Dan Inosanto is the greatest martial artist of all time period.
With the Dan Inosanto seminar coming into town, I thought I’d scribble this down. First, some definitions: martial arts is a body of knowledge and practice. In the modern sense we exclude from it practical aspects of war and combat. Looking at karate, which also developed from a lack of access to the uh, cutting-edge weapons of war, we could say not much has changed if we now exclude guns and aircraft carriers from the modern use of the term.
Of course martial arts feeds back into military and law-enforcement, but its use is already veering toward auxiliary training, the resource-deficient, and hyper-specialization. Or perhaps put another way, can be applied as a sub-specialty, as martial arts for sport or health may be regarded as other specializations.
Let’s look at the second part first, practice: measured by what, physical skill & attributes, number of opponents one can/has defeated or killed? This increases then decreases around some window of physical prime. Maybe an interesting number of villagers saved in feudal times is worth mentioning? NOT relevant when measuring personal performance: even heroes had an army, which was created by sharing and using knowledge. (BTW Inosanto was a beast in his prime, is a beast for his age, and has an overall skill set that few can even fully measure)
So basically every warrior past or present doesn’t count without knowledge transfer, even seen through a ‘martial effectiveness’ lens. Famed warriors such as Musashi may have left some advice, but the tradition is narrow. Bodhidharma or wherever the truth lies may be said to have had the longest train of influence, along with the generations that spread the base knowledge, but without a coherent intent as martial art, let’s say doesn’t count, which leaves us really looking at the last 250 years or so.
You can’t transfer knowledge without having some, and Dan Inosanto is certainly among the most educated martial artists in history. Even the most powerful practitioners of the past usually had their hands full fighting, proving, and developing their systems. Few have had the privilege and opportunity as he has had–to learn arts already systematized into digestible format, experiment, and (more on this later) watch students and peers test and take ideas even further then get back to him.
There’s another aspect to this where I’ll admittedly have a biased interpretation: unlike painting or music, which can largely be enjoyed passively (though I don’t deny the joy of participation), the true experience of martial arts is through the practice of it. Yes it can be watched, filmed, and consumed as entertainment, but let’s face it: for those who get excited about it, what do they do when no one’s watching? Kick & chop the air–hiya!
Unlike Joyce or da Vinci, whose genius we continue to enjoy in full, even the transcendent performances of Jet Li or Donnie Yen somehow don’t stay with us quite the same way without our own bodies moving, which means instruction is critical to the art, as it is for anything we wish to keep alive, such as dance.
Before we look to the golden ages of kung-fu, let’s remember what things were really like: challenges to close down schools, secrecy, the emergence of gunpowder, arts dying with masters, students rarely eclipsing their teachers. Loyalty, honour, trust could be uncharitably seen as a romanticization or facade of bullshit that diminished an era of otherwise amazing potential.
So we’re left with the usual suspects: Mas Oyama, Ip Man and so on, masters of one art. Chuck Norris and his peers, who may have studied more broadly but primarily taught and supported one range of arts, and the only viable candidate for second place, Bruce Lee.
Bruce Lee may have become the greatest teacher and probably the greatest practitioner had he been able to continue what he started, but maybe not–he had a complex set of obligations. And like it or not, though he gave Dan Inosanto the keys to the Ferrari, there’s no arguing who actually got in and drove.
Bruce may have wielded the influence to open minds and build awareness, but without the people to carry on the heavy lifting, it wouldn’t have mattered. He may have been the spark, but Inosanto was and is the flame. Not only to spread the base knowledge & philosophy but carry on the research, the acceptance, the promotion of other worthy arts and masters: Muay Thai and BJJ before the UFC was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, FMA that is finally being highlighted more in Hollywood, and he CONTINUES to do so.
As an aside, I find it funny and sad that people point this out as something exceptional about Guro Inosanto, because really the attitude should be what the hell is the matter with you if you’re not? (By the way something I like and admire about Kurt at MKG Detroit)
But more than anything, just look at the student list and derivatives: Rick Faye, Richard Bustillo, Erik Paulson, Burton Richardson, Jeff Imada, Larry Hartsell, how long does it go? Luminaries that develop, sustain and carry on in all specializations, ‘combat’, self-defense, sport, art… and (one can hope would be the greatest achievement of all): a structural shift in how we think about martial arts, learning, and sharing, that no longer requires a nexus or personality. Add a lack of secrecy combined with the digital age and you now allow a lasting contribution even if the inevitable odd wheel falls off the wagon in the future.
Like BP, Haliburton, and Deutsche Bank, Dan Inosanto has influenced your life in ways you can’t even begin to measure. Unlike them, definitely more for the good. If you do anything but a pure art taught by a closed-minded lineage that does no advertising and forbids you from watching movies, you probably owe this great man something.