Thursday, October 1, 2009

Traditional Martial Arts vs MMA

Mixed martial arts (MMA) has become very popular recently, both as a spectator sport and as a method for gaining combat proficiency. This popularity seems as though it will only increase. However, this rise in popularity has also been accompanied by a great deal of controversy within the greater martial arts community. It isn’t difficult to find articles or internet discussions by mixed martial artists and traditional martial artists describing the faults of each others system. While both sides have valid points, I’ve compiled a list of pros and cons for both MMA and Traditional Martial Arts (TMA).

MMA Pros:

• MMA Training involves all ranges of combat: Striking, takedowns and throws, and submission grappling.

• MMA Training involves a lot of sparring. Sparring is the most specific and effective training method when preparing for an actual fight. Most TMAs avoid sparring or only engage in it occasionally.

• MMA training places a greater emphasis on strength and conditioning work. Most mixed martial artists are in better shape than your typical traditional martial artists. Don’t believe me? Go and watch the guys at your local MMA gym, then watch a class at the local TMA school (Dojo, Kwoon, Dojang). You’ll see what I mean.

• The actual combat methods (strikes, takedowns, grappling) of MMA are far more realistic and useful against actual human beings.

MMA Cons:

• MMA is a sport. For some this point may not be considered a con, but in terms of training for a real world self defense situation this is a major downside. MMA training and competition assumes two roughly equal sized fighters fighting under perfect and, relatively, safe conditions. Such conditions NEVER exist in a real fight. For those of you saying, “Well I only train for the ring/cage. So, it doesn’t matter.” I say that your skills are pointless and you are training yourself to be nothing more than a monkey who can throw punches and kicks.

• MMA lacks the tradition and discipline of TMA. Some may not like the formality of a TMA school, but such traditions create connections to warriors past, develop discipline, and respect and turn a fighter into an individual with a strong character. Now, I’m not saying mixed martial artists don’t have respect for their trainers and training partners, it simply seems as though a lot of mixed martial artists don’t have respect for those they fight against and there should always be respect among martial artists. To put it another way, it seems as though – quite often – assholes gravitate towards martial arts. Usually, a TMA school would send such individuals away or the aforementioned assholes would be discouraged by the traditional etiquette. This isn't always the case in a MMA gym.

TMA Pros:

• Self Defense Mentality. The general idea behind TMA training is that the skills are only for self defense. While I don’t necessarily agree that self defense is the only use for martial skill (it is fun test one’s skill in competition) this focus on the need to apply ones skill in the real world is highly beneficial and practical.

• Better Body Mechanics. Now a lot of mixed martial artists are going to shit in their board shorts over that statement, but it is true. The striking mechanics taught in a MMA gym are good, but the subtle (internal) mechanics taught to practitioners of Kenpo, Xingyiquan, and Tong Bei are far superior. Luckily, these subtle mechanics can be applied to any striking method.

TMA Cons:

• Not Realistic. Despite TMAs focus on needing to use one’s martial skill in an actual combat situation, TMA fighting techniques aren’t really useful against another human being who wishes to do you harm. Most of the training involves one trainee feeding and unrealistic attach to another while the trainee on the receiving end responds with an equally unrealistic defense and counter-attach.

• Most TMAs are one Dimensional. Some arts only focus on striking, like Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Muay Thai, and Boxing. Other arts, like Judo, Shui Chao, and Aikido only focus on takedowns. Catch wrestling and jujutsu train only grappling. A true martial artist should be proficient at all levels of combat.

Obviously this list is only my personal opinion. I’d like to make it clear that I feel MMA and TMA both have strong points and weak points. I’ve trained in Xingyiquan (TMA), Tae Kwon Do (TMA), San Shou (neither), and Donjitsu Do (self defense oriented). I currently train out of a MMA gym so I feel I am uniquely qualified to compile such a list and I don’t want to receive any emails from people accusing me of ignorance regarding either TMA or MMA. However, if you’re a traditional martial artist or mixed martial artist take some time to think about your personal journey in the arts and ask yourself some questions. What do you want to get out of your training? How do you want to carry yourself as a martial artist? What is important to you? While I don’t feel anyone necessarily needs to leave their current gym or training hall, if you feel something is lacking in your current training hopefully this article is helpful in helping identify what your training needs and furthering your martial journey.


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    1. Traditional karate historically trains all of the tactics you mentioned. In typical practice, however, the striking tactics are what's largely emphasized.

    2. By traditional karate standards, this statement is FALSE. Traditional karate seeks to build a foundation of mental discipline, not just physical capability. MMA fighting is physically based, counts on athletics. What's true is that it is more expedient for many to become skilled athletes as opposed to mastering the mental discipline of karate. The fact that most practice karate as a physical exercise is what leads to their failure in actual fighting.

    3. Traditional karate places a great emphasis on physical conditioning. The fact that the typical karate curriculum may be light on conditioning is the lack of commitment by the public to the necessary rigors.

    Professional MMA most definitely concentrates on physical conditioning. Perhaps at the expense of the broader foundational skills taught by traditional karate....

    4. It's true that some conventions in traditional karate may not be the most practical. On the other hand, karate basics alone done well can overcome 75% of conventional MMA. Note, I said "done well."

    MMA techniques tend to very practical & effective. The exception is against a mentally disciplined fighter.


    1. SELF DEFENSE MENTALITY. While the author's point on the self defense design of TMA is accurate, I just don't get the conclusion of a 'black & white' distinction when it comes to MMA.

    MMA has rules, just as does karate kumite. Yet within those rules, IMHO, the essence of the physical conflict is the same. In MMA, my competitor may well be trying to KO me with a head punch. In the dojo, my opponent may be trying to demonstrate he is capable of KO'ing me with a head punch. In the street, a bully may try to KO me with a head punch, or intimidate me that he can by a head punch.

    In all cases, my trained karate response is the same. I need to demonstrate or actually demonstrate that I can defend / counterattack and KO the assailant. The principle and underlying basic skills are exactly the same.

    In traditional karate, there is no difference, in principle, on being able to end the fight. Tactics for self defense will differ from sanctioned competition.

    2. BETTER BODY MECHANICS. I think there is a difference here on karate vs. say boxing. IMO, an expert boxer's body mechanics are extremely powerful and certainly more than enough to physically destroy the opponent.

    In traditional karate, as the author suggests, the internal musculature is emphasized more. The bigger distinction which transcends physical body mechanics, is that the karate mechanics should be driven by mental discipline. This is compared against the boxer's heavy reliance on muscle memory & ingrained reactions. With traditional karate, the conscious mind overrides physical reactions.

    Kudos to the author for outlining such a sensible comparison. The depth in traditional karate, IMO is under appreciated & misunderstood. Traditional karate seeks union of mind & body with the mind deliberately directing each & every action at all times. This is higher level of martial skill than the athletic contests seen in MMA. And much longer & harder to achieve.

  4. OT: Hey sports fans, i know this is a bit off topic, but yes Manny Pacquiao vs Timothy Bradley fight is happening. The April 9 bout will mark the third time Manny Pacquiao and Tim Bradley have faced one another. Fortunately we can still see his training for previous fight with Tim Bradley at the Manny Pacquiao Official Youtube channel.