Martial Arts in Portland, skepticism, critical thinking & Matt Thornton

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Martial Arts in Portland Oregon have been changed forever since the creation of SBGi, more than twenty years ago. SBG’s founder, Matt Thornton, was recently featured in the December issue of Portland magazine.

You can read the article here:  Martial Arts in Portland, skepticism & Matt Thornton

To quote from the article:

The Straight Blast Philosophy – Matt Thornton has a skeptic’s approach to fighting—and life.

At Northeast Portland’s Straight Blast gym, a string concerto echoes from the stereo. The atmosphere feels like a well-behaved library, not a macho sweatbox. Even so, within martial arts Straight Blast is known for its full-contact training style: students are more likely to battle each other than execute karate’s traditional kicks into thin air.

This two-fisted approach lends gym founder Matt Thornton renown as a trainer, but he’s now gaining notoriety for a different combative pursuit: philosophy.

In blog posts, videos, and interviews, Thornton propounds an arch-skeptic’s approach to both fighting and life. He takes issue with both rival schools of martial arts and anyone who pursues what might be called faith-based thinking. “Belief absent evidence is a vice,” says the imposing 6-foot-8 fighter. After establishing a pugnacious rep online, Thornton is at work on a book that could introduce his muscular personality—and reverance for scientific method and rigorous testing of any belief— to a wider audience.

In the gym, Thornton holds a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and adapts that style’s emphasis on sparring to disciplines like boxing, judo, and Thai kickboxing. He meanwhile rejects traditional noncontact exercises and martial-arts mysticism as having limited self-defense value. “Once you train my way, you can’t do other stuff anymore,” he says. “It would be like being a doctor, but also practicing witchcraft on the side.”

After 20 years, Straight Blast enjoys global appeal: 15 affiliated gyms or training groups in the US and 10 abroad, in places like Seoul, Cape Town, and Dublin. Traditionalists, on the other hand, don’t care for Thornton’s criticism of “dead” martial arts. San Francisco–based instructor Gary Moro scoffed: “The only people practicing ‘reality based’ fighting skills are … in the military.”

Meanwhile, quotes from British philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell and astronomer Carl Sagan weave through the tattoos that crosshatch Thornton’s forearms. Peter Boghossian, a Portland State philosophy professor and Straight Blast student, hopes the fighter’s book-in-progress can strike a blow for rationality. “Thornton can make complex ideas clear to a wide audience,” Boghossian says.

In all, Thornton seems to apply the spirit of contact sports to intellectual argument. “To get good at jiu-jitsu, you have to lose thousands of times,” he says. “If you say, ‘I’m never going to tap out,’ you’re never going to be any good.”

We are proud to see our head coach, and the SBG founder receive some recognition from the broader community. When we asked Matt for comment he offered the following:

“Here is one of my favorite quotes, one I try and keep in mind, The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit; the second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.” That’s from Marcus Aurelius. If you’re constantly troubled, if you can’t be calm, then it is very hard to be rational, to solve problems wisely. Regardless of how good your intentions may be, if you are not right as it relates to the facts, you may end up doing much more harm than good. So the first step is critical, and for me the martial art of Jiu Jitsu has helped provide that. For twenty years now I have been able to step onto the mat, roll, and walk away calmer, clearer, more untroubled. Jiu Jitsu teaches you to stay centered while under pressure, to be able to relax in positions that would otherwise be extremely uncomfortable, or for the average person perhaps even create panic. Jiu Jitsu teaches a lot about life, provided we are mature and open enough to listen to it.

As for the second part, seeing things for what they actually are, that too is essential. To do that we have to basically do two things. The first, stop pretending to know things we don’t actually know. That in and of itself is the end of faith, and as a consequence the end to all religion and superstition. The second part, is to have good critical thinking skills at your disposal. To understand the scientific method, what constitutes evidence, and above all else to value truth.

That is something we need to begin instilling in an age appropriate ways starting very early in a childhood education, both at home and within the school systems. That is why I am a big fan of the work of people like Dr Peter Boghossian (@peterboghossian on twitter), and I hope to play a larger role in helping make that a reality in whatever way I can. I want to help improve the world for my children and those that come after us, and critical thinking skills are at the heart of all practical solutions.” – Matt Thornton

We agree, and we look forward to seeing more of coach Thornton in his growing non coach roles. And we also hope to see you on the mat at the Portland academy, where Martial Arts in Portland, continues to evolve forward.