Most traditional martial artists have in the back their minds the question of combat applicability. In simple terms, "will it work in the street?" It is good question. We spend hours, weeks, and years perfecting physical skills with the intent of possibly using those skills in an actual confrontation. As a clarification, let us concentrate on the weaponless arts, e.g. karate, judo, aikido, hapkido and the empty-hand forms of gung-fu.
Fighting contests have been the "gold standard" for testing martial arts applicability for many years. Several arts, such as Kyokushin Karate founded my Mas Oyama Sensei are predicated on pitting one fighter against another in an ultimate test of physical skill and mental tenacity. Of course, the modern standard is Mixed Martial Arts or MMA. These gladiator-esque competitions enthrall audiences all over the world. Competitors come from many different backgrounds, fusing striking and grappling arts into a formidable, individualized system. Some would argue, the ultimate form of "self-expression" in combat. Watching a match between two seasoned fighters, the average person generally concludes that this is what martial arts training is all about.
I would disagree. This is what competition is all about. When I compete with some one, I have an opponent. If I am forced to fight some one, I have an adversary. One practice is for fun, fitness and a sense of accomplishment. The other, if it is taken seriously, is about life and death.
While defining budo is a difficult task and a subject for another discussion, we can safely categorize it as a study of military principles and practices with an emphasis on personal development. In other words, the study and practice of war. The study of war involves strategy and tactics whose ultimate purpose is to overcome aggression and maintain order; to avoid or stop aggression as quickly as possible. Thus, while the strategy may be to avoid conflict, e.g. staying clear of places where there is sure to be confrontation, the tactics might be something as simple walking away from a fight...or a front thrust kick to the pelvis when walking away is not an option.
In terms of close-quarter combat, the strategy of traditional martial arts is to never place one's self in a position equal to that of the opponent. In a broad sense, this is why nations strive to have superior air power, nuclear weapons, technology, etc. So, warriors train to have superiority against any foe. As warrior, I would not want to meet another warrior on the battlefield for a single engagement just to see who wins. That would be poor strategy and a waste of limited resources. I would much rather catch that warrior off guard and unaware, thus seizing the opportunity to end a conflict before it starts. Seeking and purposely engaging in conflict as a contest of physical ability places me in a poor tactical position and allows for a greater chance of failure. In war, failure means death. Choosing to engage in conflict such as an bar or street brawl, for example, places me on the same level as the average thug and demonstrates a deficit in my mental and spiritual development. Whenever I "square off" with some one, I have in fact chosen to engage with that person. Not the best strategy.
My tactics then, must come from hours of rigorous and unrelenting training with and without a partner. This type of practice conditions my mind and body to act and react to conflict in a smooth and economical fashion without hesitation. It would not make sense for me to spend what little time I have each day practicing sparring tactics if my ultimate aim is to end conflict quickly and efficiently. It's really that simple; you will fight the way you train. If you train for the ring, that is the way you will fight. If you spend your time training on specific combat tactics and condition your body for that type of engagement, that is the way you will fight. Two completely different training mechanisms with two completely different goals.
The goal of competition is to win. By defeating my opponent I overcome my fears and doubts about my abilities. With every successful bout, I gain confidence and build my ego. If I fail, it pushes me to try harder. Competition teaches me to keep striving for life goals. It's not bad thing; it's just not budo.
The purpose of budo is to mitigate the ego, not enhance it. Training forces me to come to grips with all of my faults (mental, physical and spiritual) and overcome them through repetition. This slow and arduous process eventually changes my outlook, the way I engage with people and ultimately, how I handle conflict. A person who has practiced budo for any length of time eventually realizes that there is no quick gratification, no trophy or title that truly helps him on the path to self perfection.
I am not saying that sport is a bad thing. I am suggesting that when we mix budo with sport we tend to lose important aspects of each. This is why traditional martial arts typically do not fair well in an MMA ring and why competitive martial arts look nothing like their original forms. One is sport, one is not. The strategy and tactics are different as are the purposes for each. Pitting one against the other does not prove anything, so let's stop worrying about it. You do your thing and I'll do mine and we can all get along.