Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
Martial arts in America began to slowly gain prominence during the 1960’s, with Japanese styles importing over from Japan. Though part of our cult culture at that time through small cinemas, Chinese martial arts were not as well known since many traditional, Chinese societies refuse to to teach anyone beyond their race. However that too eventually changed, as Bruce Lee made kung-fu a household name and pop culture phenomenon, such as in the popular song, Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting.
Potential practitioners heard about schools through either martial arts magazines, word of mouth, or even the Yellow Pages. This trend continued throughout the eighties and early nineties. I don’t think I’m alone in seeing kids in my school try to use techniques they saw from Karate Kid or Bloodsport, to show off to their friends or win a fight. As misguided as these methods were (being kids), the movies did prompt people to actively look for schools, as well as look for martial arts stores. With the advent of videos however, this changed.
Instead of seeking out proper training from licensed masters and experts, many people started buying up VHS tapes and books. Maybe it was to try and circumvent the official routes, or maybe it was they didn’t want to or didn't have the money to invest into the lessons. Either way, it seems like a quick and easy way to gain proficiency in fighting. Speaking from experience, this was something I did because there were no nearby schools that taught the styles I wanted to learn: jeet kun do, aikido, and ninjutsu. Watching some dude do it on video and reading about these steps on a page was the only method available to me.
This all began to change when YouTube appeared on the scene in 2005. The internet venue created by Google was a Pandora's Box, opening a door to vast, new opportunities for average people to create and post content they were passionate about. And martial arts was no different.
There were many positive aspects to this development. As I said earlier, many more obscure and little-known styles now had room to come to light and breathe, instead of being choked from the light by their more popular peers. Back in the day, if a specific practitioner wanted to get their style recognized so they could set up a school, it had to be exposed to the public by a famous actor or blowout action movie.
Practically no one knew of aikido until Steven Segal came along in Above the Law. The whole concept of special forces being bad-asses came from movies like Delta Force, Rambo, Commando, and Predator, putting some of those abilities on display. Muay thai became big with Indonesian martial arts actor, Tony Jaa, and most recently, silat is getting its time to shine thanks to Iko Uwais and his team putting together films like The Raid franchise.
YouTube allowed other practitioners of these styles to expound upon their techniques and actively demonstrate them to worldwide audiences that they otherwise would have no access to. Are they as good as learning from a physical teacher? No.
But it’s also better than not learning anything at all. And it saves the learner a lot of money in expenses for gear, travelling if the style is more exotic, and lessons. What I enjoy most is watching different styles practice and fight with each other, putting into practice the ideas of control and respect: whether one style is better or not.
"My old ways of karate was not accepted by everyone. Maybe my training methods were too hard or severe. Whatever it was, it was the I learned and taught. It was only later, when the Americans came that I changed my ways"
— - Hohan Soken (1889-1982), Okinawan martial arts master
There has also been a negative effect as well. Almost immediately martial artists, street fighters, and former military operatives began posting videos on not only their perspective disciplines, but also their criticisms of other disciplines as well. Even actual fights were posted online for people to see and argue back and forth over what worked, what didn’t, and why. Now on the one hand, martial artists shit-talking each other isn’t anything new. It goes all the way back to when martial arts schools were being formed in their founding cultures centuries ago.
What makes YouTube’s effect unique is that it amplified the shit-talking from local to global. Now it’s easy to listen to a Russian systema practitioner criticize the limitations of krav maga or traditional styles. Or Chinese TMA practitioners call MMA fighters, ‘dog fighters’, while just generally dissing Japanese styles in general because of their history. This in some ways is just an extension of one of the negative aspects of internet rage culture in general: immediate access to venting one’s opinion, leaving no time to cool down and think about what they’re saying. YouTube also allows martial artists to attack their rivals with no worries of physical repercussions (and all martial artists have egos).
The last effect of YouTube’s influence is increasing the damage of random encounters. Thirty or forty years ago, the chances of getting into a fight with someone who was trained was not very high, since many people thought only nerds and outcasts had those interests. So you could just knock them out and be done with it. That is not the case today. Someone whom I get in a fight with at a bar, may decide to employ an MMA take down he saw on a video or pay per view. Basically, it raises the possibility that ending random fights can become much more serious than just employing a knock-out hit or an arm bar.
I think in the end that YouTube has had more of a positive effect than a negative one on martial arts. Nothing takes the place of learning from teachers. But the two are ultimately just tools with no inherent moral compass. People can use them however they like. The burden of responsibility lies upon the individual. If there are schools that teach the styles they’re interested in, that should be the first option. If not though, they can use YouTube to at least gain some general knowledge and maybe a training partner to work with, so that it can make up some of the difference.
So by no means should anyone who learned martial arts through YouTube consider themselves proficient or masters of the style. However, the opportunity to gain more knowledge, whatever it might be, is never a bad thing.
© 2019 Jamal Smith