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* Are limited rules sport fighters defending themselves in competition?




Of course they are defending themselves, but not with the kind of intensity they would if their lives were threatened. Intent has a lot to do with intensity, and when you're "looking for a knockout", you aren't "trying to kill" your opponent, and vice-versa... so the level of intensity is different.

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* Are the rules inherent in ANY martial arts practice effectively making them sports/combat athletics?





Absolutely. Even the MMA pro-circuits have rules to protect the fighters, and referees to jump in to save their bacon if they're getting hammered. Sport karate and other MA have pads, chest protectors, and guards to help them protect the limbs and body parts of the participants... and the rules strictly limit what kind of techniques you can use and what level of force can be applied.

My friend, Mr. Hino, placed 2nd in the world championships of karate because he knocked out his opponent something like 7 seconds into the match. Absolutely they structure the rules to make them combat arts, but "controlled" sports.

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* Are these skills more transferrable to SD situtations? Less? No different?




Any skill you learn in fighting is transferrable as a fighting skill for self defense. Whether or not you want to try to shoot in and tackle a guy on a gravel parking lot is your choice, so if you have other "toys" to play with, you might make a different choice... but if it's available, it's usable. Some hurt more than others.

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* Does intent alter the nature of the practice, or the skills gained/used/lost?




Absolutely! The main problem with Aikido practitioners is that they usually have to reach black belt levels before they understand that their entire art works off the attacker's force. If you don't intend to hit me, I have to make up the difference in the force required to do my technique, so it makes it more difficult and changes the timing of the training. That's the reason people look so bad when they're attacked for real and don't have the timing to actually handle a "real attack". Of course, you have to ratchet up the training as your students gain skills, but if I tell you I'm attacking with X technique, you better think I'm trying to knock your brains out with it, because I'm coming at a speed you should have to use whatever level of technique you have. Stopping before I hit you is my option... not yours.

As for the eye gouges, driving the nose cartilege into the brain, etc., those are practiced on the "rubber Bob's" that are available... same with neck strikes and chin strikes. I don't have to break your neck to train to do so, but the "half man" dummies provide an adjustable tool to be able to train against all sizes of opponent and see how your particular techniques work.

The old martial arts schools in Japan used to have about a 1/3 casualty rate of students killed or permanently injured. They didn't have the tools available back then to do what we can do today in training, so while we don't necessarily poke somebody's eyes out in training, it doesn't mean we can't gain the skills to do exactly that.
"In the old days", we used cardboard cutouts suspended on a string to practice eye strikes, and we were deadly accurate with them. Nukite and nihon nukite strikes are first class weapons in the real world, and unless your opponent is already blind, his first option is going to be to protect his eyes... or he's going to be fighting at a great disadvantage.

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What man is a man that does not make the world a better place?... from "Kingdom of Heaven"