This article appeared in Inside Kung Fu magazine, Spring 07. Ten years ago!

RB at martial arts park in Hubei

Fighter or Martial Artist? Which are You?
by Rick Barrett

“He’s a martial artist, sure…but can he fight?”

How often have you heard (or said) some variation of that refrain? It is actually an important question, but it does beg other questions:

Is there a difference between martial arts and fighting?

Is there value in martial arts independent of preparation for fighting?

Does such a distinction matter?

There are some who would answer the last question with a resounding “No”. To them such a distinction is irrelevant, thus answering “No” to the two preceding questions as well.

But the terms fighting and martial arts are not interchangeable. At the simplest level we can say:

Fighters fight.

Martial artists seek art in the martial.

Naturally there is overlap. Some martial artists fight (some times). Some fighters are artists in the way they fight. Yet we can easily see that the terms provide a useful distinction: what is your primary intention?

Fighters fight. Some like to. Some want to. Some have to. Some feel most alive when encountering an opponent bent on harm. Some look for any excuse or opportunity to mix it up (“You looking at me?”). The fighter’s intention is unambiguous: win the fight by doing more damage to his opponent than is done to him. Victory is his only concern.

Martial artists, by contrast, care more about artistry and principles than the mere conquest of an opponent. In the language of the old cliché: to the fighter, it IS just about “winning and losing”; to the martial artist it’s “how you play the game.” If you say this to a fighter, he will glare at you like you are wearing a tutu. You will get a similar response from martial artists who pretend to be fighters.

“Am I a martial artist or a fighter?” This is a question we should all ask ourselves. It will clarify what you are actually doing with your studies.

How often do I fight? When was the last time I really fought someone? (Sparring doesn’t usually count as fighting, since we spar primarily to hone our skills, not to hurt or injure our sparring mates. “Fight Club” style sparring, where you gleefully beat your partner into unconsciousness is an exception.) Do I study martial arts primarily to learn techniques to defeat my opponents and enemies or for other reasons?

If it’s been a long time since you actually threw down, you’re probably not a fighter. Perhaps you were a fighter at one time, and may again be in the future, but right now you’re really not. And if you care more about exploring and applying the skills of your art than about cracking bones, you are likely more of a martial artist.

On reading this, those who fancy themselves fighters may feel compelled to head butt the next stranger they meet, if only to reassert their identity as warriors. But martial artists need not be seen as lace doily types. A classic example of the martial artist is Royce Gracie, who lives and breathes the art of Brazilian jujutsu. He is unquestionably a proven fighter, but his bedrock faith in his art establishes him primarily as a martial artist. Watching him, we know he would rather lose a match (a rarity) than abandon his principles. He appears to do only what is needed to handle the situation.

A fighter has no such qualms. What matters to him is that you are the one bloodied and unconscious, not him. The martial artist with little actual fighting experience is often surprised by the cunning, ferocity, and cruelty of the untrained brawler. Such a fighter does not have the restraints that keep a martial arts class from descending into mayhem.

There’s no warning as he delivers a “Glasgow kiss”. There’s no “tapping out” as he prepares his victim for a curb sandwich. Not all fighters are cruel or malicious, of course, but enough are to warrant caution. The martial artist must be acutely aware of the civilizing restraints of his art when a conflict turns deadly. At some point, survival or a greater good may require chucking these injunctions in favor of ruthlessness. Do it too soon, however, and your actions may be criminal, or at least repugnant.

Internal Arts Fighting

Internal martial arts (e.g., taijiquan, xingyiquan, baguazhang) are harder for some to envision as valid fighting systems. They depend for their effectiveness on principles that are remote and unfamiliar to most Western minds. They don’t lend themselves easily to the commonly accepted proving grounds for modern martial arts, such as UFC or NHB formats.

This is of little consequence to most internal artists, however. They pursue their studies for reasons other than just their “kick-ass” value. Traditional Chinese martial arts regard displays of martial prowess solely for fame, fortune, or vanity to be very low expressions of their arts. “Steel cage” matches and the like are viewed as almost pornographic. (Full disclosure: I like watching the unbridled ferocity of these matches, even if I have no interest in participating myself.)

The martial artist doesn’t go looking for trouble. However, he wants to be prepared when trouble finds him. No classroom simulation can prepare students for all situations, but good martial arts training will provide some real-life context for understanding and applying the principles of the art. I have written previously (“My Turn”: IKF, April 2002) of the need for martial artists (particularly internal styles) to mix it up if they expect to have dependable skills in emergencies.

A martial artist does not fight unnecessarily, but is prepared should things turn ugly. Two such unlikely warriors are Nina Sugawara and Sam (name changed due to ongoing police investigation).

Nina has co-authored with me several previous contributions to IKF. She teaches taijiquan and yoga, and is an accomplished healer. At a little over five feet tall, she seems an easy mark for bullies. They quickly (and painfully!) learn otherwise. One California motorist, in a fit of road rage born of snarled traffic and desert heat, reached through her car window and grabbed her throat. Without hesitation, Nina executed “Stork Cools Its Wings” to his throat and sent him reeling. An opening suddenly appeared in the traffic jam and she was away. She did what was necessary and moved on.

Sam is a sixty-something academic with Ph.D.’s in physics and psychology. He is a long-time taijiquan student of William C. C. Chen and studies xingyiquan with Yang Fukui. He is more comfortable among the tweed jacket set than in the octagon. Recently, Sam’s Manhattan apartment was invaded by a knife-wielding attacker. The intruder surprised Sam’s wife, stabbing her as he forced open the door. He then came after Sam, who used his taijiquan to punch the attacker while avoiding serious injury. The assailant broke two knives trying to cut Sam, who suffered only minor wounds. He eventually tired of getting punched and ran away. Both Sam and his wife survived the attack and are doing fine.

When Not to Fight

One of the toughest decisions a martial artist must make is to choose not to fight, especially when he knows his skill would prevail. In the black and white vision of the fighter, this can only be cowardice. His primary motivations are survival and ego. But in the complex world of the martial artist, one must consider the greater good before indulging in conflict. What others might think of you is of lesser importance than the long-range effects of your actions. Often you have only moments to decide.

A recent incident illustrates this point. I had just begun writing this article and was riding a New York City bus to my office. I sat down near a large man who was lying across three seats. He became enraged and started spitting and hurling insults at me. Gang banger…big, strong and fierce. He wanted my seat too! I was bewildered at first by this insane behavior. Then I thought, “He’s not going to push me around!” But this impulse was quickly reined in when I considered the stakes.

Here was a guy half my age exhibiting the kind of feral behavior you see in prison. He was ready to fight, kill, and even go back to prison to maintain his temporary dominion over a couple bus seats. What did they mean to me? Nothing. My ego didn’t like some punk telling me what to do, but it would have been ridiculous to get blood (his OR mine) on my white shirt for such a tiny matter. Nor would it have been appropriate to crash into some little old lady if we had come to blows. I quickly did the math and nothing added up.

I have been in other situations where my gongfu was high enough to bring about a peaceful, compassionate solution to a situation. That was not the case here, as I didn’t pose enough of a threat to get him to reconsider his behavior. I could see that reason and good will were not what he was interested in at that moment. He looked like he lived to fight. So I said, “You obviously want this seat more than me. Please take it.” I took a seat elsewhere on the bus.

There is wisdom in that old saw, “Discretion is the better part of valor.” Under different circumstances would fighting have been the right thing to do? Perhaps. Sometimes a dramatic intervention is necessary to restore order or protect the weak or cast off oppression. The bully on the playground. The drunk that won’t leave your girlfriend alone. You do what you have to do. But our martial powers are not in service to our egos. That route can lead to dangerous or even criminal behavior. The questions we must ask are, “Is someone in danger of being harmed?” and “Will fighting better or worsen conditions?” Being able to use a weapon does not mean it is right to do so.

The ideal in Chinese martial arts is the Daoist concept of wu wei. Literally, it means “doing based in absolute non-doing”. It can also mean “action through apparent non-action.” We seek to accomplish our objectives with a minimal expenditure of energy, not grandiose displays of power. A pretty woman who restores order by softly requesting the combatants to stand down displays a higher gongfu than the brick-smashing behemoth. It is a comfort, however, to know that you can acquit yourself honorably as well, should things turn ugly.

Push Hands Competitions

As an official at martial arts competitions, I often run into criticism of tournament push hands. Some think it’s too rough. Some think it’s not rough enough. Both miss the real point:

Is it good gongfu? The only reason to have a push hands competition as a unique event is to display taijiquan skills. Distinguishing between martial arts and fighting may provide perspective.

Those who blanch whenever more than few ounces of pressure are exerted miss the opportunity to see the power and effectiveness of good taijiquan against a hard attack. We can learn to use a few ounces to deflect a thousand pounds of force, but to do so we must gradually increase the intensity of the challenges we face.

Mike Ricciardi Plays Push Hands with Master Yang Fusheng

Others complain that in a martial arts world inspired by NHB competitions, push hands is not macho enough to inspire respect among other martial artists. They fail to see that push hands is not fighting, but rather an exercise to develop and coordinate the internal power that can then be incorporated into a broad range of martial skills.

Lacking a relatively safe way to explore the subtleties of taijiquan, the student never learns to trust his gongfu in stressful circumstances. The rules must allow for intensity, but within a narrow range that rewards good gongfu. Nothing is gained by turning push hands into sparring or grappling. These are both important activities and need their own events with appropriate rules.

Is there a difference between fighting and martial arts? I believe there is. They intertwine and feed each other, and each must be respected for its own sake. The difference is in your intention.

Martial arts are organized around fighting principles. Martial applications are the roots of any discipline. They must be nurtured and honored or even the most attractive leaves and fruits become hollow and empty. But overemphasis on fighting to the disregard of the principles of the art violates its integrity and denies the student its other fruits…good health, peace of mind, confidence, and wisdom.