The 7 signs of a Martial Personality Cult


There is a trend I've noticed growing lately in the martial arts.  I call it the "Martial Personality Cult."  To me it's a most disturbing trend precisely because it seems to go largely unnoticed and unchallenged.  When it is questioned, followers of the particular Martial Personality Cult so vociferously defend it that even the likes of Bullshido seem to shy away.

What is a "Martial Personality Cult"?  Basically it is a form of "martial worship" that revolves around one individual.  Typically this person is highly gifted, athletic and well-skilled.  More than anything, this person is also highly charismatic.

So what's wrong with the above?  So far, nothing.  Many masters who come under the latter description are in no way, shape or form "Martial Personality Cultists".  I can freely name a number of such excellent masters: Taira sensei, Higaonna sensei, Kanazawa sensei, Chen ZiQiang shifu, Luo De Xiu shifu, Su Dong Chen shifu, Guro Inosanto, Guro Presas... I could go on and on.  They are both skilled and charismatic - and their followers exhibit no "cult-like" behaviour.

So what distinguishes the "cult" variety" from these genuine masters?

The first thing to note is that however skilled the "Martial Personality Cult" leaders are, not one of them makes it into the list of true masters I've started above.  They are good - but not that good.  Not by a long shot.  In fact, there's a good chance that most of you - be it in the established traditional martial arts or the world of pragmatic combat sports - won't have even heard of them.  Rather, they have built their own niche - which in this case consists of organisations of fanatical followers drawn in by amazing Youtube videos showing fantastic skills.

Again - what's wrong with this?

Basically the problem is fairly straightforward:
They don't seem to be teaching anyone anything remotely useful.
They spend their time demonstrating their own athleticism and exercising mentalism - without passing on a single useful skill to their legions of adoring fans.

The martial arts niche 

My guess is that Martial Personality Cultists don't teach any real skill for one simple reason: there's not enough money in it.  In this regard, my own teacher Bob Davies once told me:
"Martial arts practice was never meant to be a popular activity."
By this he meant that at no time in history has martial arts practice ever been an activity that the bulk of society has taken part in.  It has always been a niche pastime - something with a "cult" following, if you'll pardon the pun.

Yes, there was a time during and after Bruce Lee that "everyone was kung fu fighting".  Then the ninja craze hit us all.  And just after that the Karate Kid movies drew in lots of folk to dojos.

But the truth is that these waves were relatively brief and few long-term students resulted; thousands joined and then, a month, week or day later, stopped.  Today, as at any point in history, you can hardly compare the number of people practising martial arts to those playing football, basketball or tennis.

No, lots and lots of people are attracted to the idea of martial arts.  But very few could be bothered to actually practise them sufficiently to acquire real skill.  For the most part, Joe Public would love to be able to "kick ass" like the heros in the movies.  But the thought of going to a school and doing hours and hours of kicks, punches, throws, falls, padwork, matwork - and all the necessary sweat, tears and, indeed, blood - just doesn't appeal.

So it's unsurprising that martial arts remains, and will always remain a niche activity.

Enter the Martial Personality Cultist

This is where the Martial  Personality Cultist comes in.  He (or sometimes she) knows that a vast number of people would care to "dabble" but have no interest in training seriously towards attaining real "gong fu" (ie. a skill acquired through great effort).  The Cultist exploits this tendency to entice as many people as possible to join his or her school, promising rather awesome "powers" - for very little effort.

Master Ken - the perfect parody of the real
Martial Personality Cult leader
When I say "little effort", I mean this from a long-term, serious martial artist's perspective.  Clearly the students who attend the Cultists schools think they are putting in effort.  But let's be frank:

It's nothing like the effort they would have to put in at an MMA gym; no hours and hours of hitting heavy bags, having knuckles rammed into your face, being choked out and having your joints wrenched.

It's not like a boxing gym - where you train to exhaustion and you fight till your head pounds like you've been hit by a Mack truck.

It's nothing like a hard traditional school where you spend hours in deep stances till your legs shake like jelly, you kick, punch and strike till your gi is so wet with sweat you might as well have jumped into a swimming pool, smash your calloused knuckles into makiwara and pound (black and blue) arms against another.

And it's nothing like a soft traditional school where you have to learn lengthy complex forms with mind-numbing exactitude; forms that require flexibility, dexterity, core strength and and a precision grooved from hours upon hours of tedious, back-breaking practice - all to the strains of "one more time!"

No, comparatively speaking the Cultist's school offers you the "Dire Straits lite" version:
"Your qi for nothing and your skills for free".  
By the above I mean that students assume that a few random qi/ki exercises (or similar "structural" training - whatever that is) will somehow net them physical skills - such as kicking, punching, deflecting, kinaesthetics and proprioception - all without every practising any kind of actual technique - be it against a bag/shield, in drills with a partner or even just in the air.  The most they will have to do is repeat (rather poorly) some random, one-off "partner exercises" or serve as punching bags for their master.  The skills will take care of themselves - somehow magically "absorbed" from the amazing leader.

So what are the trademark signs of a Martial Personality Cult?  Let me list them:

1. The charismatic, reasonably skilled figurehead/idol

The first requirement is, as I've said, the charismatic physically skilled and athletically gifted leader.

Typically his videos will be all over the internet, wowing everyone with the leader's power, strength, speed, agility... and did I mention power?

Yes, the "power" is... almost magical.  Yes, that's the only way to put it.  Magical.  It's so awe inspiring that it's almost too amazing to be true...

2. Demonstrations defined by zombie attacks using string defences 

The "power" isn't just some sort of "woo" involving pushes that are jumps.  Oh no - the Martial Personality Cultist has real skill and athleticism.  The problem is, it's typically manifested as a kind of "shock and awe" or "blitzkrieg" - a string of "overkill" counters delivered with blistering speed and ferocity.  Or maybe just brutal nastiness - like a sickening punch to the solar plexus or a kick to the groin.  Or a cringe inducing bend of someone's elbow till it bends the wrong way while the student is screaming, writhing and tapping the ground faster and harder than a jazz drummer.  Or a dangerous choke out/knock out - delivered coldly and methodically to a willing victim.

But here's the thing: in each case the "defence" is so fast, so brutal, so "awesome" you forget to notice... there was never any real attack.  Or the attack was so slow, so insipid, so out of range, so ineffectual, it might as well have been the movement of a zombie.

The videos showing the above demonstrations are all expertly produced to highlight the "defence" and ignore the lack of attack. This is done using cinematic flourishes, exciting graphics and fonts that spark, flame or curl into the titles, cut to blistering counters by the master, students flung to all corners of the room or slapped and stunned into submission.

Each video has but one clear function - to advertise The Product; a kind of system that promises that "If you build it, the skills will come."

3. A non-existent product

Despite the videos promise, there really is no identifiable "product" in evidence.  Indeed, this is virtually a boasting point; the Cultist doesn't bother with "forms" or "techniques".  He teaches "principles" that "transcend technique/form".  But in the end, he really doesn't teach anything concrete at all - no consistent pedagogy (ie. structured learning programme).  And yet he somehow "teaches everything you need to know".

Confused?  Well let's look at what little the Martial Personality Cultist does identify by way of a system of learning:

"The Product" which you "build" so the skills "will come" amounts to some banal "qi gong" type exercises or other similar (strange) breathing rituals.

Other than that, the master shows a different drill each night - never repeating any such drill twice.  Generally these drills exist merely to showcase another awe-inspiring demo by the Cultist - only to be copied (ineptly and without correction) by the students.

Which brings me to the next point:

4. No "star" other than the Cultist

In the Martial Personality Cult there is room for but one star.  Maybe that's why no one can point to a single student of the master who is any good at repeating the master's skill.  Indeed, no one can even name a top student.  If you happen to visit a branch, you see some rather inept person leading some rather banal activities in a class.  It seems that when the master leaves the building, all the "magic" goes with him/her.

That's why I've called it a "Martial Personality Cult"; it's really revolves around one personality.  No one else with any other skill is associated with it.

Indeed, the most damning indictment of the Martial Personality Cultist is this: he/she appears to produce no worthwhile students at all.  The average shodan teaching at a suburban dojo seems to produce better quality fighters by far.

In the rare event that a "top student" does emerge, this is never advertised or heard of until an entirely new "Martial Personality Cult" has been spawned by that student.  At this point, the student seems to teach his/her own thing.  A new brand name and logo emerges, new videos are produced and new "drills" appear - all variants on the original model but with the "student's" unique touch.  So there is a new focal point - a new "star", a new "personality" to worship.  The original master is never mentioned in this breakaway - except in some historical information buried in the site relating to "lineage".

Which brings me to...

5. Vague lineage

The Cultist's lineage is (assuredly) very impressive, steeped in the history and heritage of some particular exotic country.  But the details are... somehow absent... seemingly lost in the "mists of time".  References are made to cultural terms, icons and traditions; legendary figures are sometimes named.  But no one is able to point to the master's actual teacher (unless it is another similar Cultist with similar videos).

Sometimes tales of secret masters passing on deadly information in clandestine environments are mentioned.  Tales of late night exchanges or death bed transmission of knowledge.  I've heard it all.

If a name of a supposedly legitimate teacher is provided, no one has ever spoken with that  teacher and verified that he/she taught the Cultist.  No one even knows if that teacher is actually legitimate.  All anyone has is the Cultist's word.

6. Very subtle allusions to "woo"

The Martial Cultist is a lot cleverer than the two-bit "woo" merchant.  He/she strenuously avoids any mention of the supernatural.  The "build it and the skills will come" routine is spun as something physical, structural, obvious, yet mysterious; a "higher technology"; a "deeper wisdom" - a kind of "knowledge of the ancients" rediscovered and updated for our modern times.

Except that this "technology" is never explained scientifically or logically.  It is always couched in terms like "tensegrity", or "biodynamics" - or in more mundane, banal and useless terms like "structure" or "core".  It's clearly "woo" by another name: a game of semantics.

The above-mentioned glossy videos are very careful to avoid the "woo" element; they present the Cultist as the ultimate pragmatist - dishing out "power" to all and sundry with ferocious speed, accuracy and ruthlessness.  But if you look closely, you see students starting to comply by falling way too easily, being thrown way too far; you see that everything is carefully scripted and choreographed...

Sometimes a "woo-like" video is leaked of the master going too far - but it's existence is hurriedly explained away as "demonstrating a deep philosophical/metaphorical concept".  Any and all criticism is adamantly dismissed as "you don't understand what is happening."

Which brings me to...

7. Fanatical following

The Cultist has a fanatical following that defend his videos and other materials on the web.  They spring up on every site - including Bullshido - vociferously proclaiming the master's ability and that of his students.  Any criticism is slammed down with a flurry of coordinated anecdotal accounts whose sheer volume leaves even the hardened skeptic confused.  Surely the master must be good?

But this still leaves some uncomfortable questions in the backs of people's minds, all of which are answered by the students:

Why haven't we heard of him before?  Oh he was training for years at X or Y (major school in a large capital city) or with A or B (military/special forces of some exotic country).  He or she studied with a series of masters who passed on their most secret knowledge to him in the most secret circumstances.

But no one ever verifies this.

Why don't any of the students fight in MMA?  Oh they do!  In X or Y (large capital city in an exotic land) they regularly compete in full contact.

But no one can ever name a single fighter from this school.

Why don't we see the students sparring?  Oh there are literally hundreds of videos on the net of our sparring!

But no one can ever find any.

How good is this [Cultist] in person?  Oh he's amazing!  You have to cross hands with him to understand.  The power he generates - with absolutely no range or wind up - is incredible!  He has these amazing punches that no one else has!  I've seen him throw people across the room - they fly backwards, jack-knifing and then running.  Oh - and he takes on all challengers!

But no one has ever seen a video of this master that isn't entirely choreographed or done against zombie-like, compliant attackers...

Too good to be true?

If these elements seem familiar to you, there's a good chance you've been exposed to a Martial Personality Cult.  If you're tempted to believe in it, ask yourself this: why does it seem too good to be true?

If they boast of beating MMA fighters why aren't they actually doing this?

If they are so much better than the traditional masters, why aren't they recognised by the various traditional associations?

And above all, why aren't they presenting a more humble, less "glossy" and "marketed" persona typical of a true traditional (or sports combat) master?  Surely a true master lets his or her actions speak for themselves - a reputation built on actual ability and achievement - not on glossy Youtube videos?

The answer is, that true ability doesn't need spin.  And if anything typifies the "Martial Personality Cult" it is spin.

If someone is promising you amazing skills of a kind you see on scripted/zombie Youtube videos, and that all you need to do to acquire these skills is attend some classes that teach no technique and feature no hard, repetitive training - other than some strange breathing or other rituals - then alarm bells should be going off.

Basically, if it seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is.

Copyright © 2014 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. Very enlightening, especially the part about the need to train rigorously to attain even a modicum of skill. As with athletic endeavor, results are achieved overnight. Think of how many hours a young gymnast has to practice. A true martial arts master no doubt has to devote as much, if not more, time to perfecting his or her skill.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Karate punches vs. boxing punches

Zhan zhuang: grounding, structure, intention and qi

"Combat tai chi"? Seriously?