Thoughts on MMA



About thirty years ago, I saw the first blurry video of Gracie Jiu Jitsu, where they demonstrated their effectiveness against judo and karate and boxing.  It was fascinating.  While clearly the Gracies were showing their best examples, stories of their students trouncing classical martial artists like William Cheung were trickling in in the whisper-stream.  A lot of martial artists refused to believe, thought it was fraudulent, or that their arts had “secret techniques” that were too lethal to use in such situations.


I watched, and had some thoughts that Tim Ferris, he of  Four Hour Work Week fame, might have appreciated.  When the UFC was created, and Royce Gracie tore through his opponents like they weren’t there, traditional martial artists continued to doubt.  If only REAL martial artist of such and such style would enter, then we’d see…


At first, there really were pure karate people, pure boxers, pure wrestlers who entered to various levels of success. But what became clear very quickly was that “pure” anything was getting trounced by the hybrid arts.  “Pure” grapplers did better than “pure” boxers, but there was a specific syntax, something I’d noticed at the very beginning, that began to emerge. And it hasn’t change to this day.




First of all,  I think UFC is as close to a street fight as any popular sport has gotten, or is likely to get.  Yeah, you can add environmental stuff, and weapons, and multiple attackers. I’ve seen events that tried to add those things, and they look crazy fun, but the primary question is one of two athletes with minimal protective equipment and disallowing only basic crippling things like biting, eye gouging and so forth, and then letting them see what’s what.


Not a street fight.  But closer than anything else that could possibly be approved of by a sports authority, which allows us to actually compare ideas and training techniques and strategies from around the world without asking these young athletes to die for our entertainment.  Some thoughts on my conclusions.


  1. Sijo Muhammad refers to his art as a “Martial Science” more than a “Martial Art.”  An art deals with self-expression.  A Science asks “what is true?” and utilizes theory and experimentation to test.  It is not science if you cannot test it.   It is faith.  That doesn’t invalidate it…but it does exclude it from the “science” category
  2. What did I see back thirty years ago? That was similar to what Tim Ferris does in his “Four Hour Work Week.”?  It was that every discipline has rules, and that if you can suss them out, you can find cracks in their conceptual armor.  Go through the “cracks” and you’ve found short cuts that produce amazing results..  The Gracies had seen something, probably by testing their art in the streets of Brazil against real live people trying to hurt them.
  3. This is what it was: a striking art is only effective within a given range: from about a foot away from your chest (uppercut range)  to full jab  or kick extension.  What’s that, about a four-foot effective  radius?   That means that if you can stay OUTSIDE that radius, you are safe.
  4. And if you are a grappler, and can get INSIDE that range, you are in the “clinch” range.  Generally, referees will break up boxers who enter the “clinch” range–boxing stops working there.  Oops. And a boxing punch is strong because the boxer has his feet and waist under his shoulders, so that he is striking with his entire body. Take him off his feet, and he’s lost 95% of his prepared training.  Oops.
  5. So what the Gracies did was stay OUTSIDE kicking-striking range until the opponent’s attention wavered for a moment, or there was an opening oclose.  I’ve watched thousands of rounds of boxing, and in a tiny, tiny percentage of fights did the fight end before the first clinch.  With armbars, chokes, and throws, plus a specific strategy, they tore through the competition.
  6. But…the Gracies, no matter how amazing a sports family, were just one family.   They simply couldn’t demonstrate their art without people figuring out what they were doing. And then it was their tiny gene pool against the rest of the world.  Their “unbeaten” reputation just couldn’t last.
  7. A sufficiently vicious striker  who complemented his striking with a little grappling could survive the clinch and force the grappler to cross “the critical distance line” over and over again–and in that instant they are vulnerable if they misjudge distance or timing.  Kimo Leopoldo was the first striker who really nailed Royce Gracie, and although a desperate Gracie managed to arm-submit him, he was forced to retire from the tournament.
  8. As more strikers learned grappling, a hybrid art began to evolve.  And it is this hybrid art that emerged as dominant.  It was the Bruce Lee idea: grapple a striker, strike a grappler, be able to switch between ranges and weapons to find the weakness in your opponent, and then exploit it.
  9. The mythology of deadliness allows the natural human tendency for fantasy to creep in.  The further you are from actually competing with other athletes who are motivated to knock you out or submit you, the more fantasy creeps in.  If you haven’t, your teacher better the hell have.   By the time you are two generations removed from someone who has actual, real-world knowledge, the greater the danger that you don’t know what you think you know.
  10. So the UFC allows a certain amount of “scientific” testing. Can X knock out someone who is trying to hurt you?  Yes? How do you know?  Because you did it, or saw it done.  Will Y break an arm?  Well, if you can submit with an armbar, in many cases the physiology is clear: the person taps out because of pain. The pain comes from stressed tendons at the breaking point.  Add more stress, and the joint will dislocate.  And again…most grappling gyms have accidents along this line from time to time.  The truth can be seen.   Chokes are the most interesting.  The closest you can come to killing someone without real damage (most of the time)–because if you can choke them out, they are helpless, and you could kill them either by hitting them with a rock or simply continuing the choke.  MUCH less damage than knocking someone out with a punch, but very, very real.  Scientific.    Most people in judo or jiu jitsu, have been choked out (raises hand) or choked someone out (raises hand).


So that’s it.   MMA athletes exploit a “gap” in most traditional arts, such that you can take a football player who is already fit and aggressive, train them for a few months, and create a monster.   And to my joy, I’m seeing traditional art schools cross-training, offering other arts beneath the same roof, experimenting with non-traditional training techniques, and otherwise adjusting to reality.


That’s how they evolved in the first place, you know.


There will still be room for pure grappling, pure boxing, pure kicking-punching, etc. arts.  But when they intend to step out of the protective vacuum of a gym and ask “can this work in the street”  the way to test this more fully than ever before (with a reasonable amount of safety) the answer is clear: bring in someone who has seriously trained in MMA.   Start working with them slowly and lightly, gradually making the modifications and learning what you need to understand the reality encoded within your art.  It is there.  Get as intense as you have the heart and health to go.


And you’ll know what’s true.  That’s certainly what I’d do if I were starting over as a teenager.  As it is, I have confidence in a combination of skill, situational awareness, ability to improvise weapons,  ability to de-escalate, and sheer viciousness (no one can push me into a “fair fight.” They can attack me, in which case I have justification to DEFEND myself, and that is a different thing).  I don’t think it would be a good investment of my time and energy to risk the bruising that that approach would demand.  What do I enjoy at this point in my life?  Playing with other martial artists, especially flow-oriented arts like FMA.  Makes my heart happy


But I’d sure encourage Jason to go for it!






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