Are you a fighter or a martial artist?

I’ve been thinking about this question for a couple of decades, but I’ve only recently started trying to articulate it. Martial arts have been an integral part of my life for so long that it’s just part of me. And, although I don’t get to train as much as I used to, I have no doubt that I’ll be practicing martial arts, in one form or another, until the day I die. And, honestly, this is what I wish for all of my students. More than championship belts and titles, I wish that they fall in love with martial arts for the arts sake, and for all that will bring them in life. 

Let’s be clear, the martial artist and the fighter aren’t mutually exclusive—at some point you may well be both. However, understanding the distinction between the two can go a long way in your physical training as well as inner growth.

Defining the martial artist 

The term “martial” is normally associated with war and combat. A martial artist is commonly defined as someone who trains in the skills of war or combat.

The term “artist” has a wider range of definitions. The most basic would be that of an artist as “a person who is skilled at a particular task.” However, I find this definition lacking, as it fails to mention  art as an expression of the self.

In this context I would define a martial artist as one who is skilled in the combat arts to the point that their practice is an expression of the self.

The martial arts are usually associated with Asian cultures, but many warrior cultures exist throughout the world. Western boxing and wrestling can certainly meet all of the criteria associated with martial arts training. And many sophisticated fighting arts are found in Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Pacific Islands, to name just a few.

As much as these warrior cultures differ, they tend to share similar codes of conduct. These codes evolved to define the character traits the warriors are expected to possess, and therein lies the paradox of true martial artists. Although they are skilled in the art of combat, they seek peace whenever possible! It’s interesting to note that the Chinese character for “martial” is “wu,” which essentially means to end the violence or to stop the fighting.

The Japanese Budo Code, or Bushido, is the most commonly known warrior code, but many examples exist. Here are just a few:

The Code of Chivalry—followed by the Knights of medieval England

Wu De—the code of ancient Chinese martial arts

The 9 Virtues of Asatru—the moral code of the Vikings

The Gatka Code of the Sikh Warriors of India

The Hwarang Code of ancient Korea

The seven tenets followed by the Samurai:

  1. Justice/Rectitude/Right Decision
  2. Bravery/Courage
  3. Benevolence/Charity
  4. Respect/Courtesy
  5. Honesty
  6. Loyalty/Faithful/Devoted
  7. Filial Piety (Respect for your parents and ancestors)

The nine tenets of the Gatka Code:

  1. A true warrior is humble and gentle.
  2. A true warrior has no arrogance and bears no malice, even to his enemies.
  3. A true warrior recognizes himself as an instrument of the greater spirit.
  4. The warrior will follow and serve the Hukam, the natural order of the universal spirit.
  5. A true warrior seeks justice, freedom and protection of all beings, recognizing the importance of all beings in nature.
  6. A true warrior is ready and willing to stand for justice, combating injustice in word and in deed.
  7. A true warrior is a weapon of the universal spirit. The one who recognizes himself as such, realizes all inner self-identity, merging with the flow of Spirit’s law, attaining the mental and physical powers of a warrior.
  8. A true warrior fights with his mind before he fights with his sword.
  9. A true warrior is a saint and a soldier integrated into one.

The common message to rise above violence is clear: These codes all echo the same basic principles that lead to inner strength, empathy and peace.

Defining the fighter

The most basic definition of a fighter is, obviously, one who fights, much in the same way that a footballer is one who plays football. Not to say that one can’t have a noble cause to fight—most people fight to prove something to themselves or to others. Or they fight in the ring in order to cope with a life that’s beaten them down. Even if they fight for championships, money or fame, they need something deeper than superficial goals to push them through hard training day after day.

However, the true mark of the fighter versus the martial artist is present in the gym every day. Fighters train hard for competitions that are currently scheduled or will be in the future. The best fighters train nonstop between fight camps, constantly developing their craft and skills, and are more closely aligned with martial artists.

No one can deny that boxing greats such as Sugar Ray Robinson or Pernell Whittaker were pure artists in the ring. Fighters like these transcend competition to become martial artists, intrinsically motivated to be the best they can be regardless of external factors. They endlessly strive to hone their art because in that endeavor lies the secret to mastering anything in their lives.

Artists like these work to perfect physical technique while knowing that perfection can never be attained. They consider martial arts a form of self-expression, and they know that competition is essentially the process of confronting one’s own limitations. In the larger sense, they understand that the hardest battles are fought away from the ring and physical training. The real confrontations include the daily battles with negative inner voices and demons such as procrastination, lust, envy, addictions, fears, darkness!

Often our question is only truly answered when the fighter’s competition career comes to an end. Do they continue to train for the love of their art and all it brings them, or do they stop training as they now have no ‘reason’ to train?

So the question remains: are you a fighter or a martial artist?

Kru Giles Khanomtom

Owner/Head Trainer Jax Muay Thai

References:  Shifu Ahles David Whitehead 

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