The following is the sum total of my knowledge about the Martial Arts: Will Smith’s son is the new Karate Kid, and I loved him in The Pursuit of Happyness. That’s it, plus something in the back of my brain about grasshoppers snatching pebbles from hands. In other words, I’m a bit of a novice. If they gave out belts for martial arts watching, mine would be translucent.
But ignorance of the rules never stopped me from trying to bluff my way through to an informed opinion. A strategy which usually works – except in the case of field hockey. But I’m working on that with the help of Vancouver’s favorite field hockey team, The Dirty Birds.
In this case though, I knew that my visit to the Long Beach International Martial Arts Festival would prove to be unfathomable, so I just rolled with it. My goal was to figure out just one rule. If I added to my sports education by one single increment, I’d call it a win.
I got off to a rough start with the venue though. This was the first sports event I’ve ever attended that took part in a convention center. My knee-jerk reaction is to associate that kind of building with the soul-crushing days I spent working in Corporate America, so I struggled wrapping my brain around anyone doing something remotely enjoyable at a convention center.
To further solidify that uneasy mental link with basically any office setting in America, I arrived shortly after 9:30 and found people mostly milling around aimlessly – even though the competition was supposed to have started at 9:00. The only thing missing was a water cooler to lean on.
I eventually came around a corner and stumbled upon a long line of competitors standing more or less at attention, facing across a series of mats to what was apparently a line-up of officials and judges. Everyone waited silently and patiently for quite a bit of time in that fashion.
Then all of a sudden, without any announcement that I could ascertain, a short ceremony began that involved a greeting of sorts – after which all parties dispersed to various areas of the hall to mill around even more. A chillingly accurate reenactment of the standard weekly staff meeting. I could feel the entire creative side of my brain morphing into an Interoffice Memo.
Soon thereafter, people started to scream bloody murder and flash weapons around. I figured that either annual performance reviews were underway, or the martial arts competition had begun. Thankfully it was the latter.
For some unknown reason I expected the entire festival’s competition to consist of one-on-one clashes. In fact though, most of what I saw consisted of solo “routines”, for lack of a better term. Actually, the overall categories of the various competitions broke down into Forms, Weapons and Sparring, with only the latter consisting of what I had anticipated. I was thinking boxing or UFC and got something closer to gymnastics – much of which was done with sticks, swords, knives or nunchucks.
Another departure from expectations was the age range of the competitors. In addition to adults in their prime, there were kids of all ages – the youngest of which seemed barely out of Pull-Ups. There’s something a bit disconcerting about a weapons demonstration in which the weapon is as big as the competitor, but once I got past that I was amazed at the dexterity and body control of people that young.
Across all age ranges, personalities were so transformed into warrior mode during the performance of routines it was a bit odd to see people revert to being…well, people once they were done. Given the ferocity displayed and the aura of menace communicated, I expected everyone to be some combination of mystical, inscrutable and just plain pissed off even outside of the ring. Instead they were all smiles and fist-bumps as soon as they left the mat. And in no other sport that I’ve witnessed have I seen such respect among competitors.
Maybe the genial out-of-ring nature of the competitors had something to do with the scoring system, because for many of the disciplines it was a self-esteem guru’s dream. Every score consists of three numbers, separated from each other by a decimal – with the first two always being “9”. So an average score is 9.9.5, for example. That’s like taking a test and starting with a minimum score of 99%. Nobody ever appears to actually score badly. I felt better about myself just watching!
In the three plus hours that I spent there, I was able to sample from a full menu of different disciplines and forms – it was the perfect Spectator Grazing event. I found myself repeatedly drawn back to the Kenpo Karate area of the hall though.
Done well, Kenpo involves a dizzying display of quick moves executed in rapid-fire succession. While viewing this competition, I got to talking with a gentleman who was very familiar with Kenpo, and he made it a point to let me know that, while these moves were intended to overwhelm an opponent, the discipline is rooted almost exclusively in self-defense. In other words, I was completely safe as long as I didn’t try to steal anyone’s wallet.
This I had not known previously. Therefore, upon learning this from my new-found friend I had fulfilled my goal of expanding my knowledge of martial arts by one increment. I gave myself a 9.9.8 and headed for the door.