Will the real champions please stand up!
By Kaichō Philip Scudieri
The taiko (big drum) had just sounded as the two fencers from opposing dojo faced each other; prestige, food and the honor of protecting the village for the next year were the prize. At the same time in the castle courtyard two renowned Samurai-fencing masters are facing each other for the honor of teaching the Imperial Family and their retainers. This position meant great honor and prosperity for their fencing school and family clan. Every technique could mean life, death or serious injury to one or both the contestants.
A young man faces his opponent and the command “rei” (bow) is given. He refuses to bow because he says bowing is against his religion. After being assured this age old tradition of bowing is not a religious ritual but more like a respectful handshake, he still refuses to bow. Rather than simply following the rules or taking up a new sport, he sues the United States Judo Association. After several years and thousands and thousands of dollars taken away from deserving athletes the USJA was victorious.
An advertisement came in the mail recently asking for schools to come to Las Vegas for a Super Tournament. The flyer stated: “Dream up your wildest kata and wear your most outrageous costume and let’s show the world real martial arts.” Are we to assume a group of charlatans jumping around in outrageous costumes and doing “karate dances” for a 6 foot neon trophy are qualified to show the world these are real martial arts?
Some of my students went to a tournament in New England. They were quite amazed when a local, prominent instructor appeared with a thirty-person entourage. This was not unusual except he was carried in on a throne wearing leopard skins, a crown and carrying a scepter. His group booed and cheered collectively. Needless to say within an hour the place was in a full on brawl and several people were injured. That instructor is serving a long stretch in prison for several felonies he committed.
I am constantly getting flyers for all types National and World championship tournaments. How many people are running around with these titles? I know of one person who won a very small “point style” “World Championship” tournament at least fifteen years ago as a 1st degree black belt. There were five countries represented. They were the US, British West Indies, Croatia, Serbia and Russia. This gentleman is still a 1st degree black belt (to my knowledge) and has been teaching and promoting students all these years, while claiming to still be a world champion (according to a recent newspaper piece on how one of his students got a black belt after eight years) not a former such and such organization champion from fifteen years ago but still “champion of the world.” I don’t recall seeing him in books, movies, doing seminars or videos, just in his tiny karate studio.
Just because someone calls his or her tournament a “world championship” does this make it so?
This is not a unique or new situation. I left Tae Kwon Do and the United States Tae Kwon Do Union after 17 years when my instructor became principle advisor to the US Olympic committee for TKD and started wearing USA team sweat suits to class instead of his do-bok (gi or training uniform.) I knew it was time to go.
With all the scandal, corruption, greed and power grabbing going on it’s no wonder the TKD community is in turmoil. There are more masters, grand masters and champions than you can shake a stick at.
I was at a tournament recently where everybody got a trophy and even picked out whichever one they wanted. I watched the men’s black belt kata competition being won by a young man about 30 who said he was a second dan in karate and a third dan in tae kwon do and had been training 24 years. I had previously spoken to him at his studio. He had a list on the front window of every martial art you could think of, all of which he had studied. When I asked who any of his teachers were he said it was none of my business and got quite upset. When I saw his reaction when I asked for some documentation I figured I had better leave. He took first in a field of 3 doing a weak version of a red belt tae kwon do kata. (hyung)
Does this mean there are no well-run tournaments that showcase talented and gifted athletes? Of course not. But they are few and far between. Do these martial sports have anything to do with budo? I doubt it.
But what about the nameless, dedicated, selfless instructors who teach in impoverished countries or ghettos in cities around the world? Often times for free and out of the goodness of their heart. The numbers of people they help are countless. How about instructors who teach in small struggling dojo preserving martial ways and traditions that go back hundreds of years? Their reward is one of hard work and years of endless training.
In today’s martial arts scene you will hear rock music, see strobe lights, fancy costumes and sponsors logos everywhere. The new X-martial arts are coming with a combination of dance, gymnastics and an occasional kick or punch thrown in. "Martialtainers" are what I call them.
Many movements will look familiar as you recall seeing the Russian Acrobatic Dance Troupe on TV, baton twirlers and some gymnastic exercises you learned in high school or as a kid in gymnastics class. Truly a far cry from Honorable Samurai fighting a “tournament” in some long forgotten village for a good cause. Will the real champions please stand up!