Why There Are No Successful Wing Chun Competitors in MMA (or How to Stop Caring and Just Do Your Own Thing)

by Steve Grogan

PHOTO 1Unless 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.PHOTO 5

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.

PHOTO 6And 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.


In Conclusion

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.


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/

YOUTUBE: https://www.youtube.com/c/geekwingchuninc

LONE WARRIOR (BOOK): http://www.geekwingchuninc.com/TheLoneWarrior.html

APP on iPHONE: https://apple.co/2MaBNpp

APP on ANDROID: https://bit.ly/3ceiZQv





Taichi and MMA

by Nick Osipczak

After my last fight for the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) in 2010, I didn’t know whether I was going to fight again, so I was afforded the luxury of easing off the punishing training regimen that having an upcoming fight forces you to endure, and instead I could focus on training purely for the love of it once again. I found myself drawn to Tai Chi and immediately began noticing all the imbalances in my body, and it took about two years to undo most of the significant damage I had caused to myself from years of sparring and pushing myself to the limits in training.

The beauty and depth of the internal arts

Once I’d realized the efficiency, beauty and depth of the internal martial arts, I was 100% committed to its mastery. Having a somewhat obsessive-compulsive personality when it comes to doing what I love, I immediately devoured all the texts and videos on the subject matter and began my travels to learn from various masters around the world. I took three years off from sparring, and instead focused on moving as slowly and smoothly as possible. It was both a beautiful and humbling experience to feel like a complete beginner again, and this helped me realize that, more than anything, it is the learning that I enjoy. I love a challenge, and when I read claims that Tai Chi Ch’uan takes 10 to 20 years to master, my imagination was instantly captured and I knew what my future had in store for me. I had to completely “empty my cup”, detaching from my previous training methods, which is no easy task! As my brain was attempting to rewire itself to learn this new language, most of my old habits were actually in direct contrast to what I needed to be doing in order to evolve further in this new direction. The concept of doing less to achieve more is certainly a tricky one for Westerners to wrap their heads around!

taichi in Watlington

Changing beliefs

And now today, when I try to pass on what I have learned to my friends in the MMA community, I encounter two common scenarios. The first is the confused look as I try to explain a concept which is too alien to their current way of thinking, one that does not harmonize with – indeed, even threatens – their limiting beliefs, or the way they see the “sport” of martial arts. The other is simply an inability or unwillingness to “start over,” to throw away the old to make way for the new, even if they can see the value. People too often feel that they have invested so much energy for so many years that they would be doing themselves a disservice by starting anew. As I see it, our attachments can become our downfalls, and adaptation is the key to longevity and harmony.

After years of study on everything from nutrition to philosophy, anatomy to alternative health systems, as well as the classic texts on war and peace, every aspect of my training has shifted dramatically from what it once was. A significant moment came when I felt I was no longer just following what everyone else was doing, or what my coaches were telling me to do. I was coming from a place where I could draw on my own experience and research – and, more importantly, I was following my intuition.

Over the last three years, my main training partner has been my son Shen, who is now three. Becoming a father forces you to adapt in so many ways, and in order to fit the daily amount of training hours in, one is required to make changes both to lifestyle as well as the type of training. Motivations change too. Now I am inspired to lead by example and I have to be more consistent and thoughtful with my approach. Shen is of the age now where he can spot anomalies and he loves nothing more than to ask, “Why, Dad….?”

Four ounces to move a thousand

Tai Chi Ch’uan talks of using four ounces to move a thousand pounds, so when I wrestle my son, it’s not a case of the strong and experienced versus the weak and unaware. Instead, I make it so I literally use as little effort as I can, and would have to say that he becomes the stronger of the two of us. I constantly play around with his balance, trying to affect it so subtly that he is unable to grasp what is the cause of his instability.

Jumping knee

Taichi principles in training and life

From my many years studying ground fighting, I am well-versed in the best offensive and defensive techniques; but I have yet to teach any to Shen. Instead, I just put some weight on him, pinning him to the ground or against something upright, and ask him if he can get out. Then I let him try and wiggle and squirm his way free using movement and the principle of finding space. Sometimes he says he is stuck and I give him a pointer on which part of the body he should move to free himself up. He has become blocked, limiting his own movement through lack of awareness. We all do it, becoming attached to one way of thinking; and when that doesn’t serve us, if our vision has become too narrowed, then we are unable to come up with any new, creative ideas because we are drawing from memory instead of feeling in the present.

A Karate friend of mine recently asked Shen to punch his hand and was surprised that I hadn’t taught him “correct technique” yet. But that will come later, and it will come easily and quickly once he knows how to move correctly and has cultivated a mind which stays open to assimilating new information. Besides, I don’t really want my three year old knowing how to punch just yet!

Shen’s favorite film is The Jungle Book, and there’s nothing more he likes doing than climbing on me. Even my 10-month-old has started joining in, crawling as fast as he can across the room to get in on the action. We mimic animal movement, moving primally across the floor like gorillas, monkeys, snakes, bears…

Aside from our training together, just observing how a baby navigates this world is enlightening for those of us obsessed with movement. From the first few months when you can feel the strength of their grip and how all limb movements originate from the dantien, to when they begin to perform deep squats and exhibit perfect posture. Getting to feel true softness, noticing how their pliant muscles can move freely around the bone, and realizing what is actual full-joint mobility.

It can be an awakening experience knowing that we all once moved like that, and somewhere along the line we picked up some bad habits, and are continually paying the price for it as we age and strive to unlearn, simplify, return to our youthful ways.

When I was a boy, my friends and I would regularly dare each other on, challenging one another, pushing our boundaries in the quest for new experiences and overcoming fears. I find myself continuing that tradition with my son. When we come across some cold water and I ask Shen if he wants to go in, I’m really asking myself if I want to go in. Without him there, I may not always verbalize the idea, which brings it one step closer to reality. Like all good training partners, you find ways of fitting more training into the day and bond through the shared experiences.

I am a believer in the saying, “Do one thing a day that you are scared of.” It is an excellent way to prevent the mind from calcifying. When the mind begins to set, this is a sure way of letting fear creep in, and it only needs one foot in the door. The mind is like a parachute – only useful when open!

When carrying Shen on my shoulders, it forces me to adopt more and more efficient posture. With him constantly growing a little heavier, it reminds me of the old story of Qing-Gong training when one jumps out of a hole every day and each day the hole gets made 1cm deeper.

When he climbs on my arms as I am sitting, my structure is tested and I strive to apply all the principles that Zhan Zhuang practice cultivates – keeping the shoulders down, elbows heavy and spine tall.


Practicing patience

But most of all my son helps me develop PATIENCE! An integral component to successfully training internal martial arts, it is something we could all have more of – the ability to not get frustrated and to continually adapt to our ever-changing circumstances. Having kids has forced me to reassess how I spend my time each day, and trim off the unnecessary. Time is more precious, and sleep, food and even breathing has to be respected even more due to their significant contributions to my energy levels. When you start your day with breathing exercises in the morning, it forces you to become more aware of your environment, more in the present, and has the ability to make you consider how you will spend the rest of the day a little more carefully. As the saying goes, “The yi leads the qi.”

The chances of the average MMA student today incorporating standing practice into their daily routine? Slim to none, and Slim just left town! The current MMA fighter wants quick results, and there is the prevailing dogma that if they haven’t finished the day exhausted and beat up, then they haven’t trained properly. There is also the irony of being partly motivated to rush through the stages of training in order to hit the “big time” in their twenties, believing that they will be “past it” by their mid-thirties, not realizing that it is this very mindset that will cause the damage to their bodies (and brains) that unfortunately force so many of them into early retirement. With often irreparable knee, spine, and shoulder injuries to name a few, it is a sad situation when professional athletes cannot even nurture their health into their forties.

Maintaining a neutral state

Nowadays, it is a rarity when I feel sore, and I enjoy the process of returning my body to a balanced, neutral state as soon as possible afterwards. This enjoyable process of putting a little wear and tear into the body before healing ourselves can be likened to the tempering of steel, where thousands of oscillations between hard and soft alchemically transcend us to a new way of being. There are no shortcuts for the sword that is destined to become great; it must be willing to endure and persist. It must also love its journey, and believe in its destiny.

Another lesson MMA fighters would do well to learn is to tone down their competitive natures for partner drills, and increase their sensitivity. They are like a fighter-plane locked onto a target with one objective: seek and destroy. This extremely yang approach doesn’t lend itself well to being aware of what the opponent is intending, limiting the amount of information one can garner through touch and even sight. A simple grounding drill where one applies pressure slowly and steadily to their partner becomes a great challenge for the MMA adept, as they are not used to toning down their force and learning to vary it in such small increments.

Future goals

One of my goals is to help spread the internal martial arts into MMA, not just because I believe the current standard of fighting on display is well below where it will be a few years down the line (the sport is still relatively young – the first UFC was in 1993), but I am also highly motivated to spread the health benefits to my fighting brothers and sisters. For this to be achieved, I am regularly reminded of just how much I will need to continue learning from Shifu Shen’s main lesson – the art of patience!

About Nick Osipczak:

Nick Osipczak began Hung Kuen at age 18 and six years later was competing for the world’s largest fighting organization – the UFC. No opponent could finish Nick in any of his 18 career fights. For 5 years he ran a martial arts club in London where at one stage his students amassed a 22–0 record in professional MMA bouts. Now specializing in Tai Chi Ch’uan, Nick passes on his knowledge and experience through seminars and intensive workshops.