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Why would you choose to practice Tai Chi Chuan when modern MMA training available?

In the last couple of years a Chinese MMA practitioner has been going around in China and fighting (and KO’ing) a number of traditional martial arts practitioners. In most ways this is not a terrible thing, because he is on a mission to expose the fraudulant or delusional practitioners who don’t actually teach practical fighting skills. Unfortunately the negative publicity from these challenges for arts like Tai chi, will further tarnish its already weak reputation as a fighting art.

The general public is thoroughly un aware that there are many style and systems of Tai Chi (and other traditional Chinese martial arts) – with a minority training very solid martial skills in sophisticated ways. For some unknown reason though, the vast majority of Tai Chi and Chinese martial artist choose to practice in a way that has almost no practical fighting benefit.

I’ve been practicing Tai Chi Chuan since 1989. I also participated in the UK’s first professional MMA fight night – ‘night of the Samurai’. It was an event created by Lee Hasdell, a professional martial artist who had a background in fighting kickboxing and Muay Thai, as well as participation in various bare-knuckle MMA events in Russia. He also was being trained by one of the ‘shoot fighting’ pioneers, Akira Maeda – the founder of ‘Rings’ – whose tournaments featured legends of the MMA scene like Randy Couture, Renato Babalu and Fedor Emelianenko.

I was invited to participate because after learning Tai Chi and practicing intensively I’d begun to become interested in UFC type events, because of the emergence of the UFC1 video. I found that although my Tai Chi Chuan system was incredibly complete, there wasn’t a focussed environment where I could really develop my skills to the level I’d like. I needed some hardcore training partners. After participating in some trial fights and comps I was invited by Lee to fight for the Heavyweight Championship.

During this development period  I sought out various other people, some of whom were introduced to me by Mr Hasdell, and we began to meet up and train together, focussing on all-in style competition. Soon we had a group with Olympic wrestlers, Thai Boxers, western boxers and BJJ and Sambo people. The sessions would be a great way of finding out more about these other approaches and find out how to adapt skills to meet their challenges. Some of the guys from this group went on to have illustrious careers in MMA at UFC/world level. The group started to use the ‘London shootfighters’ name on competition forms, and this has now continued on to be one of Europes biggest MMA groups/training facilities.

Apart from gaining lots of invaluable experience of using my art against very tough and determined martial artists, I learned that my system of Tai Chi Chuan was complete in all ways and could prepare anyone with a modicum of natural inclination to fight very well against all styles of opponent.

Our system of Tai Chi was famous in Asia for training fighters who routinely smashed other full contact fighters in open Lei Tei competitions. Below is my own teacher, Dan Docherty, knocking out someone who outweighed him by more than 100kg – a challenge he took on to prove that Tai Chi skills give you the ability to defeat much larger opponents.

It’s been difficult over the years to find the right type of people to come and train in this art of Wudang Tai Chi because of all the negative impressions that people have that Tai Chi is just a soft and slow exercise. This really isn’t the case, in this system of Tai Chi.


Origins and objectives of martial Tai Chi Chuan and MMA

Vale Tudo (‘anything goes’ in Portuguese) matches were fights held in Brazil where members of the Gracie family would fight against challengers (primarily ‘Luta Livre’ fighters) in order to prove the superiority of their Judo/ju jitsu system (BJJ came from a Judoka who was no longer allowed to use the name Judo). Some years after the first UFC event in America, a commentator coined the term ‘mixed martial arts’, which has stuck around ever since.

What we tend to see in modern MMA is that being a strong standing wrestler is of tremendous benefit to prevent being take down, to control where the fight takes place, and also to throw or takedown the opponent. Submission skills and ground positions skills are also essential, but unless one of the fighters is an absolute specialist on the ground, submissions are a little rarer than they once were. They have essentially neutralised each other now.

Kickboxing/striking skills out in the open and in the clinch/grappling positions are essential and most fighters at the world level have accomplished ‘stand up skills’. It’s interesting to see over the years certain techniques falling in and out of fashion, both in striking and grappling scenarious.

Essentially ‘MMA’ is just a ruleset and not necessarily an approach to martial arts – with each group having their own training mix. Generally they including a good amount of Muay Thai, Olympic style wrestling and brazilian Ju Jitsu.

The objective of MMA training in the modern era is to give the average practitioner a well rounded set of skills to be able to deal with full contact fighting performed in a ‘cage fight‘ scenario and using ‘cage fighting’ rules. This is important to note, because a lot of things make sense when there is a padded training cage or matt to compete on, but not so much in a self defence scenario.

Tai Chi Chuan’s origins are obscure and not known for sure. What made it famous and get out into the world was the appointment of a gentleman named Yang Lu Chan, to the position of chief instructor to the Manchu imperial guard. These were the special forces, weaponised soldiers responsible for protecting the Royal family. Training would therefore be simple, direct, quick to work and militarily focused and necessarily effective. It would have also included a lot of weapons focused material. The Royal family liked what he was doing so much that they also received training from him, though the focus of this training is likely to have been quite different, and some people speculate that this is where the syllabus began to be split.

As the art was handed down it appears that for the vast majority of people the practice focus changed to only working with the ‘health development’ and more philosophical aspects of the art. The engagement with the harsh and tough practices of the ‘Yang’ side of the syllabus was minimal.

In our lineage however, handed down to us from Cheng Tin Hung, and then Dan Docherty my own teacher, we received as syllabus that includes everything required for success at the highest levels of full contact fighting. It’s important to understand that training to be a ‘fighter’ is not the same as learning self defence and that there are compromises to be made, in terms of training safety and ethics.

Essentially the traditional Wudang Tai Chi training for fighters includes;

Conditioning: to build speed, power, stamina and mental toughness, as well as toughness and bone density in the fists. Hand wraps are not relied on as its a self defence/bare handed focus.

Inner strength training: To train mental focus, awareness and tranquility. Also builds focussed power and whole body strength and energy.

Fighting techniques and drills: Using repetition practice, reflex drills and pad work to develop a full array of striking, grappling and throwing techniques, including locks and limb breaks.

Full contact sparring: To develop experience in the realities of fun contact fighting. Full contact sparring has always been a staple in this style of Tai Chi.

Weapons training: To build extra power, speed and movement capacity and skill. Fighting drills and applications also build skills for being able to use weapons for self defence and fighting. This expands your creativity and awareness of possibilities as a fighter, particularly for spinning techniques.

Form work and movement training: To build body awareness, technical skill and movement quality.

The objective of Tai Chi Chuan training in the martial Wudang tradition is to be completely ‘devoid of delusion’ – which is almost the opposite of most Tai Chi schools, particularly the ‘energy’ schools. Beyond becoming a skilled and capable practical martial arts fighter, the overall system is designed to encourage the development of character and righteousness.

Wrestling techniques in Tai chi and MMA

Tai Chi and MMA wrestling share a lot of common features. There are body locks, lower body takedowns (single and double leg), knee taps as well as foot sweeps and trips.

MMA wrestling comes primarily from olympic style wrestling, and in some cases feature a slightly different philosophy due to the environment in which they are normally executed. For example in Olympic wrestling double leg takedowns are often done by grounding yourself and the opponent, whereas in Tai Chi the objective is to keep your feet firmly planted on the ground. In fact that’s probably the main area where Tai Chi wrestling techniques differ, the objective is to always remain firmly rooted and in the standing position. Going to ground is not the objective at all.

A full repertoire of trips and sweeps used against incoming strikes is something that can be seen in certain high level MMA fighters (Zabit, Jon Jones etc). It’s also standard training in Wudang Tai Chi.

Like Greco Roman wrestling, Tai Chi wrestling emphasises dominant clinch skills, through fixed step and restricted step ‘pushing hands’. It’s other key advantage is that striking and wrestling are considered at all times and not trained with a separated mindset, which some MMA gyms may still use. The emphasis in Tai Chi on using minimal strength and development of high level sensitivity encourages skill development too – and is something you can see in high level wrestlers.

MMA: 10

Wudang Tai Chi: 10

Winner: Draw

Tai Chi vs MMA striking techniques

Most MMA striking comes from Muay Thai, western and ‘Dutch’ boxing as well as a few trapping based innovations. Strikes are trained against pads and bags and are generally landed with fist, foot, shin, knee and elbows. They are powerful and often combination striking, along predetermined and drilled combinations is carried out.

In the traditional Wudang Tai chi syllabus there’s a strong emphasis on developing striking power from the ground up (think Mike Tyson/Joe Louis style mechanics), so that the whole body is used to generate power. There is an emphasis on developing very straight punches, as well as the use of a full repertoire of hooking, looping and uppercutting punches. There are techniques where you hold and hit (illegal in boxing) and striking techniques with the forearm, elbows, and palms. There are also close quarter techniques aimed at vulnerable areas for self defence – throat jabs etc, which can be used if you have clinched the opponent or immobilised them temporarily.

MMA has a very well developed set of kicking techniques, with some fighters successfully incorporating the more athletic kicks from Taekwondo etc. Traditional Wudang Tai chi also has a full repertoire of kicks, though these tend to be aimed lower because of the self defence emphasis of the art.

In MMA there have been some fighters (like Randy Couture) who specialise in clinching and hitting, and using various types of trapping techniques. These tend to be seen more in fighters coming from a Greco Roman wrestling background, though some fighters with a strong Muay Thai base also show good head control.

In Wudang Tai Chi there are also a lot of different clinching, trapping and jamming techniques and drills to be used when striking with an opponent.

So at the higher levels of both MMA and Wudang Tai Chi practice there is essentially unlimited scope for the development of elite striking skills, though I suspect some of the more sophisticated Tai Chi striking drills and approaches are only used by the most advanced MMA fighters. In the video below legendary boxing technician Lomachenko teaches some amateur boxers some of his ‘tricks’ – which are exactly the same as some standard Tai Chi striking drills.

MMA: 10

Wudang Tai Chi: 10

Winner: Draw

Submissions and joint attacks

MMA is designed to be fought on a padded floor (in cage) with a referee and time limit, and so certain techniques and grappling strategies have been emphasised and very well developed. Most submissions and joint attacks are done when the opponent has been immobilised on the ground by using a strong control position. This isn’t always the case but is the way the vast majority of submissions holds are captured because getting them on a live opponent is very difficult if they are moving around a lot and resisting.

Traditional Wudang Tai Chi also includes a well developed syllabus of joint attacks, which can’t really be considered submissions because the emphasis is on using ‘short power‘ to break the joints rather than force a ‘submission’. There are techniques to attack the knees, wrists, spine, knees, elbows and ankles. All of them are practiced to be implemented in the standing position.

MMA: 10

Wudang Tai Chi: 10

Winner: Draw

Strength and Conditioning

There are nowadays a lot of different ‘strength and conditioning’ coaches in America, who have exerted influence on how athletes prepare for MMA fights.  There are a lot of interesting developments and the certainly isn’t one uniform approach to it. A lot of it however is quite ‘pseudo-science’. It’s also subject to a lot of fads and fashion, rather than always being focussed on the absolute fundamental truths of conditioning.

Tai Chi strength and conditioning has advantages in many key ways. It builds optimal physical structural alignments, which gives you more strength and power potential. It refines the use of extremely focussed, ballistic power movements. Smart modern biomechanists talk nowadays about ‘the double pulse’ when referring to elite ways to condition for striking, though Tai Chi practitioners have been doing this for centuries – calling it ‘fa jin’. Extremely strong legs and trunk muscles, as well as powerful shoulders and arms are developed by standard Wudang Tai Chi conditioning exercises, all of which are invaluable for high level wrestling and striking  ability.

Stamina training for fighting should feature a lot of highly specific exercises to condition the body in the ways it’s most likely to be used in a real high intensity fight. Traditional Tai Chi practitioners somehow knew a long time ago about the use of specialised interval training techniques designed to provide an almost perfect cardiovascular conditioning approach for full contact fighting.

Essentially the reason I give Tai Chi the win in this category is because it’s a completely no nonsense and very efficient yet highly sophisticated approach to building an optimal combat physique that is only focussed on what works.

MMA: 8

Wudang Tai Chi: 10

Winner: Wudang Tai Chi

Street self defence and weaponry

Having worked on ‘the doors’ for many years and gained some experience in self defence on the street, I’d think that for most people Tai Chi would be an optimal approach to self defence. This is because it emphasises distance control, develops the ability to stay on your feet and be rooted, whilst having a full repertoire of high impact strikes. Of course a good MMA fighter with a similar level of experience and physical talent would probably do equally well in many situations, I think from a tactical perspective, the emphasis on training yourself to throw and takedown opponents without going to the ground would give you an advantage. The other area of advantage is the Tai Chi emphasis on using power and momentum to your advantage, and this becoming a conditioned instinct. Street attacks often feature more momentum than fights in a ring or cage by well trained fighters, because the attackers usually are less skilled and experienced, but also have more emotion and malice, so they put more into what they are doing. Staying rooted and using this momentum is extremely useful.

The other aspect of of self defence to be considered is weapons, particularly in London these days. Traditional Wudang Tai Chi trains the use of Sabre, Sword and Spear, whose techniques can be adapted to be used with day to day objects. Also training weapons based martial arts gives you a different appreciation of possibilities for attack and defence when confronted by someone who has a weapon. Not many practitioners develop their weapons based skills to any significant degree however, because you do need specialised equipment and a suitable training space. But all the moves and drills are in the syllabus if you do want to fully develop your ‘all in’ martial arts skills.

In a way having well developed weapons skills, in addition to unarmed skills, makes you more of a mixed martial artist than modern ‘MMA’.

MMA: 8

Wudang Tai Chi: 10

Winner: Wudang Tai Chi

Developing the mindset and capacity to perform at an elite level

The ability to use your trained techniques in the heat of a fight or self defence encounter relies on a lot of variables. Experience is a really important aspect, which is why a serious martial artist must experience good sparring at some stage (though how much, how hard and how often is open for debate). You learn intangible things through actually doing something, that nobody can tell you. Beyond experience, technical ability and good conditioning you also need to have an optimised mindset.

Wudang Tai Chi Chuan has always stated the ‘stillness in motion’ is one of the qualities that you should seek to cultivate as a priority in your martial arts training. This means to be able to be calm and completely present and in the moment (stillness) whilst there is significant motion (fight/conflict/high stress environment. This concept is exactly the same as the ‘flow’ concept discussed in a lot of books and scientific research. Your mind is essentially far more focussed on the skill and event at hand, with all access activitiy impaired so that your body and mind can better sync up and perform.

Practicing the slow motion forms, the meditative techniques of the neigong exercises and the emphasis on tranquility during intense san shou drilling, wrestling and sparring eventually will help you to develop this stillness. You will then be in an optimal position to perform at a much higher level.

Of course elite MMA people will be experts at achieving similar states, with each person having their own approach. The main difference here is that in Tai Chi it is built into the art and is a fundamental concept, whereas in MMA it isn’t and will be something the practitioner will have to find for themselves.

MMA: 8

Wudang Tai Chi: 10

Winner: Wudang Tai Chi

Who Wins?

I love MMA and I’ve been watching it since it first started and believe it to be a great development for martial arts in general.

Wudang Tai Chi however, wins as a martial practice because it has very similar practical techniques but also has a theoretical body of work that adds depth and richness to the practice. It also has more sophisticated movement training exercises as well as a full meditative practice/syllabus that can help the modern man/woman in a lot of positive ways.

Most people do not train the art in anywhere close to it’s full potential, but for those that do there are all the practical fighting skills of modern sport fighting systems, as well as many more avenues for potential development.

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