Skip to main content

Combat Sports G.O.A.T. Fights: Chi vs. Reality

Kiai master Yanagi Ryuken put up 1 milllion yen, saying that no MMA fighter could beat him.

This article is a tiny part of a far larger effort to understand what really works by observing the application of martial arts techniques not in the arena, but in real life. If you liked it, check out more stories on:
Bullchit ... pronounced "bull cheat"
Martial Arts on The Street
Dojo Storms


Boxing has Ali vs. Frazier. MMA has Lawler vs. MacDonald. For the undying art of bullchit, Ryuken vs. Iwakura is the iconic contest that defines the genre.

It took place on November 26, 2006, at Hokkai Kitayell, an 80,000-seat sports center in Sapporo, Japan. Ryuken Yanagi, a master of what he calls Daito Ryu Aikido was 65; his opponent Tsuyoshi Iwakura was 35. 

Although Yanagi calls what he does "Aikido" not everything he believes is factual. Whatever issues Aikido has, this is not one of them.

Yanagi claimed to be 200-0 in no holds barred fights. Yanagi claimed to be able to beat Rickson Gracie, which of course makes no sense as Rickson is 400-0!* He wanted a contract with PRIDE Fighting Championship. And Yanagi claimed his qigong could heal tenosynovitis. You've probably never even heard of tenosynovitis; for the record, it's inflammation of a tendon and synovial sheath.

Ryuken had spent decades practicing on compliant students, utterly unable to withstand the power of his kiai and hand wiggles. Behold:

Unfortunately for Yanagi, he forgot the cardinal rule of bullchit - never get high on your own supply of bull. Yanagi offered one million yen (around $7,500 USD) to anyone who could beat him, if they put up half that amount.

Enter Yosuke Yamaki, a columnist for the magazine Tantei File, who specializes in humorous matches with actual fighters. His history of combat sports antics includes:
•Grappling Pancrase heavyweight and pro wrestler Hikaru Sato, outdoors, in cosplay costume;
•Grappling WMMA fighter and pro wrestler Atsuko "Bullfight Sora" Emoto at a DEEP X grappling show; and
•Grappling the likes of Shinya Aoki and Masakazu Imanari.

Yamaki offered to take Yanagi up on the challenge, but was deemed to be insufficiently skilled. When the journalist offered instead the challenge of his coach, Tsuyoshi Iwakura, the Daito Ryu Aikido master accepted. Iwakura was at that point a long-time student of judo, boxing, karate, and jiu-jitsu.

Fuji TV filmed the Tantei File magazine-organized encounter, with several hundred people watching. This is what happened:

Side note: Props to the ref for the Howard Combat Kimonos tee. Here's another angle:

Tsuyoshi Iwakura would later compete in MMA, going 1-2. 

Ryuken was out 1 million yen, a little blood, and whatever shreds of dignity he had left at that point, if any. Unfortunately, he learned nothing from the encounter. The old fraudster explained that he had been sick, which prevented his chi from flowing properly. 

He carried on, even having another bout, trying his hand at sumo vs. Sanae Kikuta, a former Pancrase light heavyweight champion (2001–2003) and ADCC 88 kg champ (2001). It's one of the shorter contests on record ever.

What Went Wrong?

Ryuken Yanagi deluded decades of students, and himself. The pattern is not unique in martial arts, and indeed defines a significant portion of what is taught in dojos, kwoons, and dojangs.

How does this happen?

The phenomenon of self-delusion in martial arts has been studied by several academics, including Dr. Gillian Russell, a Professor of Philosophy at the Dianoia Institute of Philosophy at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. In an essay titled "Epistemic Viciousness in the Martial Arts," Dr. Russell argues that, "many martial arts actually encourage ... both close-mindedness and gullibility, but also unwarranted epistemic deference to seniors and historical sources, lack of curiosity about important related disciplines and lack of intellectual independence."

An essay titled "The Pleasures of Drowning," by neuroscientist and best-selling author Dr. Sam Harris, looks at delusion in martial arts generally, and Ryuken Yanagi specifically.  "Unfortunately, a similar form of self-deception can be found in most martial artists, because almost all training occurs with some degree of partner compliance," he writes. "Students tend to trade stereotyped attacks in a predictable sequence, stopping to reset before repeating the drill."

Setting aside the reasons why seemingly normal people can become so profoundly befuddled in a martial arts class, the cure is simple: trained, active resistance. If practitioners of a style don't engage in it, it won't work.

If you practice a martial art that centers on active resistance against significant attacks from trained practitioners, then you are doing it right. If not, hopefully you never find out whether it works, or not. And there are lots worse ways of finding out than a couple of shots to the face.

As a parting thought, two bullchit masters - say Ryuken vs. George Dillman - each using their chi on each other at the same time, that could be pretty entertaining.

Share your thoughts on Yanagi Ryuken on The UnderGround Forum.

*Yes, that was a joke.