This article was originally posted at BloodyElbow.com by John S. Nash, co-written with Thomas Nash on July 27, 2012 [†]
In honor of the release of The Dark Knight Rises, [†] we have been exploring the hand-to-hand fighting skills of Batman, mostly as revealed in the works of his creators and early storytellers, Bob Kane and Bill Finger.
So far, we have covered his two primary disciplines, boxing (Part 1) and jiu-jitsu (Part 2), now we will be summing up our three-part series by looking at the other varied martial arts used by the Caped Crusader in his Golden Age stories.
While we have shown that jiu-jitsu is Batman's predominate grappling style, it isn't the only one to be revealed as part of his repertoire. In Batman #11, "Bandits in Toyland", the Dynamic Duo is not only shown on the mat running through "wrestling drills", but Batman himself is referred to as a "master coach".
Evidence of this mastery appears several times during his adventures, including the image below which depicts Batman rendering a giant cat (don't ask) unconscious through the use of a full nelson. One can also see he is aware enough to put his "hooks in" via way of a double grapevine on the feline's legs, a popular tactic from catch-as-catch-can wrestling, and very similar to the half-nelson and grapevine combination demonstrated by Frank Gotch in his 1908 book, Wrestling and How to Train:
Batman reveals himself to be something of a "leg wrestler" (a wrestler who can use his legs as another set of arms) when he uses another grapevine to take down an armed criminal, while he remains standing. This feat is made all the more impressive by the fact he does so without the aid of his arms, which have been bound.
In fact, Batman (and Robin) are skilled enough to be able to not only jump into the ring and face a pair of professional wrestlers in Detective Comics #73 (March, 1943) but to also quickly defeat them. Of course, the two wrestlers could very well just be "workers" and not true "shooters", but for Batman and Robin to easily handle such large men in an era when actual grappling skills was not uncommon, suggests a level of skill well beyond adequate.
Despite his obvious proficiency at it, Batman is not shown using his wrestling skills nearly as much as his other combat skills.
The reason for this probably lies with his overriding priority to keep the fight standing. Due to his excellent wrestling skills, he can likely keep the fight off the ground in the first place. Many MMA matches have demonstrated the superior wrestler is the one who dictates where the fight takes place - in Batman's case, he prefers staying on his feet.
In this regard, his philosophy on fighting resembles William Ewart Fairbarn, who wrote, when describing the lack of groundfighting in his 1942 hand-to-hand combat manual:
"... no holds or locks on the ground are demonstrated. The reason for this is: a) THIS IS WAR: your object is to kill or dispose of your opponent as quickly as possible ... b) Once on the ground, you are more vulnerable to attack... therefore, it is obvious you should concentrate on remaining on your feet."
However, this does not mean to imply Batman never takes the fight to the ground. In situations where he is facing a single opponent and has no fear of another combatant entering the fray, Batman has shown a propensity to take his foe down to where he can control and dispatch them in brutal fashion.
When he wishes to do this, he will usually shoot on them, employing a double leg takedown. Of course, he might have picked up this skill not in wrestling but in football, as wrestling coach Todd Vennis stated, "A [wrestling] takedown is nothing more than a football tackle."
Robin has also been shown to be quite adept in these takedowns/tackles, seeming to suggest these skills arise from their training in wrestling and not American football.
Surprisingly, one of the few martial arts outside of boxing, jiu-jitsu, and wrestling, in which we actually see Batman and Robin training, is fencing.
While it may seem ludicrous that a modern (well, 1940s modern) crime-fighter would need to know how to use a foil or sabre, in Gotham City it proves to be a rather useful talent. The Golden Age Batman seems to find himself in a duel every couple of months against modern day pirates, gentlemen thieves, or villains like the Cavalier of Crime or the Penguin.
While Batman may not be a master swordsman, he is competent enough to hold his own against most foes in a clash of blades.
But even if he weren't facing so many sword-wielding criminals, would fencing offer any true benefits to an urban vigilante? Bruce Wayne himself thinks so, telling Robin, "fencing teaches you quickness and movement".
SBNation's own TP Grant, a fencer himself, further informs us how fencing aides Batman in facing off against armed opponents:
"Weapon combat is very different from unarmed combat, so getting a feel for that distance is important. Precise footwork and manipulation of said distance is also a fundamental element of that sport.
"A fencer develops a sense of timing for when to close or open distance, and an explosive burst with which to do it. Good compliment to any striking training, as it helps develop good, straight punches.
"And for any weapon defense training it teaches the ability to move quickly away from wild slashes with a knife or swings of a club and then leap in to grab in between swings."
That someone like Batman, (a man whom would want to make it a priority to never be struck because of the potential fatal consequences, while also always exploiting an opening to deliver his own coup de grace) would opt to study a sport that stresses such important principles, should come as no surprise. When facing off against criminals armed with knives or cudgels, let alone swords, Batman would find the skills developed in fencing to be very beneficial in his line of work.
Batman wasn't alone in this thinking, for another Bruce, this one with the last name Lee, also saw the advantages of certain fencing techniques, having learned about them through his fencing brother, Peter. Bruce Lee appears to have incorporated many concepts from the sport into his own martial art philosophy/style of Jeet Kune Do, including the stance and the principle of the "Stop-Thrust", which Lee calls "Stop-Kick." Fencing also stressed efficiency, as well as control over distance, timing and rhythm, all things that both Bruces would find useful in a fight.
The foil, epee and sabre were not the only weapons with which Bruce Wayne and his ward studied. A passing comment to Dick Grayson (also in Batman #4) states, "in our business, it helps to know the use of all weapons." This alludes to the fact Batman and Robin have apparently familiarized themselves with many other hand-held or even thrown weapons. While we can only guess which ones, it would be safe to assume weapons including knife, stick, cane, quarterstaff, baton, and cudgel would all be on the list; as well as, of course, thrown weapons -- such as the boomerang.
While Batman mostly uses his fists, in this series we have proven that on occasion he also kicked, kneed and used other unorthodox strikes. The writers never credit any one, specific fighting style for these attacks, but many of them bear a striking resemblance to techniques from boxe française and savate de rue.
Considering the era in which the stories were originally written, it isn't hard to imagine Bob Kane, Bill Finger, or another writer or artist working on the series, having been familiar with savate in some way, either exposed to it in person, through film, or by way of reading about it in a book or an article.
It would have made sense for someone like Batman to have trained in savate. Not only is it a discipline which would have been relatively easy for him to study (merely traveling to Paris), compared to (then) less well-known kicking martial arts; but also, many self-defense experts, such as Edward William Barton-Wright, Émile-André, Jean Joseph Renaud, William E. Fairbarn, and Eric A. Sykes, all drew heavily from this French martial art for their own systems.
Systems that share many of the same street-fighting features as Batman's.
Martial artists from the past are not the only ones who have observed the advantages of knowing savate. BloodyElbow.com's kickboxing expert, Fraser Coffeen, offered his own insights on how savate, a martial art rooted in street fighting, could prove quite useful to a vigilante such as Batman:
"Savate is an excellent choice for Batman for a number of reasons: To start, savate is one of the few kicking-based martial arts that is contested primarily while wearing shoes. In savate, you strike with the shoe, not with the shin, as in other arts.
"Obviously, Batman needs to keep his boots on during a fight, so using savate would be an excellent choice for him. This would also allow him to pad his boots, making his kicks more effective. The savate chasse-croise lateral high kick was probably Batman's most used kick."
As a whole, it's also a very defensive-based style, using a lot of movement to avoid shots while coming back with your own kicks. As Mr. Coffeen explained, savate fits perfectly into Batman's philosophy of "hitting, but not being hit" fighting style.
As Batman tended to face a number of foes at once, this kind of defense was important - even small blows will accumulate when landed with too much frequency, so a style like Muay Thai that generally takes more blows than savate would be detrimental to Batman in a large scale melee.
It also allows for Batman to take advantage of his footwear, as we see here in this savate illustration depicting a kick being thrown which bears a strong resemblance to a "high body" cou-de-pied from boxe française, landing with his booted heel:
Another kick which bears a striking resemblance to one used in savate is demonstrated by Robin, who uses the tip of his shoe to deliver a "belt kick", while simultaneously throwing a foe:
Now compare Robin's kick with this illustration taken from this 1896 article, "Fighting with Four Fists", introducing savate to the American readers of McClure's Magazine:
Of course, the old street-fighting, self-defense aspect of savate du rue didn't focus solely on the shoe, nor the boot. It also taught one to use the knees and elbows.
Here, we have Batman's sidekick, Robin, throwing a knee looking suspiciously like one of those shown in savate self-defense manuals:
The Mixed Martial Arts
By now Batman's fighting style should start sounding and looking very familiar to the MMA savvy reader. Cross-training in multiple martial arts; the ability to grapple or strike (be it with a punch, kick or knees); a knowledge of the different ranges and phases of combat, including standup, ground, and clinch; and the ability to seamlessly transition from one phase to another.
From these descriptions, Batman sounds like the prototypical modern MMA fighter, even though he debuted over five decades before the UFC first appeared on the scene (and one year before Bruce Lee, the "Father of MMA" was even born). Perhaps even more uncanny, is that Batman utilizes many tactics and maneuvers that are so well-identified with the modern sport of MMA.
One such tactic is ground and pound, which he demonstrated many years before Mark Coleman or Mark Kerr first introduced it to UFC and Pride.
As we mentioned above, occasionally Batman will take a foe to the ground (preferably with a double leg takedown), and when he does, he will often get a high mount, then posture up before proceeding to rain down blows. Batman's reasons for using ground and pound in a fight are most likely due to him following advice such as Fairbarn's from above. Unlike submission holds and locks, ground striking makes it easier for Batman to disengage from his opponent and get up off the ground if more attackers appear, so as not to leave himself vulnerable.
An interesting aside about Batman's ground and pound technique is how he actually uses a leg to pin one of his opponents arms, leaving them unable to properly defend themselves from his onslaught.
In the rare times when Batman or Robin finds himself on his back, they will both use another familiar move from MMA to defend himself - the upkick.
Not only was Batman ahead of MMA fighters in techniques, but he was also ahead of them in training and conditioning.
Since the beginning, Batman has been an advocate of gymnastics, in fact training Dick Grayson in acrobatics and gymnastics even before he showed him boxing or jiu-jitsu (although, he admitted the former circus performer could probably show him a trick or two). Modern MMA fighters like Georges St-Pierre are only now starting to train in gymnastics.
Georges St-Pierre (GSP) describing gymnasts:
"The gymnasts are the best athletes in the world, so when you do gymnastics, it makes you more athletic. And you're able to repeat every movement of every sport."
Now compare that to this description of "gymnast Batman" (from Detective Comics #27) who "trains his body to physical perfection until he is able to perform amazing athletic feats." Perhaps Georges and his trainers would have known about the benefits of cross-training gymnastics earlier, if only they had known to read old Batman comics?
But what about Karate? Kung Fu? Ninjitsu? Wouldn't Batman need to be a master of these arts as well? Not necessarily.
First off, from a practical point of view, we have to ask ourselves would the creators of Batman be aware of these Eastern martial arts? For most of them, no. Perhaps Kane and Fingers had heard about "Chinese Boxing", but that would likely be about it.
Even if they were aware of them, I doubt they would have opted to have Batman train in them for the simple fact not only were they not well known at the time, but the disciplines they had initially given him had already proven themselves effective to a New Yorker, circa 1939.
We also have to consider, from a storytelling point of view, if the Batman described in the comic books would even have had time to extensively train in these other styles, especially if he was already devoting so much time and energy to mastering the ones we have previously listed. It seems highly inefficient for him to bother to do so.
Does that mean Batman would know nothing about the "Oriental" martial arts other than jiu-jitsu? No, just that he wouldn't be a master of them and probably would never have comprehensively studied them either.
However, like Bruce Lee or many of our modern MMA fighters, Batman could easily have added a specific maneuver or technique to his arsenal, since he already has a strong foundation in striking and grappling, as well as being a superb athlete.
Just as Anderson Silva added an elbow from Muay Boran, Jon Jones the chasse Italien from savate, Chris Weidman mixing an elbow possibly developed by karate into his boxing, and even wrestler Chael Sonnen trying the spinning backfist (that last one, probably a bad example), it would be very easy to see Batman adding strikes or locks from karate, kung fu, aikido and other martial arts to his bag of tricks as well:
Which brings us to the most interesting point about the original version of the character Bob Kane and Bill Finger crafted for us all those years ago -- in many ways, he was the most realistic version of Batman (well, for a guy fighting crime dressed as a bat with a cape).
Yes, his adventures during the Golden Age period seem quaint and sometimes silly compared to his more mature modern adventures, but the fighting he demonstrated in those early pages, in light of what we have learned from the past two decades of mixed martial arts, is much closer to what we now know to be effective hand-to-hand combat, than what has been shown in later interpretations.
In this regard, not only has Batman the character survived the test of time, but the martial arts used by him in those Golden Age stories have proven even more effective in the decades occurring since then.
† -- This conclusion to a three-part Batman series, by our guest columnist John S. Nash, co-authored by Thomas Nash, has been cross-posted to CagesideSeats.com today (Nov. 01, 2012). In addition to delving into wrestling's past for Cageside Seats, John Nash has regularly chronicled the forgotten history of mixed martial arts at our fellow SBNation Blog: BloodyElbow.com, where this article was also posted back on July 27, 2012. Cageside Seats is proud to present a cross-posting of his article archives in this exclusive guest column for your enjoyment. To read more fascinating articles from Mr. Nash, simply bookmark this link and remember to check back frequently for new content.
Batman created by Bob Kane (and an uncredited Bill Finger). Robin created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and an uncredited Jerry Robinson. Author's Special Thanks to: Ben Thapa, TP Grant, and Fraser Coffeen for their valuable input.
- All art by Bob Kane unless otherwise noted.
- Detective Comics No. 44, "The Land Behind the Light."
- Detective Comics No. 36, Untitled
- Detective Comics No. 38, "Robin the Boy Wonder"
- Batman Vol. 1 No. 4, "Blackbeard's crew and the Yacht Society"
- Detective Comics No. 37, "The Screaming House"
- Batman Vol. 1 No. 2, Untitled
- Batman Vol 1 No. 1, Untitled
- Detective Comics No. 36, Untitled
- Batman Vol. 1 No. 2, Untitled
- Batman Vol. 1 No. 2, "The Case of the Missing Link"
- Batman Vol. 1 No. 260, "This One'll Kill You, Batman" Penciller: Irv Novac, Inker: Dick Giordano