Martial Arts Scepticism: How Factual is Martial Arts Television?

Human Weapon

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I guess it is little coincidence that the dramatic rise in interest in martial arts and its subsequent commercialization coincided with the amount of chop socky being dished out on our TV sets. The 1960s saw programmes like The Avengers and The Green Hornet set a formula for martial arts expert sidekicks. The 1970s transferred this expertise to the lead character in the hugely successful TV series, Kung Fu. Of course, the 1970s are now popularly remembered as the time of the “Kung Fu Boom” as not only did Bruce Lee make his name as the world’s most successful martial arts actor, but he tragically also died young thus establishing an iconic status that would become synonymous with the popular image of martial arts.


The aftermath of the ‘70s saw the growth of the global martial arts industry. Today martial arts are part of mainstream culture with clubs in virtually every town and many villages in the developed world. Its success still owes a lot to fictional TV series from cartoons to adult action shows, but there is also a growing demand, particularly in the USA, for factual programmes about martial arts. As time has moved on, the programmes have progressed from being just straight documentaries that give us history lessons on various marital arts and more into the realm of hands-on training journeys for the TV show presenters and purported scientific investigations. But just how factual and fair are these programmes with their investigations and reporting?


I certainly don’t have the time to go through all the various individual mistakes made in the growing number of marital arts TV documentary series. I admit that I don’t watch most of them on a regular basis. However, there are some pretty fundamental points that I have seen crop up from show to show.


First off, it is not difficult to see a large amount of pre-science and pseudoscience being carried over from the world of martial arts and onto our television screens. Alternative medicine practices, often with their basis in the supposed existence of a mystical energy known as chi (qi) or ki or gi or khi, are pretty common in the western world now and it is important to remember that many martial arts come from the same culture that spawned acupuncture, acupressure and their like. Therefore it is not surprising that we see programmes repeating the mystical claims made by many martial artists.


The BBC’s Mind, Body and Kickass Moves was an entertaining British television series presented by martial artist, Chris Crudelli and produced and directed by Will Henshaw. As well as having Crudelli travel to the Far East to train with various masters, each programme would also include small sections in-between with Crudelli showing various people simple martial arts techniques in an approach similar to street magicians. The programme was well produced, directed and presented with some interesting new angles such as Crudelli looking at a zoo to juxtapose the various animal styles contained in martial arts. However, there was a fundamental problem from the off. Crudelli is promoted as being a master of “esoteric energies”. That claim should set off the warning signals in any self-respecting martial arts sceptic!


Sure enough episode two not only has a master with a mystical amulet, but also has Crudelli learning a martial arts skill which amounts to telepathy. The presenter has to endure 10 minutes under an icy waterfall in order to be able to detect “satki” (or killing intent) in his opponent. To test this Crudelli sits behind a screen and detects every time a swordsman delivers a “killing” stroke on the other side. If this really is a credible skill then I am sure the James Randi Educational Foundation would be delighted to dish out one million dollars fora successfully demonstration under real scientific conditions. Unfortunately any skill that remotely resembles telepathy has yet to be proven under such clinical conditions.


The series also has an episode with a renowned “kiai master” who can stop opponents by the sheer force of his voice. Master Sasaki, sensei of Hida Shiki Kyouken Jutsu, argues that as the human body is mostly made up of water it is susceptible to the force of kiai. During his interview Sasaki explains that chi/qi is “ambiguous” and that kiai has a more “concrete” foundation in fact. He is depicted knocking one of his katana wielding students to the ground with a kiai shout and the TV show accentuates the feat with a shockwave visual effect. The power of his kiai shout is then shown as he rings a bell from 25 feet away. Interestingly Master Sasaki has to stamp his foot every time he shouts to ring the bell. Ockham’s razor would determine that vibration caused by the stamp, if set up correctly, could ring the bell without the shout. I wonder if the same thing could be said about this feat without the stamp!


Chi, of course, is covered in the series. Sadly this comes in the form of fakir tricks, which I always feel degrades Chinese culture more than it promotes the effectiveness of their martial arts. I grew up on a travelling circus and these feats although impressive are more a demonstration of good physics and physical conditioning than any sort of evidence of the existence of an energy field being used to protect our bodies. Such feats being performed in Chinese martial arts turned up around the beginning of 20th century when martial artists turned street entertainers in order to make money. They were derided and debunked by the likes of no-nonsense martial artists like the historian/rebel Tang Hao.  


Interestingly although this series does report a liberal dosage of mysticism in every episode it also documents a good example of what happens when illusion in martial arts become delusion. In short, it shows what happens when a “master” believes too much in his own mysticism. One such Filipino master from Manila tried to recreate an ancient ritual he believed would make his body, or at least a part of his body, impervious to injury. He tried to demonstrate this with a razor edged machete with near disastrous results. The deluded master hacked at his arm with predictable results. According to Crudelli the cut went right down to the bone.


Mind, Body and Kickass Moves was very open about its mystical slant and therefore, I guess, expected to take a fair amount of scepticism. However, in the USA there have been several programmes that purport to use science to explain or even test the martial arts. The History Channel’s The Human Weapon was also another well-produced show. This time the presenters were two individuals with a background in very down-to-earth training methods. “Big Bill” Duff was no martial artist, but a 6’4” and 280lbs former professional American football player. Jason Chambers is a veteran of 25 mixed martial arts matches, a senior brazilian jiu jitsu student under Eddie Bravo and a jeet kune do instructor. The premise for the show was that they would visit different countries all over the world to seek out martial arts masters. They would then be challenged to fight in a particular style of martial art and spend a week investigating the art so as to better prepare them for the fight.


Different techniques were explained in mathematical terms and demonstrated using capture-motion 3D animation. Physics would be used to explain how the force of a technique was applied to create the desired result. The conclusions of these demonstrations were that in theory every martial arts technique could potentially yield devastating results.


The premise of the show was pretty sound and to be fair most episodes went to great lengths to produce a legitimate pressure test at the climax. In most instances the match would be a full contact bout, showing the most extreme version of a particular art. So, for example, the Russian grappling art of sombo was shown as combat sombo, a type of jacket wrestling version of mixed martial arts. Full contact combat sports such as muay thai, pradel serey, judo, savate, mixed martial arts and the revived ancient Greek sport of pankration easily provided suitable pressure tests. Karate, which for the most part, uses semi-contact and point-stop competitions for their sporting expressions, put up their full contact knockdown format, which is fairly exclusive to the Kyukushinkai School. Eskrima produced a full contact competition using the no armour and padded sticks format. Kung Fu is perhaps even harder to define than eskrima and pretty much encompasses all Chinese martial arts. That particular episode had sanda, their full contact form of kickboxing, as its final test. Of course, some martial arts either didn’t have a sporting side or, on the whole, their main organization didn’t want to align themselves with sport. Krav maga and marine corps martial art MCMAP, for example, are marketed mainly on being self defence only and their pressure tests were a sort of ordeal/test hybrid. Silat produced a rather dubious type of low contact test that seemed to be a semi-ritual. After an a episode that was a review of the series the producers seemingly left the two arts that have arguably produced the most amount of controversy regarding effectiveness in the martial arts community: taekwondo and ninjutsu. Ironically the tests in these arts produced the most injuries to the two presenters, and Bill Duff was even knocked out cold during his taekwondo match.


The problem with the shows is the problem I foresee in most martial arts shows: there is a need not to offend. Despite using science and having two practical presenters, there is no feel of scepticism throughout the show. Instead human weapon seems to fall over itself to explain inconsistencies and justify certain methods. A clear problem is that when Duff and Chambers are given a week to prepare for sporting event they spend the week training at some pretty disparate places. This is an entertainment device to show the viewers the culture of a certain martial discipline. However, even Chambers has to admit that learning a peculiar double uppercut from a quasi-traditional muay thai school is not going to be of much use to him in the ring. The kung fu episode stretches credulity even further with the two presenters learning tricks on a martial arts movie set, which will supposedly prepare them for the sanda kickboxing match. 


Contradictions seem to leap out at you when you watch one programme to the next. One moment we have the episode on silat arguing that the techniques being used are too deadly to be properly tested in a full contact environment and the next we have krav maga, which also sells itself on being self defence only, providing a type of pressure test under full contact conditions.


The over-the-top desire to be respectful that spills over into a lack of self-respect comes out in earnest during the ninjutsu episode’s pressure test, which seems to have little to do with the assault course training the two presenters have endured at a ninja camp previously. It amounts to both presenters taking on a ninja with foam and plastic safety weapons. The comparison with the sort of pretend fights you had as a child is very apt. Every touch to an exposed body part supposedly proves the effectiveness of the practitioner in the art. Duff actually takes a bit of a whack to the head via a plastic weapon. However, it is Chambers who almost accidentally exposes the lack of efficiency on offer during his “test”. The 15th dan ninja he faces suddenly decides having had a decent amount of success matching Chambers with rubber throwing stars and plastic swords to throw caution to the wind and use his tajutsu (unarmed combat) fighting skills. Chambers instantly reacts by easily overpowering him and then, as an afterthought, stabs him with the plastic sword. It was a rather embarrassing moment that not so much exposed the ninja’s lack of ability, but the validity of the test as it was clear that the intensity and dynamic of the whole test went to pot as soon as the toys (I mean “practice weapons”) were thrown aside.


The history side of Human Weapon varies from reasonable to the reproduction of common martial arts myths, such as the Shaolin Temple once being the hub of martial arts knowledge or Bodhidharma being the founder of Chinese martial arts. However, they also contribute a fringe theory, which pretty much amounts to martial arts hyperdiffusionism (the concept that a single civilization is responsible for the formation of others all over the world). In the pankration episode, it is explained that the shoulder throw, common in judo and various other wrestling martial arts, had its origins in ancient Greek pankration. According to the theory this technique along with many others were transferred to India by Alexander the Great. The techniques then spread from India to China, most probably via Bodhidharma. From China it then spread out to Japan and so on. There is no historical evidence to support this theory whatsoever. Apart from the fact that wrestling and strike-based arts seem to have developed independently in some form or other in different primitive cultures the world over, this theory hinges on the long debunked myth that Bodhidharma was a martial artist who taught kung fu in the Shaolin temple and that the temple was largely responsible for the origins of most forms of martial art. We have records of systematic forms of Chinese martial arts, such as shuai jiao (Chinese wrestling), which uses a shoulder throw, being practiced many centuries before the founding of Shaolin.


Approaching martial arts from a scientific perspective is a brave but admirable endeavour. There are so many different variables in violence and methods to use against violence that it could be argued that the term “Martial Science” is a misnomer. The trouble is that you could argue just about any martial arts technique is effective or possible so long as it doesn’t fall under the category of pseudoscience. Human weapon seemingly led the way with their impressive looking animated sequences, which beautifully dissect individual techniques and break them down into mathematical explanations. The physics might be good, but as some YouTube contributors have noted they get their biology mixed up in the savate episode, where the liver is first described as being on the left side of the body. Interestingly it is shown on the correct side of the body later in the same episode!


Nevertheless, science is a fairly robust discipline that takes a sceptical view and prompts both questioning and testing. Human Weapon wouldn’t be the only martial arts show to employ it. Fight Science actually based its premise on testing the validity of martial arts techniques and the effectiveness of individual arts. It also set about the task of putting martial arts legends on trial. This seemed to be more like it, but unfortunately some basic considerations were taken into account. For example, when it came to measuring who had the most powerful punch it was little surprise that the winner was the heaviest participant and the striker with the lowest score was the smallest. These points were openly criticized by Rhett Allain, professor of physics at Southeastern Louisiana University. Furthermore there seems to be no attempt to apply commonsense or any sense of probability. For example, the ninja “death strike” to the heart was revealed to be the deadliest martial arts strike. This was due to it being like a reverse version of Cardiopulmonary resuscitation. In theory this could do more damage than any of the other strikes being tested. However, it is also significantly rarer than any of the other strikes. In Human Weapon, Jason Chambers mentions the technique, reporting that the only case of it happening was during a freak accident in an ice hockey match where an ice puck hit someone in the heart. And yet full contact competitions the world over allow full contact strikes to this area with no reported fatalities or even much in the way of stoppages. Yet we have case histories galore, in competition and on the streets, reporting people being stopped by blows to the head and strangulation techniques.


The Deadliest Warrior is probably the most successful martial arts documentary series in recent years. It has a popular formula and brings both history and science into the frame. The premise is to hypothetically compare two warriors (sometimes two groups), often from different time zones, to see who would win in a confrontation. An impartial team of scientists and general weapons experts bring in contemporary representatives to argue the case for their particular warrior (or group) and then after a series of tests on individual categories, the results are put into a computer and a hypothetical fight to the death is created. Fantasy enactments of fights that never happened are a popular source of debate among males. Little boys often postulate who they think would win in a fight between two imaginary characters, which often grows into discussions over real historical figures. The subculture of martial arts seems to be no different with films and many an online debate or pub argument centring on which martial art is more deadly. Despite the childish nature of this, it is very easy to see the appeal.


Great pains are taken to create experiments to test the weaponry of the different warriors with modern day experts put on the spot. In the end the number of kills concluded from each test are added up and processed by the computer, producing the victor. What tends to prevail is the technology of the weapon. Generally a more modern weapon wins over a more primitive one. To a certain degree this is a fair point, but it is far from a satisfactory conclusion or one that is always backed up by historical evidence. During the 100 years war the primitive English long bow famously defeated the more technologically advanced French crossbow again and again. One theory for this was that Englishmen were trained in using the long bow from when they were children whereas part of the reason for the creation of the crossbow was so that untrained soldiers could operate it with ease. Therefore a longbow man could reload and shoot his bow two to three times faster than a crossbow man. The 1879 Battle of Isandlwana not only saw how a better strategy and intent by a more primitive side, the Zulus, could best a more technologically advanced side, the British colonials, but also how reliance on these more advanced weapons could also bring about one side’s downfall. This particular loss is said to have stunned the world as although the Zulus outnumbered the British by over 10,000 men, they were only armed with essentially stabbing weapons against rifles and artillery, which should have had a far higher killing rate. Even in the 1990s during the Johannesburg riots there are reports of traditional weaponry being matched against firearms. Many a police officer died on the assumption that he would be able to stop a knifeman with his fire arm. The Tueller drill exercise was designed to test how much room and time trained gunmen would need to put down a knifeman.


Now don’t think for a second I am arguing that advances in technology are not a major factor in deciding a battle or a duel, but that there are other considerable factors that Deadliest Warrior does not take into account. Furthermore, we come back to the lack of actual pressure applied in any of the tests, a fundamental problem I have discussed about Fight Science. We can have an acrobatic kung fu artist showing a tremendous display of agility and speed when he is using his weapons on a moving target, but does this really prove how efficient the Shaolin monk was in combat? The test that pitted him against a Maori warrior who had proven superiority in every weapon category bar one put him ahead purely based on the kill rate of a more advanced steel weapon in his armoury and his supposed more effective agility. If there is one thing we have seen from case studies on interpersonal violence it is that the successes of flashy and complex techniques are the exception to the rule, and that attitude and natural attributes are proportionately large advantages. Subsequently the Maori’s well documented savage ferocity and clear difference in size was not taken into account.


On writing this article I really had to swallow a lot of my own personal preferences. I like most of the shows I have described and each has strong unique traits I would love to see furthered in future programmes. Mind, Body and Kickass Moves, not only served well to discuss self defence with people on the street, but also actually exposed the dangers of delusion in that one particular episode. That alone would have been a great area to explore in the martial arts and a useful lesson for future martial arts students who have become enraptured by the mysticism of the arts. Human Weapon had a strong format with two great presenters. The formula was improved on with Fight Quest, a show that spent more time on getting its presenters (Jimmy Smith and Doug Anderson) ready for a fight rather than feeling the need to tie itself in knots with various pieces of archaic or pseudo-traditional martial arts culture. Having said that, the Hapkido episode had difficulty marrying up the techniques used in the end of show fight with those the presenters were made to present before hand.


Fight Science could have been the Mythbusters of martial arts TV shows with its scientific approach and it would have been good to see some form of pressure test set up to prove/disprove a certain martial arts claims. However, even Mythbusters, a non-martial arts science programme with a strong sceptical core, came up with a rather disappointing show when it went after the world of martial arts. Before any of the tests began one of the presenters compliantly allowed a ninjutsu practitioner to demonstrate one of his defence moves. After that it is all about testing some pretty outlandish claims that fit more into action movie myths than martial arts myths. It wouldn’t surprise me, but I don’t think there are many ninja schools that teach their students how to catch swords and arrows. At best this is a straw man argument that sceptics should keep away from. However, there is a test whereby a student with their eyes closed has to avoid the strike of a sword. It would be interesting to see just how valid this test really is under scientific conditions!


Growing up in showbusiness all my life I am not naïve to the pressures that are put on creators of entertainment. The second series of Ricky Gervais’s Extras is a wonderful morality tale on how easily a person’s artistic integrity can be compromised by the might of those with the money or the power. Martial arts media often makes it harder with the fact that they are dealing with a relatively small world, broken up into even smaller worlds and so on. It’s also a world largely made up of retailers and promoters rather than professional artists who get paid to their thing. This means that it is heavily networked and, in a manner of speaking, everyone seems to know each other. Such an environment makes it hard to become overtly critical, and we often see this in the various magazines whereby most articles are virtually mini-adverts for a particular martial art. This spills over into factual documentary making, whereby filmmakers need the cooperation of martial artists who are protective of their small businesses and subculture.


However, as I have explained, there is tremendous potential for more rational-based martial arts investigations. More sceptical programmes are being produced today and are proving popular as sceptics become activists. The public consumer is beginning to outweigh the professional critique due to the influence of the Net Generation, and they are beginning to demand more honest reviewing. Previously the mainstream had little interest in the inner problems of the martial arts world – such problems were often shielded by the insular nature of martial arts schools up until the 1990s. However, this was before the internet. Now we have students in regular communication on a global scale, sharing and showing experiences. There are at least two website I know dedicated to scepticism and debunking in the martial arts world, one of which is a very large and very active online community. The nature of the Net Generation is to be an investigator rather than a passive receiver of information. Given the strong connection between the media world and the internet this can only mean good things for critical thinking in the martial arts.



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