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7 Greatest Martial Arts Urban Legends

Urban legends, or myths, are the modern-day equivalent of folklore. They are based upon misconception, misinformation and false beliefs and are to be found in practically any topic you can name.

The world of martial arts is not immune to urban legends; in fact, we have some of the best ones around. From flying Buddhist monks to having to kill someone to get your Black Belt, urban legends abound in the arts. Here is a collection of martial art urban legends you may or may not have heard about and the reality behind them.

1. A Black Belt Means You're A Master of Martial Arts

Not quite. Most schools see the 1st-degree black belt as a starting point, much like a high-school graduate who is now ready to begin their REAL education in college. The Shodan simply means that you're ready to start a serious study of your art and that you've pretty much mastered nothing but perhaps how to properly tie your belt.

2. You Have To Register Your Hands As Deadly Weapons

I've heard this one many times - that because I'm a trained martial artist I have to register my hands as deadly weapons with the local police department. OK, first off, if I were to walk into ANY police station in the country and ask for the form to register my hands as deadly weapons I'd have to wait at least half an hour before the laughter died down.

Strangely enough, there IS an element of truth in this legend, though. If you get into a fight and do some serious damage to your opponent, above and beyond what is considered self-defense, you might find yourself being held accountable at a much higher level than usual because of your training. The authorities buy into the associated legend that martial artists all have exquisite control; we should have been able to pull our punches enough to minimize the damage we did. For example, in the case of Matter of the Welfare of DSF, 416 N.W.2d 772 (Minn. App. 1988), the Minnesota Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant, who had “substantial experience in karate,” was aware enough of the potential of his blows to deliberately break the plaintiff’s jaw.

The fact that we aren't ALL masters of fine-motor skills somehow eludes them to this day.

3. Martial Arts Are All Ancient

The common perception is that martial arts all hail from thousands of years ago. Get into a discussion with any “civilian” and they'll regale you with tales of how their great-uncle Egbert studied the ancient art of Mummy-Fu, all the while keeping a straight face.

But the cold, harsh reality is that while there ARE a few arts that can trace their lineage back thousands of years - the Indian art of Varmannie (5,000 years), Kung-Fu (3,000 years) and Jujitsu (1,000 years) - most arts practiced today are less than 100 years old. Judo was founded in 1882, Aikido in 1935, Taekwondo in 1955.

Many martial arts were founded last week.

4. Bruce Lee Was Assassinated by Shaolin Monks For Teaching Their Secrets

Wow. Really? Yes - after Lee's death in 1973 from an allergic reaction to painkillers the conspiracy floodgates opened wide, letting free a tsunami of theories about Bruce being killed by Shaolin monks because he dared to teach their secrets; Bruce was killed by ninjas; he died in a to-the-death match that was held on the movie studio grounds; there's even a theory that he died from a “death touch”.

Conspiracy theories abound when an icon dies at such a young age. Bruce Lee's exceptional level of training and fitness led some to insist that foul play must have been a factor in his death. While these theories sell books and add an air of mystique to Bruce Lee's legend, the facts (and rational thought) simply don't support such notions.

5. You Should Never Wash Your Belt

This one has been around even longer than me. “You should never wash your belt” the story goes, “it is disrespectful, and it should collect dirt and grime as a badge of honor”.

If I went with THAT theory I could make a homeless guy smell sweet in comparison. What's really interesting is that this legend ties into another legend concerning belts, namely that belt colors were derived from hard work - as the years went on and you fell, sweated and bled for your art the belt would grow progressively darker, ending in the ultimate Black Belt. So by washing your belt you would be literally and figuratively washing away all of your experience.

The simple truth is that the concept of belt colors was invented by the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano, around the turn of the century as a means of motivating students and keeping track of their progress levels.

6. You Have To Kill Someone To Get A Black Belt

The first time I heard this legend I was flabbergasted - kill a guy? For a belt?!? Who the heck came up with THAT idea?

I had a hard time researching this legend, but I know it's out there because not only have I heard it but I've had it mentioned to me several times by fellow instructors who heard it also. I suspect that the legend started soon after the arts made their first appearance on American shores back in the '40's, but that's an unverified hypothesis - I'd appreciate if anyone with solid evidence could help me out here.

7. Dim Mak Death Touch

This may well be one of the most-enduring legends in all of martial arts. Dim Mak is the art of striking points and energy meridians on the body to cause immense injury and even death, often hours after the strike is made. Stemming in large part from the Wuxia genre of Chinese martial arts fiction and reinforced by such “Masters” as Counte Dante, Dim Mak has held a revered place in the world of martial art urban legends.

I've had more than a few people ask me if I could perform a death touch, probably because they figured that a martial artist who also practices Chinese medicine must be a double threat and would certainly know how to kill a man with just a light tap to the body. Heck, I could take one ride on the Seventh Avenue IRT and reduce the population of New York City by at least 1%!

And yet …

There ARE certain points on the body that are naturally vulnerable to a strike, whether administered by a hand, a weapon or an acupuncture needle. Stimulating these points can result in minor symptoms such as dizziness, nausea and localized pain, but struck with enough force they can also result in death. The trick of course is getting your opponent to stand in one place long enough so that you can properly aim and deliver said strike.

Apologies to fan's of Bill's Five Finger Palm Exploding Heart Technique but it just doesn't exist.

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