by Steve Grogan
Unless you have had no TV or internet for the last 25 years, then you have heard of the rise of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) tournaments, which began on November 12, 1993 when the first Ultimate Fighting Championship aired.
Back then, a “mixed martial art tournament” meant something different than it does now. You were exposed to matches that featured a Jiu-Jitsu practitioner versus a Shotokan Karate person, Muay Thai versus Sumo Wrestling, and so on.
I’m not sure if all those styles were paired off in that way, but they are meant to be examples of what MMA used to mean: it was a practitioner of one style versus a practitioner of another style. End of story.
These days it means something different. It means there are two competitors in the ring whose styles are a combination of various arts. Each man is a smorgasbord of styles unto himself.
Many years after the first UFC, Donnie Yen starred in a series of movies based on the life of a gentleman named Ip Man, who was previously known only by his identification as Bruce Lee’s teacher. Thanks to Mr. Yen and these movies, he also became known as the last undisputed grandmaster of Wing Chun.
The caused a spike in Wing Chun’s popularity. People came to it with great curiosity, but they left with nothing but disgust, contempt, and countless dismissive remarks.
The reasons for that are many. It doesn’t look like any other martial art. Most practitioners are not massive brutes. Instead of hitting someone with one killer punch, Wing Chun practitioners rely on the cumulative effect of many short, rapid attacks to overwhelm the opponent. Oh, and they also engage in this silly little “patty cake” game called Chi Sao.
When most people are faced with something new, they react by making fun of it. Wing Chun was no different. Eventually, a few people who practiced this style got sick of all the armchair debates and decided to do something about it, so they started entering themselves into MMA tournaments.
This did not help matters. 98% of the videos you can find on YouTube that say “Wing Chun in MMA” show the so-called Wing Chun person getting trounced. (Honestly, I may even be underestimating when I say 98%.)
Why is this? If this style is so effective that it charmed Bruce Lee into being devoted to it, then why aren’t Wing Chun practitioners cleaning up in the ring?
There are many reasons. Being someone on the inside who has done Wing Chun since 1995, I feel I can offer some real insight into what might be a more coherent answer. Forget all the armchair warriors who just watch a video and say, “Yeah, that wouldn’t work.” This is in-depth, real world analysis.
“It’s not martial sport, it’s martial art.”
Many Wing Chun people (both teachers and students) use this line. In fact, it has been overused.
This is what they mean when they make that statement: since Wing Chun includes dangerous strikes to help a weaker person overcome a larger opponent (finger jabs, groin strikes, etc.), and these things are not allowed in MMA tournaments, that there is no way a person would really be using Wing Chun in the ring.
Well, weren’t all the styles we have already seen in MMA considered “martial arts?” Then why is it okay for them to be used in the ring? Why is it someone who practices Muay Thai for self-defense is NOT accused of “not using Muay Thai” when they go into the ring? Many people have criticized this statement, and for once I have to agree with the haters: it’s a copout.
Also, many of the Wing Chun strikes that are not allowed in MMA are ones that wouldn’t be used all that frequently anyway. Think about it: if some alpha male oaf confronts you at a bar because he thought you were looking at his girlfriend, are you going to bust out the eye gouges and throat strikes? I mean, you might use a groin strike, but not the others.
There are ways Wing Chun could be trained so it is MMA tournament-friendly: just do what those practitioners from other styles did and leave out the techniques that the rules say you can’t use. (Of course, that’s a discussion for another article.)
“Wing Chun is meant to be used in a narrow hallway or something like that, not on a football field.”
This is sometimes switched out for the phrase, “Wing Chun has no outside game.” It implies that if an opponent is more than arm’s length away, the Wing Chun practitioner would stand there, passively waiting for them to get close enough.
The sad thing is, it isn’t only Wing Chun haters who utter this statement. Wing Chun practitioners do it too, which is a tragedy. It’s like they’re mocking the style they claim to love.
I am going to pose two questions now that will blow your mind, and they will make almost anyone who thinks Wing Chun can’t work in MMA rethink their stance. (I say “almost anyone” because some people will still cling to the party line.)
So here are the questions:
Question #1: Isn’t it true that grappling arts like Judo and Jiu-Jitsu are styles that have to be done up close?
Answer: Of course. You can’t grapple if you can’t grab.
Question #2: Isn’t it also true that, in the early days of MMA/UFC, grapplers like the Gracies cleaned up?
Answer: Again, that is a resounding “yes.”
If a grappling style like Jiu-Jitsu (which is in a closer range than Wing Chun) can succeed in MMA, then it stands to reason that Wing Chun could also work.
Also, let’s not forget a few other facts about Wing Chun:
- It has low-line kicks, which can be used to distract AND bridge the gap to your opponent.
- There is a pole form, which is loaded with long-range techniques. It’s true that a student isn’t taught the pole form until they are several years deep into their training, but they are still there.
I could go into an explanation as to why so many Wing Chun schools hold off on the pole form but, just like with the first issue we discussed, the answer could be another article, so now we will move on to the next concern.
Lots of training at Chi Sao Range
For those of you who don’t know what Chi Sao is, it’s a training tool used specifically in Wing Chun to develop the student’s sensitivity, as well as to develop their reflexes at such a short range. It starts by two practitioners standing less than arm’s length apart and touching their arms together near the wrists. This is known as the Chi Sao “roll.” From here, the practitioners will attempt to strike each other.
While Chi Sao is an indispensable tool for learning how to react in such a small space, there is one flaw in it: the students have already bridged the gap. They miss out on the opportunity to learn how you can get to this range while taking little to no damage as you make your approach.
A good way to eliminate this training flaw would be to have students start from outside the Chi Sao range, so they have to learn the footwork, timing, and defensive skills they will need to get this close without getting pummeled on the way in.
Not taking full hits
Here is another flaw of Chi Sao, although it could be alleviated if the school also made the students spar.
Although Wing Chun people develop the ability to hit hard in short ranges, it’s still nothing like taking the brunt force of a boxer’s right cross. To compete successfully in MMA, the students must get used to being hit.
A lot of “weekend warriors”
The majority of Wing Chun practitioners I’ve met are not prime physical specimens. I’m not talking about rippling muscles or six-pack abs; I’m talking about stamina. If you get winded going up one flight of stairs, you won’t last in an MMA fight.
How can you solve this problem? You are already devoting so much time to Wing Chun that you don’t have the ability to do one of those six-days-per-week, 60-75-minute workouts. Plus, you don’t want to run the risk of overtraining.
Well, you don’t have to. The exercise routine I recommend to all martial artists is called “high-intensity training.” This is not to be confused with “high-intensity INTERVAL training.” The latter is cardio exercises, while the former is all about the weightlifting. I wrote a more in-depth article about it:
High Intensity Training: The Martial Artist’s Answer to the Exercise Conundrum
Also, for those of you who still believe the myth that weightlifting will make you too tense to do well in Chi Sao, check out my interview with Jay Primarolo of BioFitNY:
Does Weightlifting Keep You from Being Relaxed During Chi Sao?
You don’t see pure ANYTHING in MMA anymore.
No Muay Thai, no Karate, no Judo. As I said at the start of this article, all MMA fighters grab techniques from different styles. Granted, there are certain styles they favor over others (as discussed in this article here), but the point remains the same: the days of someone with one style are no more.
This raises the question: if the early days of UFC did feature fighters who professed to have only one style, then why were there no Wing Chun champions popping up back then? I can’t speak for every Wing Chun practitioner all over the planet, but my guess is they adhered to the “martial art, not sport” line.
Even when you see Wing Chun in an MMA fight, it is not recognized as such.
Having said all this, one might think I’m knocking my own style. However, that’s not the case. How is it not? Well, because I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Wing Chun has been used in the ring, and it has worked.
If that were true, then why didn’t anyone see it?
Simple: because it wasn’t recognized as Wing Chun. However, fighters like Anderson Silva, Tony Ferguson, and Alan Orr (plus his stable of fighters) have all used Wing Chun in MMA and won.
We run into an interesting case with Alan Orr because, even though he does in fact identify as a Wing Chun practitioner, people look at how he fights and say, “That’s not Wing Chun.” On the other hand, if you put someone in the ring who fighting style looks like traditional Wing Chun, and they get pummeled, then people say Wing Chun doesn’t work.
What is the lesson to be learned here? There is no pleasing some people.
And the other lesson?
Sometimes when people make up their minds to believe something (for example, I’ve gotten into many arguments with people who still believe you have to register your hands as deadly weapons once you reach a certain rank), it’s like trying to wake someone up who has been inside The Matrix too long: their minds just don’t want to let go of that belief.
Wing Chun is to martial arts what the Smashing Pumpkins are to music. The Pumpkins were massively popular, winning awards and gaining critical praise. However, being well-known and being well-liked are two different things, and despite all the records they sold, you’d still be hard-pressed to find a fan of theirs.
To this day it is still very much in vogue to hate the Pumpkins, and this is also the case with Wing Chun: millions of people know about the style, and the majority of them bash it.
It is sad to see people so dismissive of Wing Chun because it is a beautiful, intelligent system. However, unless there are adjustments made to the training methods that will produce some consistently dominating fighters, it is unlikely you will ever see Wing Chun get any credit in the MMA world.
Even when Wing Chun has been successfully used in MMA, it doesn’t get any credit. Therefore, the only thing we can do is ignore the ones we can’t please and focus on training that at least pleases us.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Steve Grogan has been practicing Wing Chun Kung Fu since January 1995. He is the founder of Geek Wing Chun, a website (with accompanying YouTube channel) that provides free tips on how someone can create a training routine at home, should they be unable to make it to class. He is the author of The Lone Warrior, which collects some of his greatest tips in one neat little book, and the developer of The Lone Warrior App, which helps people keep track of the daily goals they set for their training (available for both iPhones and Androids).
MAIN SITE: http://www.geekwingchuninc.com/
LONE WARRIOR (BOOK): http://www.geekwingchuninc.com/TheLoneWarrior.html
APP on iPHONE: https://apple.co/2MaBNpp
APP on ANDROID: https://bit.ly/3ceiZQv