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Top 5 Martial Arts Documentary Series

There are a myriad of martial arts documentary shows available to watch on television – some of them are great references for information, others less so (but still massively entertaining). References from these shows are thrown around the dojo quite often so I thought I'd post an article about what I believe to be the Top 5.

I'll just clarify that this post is only referring to martial arts series that have hit the mainstream; and I'm not looking at stand-alone documentaries (for example, Myths & Logic of Shaolin Kung Fu). And of course, this list is completely subjective so I'll attempt to briefly explain why I choose the shows I do. Feel free to disagree!

5. Fight ScienceFight Science

Initially planned as a stand-alone documentary, the show spawned three direct spin-offs titled, MMA, Special Ops: Super Soldiers, and Self Defence; as well as a dreadful ‘documentary’ based on the initial premise, dramatically entitled Kung Fu Killers: Top 10 Kung Fu Weapons.

Pros: The Fight Science series has been a mega hit with audiences. It has generated a huge awareness for martial arts and the capabilities of martial artists. It also attempts to tackle 'Martial Arts Myths' and the 'Which style is best?' question using scientific tests making it fairly unique – it was also the first show to use motion capture technology to explain techniques.

Cons: The biggest names on the show (Rickson Gracie, Dan Inosanto) were woefully underutilised. The scientists unfortunately have just about no knowledge regarding the martial arts (and also lack some common sense) in that they expect to be able to make a linear comparison between almost randomly selected practitioners! For example, comparing the punching power of an ex-pro heavyweight boxer with that of a lightweight kung fu forms champion is just silly! The follow-up episodes rectified this to an extent by testing the abilities of the individuals (and it's always amusing to see Bas Rutten flirting with some scientist in awe) though the tests/conclusions remained heavily flawed and unempirical. Actually…I could go on for pages on how poorly the tests were conducted – either way, it's an entertaining show with some interesting results…just watch it realising that the scientists don't really know what they're testing!

4. Human Weapon

Human WeaponAired on the History Channel, this was the revival of the martial arts travelogue. It lasted one season and involved the hosts travelling to a country to study its native martial art (in the form of a couple of basic techniques from different instructors) culminating in a 'fight' against a champion of the represented style.

Pros: Introduced many viewers to some lesser known martial arts; the show uses motion capture technology to help explain the major techniques taught to the hosts in each episode. Furthermore, Justin Chambers is a likeable host who, as an MMA representative, adds a sense of modernity to this otherwise old-school (anyone spot the clever BJJ reference?) format.

Cons: Bill Duff has absolutely no clue what he's talking about and often misquotes and misrepresents the episode's style – he also comes off as a bit of an ass. Furthermore, most of the final fights are intentionally toned down so as not to embarrass either the hosts or their opponents, which ends up misrepresenting the abilities of fighters on both parties (I mean, the Duffster only gets knocked out by the semi-contact TKD fighter? He even makes it sound like he's done well cause he's scrapped his knuckles in a Kyokushin match – even though that’s just a sign that his hands are poorly conditioned!).

(Oh, and the show has a lot of conservative undertones that don't really affect its quality but do bug me a little…)

3. Fight Quest Fight Quest

Though it was filmed before Human Weapon, Fight Quest began airing on the Discovery Channel after Human Weapon had started on the History Channel. Similar in format to the aforementioned show except that the hosts (Jimmy Smith, veteran MMA fighter; Doug Anderson, US army veteran and rookie MMA fighter) are split up for five days while they train under two separate masters.

Pros: Both hosts are more open-minded and their willingness to learn, as well as to admit to their own shortcomings, is refreshingly clear to see. Spending five days learning from a single teacher allows the viewer to have a better understanding of the respective art and its training.

(…Watch the Krav Maga episode to see some seriously damaged people – poor Doug!)

Cons: The show intentionally chooses to showcase extreme forms of training and tends to ignore showing more conventional training methods – this tends to make styles seem somewhat inaccessible; it also reinforces stereotypes of mysticism or that one style is more 'hardcore' than another.

2. Mind, Body & Kickass MovesMind Body & Kickass Moves

This 10 episode series was initially broadcast on BBC Three and followed up by the Kickass Miracles series as well as the one-off Kickass in a Crisis. The show follows host, martial artist Chris Crudelli, around the Far East as he explores different martial arts (primarily, Chinese arts) – the main showcases are interspersed with Crudelli demonstrating martial arts-based tricks/magic to the UK public.Chris Crudelli

Pros: As the show aims to only introduce different arts, it is able to follow a wide range of masters and showcase their different methods of training. Furthermore, while Crudelli is wide open to the notion of chi, he is does place some critical comments in regards to  some of the 'chi masters' (more so in Kickass Miracles). Lastly – there is actually a lot of good accurate information presented in a fairly true-to-life form.

Cons: The opening of the show states Crudelli is a 'master of combat and esoteric energies' – this is a sign of things to come! The show spends a great deal of time reminding us that Crudelli is a martial arts master (debatable since the point of the show is him visiting martial arts masters…); furthermore, the interspersed sequences make Crudelli look more like an arrogant, attention-hungry street magician than a humble martial arts master (a quick Wikipedia search will let you know that Crudelli was once an aspiring theatre artist …and it shows!).

1. Deadly ArtsDeadly Arts

This National Geographic show follows Aikido-ka Josette Normandeau around the world as she experiences what were some lesser known martial arts at the time (A second version of the show was filmed and hosted by Bollywood action star Akshay Kumar - who was a martial arts teacher before becoming an actor – Classic). Each episode focuses on one martial art in its home country with the host visiting different masters and then undertaking some form of final 'challenge' (not necessarily a fight). Akshay Kumar

Pros: The show presents an honest take on every martial arts style examined (including child boxing in Thailand) – it does not look to flaunt the extreme nor mock what is not understood. It allows the viewer to objectively witness martial arts training and form their own opinions. Furthermore, the show pioneered later efforts such as Human Weapon and Fight Science. Lastly, not all the 'challenges' are fights (though some are) – this is a much truer representation of martial arts in my opinion.

Cons: Well, nothing's perfect. As well-meaning as she is, Josette Normandeau is unfortunately who lets the show down to some degree. Though I’m sure she is knowledgeable with 25 years of training behind her, she is also past her physical prime and thus unable to keep up Josette Normandeauwith a lot of the training, which in turn leads to a lot of whining followed by a predictable struggle to train for her upcoming challenge (which she inevitably passes – cue inspirational background music).

In truth, every resource has its strengths and weaknesses. Martial arts TV documentaries present some wonderful information but, be wary that most shows are from the perspective of an outsider looking in (potential victims of cultural relativism and ethnocentrism for you anthropology buffs) – don't use one show as the foundation of your knowledge or opinions. Read books instead (…yes, I said it!).

By the way…If anyone knows where I can watch the Deadly Arts with Akshay Kumar series, please do let me know!

 
 
 
 

Post a Comment 4 comments:

JC said...

I've seen the programme Fight Science and found it intriguing, but also agree with you there are many flaws to their experiments. The main one being how are these "professionals" selected? People are unique and their different characteristics will have a big impact on the results.

I see that you train in Karate and BJJ, which one do you prefer? I've never really got into ground fighting but do understand it is an important part of being a martial artist. (Sorry last question!!) In my opinion Karate has a rigid structure to it especially compared to BJJ, how did you find the learning experience?

March 7, 2009 at 2:21 PM

Riz said...

Hi mate, thanks for passing by my blog! You're exactly right - the selection of the participants was ridiculous...they used an Olympic TKD champion (who looked like he double a pro-wrestler!) and compared his results to some karate guy they picked out of the hood! lol

Well-I've grown up learning Karate and only been doing BJJ for about 6 months now so I still feel more at ease with karate (provided it's proper training!). I do enjoy BJJ a lot but it gets frustrating once in a while since most karate grappling techniques are illegal in BJJ training.

To be honest, I find BJJ training very unorganised compared to karate! But I like that there's rolling (sparring) every BJJ session. I don't find my karate training to be particularly rigid but I have been to some classes/seminars where the learning felt far too structured and much too disciplined - mind you, I think I rigid structure is probably the most beneficial for beginning-intermediate students. What are your thoughts?

March 7, 2009 at 11:55 PM

Web Master said...

I think fight quest is a great series. If you are interested watch it here. http://bestonlinedocumentaries.com/fight-quest-kung-fu/
What is the best episode for you ? I enjoyed the kung fu one mostly.

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