But true fans know that beyond the blood, the trash talk (which can at times be elevated to a comedic form of art in itself), and the whirlwind of unforgiving violence and brutality, there’s another aspect of martial arts that shines a whole different light on fighters, a light under which their similarities with superheroes pop, and the trajectories of their long, bumpy roads curve like the wide, heroic story arches we witness on the big screen.
…the intersections of this craft and other art forms have long made for spectacular entertainment and cultural practices.
What makes fighters’ stories so special is that they involve the heightened stakes of a glorious fictional tale, yet they’re written with real blood and seen through with real sacrifices, inside and outside the battlefield. In other words, a fighter’s story is “as real as it gets,” as UFC’s slogan resoundingly proclaims, yet as epic as they come.
And aren’t stories the foundation of all great art, and their characters what makes us relate to it?
The stories surrounding martial arts capture universal ideas in their most unadulterated, yet dramatic form, ideas that transcend art, culture, spirituality, and every walk of life. At the same time, the intersections of this craft and other art forms have long made for spectacular entertainment and cultural practices.
Martial Arts as Dance
At its most graceful, combat can be reminiscent of a brutal dance in which the two participants play off of each other’s energies. It’s no wonder that martial arts and dance forms have crossed paths on a number of occasions.
Capoeira, a Brazilian martial art, is perhaps the most famous and intricately mixed blend of the arts of fighting and dancing. It was brought to Brazil by African slaves and carried the promise of freedom, both as a means to fight for physical liberation and as a synthesized source of cultural heritage and identity. Naturally, capoeira was prohibited by the authorities, but the martial art lived on under the disguise of a dance.
Over time, capoeira fought its way into the mainstream and morphed into a cultural practice and a visual show, with smoother edges and a focus on its technical aspects and expressive, dance-like side. Now, it’s somewhat reminiscent of the visual representation of a double tornado.
Once capoeira spread to North America, it was perhaps destined to find the closest thing to an analogue it has, a dance that’s also imbued with the spirit of rebellion and whose natural habitat is the street – break dancing. Capoeira’s mark on it is clearly visible in the distinctive sweeps and swings that define this style.
…it was perhaps destined to find the closest thing to an analogue it has, a dance that’s also imbued with the spirit of rebellion…
Kung Fu and Chinese Dance
When you look at Kung Fu and Chinese dance, the similarities are not only immediately evident, but the two seem as if they diverged from the very same practice into two different disciplines. The main difference between them is the motif behind the movement, with Kung Fu naturally placing an emphasis on effectiveness while the focus of Chinese dance is grace.
In Kung Fu visual spectacles and performances, the line between the two disciplines becomes all-the-more blurred, bringing forward the artistic and spiritual element of martial arts. Accompanied by ethereal music and paced to highlight the beauty of movement and the inner balance and peace it stems from – such shows really capture the mystic, ancient energy that flows though martial arts and makes them such a unique form of expression.
Kata is almost like a slowed-down dance and it’s an inseparable part of practicing karate.
Similar to Kung Fu visual shows, it is a form of respite from the physical and confrontational aspects of martial arts, a spiritual practice that’s replete with quiet grace and channels inward concentration and balance.
Martial Arts Choreography in Films
Let’s not forget about a very prominent intersection of martial arts and a more traditional art form – films.
While some types of action movies are dismissed as a lower-class form of entertainment, others are true celebrations of the art of combat. The thought that goes into the fight choreographies often rivals the most elaborate dance productions.
Not only that, but a film doesn’t even have to be a full-blown action to feature martial arts, especially when they serve as the release of all the pent-up tension.
Just remember the fight scene between Achilles and Hector in Troy. The movie, despite having a beautifully executed script, filled with timeless messages, would have never delivered the same impact without it. It is against the vivid backdrop of war and the looming battle between the two lead characters that the story’s themes really pop.
The same goes for the fight scene in Us, and while it was definitely much more unconventional and artsy, the idea behind it is the same – an exclamation point, a culmination of all the build-up without which everything else would have been left hanging in the air or even fallen flat. To accentuate its importance to the storyline, the fight was imbued with palpable symbolism and beautifully interlaced with eerie visuals of dance moves and montages that had great significance to the narrative. This fight scene and its spectacular execution could make for a visual show on its own.
And what about Crouching Tigger, Hidden Dragon? The classic, with its spectacular fight choreography, is a true celebration of the beauty of martial arts as an art and craft, as well as the spirituality and inner power that stream from every move and the practice as a whole.
The classic, with its spectacular fight choreography, is a true celebration of the beauty of martial arts as an art and craft…
Alita: Battle Angel – Martial Arts as a Form of Self-Knowledge
Martial arts played a big role in Alita: Battle Angel, but they weren’t just a source of excitement for the viewers, but a means of self-knowledge for Alita, the trigger for her suppressed memories. The scene in which she lets her instincts take over and manifest themselves into fluid fight moves that just pour out from her right in front of the mirror is a beautiful visual testament to what martial arts is to her – identity, an inherent calling that’s encoded in her very DNA.
The film is a celebration of the fighting spirit which is reminiscent to the artistic one in the way it courses through a person like a relentless force of nature that just demands to be unleashed in one form or another. And the form it takes is often the heart of the story, as it is in Alita, and as it is in some films about artists and their paths. What you do with the talent you have and the platform it provides – this is the cultural aspect that transcends all forms of art, martial or not.
Martial Arts in Real Life: Fighters’ Stories and Creative Fight Promos
At their core, sports serve as a metaphor for life, boiled down to a unique set of rules, challenges, and skills. And in no sport is that metaphor more vivid than it is in martial arts.
It’s no wonder some historic fights and fighters’ journeys have taken a life of their own which inspires others to fight through the adversity in theirs; real-life stories that provide heroic lenses through which people can look at their own battles and try to come out on top. Isn’t that precisely what art is ultimately meant to do – convey a greater meaning which guides us, a divine beauty we can look for in our existence and possibly even replicate?
With the development of the sports of martial arts, certain fight promotions have done a spectacular job of bringing precisely this aspect of fighting to life.
UFC Countdown, for example, is a series of powerful, visually captivating documentaries which takes us along the long road that fighters have to go through before making it to the actual walk to the fighting arena in which they are all alone. Such documentaries are electrifying collisions of masterful, character-driven storytelling and cinematography that inspire pure awe and nervous anticipation for the looming fights.
Martial arts is about a lot more than violence, in fact, the violence merely represents the stakes which validate everything that stands behind them – historical and cultural roots; humility, inner power, self-knowledge, and development; ballet-like movement and grace; endless honing of the beloved craft, but most of all, some of the most human stories of tension and resolve, thrill and agony, victory and defeat, and the ways to face it all – practically everything that makes art and its creators great.