The Dangers of Self-Proclaimed Martial Arts Masters

What exactly is a “self-proclaimed” martial arts master?

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.

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.


don_cunningham by Don Cunningham (assistant professor at Radford University, war veteran and experienced martial artist)

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