Appropriately enough, ESPN is showing kickboxing right now.
My recent martial arts-related reading has given me a new perspective on why I did or didn't like different classes and groups I've participated in over the years. With that in mind, some thoughts on training over the years...
Big chunk o' notes in the extended.
Hapkido at the UC Martial Arts Program
This was my first real introduction to martial arts, other than a brief fling with Taekwondo when I was ten or so. Someone in my dorm bugged me to go, I went to one workout and loved it.
The Hapkido we learned at Berkeley wasn't Hapkido as you'd encounter it in a lot of other places. Though it was formed on a Hapkido base, it ended up being an amalgam of favorite techniques brought in by instructors from many different backgrounds. For example, I was initially shown instep roundhouses, which hurt, then was shown shin roundhouses from an instructor who'd spent several years in Thailand.
Hapkido's strength was in this mix, and in the ability to focus on what you were interested in. Thus, once I discovered how much I loved what we called "mat work" -- fighting on the ground, grappling -- I spent my free time on that.
The weaknesses of Hapkido at Cal centered on the environment. In a university setting, a martial arts class serves a wide range of goals. People come in for exercise, for fun, to learn how to defend themselves and so on. In addition, such a large pool of people in a long-running program resulted in a little too much soap opera. Similarly, the large pool of people involved in running the thing (I was involved in that for two years) could lead to disputes about how to teach. Overall, the lack of a rigid core curriculum meant that the basics were not effectively imprinted on students.
Overall, I really enjoyed Hapkido at Cal. My black belt is in Hapkido. Looking at the site today to link to it, I noticed that Hapkido's name was changed to Yongmudo. Apparently that's an inclusive term for all the amalgamated Korean martial arts, intended to replace Hapkido due to its ties to Aikido.
Following my move for grad school, I needed a place to workout that would let me solidify some things for my black belt test in Hapkido. With that in mind, I looked for something that was similar enough to let me drill form.
I ended up training at Kenyon's Soo Bahk Do. Soo Bahk Do is a renamed Tang Soo Do, which is a fairly recent martial art developed in Korea, but based heavily on karate. Unfortunately, the historical information on the site has many inaccuracies, so you'd have to look elsewhere for the real history.
Soo Bahk Do served the exact purpose I wanted when I joined, in that it had sufficient drilling on strikes to let me refine my form prior to my test for first dan in Hapkido. The instructors and other students were also quite nice, and fostered a good sense of community. Beyond that, however, I was nonplussed, and eventually stopped.
Soo Bahk Do had too many downsides. The top instructors tended to believe in it as the art, which is a position about which I am very suspicious. Why fear of crosstraining? They had only occasional, point-based sparring. Hapkido had light striking sparring, as well as throwing and grappling. Point sparring just screwed me up, and if I'd kept it up, would have left me with useless reflexes. Finally, progression in Soo Bahk Do was largely based on forms.
Forms are not inherently bad. However, when they're taught as a bag of parts, with no core idea and no justification for those parts, they just become a weird, unthemed dance routine to memorize. This characterized the Soo Bahk Do forms, unfortunately, and is a topic that will appear again below. I had no interest in memorize tens of different combinations and complex forms just so I could change belt colors.
Following Soo Bahk Do, I started Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with Roy Harris. I've already lauded Harris as an instructor; learning BJJ with him was a great experience.
Roy Harris's classes were set up quite well. We were typically instructed in a series of four or so interrelated techniques. For example, we might learn an attack on the arm, the defense against that attack, the counter to the defense, and the counter to the counter. We drilled in each technique after it was shown. The class ended with sparring time, where we grappled with other classmates and were encouraged to practice the techniques learned that day.
I stopped classes with Roy following aggravation of an old injury. Once I recovered, I tried out a class that was happening on the UCSD campus, called Universal Fighting. The ad copy describes it as follows:
This is a no-nonsense hand-to-hand combat course. Learn the 5 principles of fighting: striking, leverage, human physiology, offensive psychology and physical dynamics. All aspects of weaponry are covered with a focus on contemporary street weapons. Come learn an enduring life skill in a relaxed and friendly environment.
I liked many aspects of this class. They trained technique series -- strike A, strike B, leverage C, strike D. I appreciated the concept of programming in these series so you could enact them as a continuous stream rather than having to consciously pick each new technique. They didn't go in for pain- or submission-based techniques, which I liked because I know that pain methods don't always work (many fail on me, for example -- I lack nerves). I liked the "once you decide to fight, be fully on the offensive" mindset they espoused.
Recent reading has helped me articulate the downsides of the program. There is no sparring of any kind; instead, one person acts as a victim while the other person moves through their attack series. The ostensible logic is that sparring is unrealistic, and you're training to take someone out. This logic is flawed. If the techniques are meant to work on an active, conscious individual who wants to hurt you, then they really ought to be tested on someone who isn't letting you use them as a striking dummy.
The argument against this, of course, is that the techniques are too dangerous to practice full contact and full speed. Indeed, some of them are -- I don't want anyone practicing neck breaks or eye gouges full contact or full speed. But with the right gear (gloves, cup, headgear, mouthguard, goggles) you really should be able to set two practitioners at each other and see what happens. I felt as we learned many techniques that they really wouldn't work -- but that was never tested, so unless you go start a fight somewhere, you will never know. In contrast, I know that everything I learned from Roy works because after learning it each day we went and used it.
A second flaw was the presence of meaningless forms. As above, the forms were not intuitively related to the "realistic" techniques taught in class, and were mainly justified as presenting exaggerated versions of certain motions. My favorite instructor admitted that in a real fight, she'd just go at the person with compact strikes from the body rather than do anything even vaguely fancy. The forms ran quite counter to the advertised "no-nonsense" training. More annoyingly, they were required if you wanted to advance, which was in turn required if you wanted training in fighting against the full range of "street weapons."
A third flaw was an advanced version of the "our school only" mindset I discussed earlier. There was a fairly religious belief in the class that it was not a traditional martial art, and that all other training was bunk. They had no belt or rank system...except for the different levels that wore different colored t-shirts and had to learn forms to progress to the next level. As a beginning student, you can wear any white t-shirt -- but one instructor was upset when I wore a t-shirt from the 1998 UC Open Taekwondo tournament, and made me wear it inside out. What is that, but being asked not to wear a symbol from outside the faith? Bizarre.
As I mentioned before, most of the instructors also considered grappling pointless. I asked about this once and then gave up on it. If one of the head instructors thinks that hurting my ankle is a good counter to a rear naked choke, what can I say? If we were in the kind of real fight the class is aimed at, he can break my damn ankle if it means I choke him into unconsciousness. I imagine the believer would assert that they would never end up in a rear naked choke. To that, I suggest that they try to avoid being taken down by a trained mixed-martial art competitor, and failing that, try to avoid being set up in whatever position the dude wants once he has you down.
It may seem as if I'm down on these people, and I'm not. This class had zero dumbasses and only a couple of annoying people, and that's out of a lot of students and instructors. I really liked them. But in retrospect, the flaws were very large and made the class eventually unrewarding to me.
Overall, my best experiences were BJJ and Hapkido. BJJ was far more focused, but both involved hands-on learning and actually testing your skills against other people who didn't want you to win. Though I didn't realize it at the time, this is critical.