Let me start off by saying that everything in this article is my personal opinion. If you have a different opinion, I'd love to hear about it in the comments below. The whole purpose of this blog is create discussion and share information.
When discussing legitimacy, there are several factors to take into account. Immediately, if your system is governed by a specific organization then they are the sole providers of legitimacy. For example, my art is governed my the International San Budo Federation. Anyone claiming to hold rank in or teach San Budo Sogo Bugei and is not affiliated with the ISBF is illegitimate and fraudulent. So if your art has a similar organization, then the answer is simple. But what if that's not the case. What if there are multiple governing bodies for your art, or even none?
I think there are different kinds of legitimacy, and it all comes down to what you claim. All of those pioneers issued certification to their students and now in today's society, we have access to legitimate organizations which are widely recognized as the leaders in their respective fields. Therefore, it only makes sense to be affiliated with them and fall under their umbrella. But who determines if those organizations are legitimate? In the case of the Kukkiwon, their authorization comes directly from the government of Korea. In Japan, there are several government recognized organizations. But to me, the lineage of those in charge of the organization is what makes it legitimate. If I was looking to join a multi-style organization, even if I practice a different art than its directors, if they have solid credentials then I'd want to be affiliated with them. After all, your certification is only as valuable as the respect you have for the person signing it.
So the question is can someone with little to no formal instruction open a martial arts school, become a pillar of their community and provide quality instruction? Yes they can. It has been proven by Grandmaster Marx. But to me, being a quality martial artist and a legitimate instructor are 2 different things. No matter how good he was, once he received proper licensing is when he became a legitimate founder and instructor. There are plenty of great fighters out there, especially in the MMA community, who could wipe the floor with most traditional martial artists. But that doesn't make them a more legitimate martial artist. What separates us from the fighters are our traditions, our values and our lineages (certification being proof of our lineage).
Certification is important. Having a paper trail ensures a direct line of transmission, in theory, to the origin of our respective systems. In the medical field, no matter how skilled someone is, if they do not have proper licensing then they cannot practice medicine or risk being jailed. You cannot teach at a public school without first obtaining a degree in Education. Of course, no one is going to jail in the US for teaching martial arts without proper certification, but the premise is still valid. We don't even let barbers or cosmetologists cut our hair without proper licensing, so why should martial arts be any different? It doesn't matter how skilled you are, in today's society your credentials can protect you from questions about your legitimacy.
So what happens if you don't have proper credentials? There are numerous organizations out there, including the US Association of Martial Arts, which can help you obtain them. In the real world, your assailant is not going to back away if you have a prestigious certificate. You must have the skill to back it up. But that being said, if you are claiming to be an instructor, a master or a founder, you must have the paperwork to back up your claims. It's not enough to be good on the mat. You may be a great practitioner, or even a great instructor. But you're still illegitimate.