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Aikido as a Fighting Art - Part One

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by Mark Tennenhouse

Published Online

There are many reasons to practice martial arts. But, I have always preferred to practice techniques and arts which have clear practical value. Over the years I’ve spent considerable time training in Judo, Brazilian jujutsu and Wrestling. In these other combat arts, it is clearly understood that the techniques can be used against a resisting skilled opponent because the techniques are tested in some form of full resistance, free practice every day. These other grappling arts have established practice methods, which allow them to test out their techniques in fairly realistic terms. Now some people may claim that a friendly class practice or contest is not realistic. But, thousands of contest matches have proven that wrestling and BJJ skills are almost entirely usable in mixed martial arts contests like the UFC. In these contests, the combatants are skilled in striking, takedowns and submission and are in top shape. Any technique that works against such athletes is likely to work in a self defense situation too.

But, it is not necessary to enter a rough contest like the UFC to find out if one’s art works or not. All that’s needed is to add a few sportive and safety elements to one’s practice. For example, wrestling includes many holds, which can easily be performed in such a way that they damage the elbow, shoulder, neck or leg joints. So, by adding a few practice rules for safety, wrestlers use the holds to force a pin instead of injuring a joint. In judo, certain techniques, such as standing arm locks, are left out of practice because they were found to cause injury. By practicing with a few rules, such as no facial contact, no body slams, no joint injuring throws, wrestlers and Judo players are able to practice with full power and speed.

Unfortunately, in aikido, we have no safe way to test out our techniques against realistic resistance from an opponent that is fighting back and trying to win.

The questions of how to include resistance and competitiveness in aikido have been raised before. But, these questions have been silenced by many teachers for a variety of reasons mostly related to tradition and philosophical concerns. I find such an attitude confusing because I’ve always studied combat arts for their practical usage in sportive and realistic combat and not primarily as philosophical studies. In any practical combat sport/art, like wrestling, judo or BJJ, it is absolutely essential to practice against an opponent that is fighting back. There are no wrestlers or BJJ fighters that became skilled by practicing against opponents that weren’t fighting back. In every sport, the value of practicing against skilled players who are not cooperating is completely accepted. Yet, in aikido, we have a very strange situation in which fighting is not allowed.

If the role of the receiver, Uke, were changed to include the kind of combativeness that is seen in wrestling, judo and BJJ, aikido techniques would undergo some radical changes. There are stories about Ueshiba and other Aikidoka fighting against experienced wrestlers, judomen and sumo fighters. Yet, in our age, I know of no Aikidoka that trains to fight against these other arts. Perhaps Ueshiba’s methods of practice were very different from what is typically done today. But, if we really understood aikido, we should be able to fight against other arts. Imagine how interesting it would be to walk into a wrestling club and fight against the other wrestlers using aikido technques. Imagine how exciting it would be to be able to walk into a BJJ class and pin the other BJJ fighters using aikido techniques or into a judo dojo and throw the judoka using aikido. These kinds of skills are exactly what is hidden within aikido. Yet, how many instructors practice against skilled wrestlers, boxers or ground fighters? Without daily practice against these other arts, it seems likely that we will never understand the depth of technique that exists in aikido. If the role of the receiver were changed and we practiced at a closer range from a clinch like wrestlers, or from gi grips like judo fighters or with some realistic striking, we could begin to understand how to use our techniques in a more realistic combative manner. Unless we begin to understand how to use our techniques against these and other realistic arts, we will never understand what fighting and aikido are all about.