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Martial Arts in the Digital Age

We’re in a golden age of martial arts education, and Coronavirus quarantines have only highlighted the advancements and culture in learning martial arts.

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As the world remains locked inside and quarantined due to COVID-19, home confinement solutions to this dilemma have been found using the tools of the internet. Martial arts, of course, has been no different. These tools have always been there with the only difference now, it’s become a supplemental necessity, rather than nicety.

When I originally mapped this article out a few months ago, I believed the martial arts world was experiencing an evolutionary point in its history, thanks to an increase of world-class competitors and champions releasing volumes of high-quality instructional content.

Sites such as BJJ Fanatics have some of the most notable and prominent instructors providing material from Andre Galvao, Kazushi Sakuraba, Craig Jones, Garry Tonon, John Danaher, and a library of who’s who of elite grapplers that are just too numerous to mention.

There’s also Digitsu, who feature names like Lucas Lepri, Reilly Bodycomb and Eddie Cummings. Gumroad has a Saenchai series. Techniqly offers a leg attack instructional by Imanari. Ryan Hall, one of Jiu-Jitsu’s favorite instructional coaches, recently launched Ryan Hall Online and hosts his own online instruction course in the same way others have before him, such as Buchecha Online, Marcelo Garcia In Action or Gracie University.

These are just examples of the cost-based instructional outlets you can find online. If you then add in free resources like YouTube, Instagram or Facebook, the number of online instructionals to consume becomes endless.

The sheer amount of content available might be at an all-time high, but, haven’t instructionals and these kinds of resources been around for a while? Absolutely.

Plenty of people credit Gracie Jiu-Jitsu In-Action to their introduction to Jiu-Jitsu, and if you want to get niche, catch wrestlers and submission grapplers hold the Submission Master set by Yoshiaki Fujiwara in extremely high regard. And before VHS or DVD, countless individuals would tear out pages from Black Belt Magazine or Kung Fu Magazine to practice the stop motion action images.

So, how is right now different than at any other point? It’s accessibility, quality, quantity, and availability that make our present situation unique, and the Coronavirus forcing martial artists into isolation is only adding gasoline to an already burgeoning fire.

Yes, the Gracie, Marcelo Garcia, Demian Maia, Saulo and Xande Ribeiro, as well as Eddie Bravo and many others have all produced quality instructionals since the 90s that we’re groundbreaking for that period and highly influential.

Nevertheless, they had limits in comparison. Streaming automatically makes the implementation of whatever you’re learning more seamless, efficient and above all, convenient in comparison to a DVD or VHS player. Second, what’s even more crucial than ease of use, is the production itself. Producing a DVD or VHS takes man-hours, physical resources, time, investment, financial demands, and multiple parties and moving parts to create compared to modern tools.

For argument’s sake, as long as you have a cell phone and know how to work editing software, you could record for an hour, take another hour to cut and edit, add the time it takes to upload to the internet and bam! Instructional released.

And in terms of real-world examples, the Self Mastery: Solo BJJ Training Drills by John Danaher released by BJJ Fanatics is exactly that. Created, filmed and released all during the start of quarantines from the coronavirus. An impossibility pre-2010. And if it was, the quality wouldn’t be as good, the reach as wide, or the ability to share it as simple as it is now. So much so, it crashed the BJJ Fanatics site.

via the BJJ Fanatics Facebook Group

And again, yes, Mastering the System, fightTIPS, BJJ Scout, Lawrence Kenshin and countless others have existed on YouTube, all of which are fantastic, educational and extremely valuable. However, they’re free resources, and most professional or world-class instructors are only going to give away so much for free on the internet. That’s why their students pay. That’s why they host seminars. That’s how they pay the bills.

“In a closed world, you were living through your academy and each academy style was very unique due to isolation and lineage,” Loic Thouvenot, better known in the reddit BJJ circles under the handle “ckaa.”

Thouvenot, who has black belts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Full Contact Karate, works as a Philosopher specializing in Martial Arts Epistemology in Information Technologies, and is currently working on his Ph.D.. He spoke about the shift from keeping school “secrets” to freely sharing them.

“If we think back, people used to try and reverse-engineer matches from the Danaher Death Squad leglock system,” he said. “Danaher’s crew were terrorizing the competition with leglocks and nobody understood why they had more success with it, compared to Sambo guys or the Japanese leg lockers. Everyone tried to reverse-engineer it to get access to the knowledge, because the Renzo guys were not giving any clue freely. Nowadays, you have Danaher himself, explaining why and how to perform and execute these techniques. That’s unheard of.

“I think that Marcelo Garcia was the first to do it really,” Thouvenot continued. “Of course, you had instructionals before him. However, his online site was something groundbreaking and the most important aspect of it is, that even if you could literally “spy” on his classes, he was still the number 1 in his division and subbing everyone. So, the “secret” thing was not so important anymore, because even the best grappler on the planet was explaining everything about himself and still winning. I think people are starting to realize that secrets don’t win championships. It can be a tool when you are an up and comer, but when reaching the highest levels of your field, people understand or will understand enough about what you are doing. The new example being, of course, Gordon Ryan.”

QUINTET Ultra: Ryan v Oleinik
Gordon Ryan grappling UFC fighter Aleksei Oleinik
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Gordon Ryan, arguably one of, if not the greatest No-Gi grappler of all time next to Marcelo Garcia and has released multiple instructionals. Specifically, he’s even gone so far as to break down every match and moment on how he won double gold at ADCC in 2019, from his strategy to decision making in My Evolution Your Revolution. A world-class competitor providing crucial insight that would most likely have been sealed off, except for a select few individuals within his team.

Jiu-Jitsu will never have the cultural impact or influence of boxing. Yet, how many boxing historians, fighters or fans would have killed to listen to Muhammad Ali breakdown Thrilla in Manila and how he dismantled Joe Frazier with round to round commentary, dissection of technique and application of tactics. Probably a lot right?

We’re in an information golden age, where instructors and world-class martial artists can put forth invaluable instruction to anyone around the world, for relatively little expense — like a trip to Boston during a pandemic that launched and crashed a website a few days later.

The trajectory the internet has put the combat arts on is a pivotal shift in its history. Martial arts have always been a restricted and limited information stream, constricted primarily as a student and teacher interaction, typical of any craft or trade:

Master knows technique. Master teaches technique to Student. Student becomes Master. Rinse and repeat.

This distribution of knowledge isn’t always vertical or linear and occurs at other intervals as well. But, without that physical communication, martial arts is limited in its exchange of information.

It also can’t be overlooked that combat education has not been open-source for most of its history and has notoriously been taught with varying degrees of gatekeeping since the practice was codified. Access to proper training for centuries was limited to family pedigree, birth, race, class, financial income, or geography, and it generally dictated what you could or couldn’t learn.

A well-known example is Bruce Lee’s famous showdown with Wong Jack Man, which according to tradition and myth, transpired because Lee was teaching Chinese martial arts to foreigners. Within Jiu-Jitsu context, the Gracies not teaching certain tips to foreigners to make technique work eventually caused a rift between the family, and Carlson Gracie who disagreed with this philosophy.

via Art of Jiu-Jitsu

While restrictions to learning are no longer limited in the same fashion as the past, it doesn’t mean the “gatekeeping” has stopped. How often can you browse reddit’s jiu-jitsu hub and find some white or blue belt expressing pushback on cross-training or visiting another academy, directly hindering the growth of their training?

An instructor is a limited source of information. Without physically interacting with another source of knowledge, Master or Student, new data or technique can’t be spread, and the evolution of martial arts gets locked into what it was until UFC 1: a handing down of one set of information and principles linearly and creating the insular systems and styles of traditional martial arts.

Thanks to technology however, this can now happen without ever coming in contact with the Master teaching it.

UFC Fight Night: Mitchell v Sayles
Bryce Mitchell pulling off just the second “twister” in UFC history.
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

“I’ve seen Eddie Bravo doing it on YouTube and I practiced it, practiced it, and practiced it,” Bryce Mitchell said in 2019, after performing the second twister in UFC history. “I remember every step that he told me. I even know the Peruvian twister – it’s the tighter version. I really paid a lot of attention to that video.”

Imagine the number of martial artists who have nothing to do but watch “film” as they’re locked inside, and will take this new knowledge and apply it the second they return to the mats.

I’m not saying two-week white belts will be executing complex grappling sequences to “bolos” after watching videos throughout their quarantine. But is it a stretch to believe individuals who were closed off in one academy, won’t be exposed to new ideas supplementing training? Or others won’t advance at a minimum in their outlook, thanks to the influence of an instructional?

The instant availability in technique improvement or advancement in just your approach, from streaming, is unprecedented. It almost becomes a real-life loot crate provided by any instructor around the world. Every time a new “DVD” is released or a piece of content uploaded, there comes the potential for a tangible ‘level up’ in your game that can completely enhance your abilities in real, definitive, and practical ways.

“I believe someone can make a big shift in their training and technique through the use of instructionals. That’s a huge yes because I am a perfect example of it,” said Vladislav Koulikov, a world-renowned Sambo practitioner and Shaui Jiao champion, who has produced instructionals of his own on both BJJ Fanatics and Digitsu. “My Jiu-Jitsu journey was a strange one. Until recently, when I met Mike Palladino and Formiga, I had no instructor in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or formal training. All of my competition was done by utilizing my Sambo skills. So, to learn Jiu-Jitsu, I watched film. VHS’s in particular back in the day. Instructionals can drastically change your game. The availability of so many great instructors at your fingertips, so to speak, has completely shifted the paradigm of learning.”

We are experiencing a unique and groundbreaking pivot in martial arts history, unlike any other and one that I think will begin to bear more and more fruit in the near future. Unfortunately, this instructional boom seems to have mainly been a BJJ or grappling art only experience thus far.

Thanh Le, a TUF and Dana White’s Contender Series veteran, currently fighting for ONE Championship, feels there’s a lack of striking related instructionals on the market currently.

“I honestly think it’s a cultural thing. Striking culture is kind of like a wide receiver persona in the martial arts, at least in my opinion,” Le, who is a BJJ brown belt under Ryan Hall, explained. “It’s very image-oriented and very focused on things that you don’t intellectually think through because guys are blessed with it naturally. Things such as speed, power, natural talent, or the ‘vision,’ which is completely wrong. It’s a martial art, just like Jiu-Jitsu is. The tactics, strategies, reads, setups and great positioning are what make a striker great, not just their speed and power.

“I feel like a lot of people who chose Jiu-Jitsu as their art of choice, weren’t usually the most athletic guys in the room. That’s what makes Jiu-Jitsu so awesome! It doesn’t matter if you aren’t an athlete. If you use leverage and know how to base properly, it can overcome natural athleticism with ease. Jiu-Jitsu just naturally attracts the thinker and striking usually attracts more meathead mentalities. It’s actually a goal of mine, to eventually have a site like that for the stand-up arts, but with more about the HOW to fight, the tactical aspect and less focused on combinations or drills.”

This same sentiment is echoed by Thouvenot, who states, “BJJ and MMA are the most intellectual form of combat sports, so it’s natural to think of it as the ones having the most success with instructionals. Ironically, I am a striking coach and was a pure striker before going to BJJ. I remember two quick videos that changed my whole striking life: one from Bill Wallace and the other video was truly a gem from Floyd Mayweather Jr., where he explained how he structured his defensive strategy and counter-punching style. If someone can get Mayweather to publish something or create an instructional, it would be something truly great.”

The opportunity for even more diverse instructionals within a combat arts context is only limited by who wants to teach them, and the options for every art to dive into intellectual studies to their approach, is no different then what’s taught in a seminar or within the walls of a gym.

We are in a historic period for the martial arts, where education from the best on the planet is readily available and with steady flows of new content in the equivalent of individuals like Kano Jigoro, Mitsuyo Maeda, Joe Lewis, Farmer Burns, or any other combat legend providing us invaluable information from their technique library. Information that has usually been lost over time is now being recorded, cataloged, preserved and sold.

Right now, in the Lord’s year of 2020, the greatest Jiu-Jitsu competitors in history — from Marcelo to Ryan, Galvao, and Buchecha — are doing just that, with more additions regularly. It’s truly a golden age for martial arts education and there has never been a better time to learn.

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