Developing Rational Standards For Evaluating Your Own Art and Others

Tony Annesi

PART I: In which we discover how we arrive at the standards of judgment we use and begin to investigate each.


In order to evaluate a martial art rationally, one must have standards. For most students their standards of judgment are identical to their reasons for taking up a martial art initially. Although these reasons may change as the student matures in his/her art, they may be distributed into four major categories:

  1. combat effectiveness / self-defense
  2. physical conditioning / health
  3. aesthetics / skill in performance
  4. self-control / mental development

To the student, one of these motivations may become his/her major standard by which to judge all other martial arts. No other motivation, no other standard may occur to that practitioner, especially if he/she is surrounded by students of similar motivation.

It may be difficult to regain objectivity (especially if one never had it), but it can be done. It is my hope that this article will help.


In elementary school the fighting style was wrestling. In other towns with less moral character (or so we thought), kids might actually ball up a fist, but in my town the shoulder-pin meant victory. A schoolyard tackle or a headlock initiated each contest and Uncle terminated it. Teachers would actually pull us apart if they saw this during recess, and any lasting injury to our opponents could mean suspension. We all, except a few die-hard cases, feared suspension because our parents had the privilege of using blows that were understood to be outlawed in the schoolyard. Besides, the social disgrace of suspension would be too hard to deal with when we returned.

Tactics which worked best were strength and, failing that, surprise. TV's Lone Ranger and Range Rider had taught me ippon seoinage (one-point back of shoulder throw) and tomoenage (yin-yang symbol throw) in their crude versions, although I was not conscious of the knowledge. When Bobby G. jumped me from behind one recess, he found himself sprawled on his spine having sailed smoothly over might right shoulder. He stared up at me upside-down, his eyes almost as wide as his mouth. A few days later he tried it once more with the same results. Tactic: surprise. Technique: ippon seoinage. Result: combat effectiveness.

Spinny was a friend with a temper. In the park behind my house one spring, I evidently offended his sense of self-esteem, so he, naturally, ran straight at me with clawed hands, preparing no doubt for a future role in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He grabbed, pushed, and I sat under him with my right foot solidly in hi stomach. Having traveled 270 degrees onto his backside, he also gave the upside-down stare. Same tactic. Technique: tomoenage. Effectiveness again.

Saturday afternoon's Big Time Wrestling added techniques to my repertoire.

In high school, however, it was not that easy. First, my distaste for punching had become deeply ingrained, and second, there was Jamie C. Jamie was big, he liked to play Little Caesar and his dad had boxed semi-pro. If I talked to, looked at, or if he heard of me looking at his latest moll, he’d send a crony to call me on the carpet. Even Jamie had a little sense of ethics, however, because he made it a rule to request my compliance in a fist fight. Finding fisticuffs terribly anti-Catholic (I was a good little boy) and being scared as hell, I would refuse. In the State Park’s stone bathhouse one summer, I rolled with one of Jamie’s right crosses and escaped with little damage. His ethics, as strange as it seems, would not allow him to strike a guy who wouldnít fight back. I had been effective again, in a manner of speaking, since I had protected myself by not fighting. But my wrestling ability had availed me not at all, and, I suspect, any boxing ability would have been of limited help had all Mr. C's soldiers decided to protect their boss’s honor.

Every fighting situation requires different skills and different use of similar skills. War is fighting, so is defense against rape, but they have very little in common. Laws and mores must be considered also. Vietnam jungle fighting is not hometown schoolyard fighting. None of this occurred to me when I first began to study martial arts. Seldom does it occur to even the experienced devotee precisely because he/she is devoted!

Even within one type of fighting there are different emphases. Korean Taw Kwon Do prefers kicks, Japanese Shotokan karate prefers straight punches, Okinawan Goju karate likes circular blocks, Okinawan Shorin, harder blocks, yet each is a punch-kick style. And within the same style, each school may have different approaches. One school trains for full-contact contests, one for non-contact tournaments, a third for street-encounters, a fourth for group attacks, a fifth may concentrate on subduing or arresting skills.

Consciously or subconsciously, each practitioner makes a number of choices. The choice of a specific school may serve to eliminate the confusing diversity of other martial arts, but the practitioner must still decide for himself if the program within the school satisfies his idea of combat effectiveness. One school cannot emphasize every type of combat.

To judge a martial art on its combat effectiveness, one must first decide what one means by combat, then settle for an art which seems effective in dealing with that type of fighting.


Too often being in shape gets confused with being tough, staying in shape gets confused with getting into "fighting-condition". And whatever shape is right for you seems to be forgotten in envy of the shape the other guy has.
Just as one school or style cannot satisfy every standard of combat effectiveness, it cannot condition the student in every possible way.

At sixteen years old, high school football was the most grueling workout I had ever had. I almost fainted in the early autumn heat under thousands of pounds of equipment. I ran up dusty hills on all fours yelling all the way, sprinted half-way down the field backwards as well as forwards, shoulder dummies, both of cotton and of flesh. I didn’t get to play much but Boy! did I work out!

During practice, the cross-country team would circle the grid-iron, dressed in light shorts and footwear, and loop up into the woods. Five miles later they were soaked in perspiration and were breathing harder than I had been after two sprints and three scrambles up boot-hill. The runners had bony shoulders, striated legs, and totally flat front-sides. Unlike us brawny fellows, they were not tough.

Captain Phipps made a comment as they passed on their last circuit. Phipps could be a sarcastic buzzard but, wonder of wonders, he actually cheered them on. I heard him say to a couple of friends, That has got to be the most grueling sport around. Those guys have more guts that I have. And, I might add, they had fewer guts at the same time. For what they did, they were in great shape. The football and cross-country teams both had captains who were physically healthy but neither could switch places with the other. Phipps was not in shape for distance running, and the cross-country leader was not in shape for breaking through linebackers.

Judo surpassed football in conditioning my body. It is the only sport in which I had to leave the practice in order to avoid being sick. In the two-hour workout, forty-five minutes were calisthenics, thirty minutes were fit-ins on basic throws, thirty minutes were set aside for sparring drills and only fifteen were intended for the practice of new techniques or combinations1. I was in great shape. But when some friends asked me to play floor hockey with them (a game I knew nothing about), I was exhausted in a half-hour. All that running around, all that thinking about where the puck should go, when and how to hit it, where to play, when to aggress, when to defend. I was not in shape for floor hockey.

In karate, as a green belt, I could do endless choreographed forms but could not spar for more than ten minutes, even though I could judo-spar for thirty. Currently, middle-aged men and women who work-out at my own dojo to stay in shape, do not intend to play football, enter a judo match, or run a marathon. A prospective martial artist may enroll in a school for physical conditioning, but he/she must first decide what that means. A trim midline can be arrived at any number of ways. Cardiovascular efficiency may take a different route, and training to perform a specific muscular skill may take neither endurance nor a washboard tummy.

To judge a martial art on it conditioning benefits one must first decide what sort of conditioning would be most beneficial to oneí own body, then seek an art which seems to offer such benefits.


One of the many types of private, non-academic schools in America is the dance school. Training in ballet, tap, or jazz dance leads to the spring recital. But that goal is only an immediate incentive. The real motivation for dance is to improve oneís physical abilities in order to become an artist in which oneís own body is the masterpiece. This motivation can apply to martial arts as well. Aesthetics were not in the minds of the founders of the original fighting arts, but the modern descendants of these arts often put a great deal of value on classy appearance.

Muhammed Ali did not get to be the world's best-known personality just because he punched well. He also punched with class. Of course sass added to the class, but without the physical beauty ("Ainít ah purty?"), Muhammed Ali would have been a star without the "super-" prefix. Bruce Lee did not get to be top box-office draw simply because of this fighting ability, although it was obviously helpful, but because of his silky delivery of difficult kicks, and his flawless and dramatically timed poses of classically beautiful sculptures. Ali and Lee were martial artists with equal dabs of ìmartialî and artist on their canvases. A dancer is an artist but is equally an athlete. Many athletes, like Ali and Lee, are consummate artists.

Contradictory truisms enter the picture here: we all seem to know when a performance is beautiful, yet we also seem to agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I would like to suggest that both truisms form the reality. There is a realm of beauty within which we may disagree but outside of which there is no dissension. You may be hard-pressed to rank the beauties of Julia Roberts, Demi Moore and Michelle Pfeiffer, but you would not hesitate to rate them all above Momma in Danny DeVito’s Throw Momma From the Train. In other words, there is an absolute within which things may be relative. If there are X number of styles in the martial arts, each with its own type of beauty, there may be X number of beauties to evaluate.

To me, at the age of seventeen, judo was a fighting art, no, it was all fighting arts rolled into one. I did not know any better. What was "artistic" about it however was unclear until I saw two brown belts practicing light randori (judo free fighting). Benny threw Ray a good six feet into he air, well over his own head, in a floating wave of motion, emphasized by the swish of foot across canvas. Instead of crashing down, Ray seemed to glide, with Benny’s support, to a landing on his side. Benny’s knees flexed to bear part of Ray’s weight as Ray’s arm swung into the mat. The knee flexion was perfectly punctuated by the thunderous slap. Later I saw them practice a two-person set called Nage-no-kata (Forms of Throwing) and Ray manipulated Benny in the same effortless, circular style. Neither resisted the other since they were trying to help each other practice the precision of each throw. Both were excellent uke (receivers) and their timing together was flawless. One could not tell whether Benny jumped into the fall, whether Ray really threw him, or both. Timing, coordination, effortlessness, arc, silence, thunder, point, counterpoint.

Three months later I was in my first shiai (competition) and saw both men fight. Ray stalled a lot. His opponent from another dojo seemed much bigger than he (in those days weight classes were not as narrow as they are now). He tried a couple of hard, fast fit-ins which would have sent the more cooperative Benny into the stratosphere but this was not a training partner. The man hip-checked Ray's efforts and made the potentially flowing choppy and brusque.

Benny did not fare much better. He too had a slightly bigger opponent, tried a few more tactics, met with resistance and some avoidance and then suddenly ko uchi makikomi (minor inner winding throw)! Benny had slipped the sole of his right foot behind his foe’s right heel. Winding his shoulder into the man’s hips and pulling out with his foot, he threw the man for a full point, landing across his torso. No arc, no swish, no beauty.

I appreciated the effortless execution of movement from judo, and aiki-ju-jutsu seemed to practice it to a welcomed extreme. When Master Church threw his uke in kote gaeshi (wrist reversal), Church’s body hardly moved, but uke made that huge arc, this time silently. The thunder of the breakfall was occasionally there, but as often uke rolled fluidly and quietly to his feet. Uke cooperated in aiki-ju-jutsu as in judo but for a somewhat different reason — he wanted to preserve the integrity of his joints. Church's aiki-ju-jutsu throws gave the attacker a choice: jump into the air or feel a great deal of pain. Most people opted to fall. Ah, but there are those who would rather take their chances with pain, or, more specifically, are more afraid of a painful crash to the mat than of a joint twist. They usually tense their muscles just as tori (the taker of the action, or thrower) starts to put the move on and then they initiate a less than beautiful struggle of strength. Timing has to be perfect in aiki-ju-jutsu or any opponent can react the same way. In practice, uke is supposed to flow with the movement to help develop tori’s timing, but there is always one in the bunch who wants to "test" the technique by putting up a little resistance. Well, aiki-ju-jutsu, like most martial arts, teaches augmentation of classical technique.

When one of my uke's simulated a real attack, karate style, and froze his lunge punch rigidly, my pivotal action, which was supposed to float him around me, did not work. Naturally, I adapted to the situation. Grabbing his wrist with both hands I forced his elbow up to his ear (the direction in which he was not resisting) then down to his knee. His stubborn wrist bent and his body was off-balanced not horizontally as originally intended but vertically. The paper-clip motion did not float uke, but dropped him like a bag of unmixed cement. As the dust wafted away from the mat's reverberations, I thought how unbeautiful the movement was.

The first karate tournament I went to was non-contact and open to all styles. First came the form competition and then the sparring. The Tae Kwon Do people were much too rigid for me, but I really enjoyed the crisp, high kicks. I liked the long, low stances of the Shotokan people and therefore the short, pigeon toed sanchin stance of the Goju practitioners looked ridiculous to me at first, but the mood changes in the Goju kata were extremely dramatic. Tension, release, tension, release. Both the advanced and the beginner Kung-fu practitioners seemed graceful, fluid and speedy. Many difficult moves were performed with surprising skill. The art seemed to link the flow of aiki-ju-jutsu or aikido with the poses of karate.

The match between a Shotokan and a Tae Kwon Do stylist was interesting because the beauty of the styles seemed transformed. The techniques wee less abrupt, less rigid, but still bore the trademark of the "hard" styles -- focus. There was now the aesthetics of instantaneous reaction which had been only suggested during the forms competition. In sparring, both the opponents maintained balance through all sorts of changes of direction, height, speed, and angle. Pleasing to watch, but not as pleasing as those lovely kung-fu movements.

But when a kung-fu fighter met a karate fighter, there seemed to be hardly any difference between them. The kung-fu practitioner looked harder than when practicing his form because he no longer dared to make the more flowery, longer movements and the karate adept looked smoother than when he was practicing his forms because now he was fighting an opponent who would rather deflect a punch and sneak in a strike than overwhelm him with power. The karate-ka watched carefully for counterpunching opportunities and used his power attacks only when he felt he had a psychological advantage. The aesthetic form of each had changed.

What is the common ground for these various types of beauty? Certainly it is not just fluidity or posture, or long line, or curved ones. It has as much to do, I think, with a skill in performance which is understood to vary under adverse conditions, that is: coordination . It is combat effectiveness which determines the correct moves to use in a given moment, but it is the skillful use of the correct moves which makes the performance beautiful.

In a solo performance, coordination is measured against nature: gravity, inertia, natural length or muscle extension, or natural speed of flexion. These natural factors limit efficient coordination2. The performer competes against himself, it is said, but in reality, he competes against the forces of nature which would prevent his performance. To the extent he overcomes these forces, he is coordinated.

In a dual performance like a pre-arranged sparring unit, a two-person fist-set, or even a semi-freestyle kumite (sparring drill), the practitioner is competing with both those forces of nature against himself and those against his partner. Any small mistake the partner may make has to be instantly compensated for by the practitioner without simultaneously coming into conflict with those natural forces.

In freestyle sparring however, the fighter is fighting nature and a thinking opponent -- one who is also fighting nature and a thinking opponent. It is more difficult to be coordinated because there is more to coordinate. An observer’s aesthetic appreciation therefore changes.

In the film Enter the Dragon, the villain Oharra tries to scare Bruce Lee's character by displaying his speed and power with a difficult mid-air board break. (Lee, he is saying in effect, look at what I can coordinate!) Lee quietly says, looking Oharra smack-dab in the eyeballs, "Boards do not fight back." (In effect, I'll give you much more to coordinate, big shot! The movements Lee uses to defeat Oharra in the first matches are hand-techniques which, if performed alone, would probably not garner the ooo's which they deserve performed in a match. How hard it is after all to make your own hands work? When there is little to coordinate, beauty takes one form, when there is much to coordinate beauty may aspire to the same form, but it is recognized as beauty long before it gets there.

Even within a single style of a single art, even within one aspect of that style, the details of what brings aesthetic pleasure vary. For instance, what standards should judges of pure Shotokan karate kata use? The judges may be able to agree on the standards of speed, balance and focus, but how much should correct sequence count? Should the potential effectiveness of the performance be considered? Should any free moves be allowed? Can moves be deleted? Tsutomo Ohshima once said to my first karate instructor during a clinic, The beauty of the technique is not in the form but in the application. Perhaps kata evaluations should include bunkai (sample application of technique), or perhaps no beauty can be recognized unless the moves are used in a real self-defense situation.

Martial training has a great deal of beauty in it; what is more is that it has many different types of beauty as well. Just as certain arts can emphasize only certain types of combat effectiveness or conditioning, so too can they emphasize only certain types of beauty (although they may possess the potential for more than one kind). Even given one simple standard of beauty, each style can appear more pleasing in certain cases; no style can do so in all cases.

To judge a martial art on its beauty, one must decide in what situations its beauty reveals itself, then seek an art which seems to create those situations.

In part two we will investigate the standard of Self-control and see how one may be able to judge a martial art objectively using its own subjective standards.

- Read Part II -


  1. I have never wrestled scholastically, but I have participated in a collegiate wrestling workout which was as hard as or harder than a judo workout. Wrestling definitely belong on the list of killer workouts.
  2. For our purposes, coordination is physical, but the same term can be applied to the relationship of various parts to one another or to the whole in painting, literature or dance.

Images and content copyright — All Rights Reserved | Site design by WadeInCreativity