Discussion about style vs style is nothing new. From AOL chatrooms to facebook groups, I’ve heard people brag about which style is best. The discussion seems to have been made popular again with the recent viral video of Xu Xiao Dong and Wei Lei. Talking about which style is better than another is an exercise in futility. What is worth discussing are the misconception by the general public about what is “traditional”, what is “modern”, and the truer history and reality of traditional vs modern martial arts.
Delusion is a powerful influence, and can cause people to be blind to exactly what they are doing. In this specific case, martial arts practitioners should know what they are training for. Often times, they turn into feel good knitting circles. MMA is not free from this type knitting circle delusion, and neither are arts that are considered “deadly” or “tactical”. How are you executing your movements? Are you drilling them with the intended purpose that suits the goal that you seek, be it health, fitness, combat effectiveness, or a combination? Is your current physical, mental, and spiritual state in a place where you can achieve the tasks of what your training goals require? Indeed, many practice groups that exist in a casual setting has members that like to delude others, and themselves, into believing that they are effective in an area that they are not in. Usually that area is combat, since that is the popular media association with martial arts, and who doesn’t want to be a badass? And who doesn’t want to see the easiest, fastest, and surest way to that level of invincibility?
This brings up back to the issue at hand: The persistence of the debate of “X style vs Y style”, “traditional vs modern”, “old vs new”, and, in many ways, “east vs. west”. When methods are presented as simple, practical, and “modern”, they are often presented as purely a product of the west: boxing, wrestling, mixed martial arts, competition and quality control of martial arts schools through hard, heavy contact based, and free flowing competition. The non-western martial art is often presented as: myth based, convoluted, story based, and lacking in empiricism. This is helped by various movie portrayals, too numerous to count. In reality, “tradition” is more manufactured than something that evolved organically from history and cultural customs. The truth is, many arts that are seen as “traditional”, have a rich history practitioners who train with individuals from different disciplines and different schools, including people from the west, as well as participating in competition with folks from other disciplines and other parts of the world. Seeing as how there are martial arts in every culture has been used in warfare throughout human history, it should hardly surprise anyone that the movements in the forms of “traditional” martial arts is intended for combat use at its core. But, perception in the West, and in many cases, in the countries or origins of the art, has turned traditional martial arts into something that it is not (more on this in a moment).
Two of my teachers have important quotes that they like to emphasize, which apply very well here. One, from Coach Helder Gomes, is “movement is movement”. The other, from my Tai Ji (Tai Chi) teacher Dr. Tim Lee, is “it’s not what you do, but how you do it.”
Movement is movement: without movement, there is no combat, or anything physical or that matter. The better someone can move, the more potential they have to be an effective fighter.
This brings us to “it’s not what you do, but how you do it.” HOW you train, is much more important than WHAT you train. Labels are often given to martial arts: “tactical”, “real life self defense”, “no nonsense street fighting methods”, or the more popular marketing terms “fitness”, “confidence”, “spiritual peace”. It means nothing if intention and the HOW are not there. There are an infinite number of hows to train with. Training purely for enjoyment, or health, or competitive combat, are all different. In exercise programming, we have a acronym called the SAID principle: Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. You are only going to get good at something by doing that thing that you are looking to get good at. In this case, Wei Lei would have been best served to take on Xu Xiao Dong by learning the game of Mixed Martial Arts, with good coaches, training partners, and camps. To jump into a match under a set of rules that are foreign to him would have been similar to a star NBA player attempting to play tennis against a prime Rafael Nadal. That arrogance to not prepare for an mma match with proper respect to the game of mma, was the reason that Wei Lei had to clean up his own blood.
However, the problem is not isolated to Wei Lei. When we say “Kung Fu”, most of the images conjured up are of something esoteric, mystical, and mysterious. We are fed images of East Asian monks meditating on a mountain, or robed old men chanting obscure passages. We do not have enough exposure to stories of those who had to use their martial art to enforce, protect, or survive. These practitioners were real live people who have a long history, including in the USA, of throwing down. That is what needs more publicity, not the image of flying Wuxia warriors. This would also decrease the likelihood of the general public from discussing traditional gong fu (kung fu) in cliches and idioms. There is often a huge gap between what Gong fu actually is, and what it is perceived as by the general public. Contrast that with MMA, boxing, or kickboxing, and that gap is much narrower.
On the other hand, the SAID principle applies to MMA as well. Since its recent rise in popularity in the past 2 or 3 decades, its most boisterous promoters like to describe it in hyperbole, with almost mythical status given to its top champions as supreme warriors who are impossible to defeat hand to hand by any mortal man. To its credit, the game of MMA is designed for this myth to be busted, with new champions crowned regularly, but it still doesn’t change the fact that it does not prepare its practitioners for specific demands. It is still a sport, with rules, weight classes, and a controlled environment. It is also a sport where injury risks are high, and athletes are consistently walk a fine line of overtraining and injury, between improper strength and conditioning, poor sleep habits, and stressful travel schedules. This contributes to shortening of careers, and does not encourage refinement of movement over having a successful win/loss record. There are exceptions, but this is generally the rule. What they are good at though, is understanding intensity, urgency, and partner training as being necessary to prepare to fight against an uncooperative opponent in a high stakes matchup, where the loser may end up unconscious, injured, or humiliated, or all three. An MMA fighter would likely lose to a Tai Ji practitioner in a push hands contest almost every time, and a Tai Ji practitioner who has not trained to compete in the cage would lose to an MMA fighter in a cage style matchup, every time. Which one is more practical? It depends on what you’re looking to develop, and what setting you’re preparing for. It also depends on the state of the participant.
When a loss by a traditionalist gets broadcasted, it is easy to have the knee jerk reaction that causes people to dismiss an entire system or martial art culture, and say that *insert style here* is useless. But is it? For example, Tai Ji trains relaxation, body alignment, and maintaining framework for sound body structure and power generation, if practiced properly. Is it really accurate to say that these are useless? Or is it more accurate to say that the HOW may not be appropriate for a given situation? I don’t think any serious athlete would say that having better relaxation and body alignment is useless to them against competition. Having a long history of handing down knowledge through lineages means that records can go back a long time, with interpretations and understanding from different high level thinkers and masters of the arts. After that, it is up to the current participant to understand the when and how of the art. A little more patience, understanding, and experimentation may be all that is needed to understand how to utilize a certain aspect of an art, instead of jumping to something else. After that it’s just drilling. Grandmaster Bobby Taboada likes to say that “It’s all there”, when it comes to his art of Balintawak Cuentada. It is just not readily apparent to those who cannot read the code. Seeing as how he made his name as a fighter and is respected by most of the top martial artists throughout recent history, it may be another voice worth listening to.
What do I hope will come out of this fiasco? A reality check, not for an art, but for participants and people who perceive an art. An understanding of what exactly you are training for is paramount. Not having that understanding can have disastrous results, as Wei Lei saw. He is far from an isolated case, and he won’t be the last one. As for Xu Xiao Dong, I am not sure of what’s in his mind and heart with what he is doing, but his actions are those of a cheap bully. As a Sanda fighter himself, he knew what he was getting when a Tai Ji participant with no ring or cage experience was standing across from him. It is a cheap way to rocket himself to fame, although at the same time, has set some important dialogue into motion yet again.