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MMA versus Traditional Martial Arts -- A Dumb Comparison

I have a few instructional videos on YouTube, and naturally, they're viewed by all types of people, and of course everyone on the Internet thinks they've been anointed as experts in all things.

Yesterday, someone left a question on one of the videos -- "How would that stand up to an MMA fighter?"

In the last decade, I've heard that question more and more.The question is usually directed at the internal arts that I practice, or kung-fu, or karate, taekwondo, etc.

The implication is that traditional martial arts are useless and MMA is the real fighting art.

I'd like to answer that question this way -- oh, shut up.

I'm 58 years old as I write this. I'll soon be 59 and 14 months from now, I'll be 60. The last real fight I was in was at age 18. If you're keeping score, that's more than 40 years ago. I hadn't studied kung-fu at that point.

I was always a good fighter as a kid and teenager. I was in many fights. In those days, boys were considered sissies if they backed down from a fight. One of the few life lessons my father told me was at an early age. He said, "Kenny, never run from a fight." I never did.

But once you become an adult, if you have any intelligence at all you understand that fights can land you in jail, cause you to lose your job, and land you in court. Fighting is simply not a good move unless your life is in danger.

And now we come to the subject of art. The reason martial arts are called "arts" is because there is much more to it than fighting. There's philosophy, there's self-discipline and self-mastery, there's technique and power, there's tradition and history, there's the physical and also the mental balance -- it's a way of life for many of us, not just a way to learn how to beat people up. I knew how to beat up bullies long before I ever stepped into a dojo. The martial arts have made me better at it, but I have no intention of ever using that knowledge.

I got into martial arts in 1973 because I wanted to learn how to protect myself even better than I already could, but I was also intrigued by the philosophy. As I studied the techniques and the arts, I also studied Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and it had a profound effect on how I look at the world.

As I studied, and especially after I discovered Chen tai chi around 1998, I began to see the arts as multi-dimensional, with layers that could only be reached by hard work, attention to detail, and practice. I'm still working at it, despite health setbacks during the past 3 years.

I have respect for MMA. I know that many of them are tough fighters and they learn a lot of varied techniques from different arts. But in 40 years, I want to see some MMA fighters who have been in their arts as long as I have and still are able to walk or speak without stutters, or have joints that work. I have a feeling the damage would cause men to drop out of that art many years earlier. Most trained boxers would be able to whip other men, but boxing is an art that requires you to take a lot of damage. A concussion is not something to play around with, but for boxers, it's part of the game. You don't see many 60-year old boxers. Sometimes, you see boxers who have been damaged, like my hero Muhammad Ali.

I've known several young guys who took up MMA. I've heard of injuries that kept some of them on the sidelines. I know one famous MMA fighter and coach who is said to have dropped out because his body had taken too much punishment and he was broken down in his early forties.

As a martial art, MMA is fine. It's pretty realistic. There are no forms to learn. There's not a lot of tradition, and not much in the way of philosophy. It certainly can teach you to fight.

And then what?

If your only goal in a martial art is to be tougher than any other man alive, you have a lot of work to do. If that's what you want, go for it.

I've seen people who studied traditional martial arts who were able to defend themselves just fine when they needed to, and that's what counts.

So if you want to make the case that some tough MMA guy could kick my ass, I'll cheerfully admit that it might be true. I'm old enough and wise enough to know that nobody can whip everybody. On the other hand, I don't ever expect to be in a fight against an MMA champion or a Golden Gloves boxing champ.

Put me in a time machine and let me emerge at age 20 and I'd love to study MMA style fighting for a while. But before long, I'd gravitate back to kung-fu because it's a lot cooler than MMA (there's a reason they make Kung Fu Movies) and because traditional martial arts -- for most of us who can see deeper than the fighting -- have a lot more to offer in many, many ways.

For the rest of my life, I'll do what good martial artists do -- avoid situations that can become violent. But if I ever have to take action to defend myself or someone else, it will much more likely be like the incident below instead of against an MMA fighter.


And this one isn't bad, either.



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Richard Martin

Boy, what a negative response to a valid question. If one is teaching a martial art, they should yearn to see how their techniques stand up to other martial arts. Your responses here exemplify the reason that most MMA folks feel like we Traditional Martial Arts folks are sub-standard.

The fact is, what we teach is a fighting art, if a technique doesn't work, then we should examine why, and how we can make it work. I have seen too many Traditional teachers teach techniques that do not work, they never know because they have not tested them. Please rethink your answer and position here.


It's a silly question because there's no way to answer it. How would it work against an MMA guy? There are too may variables to even consider an answer.

Jim Criscimagna

I am not sure what your point was, Richard. I didn't read it like Ken was saying as traditional artists we should not see how our techniques would stand up to MMA or other martial arts.

I know Ken has tested his techniques in competitions for years, as do many traditional artists. Some are even going into MMA rings to test their techniques. Kong Lee comes to mind.

How would our arts stand up to MMA? Well, I guess that depends on the situation, the people involved, and many other factors. No way to answer that question, as Ken said. Just too many variables.

Now, as far as teaching traditional techniques that don't work, from a historical perspective, I have no problem with that, if you are teaching a traditional system and don't bs the students' about the effectiveness of said technique.

Take for example the fan you are shown with in your profile picture. Not exactly the best weapon to use in today's self defense situation (and how many folks carrry a fan around with them). But teaching the fan as part of a traditional art has its place.

I have learned sword, broadsword, spear, quan dao, etc. in my Gongfu (and Karate) studies over the years. None of them are exactly good weapons for self defense anymore. But as part of the traditional system, they have value and do develop skills that might translate into effective martial abilities if practiced correctly. Take the long pole as an example. Who is going to carry around a 3 meter (or longer) pole? But learning to work the long pole does develop power and the shaking fajin Chen style is famous for having. Thus the value. Pole techniques might work ... but against a gun?

I have also learned traditional hand to hand techniques in Chen style that were developed centuries ago to be used against armor. They simply are not the best techniques to use in a self defense situation these days, but part of the traditional art. I am not going to try to learn how to "make" them work ... I will simply use other techniques that do work from Chen style. But I still would teach those techniques, as they are part of the art and from a historical perspective, have value as part of how the art developed.

But as far as working on making techniques work that just aren't practical or effective, well, I would rather work on those that do work and are effective.

Of course, as always, milage may vary.

Richard Martin

hmmmmm, Jim, I am not sure exactly where to start, but I will try.

1. What I was saying is that Ken's responses were the cop outs. His desired response to a legitimate question was, "oh, shut up." He then goes on to give more cop outs to why the questions can't be answered. When in fact, it can and should be.

2. These typical answers of "we teach a martial 'art'", "fighting leads to negative consequences", etc. Are a major portion, as I perceive it, of the rift between MMA and traditional arts.

3. Yes, there are those that feel MMA is the ultimate in martial arts, but that can only be changed by an honest and informative conversation. You have to engage to teach.

My point is that we as teachers are just as culpable in this rift as the other side and that blog posts as this one simply contribute to this gulf.

Now on to your post.

1.I think you are talking about Cung Le, the Vietnamese fighter with a strong background in Tae Kwon Do. Another example would be Lyoto Machida. Unfortunately the rules of MMA hobble the strategic fighter, requiring aggressiveness (the reason Machida lost his last fight).

2. If you are teaching techniques that do not work, I think you are being deluded. Why wouldn't it work? I have found that if a technique doesn't work, it is because I don't understand it properly or am doing it wrong. (I will say that certain techniques are much less effective given certain constraints such as a height or weight offset, that doesn't mean the technique doesn't work, because in a different conflict when the constraints are different it would work.)

3. The fan works quite well, and is very innocuous. Whether folks carry them or not doesn't matter, the techniques when used, work.

3. As far as the weapons training. Again, the techniques work, and I believe that if you train with weapons, you should train with live weapons, and that you should add realistic two person play.

4. Now, why train weapons traditional weapons if you are teaching "self defense"? Well, that wasn't a point of Ken's or my original post. If all you were training was self defense, you also would not be teaching MMA style fighting, their quickness to go to ground is a detriment in self defense. Again, this was not a point in the original post.

4. I really wonder what technique was developed to use against an armored person that does not work on an un-armored person??? BTW, I teach where folks sometimes are called to use unarmed techniques while they are armed.

BTW, my last real fight was in my 30's, last competitive fight was in Jun with a HS wrestler that challenged me while doing a demo. I am 44.

Jim Criscimagna

The question being discussed cannot be answered, for the reasons I gave in my first post on this topic. It is a silly question to begin with, as most folks that have been in the martial arts for a time know, it is the fighter, not the style which prevails. Why even the best fighters lose at some point.

There is no ultimate martial art ... all have their strengths and weakness. Some are more well rounded in what they do. But conversation about this topic is pointless and proves nothing, as we have developed our own opinions about things through life experiences. I am guessing I am not going to convince you by my words, as you are not going to convince me with yours.

MMA is a great sport, maybe not the best martial art. Taiji is a great art, maybe not the best martial art. There is no way to prove one way or the other for reasons I have already stated.

Yes, I was talking about Cheng Le. Sorry, I was wrong about his name. Machida is a great karate fighter and I like how he has faired in the UFC. I enjoy his fights and his non MMA style. But he has been defeated, like all other fighters in MMA. No one has stayed undefeated in that sport for long.

I stopped teaching years ago and only work with long time students or experienced Taiji folks privately, these days. But I do teach techniques that simply are outdated and not practical anymore in real self defense, for reasons I stated already. I don't bs anyone about their effectiveness. That is not to say, they can't be used or I can't make them work ... just that there are others that work better in a given situation.

The fan is a cool weapon, like other weapons, but let's face it, in today's world, guns work better. Teaching something so outdated as traditional weapons even if the techniques work seems odd, unless you are teaching them for the historical value and any abilities that might be developed thru their practice. They are not overly useful or practical in modern self defense.

As far as going to the ground, a lot of fights end up on the ground, or at least one of the participants ends up there. Not having good ground skills is just plain ignoring part of the martial art material that is needed for self defense.

I never said that techniques developed for armored opponents would not work against a person not in armor, I said, "They simply are not the best techniques to use in a self defense situation these days". As far as training with live weapons ... seems foolish to me ... asking for injury. I know I have made mistakes using dull weapons, which if were live would have caused some real problems. But go for it ... lol

I have seen you on youtube doing form and some push hands. :) That doesn't mean I know how you fight or how good a fighter you are from seeing a form or your footwork, body positioning, angles used, or postures.

I have been involved in several fights when I was younger, the most violent were during my tour in Vietnam. My last competition was during the early 30s. I learned that fighting is pointless unless you are protecting your family or those you care about. I began the martial arts like you as a child, my father taught hand to hand during WWII and taught me his karate style (Shorin-ryu) beginning before I can remember. I continued my martial training during my youth, studying Kaju Kembo, judo, jujitsu, before beginning CMA in the mid 70s. I began Yang style in 1977, Shaolin and Baji in 1978, and Chen style in 1989. Been studying Chen exclusively since then. I am 61.


Well, with 53 yrs of age, some 25 yrs. of CMA, several yrs. of competitions here in Taiwan, enough hard sparring to have a broken nose and a torn thumb capsula and a few nasty encounters in Taiwan's parks, I just must agree with Ken here, for a 100%.

Kirby Tucker

According to several original students, Bruce Lee felt all Martial Arts could be effective if one developed enough attributes. He felt some concepts were more efficient than others, but fighting skills had more to do with the individual.

Shifu neil grimley

Its not the technique, its the person behind the technique
that makes it work


MMA or TMA. . . It really doesn't matter what you train, as long as you train it in an alive fashion.

Doing dead forms or drilling against a compliant partner can be useful in its own way, and contemplating doctrine or principles handed down by your teacher can be great, but if you don't spend time testing what you're learning against a fully resisting opponent then you are just deluding yourself and doing a disservice to your art.


I prefer people post by their real names rather than anonymously, "Eudemic." I would take issue with your use of the term "dead forms." All the forms we practice in the internal arts are very much alive and full of outstanding self-defense information. Sometimes in any martial arts the teachers have "dead skills," but the forms themselves are very effective as part of training. And those "dead forms" generally require a lot more work than people are willing to do.

When I was a young man, I didn't like forms. I just wanted to spar and fight. After I matured and entered by mid-30's, I began to understand how mastery of the body mechanics of a form takes you a long way toward truly understanding technique.

I have read some tai chi people who say all you need to do is the form and you'll know how to fight when the time comes. That's ridiculous and fantasy. But the Asians knew something about quality and about fighting, and they understood the discipline and work it takes to do a form well.


I totally agree with the author. I too have a back ground of fighting at a young age, dabbled in boxing, mma for several years. At the age of 40, I started my internal martial arts training. I fell in love with the history,techniques, chen tai chi, and many more disciplines. The big difference in my current training, which you cannot translate into the mma world, is the internal arts is fighting when you fear for your life. There is no sport to the things that I learn. The techniques are for the sole purpose to seriously kill or maime an intruder, someone with a weapon, multiple intruders ect. Eye gouges, groin shots, biting, hair pulling. All the things one would do to survive if yourself or family is in a life/death situation. I love all aspects of fighting. To me, mma vs internal martial arts cannot be realistically compared.

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