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.
1 DEVELOP YOUR GRAPPLING AND STRIKING SKILLS
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.
2 DON’T NEGLECT CONDITIONING AND NUTRITION
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.
3 DISCIPLINE YOURSELF AND STAY HUMBLE
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.
4 DON’T OVERLOOK THE FOUR ATTRIBUTES
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.
5 UPDATE YOUR KNOWLEDGE OF RANGE THEORY
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.
6 SPAR WITH THE INTENT TO DO HARM
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.
7 SEEK THE MENTAL EDGE
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.
8 DISTINGUISH USING AN ART FROM USING NO ARTS
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.