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!

Is Chinese wrestling the root of all Chinese martial arts?

An interesting video has surfaced that links the guard postures used in Shuai Jiao (Chinese Wrestling) with postures in various Chinese martial arts. The premise of the video is that Shuai Jiao is the root of all the Chinese martial styles. The text accompanying the video says:

“Guards in traditional Chinese wrestling are meant to favor certain fighting techniques and strategies. Since Shuai Jiao is very ancient and there are precise references in these guards to the styles that exist today, traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles. My Master Yuan Zumou has clearly stated this for over thirty years. In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat. I have put the captions of the styles I know or of those that maestro Li Baoru (Beijing, late 80s) mentions in the video.”

It’s an interesting theory, but unfortunately I can’t agree with such a blanket statement as “traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles“. Was it a strong influence on all Chinese styles? Yes, of course. But calling it the root of all styles is a bit strong for me. Some styles developed entirely from military practices, and a lot of styles have no wrestling component at all, or have their roots in weapons usage.

I can certainly see postures in the video that resemble Tai Chi – particularly the “White Stork Cools Wings” posture and another guard that looks a little like the “Wave Hands Like Clouds”. But we only have two arms and two legs – inevitably there are going to be similarities between postures found in different martial arts. That alone doesn’t confirm a genuine historial link. Influences betweewn marital arts can flow in both directions, too. So it’s quite possible that wrestling has been influenced by local village styles. And even things that are not necessarily combat arts, like xìqǔ, can have an influence on them.

I’d also have to take issue with the statement that “In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat.” Let’s not even get into the idea of what “real combat” is (Shuai Jiao matches have rules, after all) but it’s a simple fact that Shuai Jiao was enjoyed in the royal court in the Ching Dynasty (and probably all the dynasties before it) as a kind of entertainment for the nobles. The same thing happened in the Japanese royal court with Sumo, just as medieval kings in Europe enjoyed watching martial games like jousting and fencing. And obviously wrestling is still enjoyed as a kind of popular entertainment in America and Mexico today.

But let’s turn our attention to the contend of the video. A lot of the guards being demonstrated look quite showy to me – as if they were designed to impress an audience, particularly the Wave Hands Like Clouds style guard, where the practitioner seems to deliberately trip over his own legs.

But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Ever since modern Wu Shu put the emphasis on gymnastic ability over practicality, people have been searching for this false dichotomy between performance and practicality in historical martial arts, too. It’s almost like a real martial art isn’t allowed to have any ‘fun’ aspects to it. In reality, and with several historical examples, a martial art can be both a serious, practical tool for combat, and something that can be performed for social, entertainment and cultural reasons all at the same time.

Choy Li Fut schools often perform lion dance, and that doesn’t mean their kung fu won’t work in a fight. Similarly, I would contend that Shuai Jiao can be used as a form of entertainment and a practical method of self defence. Just like almost all Chinese martial arts can.

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.

Review: “Nonstop Jiu-Jitsu” by Brandon Mullins and Stephan Kesting

A rare and welcome return to dead tree media for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fans everywhere.

Since the advent of DVD, and easily downloadable video tutorials from the likes of Kesting’s own Grapple Arts website and sites like BJJ Fanatics, new books that teach you BJJ techniques in a step-by-step manner have dwindled to the point of non-existence. Back in the day we had masterworks in print, like Jiu-Jitsu University by Saulo Ribeiro and Kevin Howell, and Advanced Brazilian Jiujitsu Techniques by Marcelo Garcia and Marshal D Carper* to guide us. But VHS and then DVD took over, which is why I’m so pleased to see this new release from Brandon Mullins and Stephan Kesting. Nonstop Jiu-Jitsu is the first new book about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to buck the trend and feature photos and step-by-step techniques, released in years.

You might be wondering what the point of a printed book teaching you BJJ is in the modern age of YouTube and steaming video, so let me offer you some reasons for its existence:

1) You don’t need a phone, app, computer or VR headset to enjoy a book. You can take it wherever you go and dive into any page anytime, anywhere. Talk about “instant access”!

2) Some people learn better from printed material – reading puts you in a different headspace. There’s also just something nice about a real, physical book that you can hold in your hands.

3) A DVD of this material (“Nonstop Jiu-Jitsu”) already exists from Grapple Arts, so this book acts as an additional resource.

4) Goddamn it, I’m just tired of all BJJ instructionals being in video format these days! It’s so nice to go back to something more old school.

So, as you can probably tell, I really wanted to like this book. I work in print magazines as my day job, so I love print with the sort of passion that Gordan Ryan normally reserves for protein shakes. I want to see the printed medium continue for as long as possible. So, as a fan of the original Nonstop Jiu-jitsu video instructional from Grapple Arts, I was beyond excited to hear that a print version was now available. And at 260 pages, with literally hundreds of full colour photos it is clearly a labour of love for the authors Kesting and Mullins. Yet alas, (alas!), it is not without its problems, of which there are many, but more of that later.

First though, who are Kesting and Mullins, and why should you care what they have to say about BJJ? As mentioned, Kesting runs the Grapple Arts business of BJJ instructional videos. I’ve been a fan of his work for a long time, and purchased many of his products. They’re all good, high-quality productions and usually done in conjunction with another teacher, who has a unique or valuable insight into the world of BJJ. Kesting usually takes the role of uke in the videos, while the featured instructor takes you through his techniques, or concepts. The featured instructor here is Brandon “Wolverine” Mullins, a BJJ world champion who is known for his clear instructional style and showing you complete gameplans, rather than isolated techniques, so he will show you a guard sweep, followed by a guard pass and then a submission, rather than techniques that leave you hanging and not knowing quite what comes next. Mullins isn’t one of the really famous BJJ guys out there, but he’s no stranger to competition and is a very competent teacher.

So what’s my beef? Well, the problem is that the book smacks of self publishing. A quick scan of the credits page reveals they didn’t employ an editor or a sub editor, and it really shows. Not only could almost all the text in the book do with a good edit to make it punchier, tighter and more interesting to read, there are a lot of unforgivable grammatical errors that have crept in, mainly in the introduction text admittedly, but that’s the thing you read first, so it creates a very bad first impression. But while things improve in later sections, typos are prevalent throughout the work, and if like me you can’t stand seeing obvious mistakes in a finished book, you’ll be tearing your hair out. I have a lot of sympathy for the authors here – working in print I know how hard it is to spot your own mistakes. You go “word blind” to your own writing. There are probably typos in this review that I’ve missed, but I can easily go back and fix them because it’s a blog post. In contrast, once something has been published in print it can’t be changed without issuing an expensive reprint – it’s really a very unforgiving medium, and not getting another pair of eyes to look at every single page before you send it to the printers is always fatal. Heck, I’d have done it for free myself if only they’d asked me!**

Some examples of typos from the introduction:

Maybe you’re not be the sort of person who cares about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. You just want to get to the great content, right? Well, I have some issues there as well.

I can’t fault the quality of the instruction presented. Like I said before, I was a fan of the original video series. But the way it’s presented here could be improved. For a start, the book is an odd shape (21.5cm across and 21.5cm high). There’s a reason why most books generally aren’t square – they’re really awkward to design for and you can see how this has created problems. When they have a full page of text, they’ve used only 1-column, so a line is uncomfortably long. The margin on the outside edge of the page is very tight too, and it all makes reading difficult, as you have to track your eye back a long way to the left to find the start of the next line. A 2-column grid would have made scanning text much easier.

(Very long lines of text to digest here. And a double exclamation mark at the end? What were they thinking”!!”)

The pages of photos have a different problem. Following from one step to the next is difficult, as they often have alternative shots of the same technique on the page. They’ve put numbers on photos so you can see where to move your eye to next, but knowing where to go next is not intuitive. They also expect you to read the explanation in the text box at the top of the page, then move your eye back to the correct picture to see what is meant, then move your eye back to the text box at the top to read the next step, and so on. It’s all a bit awkward.

(The two white lines indicate an alternative view, in case you were wondering.)

All credit to Kesting and Mullins for spending the time to re-shoot every single technique in detail and presenting colour photos of each step (that’s not cheap to do in print). The photos are clear and accurately show the techniques. They avoid the classic mistake of both weaing the same colour gi, but the printing is a bit too dark, meaning there are some shadows and dark patches on Kesting’s blue gi that are hard to make out, as you can see in my photos. (This probably looked fine on screen when they were creating the book, but the printed version can differ).

(That’s a lot of very small photos to try and fit on one page).

The design has competing systems of classification too, which makes it even more confusing. Sometimes a “what not to do” type photo has a red thumbs down icon on it, at other times it is crossed out with a big red “x”. Why not just pick one system and stick with it?

In their enthusiasm the authors have tried to squeeze too much into this book, both in terms of the number of photos on each page, and the amount of material covered. There are 3 big sections – 1. Fundamental movements, 2. Butterfly guard, 3. De La Riva guard – and to fit it all in, something important has been lost, which is context. In the video version of Nonstop Jiu-Jitsu, Mullins explains why he’s doing each technique, usually in response to the opponent defending his previous effort. Here you don’t know when or why you would use the techniques shown. For instance, when you have butterfly guard, what makes you choose either the hook flip to x guard or the hook flip to phantom choke? It’s not entirely clear. A short piece of text explaining the context before diving into the steps would have made all the difference.

To give you an idea of how much content there is here, the table of contents alone runs to 6 pages! Complaining there’s too much value in a book sounds like an odd gripe, but this book could easily have been split into 3 different books, with more room to really let each subject breathe, and it would have been all the better for it.

The first section (which seems unsure if it’s called Fundamental Movements, or Advanced Fundamentals) is based around the fundamental movements of Jiu-Jitsu, like the technical stand up, sit through, hip escape, butt double and rolling forward and backwards, and then shows you how these movements can be applied in techniques. In a section aimed at beginners the applications are actually quite involved and ramp the difficulty level up very quickly – for example, a rolling omoplata from the armbar position in side control, anybody? As a more experienced Jiu-jitsu player I personally loved the high-level technical content here, but a real beginner might be a bit out of their comfort zone. My only criticism is that they show plenty of applications for all the movements except the hip escape (or shrimp) and bridge, which only get one application each – regaining closed guard from half guard for the shrimp and bridging from mount. I would have liked to have seen a shrimping escape from side control here, and another mount escape added for completeness sake.

The second section goes on to cover butterfly guard. Butterfly is a really good guard to use against an opponent who is trying to pass your guard from his knees. The standard butterfly sweep is shown, plus a plethora of options for when they post a hand or leg. Quite naturally this leads into all sorts of x guard material, back takes and shin sweeps. The section starts with Mullins’ trademark aggressive butt double attack from butterfly, which is a very proactive way to get the action going against a stalling opponent, and as such is nicely suited to competition. Because Mullins teaches in a game plan-based system, a lot of this chapter is devoted to guard passing after you’ve swept them from butterfly guard.

The final section covers the De La Riva guard, which shows you what to do against a standing opponent. The majority of the section is on how to attack with the ball and chain sweep, and follow ups depending on how the opponent defends. Again, the jiu-jitsu shown is attacking and aggressively non-stop, in the sense that he links together guard sweeps, passes and submissions.

Throughout all of the book’s sections, Mullins drops in some tips on motivation, competition strategy and his general thoughts on BJJ. It’s welcome advice, but I think it could have done with an editor to make it more concise.

After all this moaning you probably think I’m going to recommend staying well clear of Nonstop Jiu-Jitsu (or is it “Non-stop Jiu-Jitsu“? Even the name of the book is editorially styled in two different ways, one on the cover without a hyphen and another on the footers of each page with a hyphen – argh! Just choose one way and stick with it), because of all the editorial problems, but I’m not. I’m recommending it because this book is actually glorious!

I love seeing BJJ back in print, and despite the issues I’ve mentioned**, it didn’t stop me from loving this book. If you’re looking for some new ideas for a game to play from butterfly or de la Riva, then you’ll find inspiration here that will last a lifetime, and you can easily add to your game. And, godamn it, it’s a real book about BJJ and we should celebrate that fact.


Link to Nonstop Jiujitsu on Amazon


(* If you’re interested, I consider Marcelo Garcia’s book to be the gold standard in terms of these types of instructional BJJ manuals. Its production standards are first rate, from the quality text and explanations to the brilliant photos. Sadly it went out of print a long time ago.)

(** Lads, if you are reading this and want to do an updated version 2 of this book without all the typos, then please do, but please, please hire an editor this time!)

The First 6 BJJ Techniques Everyone MUST Learn

Apologies for the click-baity headline, but:

i) it’s true

and

ii) that’s what the video was called 🙂

This is a video created by the Gracie Academy, it’s pretty long, but it’s got the essentials of BJJ for self defence in there, and why not learn it? What have you got to lose?

“But all fights start on the feet!” Well, as the video of a real attack in the clip shows – you can be attacked at any time, anywhere and potentially by anyone. You could already be sitting on public transport. You could be attacked from behind and end up on the floor. If you don’t know how to get up from there then you’ve got a problem.

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.

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.

Tai Chi’s Rollback: A deep dive

photo of night sky

Photo by faaiq ackmerd on Pexels.com

Split, like Rollback, is one of Tai Chi’s 8 energies. It’s also one of the most commonly found of the 8 energies in the Tai Chi form. Almost every technique you see in Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan) uses Split energy to a greater or lesser degree.

I’ve seen Split described as spiral energy, a takedown or a breaking force. But all of those things miss the point – they describe its effects, not what it really is.

Split is really the energy of two things moving in opposite directions. If you move two things in a circle in opposite directions you create a spiral. When you do applications on somebody with spiral actions the result is usually a takedown. And you can’t break any joint without directing force in two different directions. For example, if you kick somebody’s leg it’s unlikely to break unless that leg is locked against something that doesn’t move, like say, the ground.

This brings us on to how Split is applied in Tai Chi Chuan.

In Tai Chi you want your hands to be clearly differentiated from each other. One hand needs to be active, the other passive. One empty, and the other solid. One Yin, one Yang. If you don’t do this then you enter a state known as being double weighted. As it says in the classics:

Sinking to one side allows movement to flow;
being double-weighted is sluggish.

Anyone who has spent years of practice and still cannot neutralize,
and is always controlled by his opponent,
has not apprehended the fault of double-weightedness.

To avoid the fault of double-weightedness, which hand is the yin one and which is the yang one must change continually and ceaselessly as you go through the movements of the Tai Chi form. Tai Chi Chuan should always be in a state of change, just like the Tai Chi symbol itself is.

yin-yang-2024615_640

Image by Pixabay.

 

If it’s not in a state of change then it’s stuck. Calling something double-weighted is another way of saying that it’s stuck.

Split is usually applied along with another of the 8 energies. One example I wanted to look at today is Rollback. Rollback, or Lu energy, is the most yin of all Tai Chi’s 8 energies. It’s almost the absence of energy. When being confronted with active Yang energy, Lu is the energy of retreating or yielding. Its movement is usually inwards.

The technique called Rollback in the Tai Chi form gets its name from Lu energy, but also mixes in a bit of Split energy.

If you look at this picture of Yang Cheng Fu doing Rollback you can see the differentiation in his hands.

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This left hand is withdrawing and pulling, but his right hand is pressing downwards.

In the action of Rollback your left-hand starts off as the active one with a guiding pull on the attacker’s wrist, but the right one then takes over as the active hand with a strong pressing down action onto the attacker’s elbow area.

I found a really old video of me doing rollback in push hands, so you can see what I mean:

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At the start of the motion my left hand is the active one, then the right hand takes over with the pressing down movement.

Throughout the whole Tai Chi form, you should be aware of this interplay of energy between not just the palms but the other parts of the body too. If you can notice it in the palms, with one hand being the active one and the other the passive one, and then exchanging positions, you can start to notice it in the feet, the legs and so on.

Once you can do this over the whole body then you can distinguish yin and yang throughout your form and you will no longer be at the risk of exhibiting double weighting.

 

 

Sand in your face and sickly children. Martial arts narratives.

At 6.28 in this BJJ promotion video from the early 1950s by Helio and Carlos Gracie, a “skinny guy” gets his girl stolen by bigger, stronger bully.  But don’t worry – he signs up for jiujitsu lessons and wins her back!

Let’s ignore the 1950’s idea of women as property and prize, which jars with modern sensibilities, and look at the marketing message. This narrative around the marketing of jiujitsu is clearly based on this classic advert for the Charles Atlas body building system “The insult that made a man out of Mac”:

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Again, a skinny scrawny guy, discovers the secret information that will turn him into a strong young bull and he has the powers to repel the sand kickers (with unlawful assault this time, but let’s forget about that at for a moment – it was a different age). He goes from being called a “little boy” by his girlfriend to being a “real man”.

In both cases we can see they’ve identified the target audience as the geeks. The skinny, scrawny men who need to gain knowledge and skills to compete with their more athletic contemporaries to win the approval of women.

So many times we hear the narrative that the founder of system x,y,z of martial arts was a sickly child or young man who overcame this using the power of his martial system to defeat not only his opponents but also his own weaknesses.

For example Chen Man Ching “An attack of tuberculosis turned Mr. Cheng’s attention to Tai Chi Chuan, which he credited with restoring his health.”

Bruce Lee “remained a sickly, skinny child throughout his early years”.

Grandmaster Huo Yan Jia (founder of Chin Woo) “frequently became ill and, as a result, was often taken advantage of by the other children”.

Notice that in the older, more conservative, Chinese narratives, there’s very rarely a women involved, unless it is the person’s mother. Sun Lu-tang was “a small and frail seeming child… When Sun’s mother heard that he was studying Kung Fu, She at first objected, afraid that he would hurt himself. Then she saw how much healthier her formerly-sickly child looked and give her blessing to him to continue his studies. ”

Do these stories bear much relation to reality? Sometimes, but often not. Here, for example, is a picture of the weak and sickly Helio Gracie who created Brazilian Jiujitsu by modifying the techniques of Jiujitsu to make them less physical, because he couldn’t use any strength in his techniques due to his frail condition.

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He “was always a very physically frail child. He would run up a flight of stairs and have fainting spells, and no one could figure out why. “

There probably is a lot of truth to sickly or weak people practicing martial arts diligently to improve their health, but the narrative is so often used and so often repeated that I can’t help but think a bit of marketing has slipped in at the same time.

And what’s the modern day equivalent? I suppose that it’s become about marketing martial arts directly to women. Women today don’t need a man to protect them – they can do it themselves!

 

 

Where will it go in the next 10-20 years, I wonder? Classes for men to learn to protect themselves from women? It’s possible….

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any of these marketing trends, but I think it’s important to see them as trends. As always with martial arts – Caveat emptor “Let the buyer beware!”.