I used to play Call of Duty rather a lot. I still enjoy it from time to time. Modern Warfare 2 was [and is] my favourite instalment in the series. I also used to play cricket a lot, and, for my age, to quite a high standard, though through neglect of training, loss of interest, and a number of other reasons, I am now far from the potential I could have fulfilled. I have also trained in martial arts for roughly an exact [nice oxymoronic idiom there] quarter of my (at the time of writing) relatively short lifespan. Amongst other things such as playing the violin and being at school, these are some of the pursuits which have consumed my time over the years. I'm going to talk a little about what I think they have to do with each other. Of course, there are many ways these things can be related to each other, so I shall just talk of one. To be exhaustive in such a project would be to write a doctorate paper, and that is not really my goal at this time.
To be clear, by the way, when I say "strength", "strong", etc. this has nothing to do with the physical quality of being able to lift over 200 kg on a bench press but rather, I am referring generally to an overwhelming level of skill, ability, and aptitude which leads to seemingly unquestionable dominance in a given field.
I was an average-at-best Call of Duty player when I started. I like to think, that after a fairly significant time spent immersed in the system, I became a player who was slightly-above-average-at-best. If playing seriously on a good day, I could normally top the scoreboards for perhaps an hour of consecutive matches. After that I'd get tired and wane dramatically, or just give up on playing seriously and mess around with shotguns and riot shields. On an average day, I might top the scoreboard one or twice an hour, and generally stay in the top half of my team, though not normally string more than 4 or 5 kills together at a time. Nothing stellar on average days. Thorough journeyman gameplay. On bad days, I lose my cool and die. Die and die and die. Often finish negative [having died more than killed, or lost more points than scored] on bad days. Bad days depended a lot on my temperament at the time. An average day might start exactly the same as a bad day, with five or so consecutive deaths. But with focus and a level head, somehow I claw it back to something halfway respectable. A good day can also start the same as an average day. What is added to the focus and level headedness to make it into a good day? Relaxedness, normally. Keen, sharp, and purely confident relaxedness. Something of a zen state.
Probably the easiest way to tell which sort of day I was having, apart from my scores, would be to look at my vocal performance. On an average day, I'm fairly quiet. In fact, I play mostly in silence. On a bad day, as one might expect, there are a few more expletives added. The silence itself takes on a ragged and strained quality. But on a good day, what sort of silence is it? On a good day, I am not, in fact, always silent. On a good day I can talk quite easily while playing and sound perfectly at ease. That would be, until I came up against a serious challenge, then the silence would return, but stiller and deeper than the fairly non-committal silence of an average day, and fuller and more absolute than the messy and torn silence of a bad day.
I am a much better Battlefield player than I am a Call of Duty player, in truth. I lead the scoreboards, or at least make top 3 of my team much more consistently in Battlefield than in Call of Duty. Or did, back when I played regularly. Why is it different? Apart from the game engine, network system, game types, and modes of play, which we might say contributed to a portion of the discrepancy, I was almost invariably more relaxed when playing Battlefield. I just cared less about doing well. Perhaps it was because I played mostly solo on Call of Duty and a lot with friends on Battlefield and, as a whole, we much preferred having flatout fun to stomping on other teams. In a nice paradox, the more we just played for fun, the more we tended to execute brutal stompings. It was during these sorts of sessions that I started to receive invites from players who were complete strangers to me.
I shant lie, I was completely flattered and really quite pleased. Being invited by a stranger is a mark of your proficiency, your ability, and overwhelmingly, your strength. Even moreso, being asked advice by a stranger illustrates greater respect than simply an invite. Asking advice in an online game, to a stranger, most often entails a sort of supplication to the other player's ability. Whether genuine or grudging, this level of respect is akin to a sort of reverence in the face of another player's strength. Because ultimately, that's all that anyone respects; strength.
I was only asked advice once in my whole time playing Call of Duty seriously. It completely made my day. In terms of the gaming world, I'm literally a nobody. I've never played in a tournament, never been in a ranked match, never excelled beyond the average-good level. Being asked advice is like being told you're strikingly beautiful by a stranger on the street. While, in the wrong context it can be unsettling and, actually, overwhelmingly creepy, in the right context, it's an exquisite feeling somewhere in between completely unfounded pride and disbelieving wish-fulfilment. At least, that's how I remember it. On Battlefield, I played in parties with strangers much more often. In the same vein, I was always pleased when they'd ask me to play with them continuously in game after game. Even moreso when they'd ask me to play with them again another day. It's like attending a dance class for the first time, expecting to have two left feet, but then being asked by more than one person to partner them constantly. All in all, it fills up your ego like so much wine in a glass only so big.
Now, as I said, I was, and am, a nobody in gaming, a small fry, a regular public player. What of those who are not nobody? The big fish, the real pros? What of them? I met a few in matches by coincidence. You can never tell what's more embarrassing, being on the same team or the opposite team. On the one hand, if you're against them, you're beaten into the ground, ignominiously crushed, no mercy, no hesitation, no quarter. And they make it look easy. Not just easy, but as if they might not even be playing seriously easy. But then, on the other hand, if you're playing on the same team, your performance is made to look so meagre and mediocre, it's arguably more humiliating. At least if you're against a professional you can justify your abysmal defeat. You have every right to be defeated in that situation. When you're playing with a professional you might as well ask yourself why you're even in that game lobby to start with. What's the point of being there when that single player's score is better than the rest of the team combined? Why bother fighting when that one player alone appears to be annihilating the entirety of the opposing team without your help. You're more hindrance than help. Spectator to the destruction at best; it's as if you need permission to begin to compete and if you don't live up to this behemoth's standards well, then why did you bother? In that situation it really does become better not to try. To do so would be to highlight one's own insignificance. It would be to say that your best is only this good. It would be to affirm your mediocrity, your averageness, your abject normalcy. It would be, in short, just a little bit humiliating.
It's not that gamers bow only to the strong, but to the strongest. After a game we all see the leaderboard, we check where we stand. And to what do we compare ourselves? Only the top score. Maybe the second top score might come into consideration if it's exceptional. We almost never bother to look at who is third from top, even if in any other game that'd be a very respectable score, even if in any other game, that'd be a first place score. Noone cares if you're not top.
Better to commiserate with your teammates about being destroyed by a pro than to be fourth on the winning team's scoreboard. You may as well not exist in that situation. You have no pride to salvage. Who's going to want to join your team or take your advice when there's someone three spots above you who tripled your points total in the last match?
Online gaming and the wider internet are rather inextricably interconnected, hence, the production of what one might refer to as a sort of gaming celebrity. Though most exceptionally skilled players prefer not to be referred to in such terms (on account of being generally sensible human beings), it is without a doubt that only those of the most extravagant ability ever attain this level of fame within the gaming community. Furthermore, it is only those who can consistently demonstrate the purest form of skill who maintain their fame. The enormous market on youtube for tutorial, hints and tips, and more general gameplay content videos has spawned many, many, would-be gaming heroes, but few are able to sustain the insatiable critical appetites of the wider community. It is simply not enough to win by massive margins. One must also obey the etiquette forms dictated by the gaming masses. Use of certain tactics is forbidden, certain weapons are frowned upon, certain play styles almost deemed cheating and reverence of strength will quickly be replaced by an overarching loathing. To go against the general etiquette is to disgrace your name.
Unless, of course, you were the first to do it. Unless, you are actually so good at it that it seems almost a throwaway comment to note that it is unfair. It is always true that certain methods will be considered cheating, or if not cheating, certainly considered unfair because of the advantage they confer. However, in the case of the strongest players at the pinnacle of the gaming world, where they themselves are the pioneers of those strategies, where they excel at those strategies so strongly that their sheer ability appears to overcome the advantage of the strategy itself
It is not enough to win by massive margins. First you must demonstrate the ability to dominate a level playing field. Then, when using taboo tactics, you must demonstrate a domination so overwhelming that it cannot be put down to those illicit methods alone. Anything less and your strength is immediately made invalid, null, and void. One must show a dominance so complete in this situation that the fact your methods were frowned upon, generally forbidden, and considered mostly unfair, seems entirely irrelevant.
And the final state to achieving this most pure levels of strength? To put yourself at a natural disadvantage and demonstrate an even greater dominance than when you were at an advantage. Limiting oneself to only secondary weapons, removing bonuses, power ups, perks, rewards and supplementary equipment, all these would be considered valid methods of limiting one's own strength. In the Call of Duty community, such examples would be the no-killstreak nuke, [for those who already know, do bear with me]. The nuke is a reward for 25 consecutive kills and ends the game in your teams favour. When combined with other rewards, such as the chopper gunner, which will normally gain you an extra ten kills at least, it is relatively easy to attain for the skilled player. But it becomes a different project entirely when undertaken while denying oneself such privileges. After that, what happens if you limit yourself to use only of a weapon such as a pistol, or a shotgun? What if you determine beforehand that you shall not remain in one spot for more than a minute at a time [since camping, the act of hiding and picking off passerbys, is an easy, safe, and universally frowned upon practice]? To impose such conditions upon oneself and still produce the same, no, a better result than when you played before- this is probably the highest level of credentials you can attain to attest your strength. Everything else is just embellishment.
Talents such as quickscoping, knife-only, shotguns-only, etc. etc. they all serve to act as part of your legend, but it wouldn't matter either way so long as your absolute strength remained valid. Once you're firmly seated atop the highest of heights, almost all your sins will be completely forgiven thereafter. Even playing badly can be excused as you were just messing around or having an off day. Everyone bows in the face of strength to this degree. And of course, every other pretender must follow the same rites of passage. If you cannot do what someone else did before, then don't even bother. You're already old news before you started.
I was happy when I was asked advice all of once. But giving advice freely without request is the privilege of those of the highest strata of strong. But, it is perhaps inaccurate to say there is a stratification of strength, it is much more a binary relationship than a continuous scale. There are only the strong and the not. And, I think, perhaps, it is not so much a privilege of the strong to give advice freely, but rather, the privilege of the weak to receive said advice, whether requested or not. Certainly within the gaming sphere, strength equates not only to fame and celebrity, but also strays close to the realm of idolisation and worship.
This is interesting to consider when two of the strong are at odds. It is like watching a holy war. Each church's disciples fight furious bitter battles of mud-slinging filth over who was right, who was wrong, who said what. Often noone cares why they were fighting actually, it becomes little more than a my church is better shindig before long. Often, this spiralling madness is far beyond the influence of the players in question themselves. In the end, there are calls for blood, and only blood will settle the matter. A duel, a play-off, a war, whatever will suffice. The people cry out and their leaders must answer. The word games are generally trivial matters. Phrases that often surface are such things as "I respect her/him as a player, but not as a person." Or vice versa "I respect him/her as a person, but not as a player." We are all very aware that none of us care. We are not questioning moral integrity, humanity, kindness, humility, character, or any other personality trait one could name. We just want to know who is better. More skilled, more talented, more awesome, more overwhelming, more dominant. We just want to decide who is the strongest. And just like that one church's followers will more than likely abandon that fallen house and be converted to the beliefs of the new faith.
This is what it means to be strong in the gaming world. The scrutiny is endless. One must not only transcend the realm of the lay-player, but must also defend one's strength from another's challenge and subsume such an enemy's defeat into one's own legend. One must be always on the frontiers, always producing even more inventive ways of validating your own strength, creating new challenges and defeating them. There is no middle ground if you are in the sphere of the strong, here. You are expected to lead and to blaze while you do so. Succeed and your legend will be endless. Flicker and you'll be doused into the realm of ignominy or worse, ignorance, before you can blink. All we bow to in gaming is strength, you're either strong or fodder. And when you're strong, you're absolutely worshipped.
That's for gaming. What of sports? I mentioned cricket, it's my best example since I was in it for quite a while and quite seriously. Quite a bit more seriously than I ever was in gaming. I think it was fair to say I was actually one of the most capable for my age, way back when, in my county. For sure, there were those who were better, but we'll get onto that later. Thanks to the good fortune of receiving training from an exceptional coach, the like of which I have never met again, I was able to ascend to a level that otherwise I would not even have touched at my highest natural peak. However, I was never considered one of the strongest players. I did not belong to that reserve.
It is curious to note, however, that while in sport, strength is still the highest governing factor, it is not based in results only. Where in gaming almost the entirety of a player's strength can be found in the numerical results of their games and the qualitative value of their play-style, in sport, an altogether more human agenda is added and quite abruptly the qualitative nature of strength alters dramatically.
Let me make an example. When I entered my first trials for the county representative side, my quantitative results were overwhelming. I displayed a dominant strength of the kind that would have been absolute in gaming. Next to my fellow trailing candidates I was dominant. For a 14 year old. You might think I'm exaggerating, as far as I remember it, I am not. In the first round of trials I could do no wrong. In the second, I recall injuring another player, not on purpose, I was just too fast for them. My success truly was stellar, and I remember being filled with pride and joy at receiving such praise from all quarters, at being so hyped and talked about and fundamentally at being so much better than other people. I had entered the heady realm of the strong, if just for a moment.
Again, for a moment, allow me to attribute my success entirely to my coach, who, above all, was exceptional for his experience and temperament more than his technical knowledge. Technical knowledge is overrated, anyone can learn it from a book. The art of teaching it is something altogether more arcane and infinitely more valuable.
Anyway, back to the point.
My first year as a 14 year old county player, I really did shine. I performed exceptionally in training, I performed exceptionally in matches. My teammates regarded me with a mixture of fear and awe, I must be honest, it felt fantastic. Quantitatively, I was exceptional. My scores were top, my statistics were top, I was the most consistent, the most reliable and the most dependable player for the season. Qualitatively I would also say I was probably the most diligent, and the most dedicated. For a 14 year old.
And that was my brief sojourn in the realm of the strongest.
Things rather went sour after that. I received an injury in the off-season. It was not that the injury actually altered my ability or play-style dramatically, if at all, but that it permanently altered my confidence, first in my body, and secondly in my ability. Recall early on that I said I perform best when I'm relaxed and at ease. My focus multiplies endlessly in such a state. With worries about my body niggling away at the back of my mind, I was no longer at ease, no longer quite as sharp in focus, no longer quite as confident I could do it. Foremost, I was no longer certain that I had the ability to be as overwhelmingly successful as I was before. Of course, my brain says otherwise, I did it before, I almost certainly could have done it again, but I was never able to access the reserves I knew I had lost somewhere along with my confidence. Victory was no longer a natural state for me. I simply did not believe that it was my right to be the best anymore. [It sounds arrogant, but, for a 14 year old, I wasn't, in truth. I did not see it as my 'right' as if I were born to do it, rather, I enjoyed playing so much that the conception of failing and not having fun never crossed my mind. There was literally no inkling of not succeeding. In that sense I had belief, rather than an inflated self-worth, which, I hope, I reasonably avoided, all things considered.]
Anyway, without my confidence, I was actually still a perfectly capable performer. My performance was still high, my ability was still good, all my skills were in order. But I did not have the gloss that I used to. I was flickering, and suddenly, despite my performance, in all probability, being as good quantitatively as it ever had, I felt qualitatively, and looked qualitatively considerably less strong than I had before.
Over the next two to three years many questions were raised. I was criticised for my technique, my attitude and my fitness, I believe such criticisms were unfair, particularly my attitude and fitness. I was more diligent and serious in attending training than any other squad member, and I kept up my studies and other commitments outside of training too. As for my fitness, I constantly outperformed my teammates on stamina tests, bleep tests and flexibility tests. I recorded a particularly high sprint time compared to the others, I had exceptional lateral movement and core strength. [For a 15/16 year old.] I did not perform well in strength tests in terms of repeated push ups, for example, but was certainly not at the level of inadequacy that was suggested. I do not mind that they criticised my technique. I followed the teachings of my coach, who was not a member of their staff, to the letter, it is natural that there were some discrepancies, since misunderstandings always occur from era to era within coaching manuals and the idea of 'correct' technique.
That was for criticisms off the field. On the field, I was demoted from my batting position, despite my performance the previous season. My captain expressed a lack of confidence in my abilities as both a bowler, not to my face, but simply by denying me the positions normally reserved for the highest calibre players. This, at least, I felt was unfair. In addition, my teammates' treatment of me was different. The gloss was gone, I was no longer in the position of the strongest. Praise turned to jests, and sometimes more cruelly, ridicule. Residual fear remained, though most of it groundless. Hints of jealous sneering and mocking crept in. It was bitter and it was petty. For 15/16 year olds we were awfully concerned with which among us was the best player. It is only natural, of course, since all we respected was strength, but we lost our context, our ability to judge. How good were any of us really? Certainly none of us, at that time were anything to brag about. But our overwhelming concern for filling the now vacant, now questionable position of 'strongest' drove us against each other in fits of spoilt bickering. We spent more time putting each other down than working as a team at all. Unsurprisingly, we lost a lot of games those seasons.
Other players were moved forwards as candidates for the strongest players, but none ever seemed to take that position and truly fulfil it. For sure, they were talented, and some of my better friends, I thought were certainly at a higher level than I was by the time I left the county system. However, none of them ever exerted the unquestioned dominance that is demanded of the strongest. Why then, were they put in the position to challenge for the strongest in the first place? As we saw in the gaming example, only those who are already producing exceptional results are acknowledged as strong. Not so in sport. Sport is riddled with examples of qualitative, seemingly arbitrary judgements of ability which do not necessarily have any bearing on any given player's actual ability.
It comes down to an acceptance and upholding of orthodoxy. Within sport, there are the traditional ways, in the same way that in gaming, there are forbidden strategies. In gaming, one must avoid these strategies, except to conquer them through a display of pure skill. In sport, one must adhere to tradition as thoroughly as possible, in order to display the purest level of skill. Where in gaming there are things that should not be done, in sport, there are things that should always be done.
This is entirely valid from a technical standpoint. There are certain parts of technical knowledge that one should always adhere to, simply because it is the best way to perform, there isn't an alternative. It would make no sense to throw a ball without applying the proper hip movements. It would be to no advantage at all to attempt to strike the ball with the bat one handed [injury not withstanding] since it confers no advantage whatsoever within the structure of the sport. These sorts of traditions, if they may be referred to as such, completely make sense. It is when different traditions seep in, ones that remain unquestioned, but are not, in fact, at all as obviously useful as they are said to be that this becomes a destructive qualitative arbitration.
For example, in cricket, it is traditional that a bowler should deliver the ball from a side-on position. In reality, this confers no biomechanical advantage. If anything, it limits the movement of the hip and puts extra strain on the muscles of the sides and lower back. However, the tradition is such that there is no question that a side-on delivery is more valued in terms of strength than a front-on one. In addition, it is considered as quite a traditional value that faster bowlers are considerably less accurate with their delivery. It is an assumption that is taken as canon. As a fast bowler in the county system, I believe I bowled fewer wide deliveries than any of my fellows, certainly in my first year in the system. It is also considered a traditional value that left handed players are more valuable than right handed ones on account of their scarcity and that right-handed players are said to struggle against left-handed ones. As a right handed player, I relished playing against left-handed players, because, more often than not, they were crowbarred into a team for no other reason than their left-handedness, and hence, lacked any appreciable skill, and were essentially dead weight. I could go on, but there are many parts of sporting 'tradition' which are based solely on the intuition and/or hearsay of a number of coaching, administrative, and managerial bodies, who may, or may not be misquoting, paraphrasing, or simply misunderstanding what they are attempting to elucidate. This gives rise to endless waves of rigid idiocy which muddies the judgement of strength to such a degree that those who truly would stand at the top with their own strength become much rarer, and more often than not, are not given the chance to do so. [I am not referring to myself here, I quit of my own volition and revoked all rights to any such thing. No quitter is strong, unless they quit at the top.]
Of course, there are those who rise. In international cricket, the highest wicket taker of all time was one of the least orthodox players also. The greatest batsmen in history, Don Bradman, who stands unrivalled in cricketing history, was considered an ugly and graceless player in his time compared to his contemporaries. It holds true that we still respect only the strongest in sport also. Unfortunately, what it means to be strong in sport has been warped dreadfully. Strength appears to also entail compliance, certainly if your strength is to be recognised qualitatively by the coaching body and the public at large. Again, to overcome this hurdle, it is not enough to win by enormous margins, but to express victory in such a way that you are historically unchallenged, and even in this case, there is the risk that you are not considered just strong, but also a unique and uncommon fluke. Within this structure it is a wonder that any true talent is ever allowed to surface with the pains the system goes through to suffocate and subjugate it. To be the strongest in sport has two main routes. Either follow unquestioningly the traditions of your given sporting body, and excel at them beyond all others. Be considered a "classic" player. The difficulty here is not only aligning with expectations, but also being able to exert your skill enough to overcome the weight of the tradition itself. In the same way that a gamer must outperform forbidden methods to the point they seem irrelevant in the face of his/her skill, so too must a sportsman/woman outperform traditional methods. The other route is a curious mirror of the first, also primarily concerned with outperforming the traditional values, but from the unorthodox point of view. In this case the outperformance must be even more phenomenal in order to overcome the weight of tradition.
In short, in order to be acknowledged as the strongest in sport, one must always fight to overcome the history of sport itself, the rigorous recording of records and statistics weighing against the arbitrary judgement of play style. It is almost impossible to escape this double bind of quality and quantity which makes it much harder and complex to reach the pinnacle of sport.
And finally, what of martial arts? Where gaming strength is almost entirely result-based and quantitative, sport finds a conflict between quantitative and qualitative strength, and the martial arts find themselves judging strength almost entirely qualitatively, arbitrarily.
Why is this so? Surely one can judge the strength of a martial artist from a fight record? This may have once been true, but true martial skill is not something that can be quantified so simply for a number of reasons.
For a start, let us define the skill of a martial artist. It is often something that gets confused in such discussions. The definition we shall use in this case, at least, will be the ability to kill, and kill with complete control, such that an enemy may be left unharmed or dead at any time while under the complete mastery of the given artist.
Simple killing on its own is the domain of the soldier, the mercenary, the brute, and the animal. Allowing a potential enemy to live without the ability to take their life, cannot be called allowing them to live at all. That is simply incompetence. Hence, a true martial artist's highest skill must be the absolute control of a potential enemy where an effectively life-taking technique can be applied at any given instant.
How is it possible to quantify such a thing?
In the modern world of martial arts, there are, of course, no life-and-death duels. Not to mention the legal issues, they have been considered barbaric for longer than the law forbade them, for the simple reason that most often they were barbaric. There is a tendency to romanticise such duels in 'the old days' as honourable combat of immense skill between two upright and chivalrous individuals. More realistically, and more commonly it was two proud and violent individuals threatening to kill each other for the sake of imagined honour found only in the ego. Such combat is, indeed, worth no name other than barbarism. For that reason, and many others, life-and-death duelling is no longer a reality in martial arts. It has been replaced wholly with competition sparring and sport matches which are poor imitations of true martiality. For example, in my days in karate, we used a few different systems for scoring matches, but one way or another, they all revolved around point-scoring. A certain type of strike to a certain zone would accord a certain number of points and so forth. Some conditions accorded more points, and some allowed an instant victory. Naturally, this sort of weighting changes the mechanic of combat entirely. When a punch is worth fewer points than a kick, a competition fighter will make the obvious choice and opt for the chance of more points, even though in true combat a punch may be more effective. This sort of fighting cannot be seen to accurately represent martial skill, hence we shall discard it.
Then, is life-and-death duelling a better representation of skill? If, hypothetically, it was still around, would we be able to determine a martial artist's skill from their record in these sorts of duels? Certainly, it is a more accurate representation of true combat than a sport match. After all, one's life is on the line, does combat not get more real? Well, it would be problematic to say that a duel represents true combat at all. In true combat, would an adversary ever stop and challenge you before attempting to kill you? Would they bother to wait for you to be ready and face you one on one in more or less fair circumstances? Perhaps. But I think you would be exceptionally lucky if you were ever attacked by such an a one as that. Furthermore, to take one's victories in combat numerically and extrapolate that to martial skill is to neglect the very fact that chance is a never out of the question when life is on the line. In any combat contest, and particularly armed duels, be it katana or rapier, or the six-shooter showdown at noon, the margin for error is so small that, skill notwithstanding, you just might die anyway.
Wait, does that not mean that an undefeated record means your skill must be so high as to avoid death every time?
Look at it the other way. How can simply knowing that one was undefeated in life-and-death duels mean it was skill that saved them? The fact the other fighter died may just as easily have been the product of raw chance as skill. With the numbers alone, one cannot tell. Hence, we find that it is impossible to quantify martial skill, certainly by way of fight record, no matter what type of duel it is.
We must then resort solely to qualitative judgement. To arbitrary observations and conclusions. Surely this is the most unreliable and inconclusive gauge of strength? Yes, one might think so, and, to be honest, one might be right to think so. There is no true way of knowing whether this sort of arbitration is correct. Nevertheless, the martial arts world also holds its greatest reverence and respect for strength and strength alone, so one way or another a judgement must be reached.
The way most martial artists use is to feel. That's not to say, to make wishy washy motions in the air and interpret signs of the universe, that's to say, experience being on the end of a technique. It's something of a martial arts myth that masters can tell one another's strength from a single exchange of blows. It's probably fairly accurate. A properly trained martial artist understands the mechanics of an effective technique and understands the proper experience of giving and receiving such a technique. In receiving a technique, one can find present, your partner's skill within their movements. If the technique is inescapable, inexorable, and unnaturally effortless, and you still survive, one can be sure that this is a technique of the highest level, completely capable of taking life, but mercifully also able to spare it. If, on the other hand, the technique is ungainly, overly forceful, erratic, or easy to counter, then it can surely be said that the martial artist executing the technique is lacking in certain skills.
For sure, it is difficult to gauge exactly how skilled or unskilled one is in this way, but it is definitely possible to say whether one is more skilled than another and develop a surprisingly astute judgement based upon this observation. This, in essence, is the whole fabric of martial arts training. The continuous execution of techniques in practice is nothing more than the continuous demonstration and assessment of skill, while at the same time cultivating and improving it. A skilled master ought always to be able to determine the relative levels of her/his students from nothing more than everyday training.
Is it really so simple? Just watch and feel and you know? It is hard to believe, of course. I, myself, in my training have often found myself mystified by simply watching, unable to determine and sometimes doubting the effectiveness of techniques. When under the tutelage of a skilful master [which I believe I am lucky enough to be] I am left in no doubt after experiencing the technique properly.
In the martial arts world, there are always certain figures who inspire fear, awe, and respect from every quarter. Such figures are always the strongest. Often, they are also spoken of in slightly suspicious tones, in tones that broker the idea of everything from slightly unhinged to flatout psychological derangement. Crazy or not, noone is left questioning their ability. Those who are deemed worthy to receive their training feel the technique first hand. The results of that technique are there for everyone else to see. It is not always the master that it is best to observe, but sometimes the reaction of the thrown student. How well are they able to control their fall? Is there no way they can escape that lock? Would they have been able to react to that strike in any other way?
The master of my master is one such individual who instils such a sense of awe. He is considered one of the strongest martial artists in his art, in the world. Despite being something of a maverick, his garners respect from all quarters, even those who disagree with his methods and his style pay him his dues. He is truly a fearful man, and many do speak of him with genuine fear. But there is no doubt that his ability is absolutely dominant in the field of the martial arts. Noone doubts his ability to kill, yet noone doubts he has full control of every situation with which he is faced, which somehow makes his strength all the more fearful.
In this sense, it can be seen that to be the strongest in martial arts, the only condition one must fulfil is to truly be the strongest. In order to verify one's martial skill at the highest level, one must attain the highest level of martial skill. There aren't any tricks or exceptional feats one must display, nor any particular organisational rules or traditions that must absolutely be followed. Only the purest of absolute skill will pass for strength in the martial arts. In the same way as gaming, one is expected to lead the martial arts world, but one cannot be defamed out of one's position of strength. True martial skill will be respected into the grave, as grim as it sounds. In the same way as sport, one must rise up of one's own volition, but it does not matter whether one does that within the confines of a certain school, association, or organisation. If that one is possessed of true skill, there will be no room for disrespect. The value of this strength is universal in the world of martial arts. In 'the old days' [let's say the 1920s] it was common for anyone who heard of your skill and doubted your worth to approach you at your training hall and challenge you. Particularly if you were the teacher at the training hall, the honour of your whole style would be at stake. The first Aikido headquarters and the students there were challenged and attacked with frequency by practitioners of the already more established karate and judo styles. Of all the documented cases I have read, what stands out is the absolute, not just dominance, but almost transcendence of the founder of Aikido in such situations. He is described by his opponents as 'like a ghost, impossible to strike', or 'glaring like a dragon' with an absolute presence of immense ferocity and power. Many of these challengers ended up abandoning their former styles and joining Ueshiba's [Ueshiba is the name of the founder of Aikido] school instead. It is this sort of absolute strength that can only be felt within technique that those in the martial arts world revere above all other and will follow without question. Nothing more and nothing less than true martial technique will suffice for strength in martial arts.
So, to conclude then. It can be said that overwhelmingly, within the disciplines discussed, we prize strength, that is strength as absolutely dominant ability, above all other things. It is the prerequisite for respect of any form and without it, one almost invariably fades into insignificance. The stratification of strength is mostly binary. With little time for those in-between stretches, we generally tend to look only at those who are the strongest as opposed to those who are simply not. This leads to a very defined division between those who fulfil the requirements for strength and those who do not, the former immediately becoming iconic, feared, revered, and idolised figures to the latter. The gulf between the two is such an extreme that strength alone is enough to validate the rest of one's conduct, the rest of one's existence within their discipline. It is the be all and end all and perhaps it might be questioned not what the the value of strength is, but what would we value within these disciplines without strength?