Podcast Episode 2: Byron Jacobs on Beijing martial arts

Episode 2 of the Tai Chi Notebook podcast is out!

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.

If you’d like to be taught by Byron in the arts of Xing Yi and Bagua, then he has an online learning platform available at https://www.patreon.com/mushinmartialculture

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.

Show notes
—————

(9.45)
Byron’s Hua Jin Online learning platform
https://www.patreon.com/mushinmartialculture

(15.22)
Byron’s Mu Shin Martial Culture YouTube channel
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCg_V6eznSvYOFz2naGlgRpg

(47.05)
DQ’d for Kicking TOO HARD? – Doctor Reacts to Olympic Karate Controversy and Knockout Science
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QFxxM3QOws

(1.05.30)
Speed passing by Rafa Mendes
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qu_9Lcdrh_w

(1.18.11)
Ku Yu Chang (Guruzhang’s) Yang style Taijiquan:
A STUDY OF TAIJI BOXING by Long Zixiang
https://brennantranslation.wordpress.com/2018/03/30/the-taiji-manual-of-long-zixiang/

(1.23.00)
Stand Still Be Fit by Master Lam Kam Chuen
https://www.youtube.com/user/StandStillBeFit

You can find it on all the usual places you find podcasts – search for The Tai Chi Notebook on Apple podcasts, Spotify, etc.. or here’s a link:

Spotify
Apple
Web

The current state of martial arts, with Dan Hardy

I’ve been listening to, and really enjoying, Dan “The Outlaw” Hardy’s recent interview on the Raspberry Ape podcast. With a background in traditional martial arts, Dan was a pro MMA fighter and official UFC commentator.

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.

Give it a listen – just not in one sitting!

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”?

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:

Jack Slack gave a glorious rant (from 38.22 minutes in his episode 28 podcast) 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.

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.

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 🙂

Photo by Bruno Bueno on Pexels.com

The best martial arts instructionals you’ve never seen

Photo by Nafis Abman on Pexels.com

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.