Tai Chi is still too deadly for the cage

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”?

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 competition in a ring, but then he immediately self immolates by implying that MMA is safe, tame or sanitised, compared to the glorious killing art he practices. This “my art is too deadly for the ring” argument is as old as the UFC. We often hear it from internal martial artists – particularly 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 them and go and do something more interesting instead,but just for my own sanity, let me flesh out my argument a bit.

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 triamph of brain as it is brawn. As with all sports, there are rare moments of pure drama 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. Just take a look at Chris Wideman’s shin from a couple of weeks ago:

Jack Slack gave a glorious rant (from 38.22 minutes) about the crazy situation of being an MMA fan and knowing the fighters are doing themselves serious damage for your entertainment. I agree with everything he said.

But it is what it is and we are where we are.

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.

Power is just one factor. Don’t obsess over it.

Aldo vs McGregor

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.

Here’s the breakdown by Coach Zahabi:

Martial arts meme time

I seem to have had a lot of variations of this conversation over the years. I think it would make a good meme.

Traditional martial arts teacher: The point of martial arts is to walk away from any encounter, and if possible win!

MMA/BJJ fighter: OK! [chokes out much larger opponent in a cage match with very few rules]

Traditional martial arts teacher: No, not like that.

So here goes 🙂

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.

Is MMA a ruleset or a style?

I got into a discussion with Byron Jacobs a while ago that we were going to turn into a podcast, but in the end the Chinese goverment didn’t seem to want a dirty foreginer like me to use its WeChat service, so it never happened.

The root of the discussion was, “Is MMA a style?”

I think it is. He thinks its just a ruleset.

I kind of agree with hin on one level, MMA is a ruleset… but I think you can also say that, at this point, it has evolved into a martial arts style of its own, and also that it is a brand, which is really the thing that differentiates it from other martial arts styles.

We have watched this process happen. In 1993, when the UFC had it’s first championship, MMA was simply a format for different marital arts styles to compete with each other in. It existed so we could see style vs style matchups. Karate vs Wing Chun, BJJ vs wresting, etc.. But I would say that in 2020 this is no longer the case. MMA athletes competing these days do not really represent a style other than “MMA”. Sure, there are people like Lyoto Machinda and Steven “wonderboy” Thompson who clearly have a karate influence to their personal style, or Demian Maia who clearly has a BJJ base, but they are proficient in all areas of the game.

The selection process for fighters these days excludes specialist traditional fighters because you need to be able to demonstrate a good range of general abilities before you’re even taken seriously.

Takedowns are different in MMA than they are in Judo or BJJ. You have to consider striking, for example. That changes the ground game too. Equally, striking is different in MMA because you have to always consider the clinch and the takedown. All these things contribute to a unique approach that means techniques from other arts have to be adapted in a specific way to form its own…. style.

If you think about how the word MMA is used in language it is used like it is a style. For example, you can go to an “MMA class” (the fact that there are MMA classes to me also indicates that it has arrived as a style/brand of its own) and there’s a good presumption about what you will be learning in the class. For example, you’re not going to go to an MMA class and learn kata, or Capoeira Jinga, or a slow movement Tai Chi-like form.

I also don’t see anything negative in MMA being called a style and a brand.

OK, change my mind 🙂

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The best martial arts instructionals you’ve never seen

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Regardless of what style of martial art you do, there are some things that are common to “the fight” that anybody who is doing martial arts should learn. Most people in the internal martial arts (Tai Chi people, I’m mainly looking at you) are obsessed with body dynamics, mechanics and movement, and never take things further than a bit of compliant push hands type interaction with. a partner. The thing is, there’s a whole other world out there. A world of strategy, timing, play, feel, interaction with another person. Unfortunately, it’s also a world of pain. In my martial arts training I’ve been knocked unconscious, broken my own bones and broken other people bones, all in the kind of unplanned accidents that inevitably happen if you engage in those sorts of activities. These days I try to keep injuries to an absolute minimum. Fighting is a young man’s game, but there are ways to keep some of the ‘aliveness’ of sparring into your old(er) age without losing touch with reality completely, because that’s what happens if you give up the rough stuff – your training inevitably tends towards the delusional.

I don’t want to start a sport vs street debate, but it’s plainly obvious to me (or I would add, anybody with a brain) that sport fighting offers insights into what “the fight” looks like that you can never get from doing “self defense” type drills on pads or dummys or people dressed up in so much protective gear that they look like a cross between a walking pad and a dummy that can just about shuffle around like a zombie.

Thanks to video one thing you can do is learn from other people who do sport fighting at the highest levels, so you can try and garner their insights without having to pay the price yourself. To me that seems like the clever thing to do. I just wanted to give a shout out to Jack Slack’s “Filthy casual’s” guides in this matter, because I think they are some of the best martial arts instructionals that most people have never seen. Jack analyses MMA and boxing matches and comes up with some great insights into what makes one person more successful than another at the fight game. The name “filthy casual’s” is an indication that they’re aimed at the casual MMA fan, not the experienced pro, so they’re always accessible. Jack has handily put all his guides together into a playlist, so if you’ve never watched one, then sit back and enjoy because you’re in for a treat!

Of course, watching video is no substitute for doing it yourself, but in these times of social distance and lockdown, we’ve got no other choice.

The Tai Chi Master vs MMA guy phenomena

We may be reaching the end of the ‘Tai Chi Master vs MMA guy’ phenomena that has lit up the martial arts world in the last couple of years. I mean, how many more old guys do we need to see knocked out to make the point?

In light of the most recent fight, Will of Monkey Steals Peach has interviewed Byron Jacobs, who is deeply embedded in the martial arts world of Beijing, to get a fuller picture of events. I think it gives the most all-encompassing overview of the phenomena, and why it is happening, I’ve heard yet. See what you think:

Take a long hard look at yourself, Chinese martial artist

mirror fragments on gray surface with the reflection of a person s arm

Photo by Thiago Matos on Pexels.com

A new video in the long line running ‘Tai Chi master vs MMA guy’ series got posted the other day. Rather than talk about it here straight away I wanted to see what the reaction was from the martial arts community, and boy, it didn’t disappoint!

This whole MMA vs Tai Chi genre was started by the now-infamous Xu Xiaodong who posted the first video showing what happens when a delusional Tai Chi “master” gets in a fight with an MMA guy.

The qualifications for being a “Tai Chi master” these days seem to be that you have:

1) The backing of Chinese state TV, who will post lots of faked videos of you performing magical martial skills.

2) You have a sufficient number of minions and followers to do you bidding.

3) You look the part (silk pyjamas) and have can talk a good talk about your abilities.

Of course, none of these martial abilities are grounded in reality, so when you get in a challenge match with an MMA guy it usually ends quickly and badly for you. Chinese martial arts, particularly Tai Chi, is the focus of the soft power emanated by Beijing and the hyper-nationalistic Chinese government on the global stage. Therefore, publicly humiliating a Tai Chi “master” doesn’t make the MMA guy very popular in China, and Xu Xiaodong has been badly persecuted – his social credit score is now so low that he can’t even travel on trains and his social media accounts keep being deleted.

After the initial video of Xu Xiaodong surfaced he didn’t let the persecution put him off and he kept calling out the masters boasting of their skills on state TV. Challenge after challenge followed. One involved self-proclaimed Tai Chi/Xing Yi Master Ma Bao Guo who had previously paid a retired cage fighter Peter Irving in the UK to perform in a demo video that made him look good, and was boasting that this video was proof he was the real thing.

In this excellent article, Peter recounts the story behind the video.

Here’s the video:

To anybody that knows anything about fighting it’s obvious that Peter is just feeding attacks to Ma who reacts with some twitching responses. The fact that some people thought this was real says a lot about the mentality of minions and followers.

Xu and Ma’s challenge match was all set to go ahead (and would have ended the same way as all the others) but Ma actually called the police on his own challenge match and it was called off!

But Ma Bao Guo wasn’t giving up. At 69 he recently got in a challenge match with a San Da (Chinese kickboxing) guy who was 20 years younger than him. Here’s the video of Ma Bao Guo vs the San Da guy

As expected, it was a shocking display of ineptitude, and as I said, the reactions of the martial arts community have been interesting. Here are a few of the common responses I noticed:

  1. The rebranding of this as MMA vs Tai Chi to fit the narrative.
    The fight is actually between two practitioners of Chinese styles – one is Tai Chi/Xing Yi and the other is San Da, which is a homegrown Chinese kickboxing style. But it instantly becomes “MMA” because it fits the story created so far.
  2. “The Chinese have absolutely ruined kungfu.”
    Hard to argue with this really.
  3. Concern for Ma’s safety.
    This was my first thought – getting knocked out like that at 69 could have been fatal, and will likely have long-term effects.
  4. He needs to be sued for fraud.
    I wonder how many minions and followers he convinced of his nonsense over the years? I wonder what they think of his teachings now? If they gained health benefits are they now invalid?
  5. Why don’t those Kungfu guys that angrily complain about the fraudulent masters’ performance themselves step up to make Kungfu great again?
    It seems like a bit of false reasoning to me. I think the point is that if you are going to claim abilities then you need somebody to test them. Perhaps you need to be more realistic about what you claim? The reason Xu is not challenging 20-year-old kickboxers, is that they’re not claiming magical abilities on state-run TV. And also, it’s usually the old masters doing the challenging!
  6. “I look at someone getting beaten and it has little to do with me or my training.”
    True – exposing the delusional Tai Chi masters doesn’t mean that Tai Chi itself is delusional. If you are honest about what you can and can’t do, then that’s a good thing.

But then we get to number 7, and this is the one that really gets my goat…..

        7. “It says a lot about those that post these clips.”

What???

Aiming your ire at the guy lifting the curtain to show a little old man, not a wizard, behind it is something you’d attribute more to the mad emperor Nero, (who had a habit of shooting dead the bearers of bad news) than the sane and balanced mind of Marcus Aurelius, one of the last ‘good’ emperors of Rome.

The event was done publicly. There were press there with cameras. Ma had clearly arranged for this to be broadcast. And I can bet if (by some miracle) Ma had actually defeated the San Da guy, then heralds of his victory would be celebrated far and wide by everybody who purports to be a Chinese martial artist.

Stop trying to shame people for exposing the bullshit.

You can’t have it both ways. If you do something sportive and public then it remains pubic, regardless of whether you like the outcome. The point of challenge matches is to see what works. Part of the appeal of MMA for me is that it’s on one hand sport, but on the other a long-running public education project about what works in fighting.

I can already feel the voices of those “MMA is not for the street!” guys building as I write this, but you know – screw them. A good answer to that is that if you can’t make your art work with a limited rule set that simulates a real fight as closely as we can make it, how are you supposed to make it work when the other guy isn’t even restricted by those few rules?

San Da, boxing or MMA is a young man’s game. Old masters of whatever martial art it is should really stop trying to engage in it altogether. Putting yourself in a position where you can get knocked out cold at 69 years old is just a terribly bad idea. The implications for what remains of your life are serious. There’s a reason that Muay Thai fighters’ careers usually end in the 20s.

The whole thing was folly.

Ma was delusional for

  1. Thinking that whatever martial skills he had gained from a lifetime of pushing minions, followers, and paid performers, around while wearing silk pyjamas could actually translate into real fighting skills.
  2. Thinking that you could do this at 69 years old.

But human beings are delusional. And in normal life, we can get away with it up to a point because there are no serious consequences. I talked about this in my recent interview on the Martial Arts Studies podcast. My point was that nature is not delusional, which is why the Song Dynasty had such success economically and military thanks to the Li Movement, which aimed to get back to looking at nature for what it is, not what we think it is. That was the point I was making about studying animal methods (that I don’t think my interviewer quite picked up on) that a snake does what a snake does regardless of what human beings think about it, or even better, with no human beings around at all.

Similarly, MMA or San Da or challenge matches bring martial artists into direct contact with nature, or reality, if you like. And sometimes that can be a painful act of recognition.

It should be celebrated, not turned away from. Look it full in the face and learn. As the old martial arts saying goes:

“In martial arts you either win or you learn.”

It’s probably not a good idea to wait until you’re 69 to start learning.

The punch you didn’t see coming

action adult athlete athletes

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I’ve already talked about how we use jin (planet force) all the time. I think there’s a good example from MMA and boxing that sheds some more light on this.

When boxers or MMA practitioners get knocked out by a punch it’s usually from one they didn’t see coming. The counterpunch is a deadly strike in combat because at the very moment you think you are punching them, they’re hitting you. Its effectiveness is partly down to surprise, and often you get a double impact because the attacker is moving forward into the punch of the counter attacker – a perfect example of ‘using their own force against them’.

But the surprise factor and force on force don’t explain why a punch that the guy doesn’t see coming is often twice as effective as a punch he is mentally prepared for.

I believe the answer is to do with jin and the subconscious mind. When you can see a punch coming, your brain can – in the fractions of a second you have available, – make subtle postural adjustments so that the force is absorbed by your body better against the ground. This is similar to the idea of a jin path to the ground we’ve already talked about. I believe we automatically and subconsciously do this in response to any impact we can see coming.

When we can’t see that punch coming it’s more damaging because we are not ‘in position’ to receive it as well.

The next time you watch a boxing match or an MMA match, think about this idea and see if it looks true on the slow-motion replay.