9 Take-Aways That Tra­di­tional Mar­tial Artists Can Glean From the Rise of MMA


Dur­ing the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, most mar­tial artists in Amer­ica prac­ticed only one art. There were, of course, some well-known fig­ures who cross-trained in more than one sys­tem. One was Chuck Nor­ris, who com­bined tech­niques from Korean and Ja­panese styles to win mul­ti­ple world ti­tles. Per­haps the most vo­cal early ad­vo­cate of cross-train­ing was Bruce Lee, who merged East­ern and Western box­ing meth­ods to cre­ate a new ex­pres­sion in what he termed “non­clas­si­cal mar­tial arts.”

Then in 1970, Lee’s stu­dent Joe Lewis mixed karate kicks and box­ing hand strikes and foot­work with the jeet kune do spar­ring meth­ods he learned from his men­tor to jump-start the sport of Amer­i­can kick­box­ing. For the next two years, Lewis reigned as the undis­puted heavy­weight cham­pion with 10 wins, all by knock­out. Many of his kick­box­ing bouts had no par­tic­u­lar rules. Fight­ers of­ten wore ten­nis shoes and were per­mit­ted to use el­bows and knees. This early in­car­na­tion of kick­box­ing, al­though it lasted less than two years, would set the stage for the no-holds-barred events of the ’90s.

Masters from across the globe im­mi­grated to the United States in the ’70s and ’80s in search of eco­nomic pros­per­ity. Each claimed his sys­tem was the best for self-de­fense. Then in 1993, Brazil­ian jiu-jitsu mas­ter Ro­rion Gra­cie teamed up with fight pro­moter Art Davie to of­fer Amer­ica its first no-holds-barred event that pit­ted one art against an­other. Within the first few shows, fight­ers learned that to be com­pet­i­tive, they had to have skills for fight­ing on their feet, in the clinch and on the ground. UFC com­men­ta­tor and Olympic gold-medal­ist Jeff Blat­nick started re-brand­ing the com- pe­ti­tion as “mixed mar­tial arts” as early as 1995, and from there, the mod­ern sport of MMA was born.

Some would claim that MMA is not re­ally a mar­tial art, mixed or other­wise, and that the en­deavor should be clas­si­fied as a com­bat sport like box­ing or wrestling. No mat­ter what you think of their po­si­tion, MMA ath­letes and the meth­ods they use to train, the styles they mix and the way they fight can pro­vide valu­able in­sights for all mar­tial artists. In this ar­ti­cle, I iden­tify nine lessons we can learn from MMA.


While the age-old de­bate over which way of fight­ing is su­pe­rior is bound to con­tinue, a 2016 study by Robert Macfar­lane found the fol­low­ing to be true: In the 1990s, grap­plers dom­i­nated UFC events. Rear-naked chokes and arm­bars were the pre­ferred tech­niques on the ground. When the hands of strik­ers were not pro­tected by gloves, the ad­van­tage of­ten went to grap­plers. They would lower their head on en­try, thus re­mov­ing an im­por­tant soft tar­get from the line of fire. The risk of in­jury to the hands caused strik­ers to hes­i­tate just long enough for grap­plers to en­ter and com­plete a take­down, af­ter which a sub­mis­sion usu­ally oc­curred.

By the early 2000s, grap­pling and strik­ing were used more evenly, with the ra­tio be­ing 49 to 51 per­cent. That was be­cause grap­plers had learned to strike and strik­ers had learned to grap­ple. But when he tab­u­lated the re­sults from 2010 to 2016, Macfar­lane found that the out­comes be­gan to fa­vor strik­ers (56 per­cent). The rise of strik­ers was fur­ther

ev­i­denced from 2014 to 2016, when they racked up 68 per­cent of the wins.

AC­TION: Al­though the per­cent­ages vary, they re­main fairly close, and that in­di­cates that you should strive to mas­ter both skill sets. Yes, it can be ar­gued that most fights start stand­ing up, and if you’re like most mar­tial artists, you’re func­tional there. How­ever, in the event you can’t end the en­counter on your feet, you need to have ground skills.


They say fights are won or lost in the gym, and they’re right. If you watch any street-fight­ing videos in­volv­ing Kimbo Slice or other com­bat­ants, you’ll no­tice that vic­tory is usu­ally de­ter­mined not by who has the best skills but by who doesn’t suc­cumb to ex­haus­tion. Sev­eral phys­i­cal and men­tal changes oc­cur when you’re un­der at­tack. Your heart rate jumps. Your brain feels a sense of ur­gency and un­cer­tainty. Your body and brain de­mand more en­ergy. Be­ing in shape gives you a chance to re­spond im­me­di­ately and con­tinue fight­ing un­til the end. This ap­plies to the com­bat ath­lete as well as the self-de­fender.

Be­cause su­pe­rior con­di­tion­ing is en­hanced by proper nu­tri­tion, MMA champs fol­low strict di­ets to make weight and build mus­cle. They know that what they eat and drink de­ter­mines the way their body re­sponds to stress, re­cu­per­a­tion and hard work.

AC­TION: Watch the pro fight­ers when film­mak­ers pro­file their train­ing rou­tines. Pay at­ten­tion to the dif­fi­cul­ties they face with re­spect to con­di­tion­ing and nu­tri­tion. Learn how diet can af­fect per­for­mance.


Self-dis­ci­pline and hu­mil­ity are cor­ner­stones of the tra­di­tional mar­tial arts. To ad­vance in rank, you must fol­low rig­or­ous rou­tines that in­evitably stress your prac­tice of hu­mil­ity. The re­sul­tant dis­ci­pline and hum­ble dis­po­si­tion prompt you to avoid dan­ger when­ever pos­si­ble. If you’re fac­ing an in­sult or threat, you feel con­fi­dent and com­fort­able main­tain­ing your quiet de­meanor. Walk­ing away and choos­ing not to fight are val­ued over ag­gres­sion.

Mixed mar­tial artists need to ex­er­cise self-dis­ci­pline, as well. Run­ning miles, lift­ing weights, stick­ing to strict di­ets, spar­ring for hun­dreds of rounds — it all takes supreme sac­ri­fice. How­ever, when it comes to con­trol­ling one’s tem­per and one’s mouth, MMA fight­ers aren’t al­ways on the same side of the street as tra­di­tion­al­ists. Yes, there are fine ex­am­ples of hu­mil­ity in MMA, but of­ten it’s nowhere to be found.

AC­TION: The take-away here in­volves learn­ing how not to act in so­cial sit­u­a­tions. In­stead of seek­ing at­ten­tion through pub­lic dis­plays of ag­gres­sion, con­cen­trate on over­com­ing ad­ver­sity, ex­hibit­ing tol­er­ance, be­ing in­clu­sive and, of course, avoid­ing vi­o­lence when­ever pos­si­ble.


Speed, power, ac­cu­racy and de­cep­tive­ness have cer­tainly been ex­plored in MMA. We’ve seen how size does mat­ter. Weight di­vi­sions are re­quired be­cause it’s tough for a good small per­son to beat an equally good big per­son. More­over, the old no­tion of only need­ing to land the right tech­nique at the right time has been shown to come up short most of the time. It’s been re­placed by a recog­ni­tion of the im­por­tance of hav­ing the right blend of the afore­men­tioned at­tributes. With those on your side, vir­tu­ally any tech­nique from a spin­ning heel kick to a sim­ple cross can be dev­as­tat­ing.

AC­TION: First, hone your tech­nique. Then fol­low the lead of MMA train­ers, who con­stantly de­velop in­no­va­tive meth­ods for build­ing speed and power. Con­trary to what we used to be taught in the tra­di­tional arts, cross-train­ing in com­ple­men­tary sports is one way that works.


In the tra­di­tional arts, the con­cept of dis­tance is typ­i­cally di­vided into kick­ing range, punch­ing range, the clinch and the ground. It’s of­ten said that box­ers fight at a range in which they can hit with their hands while karateka and kick­box­ers fight at a range that al­lows them to use their feet. Ac­cord­ing to con­ven­tional range the­ory, grap­plers pre­fer to fight on the ground or at least at such close range that kicks and punches are in­ef­fec­tive. We used to be taught to move in and out of dif­fer­ent ranges and never to try to grap­ple in kick­ing range or box on the ground.

A rev­e­la­tion that’s come from MMA is that you can shoot in from kick­ing range and im­me­di­ately grap­ple. Like­wise, you can ef­fec­tively kick and punch on the ground in a va­ri­ety of po­si­tions. Re­call the early UFC matches in which Mark Cole­man and Mark Kerr of­ten shot in from long range to ef­fect a take­down and neu­tral­ize the of­fense of top-tier strik­ers. Ge­orges St-Pierre also de­vel­oped a long-range shoot that en­abled him to close the dis­tance and take down strik­ers. And Royce Gra­cie showed you can kick your op­po­nent while you’re ly­ing on your back and your en­emy is on top of you — just use your heels to hit his kid­neys.

AC­TION: Re­think con­ven­tional range the­ory. It still has value, but not ev­ery­thing it teaches ap­plies to ev­ery mar­tial artist, espe­cially if you’re fast and flexible. Study MMA bouts that show fight­ers us­ing tech­niques you thought were im­pos­si­ble in cer­tain ranges.


Bruce Lee was con­vinced that freestyle spar­ring could serve as the fire to burn away use­less tech­niques. “There is noth­ing bet­ter than spar­ring in the prac­tice of any com­bat­ive art,” he wrote. “In spar­ring, you should wear suit­able pro­tec­tive equip­ment and go all-out. Then you can truly learn the cor­rect tim­ing and dis­tance for the de­liv­ery of kicks and punches.”

MMA fight­ers be­lieve like­wise. They spend count­less hours in the ring and on the mat per­fect­ing their skills. The risk of in­jury has to be there to sim­u­late the risk they’ll face in the cage.

In­hab­i­tants of both camps learned long ago that you get the re­sults you ex­pect ev­ery time when you en­gage with a com­pli­ant part­ner. That’s why it’s cru­cial to test your skills by spar­ring with some­one who’s not com­pli­ant. It’s the only way to gauge how you’ll re­act when what should have

been an el­e­gant se­quence gives way to spon­ta­neous chaos.

AC­TION: No­tice I ti­tled this sec­tion “Spar With the In­tent to Do Harm.” You don’t have to ac­tu­ally in­flict in­jury on your train­ing part­ner. It’s al­ways wise to use pro­tec­tive gear to pre­serve your health and your part­ner’s. For hard­core self-de­fense train­ing, up the stress fac­tor by adding loud, dis­turb­ing mu­sic and strobe lights to sim­u­late a hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment. Self-de­fense prac­ti­tion­ers will protest that the ring has rules and the street is noth­ing like the ring, and they’re right. How­ever, your goal is to recre­ate “alive” train­ing, which Lee ad­vo­cated as es­sen­tial for self-ex­pres­sion to flour­ish.


Ex­perts agree that in re­al­life sce­nar­ios, phys­i­cal skills and at­tributes are of­ten of sec­ondary im­por­tance. The per­son who wins does so as a di­rect re­sult of suc­cess­ful psy­cho­log­i­cal prepa­ra­tion, which en­ables said per­son to es­tab­lish and main­tain aware­ness and men­tal ad­van­tage through­out the con­fronta­tion. What you men­tally take into an al­ter­ca­tion can make all the dif­fer­ence.

Watch any MMA cham­pi­onship bout, and you’ll likely wit­ness the coach psych­ing up the fighter to men­tally pre­pare him or her for the task at hand. The words a com­peti­tor uses dur­ing self-talk can be just as im­por­tant as the mes­sage re­ceived from the coach. This also ap­plies in self­de­fense. Of course, you won’t have a coach along­side you, but all that means is you need to serve as your own coach by em­ploy­ing pos­i­tive self-talk. To get the men­tal edge, con­vince your­self that you will win.

AC­TION: En­gage in high-risk spar­ring or MMA and seek to gain con­trol over your ad­ver­sary. Your heart rate will el­e­vate. In fig­u­ra­tive terms, you’ll smell blood. It’ll be all you can do to hold back. You need not be con­cerned about en­gag­ing your “killer in­stinct” to get the men­tal edge. What you need to be con­cerned about is con­trol­ling and ul­ti­mately stop­ping it once the en­gage­ment is over. This is why in MMA com­pe­ti­tion the tapout is used as an honor­able way to com­mu­ni­cate de­feat if you’re los­ing. It also helps both par­ties con­trol their killer in­stinct.


Tra­di­tional arts like karate, taek­wondo and judo have a place in MMA, just as com­bat sports like box­ing, wrestling, muay Thai and Brazil­ian ji­ujitsu do. What MMA teaches us is that highly struc­tured sys­tems like wing chun per­haps should be re­garded as “gate­way arts.” A gate­way art points the prac­ti­tioner in a di­rec­tion of self-dis­cov­ery and teaches at­tributes that can be used to solve prob­lems. In wing chun, for ex­am­ple, you may prac­tice spe­cific tech­niques like the pak sao and lop sao to tem­po­rar­ily im­mo­bi­lize your op­po­nent. But in com­pe­ti­tion, you em­ploy the prin­ci­ple of im­mo­bi­liza­tion, bet­ter known as hold­ing and hit­ting. Al­though pak sao and lop sao work in cer­tain con­di­tions, the prin­ci­ple of im­mo­bi­liza­tion works in a far wider va­ri­ety of con­di­tions.

Re­call the words of Bruce Lee, who told us that the high­est tech­nique is to have no tech­nique.

AC­TION: Note that the top MMA fight­ers have no par­tic­u­lar style. Be like them and train to be suc­cess­ful on the ground, in the clinch and on your feet. Skills and drills from Brazil­ian ji­ujitsu, box­ing, wrestling and muay Thai be­long in your ar­se­nal. But never for­get that pro­fi­cient fight­ers can come from karate, taek­wondo, kung fu or any other art as long as they sup­ple­ment their style with the right tools and train­ing meth­ods. 9 FINE-TUNE THE PROVEN TECH­NIQUES It’s clear from watch­ing MMA that cer­tain moves are used of­ten and with great suc­cess. They in­clude the jab, cross, hook, el­bow, knee, front kick, round kick, sin­gle-leg take­down, dou­ble-leg take­down, guil­lo­tine, arm­bar and rear-naked choke. When aug­mented with the right blend of speed, power, ac­cu­racy and de­cep­tion, they can be ex­tremely ef­fec­tive in a mul­ti­tude of self­de­fense sit­u­a­tions.

AC­TION: Watch MMA matches with the eye of a mar­tial tech­ni­cian. Pick out the moves that work, then ask your­self if you’re pro­fi­cient in them. If you’re not, you know what to do.

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