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You, The Auto-Didact by Mark Hatmaker


Now, there’s a title that needs some explaining. Sounds like I’m way off track for Western combat study and, perhaps, being a bit pretentious but, due to a bit of creative bankruptcy I can think of no better way to label what it is we do as Western combat enthusiasts. Eastern arts, for the most part, have a built in hierarchy of adherence to lineage traditions.

In other words, “My Master was taught by this master and he was taught by…” and so on and so forth. Don’t get me wrong, direct lineage can be an excellent index of quality information transference but, it is not a guarantee of excellence. (Recall Joe Frazier’s son Marvis. Marvis’s boxing career seemed to be helped neither by the genetic lineage of his legendary father nor his father’s hands-on coaching.)

Western Perspective

Western combat arts have less of a grounding in strict lineage lines–oh, it’s out there don’t get me wrong, but it is just not as dogmatic in most cases. It can be speculated that this obliviousness to lineage (not disregard) in the United States is rooted in the concept of self-made men/Yankee ingenuity/fierce independence that this nation fostered in its early years.

We can see evidence of this in our early frontier scufflers, wrestlers, and pugilists who learned their trade via the bumps and bruises accumulated in impromptu friendly (and unfriendly) pick-up matches rather than journeys to temples, or pilgrimages to a guru’s hermitage.

They would hone their science by trial and error and by self-study (the less pompous word for auto-didacticism). We have numerous examples of these self-guided scrappers, whether they be John L. Sullivan honing his skills in pick-up matches or Ed “Strangler” Lewis trying out holds he learned from a guide by Evan “Strangler” Lewis.

We can also credit the fact that many of the western arts fell into disfavor (real pro-wrestling going fake) or, fading from common use altogether (as with many sword styles) with breaking up lineage lines. Whatever the reasons for this lack of emphasis on lineage it has not staunched the flow of solid information in the least.

In fact, it may be a boon for the western arts. Where the eastern arts often have a readily accessible and long line of tradition to draw from, this very characteristic may (notice I’m using the word “may”) staunch experimentation. Western arts, with their less clear delineations, lead many practitioners to have to experiment with concepts, ideas, tactics, and technique not handed over on a silver platter. Again, this is not to say that all eastern arts fall outside of this experimental category but, it is far more common to find experimentation in the western method.

Essentially, we are all auto-didacts. We are all self-taught. Whether you learn at the feet of a guru or, from the latest DVD, it is the individual who chooses to take the information and make of it what he can. Auto-didacticism seems to exist to a greater degree in western combat artists as the shallow lineage lines call for exploration.

Final Thoughts

This exploration leads to a form of combat archaeology in which the serious student devours every book, DVD, manual, that he or she can get his or her hands on. The serious student scours any and all resources he can, whether it be studying the reproductions of an old woodcuts, peering at photographs of the wrestling postures cut into the rock tombs at Beni-Hassan, reading the latest boxing manual, or popping in the newest DVD of choice.

The auto-didact is, in this sense, an archaeologist as he attempts to piece together obscure or forgotten ideas and reassemble them and synthesize them in a manner that is pertinent and valuable to the western combat artist of today.

Today’s methods of archaeology and auto-didacticism can, in a sense, be called a direct lineage to that spirit of Yankee individualism that fired many of our wrestling, boxing, western combat forerunners. Today’s archaeologist has media and technology at his disposal to aid his task that were undreamed of a mere 30 years ago, let alone a century ago.

It is this thirst for knowledge that makes the diligent hard-training, DVD-using, cyber-literate auto-didact of today a direct lineal product of men such as Ed “Strangler” Lewis deciphering that Evan Lewis booklet over 100 years ago. It’s a grand tradition. One that we should all be proud to be a part of. I know I am.


You, The Auto-Didact by Mark Hatmaker

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9 thoughts on “You, The Auto-Didact by Mark Hatmaker”

  1. I have studied many different types of fighting or combat from boxing to Martial Arts to Military type combat to Street Fighting. I like to take what works from each one and learn to use them together. The main thing I find especially at my age now is to end it fast and as painful so they don’t forget me as I can.
    I don’t think any society like the Orientals can claim to fame of the Martial arts as many Countries have their own style of the Martial Arts. Once again you can either dance around look fancy and catch a right hook that will put you to the ground a lot of good all that fancy dancing did. Also they didn’t use the open hand like we tried to make it look like in the movies they closed their fists for most strikes just as we do.
    There is all kinds of fighting final line is does it work is it effective if not throw it away forget it because dancing and fighting don’t mix!!

  2. It does annoy me slightly that many people seem to think that the oriental types are the only cultures that had warriors , look to India Africa the native Americans Europe and the world over

  3. I believe that the important thing is to learn skills that you can actually do. Fancy dancing does not work. I further don’t believe in martial arts or in fighting. I believe that when combat is inevitable it is the function of the warrior to kill the enemy, its prey and predator. You can pull back and only break and cripple, fantastic, but every single time you ball your fists there is a possibility that you will kill the opponent. So, go into the conflict with the mindset that if the ‘prey’ survives the next 60 seconds, it is good fortune. I have never had a conflict where the end plan was not that the fool that looked for conflict will be requiring an ambulance. I am also no super-human and twice I required that ambulance and on another two occasions I managed to get myself to the hospital for stitches. Every time I have not been victorious, I have tracked down the men who put me in a world of pain and returned the favour. I know vengeance is petty, it’s the way I was raised. My point is this; go into combat with the intention of ending the enemy, strike first, strike hard and show no mercy. They certainly won’t show you any. European or Asian, the method is irrelevant, what is relevant is victory and skills you can master. Am I wrong?

  4. Really good topic, Mark. An example I can think of involved Japanese v Westerners in Karate competitions. The Japanese had superb traditional technique displaying long stances and punching techniques to match. However, the Westerners, with shorter stances which allowed greater opportunity to block and counter, won the day by displaying more practical and useful technique rather than that handed down by the Japanese through the generations. Only by experimenting can technique be developed to match the combat needs of the present day. Wonderful traditional technique won’t keep you safe on the street. Modified practical approaches almost certainly will.

  5. I got interested in those Medieval European Combat Manuals, like Talhoffer’s Fechtbuch and Codex Wallerstein. They feature throws rather than punches, because it’s not much use punching somebody in a suit of armour. Back then they had Masters teaching Secret Techniques to their disciples, in other words they had Trade Secrets. In the West everything changed as firearms developed. If you could time-travel back to the Wars Of The Roses, you’d see Samurai-type battles, with individual knights walking around in their armour, wielding two-handed swords and using Judo throws. By the English Civil War, they’d realised you were more effective arranging your pikes and muskets in a phalanx like the Ancient Greeks, rather than relying on individual combat as previously. Gunpowder became alot easier to make after they discovered massive deposits of Saltpetre in South America.

  6. This is exactly what Bruce Lee used to advocate. Look at as many sources as possible and take what is useful and make it your own. That is one of the many reasons he didn’t like kata (forms). They were too “ridged” and lacked the creativity necessary to truly “feel” the art.