One cold, rainy evening last February, my wife and I went to see the film Million Dollar Baby featuring Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank. For those of you unfamiliar with the storyline, Ms. Swank plays the role of a young woman obsessed with becoming a world champion boxer under the tutelage of Frank, a hardened-trainer portrayed by Eastwood, who is pursued by the ghosts of his past. Regardless of the fact that it is a brilliant piece of cinematic craftsmanship worthy of its Oscar win, I left feeling depressed and hopeful at the same time-depressed due to the film’s tragic ending, and hopeful because of the manner in which the fight sequences were depicted. The movie progresses with Swank learning the ropes from Eastwood and, subsequently, competing in a series of evermore challenging contests. The fight scenes are well choreographed leaving the viewers on the edge of their seats. Moreover, as the stakes rise, the bouts become more vicious with a plethora of devastating punches leaving their gruesome mark. At one point the fighter receives a strike that results in a broken nose with nothing of the blood and gore left to the imagination. In another segment, a hook punch leaves an eye bleeding and swollen shut. Lastly, through a demonstration of extremely poor sportsmanship, thectress is left incapacitated for life.
Oddly enough, I found these vicious scenes hopeful. Why? Too often today, young people, as well as adults, play video games and watch television shows that glorify the martial arts through violent, yet unrealistic, scenes of brutality. I am hard pressed to believe that an adversary, despite the provocation, would quickly lift themselves off the ground following a well-aimed round or spinning-hook-kick. Moreover, the subsequent result of a severe injury is seldom highlighted since it would not play well at the box office. Multiple punches punctuated by endless kicks do not even break the skin. What this does in essence is remove the all-important ingredient of consequence from a highly lethal equation.
In my experience, various occasions come to mind when I ponder the ultimate effect of an unprotected, full contact strike to another human being. For instance, one of my first instructors, in the heat of his fourth-dan examination, was performing a self-defense scenario against four adversaries coming from different directions, defending against a knife, punch, club, and gun attack. Positioned across from the attacker with the knife, I was horrified to hear the sickening crack of bone making contact with bone. Accidentally, the instructor had grazed the head of his student with a spinning-hook-kick, knocking out his contact lenses in the process. We watched as a large, purple contusion erupted from the student’s forehead as he staggered to the ground. Although he could not continue as a participant in the event, he gladly did not sustain any permanent injury.
Likewise, in another incident, I was the culprit exhibiting poor self-control. Genuine feelings of remorse were felt during a sparring match when I unintentionally split the forehead of my partner open with a back-fist. He stood there, blood dripping down into his eyes, deciding whether to strike back or let the situation pass without vengeance. Fortunately for us both, he chose the latter course.
And then, of course, all of us share stories of intentional kicks finding their targets in tournament competition, some resulting in nothing more than a scratch, with others ending in complications that eventually change the way the sport aspect of Tae Kwon Do is administered.
Okay…at this point I can imagine some of our readers saying, If this guy is so critical of the martial arts and the way they are depicted in the media, then perhaps he should find himself a new profession. At the risk of contradicting myself, I am the first to remind my students when an inadvertent strike slips through during a particularly vigorous training session that this ain’t art class! However, I am also the one to teach youngsters and old alike, that pain and suffering due to inflicted injury does not stop with the recipient; it continues to blossom outward like ripples on a pond affecting not only the victim, but the initiator, who now is in possible difficulty with the law, coupled with the loved ones of the injured who must cope with the misfortune. In this metaphor, I am attempting to instill the subsequent penalty of intended injury beyond the physical manifestations by reinforcing the extended cost, something the movies and television seems to have largely ignored.
Of course, all of the above presupposes that we are teaching authentic self-defense techniques and not merely sport in the dojang. Clearly, good sportsmanship would include an ingredient of self-control in tandem with the understanding that our intention in the ring is not to disable or subdue an attacker until the appropriate authorities arrive, but to dominate in a match of combat skill where there is a clear winner and loser. With this in mind, strikes to the face, back, and lower portion of the body are forbidden greatly reducing the risk of severe injury. Likewise, there are rules that limit the use of sweeps, arm locks and throws. These regulations, although indispensable in a sportive atmosphere, result in creating an artificial environment where injury, as it should be, is discouraged thus innocently exacerbating the deficiency of consequence. Not so in effective self-defense training as it relates to traditional Tae Kwon Do: when practicing to incapacitate or subdue the instigator of an unprovoked attack, all rules are abandoned on both sides and the martial artist needs to respect the damage and legal liability the business end of a strike can generate. Nevertheless, the reality is that we are training in Tae Kwon Do and must accept the fact that we live with the potential to injure and be injured. Therefore, when faced with unavoidable danger it is wise to recall an axiom shared by many in the law enforcement and martial arts communities regardless of the consequences: It is better to be judged by twelve then to be carried by six.
Still, it is the lack of the aforementioned consequence in the media connected to a graphic fight scene that I largely take exception with; not that audiences, especially youngsters, necessarily need to see the tragedy beyond the drama for added entertainment. However, there comes a point when um should be balanced by the yang if the general public is to fully appreciate the sustained result of an accurate martial arts technique.