Byron Jacobs is a teacher of Xing Yi and Bagua based in Beijing, China. He’s a student of the famous Shifu Di Guoyong and is heavily involved in the martial arts scene in Beijing. As well as training traditional martial arts he’s also a BJJ practitioner and competitor.
In this wide ranging discussion we talk about training Xing Yi, Bagua and Tai Chi and whether Wu Shu will ever get into the Olympics. We also find out what it was like to train martial arts in Beijing during the Corona virus pandemic, and what the Chinese BJJ and MMA scene is like.
Warning! It’s long. Over 3 hours, in fact, it’s almost 4 hours long.
The issue of how long a podcast should be is always a contentious one – you hear a lot of people say it should be as long as a commute to work, so 20 minutes to half an hour, but I have no objections to something like this one, which weighs in at over the 3 hour mark. I’m an adult – I can handle the idea of not listening to something all in one go.
Dan has a lot to say about the current state of the UFC, MMA, traditional martial arts, combat sports, capitalism, the old days, growing up and more. It’s quite a run through of various related topics. His thoughts on self defence, violence and the place of MMA in society I thought were particularly interesting.
Dim mak, pressure points, high kicks and nerve strikes! Along with permed hair, styled into a mullet, and blue jeans, these were part of the staple diet of kung fu magazines in the 1980s and 1990s. But pressure point striking quickly became something of a running joke once people found out that it couldn’t be applied in a real fight, you know, when somebody was actually trying to punch your face in, not just when they were standing in front of you passively in the dojo, happily waiting for you to strike their Gallbladder 15 or Lung 4 points.
The reputation of pressure point striking wasn’t helped by the many obvious charlatans peddling their fake pressure point striking systems on DVD and on seminar circuits. These ‘masters’ tended to only demonstrate their skills on their own gullible students, and they rarely seem to work on other people, who hadn’t been brainwashed to think they were the second coming.
But while falling foul of reality, pressure point striking carried on a healthy second life in the fantasy-based genre of martial arts movies. For example, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had a great scene where one of the fighters is almost instantly paralysed by some quick pressure point tomfoolery until he can be released by yet more pressure point touching.
And in Kill Bill: Volume 2, the late David Carridine famously succumbed to Bak Mei’s legendary 5 point palm exploding heart technique, delivered deliciously by Uma Thurman.
Even as recently as 2021, in the Marvel TV series, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, homage was paid to the pressure point movie trope with a body-popping sequence that made the Winter Soldier’s metal arm suddenly detach from his shoulder and fall to the floor with a clank, turning him from super soldier into one-armed bandit with one simple cheat code.
However, if you ignore the mystical nonsense surrounding pressure point striking you’ll find that it is actually based on some pretty sound scientific principles. In a recent UFC 252 match Anthony Smith seemed to paralyse Jimmy Crute’s leg with a well-delivered calf kick.
After the kick, Crute’s leg seemed to be unable to function in a way that was almost comical. Crute bravely tried to fight on, but his leg was so unusable after the strike that the ring doctor waved the fight off when he was unable to walk in a straight line properly between rounds. I’m sure I heard Pak Mei chuckle quietly to himself in his grave when it happened.
So how was this possible? The answer lies in nerves.
As orthopedic surgeon Dr Lucius Pomerantz explains, on his YouTube channel, the phenomenon is called Drop Foot, and it’s what happens when the peroneal nerve sustains an injury. “When a nerve does not work the muscles that it innervates do not receive messages from the brain. When the peroneal nerve is injured the muscles that raise the foot at the ankle do not work – the foot drops down. Simply walking can be extremely difficult without the ability to raise the foot.”
So, there you have it. A pressure point strike achieved via a calf kick in MMA! I’m glad pressure points are making a comeback, and I hope we’ll see more of them in the future.
I just hope the permed mullet doesn’t make a comeback as well.
I’m going to have a bit of a rant today, so bear with me.
I read this quote today:
“Why should everything always be measured by competition MMA standards? Rules and protections so people won’t get hurt, judges, mats, doctors standing beside the ring, and months for the people to prepare before a fight… So those are the standards of “high level fighting”?
That quote sums up what’s wrong with the attitude of a lot of people in the Tai Chi world. Now, don’t get me wrong. I tend to agree with his idea that not everything should be judged by MMA standards. There are lots of reasons to do a martial art, and it doesn’t all have to be about competing in a ring, but then he immediately loses the plot by claiming that MMA is safe, tame or sanitised, compared to the real martial art that he practices. This idea that his art is too deadly for the ring is as old as the hills. People have been using it as an excuse ever since the UFC was created. And we particulary hear it from internal martial artists – usually Tai Chi people. And despite it being obvious nonsense, it never seems to go away.
People who talk like this simply don’t know what they’re talking about, so I really should just ignore him and go and do something more interesting instead, but just for my own sanity, let me flesh out why he’s wrong.
MMA at all levels, but particularly the professional level, is ridiculously dangerous. People die, and they’re doing it for your entertainment and crappy wages. I like to watch MMA as a form of entertainment as much as anybody else who practices martial arts as a hobby, especially if I know who the fighters are and have been following them for a while. There are moments of brilliance that get pulled off in the cage, and they’re astonishing to see. To see one person successfully implement a fighting strategy against another and for it to work is as much a triumph of brain as it is of brawn. As with all sports, there are rare moments of pure drama that happen in the cage that cannot be replicated even in the highest levels of theatre.
If you’re a jiujitsu fan then there’s the added bonus of seeing your favourite grapplers transition to MMA to see if they can work their wizardry in the cage with the threat of punches added. Ryan “The wizard” Hall is one of my favourite fighters for this very reason:
But there’s also a lot about the sport I don’t like – I hate the way fighters keep hitting their opponent’s head after they have gone unconscious. I hate how much punishment the referees sometimes let the fighters take before waving the bout off. The weight cutting is ridiculous and dangerous. I don’t like watching violence for the sake of violence. But most of all I don’t like the fact that these people are putting their health and, let’s be honest, their lives, on the line for not a lot of money when compared to other sports that have similar viewing numbers, but don’t have anywhere near the same risk. No professional MMA fighter is getting out of the game unscathed. The effects of repeated blows to the head in competition or training often only reveal themselves as life-changing brain damage years after the fighter has hung up his or her gloves.
And that’s not to mention all the potentially life-changing injuries you can suffer inside the cage in the few short minutes of a fight. Chris Wideman suffered an horrendous injury to his shin just a couple of weeks ago:
It’s not like a lot of other combat sports are much safer. Just a week ago a Sumo wrestler slipped and fell face down. He never got up again. There were no doctors present at the match and nobody checked on him for about 5 minutes as he lay there. You can watch it on Youtube if you’re feeling brave. His medical care, or lack of it, was an absolute disgrace and clearly the safety procedures (which seem hamstrung by tradition in this case) need urgently reviewing. Again, Sumo wrestlers are generally compensated appallingly for the amount they give to the sport, and then discarded after their career is over.
While football stars, golf pros, runners and basketball players can command huge salaries, professional fighters (with the exception of boxers) are just not getting the recognition they deserve.
So the last thing I want to read about is some Tai Chi expert telling me he thinks that MMA is too soft and safe compared to the “deadly” art he practices. If he’s even raised a sweat in training in the last 10 years, I’d be surprised.
As I’ve heard many people say over the years, MMA is the closest you can get to a no rules fight while still having some rules, so as a testing ground it’s immensely valuable for research. Let’s not pretend it’s not, or that practising a martial art without any resistance fighting will somehow make you a better fighter.
When was the last time you saw MMA coaches or fans having a massive long, protracted argument about the best way to produce power? I can’t remember it happening. I don’t think that’s because they don’t care about it – they obviously do – but I think they recognise that it’s part of the whole that makes up a fighter, not the only thing to focus on. Being able to take a punch to the face or body without crumpling into the canvas is obviously a more important skill. Being able to produce a powerful stomp into the ground when you’re punching the air, leaving your fist vibrating and shaking to demonstrate the enormity of your power… is very good for show, but what about for real? Can you do that when you’re tired, you’ve already been hit twice in the body and kicked six times in the same leg?
MMA coaches and commentators talk a lot about Conor McGregor’s left. It’s one of the most famous KO weapons in MMA. He’s sent a lot of consciousnesses on a short break to Valhalla with it. I was listening to Coach Zahabi breaking down the Conor McGregor vs Dustin Poirier fight (video below). He calls McGregor the “One punch KO type guy”, with a “kill shot”, a “touch of death”. But on that night the KO didn’t happened. Coach Zahabi talks a lot about about what Poirier did to take the sting out of it – by constantly wearing McGregor down, clinching him, not playing his game.
If you look at the GIF above of Aldo vs McGregor you can see McGregor knocks Aldo out while moving backwards (Tai Chi people, feel free to yell out “Repulse Monkey!” here – it will do you no good, but it will make you feel better 🙂 ) this reveals what’s more important than power – timing. Power as the goal seems fruitless to me – what matters more is timing. If I could bottle timing and drink it I’d be drunk on it all the time!
The internal martial arts, with their emphasis on intricate, subtle and detailed body methods, qi, jin, “internal strength”, (and not much actual fighting), tend to fall prey to this obsession with power too easily. How much power do you really need? My answer is always “enough”. Once you go beyond “enough” then you start to detract from other areas of your game – timing, position, fluidity, flow, etc.. Power is part of the whole system of movement that should go with every Chinese martial art – if you extract that one aspect and look at in isolation then you can’t see the forest for the trees.
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.
Michael Rook posted about an online course in Hap Gar that’s starting in January, so I thought I’d check it out and had a go with one of the free videos as my morning workout. The teacher is David Rogers of Rising Crane, and the workout is a nice, not too heavy, way to start your day while learning some Kung Fu. Plus it’s free, so give it a go! I really enjoyed it. After a warm up you’ll work on the first 5 basic punches of Hop Gar and some stances.
Richard is a teacher of Tai Chi and Hap Gar Kung Fu through the Rising Crane. David only takes one or two student groups a year for online learning, and it’s a very interactive, personalised training session so a whole group can move through it together, getting feedback as they go.
I haven’t done Hap Gar before, but I’ve done a lot of Choy Lee Fut, and to my eyes there appears to be very little difference between the two. Hap Gar looks like a version of Choy Lee Fut to me, even the same names are used for the moves, so it was great to experience a Kung Fu style I was already familiar with, but from a slightly different perspective. I also liked his thoughts on fighting strategy for these long range styles that he gives at the end, around the 35 minute mark, plus I liked his thoughts on MMA.
In the video above amateur Chinese MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong is fighting Chen Yong, the self-proclaimed sixth-generation Tai Chi Master of the Wu lineage. It’s the latest in a long line of fights between Xu and people who claim to be martial arts ‘masters’.
If we analyse the 10 seconds of action we can see Chen takes a forward weighted stance with his hands up in a high guard. It leaves him completely imobile and open for a kick. Xu kicks him low, Chen drops his guard and that was all she wrote.
Presumably Chen thought that whatever he had been doing for the past few decades was good enough training to actually fight with. But whatever Chen has been practicing… it wasn’t fighting.
Some of my Chinese Martial Arts colleagues get really upset with these fights. They think the whole thing is set up to make Chinese marital arts look bad and promote the UFC, and I’m somehow complicit in a plot designed to bring the whole Chinese martial arts down. Or that Xu won’t fight anybody young and fit and only challenges old men. It’s classic conspiracy theory nonsense.
I find this attitude odd because, frankly the UFC doesn’t give a crap about any of this. And nobody is making these delusional ‘masters’ fight anybody – they’re doing it of their own free will and more often than not, they are the challengers in the fights, and put up all the money required to make them happen. They clearly think they are going to win with their martial skill despite a huge age gap or a gap in fighting experience.
There is a strong tradition of Chinese Kung Fu masters appearing in faked fights on Chinese TV and seeming to be all-powerful. It’s that delusion that Xu fighting against. Watch this:
A common thing I’ve hear is that nobody has heard of these ‘masters’ before. Again, that’s true, but there are a lot of delusional people in martial arts, so I don’t think that’s surprising. China is a big place. Perhaps it’s the use of the term “master” that gets bandied about so freely? In light of all these fights there has been a government move in China to ban the use of the word. Xu Xiaodong has been heavily persecuted – being forced to hide his face in clown makeup and have an insulting nickname in one fight. It didn’t stop him beating these ‘masters’.
But it’s not just Xu doing it. Here’s another video from a couple of years ago. In white pyjamas we have “The 47-year-old expert Zhu Chunping, who has been practising tai chi for decades” vs Yao Hantian “The 22-year-old Yao has been training kick-boxing for just six months”. Read the report in the South China Morning Post. From the 5 seconds of action in the video we can see Zhu takes up what looks like a version of the San Ti Shi stance from Xing Yi while Yao immediately starts moving, establishing range and holding his hands in a modern guard position. One right hand from Yao, which goes right down the middle of Zhu’s guard and he doesn’t react at all to, and it’s all over.
As for the attitude of trying to pretend these fights aren’t happening… I believe it’s some misguided implementation of Wu De – martial virtue. Why shouldn’t people watch these fights? If you engage in a bout with a ring, a judge, and cameras involved, that’s designed to be streamed or televised then clearly you are now in the entertainment industry. That’s what prize fighting is. If this was some sort of battle for honour or revenge it would all be played out in a dark alley somewhere and nobody would ever know about it.
I think the lessons these videos teach is so valuable that they’re worth posting. You need to keep it real (to some extent at least) if you want to teach “martial arts”. Even if that “real” is realising your limitations, and that you shouldn’t be fighting a 22 year old in a ring when you’re 47 and don’t have any fight experience.
Chinese martial arts are full of fantastic skills and valuable content, but if you spend all your time doing your “body method” training and no time doing fighting training, then don’t expect to be able to fight with it.
And let’s not keep hiding this stuff away – you don’t fix your problems by pretending they don’t exist.
I was alerted to a great post by Reddit User drkaczuz about the role of stunt men and women compared to the same scenes done by “real” martial artists who are not trained in movie-fu.
I’ll quote it here (I hope he doesn’t mind because it’s really interesting, and he makes some great points):
“Yeah, people very often misunderstand the role of stunt doubles, especially in fight scenes. It’s often not as much about skill, or risk as about production logistics. Even if you have a physically capable actor, with MA experience, you still want to use the stunt doubles, simply to squeeze the most out of pre-production time. You can’t lock the star of the show in a room with the stunt crew for a few weeks to rehearse the scene to perfection, they need to well, act. Learn their lines, prepare for their non-action scens, do marketing stuff, photoshoots, etc. What you CAN do is have the stunt double rehearse the entire choreography for months untill it’s buttery smooth and them tag them in on a moment’s notice.
Another thing with actors that have MA background is how different movie fighting is from real fighting – a lot of time real fighting skills and reflexes actually make on-screen fighting look worse.
I think Donnie Yen vs Mike Tyson is a good example showcasing a lot of issues when working with real athletes – we all know Mike is insanely fast, but in this clip he appears slow and sluggish, and you can’t really see the power behind the blows – further below I’ll try to explain why.
Anderson Silva from the same flick, notice the kicks especially, also look at all Randy Couture scenes from Expendables – they’re a dark, shakycam mess, but a lot of shakycam and bad lighting is damage control to hide hits that didn’t sell well.
I am not saying that having actual martial artists on set is bad – but you have to manage them really well, have an action director that will guide them and communicate their vision clearly. In a lot of cases a director will oh so wrongly assume that if they have the star martial artist on set they can just tell them to do their thing and it’ll come together somehow. Also it’s not that being good at actual fighting is somehow a hinderance – all good stuntpeople will be at least competent in one or more actual combat sport or martial art. It’s just they have a LOT of additional knowledge on top, as well as the ability to turn some instincts on and off.
There’s more to this post, including links to good examples of well done fight choreography.