Traditional Chinese Martial Arts vs. MMA Pt. 1 Real-Life and Competition

Modern eclectic combat systems, otherwise known as Mixed Martial Arts (or MMA), appear to be attracting far more adherents today than the traditional Chinese systems. What are the reasons for this? Are traditional martial arts, as detractors claim, really outdated, obsolete and doomed to extinction? Why the division? What then still attracts students to traditional styles over modern martial arts? And what do traditional styles offer that the modern arts do not? These questions will be addressed over the coming parts.

MMA appears to hold the view that traditional Chinese martial arts “have no place in today’s world”. This is patently absurd as traditional Chinese martial arts have been “battle-tested”, literally on the battlefield! Hand-to-hand combat has not really changed much over the centuries, except for firearms replacing traditional weapons. As Bruce Lee said, “A punch is just a punch. A kick is just a kick”!

MMA considers itself to be the next step in the “evolution” of martial arts, as it covers all ranges, including the ground, and claims to employ the best techniques from all the various arts. The emphasis on ground fighting is one of the major differences between Traditional Chinese Martial Arts and MMA. Fighting on the ground is not really a component of Chinese arts whereas for MMA it is the cornerstone. All martial artists today, and even the armchair fans of sport MMA have been conditioned by the medium of television Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) events and reality shows, to believe that a fight almost invariably goes to the ground, and that this is where a fight “really begins”. In reality, all fights begin standing up. And, for the winner, they certainly end standing up. Yet, MMA considers that any martial art without ground fighting is “incomplete” or inferior, and that every fighter must be well versed in groundwork, covering Jiu-Jitsu, Judo or wrestling.

Chinese martial artists are expected to remain upright. This is why emphasis is placed on various types of stance training, as foundation, so leg strength, balance, inner awareness, stability and mobility, and positional recovery are equally developed. True striking power comes from the legs, and not many MMA fighters seem to know this, considering how much time they spend on training the arms and upper body strength. Should a traditionally trained martial artist lose balance, or slip and fall, or manage to be taken to the ground, and find himself on his back, he simply returns to upright as quickly as possible. He is under no obligation to remain there, and if untrained in groundwork, then opting to remain on the floor would be like falling into the river and not knowing how to swim. The notion of rolling around and thrashing about in the mud, dust or dirt during a confrontation is considered “undignified”. The Chinese are a highly pragmatic race of people. During centuries of wars and gang fighting, if ground techniques had been considered a necessity, then techniques would most certainly have been developed for this situation. Forms of grappling and throwing (Shuai Jiao) and joint locking (Qin Na), as a means to control or finish the opponent, do exist within most styles of traditional Chinese martial arts, but unlike MMA, they are not applied from the ground, so the training does not begin with both fighters in the supine or prone positions, straddling each other on the floor.

With MMA, a fighter’s objective is to forcibly take his opponent to the ground where he can apply his repertoire of wrestling skills, grappling, chokes, and joint locks, or else he is quite content to allow himself to be taken to the floor by his opponent, whereupon he will attempt to turn the tables and ply his trade. So, one way or the other, as they all fully expect to end up on the floor, it is their conscious or subconscious intention, through action or passivity, that inevitably leads them there. This is the invariable result with MMA solely because both parties tacitly agree to it. Seldom do we find the situation in which one skilled combatant is uncooperative and refuses to play the game.

If one possesses trained strength with stability and balance, internal awareness and sensitivity to changes, and the ability to turn and neutralize force, together with footwork/ mobility to maintain advantageous position, along with knowledge of counter measures to prevent going to ground, then he simply cannot be taken down. And, not without energy sapping effort expended by the opponent.

UFC (the televised public face of MMA) has played the role of culture creationist, helping shape thought and opinions on martial arts, in general, by judging all other martial arts against it. But, with respect, UFC itself really is competition sport. Of course, competition sport does not mean to denigrate it, but the purpose of traditional Chinese martial arts is not for competition or sport. They were purely for survival.

The main problem with combat sports (including boxing) is that knockouts are not guaranteed and without a knockout (KO) or technical knockout (TKO), a clear winner cannot always be determined without the input of the judges’ scorecards. Even so the bout can and often does result in a draw, and decisions awarding a winner, by the smallest margin of points, can often be at odds with what the audience has witnessed, leading to accusations of fraud and match fixing, especially when big money and betting is involved. So, altogether, not a reliable or satisfactory result. Through ground fighting, wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu, the MMA/ UFC fighter can apply a lock or choke hold that will cause the opponent to submit or concede by “tapping out” and this provides another avenue for a winner to be determined. People always want a winner, so this is one reason why UFC has become so popular with the television audience. It is the influence of televised MMA events which has instilled the belief that this is how all real-life confrontations on the street must unfold and conclude.

But, going to ground also allows for a protracted and drawn-out confrontation. Only in Hollywood movies do fights last for several minutes. Real life encounters are generally much quicker than that, lasting maybe only five or ten seconds at most. Even half a minute is quite unusual. In fact, 17th generation Chen Taijiquan Grandmaster Chen Fa-Ke claimed a fight should last no longer than three seconds! This is quite different than UFC/ MMA where fighters trade a few blows, then become propped up against the sides of the cage, trying to out-muscle each other, before rolling around on the floor for a time. UFC sanctioned title matches last for five rounds of five minutes each, with one minute rest in between. So, one fight without a knockout of submission can last up to half an hour! For sport, on television, this is normal and expected. A headline fight lasting only three seconds is not good value for those that paid exorbitant sums of money to spectate live (blink and you may miss it!) and for television broadcast this is not good for generating advertising revenue. Fights on television must be, above all else, both entertaining and lucrative.

In real situations, going to ground to gain submission through pain compliance (or risk a bone break and tendon tear) may be useful to avoid lawsuits resulting in physical damage, and hospitalization etc. so this is preferable for bodyguards, security guards, doormen/ bouncers, and law enforcement officers. However, choking someone, even if you are the victim, can lead to a prison sentence, in certain US states! So, this too is not always a viable alternative outside the ring, cage, sport arena or gym. But, in an actual street fight, for self-protection, this is not the fail-safe solution or be-all-and-end-all for every situation that MMA fighters are conditioned to believe it is. When there is the threat of multiple opponents, with and without weapons, it is not wise to concentrate and devote time attempting to tie up one person on the ground as this only invites the rest of the group to attack simultaneously. Often, perceived solo attackers are predators with friends or associates that are lurking out of sight, in the shadows or blending with a crowd in the background, ready to “sucker punch”, act cowardly and gain advantage once the defender has been distracted, wrestling around on the ground with the “bait”. Alternatively, the terrain may be covered with dangerous items from broken glass to used hypodermic needles to feces or other toxic materials. So, opting to take an opponent to ground in these conditions would be ill-advised. In the ring, or cage, this is not a concern, but in real-life encounters on the street we need to use situational awareness to avoid the ground.

Today’s MMA fighters are quick to criticize or deride practitioners of Chinese martial artists that decline to step into their ring and compete under their rules. They consider their ring as the only truth. But, if traditional martial artists cannot use the techniques they train and must abide by another’s rules then the game is somewhat rigged against them and the cards are stacked. Wing Chun and Taijiquan, for example, require sensitivity and skin contact for grabbing and controlling, so wearing gloves becomes a hindrance and a handicap. Some of the very best street fighters, gypsies and bare-knuckle fighters are neither professionally trained MMA fighters nor Chinese martial artists, and if they competed under such rules they may not fare as well either.

In the past, if one traditional Chinese martial artist wanted to challenge another to gain a reputation, or settle a dispute, waivers would be signed to remove blame, resulting in law involvement or repercussions if either party died or suffered serious injury as a result. Such was the seriousness of some of these challenges. They would take it to the very end, without any referee to step in and end the fight, and none of the protections afforded to UFC/ MMA fighters. Sometimes “friendly competitions” might be arranged between schools. Of course, they were not all that “friendly” as losing meant losing face and the entire school’s reputation would be at stake. But, when schools competed in the past, the aim was to improve and strengthen by finding weaknesses and to evolve the style. While good health and Qi are the by-product of internal training (which MMA foregoes altogether), traditional Chinese martial arts were only concerned with developing skills in life threatening situations for self-protection, and protection of the clan, during feudal, chaotic times against marauders, and much later, defense of the nation against foreign invaders. Martial arts were purely for survival and not the belt or trophy, not for fame, recognition or personal glory (not to springboard a movie career), or for the “purse” (money). The skills contained within these systems included techniques designed to end fights quickly, to incapacitate, maim or fatally injure, and were not intended to be long drawn-out affairs decided by points awarded by judges.

While UFC bouts are real in the sense that two warriors go in to battle with the actual intention to do the other harm, it is not a real matter of life-and-death survival. Both parties have prior agreement to meet at a pre-arranged future date, with months of mental and physical preparation in advance to train before the event. This is in stark contrast to a real life-threatening survival moment that is neither mutually agreed upon nor is there any warning given beforehand or time to prepare. Adrenaline aside, UFC events are simply two professionals going to work (to entertain the masses), in order to do a job to the best of their abilities: in other words, it is just “business as usual”. UFC fighters (and professional boxers) know and can take comfort in the fact that there are numerous rules and safeguards in place “to protect them – at all times”.

Headbutting, eye gouging, biting, fish hooking (the mouth), hair pulling, strikes to the spine or back of the head, strikes to the throat or grabbing the trachea, downward elbow strikes, groin attacks, kneeing or kicking the head of a grounded opponent, small joint manipulation, or clawing, pinching or twisting flesh are all forbidden. Kicks to the body, including the legs, are permitted, but stomping the knee is not. The very practical and effective self-protection techniques, that may be needed or called upon to disable an opponent and remove mobility in real life would be regarded as “unsportsmanlike conduct” in UFC/ MMA sports competition, leading to warnings, point deductions and even forfeiture and disqualification. (Many incapacitating techniques are found within traditional forms. Some are obvious and some are secret and need a teacher to explain.) Then, there is the protective gear, like the gum shield, groin cup, and padded gloves. Although gloves won’t protect the brain from concussion, but by preventing bone-on-bone contact, they do offer protection to cheeks, jaw, eye sockets, ribs, and breastplate, from breaks and fractures and minimize lesions and contusions. And, lastly, fighters are protected by a referee who will step in and end the fight the moment he decides one fighter is incapable of defending himself or is in grave physical danger. Once such rules and regulations, protections and limitations such as this are introduced, can it really be regarded as “real” in the realest sense any longer? Or at least any more real than any traditional Chinese martial arts partner training?

All of these protections give the competing fighters added sense of security and remove some portion of the naked fear, unpredictability, and sheer ferocious violence that is present within an encounter outside of the ring or cage, or dojo, thereby changing the activity from true combat to sport. In a real street encounter or street fight you could literally die and must be mentally prepared for this. As it was reported on the news, Anthony Smith, an established UFC/ MMA fighter, was the victim of a home invasion by a drug addict in April, 2020. Smith was 6ft 4in and 205 pounds, and a trained professional. The invader was 170 pounds and unskilled, but under the influence of narcotics and seemingly impervious to pain. Smith was asleep and unprepared at the time he was alerted. He described the ordeal as the “toughest fight of my life” and “terrifying”. For over five minutes, until the police arrived and subdued the man, he struggled to control the situation. He claimed the attacker “took everything I gave him – every punch, every knee, every elbow….and kept fighting me”. So, a seasoned, trained, professional UFC fighter, despite fighting for his life and those of his wife, mother-in-law and daughters, failed to overcome an attacker that he referred to as “just an ordinary Joe”. Perhaps it was the mindset of being drilled in fighting for sports competition instead of finishing in three seconds that led to failure? He was used to applying techniques on others playing by the same rules, and not a wild, unpredictable and uncooperative desperado. He did not use the very techniques found within Chinese martial arts designed to end fights quickly that would be banned in his “sport”.

Perhaps it was Smith’s mindset of panicking (which he freely admitted to)? There is no shame in this, and this is a perfectly “normal” reaction for a normal person in this type of situation. But, panicking, with Qi in disorder, impacts timing, focus and accuracy, and decision-making. Traditional Chinese martial arts include stillness training (including breath control) for the mind, instilling within the student a mental state that is relaxed and empty, unclouded by emotions of apprehension or anger, or doubt, and to treat life and death in these situations with equanimity. Of course, many students of Chinese martial arts today fail to devote sufficient time on this aspect and do not attain this mental state, in which case they would be no different than Smith in this situation. With the mind trained in this manner, the body and striking tools react just as they should, without any impediment. In fact, for most traditional skills this can be the foundation, while MMA does not understand and considers this aspect of training a “complete waste of time”. The Chinese are wise, resourceful and pragmatic. If training mind and stillness did not benefit or enhance the senses, perception, and combat potential and Qi, they would never have included it. Fighting implies struggle. The Chinese word for martial art is “Wushu”. This is comprised of two words that together literally translates as “Stop Fighting Technique”, so the idea is not to struggle and scrap, but to end the confrontation quickly and decisively without “fighting”.

Anyone could find themselves in this terrifying ordeal, and there is no guarantee a martial artist from any other style would necessarily have fared any better. But that is the point. It is the individual and not the style that counts. And, MMA, for all its claims to be the “complete” martial art with ground fighting, and delusions of superiority over the “outdated” Chinese martial arts, it cannot guarantee winning a confrontation, even against an untrained person, and winning one that is far more important to win than in the ring or cage as one’s family, possessions and life are at stake. MMA is therefore no more effective or more relevant in today’s world than the traditional Chinese martial arts, which offer so much more to their practitioners than fighting alone.

By Adam Wallace