Of Bloodsport and bullshido

Bullshido never looked so awesome
The movie Bloodsport is in many ways the stereotypical late 80s/early 90s action film: cheesy lines, great if ridiculously over-the-top action, a by-the-numbers love story thrown in for spice, and a guy with massive muscles playing the lead character who barely speaks English.

For other classic examples of the same set of tropes, see: Highlander starring Christopher Lambert, the various Delta Force movies involving Chuck Norris, pretty much ALL of Steven Seagal's output from that period, and EVERY SINGLE ONE of Arnold Schwarzenegger's films.

Personally, I had never seen Bloodsport until about three months ago, when it popped up in my Netflix queue and I finally thought, "screw it, why not..."

The movie actually turned out to be far better than I thought it would be- if still quite ridiculous. JCVD's physical feats are, of course, the main attraction of the movie, and I won't deny that his impressive array of airborne kicks are very cool to watch. But there is plenty of nonsense in that movie, including of course the sumo wrestler and that leaping jumping monkey of a black guy, whose reason for being in the film was quite incomprehensible to me.

That film, along with a few other martial arts movies from around the same time, seems to have kicked off something of a martial arts craze here in the US that led to the opening of a great many schools specialising in karate, tae kwon do, kung fu, aikido, hapkido, and other similar arts. And that brought with it the usual mix of teachers, some of whom are true masters of martial arts and are fearsome fighters with great skill... and most of whom are just hacks, taking the easy way out by promising students that they will become black-belted badasses in just a few years if only they pay a nice large fee every time they test. We're still dealing with the legacy of that set of martial arts McDojos today.

Watching Bloodsport as someone with at least some training in martial arts has proven interesting, especially when you watch it a few more times as light entertainment while in the middle of chores of some kind. The major issue with it, of course, is that its depiction of no-holds-barred kumite fighting makes absolutely zero sense in the context of the modern world of MMA.

In terms of physical performance, there is some truly amazing stuff that gets shown in that movie. The kicks are spectacular; the best bit for me was when Van Damme was performing those five outside slap kicks with his right leg, one after another, without ever putting that foot down and while moving forward with Bolo Yeung in front of him. That takes incredible balance and coordination to pull off, especially with that degree of dexterity. All respect to him and his fight choreographers- that looked really cool.

There are numerous other highly acrobatic kicks that Van Damme shows off, including a couple of bicycle kicks and some spinning back kicks which look awesome on film.

However, the epic displays of balance, dexterity, and footwork in that movie do not change the fact that, from the perspective of actual combat, the entire thing is pure Grade-A bullshido.

I do not recall even once seeing anyone take another fighter to the ground in that movie. All of the fight scenes involved stand-up striking of some form. At no point did I see anyone with a background in judo or jiu-jitsu enter the tournament and take on the assortment of strikers.

And that, from the perspective of the fighting sciences, is a huge problem.

The reality is that, in a one-on-one situation, ground-fighting beats stand-up striking up to 90% of the time. Take a stand-up striker, dump him on his back via a single- or double-leg takedown, and start working through his guard. Or, better yet, let him make the elementary mistake of turning his back to you when he's trying to get back up.

And that's it- you've got him. He's done. His ability to fight when he's on the ground is completely removed, because you've nullified the advantages of his biggest and most powerful weapons and can now work him over more or less at your leisure.

Now obviously, this is a large generalisation. It is possible for a stand-up striker to avoid a takedown and knock out a groundfighter. MMA fighters train hard in various techniques designed to stop someone from taking them down and beating the snot out of them on the ground. But it's not easy.

I've seen and trained in some of those techniques myself. (I do not claim to be any good at them- in fact, I do not claim to have any natural talent at martial arts whatsoever. Everything I can do is purely a product of hard work, not talent.) There is nothing simple about resisting a takedown attempt, either from the front or the rear, when you're in a combat situation.

The lesson that should be taken from movies like Bloodsport and Kickboxer is not that studying martial arts will make you a badass. That depends very strongly on which art you study; for instance, I would argue that muay thai is far more lethal, and far more applicable in street combat, and does far more to toughen your body in a much shorter time, than almost any other striking art.

The lesson that should be taken is, instead, that what you see on-screen is designed specifically to entertain and amaze, not to be realistic. I know that it's practically absurd that I have to write this, and that it should be immediately obvious to anyone with half a brain- but the reality is that the average man on the street, even the self-aware recently awakened man, is not going to know this. He'll see what's been put on the screen in front of him and think, "whoa, that's really cool! That's how you defend against someone attacking you with a punch or a kick!"

The reality is quite different. Most Hollywood-style fight sequences are scripted to look really cool- but if you tried to do those same things in the street, you dun gon' git kilt.

You have to get punched and kicked in the face by people who are better and faster than you, on a fairly regular basis, to understand just how silly most Hollywood-fu really is.

For instance, take a look at how Jason Statham's character in The Expendables takes on multiple attackers in rapid succession:

Not bad overall, but that clothesline in the middle is probably the worst point from a self-defence perspective. Do that against an attacker rushing forward, and you are more likely to hyperextend your elbow than you are to take your attacker off his feet. I know of what I speak when I say this: you hyperextend that joint, it's the last punch you're throwing in that fight. Or for the next two weeks. It muddapuckin' HURTS.

Notice, also, that Statham isn't even out of breath after throwing strikes for about fifteen seconds. I have done three-on-one sparring before, hands-only. It is brutal. Even 15 seconds' worth will have your chest heaving and your lungs burning like a furnace. It is one of the most physically intense things you can do. Don't ever assume that you'll be able to just power through your opponents like that in real life.

And now take a look at how Tom Cruise uses a legitimate self-defence style, known as the Keysi Fighting Method, to attack the vulnerable targets on his opponents in quick, vicious, brutal bursts:

Notice how he keeps his movements short and precise; uses his elbows as his primary striking weapons at close range; and uses the fact that his feet have boots on them to his advantage when turning tenors into sopranos.

I watched Jack Reacher a while back and have a very favourable opinion of it, based in no small part upon the fact that the fight sequences against multiple attackers are actually fairly realistic.

If nothing else, it's worth remembering that Bloodsport was based on the alleged exploits of one Frank Dux (pronounced "Dukes"), and it turns out that he was and remains one of the biggest BS artists in martial arts history.

Movies like Bloodsport should be watched strictly for entertainment purposes. There is no denying that they are, in fact, great fun. Even some of the more intelligent recent martial arts movies- Ong Bak with Tony Jaa comes to mind, for instance- are still heavily choreographed and highly unrealistic in terms of real fighting. If you want to see what a real fight looks like, and why it is so important to blend stand-up striking with effective ground-based fighting, watch any good MMA match in the bantamweight divisions and up.

That is the great virtue of MMA: it puts paid to all of the bullshido ever spewed by every dubious martial artist. It doesn't matter how many black belts you claim to have; if you cannot take on one man in a high-pressure, high-stakes environment and at least give a decent showing, you and your art have failed. Sparring in the dojo or on the practice mat is nothing like fighting for real, against a real opponent, in a rules- and time-limited engagement.

So if you're going to train in a martial art, train in a ground-based art like jiu-jitsu or judo, and pair it with a striking art- preferably, muay thai. Or, train in an MMA gym, where you'll learn grappling, ground-fighting, and striking simultaneously. Or, train in Krav Maga- and, again, if you have this in mind, send me an email so I can tell you whether the KM school you're looking at is "legit". I don't claim to be any kind of final authority on this subject, but I have trained under former students of the art's founder; based on what and who I know, I can probably tell you whether you're signing up for a real Krav Maga experience, or just one of those stupid "cardio-Krav" classes that give my beloved KM such a bad name.

Ultimately, how you train and what you train in is up to you. Just don't waste your time on the kind of bullshido that Bloodsport, undeniably exciting and well-choreographed though it is, would have you believe is real.


  1. Didn't care for Reacher overall, but I watched that fight scene over and over and over. Practical, still entertaining, useful and fun (for those who understand reality vs fiction). As much fun as a lot of unrealistic fight scenes but much quicker. As a fight like that ought to be so you don't get yourself killed, assuming you're forced to do such a thing.

    Efficient and effective! That's what I like. I'll take that over a fifteen minute fight scene with 1,500 camera cuts any day.


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