It’s one of the biggest questions facing any 21st Century martial arts student: should I pursue the traditional pathway or the modern one?
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the obvious—this is an artificial division. Most “modern” styles have long and complicated histories dictating how their practices evolved to their current forms.
Western boxing and wrestling are theorized to date back to prehistoric times, and were Olympic sports in ancient Greece. Jujutsu—which is perceived to be modern in its popular Brazilian version—is derived from the unarmed fighting techniques of the Japanese samurai. Muay Thai developed from an older system known as Muay Boran, which dates back to the 16th Century. MMA has a comparatively short history, but, as the first “M” would suggest, it is a combination of strategies, methods, and techniques derived from these and other martial arts.
So perhaps what best distinguishes traditional from modern martial arts is rather the relationship that they have with their pasts. Traditional martial arts look to the past as a way of validating their methods, whereas modern martial arts largely ignore their histories and simply look for functional validity in the 21st Century context.
In the realm of Internet forums, podcasts, and YouTube comments, these two camps are frequently at odds with each other. The modernists look down on traditional practices as being ineffective, hokey, and impotent—which is often a valid criticism. The traditionalists look down on modern practices as being brutish, unrefined, and classless—which is often a valid criticism as well.
So what are the differences in priority between each—and how do your priorities align with them?
Primarily, modern martial arts have two purposes: combat sports and self-defense. These are not mutually exclusive, but they are distinct pursuits. Certain strategies, such as pulling guard, might be valid for submission grappling, but are not recommended for a street fight.
Traditional martial arts have a wider variety of possible outcomes. The two mentioned above are certainly possible, though few traditional martial artists have successfully crossed over into the highest echelons of combat sports outside of their own style and rules, which suggests obvious limitations to those methods. Applying traditional martial arts to self-defense is also possible, but because of the historical baggage of “tradition,” it is often done poorly.
Instead, most traditional martial arts seek historical validity—what worked or what would have worked in the context of the society and era when these techniques developed, which brings me to the next point.
The techniques and strategies of traditional martial arts largely assume an assailant is completely untrained—which was probably a good guess given the exclusivity of martial arts in the past. As most experienced practitioners know from working with raw beginners, the wildness of an untrained person presents its own unique challenges, but generally techniques that are low percentage—or might have seemed impossible—can actually be pulled off with relative ease against a complete novice.
Modern martial arts typically assume that the opponent knows what they’re doing. Especially for combat sports, the opponent is going to be well-versed in the same techniques—as well as equal weight, approximate strength, and gender. Going into a cage fight from the viewpoint that the opponent has never seen and can’t defend any of the techniques that you are going to try would be a very dangerous assumption.
Given the popularity of martial arts in the 21st Century, assuming an opponent has some fighting skill and knowledge is a more valid premise today. Even a completely untrained MMA fan will at least be familiar with some of the basic submissions and positions on the ground, even if they suck at executing them correctly. Compared with the average 17th Century peasant, even today’s casual fans are experts.
Traditional martial arts come with a lot of side dishes. Sure, they can contain some pertinent skills—but there’s also the etiquette, terminology, history, and cultural elements that go along with the actual training. Beginners seem to spend as much time learning how to tie their belt and how to address their instructors as they do learning self-defense. There also tends to be more focus on development of character and ethics, particularly for children.
In Budo, the Dojo is very much a microcosm of Japanese culture. The strict hierarchies, cultural rituals, and unwritten rules of etiquette are meant to reinforce the social norms of the epoch when Budo was formally standardized—namely 20th Century, pre-WWII Japan. In many ways, modern Budo practice is a time capsule, reflecting the priorities and ethos of that civilization rather than today’s.
Though some martial arts that I’ve deemed “modern” contain traces of tradition (the Gi in BJJ, for example), these are usually at an absolute minimum. There is not a lot of bowing or ritual—just enough to acknowledge the history of the practice without weighing it down. Modern martial arts are far more comfortable disregarding aspects of the practices handed down from previous generations if they do not fit the outcomes of contemporary training, or if they are proven ineffective.
One of the biggest differences between the average traditional martial arts Dojo and modern martial arts gym is the type of people that will be attracted to each environment.
In the 1970s and 1980s, traditional martial arts were held in higher prestige in mainstream culture. Part of that appeal was simply that the lustre hadn’t worn off yet. Despite some incongruous or illogical practices, there was also a heavy emphasis on the sports side, which brings out a more competitive attitude in practitioners, particularly in sparring. As such, testosterone-fueled alpha athletes were more inclined to join traditional martial arts then—in large part because that would have been all that was available.
In the 1990s (when I started training), traditional martial arts became perceived differently—more as a nerdy pursuit for weaklings who wanted to get tough, but weren’t. It’s no coincidence that this was the era when many of the modern martial arts began to make their way into mainstream culture, leading to an increased awareness of these methods and greater prestige.
Today, this division has only continued to widen. The atmosphere in most modern martial arts gyms is much more competitive and testosterone-driven—which makes sense, given the goals promoted within those practices. The people attracted to that environment tend to be gifted athletes who make fitness a priority.
The BJJ club I train with used to be located within a gym, and I first noticed this trend when I ran into my teammates while working out. I’ve always made physical conditioning a significant aspect of my training, but when I saw my BJJ teammates lifting, I had an epiphany that the spectrum of strength was a lot broader than I might have assumed, and I was not on the same side of it.
Conversely, these days traditional martial arts seem to draw people who are not as athletically gifted and not as fit. Of course, through training this demographic will increase their athleticism and fitness level, which is great for overall health and longevity. However, the historical and traditional elements embedded within training appeals more towards people who are interested in the anthropological and academic elements—in other words, nerds like me.
This is not meant as a slight—it’s just my genuine observation. Not everyone is wired the same way, and I think finding the right martial art for the right person is critical. Every individual brings not just their bodies, but their own biases, goals, fears, and egos with them into training. Everyone with the interest to do so can find a practice that is challenging and rewarding if they consider all of these factors in selecting the right martial art, the right school, and the right instructor.
As I mentioned, the division between traditional and modern martial arts is contrived; the reality is that traditional martial arts have evolved and adapted from how they were practiced a century ago, and modern martial arts wouldn’t exist without the insights and innovations of previous generations. However, the rivalry between these two factions is likely to grow, given the increase of advertising propaganda that promotes certain styles or martial arts as “better” than others.
I think the more important question is, “Better at what?” Certainly, if you train for the purpose of combat sports, the best approach would be to develop some contemporary striking skills (boxing and/or Muay Thai) and grappling skills (wrestling and/or BJJ). If your primary goal is defending yourself, I wouldn’t bother with systems that are weighed down by their historical precedents. However, if your goal is to study the weaponry that the samurai employed in the Edo period, your best bet would be to study some Kendo or Kyudo.
There should be room for both in the 21st Century, since these different pursuits attract different audiences. It would also be nice if these two camps learned to look at one another with respect rather than antagonism—while acknowledging the very real differences in training outcomes, recognizing that the core of these practices is the effort to pursue technical perfection, and in so doing, hoping to get closer, inch by inch, to the impossible ideal.
 “The Olympic Games.” History. <https://www.history.com/topics/sports/olympic-games> 2018.
 “History of Muay Thai: from Muay Boran to modern Thai Boxing.” <http://www.effectivemuaythai.com/history-of-muay-thai.html> 2020.
 McCarthy, Patrick. The Bible of Karate: Bubishi. Tuttle Publishing, 1995. Pg. 52-55.
 McCarthy, Patrick. Classical Kata of Okinawan Karate. Ohara Publications, 1987. Pg. 20.
Nakaya, Takao. Karatedo History and Philosophy. JSS Publishing Company, 2007. Pg. 9.
Lowry, Dave. The Essence of Budo. Shambhala Publications. 2010. Pg. 172.