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Fighting Spirit
by Harry Cook

Clint Eastwood, in The Outlaw Josey Wales, tells his companions that when everything looks bad and it seems you can't win then you must get mean, "mad-dog mean," in order to survive. This is the basic attitude necessary for effective self defence and has always been a precept of the martial arts that if we must choose between technique and fighting spirit, then go for fighting spirit everytime.

The bare-knuckle pugilists who fought in the Prize Ring valued courage or "bottom" above all other attributes in a fighter. Captain Godfrey, the author of A Treatise upon the Useful Science of Defence (1740/47)1, comments on one Boswell, a leading pugilist of the day "Praise be to his power of fighting, his excellent choice of time and measure, his superior judgement, dispatching forth his executing arm! But fye upon his dastard heart, that marrs it all! As I knew that fellows abilities, and his worm-dread soul, I never saw him beat, but I wished him to be beaten. Though I am charmed with the idea of his power and manner of fighting, I am sick at the thoughts of his nurse-wanting courage. Fair well to him, with the fair acknowledgement that, if he had a true English bottom, (the best fighting epithet for a man of spirit) he would carry all before him, and be a match for even Broughton himself."2

Boxing and similar pastimes were seen by many people as a way of inculcating admirable values, such as bravery and patriotism which benefitted not only the individual but society as a whole.3 The Duke of Wellington wrote a letter to General Sir John Burgoyne in which he lamented "the decay of the good old English practice of boxing, as I believe that it tends to produce and keep up that national spirit of undaunted bravery and intrepidity which has enabled our armies to conquer in many a hard-fought battle. I think that if the physical standing and personal courage of the British soldier have degenerated during the long interval of peace which we have enjoyed, such a result may be fairly and justly attributed to desuetude and gradual extinction of this noble and truly natural art of boxing."4

William Hazlitt observed in 1825 that "There are two things that an Englishman understands, hard words and hard blows. Nothing short of this (generally speaking) excites his attention or interests him in the least. His neighbours have the benefit of the one in war time, and his own countrymen of the other in time of peace. The French express themselves astonished at the feats which our Jack Tars have so often performed. A fellow in that class of life in England will strike his hand through a deal board-first, to show his strength, which he is proud of; secondly, to give him a sensation, which he is in want of; lastly, to prove his powers of endurance, which he also makes a boast of."5 The pugilist Thomas Hickman (1785-1822), often known as "The Gasman" because of his boasting, was highly regarded by other fighters because of his courage. Jack Scroggins said that even if the Gasman's hands were cut off he would continue to fight with the stumps.

Of course the ideal is a perfect harmony and unity between technical skills and a strong fighting spirit, and this has been one of the major aims of all the martial systems of the East. It is instructive to remember that when E. J. Harrison wrote a book to explain Japanese martial arts he called it The Fighting Spirit of Japan. Harrison states quite clearly in his introduction that "I will even go so far as to declare my opinion that, given equal technical skill on either side, until we have learned thoroughly the lesson of abdominal power (note. traditionally regarded as the origination or seat of an individuals fighting spirit. "Guts" in Western terms) the Japanese will nearly always defeat his Western opponent in a fight to a finish with or without weapons, firearms of course excluded."6

One long term English resident of Japan W. H. Hall had a very different view of Japanese and Western fighting skills. He wrote in 1903 "Hitherto there has been some doubt expressed as to the result of a boxing v jujitsu (sic) contest. It seems that quite a number of people labour under the erroneous idea that jujitsu is more effective than boxing as a means of self defence. This notion however, is quite unfounded, as there has never been an instance on record where jujitsu has gained a victory. In fact, it is very doubtful if such a contest ever took place anywhere outside the Japanese Empire. And perhaps readers may be surprised to hear that dozens of these contests annually take place. Though they do not happen to be specially arranged matches, they serve as a very fair criterion to assay the result of similar contests between more dexterous opponents of each respective science.

"The contests to which I refer usually take place in the streets of Hakodate (the rendezvous port of the cosmopolitan ailing fleet), consequently many fights take place between the sailors who meet on shore, and who comprise the boxing fraternity; while the Japanese police represent the jujitsu exponents. Needless to say, it is the duty of the police to stop these unseemly fracas, which block the public streets, and in this way the difference of opinion arises as to the right of interference, which in its turn generally results in a melee.

"Before showing the result of an encounter between police, sailor or sailors, as the case may be, I should like to point out that the whole police force are instructed in fencing and jujitsu by some of the most competent instructors in the island. But where the sailors learn their boxing is a mystery, and I very much doubt if they have anything like the instructional advantages of their op-ponents. "On one occasion, after two American sailors had finished fighting, a policeman requested the victor (who had left his antagonist in a very bad state) to accompany him to the station. Of course the Yankee 'guessed' he was 'not going that way', whereupon the police-man tried to arrest him. After giving the plucky little Jap a couple of hard blows, which made him leave go, he turned and would have gone away, but again the policeman attempted to close with the Yankee, which only ended in the policeman being knocked down. By this time assistance was at hand, three policemen hurried up and made a combined attack upon the resolute seaman. Even then it was not without the greatest difficulty that the three (the first had been rendered hors de combat) escorted him to the station. This is only one of many similar cases. With one exception, I have never seen an arrest effected by less than two policemen to one sailor.

"After witnessing a few similar scenes, what conclusion is one forced to arrive at, other than that no jujitsu professor could stand against Jim Jeffries, Tom Sharkey, or any other hard-hitting boxer who took care not to allow any close grappling?"7

Though, like W. H. Hall, I disagree with E. J. Harrison's implication that Western fighters of the day (1913) lacked fighting spirit vis-a-vis their Japanese counterparts, I do agree with his stress on the development of such spirit, the cultivation of courage. Actually there is some evidence that some Japanese warriors were deficient in this attribute. In the middle of the nineteenth century the Japanese feudal system controlled by the Tokugawa shoguns began to be threatened by external pressures. The arrival of Commodore Mathew Perry and his squadron of "Black Ships" in 1853, demanding that Japan should open itself to "friendship, commerce, a supply of coal.and provisions and protection for our shipwrecked people" sent a shudder of fear and hate through most of Japanese society. Faced with Western armed power the system collapsed and the shoguns were replaced by the Emperor Meiji.

Die-hard conservatives of Satsuma and Choshu hated the idea of foreign interference in Japanese affairs, and were committed to the policy of the "sonno joi" movement (revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians). One 25-year-old Choshu Samurai Takasugi Shinsaku, an expert on Western military science, advocated setting up groups of kiheitai (surprise troops) recruited from all social classes. In an interview on June 6th 1863 with the Lord of Choshu Mori Takachika, Shinsaku said "The stipendiary Samurai have become soft and indolent through years of peace and idleness. Their martial prowess has been dulled, and to reinvigorate an army one must recruit volunteers with spirit, courage, and skill regardless of their class, whether they be samurai, peasant or artisan."8

Obviously Takasugi's words proved true. His troops armed with Western weapons proved more than a match for the traditionally armed and trained samurai of the Tokugawa Shoguns. The Choshu samurai also proved no match for the marines and sailors of HMS Argus when they landed at Shimonoseki in 1864 to demolish a number of heavy guns and open up the straits to shipping. They were fired on by hidden marksmen, and although outnumbered, instantly counter-attacked. One of the officers present, Commander John Moresby reported "Our men never checked and rushing on, swarmed over the wall and won the stockade, the enemy disappearing into the bush."9

Contrary to Harrison's belief, the Choshu samurai had no stomach for a man to man encounter, but were happy to fight at distance with guns while skulking behind a wall.

It is important to realise the difference between true fighting spirit and mere viciousness. For example, the Viking berserk were feared as much by their own side as by the enemies who faced them. They worked themselves into a frenzy, possibly with the aid of hallucinogenic mushrooms, then ran naked into battle holding a sword or dagger in each hand. Once the enemy was engaged the berserk would cut and slash without any regard for his own safety, or who he was facing.10 If he happened to meet a friend or fellow Viking, then too bad - down he went as well. As you can imagine, the life of a berserk was a short one, and they tended to be sent into battle first to unnerve the opposition. I've seen a couple of karate teams use the same tactic with their first fighter!

True fighting spirit is based on a combination of physical and moral strength. Mao Tse Tung, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party during the "struggle for liberation" wrote an article for Hsin Ch'ing-nien (New Youth) magazine in April 1917. In this, one of his earliest writings he dealt with the importance and value of physical training. He states "Our nation is wanting in strength. The military spirit has not been encouraged. The physical condition of the population deteriorates daily.If this state continues, our weakness will increase further. To attain our goals and to make our influence felt on external matters, results. The development of our physical strength is an internal matter, a cause. If our continued bodies are not strong we will be afraid as soon as we see enemy soldiers, and then how can we attain our goals and make ourselves respected? Strength depends upon drill, and drill depends on self-awareness.The principle aim of physical education is military heroism. Such objects of military heroism as courage, dauntlessness, audacity, and perseverance are all matters of will. Let me explain this with an example. To wash our feet in ice water makes us acquire courage and dauntlessness, as well as audacity. In general, any form of exercise, if pursued continuously, will help to train us in perseverance."11

Obviously Mao's ideas influenced the development of the Chinese Communist Army. Its soldiers were known to be tough fighters as they were physically strong, and they had a cause they believed in. The moral aspect is very important. An individual who is fighting for something he or she deeply believes in will often fight far harder than they would if it was simply a personal matter. For example if we look at the record of the German Waffen S.S. during the Second World War, it is obvious that their esprit de corps made them tough opponents. A Canadian infantry battalion commander, fighting against the 12th S.S. Panzer Division "Hitler Jugend" (Hitler Youth- a formation composed of teenage volunteers) described them as follows "The only guys who really earn medals in this war are those S.S. 'birds'. Everyone of them deserves the VC. They're a bad bunch of bastards, but are they ever soldiers! They make us fellows look like amateurs."12

At Caen, on D-Day plus one, S.S. troops and British Commandos met in hand-to-hand combat. A Frenchman observed "They fought like lions on both sides so that the dead lay corpse on corpse." Obviously there is a great moral dilemma. The trust and belief in your ideals can blind you to the evil of what you are actually fighting for. This was graphically demonstrated in 1945 when Lieutenant-Colonel Roland Kolb of the American 84th Division found himself up against stiff resistance from an artillery unit manned by the S.S. After heavy fighting the Americans were moved forward and were shocked to discover that they had been fighting boys aged 12 and less, who in Kolb's words "rather than surrender fought until killed."

Soldiers of many armies have fought with tremendous courage against huge odds.13 They are usually inspired by patriotism, loyalty to a tradition, simple survival, or a religious or philosophical ideal. The defence of Rorke's Drift in 1879 by 100 or so British soldiers against an attacking force of over 4,000 Zulu warriors is a well known example of courage, and fortitude.14

The French Foreign Legion is proud of its fighting spirit, which it celebrates by remembering the Battle of Camerone on the 30th April every year. According to the traditional story 65 legionnaires commanded by Captain D'anjou fought 2000 Mexicans at Camerone, a small village between Vera-Cruz and Puebla in Mexico on 30th April 1863. Called upon to surrender by the Mexican commander, Colonel Milan, the legionnaires replied that they had ammunition and intended to fight. Actually they had only sixty rounds each and no food or water. After some fighting Danjou was killed, and again the Mexicans called for surrender. They were answered with "Merde." After ten hours of fighting there were only twelve legionnaires left able to fight. This was soon reduced to five. They had no ammunition left, so they fixed their bayonets and charged the Mexicans! They were all hit by Mexican bullets, but three remained on their feet. Of the sixty-five strong company, two officers and twenty-three legionnaires were dead, one officer and eight men were mortally wounded, and nineteen others soon died of their wounds in captivity. Twelve others, all wounded were captured.

The memorial to the men reads "Here stood fewer than sixty men against an entire army. Its weight overwhelmed them. Life, sooner than courage forsook these soldiers of France." The finest accolade to the fighting spirit of these men was given by a Colonel Combras, a Mexican officer who said to his men "Pero no son hombres, son demonios." ("But they are not men, they are devils.")15

If we are lucky in our martial arts training we will find instructors who remind us of the importance of a strong fighting spirit. Most British karate-ka and practitioners of other systems are fortunate in this regard, and those who have trained under Keinosuke Enoeda sensei will know how much importance he places on the acquisition of a strong fighting spirit. This emphasis can also be found in the early writings on Japanese Bushido (The Way of the Warrior). In the Budo Shoshinshu of Daidoji Yuzan (1639-1730), he explains the attributes required to be a good samurai; not simply the martial skills, but the morality and social ethics involved. In a section entitled "Never Neglect the Offensive Spirit", he gives the following advice "It is most important that one who is a samurai should never neglect the offensive spirit at any time and in all matters. For our country is different from other lands in that even the least of the people, farmers, merchants and artisans, should all cherish some rusty blade, wherein is revealed the warrior spirit of this Empire of Nippon. These three classes are not, however, soldiers by profession, but it is the custom in the military families for even the very least of the servants of the samurai never to be without a short sword for a moment. Much more must the higher samurai always wear their girdle. And some very punctilious ones wear a blunt sword or a wooden one even when they go to the bath. And if this is so in the house how much more is it necessary when one leaves it to go somewhere else, since on the way you may well meet some drunkard or other fool who may suddenly start a quarrel. There is an old saying, "When you leave your gate, act as though an enemy was in sight". So since he is a samurai and wears a sword in his girdle he must never forget the spirit of the offensive. And when this is so the mind is firmly fixed on death. But the samurai who does not maintain this aggressive spirit, even though he does wear a sword at his side, is nothing but a farmer or a tradesman in a warrior's skin."16

Daidoji Yuzan is very aware that without a moral check this attitude could easily lead to mindless violence. He insists that anyone who understands the distinction between right and wrong and "Yet does what is wrong is no proper samurai but a raw and untaught person. And the cause of it is small capacity for self-control. Though this may not sound so bad, if we examine into its origin we find it arises from cowardice. That is why I maintain that it is essential for a samurai to refrain from wrong and cleave to what is right."

Of course deciding what is "right" is the difficult thing. I have referred to the soldiers of the Waffen S.S. above, and I am sure that many of them were idealistic young men doing the "right" thing. One French volunteer to the S.S. wanted to save Europe from the scourge of Bolshevism. I am equally certain that the young soldiers of Mao Tse Tung's Eight Route Army fought because they wanted to liberate China from the evils of Capitalism and Fascism. For the samurai "right" was defined by the code of Bushido and by duty to his Lord: his main task was to learn how to use his fighting spirit in order to die well and to his Lord's advantage. To some kenjutsu (the art of swordsmanship) masters the development of a strong technique and a strong fighting spirit was essential, and yet paradoxically the art reached its highest expression when it was never used. The Kenjutsu Fushiki Hen (The Unknown in the Art of Swordsmanship) written by Kimura Kyoko in 1768 insists that "The perfect swordsman avoids quarreling or fighting. Fighting means killing. How can one human being bring himself to kill a fellow human being?.We are all moral beings, we are not to lower ourselves to the status of animality. What is the use of becoming a fine swordsman if he loses his human dignity? The best thing is to be a victor without fighting.

The sword is an inauspicious instrument to kill in some unavoidable circumstances. When it is to be used, therefore, it ought to be the sword that gives life and not the sword that kills. But when a man is born into the samurai family, he is not to shun learning the art of swordplay, for it is his profession to be trained in it. The point is however, to utilize the art as a means to advance the study of the Way (tao). When it is properly handled, it helps us in an efficient way to contribute to the cultivation of the mind and spirit."17

When Gichin Funakoshi began teaching karate in Japan he was anxious that his pupils understood that his art was not one of offence. ("Karate ni sente nashi." There is no first attack in Karate). He was a realist and understood that in the final analysis that an individual might have to fight to protect himself or an innocent victim, but in an ideal situation the art should never be used outside the dojo. This is the partial answer to the moral dilemma mentioned above. Tournament karate is also an excellent vehicle to let us develop and test our fighting spirit without indulging in brawling. That is why traditional martial artists feel disgusted when opponents maliciously break the rules or behave without correct etiquette. "Fighters" who win competitions by "diving" or acting a death scene worthy of Hamlet are also contemptible, but this kind of thing does seem to be on the increase in some quarters.

Without a strong fighting spirit you have no martial art. A fighting spirit which is out of control also means that you have no martial art: all that remains is self indulgence and brutality. The ideal is to have a strong fighting spirit meshed with technical excellence and a valued moral code.


1.) This is the first book written on boxing. Miles in Pugilistica gives the publication date as 1740. This first edition probably only dealt with the methods of fighting used by the professional "gladiators" who fought for prizes on raised stages in London in the 18th century. A second edition was published in 1747 and included material on boxing. This edition is mentioned by Pierce Egan in Boxiana and is also given in the bibliography of works on fighting methods found in The Badminton Library book on Fencing, Boxing, Wrestling Longmans, Green, and Co. 1889. It was republished by Milo Books Lancs in 1997.

2.) Quoted in Boxiana Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism (Pierce Egan London 1812) p 31. Republished in a facsimile edition by Vance Harvey Publishing 1971. Godfrey views with approval another fighter Pipes who was noted for his fighting spirit "One Gretting was a strong competitor against Pipes, and both having obtained great celebrity by their skill and prowess, felt somewhat jealous at each other's fame, and had several combats together, when they were almost alternate victors; though Broughton beat them both with ease. Gretting was a stronger made man than Pipes, and an artful boxer, and had the nearest way of going to the stomach (which then was denominated the mark) than any man of his day, besides putting in his blows remarkably straight; but notwithstanding, Pipes was his superior, by the thorough bottom he always displayed, and which most excellent requisite for a pugilist, Grettings did not possess sufficiently enough. In his last two battles with Pipes he was severely beaten. Like too many boxers, in the hey-day of their prowess, he thought nothing would hurt him, and drank to excess, which rendered him a mere plaything among the fighting men; and a very slovenly boxer, called Hammersmith Jack, beat him with ease, as did every other person that fought him afterwards." - ibid p 27

3.) For an interesting study of the place of "bottom" in British society see the chapter on "Bottom" in The Age of Scandal, T. H. White (Penguin Books 1950.)

4.) The courage displayed by the English pugilists in the Prize Ring was judged to be morally superior to the various forms of ferocity displayed by foreigners in general. The Englishman displayed a kind of innate nobility, while the despised foreigner was treacherous, vicious, or simply evil. This attitude was clearly expressed by Henry Downes Miles when he explained that "the fists - the symbol of personal courage, of prompt readiness for defence and attack - are the most harmless, the ever-present, and the least fatal weapons. We will leave, gentle or simple reader, the pistol to your higher-born countrymen of the "upper ten thousand", if it so please them; the fatal fleuret to the fire-eating Gaul.; the back-handed stiletto to the stabbing Italian; the sharp triangular rapier or the dagger to the saturnine Spaniard; the slaughterous schlager to the beer-bemused burschen of dreamy Vaterland; the gash-inflicting knife to the Dutch boor or seaman's snicker-snee; the death-dealing 'bowie', 'Kansas toothpick', and murderous 'six-shooter' to the catawampous citizen of the 'univarsal Yankee nation': the waved kreese, to the muck-running Malay: each tawny savage to his sharp tomahawk, his poisoned arrow, or his barbed assagai; and then we would ask the scribblers of the anti-pugilistic press which of these they are prepared to champion against the fist of the British boxer, - a weapon of defence the perfection of the practice of cool courage, self-reticent combat, restraint, skill, and endurance that can illustrate and adorn the character of an unsophisticated and true-hearted Englishman in the supreme moment of conquest or of defeat." - Pugilistica Vol. 1 Henry Downes Miles John Grant 1906 pp 3-4

5.) Noble Art Tom Sawyer Unwin Hyman Ltd. 1989 p 25

6.) The Fighting Spirit of Japan E. J. Harrison T. Fisher Unwin 1913 p 19

7.) Boxing v. Jujitsu W.H. Hall (Health and Strength magazine Feb. 1903 pp 59-60.) E.J. Harrison refers to the difficulty of trying to put an armlock on a skilled puncher in The Manual of Judo Foulsham & Co. Ltd., London 1953 where he warns of the danger of exposing "yourself to the risk of a swinging uppercut with your opponent's left fist on the point of your jaw. Such a fate once befell a not very large Japanese policeman who tried to demonstrate this particular hold on a big and powerful English friend of mine, a hotel proprietor in the Japanese lake district. The Japanese policeman went down for the count. So take heed how you try this hold on a tough antagonist handy with his mits!" - p 141

8.) The Japan Reader Vol.# 1 Imperial Japan 1800-1945 J. Livingstone, J. Moore, F. Oldfather Penguin Books 1976 p 88

9.) Samurai The Story of a Warrior Tradition H. Cook Blandford Press 1993 p 121

10.) Arthur Wise in The History and Art of Personal Combat (Hugh Evelyn 1971) explains that "The Viking berserk is perhaps in a category of his own.His behaviour in battle, not so much fearless as totally careless about his own safety, has something in common with the astonishing activities of the Japanese Kamikaze pilot of the Second World War. We might regard him, rushing alone and stripped of his byrnie into the midst of an enemy mass, as not so much phenomenally brave as profoundly mad.He was largely outside the law. His end was usually bloody. Since he fought without compassion or quarter, he was given none. Hacked at with the broad-bladed swords of the enemy, rammed through with their spear thrusts, he fell, finally dismembered with their axes. His frenzy in battle was terrifying to an was a frenzy that we associate more usually with peoples less civilized than were the Vikings." pp 25-26

11.) The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung Stuart R. Schram Penguin Books 1969 pp 152-160

12.) The Iron Fist A History of the SS Panzer Divisions Leo Kessler Futura Publications Ltd. 1978 p 7. For a general account of the Hitler Youth see Hitler's Young Tigers, Rupert Butler (Arrow Books 1986).

13.) For a thorough discussion of the importance of morale see Fighting Spirit - A Study of the Psychological Factors in War, Major-General F. M. Richardson (Leo Cooper Ltd. 1978).

14.) The willingness to die for an ideal is to be found in the histories of all nations. At the Battle of Maldon (10th/11th August AD 991) a group of Anglo-Saxon warriors fought a band of invading Vikings. The Anglo-Saxon leader was Byrhtnoth, the earldorman (King's deputy) of Essex (?). During the battle Byrhtnoth was killed and the bulk of his forces ran away. A small group of loyal warriors remained to fight to the death to protect Byrhtnoth's body. An Anglo-Saxon poem records the words of Byrhtwold, one of Byrhtnoth's followers:-

'Byrhtwold spoke, raised board-shield; he was an older warrior; he brandished ash-spear and full of courage addressed his comrades. 'Minds must be firmer, hearts the bolder, soul-strength the greater, as our resources lessen. here lies our lord, lethally wounded, good man on the ground. May he grieve for ever who from this war-work would consider withdrawing. I am old in age, away I won't, but myself by my master, by so beloved a man, would finally lie.'

The Battle of Maldon Text and Translation trans. Bill Griffiths Anglo-Saxon Books 1993 p 62

15.) For an account of the traditional story see Devils Not Men The History of the French Foreign Legion, Roy C. Anderson (David & Charles 1987 pp 45-47 ). While the story of Camerone is inspiring and has been raised to the status of a sacred cult by the Foreign Legion, it may be largely a myth. According to a report of the action compiled by the Mexican commander Colonel Milan, the Mexican's forces were 850 strong. Colonel Milan wrote "Our cavalry surrounded the house..Then I started the attack in spite of the fact that the enemy was well protected and that we lacked artillery to open a breach or tools to make trenches. The battle lasted half a day and finished by nightfall and was maintained by the belief that we were a guerrilla band and that we wouldn't spare their lives. In the end they succumbed after the death of two of their officers and after another one was wounded. The majority of the force abandoned the fight. - Among the 60 soldiers who were called, 20 died, and among those who were left 16 were seriously injured (of which eight died very quickly and the rest probably died later) and 24 made prisoners. they fell into our power without any possibility of escape. They were attended with great care by the medical section." - Archive batters Legion's myth, Tony Geraghty, The European 24 March 1993.

16.) The Code of the Samurai, A. L. Sadler Tuttle 1988 p 25. See also: Budoshoshinshu- The Warrior's Primer of Daidoji Yuzan trans. William Scott Wilson Ohara publications 1984

17.) Zen and Japanese Culture, D. T. Suzuki (Princeton University Press 1973 p 132).