Mastery and Innovation

In the path to mastery of the martial arts, including especially fighting arts such as Eskrima and Arnis–one must have a certain degree of innovativeness. While not absolutely necessary, for most martial artists perfection and a mastery-level degree of knowledge and skill is impossible without being at least somewhat innovative.

Before I begin, let me summarize the opposite approach to mastery. That is, mastery without developing new ideas and skills within the arts:

A rarely found type of master in the arts is one who has achieved pure perfection in the art–one who has taken an art as it was taught to him and execute this art with unmatched speed, power, precision, understanding, and timing. In calling this martial artists “perfect”, he is one who seemingly cannot be beaten. He is physically unrivaled by all opponents, and no equal or superior can be found.

If the above seems to be idealistic and impossible, that’s because it seems to be. Most of you reading this article have never encountered such a man and probably never will. I have met a few men like him, so I know this type of fighter exists. One would call him a Master because “good martial artist” is not strong enough a phrase to describe him. Just the idea of a man you cannot touch and have never seen lose is peculiar enough. There are such few martial artists out there who have reached this level of skill that most of us will never meet nor fight this type of man. I’m not talking about the Masters you see frequently on the internet and in books, DVDs and seminars. I’m not talking about the old man who moves “pretty good for his age”. I’m not talking about the beloved teacher of your teacher to whom you give respect because you love and admire him. I’m talking about literally the best martial artists you have ever seen. One who is stronger, faster, more agile, totally unbeatable than anyone you have ever seen. You do not need to imagine how good he was in his prime because you can see it. The guy in the magazines you would love to bring to your city to teach? Shit, I’m talking about the men HE talks about in his stories. Keeping this level of skill in mind, hopefull you can understand why I contend that the term/title “Master” is a highly overused, prematurely claimed, almost arbitrary, meaningless term today. Not only will 99.9% of those reading this article never meet such a man–99.9% of you will never reach this level.

So let’s move along.

Because pure physical perfection is such a difficult level of skill to reach, most dedicated FMA fanatics may be happy to discover there is another way to achieve mastery without undeservedly slapping on the title or paying a GM or organization for a piece of paper. It is still a skill-based method of mastering the art without having to isolate oneself from the world for five years and live the life of a celibate fighting monk. And this is to find shortcuts in the art.

If you are a long time follower of this blog, you might want to shake me and insist, “But you said there ARE no shortcuts in the arts!!”  Yes, I have said something similar to that many times. I never said there are shortcuts in the art, however–I said there are not shortcuts to proficiency in the art. One must still pay his dues, train diligently, study intensely, test frequently. Some may be able to shorten the length of time it takes to master an art by training more frequently and finding more or better opponents. Yet the path to mastering the art is the same: Learn, develop, train, test, revise, develop based on the results, and train with the outcome–then wash, rinse, repeat until no new discoveries are made. That process will never go away. Too often, in the martial arts, we want to take arts intact from our teacher’s curriculums to our students without dissecting his knowledge and revising it based on our tastes, fancies, failures and successes–then do this for a few years and then call ourselves a “master”. This is not the path to mastery. Mastery, my friends, is not a level or title people call you when you are popular or old. Mastery is a level of skill you achieve after treating “master” as a verb for many years until, as I stated a second ago, no new information can be discovered through testing (ahem, sparring and pressured use) and practice.

So where do shortcuts enter this process? Let’s take a scenario to serve as an example. You have an opponent who is greatly advantaged over you. He is faster than you are. He may be stronger than you. He may be more agile and evasive. Perhaps he has a sixth sense and can read what you are about to do–and blocks your strikes before your attacks even arrive. For all intents and purposes, he is a superior fighter. He has trained longer, he is more physically gifted, perhaps he has spent more time in the gym or the ring than you have. He is the better man than you and you say to yourself that perhaps you should just be realistic and accept that this opponent is the better man than you and you are about to lose. This situation seems hopeless, and all of us have seen outclassed fighters in the ring with the best fighter in the world, and you know from Round 1… He’s about to get his ass whipped. Well, now is the time for the shortcut. Your opponent has a gun, you have a knife. Find a way to beat him. All the chips are stacked against you, and anyone who isn’t a fool would bet the bank that you are too disadvantaged to be the victor.

Opponent is bigger, stronger, more athletic, faster, more gifted, has a sharper weapon than you. How can you beat him? Well, when you figure that out, then you have discovered the shortcut I am referring to, and you are approaching mastery of the art. Yes, the art should turn you into a human weapon. YOU should be the one who is faster, stronger, more agile and have more pain tolerance and better tactics in the fight. But we all know there are always better fighters out there. The true master is one who knows how to win a gunfight with a knife. He can touch the faster opponent on the chin and block his punches. He can knockdown the bigger, stronger fighter. He can make the sharper fighter look like a bozo. He can make the younger man look old. Every fighter has a thumbscrew, but it takes a true master of the art to know how to uncover and then exploit it. This is the difference between average martial artists who can only beat opponents when he has the upper hand, when he is faster, stronger, “better” than the opponent. The true master of the art may be outclassed, but he is never outsmarted. So yes, you don’t have to be the most fit. You don’t have to be the most powerful. You don’t have to be the superior opponent. But you find a way to be the victor anyway.

Does that sound impossible? Well remember… Buster Douglas beat Tyson. Ali knocked out George Foreman. Hopkins beat De La Hoya AND Trinidad. Tarver beat Roy Jones Jr. Randall beat Chavez. Many lower skilled, physically disadvantaged fighters have found a way to be victorious over superior fighters. Being innovative and finding ways to be the exception to the rule will help you maintain superiority even as an out of shape, aging master. Now… Go forth and make it happen.

Last article, I was told that my ideas were idealistic and that this level of skill does not exist. Well, my answer to that can be summed up in two maxims I was taught as a child:

  1. If you think you can, you are probably right. If you think you can’t, you are CERTAINLY right
  2. Those who believe secrets do not exist in the martial arts, simply have not learned any

This level of skill does exist. But it will never exist to you if you never pursue it–and you won’t pursue it if you don’t believe it can be achieved. That’s all I will say about this until later.

One last piece of advice, concerning shortcuts and innovation:  You must develop something unique. You must research. You must doubt what you know of the martial arts, try to disprove it or try to be disproved. You must test what you know and can do. You must seek out those who can beat you. You must gravitate towards your “haters”–those who don’t believe in your art and skills–not flee from them. You must find new ways to view and apply your craft. You must deconstruct the art your teachers gave you and put them against the question, “If I had to build this art from scratch, what are the most effective and efficient ways for me to do it?” See if your master actually did give you the best fighting art he could, and be prepared to admit if you find that he didn’t. Check to see if perhaps the skills he gave you are no longer relevent for today’s application, or if it should be tweaked. Find alternative ways to use the skills you already possess. Look for the weaknesses in what you do. Answer the question, “How would I beat someone using my art?”–and then find a way to counter the counters for your art. Step outside the box and break free of the same old way everyone before you trained these arts, and I guarantee that you will master the arts. You may not be carrying a warrior’s DNA in your veins, but it does not mean that the higher levels of the art are off limits to you.

And “Mastery” will no longer have to be a political or self-applied term for you.

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