Out of necessity, to protect its people and its land, practically each culture since the beginning of time has created its own style of combat. While the term “martial art” was first used in regard to the combat systems of Europe in the 1500s, most Americans think of the martial art styles from East Asia developed thousands of years ago and depicted in movies like Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury or the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
From the powerful, striking movements of karate to the slow, deliberate movements of t’ai chi, the martial arts are numerous and cover a wide range of styles that can be categorized based on a variety of criteria: place of origin; technique (armed vs. unarmed); application or intent (self-defense, combat, sport, physical fitness, meditation); or focus on external styles (physical strength and agility) or internal styles (awareness of spirit, mind, breath).
In the Midlands, there are as many places to study and learn a martial art as there are types from which to choose. See the sidebar for an abbreviated list of some of the more well-known forms and their basic descriptions. The good news is that practicing martial arts isn’t just for kids. In fact, it can be a great way for adults to get in shape, learn defensive and protective moves and practice self-discipline.
Karate was developed in what is now Okinawa and was brought to mainland Japan in the early 20th century. After World War II, it became popular with American servicemen stationed in Japan, and the martial arts movies of the 1960s and 70s increased its exposure worldwide. Today, there are many different styles of karate taught around the world, and all of them incorporate punches, kicks, knee and elbow strikes and open handed techniques.
Michael Bank owns Capital Karate on Rosewood Drive in Columbia, where he teaches kids as young as 4 the basics of American Karate. While 80 percent of karate students across the United States are children, Mike has a dedicated group of about 25 men and women who participate in the four classes he offers each week targeted to the non-juvenile set. Many of them found themselves interested in karate because of their kids, while others always wanted to study it as kids themselves but never did and finally are in the position to be able to afford it, financially or time-wise.
Mike, who says he wanted to be a Ninja Turtle as a kid, has been training in karate for 19 years and teaching it to others for the past 14. He served for six years with the 169th Security Forces Squadron at McEntire Joint National Guard Station, has degrees from U.S.C. in business, criminal justice and sport coaching and is a fourth degree black belt in four different martial arts: Shaolin Kempo Karate, a traditional style of karate; Mixed Martial Arts, a hybrid of different forms made popular worldwide by the Ultimate Fighting Championship®; American Sport Karate; and American Freestyle Karate. The latter two are the basis for the type of karate he teaches at his school, which he founded six years ago.
In traditional karate systems, a student can take as many as six to 10 years to obtain a black belt, a symbol of the highest rank one can achieve in the sport. In American Karate, it can take as little as three to four years. Belts are earned in the sport based on a student’s performance in physical testing on the kata, or forms, which are to be flawlessly executed as a series of punches, kicks, steps and turns. These kata are combined in various ways and used in fighting or self-defense scenarios, with or without weapons like sticks or blades. While more traditional karate styles incorporate a spiritual aspect to their teachings and teach a greater number of and more complex katas, American Karate is less formal, teaches fewer katas and focuses more on the physical training. In fact, the types of adults who take Mike’s karate classes aren’t Japanophiles or lovers of samurai movies. “Some are former athletes,” he says, “and some are looking to learn self-defense, get fit and lose some weight, or to enjoy the social aspect of the classes.”
Because karate combines both a strength and a cardiovascular workout, it’s an ideal “bang for the buck” for those with limited time to exercise. It’s safe for most healthy adults, and the required protective gear for sparring or one-on-one combat exercises make it fairly injury-proof. It’s also great for learning self-protection, which is another reason a lot of adults sign up for the classes, and it helps reduce stress as well.
Modern t’ai chi can be traced back to the 17th century and Chen Wangting, who codified the style of t’ai chi that had been passed down in secret within his family for generations. Others outside the family were eventually taught the Chen-style of t’ai chi, and it is the basis for the five main styles that are taught today. T’ai chi gained popularity in 1956 when the Chinese government simplified the practice to 24 movements as a calisthenics exercise, and it has developed a global following by people interested in its purported health benefits.
Despite its slow, deliberate, dance-like movements, t’ai chi is actually a form of self defense. Considered to be quite challenging, it is the study of yielding to incoming attacks rather than attempting to meet them with opposing force, meeting yang with yin. Meditation and breathing are key components and help the practitioner maintain composure and mental clarity.
Columbia Tai Chi Center on Rosewood Drive teaches the authentic and traditional art of t’ai chi, rooted in the Chinese philosophies of Zen and Tao. Wesley Adams, founder of the center, studied at the Peaceful Dragon Chinese Cultural Center in Charlotte, whose own founder studied under Great Grandmaster Ch’ang Dung Sheng, a practitioner of the martial arts since he was a small boy in China. This is not the high intensity cardio t’ai chi you might find at chain fitness centers; rather, it is a complete study in the ages-old art of t’ai chi the way it was meant to be learned.
Mixed Martial Arts
Mixed Martial Arts is a full contact combat sport that looks like a combination of kickboxing and wrestling. A version of the sport began in Brazil in the 1920s and was brought to the United States in 1993 with the founding of the Ultimate Fighting Championship®. The purpose of the first UFC event was to identify the most effective martial art in a fight between competitors using different fighting styles, like boxing, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, wrestling and karate. Subsequent competitors combined the most effective techniques from a variety of disciplines, creating a brand new style of fighting known as Mixed Martial Arts.
Originally established as a no-holds barred competition, the sport was bloody and violent in its early days. It drew the attention of Sen. John McCain, who compared the fights to “human cockfighting” and encouraged 36 states to ban it. After the UFC commission established a set of rules, outlawed certain strikes and kicks, and introduced weight classes and timed rounds, the sport gained recognition as a respectable competition, akin to boxing. In 2009, South Carolina lifted its own ban on the sport, leading to the establishment of gyms across the state catering to teaching the fighting techniques.
In addition to its adult and youth karate classes, Capital Karate teaches a mixed martial arts program. Designed more for fitness than fighting, it combines elements of different martial arts traditions – strikes from karate and muay thai kickboxing, kicks from taekwando, self defense from krav maga, joint locks from aikido and groundwork and grappling from jiu jitsu – and teaches them in a modern way. K.O.R.E. Wellness near Williams-Brice Stadium offers a program called Fit Fighter, a conditioning program that teaches the basics of what a fighter would do to get in shape for an event. “It includes basic punching and kicking,” says owner Elise Matthews, “but it leaves the more technical aspects out so any novice can participate.” K.O.R.E Wellness also offers traditional mixed martial arts instruction in the Ultimate Fighting style that combines jiu jitsu, judo, professional boxing, wrestling, karate and kickboxing, for those looking to actually get into the ring.
Columbia is home to a variety of martial arts programs that appeal to everyone, from those looking for a soothing, meditative activity to those looking for a seriously high-intensity workout. Many offer a free class to first time visitors, so there’s no excuse not to give one a try.
Other well-known martial arts styles and their focuses by country of origin
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu – full contact grappling and ground fighting
Capoeira – combines elements of dance and is known for quick, complex moves like kicking, punching, acrobatics, leg sweeps and knee and elbow strikes
American Kickboxing – a standing combat sport based on punches and kicks
Jeet Kun Do – a hybrid martial arts system, developed by Bruce Lee, focusing on economy of movement and speed and using kicking, punching, trapping and grappling
Kung Fu – a collective term for the martial arts developed in China, primarily unarmed and resembling karate
Krav Maga – an aggressive form of self defense used by Israeli special forces that is derived from street-fighting skills and combines a variety of martial arts techniques into a series of brutal counter-attacks
Aikido – consists of grappling, throws and joint locks and was developed as a means of self defense that also protects the attacker from injury
Judo – a competitive full contact martial art whose objective is to throw, takedown, immobilize or subdue and opponent, or force him to submit with joint locks or choke holds
Jiu-Jitsu – a close combat grappling form of self defense developed by samurai that manipulates an opponent’s force and uses it against him
Ninjutsu – practiced by shinobi, or ninjas, and uses tactics of guerilla warfare and espionage to defeat an opponent
Sumo – a wrestling sport where a competitor attempts to force his opponent outside of a ring or to touch the ground with anything other than the soles of his feet
Taekwando – emphasizes kicks thrown from a mobile stance, as well as blocks, punches, open handed strikes, various takedowns or sweeps, throws and joint locks
Muay Thai – a form of kickboxing that uses punches, kicks, elbows and knee strikes, for eight points of contact