RANK: And the Masters Who Take It Away

I was reluctant to publish this article, which I wrote in 2008 but had been pondering for a good 15 years. Out of my many friends who branched off of their teachers to start their own schools, styles and ideologies, a few of them have ended up at odds with their teachers. This is something you don’t find in any field but the martial arts, for some reason. Can you imagine a college professor being discredited by a former teacher? Or worse… having his DEGREE stripped? What is it with this madness?

Like I said, I hesitated because in a few of these cases I am friends with both teacher and student. And in case you wondering, yes–I did voice my opinion.

So my father has a saying, that martial artists are assholes. Although he himself is a practitioner, he never considered himself a martial artist. I use to laugh at this remark although I disagreed until one day I realized that he was right. My Dad’s thing was, he pursued the martial arts to learn how to fight. He worked out, he kept fit, and when he needed it–look out. His contention is that he never bought into the “garbage” that comes with martial arts. And that garbage is due to one universal evil in 99% of the problems in the martial arts, and I’m not talking about money.

I’m talking about ego.

It takes a somewhat insecure man to pursue the martial arts, and that vulnerability led to dreams of being a grade-A butt-kicker, humiliating the bad guys and beating down the badder guys. The martial arts don’t actually provide an opportunity for the student to know that he can beat the bad guys–at least, not the way most of us practice–so most of the martial artists out here just think they can kick some butt. Or do they?

I think not. Martial artists like to say they can fight. But few martial artists will actually prove that fact. Want proof? The next time you’re with a martial artist you don’t know, tell him you don’t think his skill is superior to yours. And when he objects, ask him politely for a “friendly” match to prove your point. I am willing, 99.999% of the time, he will decline. Why is that?

I’m asking a lot of questions here, aren’t I? That’s because, yes, I’m talking to you. No one wants to admit it, but most martial artists don’t do enough sparring with strangers to unequivocally state, “I can defend myself against anyone.” Not with a straight face, at least. But they will give you excuses all day long why they cannot:

  • sparring isn’t “real” fighting
  • “real” fighting results in one guy dying or going to the hospital
  • I only fight for keeps
  • I’ve got a trick knee
  • nothing to prove
  • define “fight”
  • only when my life is on the line 
  • blah blah blah….

Now that we’ve established that point. Here’s the point.

Most of the Masters you are getting your “rank” from probably can’t fight anyway. If you’re a fighting man, he probably can’t whip you either. In my experience, the Masters who fight the best don’t throw rank around. And the only ones who do have students who try to “help” them make more money by modernizing and going commercial. The best fighters don’t give themselves elaborate grading titles and ways to get more. They didn’t pursue all that stuff themselves either. Show me an Asian Master awarding rank, and I can almost guarantee you that he himself was never awarded any rank. Especially in the Filipino arts. That is a new development. But something occurs in a man’s martial career, when he decides to do all that crap. I have a theory about that too.

It’s hard teaching real martial arts. There just aren’t enough hard core students willing to undergo this training. Yeah, 99% of you call yourselves hardcore, but I have been around the block enough to guarantee you that most of you would not last 6 months in my school. You invest in martial arts DVDs and learn from those. You spend hours on youtube trying to copy crap some guy over in the Philippines posted. Or attend seminars. Or buy books. Or tack on style after style after style to what you know. But there are two things I can add that you won’t do:  Drive an hour to train with a real master, and fight in a tournament. Why is that?

Because it’s a special student who will dedicate himself to grueling training two or three times a week for nothing more than acquired skill. You won’t endure it unless there is a certificate at the end of the session, a rank to put on your profiles at myfma.net, pictures to post on Facebook, friends to hide behind when there’s stress, names to drop in conversation about the martial arts, and neat defenses and wristlocks to show the guys at work. And your master knows this, so the ones who have the good stuff will hold it back because he doesn’t want to lose students and not be able to pay his bills. Or the ones who don’t have it will pretend that real skill and martial arts doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter.

And here we arrive at the issue of rank. People want rank because it boosts their ego. It doesn’t make you safer. It doesn’t make you live longer. It doesn’t even put more food on the table. What rank does is make you feel good and feel big around other martial artists in the absence of superior skill. Those of you who know my fighters (any of them–ANY) will notice that even the 12 year old girls are muscular and are very tough. And I have not issued a certificate since 2003. And the only students who have received a belt from me are the kids. But they enjoy a position among martial arts teachers where few Masters reside:  The place of the predator. Teachers who cannot produce this kind of skill in his students play the rank game, and for some reason, the students go along with it. My question is, are you a better fighter now–as a 6th degree Black Belter–than you were as a  3rd? Can your teacher teach you anything tomorrow that will make you a better fighter? If the answer of either question is “no”–either–then forget the rank, and move forward. Because your Master has taken you as far as he can, and right now anything further will be strictly political and has nothing to do with the path of a warrior.

But rank does more than just provide an ego boost for the student. It is also a form of income for the teacher, as well as an ego boost for him AND a controlling tool to grow his organization. Teachers handing out 1st degree black belts don’t have the same clout as a teacher “bestowing” an 8th degree. Can you understand the dynamics of that? So there is a benefit to awarding “advanced degrees” without having to teach a class. And if my empire needs to expand into the Pacific Northwest, I’ll need a certified Regional Vice President–excuse me, “Master”–to run it. If he starts to get big drawers, I will revoke his rank and tell his students that I had my fingers crossed every time I taught him a class, and when I gave him that 8th Degree certificate, it was written in invisible ink and contained in small print:  “Just kidding.”

Personally, I think there is a serious integrity flaw in a man who attempts to discredit another man simply because of a fallout over money or business. Especially when I know fully well that the man I taught is qualified to teach the martial arts I taught him. Otherwise, what does that say about me?

It says, “Hi, my name is Master So-n-So, and I’m an asshole.”

Well I have personally had this experience, when a man who gave me a certificate (that I never advertised because I even knew then that it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on) sent a KID to tell me I was no longer ranked in his style. My answer? If you think I don’t deserve this 3rd degree certificate, come and take it from me.

For some reason, I am not discredited on any website or public conversation about his style. I simply won’t allow it, because I don’t give a damn about rank or titles. I know what I know, I can do what I can do, and no one can take that from me. FMA brothers, this is one of the secrets of the Filipino fighting arts. None of your Grandmasters have certificates, except for the ones with phony histories.

And you cannot revoke a man’s knowledge anymore than you can revoke a man’s life. Only God can do that, and only Masters who think they’re God will even try.

Thanks for visiting my blog.