Discussions on the Future of Martial Arts.
Warren Stout is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt under Renzo Gracie, and the owner and head coach at Stout Training Center / Renzo Gracie Pittsburgh, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I first heard about Warren when I was researching a place to train BJJ in Pittsburgh. Everyone I had asked had something positive to say about Warren and his school. Once I took the plunge and joined his gym, I have found both Warren and his staff to be outstanding coaches and consummate professionals. Warren has a genuine love for teaching which shines through in his classes. His gym possesses a welcoming, family like environment combined with top notch training. If you are interested in BJJ, Muay Thai, or MMA, I can’t think of a better place to go in the city.
I would like to thank Warren for his time and insights.
-First off I would like to thank you for taking the time to participate! For our readers out there that may not be familiar with your work, could you tell us a bit about your martial arts background, or what I like to call your “marital history”?
Thank you Jason. Let’s start with the term martial arts. There is a lot attached to that word now days. Some of it I’m not eager to connect myself to. The commercialization has brought professionalism but also many fakes and exploiters. In addition to the context of the mc dojo and 5 year old black belt, these are negatives to my mind, the term itself causes confusion. The original meaning, war arts, is really a small part of what I see the term encompassing today. I’m not sure my students, let alone the 4 year old doing Tae Kwon Do at the YMCA have much connection to war. On the other hand true martial war arts, even at the micro level, involve so much more than hand-to-hand or ancient weapons contexts. For example most schools or dojos don’t teach clearing a room or planting a bomb on a ship at night.
I have no military or martial background. I came to “martial arts” through sports expressions including wrestling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I was a nationally ranked wrestler at Lehigh University and started Bjj in Brazil with Rolles Gracie right after college in 2002 and continued training under several teachers of the Renzo branch of the Gracie family. I got my black belt from Renzo. I’ve been teaching Jiu Jitsu to students since receiving my purple belt back in 2005. I’ve competed at all levels in Bjj and fought amateur mma. I’ve been in a few altercations all of which probably did not have life threatening implications, where my knowledge served me well. I’ve done a couple of intensive self-defense based courses with Craig Douglas recently.
-Based on your experiences in the martial arts, what major changes have you seen take place since you first began to train, up until now? Have certain things been more “in” than “out”?
The biggest change I’ve seen is the huge surge in popularity of mma and its component arts with adults. Before I say what I’m going to say next let me state that I think real Karate and other striking arts have lots of effective and valuable elements for fighting and can be as good as the ones I practice for fitness and mental training. I have more limited experience with these arts. I personally feel Jiu Jitsu is the absolute best of all activities classified as martial arts for the majority of people. There is my bias disclaimer but I mean what I just stated. Ok? Onward. The late 90s seem like a time when the novelty and popularity of Karate, Kung Fu, and similar styles was on the wane for adults after they became a cultural and Hollywood fad earlier. It seemed like it had become a quaint rite of passage for kids to enroll in one of these arts but adult participation was sagging. At the same time Bjj and Muay Thai weren’t main stream. Boxing was seen as more of a sport for athletes and not something for an average working adult. Now everyone wants to get involved in these on a recreational level. This is a good thing I think, and seems similar to the way wrestling was when I visited Russia in ’96. Adults, non-competitive athletes, would get together for a wrestling workout in the evenings at a clubs I visited in St. Petersburgh then. Another development has been to see sports such as wrestling and boxing as fighting arts. In the past they were seen as a sport not different than volleyball or football. I think the UFC has been the principal driving factor in these changes. The Gracie style Jiu Jitsu school proliferation seems like another contributing factor. Of course this is tied to the UFC as well. .
-We live in very connected, causal world. As such, trend outside of Martial Arts will certainly have in impact on the Martial Arts world. What are some trends out there having in effect on Martial Arts?
Social media has really broadened the reach as well as social currency of participating in these activities. As a business owner it has really changed how I grow. Referrals are most of our business growth. Social media has acted as an easy and accelerated referral system. It seems like the internet has made businesses based around the arts able to scale in a way not possible even 10 years ago.
YouTube has made a lot of knowledge available to teachers and practitioners that they could not have gotten before. This is both a huge benefit and also a problem. As Pavel Knastuline, the guy who introduced the kettlebell to the USA says, limiting choices is sometime important. I agree. A personal example is the following. I often got more out of watching a wrestling VHS until it wore out than watching 50 instructional one time each on YouTube. The focus created a deeper learning, more focus, and more value in the teachers with the knowledge. On the other hand there was not as much distribution of knowledge which inhibited creativity and technical advancement in top performers. One of my teachers, John Danaher, is a huge proponent of watching the right video. The information availability has positives and negatives.
–What are some key uncertainties for the future of Martial Arts?
We are all connected. There is always the temptation to lower standard for profit. If one person does this they benefit at the expense of the rest of the community. It is sort of like counterfeit money. This has already happened in Karate, of course I’m generalizing. It has happened to such a degree that the entire Karate community has been hurt. It seems to be happening with the arts I’m involved in. I’m not sure that the community will find a good balance between short term commercial interests and quality standards. The temptation to easily hand out belts is great for example. The only reason a belt means in a context larger than the student teacher relationship is because of the standards and accomplishments of past practitioners. Giving an unwarranted belt is like counterfeiting a college certificate and getting a job based on the fake certificate. The person may get some respect for it but everyone including past recipients is made less by it. I came from sport where belts are not a tradition so I think I have a little different perspective on them because of this. This is sort of veering off into a side topic though. My point is that standards in general affect the community as a whole.
Another uncertainty applies to sports in general. I think as a society we need to re-evaluate how we see and deal with performance enhancing drugs and technology. I’m not sure how this will play out especially in the short term. Technology has definitely outpaced regulatory ability and even public attitudes. It seems like there is a lot of confusion and hypocrisy out there right now. I don’t see it getting better soon. That’s a long and controversial conversation though.
-In many ways, MMA is proving to be the disruptive innovation to traditional martial arts (somewhat ironic that fighting is disrupting systems built around, well, fighting). What do you see as the next big disruption?
MMA has been cyclical in popularity for at least 200 years in western society. I think the UFC with its monopoly power needs to be very careful about straying too far into “entertainment”. Corruption needs to be checked in all forms or the cycle will go back to the way pro wrestling was in the 1930s. Competition is always the way to keep honesty in fighting arts. Lack of competition brings out the charlatans that can play on egos and lack of knowledge. That is why UFC disrupted fighting arts. The arts had allowed themselves to be corrupted, at least many did, when there was no true competitive arena in which to test efficacy. Corruption and entertainment focus undermine competition.
New research into the effects of head trauma may have a transformative role. Early research seems to suggest head trauma can cause more long term effects than previously thought. Some effects seem to manifest years after trauma happens. Sports that encourage head collisions or hitting may have to adjust. For example, in mma the use of gloves actually increases head trauma as does the the three round system. Gloves and rounds may increase entertainment value for some spectators. The risks will have to be weighed considering new data and theories on the brain.
-If we were to extrapolate the changes and trends mentioned in this interview out 10 years into the future, what does the world of Martial Arts look like?
More participation, more sophisticated business models, and more true professionalism. Less part time school owners. As far as the sports aspect we will see better athletes and better training methods. I think we are really in the beginning of a 10 or 20 year cycle of growth in all aspects of what we call MMA today. Of course some of the uncertainties mentioned above could affect this.
Another possible development may be to see brazilian Jiu jitsu become more of a mainstay in education. We may see high school and college BJJ teams in the next 10 years. This will have positive and negative aspects. It may offer more people the chance to participate but may hurt entrepreneurs and change the character of BJJ. Soviet wrestling was amazing because they had such great support from the state. This was not the only reason but it was a major factor. College wrestling is strong. State sponsored judo in Japan is very strong but also very conservative and seems to be losing ground to newer, less rigidly governed combat sports like MMA and BJJ. Remember that the Gracie family started and were instrumental in sustaining the current revolution in the arts as basically a family entrepreneurial endeavor. This adds something to these art that I think is lost when growth is less organic and bottom up.
-If you were to describe your ideal vision for the future of Martial Arts, what is that vision?
Integrity of standards, professionalism, and more recognition of what “martial” arts offers to different people. I’d like to see a public more educated on what the arts I teach can do for different groups of people. These different groupls include athletes, casual practitioners, military/high risk jobs, and children. In a selfish, probably egotistical way I’d like to see us teachers and athletes earn the same respect society gives to other professionals, doctors, lawyers, college professors, CPAs, Chefs, ect.
Warren Stout can be reached at: