Tae Kwon Do: A *Killing* Art?

Striking Thoughts has this post, “A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do”–and TDA Training has this post, “Should You Care About Your Style’s Politics?”  Both articles stem from this book, A Killing Art:  The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do, by Alex Gillis. When you get a chance read both articles (ST’s and TDA’s), because they are presenting different takes on Gillis’ book. Striking Thoughts simply gives a brief synopsis of the book, while TDA (short for Teodoro Defensive Arts) is posing the question of whether or not the politics matter. I am going to give a third view of this subject. But first, the gist of Gillis’ book:

Alex Gillis is presenting the complete history of the Korean fighting art from a biographical point of view, as opposed to the seductive story that TKD was passed down from generation to generation through lines of Hwarang warriors since ancient times. Actually, TKD was General Choi’s creation after studying Shotokan Karate in Japan, and then modifying it because of tournaments and the desire to distinguish it from its Japanese mother art. There is more to the story, such as the political stories and the business side of the art and the unification of the various factions. However, I have not read the book, but I recently saw a copy at the library and I think I will indulge the next time I go back.

Almost all martial arts were made for combat. They are not all true to that original purpose, because time change and people change. Sometimes, as with kung fu and san shou–the change is for the better. Other times, as with kung fu and the sport of wu shu–the change makes it worse. But that also depends on who is judging:  Has anyone ever seen old footage of kung fu practicioners of old performing forms? Well, they are much better today than they were even 50 years ago. Even some of the fighting styles have improved. However, many have lost that part of their arts because of modern times. Tae Kwon Do is no different. The Olympic style of fighting has vastly improved Tae Kwon Do kicking skills, but at the same time many TKD schools (I might even dare to say “most”) have lost all their fighting spirit altogether.

What happened?

Money. In the days of old, TKD masters were more concerned with bragging rights than anything else. Perhaps there was money to be made off of being the best school in town, but the driving force behind a lot of the instruction in the old days was wanting to out do the competition. When Tae Kwon Do arrived to America, one man single handedly helped TKD explode into the limelight and gain thousands of students:  Jhoon Rhee. I don’t know if this is in the book, but GM Rhee teamed up with Nicolas Cokinos of Art Linkletter Dance Studios and developed the format used today by martial arts schools everywhere. So, singlehandedly, Grandmaster Rhee changed the style makeup of styles on the American martial arts scene, as well as how we did business.

And we arrive at the death of Tae Kwon Do.

When Tae Kwon Do became mass marketed as a commodity, it became easily accesible to everyone. It was affordable, available on every corner, easy to learn, and easy to achieve rank. Classes could not sustain a profitable level of enrollment if classes were too difficult. Students would not stay in the art very long if they trained too long without some tangible benefit (like a new belt). They needed to have new “stuff” to learn frequently, or students would get bored, so instructors had to introduce new forms, new techniques, and new things like “martial ballet/musical forms” and weapons. Teachers also had to keep up with the times by getting a case of oh-we-have-that-too:  Numbchucks, Chinese swords, ground fighting, boxing/kickboxing, Israeli-like self defense, Samurai swords, sweating to the oldies, day care, clowns and birthday parties…. oh, we have that too!

Question. When was the last time you saw a TKD school owner with a 3rd degree black belt? Isn’t it strange that we have so many 8th and 9th degree masters? Yes, because you don’t want to learn from an inexperienced Black Belter! You want to study with a real, true-blue, bonafide 8th degree grandmaster! Oh, we have that too…

Schools moved out of the hole-in-the-wall and into shopping centers and malls. They got bigger, plusher, and got full-time staff with vacation pay, insurance and benefits. With amenities, you couldn’t afford to turn away students–hell, Tae Kwon Do is for everyone! So, you say you have a four year old? A three year old? Yes ma’am, we have a class for him too! (AKA “oh we have that too!”) Little Johnnie has been doing this stuff since he was 5 years old, so at the ripe old age of 7, Kwang Jang Nim (Grandmaster) tests him for and awards him a Black Belt. That’s right, your local TKD school will slap a Black Belt on a frigging DOG if you are willing to pay the testing fee. We all know that one of the tenets of Tae Kwon Do is Self Esteem, so of course Kwang Jang Nim won’t fail a student and scar that poor pup for life…

And you wonder why the phrase “Tae Kwon Do, the KILLING art” sounds so strange.

I think I just heard a snicker. Okay Mc Guro, look in the mirror. After all, you are practicing Arnis, the ultimate add-on art, right? What has FMA become, other than the perfect add-on for the Tae Kwon Do guys? Hell, at least the Kwang Jang Nim will make you study for two years and take TEN belt exams and spar for your Black Belt… What is required for a Black Belt/Teaching certificate for Filipino Martial Arts? Attend 10 whole seminars? Buy all ten DVDs? Omg, you actually got smacked on the hand doing that sticky patty cake drill? And this art is so deadly you can’t actually spar with it! Yeah, we have that too. I think I will write a book, called “A Killing Art:  The Untold History of the Filipino Martial Arts”, because we aren’t much different than Tae Kwon Do in that sense. I live in Sacramento, where FMA is taught at almost every martial arts school in the phone book. We are 40 miles from the mecca of FMA–Stockton, California–where Grandmaster Dan Inosanto made his trips to learn directly from the grandmasters themselves. The home of Serrada Eskrima, De Cuerdas, Bahala Na. We are 100 miles drive from Cacoy Canete, the grandmaster of Doce Pares Eskrima. Ten years ago, we had the sons of both Remy Presas and Ernesto Presas living with a 45 minute trip of our town–plus the great, unmatched Sonny Umpaad. Then there were two full-time FMA schools–my own, plus Nito and Nilo’s Doce Pares–in addition to Fred Lazo in Vallejo and Max Pallen. All this authentic FMA and the main source of FMA learning my town has always been seminars and seminar-trained FMA teachers. Something’s wrong. At one time, I offered FMA 7 days a week, and visitors to my school still asked the question, “When will you put on another seminar?” They would rather learn by crash course, than actually study with a teacher full time.

But all this commercialization and watered-down art does not negate the power of FMA. We are still the most dangerous art out there. No other style teaches, at its core–how to kill the opponent. Nor does any art deal with the subject of how to stop a man from killing you. Not how to get out of a headlock. Not how to stop a spin hook kick. Not how to deal with the sucker punch. But how to stop a man hell-bent on cutting your throat. That characteristic is still present even in the most sissified FMA class (between the dancing around triangles and patty cake), and Ronald McGuro and his antics can’t take that away. I have long said, that before you dog out Tae Kwon Do as a style, let me introduce you to a few TKD fighters who will destroy you–and there are plenty. Tae Kwon Do, like the FMAs, Kung Fu, and many other styles, at its core is a killing art. Don’t forget that.

And to answer the question posed by Nathan Teodoro (over at TDA)–whether or not your style’s politics matter–is this simple:  It doesn’t matter when you are learning the basics of the art. But when you want to ascend to the higher levels of the art or become a more serious student of the art, martial arts politics could affect whether you are successful or not. In other words, yes it does.

Perhaps we will have a second installment of this subject. Thank you for visiting my blog.


Author: thekuntawman

full time martial arts teacher, full time martial arts philosopher, and full time martial arts critic

6 thoughts on “Tae Kwon Do: A *Killing* Art?”

  1. Thanks for the invitation on FB. I am very proud to be an FMA practitioner. I am very proud of and confident in our style: Modified Pangamut. I am very confident in my teacher, Guro Marc Lawrence. I have been with him for two years. I am currently an intermediate, not too far from my blue belt. Belts come slow in our club, and most of us don’t even wear ours. We want to learn how to fight and survive…in real life, in real time, in real scenarios. We train as close as we can to full contact with live stick. We get bruised, cut, beat up. In our view, if it works then use it. The main reason belts come slow is that we quite often step away from the “curriculum” and work an entire class on some street scenario that is not part of any belt progression or test. Maybe Guro Marc has an idea. Maybe someone has a question and we spend the whole class testing different responses. It slows down belt progress but makes us better fighters and survivors. That is what I am after. And yet, we do not delude ourselves into thinking we are “all that”…street tough is proven on the streets, in real situations. We always tell ourselves that. We just try to get as close to real situations as we responsibly can. But we know that no matter how brutal we can get, we are still “training”…and Guro Marc always throws surprises at us to keep us alert and humble. Are we for everyone? Definitely not. More power to those who observe a class and move on to what suits them. As for me? I can’t even imagine training anywhere else, or with anyone else. We have no grievance with any style or art, and we feel something can be learned from anything, if one is humble, hungry to learn, and willing to put in massive amounts of work OUT OF CLASS on improving skills. Basically, we are who we are and we just try to be the best “us” we can be. We don’t put up a facade or beg for members. The ones who stay and progress are truly committed to being the best they can be, and they DO PAY FOR IT: with maximum effort! Respectfully, ~Ray

  2. One more thing. FMA is readily available at schools near me. But I travel from Orange County, California to and through L.A. rush hour traffic 40 miles one way, several times a week, to train at my school. I spend about 2-1/2 hours round trip. And if the time/distance were doubled, I would stay with my teacher and school. Not saying I’m better or worse than anyone for this…just saying that it’s worth it to get what is best for me. Again respectfully, ~Ray

  3. One of my goals in life is to open a place in the DC area, specifically around Fairfax, which would serve as both a buddhist temple, which where I live is lacking badly (almost all the temples we DO have are houses which were converted. It’s touching, but we deserve a temple of our own) which I hope to offer what I know through, which would use the facilities of the temple.

    I am hoping to also have a space equipped for literally any martial artist to come and practice their art, with ample space, alone or with others for a really small fee of ionno, two dollars for x amount of hours, but enough that they could get a good training session in. It’d be for upkeep and whatnot.

    1. I’ve been thinking about this post some since I read it and last commented, and I feel kind of bad leaving another comment, but I feel it worth adding.

      I’ve noticed in TKD that until a person actually gets skilled with how to UTILIZE the kicks, they are terribly crap. In fact, I’d hoesntly say that the TKD will probably have added to them getting iknjured in an actual confrontation.

      But… until people hit about 2nd DAN (following the standard you presented in the article mentioning the 60 year old with a 3rd dan it would be 1st dan) they are that crap. But when they do, watch out. When people have truly mastered the kicks of TKD, it can be lethal. I know I have to tone my kicks back because I’ve been hearing reports of people saying their spines are feeling the force, through a heavy kicking bag. I’m only 5’5, so when someone with real mass has mastered that particular kicking art, avoid their blows.

      I think what I’m trying to say is this; for a long time, because it is so technical (and it is, once you get out of the sport and back into the art) people look terrible, and are terrible at doing it, no matter how much power they have. But sticking with it… eventually it pays off.

  4. Great article with a great point!!!
    I would however like to argue that while I have not read TKD: A killing Art, the seemingly biased focus on General Choi as the leader or creator of Taekwondo is far fetched and been proven wrong. If you do some internet research you will know that the idolization of Choi from ITF onlyists is propagandized way too much. Also, there ere plenty of Taekwondo masters in other kwons who also taught hardcore martial arts. Most Kukkiwon, or WTF fighters were also hardcore martial artists back then as well. ITF also has its own sport and nonsense as well and has been split into 3 organizations due to disagreements and silly politics. Historically the Kukkiwon which also is recognized by the WTF sport side of Taekwondo has always been the actual true linage of Korean Taekwondo and supported by the original KTA masters.

    ANNNYYWAAAY I would like to say I practice FMA but have not found a real school near me in Alabama. Just seminar trained mcguros at one old Taekwondo gym (not even ITF or WTF but some lame organization). I love the FMA’s as well as Taekwondo and I want to become very good at it hopefully.

    I am 3rd dan black belt in TAekwondo (Kukkiwon, WTF) and I also teach and run my own YMCA program. I do understand TKD is a killing art and was taught serious self defense during my time. So I teach Taekwondo as a fighting system and martial art and not just a sport. I do not teach FMA even though I would like to be good enough to teach it one day.

    Anyway this was a great article and the FMA community has tons of politics as well as crazy people just like Taekwondo. There is a ton of drama in FMA and many guys who think they are not McGuros, actually are McGuros and nothing else. For as many fat guys running Taekwondo gyms there are at least 3 fat guys claiming to run their own system of FMA or were seminar qualified level whatever number instructors.

    Visit my website! White Dragon Dojang! Alabama!

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