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Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

Taekwon-Do Sucks

You heard me. Taekwon-do sucks. …For some people. For others, it’s awesome. You see, taekwon-do isn’t good or bad by itself. It all depends on the person.

I’ll elaborate on why that is, but first allow me to provide a little background.

There used to be a blog that I loved, run by a guy named Rob Redmond, called 24 Fighting Chickens. Even though it was about Shotokan karate, most of it was applicable to the martial arts in general. Mr. Redmond came up with this theory that he called Redmond’s Axiom of Platform Dependency:

Axiom: Karate is not a person, place, or thing. Karate is only a set of instructions. Until those instructions are executed by someone, they exist only in the abstract. Karate has no philosophy. Karate has no shape. Karate has no effectiveness. Karate has no qualities at all other than as a set of instructions. The person doing karate gives it all of its qualities the way a glass gives water shape, the way computer hardware gives software speed and reliability.

Redmond might not have been the first person to ever come up with this idea, but he believes he was the first to put it into such detail.

Wherever it says “karate”, you could easily substitute the word “taekwon-do”. Or “judo”. Or “Ameri-Do-Te”. The martial art doesn’t matter. Every martial art is just a set of instructions. It’s the person who takes those instructions and makes them work well …or poorly.

Let’s look at this axiom in action. Let’s pretend that you were so inflexible that you couldn’t kick above your waist to save your life. You wouldn’t do very well in taekwon-do, would you? You’d never be able to execute your kicks well enough to have good patterns. That level of inflexibility would probably even affect your stances. And as for sparring, you’d never be able to land a legal point with a kick.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you wouldn’t enjoy taekwon-do, just that you would never be great at it.

But let’s say you had lightning-quick reflexes and good hands. Maybe you’d be amazing at boxing.

Now, let’s pretend that instead of being the inflexible person, you’re watching the inflexible person. Could you, in all good conscience, see this person’s ineffective kicks and say that taekwon-do is an ineffective martial art?

No, you couldn’t (I hope). But you also can’t look at an “ideal” taekwon-do practitioner and claim that taekwon-do is an effective martial art. You can only say that the person practicing the art is good.

No martial art is good or bad by itself. Only people are good or bad at achieving certain goals or objectives using the instructions they learned from that martial art.

People can’t even be good or bad at a martial art itself. I could be bad at fighting, because I can objectively win or lose. I can be bad at patterns because I don’t measure up to the ideals that have evolved for how patterns should be performed. But I can’t be good or bad at taekwon-do, because I can’t be good or bad at at set of instructions; only on how I follow those instructions.

Let’s look at this a different way. Have you ever stumbled across any of those “martial art X vs. martial art Y” videos online? Can you put any stock in those? Is taekwon-do better than karate? Or Brazilian jiu-jitsu? Nope. It can’t be. It can’t be worse, either. A taekwon-do fighter may beat a karate fighter, for example, but that doesn’t mean that one art is somehow superior to the other. Only that person A is better at fighting than person B, using the skills that they know.

And remember that every person is different and is able to execute the instructions from each art differently. I might do well with taekwon-do, but not with wushu, for example.

But it’s not just the art. It’s also how the instructions are given and interpreted. I could give the same instructions for a technique to two different people. One could perform it flawlessly and the other could perform it terribly. Not just because of physical differences, but because it’s up to me to find a way to communicate with both people so that they understand the instructions. People learn in different ways.

Rob Redmond likened it to trying to run software on two very different computers. While the software may be the same on both, you’ll get two different experiences—assuming it will run on both at all.

There are loads of factors that go into how well a person can perform a martial art and what they can do with it. So it’s really not possible to say that a martial art is good or bad, because it’s really all about the person.

So, yes, for some people taekwon-do sucks. And that’s OK.

  • MANthrax

    NIce politically correct answer. The reality is there are martial arts that are better than others. The UFC, Vale Tudo, NHB competition was started to determine or answer the very question which MA was the best. It was answered with a resounding, definitive, martial art, BJJ. A smaller man matched against larger opponents won this competition 4 years in a row. And he fought many opponents in the same evening as the contest were held back then. He faced opponents from all disciplines and his father had an open invitation to all to come and try to beat him. So “its the fighter” not the art argument does not stand. If you could clone yourself and train each of these cloned you’s to maximum proficiency in TKD, MT, Karate and BJJ and then fought these clones against each other the BJJ would win. Fight in a hallway, in a swimming pool, on a ice pond, in a octagon, the BJJ would win hands down. Match yourself against a clone of yourself TKD self vs a heavier, taller clone of Karate self.
    MMA is a crucible to refine out what does not work. You’ll see spin attacks come up and make the highlight reels but in reality most KO/TKO’s are from punches statistics show this is the case. Everybody has to study BJJ in MMA as it is a fight finishing MA. All must study grappling as you either need to defend to remain standing or bring your opponent to the ground if being out struck on the feet. Muay Thai has been included in many fighters training as it’s competition rules have the least striking exclusions or penalties. So in essence its been its own crucible for stand up combat that works. All MA claim to have solutions for all situation but they are theroy and do not hold up in combat.

    • Please correct me if I’m wrong here (seriously), but I get the impression you think I’m one of those people who believes strongly in their traditional martial art and thinks MMA is some kind of newfangled violent garbage. Here are a few things you probably wouldn’t be able to know about me from reading my blog: I’m a pretty avid MMA fan; I also study judo and groundwork is my favourite part; I really want to make the time to start studying BJJ as well.

      I understand where you’re coming from. BJJ has proven itself to be an incredibly effective martial art. But the thing is, BJJ is still a set of instructions, just like any other martial art. It’s still the person who makes it work. It’s just that executing those instructions well results in a high probability of submitting another person, especially if they don’t also know BJJ.

      When you talk about the smaller man matched against larger opponents, I assume you mean Royce Gracie? He had success because he’s a very good jiu-jitsu player who knew how to mitigate the dangers of striking, while many of the strikers he faced didn’t know how to mitigate the dangers of BJJ. He knew how to execute the instructions of BJJ well, especially in the context of MMA.

      I think my “it’s the fighter” argument does still stand. If you take a god-awful BJJ player and match him against a top-notch muay Thai fighter, there are pretty good odds the MT fighter is going to win. But reverse the skill levels and it’s likely an easy win for the BJJ guy.

      Using your example, if I cloned myself and trained in different arts (with equal intensity, I assume), I could see how you would think that the BJJ me would win in a fight. But that’s assuming that I have a good aptitude for BJJ. What if I can’t execute those instructions well, no matter how hard I try? I’d probably get my ass whooped.

      You’re absolutely right that MMA is a crucible for determining what does and doesn’t work in the cage. But the thing is, what does and doesn’t work is a little different for every fighter. Sure, there are some strong similarities across the board, but everyone’s also a little different. Anderson Silva relied on a strong counter-fighting game; other fighters need to go on the offensive to win. Every fighter is taught that you need to be a decent striker, even if your strength is grappling. But since Demian Maia basically gave up striking and started relying on his world-class jiu-jitsu, he’s been on a tear. Stephen Thompson, on the other hand, is so good at striking that he barely needs to use the wrestling or BJJ that he’s been learning.

      Every person will execute a set of instructions (a martial art) a little differently. The instructions themselves are incredibly important, but it’s how I execute them that matters even more.

      I think there’s something else to this as well. I feel like you keep coming back to the idea of using martial arts to win a full-contact, no-holds-barred style competition (whether MMA or not). The thing is, different people have different goals. And different instructions are more or less useful for reaching those goals. If my goal is to win MMA fights, then I’ll want to train in a system to help me with that. If my goal is to win an Olympic TKD medal, then training in MMA won’t help me one lick. Training to chase that TKD medal will mean I’m not a well-rounded fighter, but it will help me achieve my goal.

      Like I said in the article, “No martial art is good or bad by itself. Only people are good or bad at achieving certain goals or objectives using the instructions they learned from that martial art.”

    • Jay Lee

      If you’re talking purely about application in MMA sport, then I think MMA training (ie, learning the basics of several styles and then learning how to integrate them into a coherent game plan) is by far the best method for the average student. The styles you choose to base your game around will differ for each student, but in modern MMA, wrestling, boxing, and kickboxing are by far the most commonly seen.

      If you’re talking about a single style or sport and its application in MMA sport, and you disallowed any learning of other styles, then BJJ is the most efficient art to learn for the average student.

      If you’re talking about which style is commonly seen on display in MMA sport, it’s definitely not taekwondo…but it sure as heck isn’t BJJ either! It’s true that every MMA fighter must have a basic understanding of BJJ, whereas they don’t need to have a basic understanding of non-Thai kicks. However, the amount of actual BJJ we see in high level MMA competition is minimal, because the rules strongly encourage the bottom player to stand up instead of continuing the grappling exchange.

      If you’re talking about self defense, and don’t restrict yourself just to MMA rules, then you have to take into account the specific situation. For example, multiple attackers would be a bad situation to try ground grappling. Alternatively, if your hands are not very sturdy, then throwing punches to the head without any wrist wraps could be a terrible idea. I personally believe avoidance, deescalation, and knowing when to run is by far the best strategy for self defense. Firas Zahari, the head coach of Tristar (one of the premier MMA training centers), believes pepper spray is the best way to defend against multiple attackers.

      Anyways, none of those addresses whether a martial art is “better” in a holistic sense. Under a very specific scenario, such as “using one style to compete under MMA rules, and you aren’t allowed to learn other styles”, it’s possible to say BJJ is better at achieving that objective. But not everyone learns martial arts for something other than self defense or competing in MMA. In fact, I would say MOST people who train martial arts (BJJ, wrestling, or otherwise) will never compete in MMA, and if they’re smart, they will be able to avoid any self defense situation.

      I’ve trained and competed in combat sports all my life, including BJJ, and have coached amateur athletes as well. I also serve as a training partner for professional MMA athletes preparing for fights. I just started training taekwondo as a white belt because my son loves it, and it’s a way for me to spend time with him doing an activity we both enjoy. That’s way more important to me than whether it will help me survive a one-on-one encounter with an unarmed aggressor where no one else is around to help me out (the main self defense scenario where BJJ is useful). I still actively compete in BJJ tournaments, but I don’t consider it “better” than taekwondo. After all, BJJ isn’t something I can enjoy with my son at his age.

      While taekwondo will be ineffective in an MMA setting without learning other skills to support it, the kicks can be incredibly effective when it’s incorporated with other attacks. That’s especially true now, because most people don’t understand non-Thai kicks and therefore don’t know how to defend them. Ryan Hall, an accomplished BJJ athlete and UFC athlete, dominated Gray Maynard with a gameplan centered around the kicking strategy of American karate (roundhouse, side kick, and hook kick, all thrown from the same stance), and then diving to guard once Gray tried to close to the distance to punch him. Yair Rodriguez, the best taekwondo stylist in the UFC now, probably throws more non-Thai kicks (side kicks, spinning kicks, sacrifice kicks, etc) than he throws jabs. His opponents, accustomed to kickboxing range, have no idea what to do when someone attacks primarily from kicking-only range. Conor McGregor throws front snap kicks, double kicks, side kicks, hook kicks, spinning back kicks, and spinning wheel kicks (all non-Thai style) in greater frequency than he throws his left leg roundhouse. The reason why he throws so many spinning kicks is because people try to circle to his right to avoid his left hand; after he throws a few spinning kicks, they stop circling so eagerly.