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Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

That Wouldn’t Work in a Real Fight: Defending the Art in Taekwon-Do

That was cool, right? How about a little more?

I love pre-arranged sparring. The technicality, creativity and athleticism of it really appeals to me. (Side note: it goes by many names. “Pre-arranged sparring” makes sense to me. Some people call it “traditional sparring,” when it’s not that traditional. One ITF calls it “pre-arranged free sparring,” which is an oxymoron. And another calls it “self-defense routine” for some almost-inexplicable reason. But “fight choreography” would probably be a more apt name than any of the above.)

Not everyone’s a fan, and that’s OK. But if you start watching videos of pre-arranged sparring online, there are bound to be incredulous comments along the lines of, “That would never work in a real fight!”

Those people are absolutely correct: it wouldn’t work in a real fight. But so what? It’s not meant to be a real fight. It’s meant to be fun.

It’s awesome for the same reason that kung fu movies are awesome. No one watches Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Iron Monkey for their stark realism. We just want to see some cool choreography.

Word from the grapevine says this is what General Choi wanted real taekwon-do sparring to look like. If so, he was deluded. Nobody in history has ever actually been able to fight that way. But even if he knew sparring couldn’t look like this, it’s still entertaining (both to watch and to do) and it’s still a challenge. The people who compete at the highest levels have international-calibre technical and gymnastic skill. To me, that doesn’t make their event invalid just because it’s not a real fight.

Pre-arranged sparring and other spectacular or artistic displays of taekwon-do skill are just parts of the whole. They’re not practical at all, but they aren’t meant to be. They’re meant to be spectacular. They’re meant to be cool. They’re meant to be fun.

You could lump board breaking and tricking into the same category (although tricking isn’t pure taekwon-do, but I’ll let it slide…). Hell, you could even consider patterns part of this as well. They may not always be spectacular, and not everyone finds them fun, but if you’re doing them for tournament-style performance and not to look for possible practical applications, they’re just an aesthetic display. Not everyone is a fan of that, but they don’t have to be. Some people really enjoy it.

No, these things aren’t about the fundamental essence of martial arts, which is combat. They’re about athleticism, strength and technical precision.

Pre-arranged sparring and patterns are performance art, when it comes down to it. But even though they aren’t about real fighting, they’re based on the the techniques of taekwon-do. They’re about finding new and different ways to apply taekwon-do skills, or finding limits of a different sort. And, to me, that’s a worthy endeavour.

Sure, martial arts are ultimately about fighting, but they’ve had lots of time to evolve. Today, there are plenty of aspects to martial arts, and not all of them involve practical fighting skill. And that’s OK.

So when someone looks at an artistic or spectacular display of taekwon-do and says, “That wouldn’t work in a real fight,” I say, “Nope. But so what? I still love it.”