Do traditional martial arts need to ‘worry’ about MMA?

Is many a true word spoken in jest?

With the explosion on the Internet of videos of MMA fighters knocking out traditional martial artists I think that internal martial arts are feeling (rightly) like they’ve become the undeserved butt of a joke, while at the same time the older generation of teachers is passing away without enough new students to carry on their arts to the same standards. The modern generation don’t want to practice as hard and have other things to be interested in.

Noble institutions like Xing Yi, Baguazhang and Taijiquan, which developed a reputation for being effective, fighty, martial arts during the 1920s and 1930s in China are now starting to be thought of as ‘for health’ only, or useless for fighting with, while MMA is seen as the barometer of effectiveness. Or at least that’s the narrative I see being played out. But I’m just not convinced that this narrative is actually true

Firstly, I don’t think these videos of Xu Xiaodong beating up Kung Fu masters are necessarily about saying MMA is better than internal arts – they’re more about one man’s fight against the Chinese system. One man’s “rage against the machine”, which is the government’s control over the martial arts scene in China. It’s a battle for personal freedom that Kung Fu just happens to have got caught up in. The China state Wu Shu machine is relentless in imposing the “official” version of traditional Chinese martial arts on the population, and that often it has little to do with actual fighting (which gets sidelined into Sanda – Chinese Kickboxing – , which is often divorced from traditional Wu Shu). So-called masters were encouraged to start making outrageous claims about their kung fu abilities on Chinese TV in staged demonstrations that were presented as being real. For pointing out the flaws in this heavily state-promoted view of Wu Shu with his fists, Xu Xiaodong is paying a heavy price of social restrictions and persecution. His travel is limited and his freedoms are curtailed.

Over here in the West I often hear serious Kung Fu practitioners worry that if MMA is seen as the be-all and end-all of fighting then traditional styles will eventually fade away, and the evolution of martial arts will go down a sports-based cul-de-sac, in which you “aren’t even allowed to kick somebody in the head when they’re on the ground!”

I see things differently. MMA training is really rough (or at least, it is in most places). In terms of what the vast majority of martial arts practitioners want, it’s a fringe element. Your average office worker has no interest in turning up to work on Monday with a black eye and busted nose. The vast majority of martial arts practitioners are still in traditional arts, which might be more ‘street’ orientated, but tend to be less rough in their practice. They’re filling village halls with karate and tae kwon do classes, or doing judo at university, or BJJ at their local academy and Tai Chi in the park. Or at least they used to be before COVID hit. The percentage of these people that want to push their bodies to the limit and be beaten up on a regular basis is vanishingly small.

MMA is also a form of entertainment designed for television. When the big MMA stars compete at UFC on a Saturday and the crowd goes “Whoo!”, when a spinning head kick finds its target, I bet the numbers at local Tae Kwon Do clubs go up the next week, not down. I see MMA as a great promoter of all martial arts. It’s quite possible Conor McGregor has done more to promote traditional karate than anybody else in history!

I agree there’s a real risk that if MMA is seen as the only arbiter of ‘what works’ in combat then martial arts could evolve down a sports cul-de-sac, but I’d argue that MMA is pretty damn close to ‘real’, and the gains made by seeing what works in the cage compared to what passed as ‘real’ in martial arts before the UFC is like night and day.

People are not so stupid that they can’t understand the difference between a sport with rules and a martial art for self defence. And anyway, sure it’s against the rules to kick an opponent in the head when their knee is touching the ground, but who the hell is getting kicked full power in the head when they’re on the ground in a martial arts class anyway?

What we’re actually seeing is the end of the era of the ‘death touch’ and ‘ling kong jin’ no-touch nonsense that found a fertile environment to grow in a martial arts world that had lost touch with reality. An MMA guy in China beating up fake kung fu masters could just be part of the course correction that is required in the path of martial arts needs to walk right now.

7 thoughts on “Do traditional martial arts need to ‘worry’ about MMA?

  1. I trained in MMA for 5 years along with coaching and my goal was always to learn as many martial arts as possible while still training MMA. The more you learn the better it is. Still is a goal of mine but I had to put everything on hold which bothers me everyday. The more you learn the better.
    Martial arts is an awesome and teaches a lot . Never really looked at it as fighting more like a sport that teaches a lot more.

  2. MMA in years to come could be the new “Traditional” form but it will be a mash up of lots of older traditional arts. The circle will turn and people will look back to tradition for the original form. MMA must remember Martial Arts isn’t all about competition or winning a street fight

  3. Very well stated, Graham, I agree completely from the perspective of a taiji teacher who got punched, kicked and thrown way too often in his early years and consequently taught a “harsher” version of Yang style that was popular at the time in my little corner of Canada. For every ten beginners to whom I taught slow form or qigong … there might be one who showed up saying “I don’t mind the odd bruise if that’s the price for gaining some skill.”

  4. I wonder about the decline in interest in martial arts in general, which has been going on for years. MMA and BJJ gyms have had a shot in the arm on account of UFC, but the drop out rate is still high. Then add Covid to the mix, with schools all over having to close down.

    I really wonder what the martial arts scene is going to look like post Covid. Mostly private instruction/clubs, rather than public commercial ventures?

  5. I think it would be a better discussion if most people in the West had more of an idea about actual martial arts in, say, China. You need to factor in that martial arts in China was brought to a screeching halt back in the 1960’s and some/many martial arts teachers were killed, imprisoned, etc. Chen Xiaowang’s father was one of them. The Chinese Communists are still in charge of the government and everything in China is done cautiously, with an eye to how the government might respond if they don’t like something. If you don’t understand that dynamic you shouldn’t be musing about Chinese martial arts.

    There are some really competent levels of martial artists, particularly in the military, government, and police echelons. They’re not there to engage in a cage match, but to take someone out as quickly as possible. I know some would-be martial artists that have encountered some of that type. So my comment is to keep an open mind and watch things develop. The western perspective of Chinese martial arts is usually skewed and not very accurate.

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