Classical Martial Arts in MMA – A Case for Wing Chun and Trapping

The UFC is fond of characterizing itself as “the ultimate proving ground” for martial artists, implying that success in the cage is essentially a win for the particular style practiced by the winner. Bruce Buffer still announces the style of each fighter before he mentions that fighter’s name, implicitly setting the contest up as a test of which martial art is superior. While most classical martial arts are geared towards life-and-death situations as opposed to carefully regulated one-one-one fights which bar most of the more effective strikes, this did not stop many classical martial artists from trying to prove themselves inside the cage. The early days of the UFC were replete with unsuccessful attempts by accomplished classical martial artists to establish themselves and their respective arts in the sport. Sadly, this has led many of the sport’s followers to conclude that these classical styles are simply inferior to the hybrid boxer-wrestler formula that dominated the sport for years. Since then, however, a general consensus has grown out of this debate, asserting essentially that every successful fighter needs a “mixed bag of tricks” as opposed to relying on a single style. Moreover, many of the traditional arts are now finding a home in MMA, with pioneers like Cung Le and Lyoto Machida blazing a trail for their respective arts of San Shou and Karate after adapting these to meet the challenges presented by ground fighting. With each weight division absolutely packed with talented and skilled athletes, many fighters are rounding out their game with skills borrowed and adapted from the classical styles in order to gain an edge. Anderson Silva, for example, received severe criticism for not taking many chances in his fight with Thales Leitis, yet he threw scores of rarely attempted kicks against an opponent hell-bent on taking him down, including chasse kicks, inverted kicks, oblique kicks, spinning back kicks, jumping chicken-kicks, and even kicks that appear to be his own invention

In that same fight, Joe Rogan even characterized the way Silva used his rapid hand movement and feinting maneuvers as resembling “wing chun trapping hands.” While Silva was not using any trapping, he did do something that is a pervasive feature of most MMA bouts; he ended up touching his opponent’s hands as a means of ranging-finding much more than he touched his opponents face or body with actual blows. This means of gaining some control and predictability through a tactile reference point is the very foundation of the classical art of Wing Chun, as well as other arts. This tactile reference point allows the fighter to execute maneuvers based on the feel of his opponent as opposed to using only the visual stimuli that a kick-boxer, for example, must rely on. The brain processes this tactile information more quickly and this allows for the rapid-fire transitions that one sees, for example, in the grappling arts. In fact, one could accurately describe all clinch and ground fighting as a form of “trapping,” as the central purpose behind every movement is to gain and retain the opponent’s body under one’s control so as to land strikes or to “trap” parts of his body in a choke or joint-breaking hold. The art of “dirty boxing” that Randy Couture made popular is a form of clinch fighting in which an opponent’s head and arms are trapped and controlled in order to create openings for short punches and elbows. Even Muai Thai incorporates trapping in the form of a “jut” in place of the usual parry, which jerks the opponents striking hand down just before firing a shot of one’s own into the fresh opening, to say nothing of the “Thai plum.”

All of these forms of trapping, however, occur either at kicking and puching range, or in much closer quarters, such as clinch or grappling range. Traditional Wing Chun prefers to strike in a “middle range,” one that is slighly further out than grappling range or the clinch, but yet closer than kicking or boxing range. Practitioners of this art use man sau, roughly meaning “seeking hand,” in order to initiate contact with the opponents hands and arms, thus gaining a firm grasp on the opponent’s whereabouts and movement. From this tactile reference point various strikes and blocks are initiated together so as to control the opponents offensive tools while delivering blows with one’s own. This style has long been considered impractical for MMA because actual striking is not initiated until after the fighters are touching. Thus, passive movements that inflict no damage are executed in kickboxing range while the opponent is potentially throwing knockout blows. This seems much too reactionary for the modern art of MMA, until one begins to consider some of the points described above. A takedown, the staple move of many a UFC champion, is just such a passive maneuver that must avoid the opponent’s offense in kickboxing range so as to trap the opponent on the ground before delivering damaging blows. Moreover, MMA fighters are routinely “pawing” with their lead hands in order to gauge distance and limit their opponents movement. In mix-matched leads, for example, placing one’s lead hand on the outside of the opponents lead hand effectively parries their lead strike preemptively. In fact, most accidental eye-pokes that occur in the cage are the result of this range finding; with the lead hand pawing away with an open hand towards an unfortunate opponent who is closing the distance.

It only took one karate-style fighter to win a UFC championship for Joe Rogan and others to announce the beginning of the “Machida era” or to say that “Karate is back.”However, this more likely signifies a growing trend in MMA pedagogy to incorporate elements of traditional martial arts than it does any kind of takeover by a single style like Karate. After mastering the MMA fundamentals like muai thai, wrestling, and BJJ, young fighters are now looking to older martial arts for an edge. 22-yearl-old fighter Jon Jones, for example, routinely throws oblique kicks from Wing Chun, straight kicks to the face, spinning sidekicks, along with a unique version of the spinning back elbow.  Veteran MMA fighters like Jeff Curran have begun to stray from their wrestling base in order to utilize front leg sidekicks, an oft neglected tool in MMA. Are we entering a period in the sports evolution in which traditional arts like Wing Chun will make a comeback?  This remains to be seen and it is obvious that whoever attempts such a transition will have to drastically alter the venerable art, but in principle this author sees no reason why such a transition couldn’t take place and prove to be quite valuable. Many fighters routinely use a version of man sau in their stand-up styles and this alone opens the door for Wing Chun counters to be quite useful, especially against an opponent lacking such tactile sensitivity. For example, a counter to the jut-strike from muai thai can be implemented by a sensitive fighter by simply throwing a straight punch as soon as he feels his hand being manipulated downward. Being on the inside line, his straight punch will either beat his opponents or deflect it away from its intended target.

Regardless of whether Wing Chun trapping becomes a factor in MMA, it is clear that MMA is evolving rapidly as a sport and radically changing the nature of the debate about which martial arts are the most effective. While the ultimate proving ground is still a no-holds barred street fight, MMA is an excellent forum in which traditional martial arts can be stress-tested and proven useful and it is clear that such experiments will only become more prevalent as the sport grows and the talent pool deepens.

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5 Responses to Classical Martial Arts in MMA – A Case for Wing Chun and Trapping

  1. pinoro says:

    Great article, thank you for it!
    I am studying Wing Chun and I had a few time the chance to do friendly sparring with a co-worker with solid Muay Thai background. He’s almost 20 kilos heavier than me, so things would be ugly for me in the case of a full-contact sparring 🙂
    But even after the first round he told me he really likes the trapping, the springiness and the constant change of angles in my style and asked me if I could show him some ”Wing chun tricks” 😀
    Moving from the learning and drilling mode to the actual sparing (isolated and free) is what so many Wing Chun people unfortunately don’t do,,,So no wonder that trapping doesn’t works for them.

    Best regards,

    • I couldn’t agree more that what most Wing Chun (and most traditional martial artists for that matter) lack is good full contact sparring. There is some good logic behind it most of the time, as Wing Chun, for example, employs so many techniques that would permanently damage your sparring partners, forcing you to keep the sparring “light,” which might train some bad habits into you or make you less aggressive. However, there really is no replacement for the adrenaline and panic of full contact to help inoculate you from such stresses when faced with danger in the real world. Just out of curiosity, did you spar with this Muay Thai guy in mix-matched leads, or were you matching stances? I always find the most success going south-paw and instead of simply parrying the jabs using a jut-sau to a straight lead punch. Works so well with most Muay Thai people, even though they have the same technique taught in many good Muay Thai schools. Did you find that you could trap more than his lead arm? It seems like a critical weak spot in Wing Chun that the “tactile reference point”, though easy to get on the opponents lead hand, is so hard to get on both of his arms, and thus his rear punch could go high or low, hooking or on a straight line, while we only have our eyes to judge which it will be (and the feeling of his body twisting communicated through his lead arm). Have you found this to be a big problem? JKD seems to solve this by simply ALWAYS moving offline to the outside (flanking the opponent).

      Anyway, thanks for the feedback…I’m having fun exploring your site right now. Cheers!

  2. pinoro says:

    I hope it’s the ”interesting” type of fun, not the ”LOL” type 😀 I enjoy reading your posts very much.

    With my training partners I’m doing light contact sparring (with bigger and softer gloves) and full-contact (with helmet and smaller gloves). I know that the helmet brings some bad habbits, but it’s a necessary evil – I can’t afford to go to work with ”make-up”, not to mention how painfully my wife would kill me for that!! 😛

    With my MT friend I kept switching the leads and everytime I was on southpaw it was kinda confusing and difficult for him…
    I don’t use the ”static’reference point for trapping hands not even when I teach it to a beginner…And for sparring I’m using either ”baits” with Man Sao (or with jab), or agressie entries with Chuet Kiu…it’s not easy to trap the backhand indeed, still have to work on that a lot 😦

    Thank you for your reply and feel free to drop comments on my site also.


  3. I hear ya…sparring with a helmet and other gear is a necessity. Although, I have read some articles that suggested that a helmet, though protecting one from superficial injuries like cuts and bruises, can actually increase the likelihood of concussion. I’m not sure what to conclude about the safety of most cages/helmets vis a vis concussions.

    Your site is stellar, and the posts/videos about the “Myths of Knife Fighting” is now required reading for my JKD students. So many of them think that they can go all Steven Seagal on an armed opponent…ughhh. Though I teach a little bit of Kali/Escrima and will likely introduce my students to certain disarms, I currently teach them to A) RUN!!! and if this is not possible to B) alternate between quick eye jabs (returning the hand to the body with maximal speed) and side kicks to the knee/patellar tendon, which will keep them at range hopefully, but if this doesn’t work to C) use both arms to control the opponents knife hand/arm and break at the wrist, elbow, or shoulder at the nearest opening. However, once you have lost range, the frantic, erratic flailing of most armed assailants is not something I think you can learn how to deal with very effectively.

    btw, I was very impressed with the stick fighting videos that (I believe) you were featured in. Great sensitivity!

  4. pinoro says:

    @Helmet: everytime I do ligh contact sparring, the nose of my partner always gets red (and mine too, of course), because of the tight, vertical punches…That’s why full contact sparring with small gloves and without helmet would be a bad idea. On the other hand, the helmet makes you a bit careless and you go forward for trading, you get punched and you punch back, without thinking too much about defending….

    @Arnis videos: do you mean the Corto Mano/Balintawak videos? Thank you, I’m glad you like them 🙂 The most recent ones were made at the end of January 2011 in the Philippines, with my instructor and his assistant.

    @Knife: that’s a very sensitive subject and should be dealt with highest responsability and realism. So many people say that in FMA the principles of the blade apply also on stick and empty hand – nothing can be more wrong and more dangerous than such ideas! I’d rather not train the blade part at all than to train/teach suicidal bull*hit!

    Do you also have a website for your school/training group?

    Best regards,

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