A brief history of the 'dojo' to the 'gym'
In the 80's, we did Karate, Tae Kwon Do and Kung Fu because of Bruce Lee, Van Damme, Steven Seagal, or whatever your favourite 80's action hero was known for (Michael Dudikoff, anyone? Jeff Speakman? Don the Dragon? no?). Sorry bout that. I know my 80's heads feel the B list movie game.
The Black Belt/McDojo era 1980-1997
This was a really crappy time in my opinion and unfortunately the era I started in. I went everywhere--Karate, TKD, Kung Fu...and it was all the same. The goal was to get a ranking, and attendance would get you closer to ranking, you had to break some boards, then you get some sort of belt, then renew and pay more for a membership because you were higher in ranking...I don't know I was a kid but something smelled fishy to me.
Anyway--in the 90's things started to shift. Those action stars started to fade, and Martial Art no longer had it's free advertising. So, it started to create it's own advertising and man was it terrible. With our heroes fading from the big screen, dojo owners started to mythify themselves, as a means to manufacture their own demand. 'Why watch the hero, when you can BE the hero' seemed to be the guiding principle of that era. This is the birth of the 'Bullshido' era; the commodification of eastern philosophy (budo) into a product for purchase. Manufacturing this demand was about bringing to life the 80's illusion of martial grandeur--admission into a highly secret lineage of Martial Artists that only the best qualified.
This was a highly coveted symbol to attain. It meant, possessing the very sense of grandeur our action heroes had. For only $1300/yr, you can be admitted to the 'wudanshi' program (as my old Sensei called it) which basically meant a student was in a 'fast track' stream of learning (but never entailed any specialized/individual instruction outside the general classes) and basically meant that he'd just get moved ahead of those before him to get his black belt due to his 'exceptional dedication' (though all he did was pay more).
Martial Art, had become commodified, and consumed by the masses, and 'bullshido' quickly became 'McDojo'. 'McDojo' was the result of a successful black belt marketing program which naturally de-volved into satellite locations to be reproduced throughout different communities. 'Black Belts' in reality were just the next crop of hopeful franchisees for the franchisor.
The Gym Era 2000-present
Then, in the early-mid 90's, my made me watch the craziest thing on PPV (I was 11yrs old at the time): 'The Ultimate Fighting Championship'. It brought to life the basic plot line of every B level Martial Art movie--a one night tournament featuring the elite of every single martial art style to fight to the finish. There were no rules, with few exceptions: No small joint manipulation, no soft tissue attacks (eye gouging) and no killing...because, that would be brutal lol.
In the McDojo era, all schools/styles proclaimed to be the best and often discredited other styles with backyard tales of domination...but now with the UFC we can finally put this argument to bed. The UFC had a disruptive effect on the current environment of Martial Business. They were to Martial Art paradigm what Uber is today, to the taxi industry. So refreshing and so different that the old guard began to see their mortality (and it did not coincide with the mythology Black Belts were feeding themselves).
I loved seeing the Karate guys get smashed. Sorry, not sorry. At the time I was being taught by fat black belts who scoffed at any notion that something was superior to their 'Hard/soft way' (because their masters, masters, master knew the guy in Okinawa that was trained by the son of the founder for a weekend) and that no new moves existed to beat their style. The UFC provided the chance to test these notions. It wasn't so much that I wanted to see Karate destroyed, but that I just love seeing a man discover that the weak argument he had given so much credence to all his life, simply wasn't true because he didn't ever stop to think about the juice he was being told to drink. Thats what Martial Art is about--testing one's notions and philosophies under real conditions to establish truth. This is the process of humility. It's rooted in reality, not fiction.
The UFC at the time, was provocative in my opinion. It provoked every single Martial Artist to re-evaluate what they 'know'. Up until that point, the western education of Martial Art came from Action heroes, and 'Sensei's' who mythified themselves based off a manufactured perception. The general public didn't have a non-fiction based experience of Martial Art, but now they do.
The late 1990-2010 is what I would call the 'gym era. Dojo's started to close, and gyms started to open because the sum of the negative customer experiences of the Bullshido and McDojo's rendered the fabled 'Martial Artist' as a crooked salesman. The UFC did away with the 'Martial Artist' and introduced the Martial Athlete. it wasn't about dojo's anymore. Athletes go to gyms, not dojo's.
MMA gyms starting popping up everywhere.
Your local Tae Kwon Do instructor all of a sudden became an MMA instructor because for decades he's been hybridizing his style to fuse with the best of eastern and western disciplines, with striking and grappling components to bring you the most lethal Martial Art ever.
Actual competitive full contact fighters and instructors (Boxers/Wrestlers/Judoka/Muay Thai/BJJ) combined with one another to offer something as real as it gets.
I actually like MMA schools. Though most people might think I dislike them because I do Muay Thai, that simply isn't the case. You see, I like them for the same reasons I like Crossfit. Crossfit may draw a lot of criticism from the fitness public, but I'll tell you one thing: They brought back the classics--Powerlifting, Gymnastics, Track & Field, and Kettlebells. Old school methods that have been around for a century.
That's a beautiful thing. While most of the industry was manufacturing the newest fad, Crossfit went 'Old' and stuck with the masters.
For me, thats what the MMA movement brought back in style that the 80's action star, and 'Guru Sensei' distracted us from:
BJJ isn't camera friendly but it works.
Muay Thai is really hard. And it really hurts.
Wrestling is damn effective.
Stick fighting is dangerous.
Knife fighting is deadly.
As crossfit brought back the real physical disciplines and drew from it, so did MMA. They did away with the fake promises of the McDojo master and cut through the bullshido. It wasn't about sales, over skills.
MMA brought back skills for sale. I don't mean 'sales' in a crooked way or anything, I just meant that theres now an emphasis on skills, not belts. There's nothing wrong with paying for instruction--but the instruction should result in actual tangible skills, not illusion. You simply can't fake your way through fighting based disciplines like Boxing, BJJ, Wrestling, Muay Thai. You have to be in shape, your gonna get hit, and no ranking will protect you from that.
As for now?
I think things are evolving. I the we're starting to move away from the focus on martial competition and craving for the original intents of Martial Art: Internal benefit through exterior development.
I don't think students are overly concerned with which style is best anymore, because after 200+ UFC pay per views, the general public has come to grips that perhaps their main goal in life isn't to be the next GSP, or Anderson, or Fedor. I think the hype has died down a bit and goals have come back down to earth. People just want to be better people. They want to be better fathers, mothers, professionals and students. And they are searching again for the old promises that Martial Art once gave them because the current guard of big box fitness gyms are to big to deliver it. They just don't want to be lied to.
I think tuition is better than memberships. I believe in teachers over trainers. Community is better than cliques, and practice is better than amenities.
Where this industry goes next is unknown, but I do know that my next creation is about shaping what that next era is like.