Martial Arts Philosophy
I practice martial arts. Not very well, and I'm not very athletic, but I've studied enough of them to form some pretty solid opinions about the topic. I currently study both a traditional martial art (a very hard style of aikido) and I also partake in MMA training. I train about 7 times a week for about 10-12 hours. I've written this up just so I can point people to it whenever I get in some discussion on the topic.
Practice Against Resisting Opponents
Any martial art -- I don't care if it's a sport or a 'combat' art -- is going to be more effective when you are working against someone that is actively resisting. You simply do not know if what you are learning works unless you get it to work against someone. This is one of the major liabilities of cooperative partner drills in aikido -- far too much of your training depends on your partner's mix of 'going with' and 'resisting enough'.
Even though Greco-Roman wrestling, judo, boxing, sambo, and the like have technical flaws as martial arts, they all have one huge advantage over non-sparring arts -- you actually work against someone that is fighting back. You get used to resistance, and you have constant feedback about your progression. Almost nothing involving motor skills can be learned without testing yourself doing the activity that you are learning. The ability to play scales on a piano is only indirectly related to your ability to play a song. And your ability to hit a bag or work partner drills is only indirectly related to your ability to work against a combative opponent.
Another key aspect of this is that unless you work against a resisting opponent at full speed, you have no idea what will happen to your technique when the shit hits the fan. A classic exampleof this was the confrontation between William Cheung and Emin Boztepe, competing grandmasters of wing chun. In a now famous fight caught on video, Boztepe confronted William Cheung at a seminar and challenged him to a fight. Instead of punching and kicking and lots of awesome chi sao, the fight basically progressed from a clinch to a headlock to a throw to a ground-and-pound side mount. There was zero wing chun in that fight. When two grandmasters of a style can't even be bothered to use it when the shit hits the fan, there are serious credibility issues.
Drills Are Important for Good Technique
Even though practice against resisting opponents is important, if your study style is to simply roll for an hour a day with someone, your technique isn't going to improve much. Bad habits will form and become reinforced. You will tend to react instead of learn, and you'll resort to the techniques you're most familiar with instead of improving your weak areas. This is why drilling for some amount every day is absolutely crucial to improving as a martial artist.
Self-Defense, Conflict Resolution, and Fighting Are Not The Same Things
While I believe working against a resisting and aggressive opponent is important, that's not the same thing as working against a trained fighter all the time. While the techniques you might use in a fight are related to those used in self-defense and non-lethal conflict resolution, the situations and goals will be very different. You want to win a fight, survive a self-defense situation, and neutralize a non-lethal threat.
A fight occurs between two people intent on harming the other. Whether it's in a ring, a schoolyard, or outside a bar, the key here is that both participants are engaged and one is not actively trying to escape. In a sport situation it's reasonable to assume that both fighters are reasonably competent and well trained and that some rules may be involved. There have been many Pride and UFC fights (since the more stringent rules have been introduced) where a fight was effectively over but someone was "saved by the bell" or the standup rule -- "on the street" that would have turned out a bit different. In a fight any techniques designed to work against wrist grabs, lapel grabs, overcommitted attacks (lunging punches and haymakers); that require a gi/equipment; or where the rules alter the strategy significantly (wrestling, boxing, judo, submission fighting, point sparring, kyokushin-style 'no punching the face' rules, etc.) will be less effective (but not necessaril ineffective).
A self-defense situation has an obvious aggressor and an obvious defender. The situation is often life-and-death and the circumstances and location are out of the defender's control. This is the mythical "on the street" situation so often discussed in martial arts circles. For self-defense the techniques that are ineffective against a serious, competent opponent now have some value since there is a reasonable chance that the attacker will attempt to control/grab/lunge at the target. In addition, some of the techniques that are effective in a sport situation may suddenly be a liability -- pulling guard on hot, glass-covered asphalt may not work terribly well, and it definitely doesn't work if you're being attacked by multiple opponents. In a self-defense situation truly anything goes, including small joint manipulation, eye gouging, biting, groin strikes, etc.
Non-lethal conflict resolution is tactically similar to self-defense, however the assailant or situation may dictate the use of less violent techniques. For example, Uncle Ted is drunk at the family picnic and making an ass out of himself by starting some static with your neighbor. You obviously don't want to throat punch or kneecap Uncle Ted, but you still need to get him under control. In this situation joint locks such as nikkajo/nikyo or sankajo/sankyo are more appropriate than strikes to subdue a belligerent but not necessarily murderous bad guy. But, again, techniques such as shiho-nage or kotagaeshi are going to be difficult, if not impossible, to apply against someone that has a clue and their faculties about them.
The key here is that a particular art applicable to one situation may not apply as well to another, but this does not mean a particular art is useless. It's when an art fails in all of the above situations that it starts becoming useless.
Don't Mistake the Fighter for the Art and Vice Versa
My wild-ass estimate of a fighter's ability is that most of the time, about 70% is the fighter and 30% is the technique. Technique is a tool, but the person wields that tool. A fighter with the right attitude and spirit can succeed with inferior technique since physical confrontation, in the end, very often comes down to emotional and mental fortitude.
This becomes a problem when people use a specific fighter as validation or invalidation of an art. So just because so-and-so is a bad ass and happens to train [your favorite martial art] doesn't mean it's definitively the best, and by the same token just because someone got his ass kicked and claims to be an expert with another martial doesn't mean it's definitely bad. Probabilities are at play -- if a lot of fighters of a particular art seem to do well, then maybe there's fire where there's smoke. If one art seems never to produce top notch fighters, then, again, maybe there's fire near that smoke.
Fuck Jeet Kune Do
Seriously. JKD can be broken down into the philosophy of "use what works" and the cult of Bruce. My biggest gripe is the "use what works" element. All too often "use what works" becomes "use what I'm comfortable and happy with". This means that, much like relying on sparring too much, you end up reinforcing the things you're comfortable with and ignore the things that you're unfamiliar with.
In addition, the concept of "use what works" often fails when someone is unqualified to make that assessment. Martial art styles aren't something you can learn in a few months and then think "okay, this part works, but this part doesn't" -- you simply don't have that basis for comparison until you've studied one for some time. A lot of bad assumptions can be made due to this mindset -- if you fail to get an armbar, does that mean armbars are inherently flawed or does it mean you simply don't know how to execute them reliably?
I have a lot of respect for Bruce Lee, but the reality is that he simply wasn't very advanced as a martial artist compared to modern mixed martial artists who study multiple styles in depth. I'm not talking about skill and athleticism, but raw knowledge. Today's MMA scene forces fighters to learn a wide number of techniques and styles so they can compete against different opponents under different circumstances, whereas much of Bruce's training was strictly theoretical. So all props to Bruce for getting the ball rolling and keeping an open mind, but the idea that he was the ultimate martial artist and a paragon of combat skill is immensely flawed.
The "In a Real Fight I'd Use My Badass Ninja Bullshit" Argument Doesn't Work
This is probably one of my biggest peeves in any martial arts discussion. Inevitably someone will bust out the "well, I could show you my awesome moves, but they'd kill or maim you". Jigoro Kano realized a century ago that it was better to remove the really destructive elements of a martial art so that you could practice safely at 100% than it was to practice those destructive moves at 25% -- this ties back to the belief that practicing against a resistive opponent trumps almost anything other type of training. Judo has its flaws, but a lack of hard training is not one of them. This is only possible because of the removal of particularly gruesome attacks from its repertoire.
So while theoretically someone might know a 100 ways to kill you with just his pinky finger, the reality is that if he hasn't actually, you know, killed 100 people with those techniques, he's just assuming that stuff works. Those assumptions may end up getting him killed in a self-defense situation when he realizes that executing that knee break isn't working out so well...since he's never done before.
In addition, a lot of the basic attacks -- throat punches and biting and the like -- might seem effective, but are very difficult to perform in practice. If someone is biting me in retaliation for an arm bar, guess what? I win -- it's like sacrificing your queen to take out a pawn in chess. I may have a bite mark, but you have a broken arm.
My point isn't that one art is the "best", because there isn't. Some arts are better in some situations than others, and I think that some training regimens are far more effective than others. But I also believe that there are a significant number of, to put it bluntly, useless martial arts. By "useless" I mean that they are ineffective in MMA sport situations, they're ineffective in self-defense, and they may get someone killed by giving them a false sense of confidence. I see this all the time, meeting housewives who are borderline cocky because they're black belts in a McDojo? art and will get very, very hurt if they think they can drop someone that outweighs them by 100 pounds.