Martial Arts Dojo or Fight Gym?


It is said that martial arts without philosophy is just street-fighting. It can also be said that martial arts without fighting is like playing basketball without a ball. Both statements are very true, and yet most martial arts schools or fight gyms cater to either one or the other. The argument is: Which is better and why?

I have been involved in Muay Thai since 1996. It has changed my life in more ways than I could ever write in one blog, hence why I began to write a book at the beginning of 2013. Kickboxing, or Muay Thai, has given me clarity and peace of mind. It has given me direction and purpose in my life. Oddly enough, through fighting in a ring or a cage, I was able to gain some inner stillness. I found a calm within the chaos that allowed me to be a better person outside of the fighting arena.
                                                    The Martial Arts: A Way of Life
            Martial arts used to be a way of stilling the mind and gaining introspection. Now, however, with the popularity of MMA and Glory Kickboxing, people are entering the martial arts for a different reason. The Martial Arts are now practiced as a sport. As an amateur or a professional, “fighters” can now train and then test their skills in an arena of combat. Their skills can be tested in live action against other trained (and sometimes un-trained) athletes.

            The question arises: What is the difference between the martial arts and combat sports? For many, martial arts are what you see on TV and in movies. They are associated with white, cleanly pressed uniforms resembling pajamas, its jacket tied together by a belt of a certain color that signifies your rank. Images of Jean Claude Van Damn doing flying kicks in the air and the average Joe punching through bricks and boards also come to mind. To be honest, this is what martial arts meant to me when I first started training. As a Bruce Lee fan, I did a year of karate because it was the closest thing I could find as I mimicked the great master in a traditional dojo in my college years. It wasn’t until I discovered Muay Thai and stepped into a ring for the first time in 1996 that I discovered a new and different world from martial arts. In karate, I felt like I was pretending to fight. In Muay Thai, a full contact kickboxing art from Thailand, I learned the truth to real combat and forever since, my world has changed.

            After venturing in both the “fight” and the “martial arts” realm, I can say that the main difference between the two worlds is the focus and intent. Martial arts in the modern day setting is a physical self defense practice used as a vessel for character development and fitness. It is a physical tool to gain introspection and self-awareness. Belts are awarded to give people short-term goals to achieve in order to keep them involved in the martial arts for a long period of time, with the understanding that longevity in the art is where people find the most benefit. I see nothing wrong with this approach. It is a similar approach that yoga studios take in order to provide a holistic or all-encompassing experience.

What most martial arts schools lack, however, is their ability to actually fight. Let’s face it, character development is great to attain and seek, but at the end of the day, martial arts were also designed for REAL fighting. People from various cultures have developed martial arts styles in order to protect themselves, their loved ones, and even their country in battle. Unfortunately, most modern day, traditional martial arts focus so much on the attaining of belt ranks, that the functional side of the original fighting arts from which they have sprung no longer exists. Generations of so-called black belts who know nothing about real fighting are pumped out like cattle so that martial arts studios can make money. This is also problematic when martial arts gyms pose as “fight gyms” and sell bogus, unproven “MMA” or “Muay Thai” programs that claim to get new students “fighter ready.” This practice is becoming commonplace and students should do their research before joining such a gym.
                                            A Fighter Gym: Train Like a Champion!
A Fighter Gym is a different breed all together. Fighter Gyms are geared toward competition. Generally, there is no rank structure or belt system and they are commonly referred to as gyms or training centers rather than dojos or academies. Many who join the ranks of these gyms have aspirations of becoming a fighter or simply want to train in the environment where champions and athletes train. I, at one point owned a training center and we always looked at our fight team as the equivalent of a football or basketball team at a university. The fight team proved the validity of our system or style of fighting while providing champions to rally around at events several times a year. Though everyone could not compete on the team or had the desire to compete, people still found pride in training like the pros and alongside the elite. I am fond of this style of gym as well. Sometimes, however, having a gym culture comes with a price.

Character development is often a byproduct, but not a guaranteed result of intense training. It is also not generally taught purposefully in gym or training center settings. Attributes like mental fortitude, integrity, courtesy and perseverance can be a positive result of hardcore training. More times than not, however, fighter style training reveals inherent weaknesses or strengths in these areas. In essence, the strong are showcased for being strong, while the weak are often left feeling less worthy and inadequate. This is why cliques are often formed in gyms of all types because the “cool kids” gravitate towards one another, leaving everyone else pining for acceptance from the elite.

This is not to say that all gyms operate this way. Through masterful coaching, gym settings are welcoming for all types. Coaches like Eric Haycraft (see with whom I trained a month back, have masterfully developed a gym culture that welcomes beginners while still catering to world-class athletes, encouraging all to adhere to a high standard of excellence regardless of their level. Students work alongside the fighters and feel a sense of belonging, while having the pros as role models to look up to. Fighters are encouraged to give back to their community by working with beginners as eagerly as they work with other fighters. Eric has developed a gym culture that is REAL (hence the name of his gym) and welcoming. He is a rare and exceptional coach however, hence the dilemma that we face in the modern day martial arts world.
                                                      The Best of Both Worlds
It is clear that both martial arts schools and fighter gyms have inherent pros and cons. The question I propose is: which is better? The easy answer is that it depends on your goals. If you are more interested in character development, then go to a martial arts dojo. If you want to fight, go to a fight gym. I however, am not interested with the easy answer. The tough answer, and one that demands a lot more from instructors is that a martial arts gym should have both! A martial arts gym should be legit, producing great fighters, thus providing authentic fighting skills that work. A martial arts gym should also provide purposeful character development training. Rather than hoping that students become better citizens because of their training, teachers should systematically and purposefully teach students how to become better individuals.

I have been fortunate enough to live in both worlds. I have been a true martial artist, adhering to a code of ethics and morality that lives on within me both in and outside of the ring. I have also been a fighter, pursuing an athletic endeavor of pushing my body to the limit for the sake of competition and pride. I know that I am capable of defending myself because I voluntarily fought for several decades. I also know that I have become a better teacher, leader and friend because of the ethics taught to me in martial arts. Because of my past experience, I know that the sport of fighting and the life style of martial arts can and should go hand in hand.

The instructors and candidates under my Muay Thai University are held under the strictest of standards, in that they must both be able to fight and teach others life skills through our combative practice.  Students of our new gym, The House of Muay Thai International, learn Muay Thai that was built for real combat, both for athletics and self defense purposes while being guided on a self reflective journey into one’s own being.

When choosing a gym, demand both. Learn how to fight while learning how to be a better person. Expect and demand the best of both worlds.