There are two types of martial arts: Dead ones and live ones.
The dead ones are closed systems in which the curriculum is set and unchanging. New techniques are rarely incorporated, and the effectiveness is assumed without testing against full resistance. You don’t spar in a dead art. At least not for real.
Live ones, in contrast, are open systems that value effectiveness over everything else. If a move works, it gets incorporated. If it doesn’t, it gets discarded. Live arts are trained with full, dynamic resistance.
The year 1993 was the great turning point for martial arts in the modern era. Prior to that, debates over the effectiveness of one style vs. another were all academic. Was Karate better than Taekwondo? Was Wing Chun better than Silat? Was Judo better than Aikido? No one actually knew. Martial arts magazines devoted many pages to these theoretical matchups.
But when Royce Gracie beat all challengers at UFC 1 we began getting a glimpse into the truth. And the truth is that dead arts tend to fail, often spectacularly, when called upon to perform against the real pressure of a fully committed resisting opponent. UFC 1 also revealed that if you don’t know how to grapple you’ll be in deep trouble when the fight hits the ground.
In my view, the martial art you train matters less than the training methodology used in that art. Are you training in a live manner against dynamic resistance? Are you testing your technique at reasonably high levels of intensity? Are you sparring?
If so, then you are training for effectiveness. If not, then you’re engaged in a form of martial arts role playing—a pantomime. Make a list of arts that are trained live and you’ll find they are undeniably effective: Boxing, Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Muay Thai, Sanshou, Wrestling, Sambo, Catch, Savate, etc.
The arts that are not effective all share one trait; they don’t spar. These arts might have beautiful techniques, or historical significance, or provide benefits such as exercise and camaraderie, but as effective fighting systems they reliably fail. Why? Because implementing a technique against someone who is not going along with the plan is a very complex skill, one that can not be mastered solely through cooperative training.
Cooperative training with no resistance is certainly important—it’s how we initially learn the mechanics of any given technique, but it should only be the starting point in a methodology of scaled intensity. To become effective you need to train with increasing levels of resistance.
When I learned how to surf in Hawaii, we started by drilling the basic skills with the board laying safely on the beach. We would sprawl on the surfboard, mimic the act of paddling, and then pop up into the standing position—all while the board remained stationary on the sand.
While this type drilling is valuable, it doesn’t teach you the balance necessary to surf for real. For that, you must spend much time catching actual waves, and mostly failing at first, until your body learns to make the adjustments necessary to stay up. Eventually you are able to ride very small waves with reasonable success, which in turn permits you to begin attempting to ride bigger waves, requiring more practice—and more failure.
Martial arts that don’t spar are like learning to surf on the beach without ever getting into the water. No matter how perfect your mechanics are against a cooperative opponent, the moment you get into real surf, even small surf, you will fail.
So if you are looking for a martial art to train. The only question you should be asking is whether it’s trained with resistance. Is it a live art? If so, then it’s a fine choice.