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Don Cunningham: The dangers of Martial Arts self proclaimed masters


Don Cunningham


Mr. Don Cunningham is a man that likes to set the records straight in terms of martial arts. Many times, his frankness has gotten him many insults or even threats, but that never stopped him saying what he thought. 

Cunningham has practiced judo and competed in many different countries, including Japan. His tournament records include many state and regional awards. In addition, he has studied kendo and koryu bujutsu styles with various teachers while working in Japan. A former award-winning journalist, he is currently an assistant professor at Radford University in RadfordVirginia.

What exactly is a "self-proclaimed" martial arts master?

Fake certificate;Photo from:  In my opinion, a self-proclaimed master is one who establishes their own independent criteria to declare their respective status within the martial arts community, usually at some sort of highly ranked level or teaching position. In some cases, they may have created a completely fictional background about themselves or even a fictitious martial art style. Often they claim some difficult if not impossible to authenticate training background.
More often, they simply obtain at least some credentials from others through various means. Often they will enter into mutual recognition arrangements with other like-minded persons. This usually works something like, "I will recognize and rank you at a high level in my style if you reciprocate and rank me in your style." It provides them with a sense of external recognition and results in lots of new high dan rankings for both participants. Others quite frankly purchase martial arts rank certificates from unscrupulous individuals or organizations.

Why do people self proclaim themselves as masters?

I am not an expert on mental health, but I think it has a lot to do with fear and insecurity. I've noticed that many of the self-proclaimed masters I've met haven't enjoyed much success in the other aspects of their lives. They often are employed at fairly simple occupations and frequently have a limited educational background. Their feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy are often the reason they were drawn to the martial arts in the beginning. For example, you hear them talking a lot about the dangers of today's streets in nearly paranoid terms, as if we are likely to be assaulted at any moment or face attackers lurking around every corner.

The martial arts master presents a very powerful image, one who is capable of defeating all enemies and has incredible wisdom. This master is not intimidated by such opponents or modern technology. Since it is unlikely they could actually earn rank within the more traditional styles, they are left to create their own martial arts teaching credentials. To appear even more powerful, they often adopt titles associated with martial arts masters, such as soke and shihan, often to the point of absurdity. For the same reason, you find self-proclaimed martial arts masters have purchased diploma mill degrees or simply awarded themselves with educational credentials. Like martial arts ranks, the academic doctorate title represents a powerful icon to someone who feels inadequate.
kungfu-master from movie Kill Bill
Kung Fu master as depicted by Hollywood movie: Kill Bill
There is one very well-known martial arts organization run by a self-proclaimed martial arts master who takes full advantage of these fears. For a fee, he will "register" individual applicants as sokes or founders of their own martial arts style, thus providing a sense of legitimacy and group recognition they often are seeking. In addition, he also offers various academic sounding degrees in "oriental philosophy" to members willing to pay for such nonsensical credentials. By doing so, he has not only addressed his own inner fears, but has obviously found a way to exploit the insecurities of others such as himself. 

What would you say is the main difference between a "non-traditional" master and a traditional master?

Although I know that many traditional practitioners disagree, there is nothing really that much different about being a self-proclaimed master. With a few exceptions, it is not illegal in most countries. And while many traditionalists may feel it raises some sticky ethical questions, there is actually a lot of historical precedence for obtaining recognition and standing in such manner.

We may not like to admit it, but just about every organized group has offered recognition to those willing to pay or trade for it at one time or another. It was not that unusual for Edo Period merchants, for example, to use their wealth to obtain samurai privileges, even upgrade their social class status, for themselves or their families.

Can we consider the art of a self proclaimed master as an martial art?

I don't think that some 23-year-old who studied karate for a year or two, then declared himself the founder of a new martial art style has much credibility, but that's really my own subjective opinion. It's based on my own personal value system and may not be valid for others. The martial arts are really not well regulated, so there is nothing that prohibits anyone from doing something like that. Outside of historical authenticity, I am certainly not prepared to judge what a true martial art is and what is not. It's really a value judgment that each person must make for themselves.

This is an area where a lot of practitioners like to bash one another, though. You'll often find them accusing each other of "buying" rank or that the other's art is not really as historically legitimate or as street effective as their own particular style. The truth is that this is a never-ending circular argument and really doesn't accomplish anything.

Yet, there are some very real dangers in training with certain types of self-proclaimed masters. When these are openly discussed, however, the subject is often clouded by counter accusations that the person is just bashing another's chosen art or instructor. It's an easy way for dubious instructors to hide from too much public scrutiny.

What would be the dangers of training under a self proclaimed master?

The most obvious danger is potential injury through training accidents. An inexperienced instructor often exposes themselves or their students to dangerous practices, often without realizing the risks they may be facing.
I remember a story about a well-intentioned karate instructor who wanted something dramatic for a public demonstration. He decided to use a sword to block arrows shot at him by one of his students. He had seen such performances before and thought it would be relatively simple.

Fortunately, they decided to practice a few times before the actual exhibition. At his student's insistence, he allowed blunted arrows for the initial practice shots. He was obviously surprised when each arrow struck him despite his best effort to block them. What he hadn't realized was that from an observer's perspective, it was fairly simple to judge the distance and speed of each arrow. Yet, as the target, it was nearly impossible since the arrows were coming directly at him.

fumon-and-midori-tanaka trying to cut an arrow mid-air Fumon Tanaka, trying to cut an arrow shot at him before it reaches it heart. See if he makes it here:

While this may seem an extreme example, I have also seen iaido instructors encourage students to do fast draws with actual swords without any precautions against splitting the scabbard and possibly amputating a finger or two. A more experienced instructor is not as likely to allow a novice student to use a live sword, certainly not without ensuring their grip prevents injury in such an event. Although anyone might be reluctant to practice catching bullets in their teeth despite their teacher's best prompting, people do often ignore their own common sense when reassured by a supposed "expert."

Experience is not always an assurance of safe training practices, either. There is the story about the accomplished grappling arts instructor who wanted to demonstrate how effective falling techniques can be for a bunch of new students. To do so, he performed a standing forward flip from a table onto the mat. A slight miscalculation resulted in spinal injury and paralysis. In all my years of judo experience, ranging from small local garage dojos to the Kodokan in Tokyo, I've never had a single instructor even suggest such a dangerous thing.


Picture from:

Finally, the unregulated martial arts is an open door to con men and mentally disturbed individuals. It draws them like moths to an open flame. Fraud is rampant within the martial arts, and there is little chance of being caught since most victims are unwilling to ever admit they have been cheated. Thus, you find individuals claiming all kinds of martial arts titles and offering "asian-recognized" rank certificates or "hall of fame" appointments to anyone willing to pay the price. For the most part, such credentials are worthless, but who is going to complain to the authorities? Certainly not those who bought them in a pathetic attempt to validate themselves.

In my own view, the worst offenders are the predators who are drawn to the martial arts and abuse their victims. As teachers and authority figures, they often can find easy targets for physical, mental, and even sexual abuse within the ranks of students who come to them seeking instruction. Even when exposed, they often find many willing supporters ready to defend their actions. Although I have seen this pattern over and over again, I have never understood why the martial arts community tolerates this and doesn't do a better job of protecting their own against such violations.

I don't suppose the threat of training under such masters would be only limited to physical harm, would it?

Often an self-proclaimed master may encourage illegal actions, often without realizing it. I've heard so-called self-defense experts explain that it is okay to take the initiative if necessary to prevent an assault. From a legal perspective, though, it might not be viewed like that. Most jurisdictions only allow reasonable force in response to specific situations, and then only if there is no other option available. If a person could run away, for example, beating their attacker senseless might place them in legal jeopardy of civil or even criminal charges. The person who may think they are defending themselves because they did what their instructor taught them could easily wind up on the wrong side in the courtroom.

I've also know of two organizations founded by self-proclaimed masters that offer academic sounding degrees and titles to their members. In many states, issuing degrees without proper authorization from the authorities is illegal. Even the use of certain academic titles by individuals, such as doctor or professor, without having earned a degree from an accredited institution is illegal as well in many states. Yet the organizations I mentioned don't provide any disclaimer or instructions when selling these titles to their members. Example of fake certificationExample of fake certification from:

What should we do to avoid being cheated by those people?

The best advice is to trust common sense. You should feel comfortable with the amount charged, if any, for instruction or certificates. A commercial dojo often has to cover rent and pay bills, so a much higher fee than charged by the local community center instructor may be reasonable. If they want a lot of money for registering your rank with a headquarters office that you can not verify, though, you are probably dealing with a dubious individual or organization. If they offer rank without training or experience, it's probably not worth the price.

If their stories about their past experiences or training include a lot of associations with special government or elite military units, then you might question their qualifications. If they tell you about how their instructor trained and ranked them secretly, you might have reason to doubt their background. If they claim to have been in a foreign country for extended periods yet don't have any photographs or even basic native language skills, then you might want to look elsewhere for an instructor.

The bottom line is that you should step back and ask yourself if you honestly believe what they tell you about their background. If not, I recommend you find someone that you can trust. If you are being sexually, physically, or mentally abused by an instructor, you should notify the authorities immediately no matter what you think about their martial arts qualifications. If they are abusing you, the chances are good they are also hurting others or will in the future.

What's wrong with a military training background?

There's nothing wrong with a military training background. I am a Vietnam veteran, having served as a U.S. Navy corpsman with the Marines. For some reason, though, many self-proclaimed martial arts masters often claim they are former members or training instructors with elite military special forces. I think it's because they are fascinated with the powerful image of such groups and use implied associations to increase their own self-importance. What the general public fails to realize is that the military provides very little, if any, unarmed combat training. They are more interested in superior fire power and leave the hand-to-hand stuff for movie actors. US_military US military. Picture from

In ancient times, the problem of self proclaimed masters could be easily solved by challenging and beating those masters. Because of modern laws and ethic codes, it is impossible to do so in our era. What do you think should be done to deal with those fraudulent masters?

Personally, I don't care how effective or authentic other martial arts instructors may be or not. If someone claims 12 dan rank and wears Spiderman pajamas in the dojo, they have every right to do so. As long as they are not hurting anyone, then they are just as legitimate as any other koryu teacher. Denouncing other instructors or practitioners for not practicing true martial arts is simply arrogant and irresponsible.

Many self-proclaimed martial arts masters do harm their students, though, either inadvertently because of their inexperience or maliciously through fraud or other abuse. These so-called masters should be identified and held responsible for their actions. Unfortunately, the authorities often do not understand the martial arts and do not realize that such fraud or abuse is actually criminal behavior. Victims are rarely willing to complain or testify against their instructor out of a misguided sense of loyalty or respect for their teacher.

Someone pays for an asian-recognized ranking certificate only to discover later the Japanese kanji characters actually translate as "sex house style" and there is no registration with any international group. A parent is charged $3,000 in contract fees to have their child trained and ranked to black belt level, then moves to another city and discovers that this was some independently created style and the rank is basically worthless. Both of these are actual situations, yet the authorities don't prosecute because they don't understand the deceit involved.

I recently heard a high-ranked and generally respected martial arts instructor state that those who question other styles are only doing it because of their own insecurity. They should focus more on their own training, according to this leader. Instead of speaking out about such dangers, I should mind my own business is a sentiment often echoed by many others in the martial arts community. I've taken a lot of criticism for my efforts to identify and warn others about harmful individuals. As a result, I've been threatened with everything from legal action to physical injury. I certainly haven't gained anything from it. Yet I feel it is our responsibility as citizens and members of society to both educate the authorities and to warn the public about potential danger. Some may prefer to ignore such offenses and "just train," but true martial arts practitioners realize we should help protect others from harm, even if it means airing dirty laundry in public.

Last Updated on Sunday, 28 February 2010 21:21  

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