Tai Chi & MMA - Part One: What Is MMA?

MMA & Combat Sports in general have a mixed reputation in what I will refer to as the “Traditional Martial Arts” (TMA) communities, and the relationship between tai chi & MMA is no different.

Tai Chi & MMA - Part One: What Is MMA?Tai Chi & MMA - Part One: What Is MMA?

I have heard all the rhetoric: MMA isn’t a “real” martial art, our techniques are too deadly for the ring, sport fighters are barbaric, fighting for sport is against the tao, MMA is too external, it is consumerism at its worst, it is corrupting our children, etc…

I’m not going to agree or disagree with any of these point by point. Instead, let me start by introducing my perspective.

First off, I’ve been a fan of MMA since I was a little kid. Since before it was called MMA (the NHB – or No Holds Barred days). Since UFC 1. Since shooto & pancrase & vale tudo Japan. I’ve seen (and been frequently surprised by) MMA’s meteoric rise. I’ve watched thousands of fights, and thought a lot about the sport – good, and bad.

Second: sport fighting, or combat sport, is as old as recorded history. I will go into historical sport fighting, and its overlaps with taijiquan (as well as practically every martial art ever created) in Tai Chi & MMA – Part Two.

Today, I’m writing this series of posts about Tai Chi & MMA with the hopes of fostering greater understanding, respect, and camaraderie between both communities, and ultimately to prove that we are indeed both branches of the same historical tree.

The first thing I like to emphasize to practitioners of traditional martial arts when discussing events like UFC or vale tudo is that:


Just like soccer, basketball, golf, or rugby, MMA is a sport played by athletes.

The athletes come to the game with the intention of participating, and the goal of winning.

There are rules – even when there are “no rules” (ie – UFC 1 or Brazilian vale tudo), there are still rules. It is one-on-one, and someone is going to win (unless their format allows a “draw”). There is a defined area in which the fighters must remain. Almost always, someone is going to “referee” or at least declare a victor. Both fighters came to do one thing: to win!

The reason I emphasize this is because so many complaints about MMA stem from people envisioning it as a 1:1 analogue for street fighting or military combat. It is not. While it is a sport based on live hand-to-hand fighting, a street fight it is not! Nearly all professional MMA fighters are well aware of this.

They are professional athletes, training hard for their sport, with all the specialization that entails. You put Michael Jordan on the basketball court & he’s one of the best in the world, but on the baseball field or golf course, he’s unremarkable.

Likewise, just because someone is a high level cage fighter, doesn’t mean they have the tools to fight in the street, or on a battlefield.

To wit:

UFC Fighters Experience Marine Corps Martial Arts

I recommend watching that whole video if you’ve never seen it before, but the reason I post it here begins at 4:37. What you’ll see is multiple “matches” between Marines & {professional} UFC fighters. They fight in the woods, with multiple opponents, in the exact environment marines train for hand-to-hand.

And what happens? The Marines totally & utterly dominate!

Keep in mind, the Marines have almost certainly had only a tiny fraction of the time spent training for hand-to-hand combat compared to the elite, full-time professional athletes. Still, the UFC fighters get owned. Every time. No questions asked.

Does this show us that Marine Corps martial arts are superior to MMA, or that UFC fighters are a bunch of over-hyped chumps?

NO! Absolutely not.

All it shows us is that both Marines & MMA fighters have different specializations, which in their own favored environments are exactly what the doctor ordered. The “style” of MMA fighting – which I would argue has in fact become its own distinct style – is very good for the environment in which is specializes: in the ring (or cage or platform or wherever), one-on-one, until one fighter is declared the victor.

To help show the contrast: here is a totally amateur MMA female fighter versus a male Marine to whom it looks like she’s giving up at least 30 lbs, sparring in the cage.

Female MMA Fighter vs. Marine In The Cage

Compare this engagement to the video above, and they are night & day. Take the Marine out of his element, and put the MMA fighter into her’s, and look what happens?

Within 15 seconds, the fight is on the ground, which is where the two proceed to grapple & remain until the nice young lady submits the tough Marine (other than the one time he stands up and slams her in a desperate, but fruitless, attempt to escape her rear naked choke).

Now, of course in our deepest wisdom we would be well advised not to attribute the above victories to the styles demonstrated, but to the stylists demonstrating them. Ultimately, there is no better or worse “martial art” … only better or worse “martial artists.”

However, there are definitely better techniques, strategies, and ways of training to achieve your own specific & unique martial goals.

I chose these two examples because of how well they illustrate my point, namely: people who train to win in a specific environment will be best suited to win in that environment!

Special operations soldiers silently removing sentries need a very different skillset & training methodology compared to professional athletes competing under MMA’s Unified Rules and Regulations from the UFC (nearly identical to most popular sport fighting rule sets, especially in the USA). So, to re-iterate:


But, it is also still “fighting.”

Or at least, it is about as close to fighting as anyone gets on a regular basis, safely.

And here’s where a lot of Traditional Martial Artists (taijiquan practitioners included) start to have a problem.

One of the most authoritative people on this issue, to whom I will like to defer, is Tim Cartmell. Cartmell is an indisputable expert at both Traditional Chinese Martial Arts (including Taijiquan) as well as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu & Combat Sport.

Cartmell started in Kung Fu San Soo at age 11, and 12 years later (in 1984) moved to Taiwan where he studied the Internal Martial Arts of Xingyi, Taijiquan, and Baguazhang, including becoming an indoor student of Sun Style taijiquan lineage holder Sun Jianyun, daughter of the style’s founder (Sun Lutang). While in China, Tim was fighting in San Da tournaments, and synchronistically heard about the Gracies & Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Impressed by the Gracie tapes, when he came back to the states in ’95, he got into BJJ and went on to become Cleber Luciano’s first blackbelt. For a lot more great info, check out Tim Cartmell’s full bio interview here. In it he discusses his views on traditional Chinese martial arts, as well as his thoughts on the “internal vs. external” style dichotomy (and much more). A lot of the same information is expressed in the interview sections of this great video:

Sun Style Taijiquan Lineage Holder, Plus Renowned BJJ & MMA Coach

Tim Cartmell: The Never Ending Path Of A Martial Artist

If you want to skip the BJJ instructional sections, and just watch the interviews, fast forward to:

  • 5:01
  • 10:17
  • 18:05

I wish that everyone from the Internal Martial Arts (IMAs) & Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) communities could watch this video, and think about what Tim Cartmell says here. In my opinion it would truly help to foster more camaraderie & mutual understanding and respect between both communities.

Let me just end with a few quotes from Cartmell out of the video:

I recognized, when I met the first Brazilian teachers that I had, the kind of body sense they had, and the way they used force, and the way they kind of stick to your body and use their weight, and the principles of angles & leverage, were fundamentally the same as my Chinese teachers had taught me.

Keep in mind, this is coming from someone who is an indoor student of Sun family taijiquan.

Concluding, on the question of “What Is MMA” in contrast with Tai Chi & other “Traditional” styles:

I think there’s a divide still [between Traditional and Mixed Martial Arts]. Traditional styles have strong points and weak points, just like sport martial arts do.

I think the people that do things like jiu jitsu, and MMA, and combat sports, are fighting. They’re fighting, they’re competing, and even though it’s within a set of rules, there’s actual resistance and contact.

A lot of the traditional martial arts don’t have it as much. There might be a lot of form training, and basics training, and maybe technique training, but not a lot of actual full resistance training like that. The problem with traditional styles is a lot of times they have the idea that it’s too deadly, for example, “Our techniques are too deadly and we can’t train live.” And that’s a huge mistake, I think. On the other side, all the primary styles that make up Mixed Martial Arts were traditional styles. Jiu Jitsu goes back to Japan. Thai boxing is traditional, it’s old.

So I think there’s really not – or there shouldn’t be – a divide between the two. Mostly it’s the training paradigm that’s different. I think that traditional martial artists, if they really are training for actual fighting ability, they need to be sparring. Even if it’s in a controlled format, they have to have contact, because the hallmark of a real fight is the other guy’s resisting as much as possible… so you need to get used to that.

If there’s one thing we can say about MMA bouts, it’s definitely that the other guy is resisting as much as possible. No wonder MMA fighters are used to that! And so are Marines. Also, if there’s one thing we can say about Taijiquan, it’s that it originally came from this same type of environment, developed under the pressure of violent, often crippling or even deadly challenge matches.

Believe it or not, the history of both modern MMA & Taijiquan are probably a lot more closely linked than you might imagine.

In Tai Chi & MMA – Part Two: History, we’ll be looking much more closely at these interconnections in the back-stories of Tai Chi (and the internal styles) with the Mixed Martial Arts / Combat Sports.

In the mean time, if you’re a Taijiquan or other IMA practitioner, I highly recommend you check out some of your own local MMA schools! They’ll always be an agreeable bunch if you want to test your training against some able-bodied, fully resisting opponents. Best of luck in your practice!

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