Traditional Chinese Martial Arts vs MMA Pt. 3 The Ground Fighting Myth & The Right Choice

Today’s Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) may not have existed if not for one individual – Bruce Lee. In 1967, he unveiled his creation of a new style, Jeet Kune Do (The Way of the Intercepting Fist), or JKD, which completely revolutionized the martial arts world, eventually paving the way for MMA. JKD was an eclectic synthesis of many arts, developed from Wing Chun Kungfu (which he studied but never completed), Western boxing, Savate (French boxing), Kickboxing, Muay Thai Boxing, grappling/ wrestling, Kali (Filipino stick fighting) among others. His philosophy behind the style, was “Absorb What Is Useful, Discard What Is Not”. This is exactly what MMA has done; borrowed the most effective techniques from various styles and added them to its ground game basis. However, the problem with acquiring a-little-of-this and a-little-of-that is that it creates the proverbial “Jack of All Trades and Master of None”.

Aside from boxing as a televised sport, in the West martial arts had never been part and parcel of the culture as they are in China. Kickboxing enjoyed some small following as a televised sport in the 1980s, but not enough to capture the imagination of the masses and more importantly, the interest of major investors and advertisers. Roll forward to November 1993 and the first ever televised UFC event in US that put MMA “on the map” and made the Gracie family and their Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) a household name. According to the legendary karateka and professional kickboxer Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, hired to commentate the event, UFC was entirely designed as a showcase or “infomercial” for the Gracie family. UFC #1 was set up for them to win, as none of the other competing fighters, which included six strikers and a Sumo wrestler, were prepared for ground fighting, in which the Gracies were expert. The rules favored the competing Royce Gracie, as fighters were not allowed to wear wrap on their fists or knees, but Gracie would wear his full uniform. Gracie knew how to handle the strikers, by smothering them and tying them up (figuratively), but the strikers had no idea how to deal with grappling. They were entirely out of their element. Members of the Gracie family continued to dominate this sport for many years, as they were ahead of the “new” fighting game, while all the other competitive fighters were scrambling to learn BJJ and catch up to the Gracie standard in order to compete (and become household names themselves on television). Meanwhile, in Japan, at the PRIDE competition, a Japanese fighter named Kazushi Sakuraba, with his striking, summarily defeated Royce Gracie. His success lay in his refusal to play Gracie’s ground fighting game. Sakuraba opted to remain standing while Gracie seemed content to lay with his back on the canvas for the majority of the fight and be kicked repeatedly. In the end, he was beaten at his own game. Sakuraba went on, over the ensuing years to dispatch other members of the Gracie clan (Royler, Renzo and Ryan) to earn the name, “The Gracie Hunter”. These displays only highlighted that the Gracies were not invincible, and that BJJ/ MMA is not the be-all and end-all of martial arts that everyone has been conditioned through television to believe it to be.

MMA/ BJJ like to quote that “Ninety percent of street fights end up on the ground”. The truth is very different. In 2019, a fair and impartial study was conducted, not by anyone affiliated with Chinese martial arts, but by an MMA/ BJJ practitioner (Michael Peachey/ The Grappling Physio). He sought to discover the percentage of street fights where one or both people ended up on the ground and grappling would prove useful, as well as how fights end up on the ground. Fights where people were knocked unconscious from punches alone were not counted, but those where one person on the ground in a position where grappling could be used on standing opponents were counted. Three hundred and eighty-three fights were analyzed in total, selected from random videos uploaded to YouTube, searched within the parameters of “street fighting”. It transpired that sixty-nine percent of the fights studied finished without ending on the ground! So, in reality, a mere thirty-one percent (where grappling would be useful) ended up this way. But, the true number, as the researcher freely admitted, is even lower as they factored into the percentage group brawls where only one of the fights ended up on the ground. Many clinch situations did not go to ground because fighters struggled to remain on their feet and had walls, cars, furniture or crowds with which to prop themselves up, or else they would disengage to continue striking. Of the one hundred and nineteen that went to ground, fifty-nine percent ended on the ground due to falling or being knocked down, with forty-one percent by deliberate takedown. In fairness, BJJ was shown to be effective when used, and grappling nearly always won the fight in this situation. Then again, most of those using BJJ in most likelihood would have been doing so against opponents untrained in any martial art.

The “ninety percent” trope itself comes from a misquoted 1998 Los Angeles Police Department’s use of force review. The actual statement was, “Nearly two thirds of the 1988 altercations (62%) ended with the officer and subject on the ground with the officer applying a joint lock and handcuffing the subject.” So, when you are trying to gain control and handcuff someone, fights end up on the ground more often, and when that’s not the goal then fights do not end up this way anywhere near as frequently. This “misquote” was originally claimed by none other than Rorion Gracie, of the BJJ Gracie family. Some have accused him of shamelessly using this false statistic to market his family’s skill that specializes in ground fighting. As a result, the majority of the new generation looking to study martial arts seek out only BJJ and MMA for no other reason than the false perception that nearly all street fights end up on the ground.

I witnessed one now infamous UFC bout on television that lasted for over thirty minutes. For the majority of this time, the two combatants (Royce Grace and Ken Shamrock) were on the canvas, locked in a “missionary-type position” known in MMA parlance as “closed guard’. Almost nothing happened as neither fighter was willing to make a risky move and give the other an opportunity to counter. Today, this headline fight would have the entire audience in a frenzy of booing and disgust at an altogether boring spectacle. But, at the time, no-one understood and believed it to be some kind of martial art chess match between two “legends” in the sport. At the end of the scheduled thirty minutes non-event, the referee asked the competitors if they would agree to five minutes more. They agreed. After returning to upright position and throwing a couple of kicks and punches they were right back to the floor, assuming the exact same positions where they left off. It was ultimately declared a draw, the first fight in UFC without a decisive winner. Few real street fights, if ever, would even end up in this situation or outcome. This is not real life. It is “entertainment”. However, as entertainment it failed too.

The entire time the two were on the ground, the kidneys of Shamrock, in the dominant (mounted) position, were subjected to constant pounding by flurries of heel kicks from Royce Gracie lying underneath. Two factors became immediately apparent to me (as both martial artist and Qigong health practitioner) that may not have occurred to others. An intelligent martial artist protects himself, and especially his most vital organs. He will not allow an opponent free reign to keep striking the same exposed vulnerable spot over and over, and over again, at will. As for the kidneys, in Chinese medicine, they are considered the most important organs, “the root of life”. This is why they are housed at the back and protected by the musculature. They store Jing, or “essence”, and regulate internal Qi which determines our health and vitality throughout life. Kidneys govern birth, growth, reproduction, and maturation. They are responsible for Bone Qi (marrow) and the ears/ hearing (and issues like tinnitus). According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the Yin Kidneys pair with their Yang organ counterpart, the Urinary Bladder. Any vital organ subjected to this kind of punishment will not only harm the organ itself and impair its functions, but also the delicate “Five Element” energy balance with all the other vital organs, impacting the health of the entire body, if not immediately then unequivocally in the long term.

Herein lies one of the fundamental differences in approach between Chinese martial arts and MMA. MMA concerns itself only with fighting. It considers fitness, but not health, and only fitness in order to produce a better fighter. Fitness does not equal health, as one can be at peak levels of fitness and still unhealthy, which is why many professional athletes have died at the height of their careers during peak levels of fitness. Internal Chinese arts include TCM principles and theory, and some of China’s most famous martial artists in the past were also doctors (acupuncturists, herbalists, bonesetters) and/ or Qigong masters. In a sense, ancient Chinese martial arts were always on one side and internal training for health/ healing on the other, like two sides of the same coin. They complement and complete each other. The concept of health and balanced mind through martial arts appeals to many people, but MMA misses this aspect entirely and denies its devotees this privilege.

With any contact sport, but especially martial arts, there is always some chance of injury. Intelligent martial arts seek to balance realistic training with a regard for safety. Once you are handicapped or damaged irreparably, you cannot fight effectively. Some martial arts have a higher propensity for injury than others. MMA seems to be an activity that carries a high risk of this. From the various people I know that have either studied MMA or know others that have, dislocated shoulders, torn tendons, back pain, and damaged knees are no uncommon occurrence. Some injuries can be temporary, minor and superficial while others can be major and very permanent. Permanent can mean carrying a disability, physical limitation or pain with you every day of your life, which can impact the very quality of life. The only remedy, for many, is found within painkillers, which can lead to dependency, with the weakness remaining or worsening over time. In fact, it was neglect of internal training and turning instead to painkillers which led to the allergic reaction that caused the brain edema which officially killed Bruce Lee. These psychotropic or opioid medications affect the delicate brain chemistry and dull the senses, reducing the ability to feel and experience the fullness of life (joy as well as the pain), which lowers the mental faculties, consciousness and awareness; a further obstacle to any spiritual attainment. High level students of Chinese arts know how to heal their injuries naturally with internal movement and meditation.

If a person is willing to trade health for pain and physical limitations in order to gain a lucrative UFC contract that is a personal choice and their business. To me, no amount of money or lifestyle is worth this as we only have one body to last us throughout our life, and wisdom dictates that we take good care of it. Chinese say, “Health is Number One”! But, for those just looking for a self-defense practice (that you may never need to use) or fitness activity that become injured by it, then the cost in trade-off is too great. It is the internal skill (Neigong also known as Qigong) component of Chinese arts that confers health, vitality and longevity to its practitioners. Internal training is both foundational and yet highly advanced. It is primarily for cultivating energy and internal strength, for restoring expended energy, for healing the body from injuries, and balancing Qi by regulating breath, and calming the mind and heart. This results in higher resistance to disease and youthfulness or avoiding premature aging. Internal training integrates mind, breath, and Qi and the body’s functions. So, of all the martial arts, Chinese skills are amongst the healthiest to train. This is what MMA fighters miss, and why many suffer arthritis in their joints, bad hips, backs and knees, etc. especially when they are older, not only from injury, but also just plain wear-and-tear. There is a classical saying, “Training in martial arts without internal training will amount to naught. You will find this out, especially when you are old”!

Whereas MMA trains to be the strongest and the fastest, Chinese internal arts borrow the opponent’s force or energy and use it against him. They follow Yin/ Yang theory. So, when stronger force comes, they seek to avoid meeting it head on and competing with it (Yang against Yang), but rather yielding, deflecting, diverting and adhering to it. Instead, Yin meets Yang. And, when the force has dissipated or passed by, they attack the opponent’s weakness, not his strength, so Yang meets Yin. This is high level principle because it uses energy efficiently and intelligently. None is wasted in resisting or struggling, so you do not become exhausted prematurely. Strength should only be applied when it cannot be resisted. Sensitivity is developed to read force. Knowing and achieving the superior position, developed using footwork, replaces the reliance on speed. This is how an older master is capable of easily dispatching students far younger. Internal strength is developed alongside relaxation, creating solid structure and effortless use of power.

Mastering a technique requires repeating it thousands upon thousands of times, until it is executed near perfectly and instinctively, until it is delivered with maximum potential requiring no special effort. There is a Chinese saying, “I fear the fighter that has trained one technique a thousand times more than I fear the fighter that has trained a thousand techniques once”. MMA specializes in chokes, holds, joint-locks and mounts on the ground, as this is where most of their training takes place. Their punching techniques are not as honed and effective as those of a boxer, and their kicks, knees, elbows do not compare to those of a Muay Thai boxer. This is why many MMA fighters do not seem particularly confident in their use of hands and feet, their striking game tends to be minimal, and their conditioned response is to go to ground.

When Chinese martial arts techniques are used by MMA fighters it is rare that they are ever applied cleanly, or in the manner they should be used. This is because they have not been trained sufficiently. They are not executed from within in a natural manner, with the right energy. Also, MMA fighters lack experience of the right situations in which to use them. Much attention was given to MMA fighter Anderson Silva who used some Wing Chun techniques in the “Octagon” (UFC’s chain link fence enclosed competition stage), after having taken only a few lessons. He lost, but he did not use Wing Chun exclusively, and the little he used, he failed to apply correctly. For example, Bong Sau (Wing Arm), used to divert the opponent’s strike and adhere, requires softness with the forearm and palm relaxed, body angled forty-five degrees to opponent, and contact at wrist. Silva used Bong Sau more like an elbow block, meeting punches head on, with much force and hardness, bumping the opponent’s strikes away and losing contact instead of sticking. His Wing Chun vertical fist straight punches (Jung Kuen) were thrown with the elbow out and raised instead of in and down which means they were not straight and not connected to the whole body.

Wing Chun is a precise martial art that demands geometry. For the skill to work at all, the hands must be held exactly at a certain height in relation to the opponent and at a certain distance from the body to maintain maximum safety in defense. We must know this and apply it, or the skill does not work. This is not easy and takes a lot of consistent effort in the beginning, until it becomes easy and natural. This is developed through the internal training of the first form which is mostly stillness training and takes a long time to develop. It most certainly cannot be achieved even by the most talented athlete after only a few lessons! When techniques don’t work as effectively as they should, because they were not understood or applied correctly, most fighters fail to look in the mirror: they prefer to blame the skill instead and say that it doesn’t work or is obsolete. Some will turn their back on a skill and switch styles, instead of going back to the drawing board and figuring out how and why they were defeated or just train even harder.

So, beyond the solo form training that provides an enjoyable and stimulating daily health regimen while honing martial skills, and safer, less injurious partner training methods, and remaining upright as opposed to rolling on glistening, sweat covered rubber mats, what is the attraction of Chinese martial arts over MMA? Unlike MMA that trains fighting exclusively, Chinese martial arts also provide a fathomless, well-rounded, multi-dimensional education beyond fighting alone. This can take the student in many different directions, should he or she choose, alongside the development of combat skill. Some people actually enjoy learning aspects of another culture’s customs and language, being part of an ancient lineage, learning the history of the style and the stories, handed down generationally, of the feats and legendary exploits of past masters and their words of wisdom. Some may love the philosophies of Daoism and Buddhism, and also Rujia (Confucianism) and Wu De (martial ethics/ morality) that run very deep and provide the foundation for many traditional Chinese styles, Applying the practice in and to daily life is actually living these philosophies. This, then becomes a vehicle for self-development, and provides a path to self-realization, through wisdom and enlightenment, and reaching our full human potential. Most internal skills also include some rudimentary knowledge of Traditional Chinese Medicine principles. This provides the knowledge of how to affect Qi flow, which can be used against the opponent to induce pain or shut the system down with minimal effort, and also can be used by the individual to attain maximum health and for self-healing. MMA is just physical training, nothing more, making one capable, fit and strong, but not healthier and wiser.

Despite the global preeminence of brand UFC/ MMA/ BJJ, through high profile pop culture media exposure, and the general misperception of ground fighting necessary to win a fight, by propagated misinformation, Chinese martial arts still, and always will appeal to a wide demographic. There are innumerable martial arts in the world today, and no one art is “The Best”. They all provide value and benefit, some more than others, but it just depends on what exactly it is that you are seeking, what you want from it and your purpose, and what best suits your own personality, tastes and physical attributes. The best skills are the ones that support your life and are not a liability to health and wellbeing.

By Adam Wallace