The Martial Artist as Hero and Artist

Tony Annesi

PART ONE in which a martial artist discovers what motivates him and whether or not it is ultimately in his own self-interest.


I remember Saturday afternoons when I was ten. Me and the guys would get together our 35 cents for the weekly therapeutic session with Tarzan or the Westerns. I emerged from the dark of the theater with my upper body rippling, my back straight, and my eyes glowing with the unharnessed ferocity of a panther. If I would occasionally lose decorum to swing, knees high, around a lamp post, it was only a momentary diversion — long enough to land on the evil pygmy with the blow gun or kick the colt from the hand of Leftie. All the way to the bus stop, I was alert, awesome, and very proud.

Of course, I rooted for the good guy in the Westerns, but my secret hero was the Indian. Like Tarzan, the Indian could creep invisibly through any terrain. His battle-trained muscles were a match for any creature of the wild. he was resourceful, could live in the wilderness or in the village, and was beautifully but not uncontrollably savage.
That was my masculine ideal, to be savage at will, to have all the faculties, skills toughness of the natural man and all the intelligence and savoir faire of the civilized man. James Bond had not hit the theaters as yet. Jock Mahoney’s intellectual Tarzan was the closest I could come.

But after the adrenaline had ceased flowing and I had a night or two to reflect on my role as Young Savage of the Suburbs, I decided that a tree-house or teepee was not the most comfortable of lodgings. Why, I used to get chills just camping in my backyard! I knew I could tolerate only so many bananas or Cheetah chatter and I liked the idea of indoor plumbing and electric lights which made reading about the jungle or the prairie possible after dark. In admitting this to myself, I somehow became less ferocious and less proud.

When movies went up to 50 and 75 cents, we were more selective and often spent Saturday afternoons in front of the Big Time Wrestling ring. Here Antonino Rocca would fly through the air and do loop-de-loops around the ears of his opponent. Like Tarzan. He could wriggle out of the tightest of double arm-locks and always had a surprise up his non-existent sleeve. Like an Indian. Naturally, all my buddies fell prey to my own acrobatic assaults as soon as the TV was switched off and we reached the fresh-mown mat of the backyard. This was civilized savagery — ferocity tamed for the rules. It was a rather traumatic revelation when only a year later I tuned in the grappling matches to find them, as I had been forewarned, badly bogus, crudely counterfeit, and irritatingly illegitimate. I was getting too smart for my own good.

Now it is perfectly acceptable for an adult male to watch World Wide Wrestling and old Tarzan movies on TV. Bonanza and Gunsmoke reruns are admissible substitutes for the celluloid six-shooters. But after the fantasy is over, the suburban citizen would look pretty silly rolling in the backyard with his fellows, or winging around saplings yodeling like an apeman. He can no longer be satisfied with such extremely unrealistic fantasy fulfillment. After all, his model Corvette has become a real Nova, his passionate dreams have become an occasionally passionate woman, and his piggy bank has become a ledger of receipts an debts. In the journey towards reality, he has lost some exhilaration, some sense of esteem. He very seldom walks with his upper body rippling, his back straight, his eyes glowing. And simple flights of fancy will not restore his sense of self-worth any longer.

What will?


Some men play sports. For me, team sports were fun but never could compare with individual sports like gymnastics which had elements of man against nature, like Tarzan using his sinews to sail from the climbers. I especially enjoyed individual combat sports like wrestling and judo. One-against-one, like an Indian stalking his prey. Individual sports became for me a mature form of civilized savagery, without make-believe and without the discomfort of a leaky jungle wigwam. But something was missing. Sports were somehow limited, not just by the rules which predetermined how ferocious one could be, but by their very nature, by their choice of goal: winning.

As a child in fantasy, any loss was a temporary one, a setback to ultimate victory. Did Tarzan ever lose? Well neither did I! But as an adult there could be only one winner in any contest. Too often that winner was determined by faulty judging, good luck, bad luck, questionable standards, cheating. And despite all efforts to “make the game fair”, there was always something or someone to blame for defeat. And if I were to simply ignore the idea of winning? What then was the incentive to improve myself? Perhaps self-improvement could serve as its own incentive, but then who needed the contest? Why use standards of winning an losing? Who needed organized sport? Once again I was getting too smart for my own good. What I sought was an individual athletic endeavor (not an organized sport) which I could use to improve my body, my mind, and still achieve a sense of civilized savagery. Swimming, running, and goals just would not do.

The idea of being strong, a redoubtable combatant, and still being sensitive and intelligent has always dominated my thoughts. And I am not alone. The Greek athlete, the Mandingo warrior, the Shaolin monk, the Japanese samurai all aspired to this ideal. They were Renaissance men with muscles, uniting the physical and the mental. But they were something else. They were civilized savages. They had the mental capabilities and moral judgment to live in society, could enjoy culinary creations, could take their ease in luxury, but maintained the honed reflexes of jungle cats. What sort, or physical activity could possibly satisfy people like these? The Greeks had the Pankration (an all-out fighting event in the original Olympic games), the Mandingos had wrestling, the Chinese monks had ch'uan-fa (fist law, now called Kung-fu) and the samurai had ju-jutsu. All were fighting arts and only the Greeks termed their art a sport, albeit with severely curtailed rules. These are the personal arts of war — the martial arts.

For me, a collegiate dalliance with sport judo became an abiding interest in all martial arts, especially the oriental ones, because they made me feel like a civilized savage, a hero.

It is obvious to even the most casual observer that the martial arts can be termed “savage”. The sudden lunges, the weird screams, the potential violence all suggest an angry leopard or wounded tiger. But why “civilized”? Few people note that in judo the thrower is required to support his opponent during practice so his fall will be a safe one, that he must apply his armlocks gradually so that no injury to the opponent’;s joint occurs. In karate, the practitioner must control all punches and kicks regardless of speed and power. In aikido or ju-jutsu, one is expected to practice all moves slowly at first to prevent injury. In addition, each martial art has its own written or unwritten code of ethics. Gichin FUNAKOSHI, the Okinawan master who introduced karate to mainland Japan in 1922, used five admonitions which probably originated with “Tode” SAKUGAWA (his teacher’s teacher’s teacher) to guide his students:


I think these ethical codes are most succinctly summarized in a statement by Morihei UESHIBA, the founder of aikido, and a student of many styles of ju-jutsu and weaponry: “Never losing means never fighting.”

Martial artists train, at least in part, to make their bodies into defensive weapons. They are in an arms race with some future unknown assailants. But just as governments have become too respectful of each other’s major weapons to actually use them, so does the martial artist refuse to use his body. This sometimes takes incredible self-control. Self-control is the most civilized of qualities.

I preferred Jock Mahoney’s intellectual Tarzan to Johnny Weismuller’s “ignorant savage” because Jock calculated more. he was not a war-painted redman whooping in a wild attack, but a studied woodsman. Not Crazy Horse but Uncas, a rational man capable to controlling his powers and his emotions.

A martial artist is dynamite packed into flesh and fiber, and is measured not only by the power of his potential explosiveness, but also by the length of his fuse. Good martial artists have very long fuses. Great martial artists have none at all. Ueshiba said, “Winning means winning over the mind of discord in yourself.”

My white uniform is my loincloth and the training hall is my jungle. I am not an animal, an irrational barbarian, nor an effete daydreamer. I walk the streets in streetclothes and work in workclothes. I eat and sleep, earn money and spend it. I am concerned with the destructive elements of society, high taxes, and the economy. But I am also concerned with self-fulfillment and pride. The Young Savage of the Suburbs has become a mature martial artist. If his upper body is not always rippling, at least his back is straight, and his eyes, though not starry, nevertheless glow.

- Read Part 2 -

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