Do black belts have to register their hands as deadly weapons? Was Bruce Lee killed by ninja? Is there really a technique that can stop the heart? During the nearly forty years I’ve been involved with the martial arts as a student, as a teacher, and as a historian, I’ve heard just about every urban legend about martial arts there is. Surprisingly, I’ve also found that they are widely believed by the public. The really disturbing thing, however, is that many of these myths are passed down within martial arts schools. Let me share a few of these clichés with you and together, we’ll dispel them and find the truth.

The first is one of the oldest American martial arts legends, and there’s absolutely no basis for it. "Must a black belt register himself or herself as a deadly weapon? To begin with, the U.S. government doesn’t regulate the martial arts. That means there’s no process to identify people practicing the fighting arts and no governmental method by which practitioners can be evaluated. Such a feat of regulation would cost an enormous amount of money and be a violation of civil rights. Actually, there’s not a country on earth where martial artists are required to register themselves as weapons, deadly or otherwise. This myth has its roots in three different aspects of mid-20th-century history. In post-World War II Japan, the traditional arts were banned, and records were kept of experienced practitioners. It lasted only a few years and hasn’t been repeated. It never spread beyond the borders of Japan. What is disturbing, however, is that some martial artists carry "registration cards" they’ve received from their instructors. Those instructors charge them a hefty fee to be registered, and the students believe what they’ve been told…that they are now registered as deadly weapons.

Is it true that once you have earned a black belt you are a master? Sorry, not even close. A first degree black belt is an advanced beginner. The belt signifies his passage from the ranks of those who are still learning to the ranks of those who’ve learned how to learn. That is a significant difference. It might be equated to a high school graduate who has now entered a university of higher learning. The transition from white belt to black belt has less to do with techniques than with learning the process and procedures essential for one to think like a martial artist. A black belt should be able to understand the concepts on which the arts are based, which is far more important than his ability to perform fancy techniques. Does this mean he’s an expert? Well, within the art that I study I was not considered an expert until reaching fourth degree. First degree black belts through third degree black belts are classified as novice. I suppose we could consider this from two angles. On one hand, yes, a first-degree black belt is an expert on the basic gross motor skills necessary to perform martial arts moves. On the other hand, a first-degree black belt is not an expert but an advanced beginner who is beginning to really comprehend the concepts he’ll need to become an expert within a few years.

All martial arts are ancient. Sorry, wrong again. Although there are indeed ancient arts, such as varmannie, kung fu, jujutsu, tae kyon, and so on, there are new arts emerging all the time. Karate, as we know it, is less than a century old, having been introduced to Japan by Okinawan masters who practiced versions of karate-jutsu that were more combative. Judo was born in 1882, and aikido in 1935. Taekwondo and hapkido were introduced in the 1950s, even though they were based on much older systems. American kenpo was developed in the latter part of the 20th century.

One of my favorites is, "Traditional systems don’t work." First, let’s get something straight, the effectiveness of an art depends on the practitioner. Studying a system isn’t like putting on a super hero’s outfit; it doesn’t saturate you with great powers. We become living representations of the art we study. It works through us, but we’re the ones who must give it life and breath and reality. Ok, that’s the mysterious perspective; the cold, hard truth is if a person doesn’t make the art work, it won’t work. If he or she is apathetic in training, lazy out of class, leaves while still in his or her intermediate years, he or she will probably be unable to use that art in self-defense. As a result, the art and not the student is blamed for being ineffective.

How about this one? Women are not able to excel in martial arts. That old myth is ready for the landfill. Aside from the fact that women like Cynthia Rothrock and Karen Sheperd have proven themselves to be convincing action heroes in movies, in tournament competition, and as instructors, there have been thousands of superior female fighters and practitioners, and with each generation there are more. But let’s take a quick look a few overlooked pieces of Chinese history. First, about 2,000 years ago a woman named Yu Niu competed in a seven-day sword contest organized by the king and was chosen as the champion over 3,000 swordsmen. Then, in the fifth century, a princess named Ming-Lian, the daughter of Emperor Liang Wu Di, became the only female student of the legendary Bodhidharma. Finally, approximately a century later, there was Mulan—yes, the one on whom the Disney cartoon was based. One variation of this myth is that women can’t do the martial arts as well as men. It’s a silly statement to make—like saying short people can’t do the martial arts as well as tall people, or that thin people can’t fight as hard as heavy people. Keep in mind that the majority of martial arts were developed specifically to allow smaller and weaker people to defend themselves against larger and stronger attackers.

I hope that I was able to help put to rest some of the major myths of the martial arts. My advice is to take outrageous claims with a grain of salt and keep training! The truth always has a way of rising to the top. Merry Christmas and may God bless you!

Steve Cross is the head instructor and owner of Cross Martial Arts Center in Midlothian. Cross is a 4th Degree Taekwon-Do Black Belt, a Certified International Instructor, and a high school Communications teacher. For question, contact him at (972)775-1857 or www.crosstkd.com.