The Boxing Kangaroo and The Law of Instrument – Martial Arts Scepticism Series

every-problem-as-a-nail-620x900_0“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail”.

Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science, 1966

Social media appears to be a great way to collectively analyse martial arts subculture. During my time training and teaching, I have come to the conclusion that many problems presented in martial arts stem from the way they operate as a subsection of society. Like most tribes, a common flaw is that members tend to see many things through their particular narrow scope of vision. This means they often limit themselves from learning anything outside of their immediate area of interest. They may draw hasty associations and form hastier judgements over material that needs a broader perspective.

One of the most striking examples of this was the regular circulation of a video apparently showing a gloved kangaroo and a boxer competing in a match. This was posted by martial artists to martial arts audiences. The introduction line used in each case was always in utter disbelief that such a brutal event could take place in this day and age. The comments this video attracted were of the classic knee-jerk variety and echoing the opinion of the initial poster. Most saw it as a modern day version of a bestiarius gladiatorial fight. There were wishes that the kangaroo would lacerate and disembowel the “boxer”. Why would someone want to punch a kangaroo? Other comments described the appalling technique of the “boxer”.  However, the footage was not really of a man fighting a kangaroo. I could not believe that I had to explain this to all those who had commented. I appreciate that none of them had had a background in traditional circus or historic variety shows, but surely someone must have been aware of the old Boxing Kangaroo routine. I appreciate it is not common today, but it was popular enough to have earned kangaroos the stereotype that can be seen in many cartoon caricatures to this day.

For the uninitiated, the Boxing Kangaroo is a comedy act seen in circuses and some other live shows. It involves two clowns and a trained kangaroo. Kangaroos naturally exhibit “Boxing” behaviour in the wild and captivity, both with each other and other species. There is even footage of kangaroos boxing in German and English black and white shorts from 1895 and 1896 respectively. It became a feature in the circus as a comedy routine, but never as an actual bout. There is even footage of Woody Allen being involved in this routine in 1966.

The kangaroo is cued to grab and kick by the “boxer” and sometimes the “referee”, both of whom are actually professional clowns. Simply pushing the animal away is sufficient to prompt the “sparring” behaviour. At no point is it advantageous for anyone involved in the routine to hit the animal in question. It was interesting to note that some people who saw the video commented that the kangaroo was being punched in the head when the footage showed nothing of the sort. This is a classic example of how the mind works when one thinks they are seeing something different than what is actually being shown. I was amused by one commentator suggesting that the “boxer” should try his fighting skills on a crocodile and get his just desserts. Crocodile and alligator “wrestling” are also spectacles watched by thousands of people all over the world to this day, and one Muay Thai Kru, Master Toddy, used to be involved in this practice before he started teaching in the western world. To give one original sharer of this video credit they were quick to publically admit error and changed their original comments. I only mentioned this fact, as my studies in martial arts cognitive dissonance (see “Taking it on the Chin and Listening to Fools”) show that very few martial artists in positions of authority are willing to take criticism of any type.

The narrow view I often encounter in the martial arts subculture was first brought my attention back when I was an extreme professional wrestling promoter. In my attempts to bridge the two subcultures of martial arts performance and professional wrestling, which are very similar in concept and yet worlds apart in social understanding, I uncovered a lot of prejudices amongst my fellow martial artists. Some exponents of performance-based Wu Shu who had no problem in staging spectacular fight choreography in live shows and in Wire-Fu martial arts movies, which they often venerated, but they were quick to sneer at the “fakeness” of Professional Wrestling. This blatant snobbery, which often wrongly extended into many martial artists endorsing an unfair and often incorrect assumption that pro wrestlers had no genuine fighting ability, led to many martial artists being fooled by “worked” matches.

Video footage of Muay Thai match whereby one of the fighters is sent through the ropes and returns with a dustbin lid was shared by stunned martial arts teachers who were amazed at how a much could get so far out of hand. Intrigued to see the reaction skilled Pro Wrestlers would give upon seeing footage, I shared it to old friends of mine from the business. As expected, they confirmed that it was a “worked” match from start to finish. I was fortunate enough to have met at least one English Muay Thai kru who had no compunction about bringing up the side of the sport few wish to mention. The business of what might be called “vanity” tourist bouts where farangs (foreigners) fight during their holidays in Thailand were perhaps best brought to public attention when the celebrity, Jack Osbourne won his first in Thailand over a veteran ex-champion. The bout was all part and parcel of Osbourne’s road to recovery after drug rehabilitation. He was not in good shape and few were convinced by his win. Various gyms in Thailand offer fights at the end of international training courses, where a disproportionate number of the foreign fighters win. My attention was first brought to these suspicious activities when I heard from a friend working on an airline about how the notorious party lifestyle of some of the air stewards frequently involved them getting into Thai Boxing matches between flights!

Many martial artists who look down their noses at Professional Wrestling still pay due respect to the origins of the sport. Inspired by the bitter criticism expressed by Sir Athol Oakley in his “Blue Blood on the Matt” and the interview he gave for Simon Garfield’s book, “The Wrestling”, many martial artists bemoan the way such a proud British institution gave way to pantomime. However, during my discussions with martial arts historian, Graham Noble, I learned that a lot of suspicion regarding the accepted “worked” nature of Professional Wrestling bouts went back much further than most accepted, perhaps even back to the heyday of the great George Hackenschmidt and his contemporaries. Once again, I had the advantage of knowing circus and fairground history, which shared eras with both Boxing and Wrestling. My family hosted the Boxing booths that saw Freddie Mills early career in the 1940s. I also knew circus artists that regularly boxed in these booths, taking on all comers from the age of eight. They often faced members of their own family and they fought every night there was a show. That was when the penny dropped.

Although I am quite sure that many a legitimate bout was fought by the turn of the 20th century ju jutsuka on the British Music Hall stage and the Catch-as-Catch-Can wrestler in the fairground booth, but one has to consider the logistics of fighting different fighters of unknown quantities every single day. I am not discounting the level of toughness that came out of this era. Boxing bouts could last for over 60 rounds in the early 20th century and we had only just come out of the bare-knuckle era. However, enduring daily physical punishment from either Boxing or Wrestling in competitive bouts and still being expected to work hard is a lot to expect off anyone. I think it is a reasonable assumption that a good portion of regular fights – but not necessarily matches between known professional fighters –  were staged between professionals and this practice went back a lot further than what many of martial artists have assumed. Entertainment value alone must have been a deciding factor, as the Professional Wrestling bout appears to have been an extension of the Strong Man act. As a point of interest, another spin-off professional event from the Strong Man act was the sport of Body Building.

Keen to see what current day workers would make of wrestling bouts staged in an era where everything was supposedly legit, I looked for some footage. True to form, a bout from 1913 in Prague with Gustav Fristensky facing Josef Smejkal under Greco-Roman rules appears to be a genuine “shoot” match with both fighters trying to beat each other as they would do in an amateur setting rather than stage a spectacle. The same could be said for what can made out of the blurry 1920 footage of Earl Craddock and Joe Stetcher’s bout. However, in 1930 Sir Arthol Oakley’s encounter with “Bulldog” Bill Garnon has a decisively different tone. There’s plenty of good technical grappling and exchanges between the two wrestlers, but the pros who watched it called it a “stiff work”. Oakley’s attempts to ram Garnon’s head into the canvas are certainly testament to hardiness of the work involved, but there is a crude drama in the spectacle and the use of very clean dramatic throws. This is interesting given Oakley’s harsh criticism of “worked” matches in the 1950s.

It is now generally accepted that there is a covert tradition in the noble Japanese martial art of Sumo that a good number of matches are thrown.  A pro wrestling friend of mine once told me that the Japanese pro wrestling manager Sonny Onoo had revealed to him that a lot of Sumo was fixed.  Charles E. Tuttle made an allegation regarding the way matches were fixed in “The Joy of Sumo: A Fan’s Notes”, which was later backed up by a statistical analysis in Steven Levitt and Mark Duggan’s 2002 book, “Freakanomics”. The fixing revolves around wrestlers who have won seven out of the scheduled 15 matches before the last day of the tournament. Wrestlers “on the bubble”, so to speak, facing off against someone who had won over seven matches would more often than not win their last bout. Winning more matches than losing meant that a sumo wrestler was granted a vastly increased position in the social and monetary hierarchy of his stable.

I remember when the staged spectacle of Bushido was marketed to the west many martial artists who readily dismissed Professional Wrestling eagerly accepted this other form of sports entertainment on the belief that it was genuine. The same trick that all-in-wrestlers had been playing in carnivals and fairgrounds in the early 20th century had worked again albeit for the brief time that Bushido enjoyed a cult status in the west. Many martial artists, who were unfamiliar with the wide culture of Professional Wrestling, knew little about the “stiff” reputation of Japan and its “workers”.

Despite martial arts now being heavily featured in a wide variety of audiovisual entertainment the majority of martial artists are just as gullible as any other member of the public when it comes to entertainment. I have witnessed respected teachers discuss Jerry Springer and various YouTube videos of staged fights respond without a hint of scepticism. A lack of psychological knowledge that directly relates to their profession is also often lacking and replaced by their own personal political prejudices. It is quite worrying how few numbers of martial arts teachers, who profess to be teaching self-protection of some kind, have no awareness of the Bystander Effect. posted on social media featuring a crisis in a busy area, where virtually no one chooses to intervene. T

In 2004 I was invited to review the latest “Shaolin Monk” live show. These touring spectacles had emerged in the 1990s and had proven to be a huge success all around the world. The martial arts world loved the displays and they became increasingly more common when Chinese martial arts clubs put on demonstrations. Audiences were dazzled by the amazing feats of acrobatic artistry and the various feats of power that saw the “monks” have various objects smashed across them. Friends of mine in the circus culture had begun increasing the martial arts content of their shows, such as the Chinese State Circus, until eventually they just booked “Shaolin Monk” shows. By the time the 2004 show arrived the “Monks” had almost completely gone in the opposite direction and the bulk of the show was a substandard circus. There was sword swallowing, knife throwing and fire-breathing.  Here again, we see a bizarre cognitive dissonance, martial artists used various circus tricks around the turn of the 20th century to sell their arts to a new paying civilian consumer.

This was most prominent in China. The Bed of Nails is an old physics trick performed by Indian fakirs and along with similar tricks, such as the Ladder of Swords, they were taken up martial arts performers. An increase in acrobatic displays, which ended becoming part of competitive Wu Shu taolo forms and fantastical martial arts movies, were stunts that made from the streets, Chinese opera and the Chinese circus. Breaking boards, stones and other hard materials with or over parts of the body are stunts that have now become associated with many Korean martial arts as well Kyukushin Karate, which was founded by a Korean, and modern Thai or Vietnamese martial arts that clearly have Korean influences. We don’t seem to have much evidence of their place in any traditional martial art practice before the push to market the arts in the early 1900s. Once again, we find that smashing slabs of stone over the body, bending metal bars (or spears) with the throat, knocking nails into wood with a bare hand and breaking various hard objects by unassisted strength are all the hallmarks of the Victorian Strong Man act.

kaplan hammer

Yet today these feats and variations of them have become almost sacred traditions in many martial arts, sometimes they are even used as a test for a person to ascend a rank. Even magic tricks are not beyond what we have come to accept as being part of martial arts culture. The most blatant examples of this we have seen are levitation tricks – a common illusionist trick from the 19th century – and no touch striking – explained by the power of suggestion and mass hysteria best exemplified in religious events – that fools hundreds of devout followers, but fortunately is met by a lot of derision in mainstream martial arts. However, the magic tricks can be a bit more subtle. Combat Sports Central makes a very strong argument for the “magic trick” element involved in Bukjinkan Ninjutsu’s fifth dan test (a good analysis of this grading and the apparent trick).

Critical thinking is a vital tool in martial arts education and one that is sorely lacking in its subculture. Having a narrow perception that is reinforced by tribal allegiance can easily send an individual off on an erroneous path of confusion and desperate cognitive dissonance. I have noticed that in complete contrast to science and most other physical activities, the mainstream of martial arts are the ones endorsing irrationality. Whereas the fringe of any discipline that seeks objectivity and progress present us with the eccentrics and the unproven, it is the minority in martial arts that tend to be the voices of reason. This is why I do my best to bring in factors outside of the typical martial artist’s range of knowledge, so that they can see a broader picture and decide how a particular area of martial arts measures up.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventure, “The Dancing Men”, Holmes finds a bullet hole at the scene of a murder that the investigating police officer had previously missed. Holmes explains to the baffled policeman he had found this piece of evidence only because he had been looking for it in the first place. Such ability only comes from having one’s creativity melded with a strong sense of rationality. It seems like a contradiction, but scepticism has led me to be more open-minded than when I was a regular believer. I bought into just about every martial arts myth despite having the knowledge and experience at my disposal to know otherwise. I wasn’t alone either. Time and again I have seen people with high intelligence or a high level of grounded experience be proven to hold irrational martial arts beliefs completely out of sync with their knowledge. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful phenomenon and facing it might be one of the hardest martial arts disciplines of all.


DON’T MISS my upcoming book on martial arts scepticism, where this topic and others will be covered.