Branding vs. System in Martial Arts

Traditional Martial Arts vs. MMA

The internet bombards us with all of the different martial arts, each with their unique branding and message. They are all about ‘lifestyles’ and each art or style seems to have an associated ‘lifestyle’, whether Tai Chi, Muay Thai, BJJ, MMA, Krav Maga, Kali or whatever, they all seem very distinct in their culture, approach and message.

A recent article by Rickson Gracie (read HERE) criticises modern MMA. He says it is basically a thug culture, and you would not send your child to MMA, however, BJJ was different because it taught positive values, respect etc. I believe there is some truth in this, but disagree on a number of levels.

I think the problem comes from confusing the branding/lifestyle with the system. Not all MMA clubs have a thuggish culture, not all BJJ clubs have a culture of respect. OF COURSE, martial arts taught properly should embrace all of the positive values and moralities that we admire, but these do not come from the style or system­ they are created by the instructor, students and the culture of the club.

I think it is telling that Rickson says in the close of his article: “BJJ is a philosophy of life that works like a religion.” Religions assert that morality comes from their particular system or dogma, whereas the fact is that there are good and bad people in all religions. People need to develop empathy and respect, and these do not come from one book/system, but by the culture you surround yourself with, role models etc.

So what of the systems themselves, and how to choose a good one?

Let us remove the whole ‘branding’ and ‘lifestyle’ for a moment, and strip the martial arts down to the purely functional, in order to make a scientific assessment. After all­ they claim to teach fighting and that’s pretty easy to test, right?

The cage represents the ultimate test: The fight is over when the fighter is not intelligently defending himself or submits. The ultimate conclusion of a broken arm or being beaten to a pulp doesn’t need to be reached­ like a chess master tipping his King over­ both men knew that the conclusion was inevitable. That is why it is a SPORT, not a barbaric spectacle as often claimed: The Romans would pay to see helpless people being torn apart by tigers for the spectacle­ THAT is barbaric. In a civilised society two athletes who by mutual consent are testing their skills, either can submit at any time, and the referee will stop the fight if they are in danger of severe injury­ this is a perfect test. There is no sense of ‘well, if it was a REAL FIGHT I would have won…’ because the only difference in a real fight would be the injuries inflicted AFTER the opponent is rendered helpless.

Traditional Martial Arts vs. MMA

There is a fallacy that people who try MMA often commit­ they have trained in a ‘self defence’ based art, perhaps with no real sparring/testing, and the first time they try an MMA type of class they say “Well, my art is for the street, I would have done better if there were NO RULES, or against multiple attackers with knives” Ha! I genuinely hear that about once per month in my school. Now, that obviously does not hold up to rational thinking, after all, if you cant beat one guy wearing gloves on the mats, how can you beat three guys with knives on a pavement? The point is, though, that they have defeated three guys in their previous dojo environment where there was NO RESISTANCE and the ‘attackers’ were emotionally invested in the art being shown to WORK, whereas in MMA/Combat sports, the opponent is trying to prove that it DOESN’T.

This is the scientific method: Publish your hypothesis, let your peers try to DISPROVE it, and if nobody can, then it sticks around until it is accepted as an established theory, or some new evidence comes along to disprove it.

I find it fascinating that if you want to sell a car/plane, fire extinguisher or pretty much anything, you need to prove that it is fit for purpose, and does the job it claims, yet in the martial arts world, people are free to teach systems that have never been really tested or proven in the crucible of MMA or in real street fights. Not only is it common, but such people tend to attract large numbers of students; because others who are intimidated by fighting can feel that they are learning some ‘special technique or method’ that will mean that they never have to actually fight. This is understandable and human nature, but is not the truth.

So am I saying that all people who want to learn to look after themselves should get in a cage and fight for real?


If you drive a car, you want to know that it has been ‘crash tested’ first, right?

If you take a pill, you want to know that it has been used in trials and proved safe and effective, right?

So, if you are learning fighting techniques, you need to have proof that they work. I am not talking about FAITH, I mean actual, empirical proof. This could be youtube video of a real situation, or an MMA type of match.

So what theories have come from the scientific crucible of MMA that don’t look like they will be proved wrong any time soon?

  1. A ‘pure’ grappler will beat a ‘pure’ striker.
  2. A mixed martial artist will beat both a ‘pure’ grappler and a ‘pure’ striker.
  3. Lying in the bottom of the guard and fighting for grips is not a good idea if the guy on top can punch you in the face and knows how to defend submissions.
  4. The person with the best clinch skills will determine whether the fight stays on the feet, or goes to the ground.
  5. The best takedown is a punch to the jaw.
  6. The best fighter is one who can fight at distance, against a wall/cage, in the clinch and on the ground.
  7. Technique is crucial, but if you run out of cardio you’re finished.

Traditional Martial Arts vs. MMA

I suggest that these are now in the realm of ‘Scientific truth’. By that I mean independant of your style, culture, system or personal world view­ they just ARE.

Now­ Rickson calls for a ‘Return to classical BJJ’ as a means of returning to the values/ideologies of the past. The problem is, though, that the genie is out of the bottle. Throwing away 20 years of experience and evolution would be misguided at best and immoral at worst. Going back to rolling on the ground wearing Gis and not having striking makes about as much sense as me going back to sparring without ground grappling and ignoring my last 10 years of cross training. Combat science and sports science have EVOLVED.

You see­ the Thais are saying something very similar: MMA is banned in Bangkok because of the associated ‘thug culture’ and a return to the ‘Sport of Kings’ (Muay Thai) is called for. So, to the Thais­ The problem is the grappling. The Brazilians are calling for the same thing, but for them, the problem is the striking. So which is it?

The truth is that the problem is not in the techniques, but the way they are branded and promoted.

The empirical FACT is that modern MMA is superior to either Muay Thai or BJJ alone for no rules/minimal rules fighting. If it were not, we would still be seeing Thai boxers or BJJ guys winning MMA matches without cross training. And that is not happening.

People try to separate the training by saying ‘I do Muay Thai AND BJJ’ so they try to get the benefit of both traditional cultures. But that’s a little like practising two different religions­ In order to practise one you have to stop practising the other (If only for the duration of the class). The strength of MMA is the blend: Grapple the striker, strike the grappler etc. The punching in MMA is NOT boxing. The kicking in MMA is NOT Muay Thai, the takedowns in MMA are NOT Olympic wrestling. The ground game is NOT BJJ. They may share techniques, but the elements are part of a coherent system that would be different from isolating the parts into separate ‘arts’. The fundamentals are quite distinct.

So, if MMA represents a scientific representation of our most efficient fighting methods­ then we are left with two problems.

  1. How to train it without getting injured?
  2. How to avoid the unpleasant ‘thug’ culture?

As it turns out, both of these problems can be solved in the same way: By practising with nice people!

I have trained with professional Thai boxers in the UK and Thailand, BJJ world champions, as well as traditional martial arts masters in China, Hong Kong, Europe, Hawaii, USA. The last 30 years I have literally travelled the world studying martial arts and the one common theme that all of the top experts shared was that they respected their training partners, and practised sparring as a learning tool, not as a competition. In Thailand, the kicks were practised with ferocity into the pads/bags. Then, in sparring, wearing pads and going light, they learned the timing and tactics necessary to be unable to unleash those kicks in a real match.

Why can’t MMA be trained the same way? We can practise ferocious ‘Ground and pound’ on the bag and the mitts, then, in sparring, practise going for positional dominance, controlling the opponent with real resistance, but simply striking lightly? What is so hard about that?

Head trauma/concussion is a serious concern but the solution is not to ‘ban’ punching! The solution is to find intelligent ways to train.

In my school, I have trained several MMA champions in this way­ we concentrate on an aspect of the fight e.g. back to the cage, half guard or whatever, and drill the position with realism, yet safely. I have had students in less than two years go from complete novice to national MMA champion without ever training ‘separate’ arts­ only integrated skills that are drilled in practise the same way as they would be used in the cage.

Now, for competitive fighters, they need periodic hard sparring to see where they are at, find any holes in their games etc. We can increase the protective equipment and do it as safely as possible, but since they are training for an extreme sport it can never be 100% safe or they could not reach their highest potential.

For the hobbyist, or somebody training for ‘self defence’, the combination of hard padwork and hard grappling with lighter striking would give them the skills necessary to defend against most attackers, and the sparring can also incorporate padded knives, multiple attackers etc. But the methodology is the same: Test in sparring and only practise what has been shown to work against resistance.

This enables good, functional skills without any more risk of injury that training in any other contact sport. Occasional harder sparring would give them a real sense of their skill level far better than any rank or certificate. And they would be light years ahead of people practising 20 years outdated ‘classical’ self defence.

So, in conclusion, I would say that it is the responsibility of the instructors to provide a class environment that encourages the development of good character and a healthy culture.

However, it is also the instructor’s responsibility to give the students access to the most effective and up to date training methods and techniques. It may be easier for the instructor to simply go back to his ‘comfort zone’ and teach from a place where he feels completely confident, but in the long run it will not the best thing for him, or his students.

About the Author: David Rogers Sifu runs the ‘Rising Crane Centre’ which is a full time school of Chinese martial arts, MMA, and a clinic of acupuncture. He has trained Kung Fu since 1984, and is a graduate of the ‘South China School of Martial Arts’ in Canton and the ‘College of Integrated Chinese Medicine’. He is a disciple of Deng Jan Gong, who is the 5th generation Kung Fu master in his family and a Chinese National Champion.

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