What can kung fu learn from MMA?


     Once again, the idea for this is lifted from a podcast by Iain Abernethy. He put together an excellent work on what traditional martial arts and modern mixed martial arts can learn from each other. In this piece I am going to take a look at what I feel are the things that Traditional Chinese Martial Arts (TCMA) can learn from the modern Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) schools.

     Before I go on, I must address one thing which has come up on some internet forums, and much more so in email correspondence. In my most recent posts here, I have written at length criticizing some of what I feel are the detrimental practices found in the TCMA. This has been misinterpreted by some as a hatred for TCMA. I wish to make perfectly clear, I do not hate TCMA, I love it! I only wish for some of these practices to go away so that our arts can be placed on a level of respect that I feel they deserve. When I am criticizing, I am doing so out of a deep wish that we can unite and show our true value and proper standing in the martial arts community. However, for as long as the issues myself and others have pointed out go unresolved, then such respect will not happen. There is too much information out there in such easy access to any student with an internet connection for some of the idiocy to continue. To be frank, I find nothing noble in defending a particular viewpoint based on the age of the idea or practice being defended. There are many who (quite loudly) proclaim that anyone who dares to say that qi power is a lie is a doofus, and the entire basis for their defense is that the idea has been around for such a long time! There are those who take a strange sort of pride in the tale that they practice an art which is supposed to have been unchanged in hundreds of years. Pride? Really? One does not need to dig all that far into the past to find that the idea that a martial system must remain unchanged is a pretty recent practice. So in the end, who is the traditionalist? I speak about the shortcomings of the style I train and teach, and I do so in the hope that there can be growth. If there is no growth, the art itself is dead, and can no longer be called an art at all.

     While I have dabbled in MMA, I have never gone full bore into the training. I bring this up only to illustrate that I am not in any way trying to present myself as an expert in MMA. So, if there are things I say about training or viewpoints of the MMA athlete which are wrong, I will direct you back to this paragraph. However, I have trained in TCMA for most of my life, and while I do not consider myself to be a “master”, I do feel that I am knowledgeable on the subject. This in no way means that my word is law, but if you argue a point I make about TCMA, I am more than comfortable in defending my position until proven right or wrong.

     The Ultimate Fighting Championship first came on the scene in the early 90s, and the original concept was to set a stage to show the Gracie Family’s Brazilian Jujitsu. What happened was too good to be a movie. The traditional martial artists were completely out of their element from too much time spent in believing that what they were told would work actually would work, and deeming it “too dangerous to test”. Never mind that the real traditional martial arts had been tested and tested for generation after generation going back far into history. TMA practitioners scrambled to find out where they went wrong. The traditionalists lost, well and thoroughly.

     In the karate systems, there was a renewed interest in the study of Bunkai, the training of applications of the techniques. No longer was every technique to be used against a reverse punch. This study has brought about a huge increase in the numbers of karate students who are learning to actually use their art. There are still those on the fringe, who either completely resist the ideas that there is more to the techniques than meet the eye, or cannot see that their instructor didn’t know how to use the art, and there are also those who come up with some really outlandish uses for the techniques, but by and large the study is getting good results, and in my opinion is a powerfully positive change in the karate systems.

     For the TCMA, things are actually at the other end of the spectrum. We have some few who are making the progress in training harder and studying applications, but the majority stay with the mystical side of things. I have written at length recently on my point of view as to the mystical claims in the TCMA, and do not wish to go into that again.

     Let us look at exactly what the MMA students do that gives them such confidence that they are not afraid to call out TMA practitioners.

Practical Application

     The list of techniques is an MMA school is pretty short compared to the list of techniques one will learn in a TCMA school. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing. They are training for something specific, and their training methods and technique list will quickly reveal this. One must be careful to keep in mind what we are discussing.

     Iain Abernethy made a very important point when he stated that in determining practical application, we must first define what we mean by practical. What is practical is going to be based on what the purpose of the training is, i.e.; if you are training for tournament competition (sport karate or MMA) what is practical is going to be different than if you are training for self protection in a violent confrontation.

     I have two jobs. I teach sport karate by day, and TCMA in the evenings. I have two very different goals in each setting. For the kids that are learning sport karate from me, some of the training my TCMA adult students go through would be very inappropriate for the goals. In sport karate, the students are training to become fast, lower reaction time, increase flexibility, and train to deliver clean snapping techniques which do not harm the opponent in a tournament setting. For my adults, I teach them to deliver tremendous impact to specific targets in order to incapacitate an adversary and allow for their own extrication from the conflict. Very different goals, very different definitions of what is practical.

     For the purpose of this article, I am going to stick with the second set of goals, as my focus in this article is MMA and TCMA.

     In an MMA school, the students come to class to get a workout. They will do various exercises, and train a limited set of techniques in order to gain the level of proficiency they wish to have. The training is hard, as a main focus of these schools is a degree of physical fitness needed for competition.

     In many TCMA schools, the pace and environment is a lot less stressful. I have visited schools where there were frequent breaks due to the instructor starting to sweat. In all honesty, there was one instructor who’s school I visited, and he actually taught that sweating is bad for you, and that training should be kept at a light pace, and sweat meant it was time to rest!

     When a student in an MMA school is told how something is to be done, or used, or how it fits in with the overall strategy of what the school is teaching, the next step is to get on the mats and practice it. They drill and drill and drill until they become proficient, and confident. The term we use for this study in TMA is “practical application”.

     For many years in the traditional martial arts, there was a lack of study in practical application. Some techniques were determined to be “too dangerous to test”. In some cases, this was correct. But not always. In some of the cases, the techniques which were so classified were simply unreliable, or not understood. For years I was taught that a kick to the side of the knee would destroy the knee joint. Having suffered some pretty severe knee injuries in my life, I figured it had to be true. And all of us have seen the original karate kid, where the kick to the knee almost does in poor Danny Larusso. Tune in to any MMA event now, and you will see the kick delivered much more solidly, and simply shaken off by the one kicked. What we are told in TMA schools was not always the truth, it was an opinion.

     One huge step that can be taken by TCMA schools would be to practice practical application. The MMA schools have moved ahead and regularly test the very techniques we call “too dangerous”, so we should join them. Even when we are dealing with the more dangerous techniques, there are still ways to train them and bring about an understanding and an ability for the student to use them. There are schools doing this, but they are currently in the minority. This needs to change.

Critical Thinking

     In the TCMA there is a tradition of never questioning what we are told. When the master says it, we do it, end of story. In the MMA schools I have visited, this is not the case. The students are told what they are going to do, they are shown what they are going to do, they are taught how and why it will work, then they drill it until they get good.

     This type of approach does a two great things for the students. First, it shows a respect for the students as a thinking and reasoning person. Second, it brings about a greater confidence within the student about what they are learning. These are two incredibly important elements in the training of a student.

     If the first point is not addressed, the respect issue, the student will grow a resentment at some point. But the second point, if the student does not have confidence in what they are learning, they will quit training with you and go somewhere else.

     This does not mean that our classes will be constantly interrupted by inane questions. One visit to an MMA school will get rid of that notion. Contrary to what many TMA practitioners think, there is an air of respect inside of an MMA school. They are just martial artists like we are. If we could let go of some of our ego issues, we would see things clearly. I know of one instructor who refuses to call MMA a martial art! This is more than silly. MMA is a highly focused martial art. It has clearly defined goals and objectives, and the teachers and students set about directly working on the achievement of those goals.

     There are times when our traditions get in the way, and the issue of critical thinking, or more specifically, the lack thereof, can really get in the way of progress. We are thinking beings, and questioning is in our nature. When you are told something works, examine how and when and where it works. Also train to understand where and when and how it does not work. When someone tells you something does not work, examine for yourself to see whether or not they are correct. Critical thinking is not assuming everything you are told is a lie, is is actually being open to ideas if they can be proven true.

     In looking at some of our unexamined practices, we find very quickly that there are some that serve no purpose in the modern world. In the TCMA, there is a practice called the Bai Si. This is a ceremony wherein the student is essentially adopted into the family of the instructor. There was a time now gone) where there was an actual reason for keeping some techniques secret, at least that is what we are told. There is a common teaching that the secrets were to protect practitioners of the style in the event they were attacked by someone from another school, the secret techniques would be what would save them. I have my personal doubts, but I’ll will save it for another day. Suffice to say here that in the modern world, any instructor who is going to hold out any part of the system as being a “secret” is not worth your money. There are no secrets. Train hard, and train consistently under a good instructor and you will progress a lot further and a lot faster than someone who trains under a “master” who hides their lack of knowledge behind mysticism and “secret knowledge”.

     Another example is found in the way that we are brainwashed into thinking that to question the teachings of the instructor is borderline sacrilege. The simple fact is that it is a sign of a very insecure instructor when he is offended at being questioned. The secure and confident instructor welcomes questions for the simple fact of what is shown in student questions – 1. the students are listening, and 2. the students are interested. What more could a quality instructor want? That, my friends, that is great stuff. There is not much in this world more rewarding than to have an opportunity to teach something you are passionate about to someone who wants to learn it! 

     In an MMA school, many of the questions are answered before they are asked. However, when a students has a question, it is not only welcomed, it is answered! Who thought of that?

     Remember, people think, and they learn. As more martial artists begin to practice critical thinking, these practices are going to have to end in the TCMA schools.

Hard Work

     I am not an expert in the Chinese Language, so feel free to take this with a grain of salt, but as I have been told many times, kung fu means “hard work”. As stated earlier, there are only a few kung fu schools where the students are working hard. This has to change. In order for this to change, there will have to be a shift in the mindset of the school owners. I spoke with an instructor in California earlier this week (as of this writing), and he said to me that he cannot work his students any harder without them quitting. I told him to not be afraid so much. The students sign up in a martial arts school expecting a workout – give them one.

     But you still have to keep in mind that exertion does not equal learning. Yes, the student needs to have a good workout, but at the same time, they should be walking out every day with new knowledge. This has to be a part of the equation, or you are spinning your wheels. Some of my greatest memories are of classes where Sifu worked us to near death, and then pushed us a bit further. We loved it! We learned more  than just a new technique or a new application, we learned about ourselves. There is a lot of knowledge to be found in pushing yourself to the limits. Obviously, pushing to the limit cannot be done every day, but it an be done regularly. Give your students these memories and this training.

A Question of Forms

     If we look at things realistically, in most schools of TCMA, there is an over-reliance on the practice of forms. Understand, I teach forms, and feel that they hold an important place in the TMA. But in many schools, the forms are taught as an end in and of themselves. There are regular casses whee the students do nothing other than forms.

     There is a better approach.

     When looked at properly, the forms are a type of textbook. They really do contain everything the students needs to internalize the underlying strategy and tactics of self defense as viewed by that art form. But, and this is a huge “BUT”, they have to be trained and taught properly. There has to be extensive training – step by step – in practical application. There also has to be an understanding that the student is going to have a different body type and set of psychological and physical predispositions that will affect performance. There is no need for an idea that the art must be a perfect imitation of you, because you are the perfect imitation of so-and-so, who is the perfect imitation of Lord Autumn-bottom.


     In the end, I would be happy to see TCMA practitioners recognize one simple fact, MMA practitioners are traditional martial artists too. Just don’t tell them.

One Comment

  1. Fantastic article. I agree completely, any of the martial arts schools that post that they are teaching self-defense need to put their techniques to the test. I didn’t realize how bad an epidemic this was only because I never frequent other schools that often or I look directly at the value of the training itself. My daughter was in a TKD school that is pretty “popular” here in Central Florida and it only took one visit to see that I didn’t approve. She asked me why and I said it was “watered down” martial arts. I asked her what she did for conditioning and it was basically some jumping jacks and push ups. I said, “yeah, watered down”. She got upset with me because she said she liked it. It only took about three months when she got her yellow belt that she quit because she said it didn’t seem like “real” martial arts. On the flip side, she doesn’t want to learn from me cause she says I’ll be “strict”. 🙂

    The other day though she asked if she could do a “class” with me on hung gar and I told her that it would not be easy. She said she just wanted to try it out. I told her she wasn’t going to “try it out”, I’m not Baskin Robbins where you get to try a little martial arts here, and a little there. If she was going to do it, she was going to commit at least six months.

    I think that the TCMA community would do well to humble themselves and start getting into the MMA world with their respective styles. OR, recruiting MMA fighters to train in their schools and have more san shou or “free fighting” situations. Hung gar, with its bridge and stance training is just ideal for that. I come from teachings that listed alot of the above so I’m still somewhat shocked to see the “community” allow for anything that wouldn’t be considered effective in defending oneself and have that go into the public consciousness. During my training, we did alot of free fighting in order test technique, reactions and reaction time, pain thresholds, etc.

    We have a litigious society but those things can be warned up front, but it also goes back to an earlier blog posting you said where in creating a business, you have to pander to what your “customers” want. I was going to write a sentence about how lazy people are and we are the microwave society but look at P90X. That’s an intensely difficult workout program and has sold MILLIONS of copies. Not everyone is doing it of course but the mere fact that people in some part of their mind have the desire to work hard, that’s something to be said. Tony Horton didn’t create anything magical either, people are naturally attracted to him which again goes back to what you were saying about why you chose your style and why most people do, it’s the instructor. Lots to think about here in terms for the TCMA community and the individual. Another thought provoking piece by you.


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