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Traditional Martial Arts


"Four Reasons Why They Don't Work Well in the Cage."

By Ben Bratko

One of the best known arguments in the MMA world is whether or not "traditional" martial arts, or TMA (Such as Kung Fu, Karate, Aikido, Hapkido, etc.), are actually effective in the "real world" and whether they truly do well in a cage match?

Your Kung Fu is no good here

Looking back at the early Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), we can see some disgraceful performances by various TMA practitioners. Why do these legendary fighting-systems that served well for generations now seem to have deteriorated into arts that will cause the average fighter to receive an ass-whooping in the cage? Is it that "sport" martial arts have certain special techniques or conditions that traditional ones don't that make them better? In short, No. However, there are limiting "Rules" involved in sports that many say is the cause of this debate. Still, what is the real reason for their losses?

Traditional Martial Artists

Four main reasons that "traditional" martial artists often get beaten in MMA competitions:

  • 1.) Lack of conditioning
  • 2.) Lack of ground work
  • 3.) Lack of sparring
  • 4.) Lack of cross-training
Fumio Demura

Let us take a look at each of these reasons in turn...

1.) Lack of conditioning: Many people start taking martial arts because they want to learn self defense. Fair enough. Many Karateka/Aikidoka and Kung Fu students I've met are taught that if their technique is good enough then they don't need to discover any other arts. They go on to eventually believe that their techniques are so effective that they no longer need to be in so good of physical condition. This misconception stemmed from the American way of not wanting to put in the effort to become good. Whether it is the Hojo Undo of Japan or the Training of the Shaolin Monks in China, TMA have always had their own way of conditioning, but, to be a good overall martial artist you will need strength, endurance, flexibility and devotion. These can come from many forms of training. Calisthenics, running, heavy bag work, jump rope, swimming, and sparring are all effective ways to get into shape. To remain complacent as a physical martial artist can limit your own potential and...this can be your ruin in an MMA bout! This hit me several weeks ago at a BJJ tournament. Before this I had only been to light-contact "point-fighting" tournaments. There you get people of all sizes and all different body structures; fat, thin, lanky, wiry etc., but rarely had a person there who looked to be in really good shape. At the BJJ competition, however, almost all the competitors had one thing in common...most of their physical-conditioning looked "jacked", like they'd been pumped up on steroids since birth!

2.) Lack of a ground work: Go to nearly any MMA gym and you will see fighters who're proficient in all areas of combative sports (Striking and Grappling). Go to 90% of the TMA Dojos or Kwoons out there and you will find students who may be good at what they do, but not much else. Ask a typical Karatedoka what they will do if someone tries to grapple with them and they will say, "I won't let him grab me". Many Karateka thought that in the early UFC's. Ask someone like Royce Gracie what happened to them? To be an effective cage-fighter, one must have solid ground-fighting skills. Sometimes this means going outside your comfortable art. Although I'm mainly a Karateka, I have studied wrestling for take-down defense, and BJJ for ground survival. I am not yet an expert in that area, but I do know enough to stay on my feet if possible. If I do get taken down, I feel confident enough to survive if I get on the ground. Excellent grappling/ground arts can include Judo, BJJ, Wrestling, Sambo, and Indian-wrestling. Again, to be a better TMA fighter and to expand your ground-fighting range, you may begin to think about to going outside your current art.

3.) Lack of sparring: Many TMA fighters think that by doing Kata or forms, or prearranged Randori, they will become the most proficient fighters. This is just not so. This misconception may come from the average American martial artist who is too lazy or timid to get off their ass to train in a full-contact environment. Certain "traditional" schools do not even promote enough sparring in their classes. Most Karate Dojos have always had some sparring, whether it is light-contact Ippon (one step Kumite) to Jissen (full-contact) Kumite. Kung Fu also has a rich sparring history, both in sparring forms and in Lei Tai fights. Kickboxing, full-contact Karate and Sanshou are examples of how "traditional" martial arts have successfully trained for serious fighting. Sparring is essential for an artist's growth!

4.) Lack of cross-training: Martial Arts icon Bruce Lee once told a student, "Cross-training is vital to increase your arsenal and to remove the limitations of your current perspective". Perhaps too many "traditional" martial artists, by resigning themselves to training in only one system, are the main cause of their own limitations in the cage? After all, it has been proven that an individual competitor will need to cross-train in more than one system in order to be better prepared in an MMA match of most any kind. Not all "traditional" martial arts have the above four weaknesses. Many Martial Arts, including Kung Fu, Kyokushin, Sanshou and Judo stress aliveness and fitness, and often possess a fair grappling game. I personally recommend these and a few others as the arts you should do if you want to do a TMA and still fight well in MMA.

Three Traditional Martial Artists
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