unrealistic the scoring system may be) is an enormously stressful and disorienting encounter. 

I am fond of saying to my own students in Munen Muso Ryu that they should strive to be exceptional technical exponents, as during a real-life combat experience, when ‘fight or flight’ kicks in and the adrenaline flows, on average they can expect around 70% of their technique to desert them, and the 30% they are left with better prove adequate to the situation!   This is part of an ethos that presents the martial arts /sciences as the ‘ultimate problem-solving discipline – if your strategy and tactics are wrong, or your execution is poor, you risk death or disablement!

So, is competition a worthwhile endeavour?  For myself, I believe it is probably a helpful experience – if you continue to see it as just one small part of your training, and even then simply as a very motivated sparring match – and you learn from it not what you are good at, but what you need to work on.

Those of you studying the Filipino Martial Arts will almost certainly be aware of the many ‘death-matches’ that most of the more famous FMA masters of the 20th century were involved in.  These were fought for issues of honour, for gambling purposes, or simply because someone more junior believed themself capable of defeating an older master – nonetheless, whatever the provocation or motivation, they were real encounters in which there was an equally real chance of losing your life.  The founder of Kalis Ilustrisimo, Antonio ‘Tatang’ Ilustrisimo fought many of these challenges – probably more than any other of his peers.  Sometimes, he killed his opponents; sometimes he was able to be more merciful, merely removing the thumb of his adversary’s weapon bearing hand when the opportunity presented itself.

When WEKAF was formed and they planned their first World Championships, the leaders of the various styles involved decided to conduct a Masters Tournament on the evening prior to the main competition.  It was to be televised, and a group of masters approached Grandmaster ‘Tatang’ Ilustrisimo and asked him to take part.  He refused, saying, “Anyone who wants to take my reputation can do so with a live blade in his hand!”

©John Mellon M.A., and The Martial Arts University, 2011.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to John Mellon M.A. and The Martial Arts University with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

About themartialartsuniversity

In daily training in the martial arts for the last 53 years; teaching almost daily for 43 years. Hold teaching ranks in 27 martial arts, Master ranked in 4 arts, Headmaster of 3 systems, the Founder of 2 arts, and the co-Founder of 2 others. Has been the official Technical Advisor to Profs. Wally and Leon Jay of Small Circle Ju-jitsu since the 1990's. Assistant Headmaster of Small Circle Ju-jitsu and the co-founder and joint Headmaster of Small Circle Concepts with Prof. Leon Jay. Has three Bachelor degrees and a Masters Degree in History. Experienced writer - published or featured in all of the UK martial arts magazines and in Inside Kung Fu in US, as well as: Esquire; She; Elle; Woman's Journal; Health and Fitness; Zest; Marie Claire and The Independent (UK national daily newspaper). Has been featured on BBC and ITV news programmes as expert on weapons defence and usage in relation to law enforcement issues. Former CPO (Bodyguard), and still active as a Bodyguard trainer.
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5 Responses to Competition – How Relevant is it?

  1. Abul says:

    Hi John,
    Couldn’t agree more, competiton is what it is, another aspect of training, you learn to cope with pressure, and speed and of course the initial confusion/panic if you’ve never fought before, all in a safe controlled environment. As long as one undertstands that this is sport and not the art itself then that’s fine. I will do tournaments for fun and also as part of exercise, if I win I win, if I lose so be it. You learn and move on….

    Abul Kalam
    Kalis ilustrisimo student

    • Hi, Kalam – as ever an intelligent and thoughtful response! I think I’m going to have to try some Eskrima competition at the first opportunity, despite the arthritis. The thing which really strikes me (apart from a stick in our sessions, of course!) when just sparring is how, even with the armour on, is just how disorienting the whole experience is. The helmet restricts one’s vision enormously, while amplifying the noise of the baston striking it. Then there is the quilted ‘coat’, which manages to feel really restrictive, without actually taking much of the sting out of being hit. I know some people wear additional pads under the jacket, but it already gets in the way of moving freely. All in all, a genuinely stressful experience in a similar, yet different way to actual combat!

  2. kiranmcurpen says:

    It’s not a problem, while I’ve only ever taught Tae kwon do to a low level, I found a lot of joy in doing so, even though I wasn’t actually all that great at it myself. I felt I did a good job in teaching even though many of the people in the club were better than me. I myself have been lucky enough to learn from talented people over the years but I’ve had to stop training for several reasons that I don’t think are appropriate to paste all over a public page. But I enjoyed readin this post and will get to reading the others in due time including your future posts! take care, Kiran

  3. kiranmcurpen says:

    I’ve always felt that tournaments presented people with a way of facing another facet of themselves. Back when I used to train in martial arts we had a few people who we called “club fighters” who, while technically very proficient, and while fighting and sparring the same people that they trained with, they were exceptional. they shyed away from competition because in their minds they felt uncomfortable facing the unknown. While competions may not reflect the situation of a real fight, you will be facing opponents who you will always have to assume have the drive and motivation to win, coupled with the technical ability to beat you, which while it’s not always true, the possibility of it means you have to face up to yourself and have confidence in your abilities. Also as a side note, in some of the higher level competitions, about 70% technique went out the window too, and with that I always believe in training your body in such a way that you could win with bad technique, and then train your technique untill it is almost instinct (if of course you train to be able to defend yourself)

    • Thanks, Kiran – it’s always good to have feedback, and you’re points are well made. As I said early in the article, tournament fighting was never my thing – for one thing, I don’t think I was sufficiently physically talented, in the sense of being a ‘natural’ athlete, and I think competition fighting as a format probably people who are. Nonetheless, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve known more and more people who got something useful out of the experience, and there are exceptional individuals who are able to combine both aspects of the art. I think your point about facing another highly-motivated fighter is a good one, though I still worry that success in tournament does create a temptation to specialise in a narrower range of techniques. Perhaps the key lies in approaching competition with the right perspective as you seem to. I still worry however, that the uninformed public draw all the wrong conclusions when presented with a ‘champion’ as a choice of instructor, as opposed to say someone who is simply a very good teacher.

      Thanks for engaging in the subject – I appreciate your thoughtful response.

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