The Evolution of Sports Martial Arts – Marc MacYoung


There have been serious changes made in martial systems over the last century. But change isn’t the problem. The problem is: People no longer recognize that these changes have occurred. Furthermore, they have forgotten, or were never taught, why these changes were made and for whatspecific purposes.

You may not have realized it, but those two previous sentences have staggering implications. So vast in fact, that for simplicity’s sake we’re going to limit the discussion of these factors to just punching. These same ideas however, can be applied to other offensive systems. The details will, of course, change, but the ideas regarding change, development, refinement, evolution and scaling back will still apply to whatever style you practice

Not even knowing that changes were made, much less why they were made and for what purpose, leads to three problem areas. First people think they are hitting in a ‘traditional’ way. Second they don’t realize that if a punch can be modified to be more effective, it can also be modified to be less effective. Not knowing what the people who changed it knew, they only know one way to punch. So now, instead of saying, “Hitting this way is good for this one thing and this one thing alone”…they try to make it work for everything.

No wonder ignorance and misunderstandings have arisen. And by this we don’t mean who’s ‘right’ in the endless dojo battles of “we hit right, they hit wrong.” What we’re talking about is the very basis of the battle itself. In all the broohaha over who’s right and who’s wrong, nobody has ever bothered to ask “Hitting for what purpose?”

Different hits have different purposes and they achieve those goals differently. Like different species arise to fill different evolutionary niches different punch. This concept undermines the argument over who is hitting right and who is hitting wrong. That is because a punch that is good for achieving one goal will not work for another.

The misunderstanding surrounding the issue has been further promoted by two main culprits.
The first is Hollywood, who will be the first to tell you that it doesn’t have to be real, it just has to look good. The second culprit — and the biggest — is people watching boxers and trying to ape them without understanding what the contestants are doing — much less why they are doing it that way.

If you were taught to punch in the last 40 years, odds are you’ve been trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

What I am about to tell you will explain how modern punching practices came about. But more importantly, it is about what was there before and why it was done that way. While both old and new systems work, they are designed for totally different circumstances and environments. Ignorance of the differences has robbed you of your punching power.

Goals of sports fighting
Let us for the record state: There are dramatically different goals between combat and sports ‘fighting’.

Combat techniques are oriented on the immediate neutralization of an opponent. That means “Do unto him before he can do unto you” By their nature, they are designed to make sure the other guy cannot do unto you after you are done. The problem with them, in a modern civilized context, is that they are aggressive in nature, which makes them functionally illegal. Despite the use of the term “self-defense” that the peddlers of fantasy like to use, you — in an urban environment — have a greater chance of being hit by lightening than finding yourself a situation where such move would be warranted. That makes their use in most situations illegal. You can call it what you want, but it isn’t self-defense.

Sport fighting, however, has two primary goals
1) To ensure the safety of the participants through limited offensemaneuvers. 2) To extend the conflict for entertainment purposes.

Reread those two points, because they sum up why “just doing it harder” will not convert a sports move into a combat move. They disprove the contention — promoted by so many martial arts instructors — that a sport move is af ighting or self-defense move.

By removing elements that would be damaging and/or lethal to the opponent, sports fighting not only minimizes the chances of injury, but also guarantees that the match will be extended. Matches continue even if the techniques are correctly applied. For example, it is demonstrable that boxing has some of the most effective punches of any system. Muay Thai is, arguably, the possessor of some of the most powerful kicks of any sport system. And yet, despite the intense pounding that participants in these sports deliver to each other, they are capable of going multiple rounds!

While it can be asserted that the physical fitness of the participants allows for this, there is one point that outweighs this argument. A combat move, which kills or cripples an opponent is done against enemy soldiers…who are also in peak physical condition. Therefore, we must conclude that sport technique itself has been altered to prevent injury. This aids in achieving the second goal, that of extending the contest.

Over all, it doesn’t matter how hard you do it. It is still a sport move.

For the record, there is nothing wrong with sports moves or sports contests. They are what they are. They exist for very legitimate purposes. But selling something, that is one thing, as another can get students hurt. Students will try to apply sports moves as self-defense moves — especially if they have been told that they are the same.

Let’s go back a hundred and fifty years. Way back then, bare-knuckled boxing was the norm. This is when you see a guy, standing there wearing a handlebar moustache that you could hang coffee cups off of, with his hands extended in front of him, elbows down.

Now while both the stance and mustache look silly by today’s standard, let me point out that this was called “London rules fighting.”

That’s a joke because the stuff was so brutal that it made the UFC look like a Teletubbies show. There was no “gentleman’s agreement,” grappling, gouging, kicking,  fishhooking, sweeps, purring (grinding a shod foot down the other guy’s shin, trying to break his foot to boot) and hip throws were the norm — even though some of these moves were technically banned in 1838 with the introduction of these rules. (Prior to that “sports” fighting had been really ugly, there were no banned moves). That “goofy stance” excelled at keeping people from closing, grappling and doing all those nasty-nasties to your precious body.

Sound ugly? That’s just the beginning. Here’s where it gets butt ugly. In that style of pugilism here were no round limits or decisions. Victory was determined by either knockout or the other guy being so punch drunk he couldn’t continue. No points, no decision… incapacitation. In other words, you won by beating the other dude senseless. And sometimes the suckers didn’t fold as quickly and easily as you might hope. This is why John Sullivan’s longest bout went for 72 rounds. The longest fight on record went 114. That, by the way, means all day! It was called because of sunset and declared a draw. See why we say London rules makes UFC look warm and fuzzy? People often did die. Not as often as before, but death was not uncommon. Even with the further cleaning up of boxing with the addition of the Marques of Queensbury rules it was still a brutal sport

The reason for changes in how boxers hit is very simple. Gloves. When gloves were introduced, boxing went down a totally different evolutionary line. The original purpose of gloves was to protect the participants. This is really ironic because, while they limited gouging, hooking and other barehanded nasties, in the correct range, the extra weight and support of the gloves allow you to actually hit *harder* (provided you hit in a very specific way). Along with this equipment many new rules and bans were also introduced to further increase the safety of the fighters.

But the real sweetheart was the ban on clinching and grappling. It was no longer necessary to keep the guy away because the ref would do it for you. This is one of the two major reasons the boxing guard came “in” to its modern position. There was no more need for arms to stick way out yonder to keep the other dude back.

Gloves and their influence
The other big reason, guards came in was that position worked better with the new way of hitting.

A very specific way of hitting evolved from wearing gloves. When you are swinging your arms around with that extra weight perched on your mitts, you discover something real quick. It is the same thing you learn when you pick up a real sword, instead of one of those tinfoil wu shu thingies, a shinai or a light dowel. And that is, even though you have a shorter time to fight, those dammed gloves get heavy.

With the extra weight of gloves on the end of your arms, it was easier to hit from a circular motion of your hips. You literally sling your weighted fist out from your body. Your hips and torso are the source  of your punches’ acceleration. Once your arm is moving from body motion, you then rocket out your fist. This is where the idea of “the correct way to punch is from the hips” came from.

If you want to keep from exhausting yourself, you use your entire body, not just your arms. This applies to both gloves and weapons. Putting it into super simple terms: Move your ass!!!! You hit with your entire bodyweight not just arm strength. That is correct boxing punching.

The thing is, that is a circular action.

That means it needs to be a close-range, circular hit. While there is a way to generate straight force from a circular motion, it requires some very specific body positioning, which a boxer will do. However, you have to know about it, because if you try to ape that kind of punching without understanding the body positioning, you end up actually losing power.

Along with the gloves came all sorts of other things to civilize the game, like limited rounds and point decisions. That meant you could win a bout by hitting the guy more times in a limited amount of time, not necessarily beating him unconscious like the old days. This often made speed more important than power. This is doubly true with extremely light gloves, in fact, the lighter the gloves the faster the punches.

These and all sorts of other changes came about in the sweet science of boxing. Which it is. Let no martial artist disparage it until he has stepped in the boxing ring and found out for himself how devastating the hand work of boxing can be. You may think you know how to hit, but a good boxer can show you stars.

Broken Hands
If you look at the way those old-timers hit, it was designed to protect their hands. And yes, while hands did break, they were not as common as you might think. Whereas injury to your opponent was *real* common. So here are these guys beating the snot out of each other for 30 to 40 rounds with minimal damage to their unprotected hands. That should tell you something about how they punched.

Conversely, think about this for a second. How many times have you heard of a modern boxer hitting someone outside the ring and breaking his hand? How about a martial artist?

If you look at it superficially, it is easy to dismiss these injuries as “he just hit wrong.” But something doesn’t gel with that answer. So if instead of accepting that answer at face value, you keep on looking into the problem, a far more accurate answer presents itself. How the guy was trained to hit has *changed!* People are hitting differently!

Face it, how people hit has to have changed. I seriously doubt that a professional boxer forgot years of training on how to hit because he was both a little drunk and pissed off when he popped the dude. In the same vein, I also seriously doubt that a black belt — even from a belt factory — just spaces out how to hit. Injuries must arise from a different source, not that he did it wrong. (Don’t get me started about instructors who blame their flawed techniques not working on the student doing it wrong…grrrrr!).

This brings us back to changes in training.

The cost of modern sports equipment was that you have to hit in a very specific way and be wearing special equipment. Try to hit someone like that without these two conditions and viola! a broken hand. And soooooo many people have found this out over the years when they threw a boxing or karate punch at someone’s head without gloves.

People have blindly accepted the changes in boxing as the way it has always been when it comes to hitting, or they contend that the new way of hitting is “superior.” This ignorance of changes especially applies to people from outside boxing, a.k.a. martial artists. Many of whom study styles that have long since adopted these changes — usually in the pursuit of victory in tournaments. Thing is while everybody is so busy going on about lineage and tradition, they sort of forget to mention these little insignificant issues.

That’s if you consider robbing you of your punching power insignificant.

Martial arts adopting boxer’s practices
These days, people talk about the “old days of martial arts” when there weren’t that many white instructors. They go on about how hard it was to learn under Oriental masters and endure requirements that would get you sued today. Thing is, as “hard as it was way back when, “I remember a black belt in karate in the 1960s telling me that the only thing you could do against a boxer was to stand back and kick. Even first generation, trained by Orientals martial artists were getting their lunches eaten by boxer’s hand work. Even though it was sport fighting, the boxing method was still winning.

So what did they do? Did they steadfastly stick with tradition and remain true to their teacher’s vision? Death before dishonoring their art?

HELL NO! You don’t keep students when they are losing matches and fights against boxers.

They adopted boxing handwork. Then the martial arts took it a step farther, they started “sport” sparring- tournaments. And you know what? Their hand work was damn near pure boxing back then. Their bouts looked like boxing matches done in funny clothes – enough so that the now defunct PKA had to pass a ruling that you had to kick a certain number of times in a round. I remember the first time I heard the “at least three kicks a round rule” I nearly fell off my chair laughing. Those bouts in the 70’s were nearly pure boxing.

Face it, many, if not most, Western martial artists have taken this way of punching bastardized it and put it into their styles. They have taken a boxing punch and, without understanding its purpose or history have incorporated it into their sport style.

To make matters worse, many have lost (or never noticed) the details that allow linear power to be generated from a circular motion from the hips. It’s an issue boxing knows very well. Boxers have excellent power chains(1). Another thing that they seem to have failed to notice is the range of this kind of hitting. Another thing boxers know *very* well. Furthermore many MAers have taken the idea of hitting from the hips and engraved it into stone. They have taken what was a triangle of generating power, thrown away two sides and made the remaining point an inescapable constant — even when it isn’t the time to use it.

Instead of learning the positioning and the range requirements of various punches, martial artists have tried to extend them. In doing so, they have opened up an entire Pandora’s box of problems that rob them of power and effective movement. When their blows don’t work, they try to hit harder still. But since key components are missing, that doesn’t work either. In fact, you now are moving into “guaranteed broken hand” territory. On the other end of the spectrum, they try to increase power through increased speed. Usually at the expense of their power chain.

Face it, at best, this is a sport style of hitting that is designed to work with gloves! It is not designed to hit someone with the bare hands that martial arts use. And unless you are looking to be wearing a cast, you better realize this right up front. Because that is what will happen if you try to compensate for a poor understanding of range and body mechanics by hitting harder. Furthermore, by taking away the equipment boxers use to protect their hands, you greatly increase your chances of fracturing hands and wrists.

On the other hand, in sport styles where victory is assigned not through knock outs, but purely by points the need for an effective power chain is entirely absent.

Now where things get really scary is with self defense. About 90 percent of the people who claim to teach self defense are, in fact, teaching a further bastardized form of these already sports mutated martial arts. It is additionally corrupted because without understanding the sports influence — its limitations or purposes — they are claiming to have stripped away the padding of their martial art style and made it street effective.

They haven’t. In many cases, it’s not even a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, it’s far worse. Such people often unwittingly throw out what would work and retain the chaff, simply because they don’t understand body mechanics or principles, such as structure, momentum or range. In many cases, both they and their students resort to muscle and flailing and call it self defense.

Safety and litigation
Back in the pterodactyl days, the attitude was that if you were dumb enough to walk into a karate school and got your nose broken in the process, it was nobody’s fault but your own. Both sympathy and avenues of litigation were seriously lacking.

Things have changed. In order to run a school, instructors must have insurance. And insurance companies dictate safety standards before they will insure. So anybody who thinks that they are being taught a “pure” combat art had better sit back and consider this reality. What they are being taught has been seriously diluted because of safety and insurance standards.

Commercial schools are often required to have a standardized curriculum of moves that have been approved and proven safe. Safety equipment and standards of contact to minimize injury are in place and enforced. In an attempt to maintain the lowest insurance rates possible, schools self-regulate their sparring and training procedures.

Because of this, many moves are not applied. They may be practiced, but nobody doing that practice or teaching the moves has actually used them. Therefore, the moves’ effectiveness are purely speculative. People have to take on faith that a move will work. However, they have no idea what these moves may or may not have lost over time.

In attempting to trace roots of martial sport, one cannot underestimate the impact of tournaments

The style you practice, the organization your school is associated with,franchised through or the organization sponsoring the tournament determines what is and is not allowed. Some schools insist on purely point contact; others are “full” contact; others are a weird, seemingly nonsensical blend of the two. Some tourneys do not allow contact to the head at all, others insist on no punch to the head/face, but allow kicks to the same. Some allow sweeps, others don’t. Some warn against excessive contact; others seemingly encourage it.

The combination of safety equipment, allowed targets and fighting stances tend to minimize injury. For example, the forward-oriented stances of muay Thai and kickboxing protect the legs and knees from being broken. Important since legs are major targets in these arts. Styles where the legs are not targets often adopt modified side horse stances or “L” stances for sparring. This is just one of the many examples of how tournaments effect a style.

Just as important is the effect that “flash” moves have across different arts and schools. Many times, fancy, fast, nonmartial moves impress judges and win both the forms and sparring competitions. Such moves are immediately taken and incorporated into the systems of other individuals and schools. These moves are then performed in other tournaments and seen by more martial artists, and that starts the cycle over again. A prime example of this is the way flips and nontraditional outfits for kata competition have spread through large multi-style tournaments.

After a few “generations,” students no longer recognize where these moves came from and just believe that they have always been within the style and are, in fact, real” martial arts that can be used for self-defense. A prime example of this is would be the “California backfist.” This light, fast, modified backfist strike, with no bodyweight behind it, is a great point-generating move. Because it comes in from an unexpected angle and an unexpected range, this is a very difficult move to block against. It is not, however, a powerful hit and cannot be expected to stun an enraged opponent. Furthermore, people are told that these new modified versions are “traditional martial arts”.

The list of changes over the years is long and involved. It takes someone who has many years experience in a particular school to recognize how many changes have occurred –just within that school itself. Unfortunately, most people leave a school within a few years, so there is nobody reliable to ask what has changed. Those individuals who remain for longer than five years tend to be directly involved in the running of the schools; and, as such, tend to be biased towards the changes.

This is especially true when it comes to changes in the system that are designed to win tournaments.

Weaknesses of martial sport strikes
Ever wonder why a boxer with just a year or so of training is throwing fast and powerful blows, where the same traits can take years to develop in martial artists? Having said this, there are indeed full contact martial arts styles that still do a fine job generating power. The point is there are two things that allow boxers and full contact systems  to do this. First is the emphasis on an effective power chain and correct body movement, range and structure. Second is the emphasis on removing unnecessary movement that will slow you down. Having said this, overall, the number of schools that participate in full contact events are the minority.

What a majority of the schools that do participate in tournaments engage in is point sparring. Point sparring does not require that you deliver power into your opponent. In fact you can be disqualified for “excessive” contact. Point sparring techniques are designed to operate around two main goals: speed and making sure that the judge sees it.

But, just because something is moving fast doesn’t mean that it has a power chain. In fact, most of the time with these kinds of sports hits, power chains are sacrificed in order to gain extra speed. When it comes to powerful hitting, speed is not as much an issue as delivery of momentum. (Momentum = Mass x Velocity). While speed is what makes a bullet dangerous, it is impossible to make your fist move that fast. Therefore, in order for your punches to have power, they must have your mass (bodyweight) behind them.

Where most people make a mistake is that they are throwing quick point sparring punches using just their arms. These punches, requiring far less attention to range, structure and not requiring body movement will get there quicker — and score you a point — than a blow with a complete power chain. That’s because all that is involved in these punches is just the speed of your arm movement.

Whereas a “punch” with a power chain behind it is a matter of moving into range, creating the power chain to drive your arms movement, impact and retraction. The analogy that we use is the difference between what someone reading a newspaper about a missile attack and what someone in the military knows is involved. The newspaper reader thinks the “missile attack” is defined by when the missiles were hitting. But, someone in, let’s use the Navy, thinks of a missile attack in terms of the entire mission. This includes getting the ship/sub into range/ firing position. The launching, the flight time, impact and getting back out of range. For your punches to have power, you need to start thinking in terms of mission, rather than when the missile strikes.

The bottom line is that punches that do not deliver your bodyweight are not effective for anything other than a sport, point generating context. Outside that context, these moves have little use or application. (Unless you know how to strategically use them for a set up to initiate an assault. But even then they are primarily a distraction before applying your power strikes). Yes, contact is made, but with just speed. There is little to no mass involved. This makes most sport punches little more than pokes.

Most sports punches, while blindingly fast, tend to rely on muscle. The problem is that the arm joints are designed to move. While muscle can lock them into place against light force, the harder the force, the more likely they are to flex, if not collapse. This creates a shock absorber effect that robs the puncher of his power. With certain blows, the greatest amount of force that you can possibly deliver would be about 70 of the force you could deliver. And that is if everything is absolutely perfect, more than likely you will deliver far less. The worst culprits of these problems are long range, semi-circular jabs. Which are a staple of many tournament fighters. This is why you must pay close attention to how much the issue of structure is stressed in your school when you are taught these moves.

This is why you must be very critical when taught a move — especially if it is being promoted as a potential means of self defence. In order to successfully deliver your bodyweight in a quick and effective manner your body and blow must be moving in the same direction. And all movements must culminate at the same time. This requires specific motions, positioning and timing. If these mechanics are not lined up correctly, your blows will not have sufficient force to stop a dedicated attacker.

These issues are not important in sport where all you need to do is to touch your opponent to score. In fact, making sure you have all three sides of the triangle actively interferes with successful point sparring. There are ways you can move quickly and there are ways you can move to create a structure that will deliver your force. Most of the time, the two are not synonymous.

The good news is that there are styles that punch in structurally sound manners so the arm doesn’t turn into a giant shock absorber. Boxing is also important to look into in order to learn how to punch with power — even with the sport emphasis. Knowing the changes that have occurred within boxing will greatly help you in your research into how to strike effectively. It is important to go back to the source to understand its influence on modern martial punching practices. Once you know the original, you can easily see the permutations in your art.


1 A power chain is the complex coordination of moving body parts and joints opening and closing that both generate and deliver power. Speed is not the source of power, a proper power chain is. Once you know how to recognize a power chain you will immediately spot it when someone doesn’t have it.

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