Developments in Martial Arts as I’ve Seen Them
My last blog post, with my 27th anniversary having just passed, was about my longevity in Taekwondo. In this post, I am going to highlight chronologically, as best as I can remember, the major developments I’ve seen in Taekwondo and, in some cases, martial arts as a whole over the last quarter century plus.
I began my martial arts training in the early summer of 1985 when I started Shotokan Karate training at the South China Athletic Association, in Hong Kong. I’ve always been interested in martial arts and I was exposed to them at an early age with Chinese martial arts movies, a judo uniform I was given as a birthday present when I was about ten, and the talk of Bruce Lee and nunchaku demonstrations by family friends at Christmas parties.
My eventual start in formal training came to a head when my friend and his cousin and I were spending a lot of time together during my final two years of living in Hong Kong. During those years, Bruce Lee films were being re-released in Hong Kong movie houses, the original Karate Kid movie had just come out and, on television, there was a short-lived show called The Master, starring Lee Van Cleef, Timothy Van Patten and a very young Demi Moore. My friends and I did the things teenage boys do - hang out, play ball, talk about girls, and play fight with faux martial arts moves. They also have a friend, a friend of both their dads, who is also a Gung Fu master and whose name was often bandied about with Bruce Lee’s and William Cheung’s. It was one of these school friends who brought me to the SCAA for Shotokan and it’s from that point that my life, for all intents and purposes, changed.
Here is how Taekwondo and martial arts have evolved from my eyes since June 1985.
The popularity of martial arts is probably at its highest since the early 1970s with The Karate Kid, The Master and a surge of other low budget but highly entertaining movies being produced. Sho Kosugi, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal thank you very much.
Taekwondo becomes a demonstration sport at the Seoul Olympics.
1. From footage of Taekwondo events from the 1960s and 1970s, it’s clear that the v-neck pullover uniform was already in existence but it became more popular and widespread as the 1990s progressed. I got my first v-neck uniform from a supplier in California that had a turtle logo. It was 100% cotton, not too thick and heavy, but hot. I like the functionality of the v-neck but, overall, I think I still like the look of a traditional jacket wraparound.
2. All martial arts use physics concepts - action versus reaction, small giving way to use leverage to win over large, etc - but in an intuitive sense. Taekwondo, however, appeared to be the first to put a scientific approach to its training. From teaching traditionally passed down kicks from the styles that preceded it - Tang Soo Do, Shotokan Karate - that include wide swinging leg motions, Taekwondo’s use of narrow motions and generating its power from hip twist seemed to become more widespread in the 1990s. Hip twist has been around for decades. Bruce Lee cites it in The Way of he Dragon and Judo uses it to generate power for its throws but, from my experience in several arts, the idea of generating the same amount of power with narrow leg movements and full hip twist versus wider leg movements (essentially a swing) with a pivot at the hips and with the opposite foot, seems to have originated from Taekwondo.
Taekwondo obtains full medal status at The Olympics. USA’s Herb Perez won gold in the middleweight men’s division to become the first winner of a full status Taekwondo medal.
1993 - present
The mixed martial arts (MMA) spectacle became widespread thanks to the UFC, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Some stand up fighters did well in the early years but MMA/UFC bouts typically are between jujitsu stylists who’ve learnt some kicking and striking and strikers who’ve studied some grappling. Really, it’s the widespread realization of the kind of training Bruce Lee espoused. Personally, I think the MMA guys are fantastic fighters but I suspect that many of them may not be martial artists. There’s a difference between being a fighter and being a martial artist. The latter can be both but someone who is merely the former cannot be the latter.
Late 1990s/early 2000s
1. There was a corruption scandal involving the World Taekwondo Federation, the International Olympic Committee and the United States Taekwondo Union (the governing body of Taekwondo in the United States that has been resurrected and is thriving as USA-Taekwondo). Any kind of scandal is not a good thing. Any kind of corruption is not a good thing. They’re made worse when they centre around something you love. In some way, you almost feel guilty by association like those involved reflect upon you as a member of that community. That’s how I felt, anyway. Regardless, Taekwondo and the involved organizations have survived and Taekwondo, as a world sport and martial art, continues to grow. It was also at this time, and partly because of this scandal, that I started to accept that martial artists are not the error-free monks and mendicants, who secretly know the ways of the world, that are portrayed in the movies. We, simply, are human beings; imperfect creatures that have chosen to fight against the demons we possess inside.
2. When I started competing, most of the tournaments around were open, point-scoring ones. After a point was scored, action stopped, the points tallied and then the bout resumed until time was over. I suppose the point-scoring system was popular to lessen injury and to generate more revenue so people of all styles could compete. It would also, perhaps, settle which style is the best based on who won but that would invariably add to the controversy. (Personally, I believe there is no ONE best style. The style has to suit the practitioner’s personality and the style is the best if the person conquers his or her demons and achieves his or her goals through its practice.) Today, those point-scoring open events are few and far between with many more style-specific tourneys being held. Individual schools typically hosted the point-scoring events. Nowadays, most Taekwondo events are hosted by state, regional or national organizations. There a fewer individually hosted ones and the ones that still exist follow the same format as those run by the International Olympics Committee, the World Taekwondo Federation and USA Taekwondo.
I love all aspects of martial arts but forms practice (poomsae, kata) has always been my favourite. In the mid 1990s, I wrote a piece about formalized, high level forms competition. I stated that there should be some kind of event and that it should be as recognized as, say, The Olympics. In 2006, the 1st Poomsae World Championship was held. I can’t claim any influence for this but I’m glad it exists. Furthermore, high level poomsae competition here in the US has emerged in state and national championships that even allow older athletes, like myself, the opportunity to compete and become state and national champions.
Around 2010, I think, Chuck Norris came up with the World Martial Arts League. Essentially, it’s teams of fighters (I think most of them stand up fighters) and there’s a round robin of bouts across the country. I always wanted to run a school-based point martial arts tournament like this in public schools but with most schools not even having boxing in their PE classes or as an extra-curricular it’d be a challenge to promote a Taekwondo/martial arts sparring team. In 2002, I wrote a Taekwondo curriculum that was added to my district’s overall PE curriculum. I taught it in the 2002-2003 school year but, being the only qualified Taekwondo instructor, it was difficult to manage and maintain. I have spoken with my department supervisor about getting a grant to revisit this and to train instructors but there has been no further developments or discussions on this. I know of, at least, one district in Utah that has a full TKD program in its PE curriculum.
With congressional help, perhaps, this can become a reality across the country. After all, Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee has trained many congressmen and he has even had a day named after him. Grandmaster Rhee, nicknamed ‘The Father of American Taekwondo,’ has throughout his life promoted Taekwondo as a means to attain a better quality of life and as a way for children to develop character. What more could someone ask for to be included into a district-wide PE program and to be added to its list of extracurricular athletics?
1. There seems to be an abundance of girls and women doing martial arts and this is a good thing and there isn’t any real surprise at this. It’s not a surprise in the way a girl playing on a boy’s gridiron team would be. It’s natural for girls to do martial arts, especially when you think that the Wing Chun system of Gung Fu was invented by a nun and how there are Japanese weapons arts that are geared towards woman. The surge of female martial artists here in the US, though, has to be credited to women like Master Karen Eden, Kathy Long, Michelle Krasnoo, Diana Lopez, and Gina Carano. They are all confident, feminine - dare I even say attractive, hot - as well as being badass modern women who can pack a punch. If I ever have a daughter, I won’t object if she chooses any one of them to emulate.
2. Taekwondo is now a household word. When Taekwondo first came into the US, in the 1950s, servicemen who were stationed in Korea brought it back. The term ‘karate’ was a more familiar one so many of the Korean masters advertised their art as ‘Korean Karate.’ When they’d say ‘Taekwondo’ they’d usually have to explain what it is. I found this to be true even in the 1990s. Today, it’s a common term and, if someone doesn’t know exactly what Taekwondo is, he or she will surely have heard of it. It even seems to be the martial art of choice in popular culture. In movies, for instance, when a character does a martial art it seems to be, more often than not, Taekwondo. One example is in the movie The Five-Year Engagement in which Rhys Ifans’ character studies and uses Taekwondo to defend himself against Jason Segel’s character. This is a romantic-comedy and not an action film. Action films usually won’t name the martial arts the characters practice. Or, they’ll be named and there will be a wide array of arts and styles on display. In movies about everyday life, Taekwondo seems to prevail. I say this not from any kind of scientific research but from my own observations. It illustrates, on some level, how widespread Taekwondo really is.
As I enter my twenty-eighth year of being a Taekwondoist, I‘m sure there will be more developments. For one, I’d like to see some kind of equal recognition between Kukkiwon Taekwondo and ITF (International Taekwondo Federation) Taekwondo, a reunification of sorts, if you will. I’d like to see Taekwondo enter all public schools in physical education and as an extracurricular sport, the way wrestling exists. I’d even love to see the Koreas unified, the way East Germany and West Germany reunited, with Taekwondo having some kind of influence in achieving that.
Who can tell what’s going to happen? As a Taekwondo master, I have some say on how the future of Taekwondo shapes up by how I teach my students and how well I represent that tenets of my chosen martial art. As a student, and as a master I am probably more of student than ever before, I look forward to how it continues to shape me.