In a small gym somewhere in New Jersey men gather about a caged ring. Dozens of hopeful bruisers mill around, shoot the shit and size each other up. They take their turns in the ring, one by one working over the mitts, or in pairs, feverishly grappling one another into submission. Sweat flies, the pop of their fists on the pads and the baying of exhausted wrestlers bounces back and forth between the small room's plain white walls and its bare window panes. Scouting talent for the fight organization M-1, a sharp-eyed Russian named Apy Echteld and his crew take notes, shake hands sometimes, pass out walking papers sometimes. I see this on my computer screen, in a video hosted by a man named Bruce Kivo, reporting for the website MMA Confidential. Kivo brings our attention to one would-be prizefighter in particular, an eager young man named Shawn Obasi: "Shawn, why do you want to fight for M-1?"
Standing at some six feet two inches, the hulking 27-year-old explains, "I want to fight because I want to prove to the world that wing chun is a dominant style." Bad comedy ensues. We cut to a scene of Obasi demonstrating some traditional wing chun form, and then cut again. Obasi tosses roundhouse kicks into the muay thai pads. The kicks come out heavy but sluggish and, at some point of course, he slips onto his ass. We're not privy to how the rest of his tryout went, though we can assume not well. Next we see, Echteld, unimpressed with the work, has dismissed an incredulous Obasi.
What comes next isn't pretty. Obasi grows increasingly furious, insisting that he wasn't evaluated fairly. "I'm not a muay thai fighter, I'm not a kick boxer, I'm not a boxer. I'm a wing chun man." The situation seems to devolve rapidly, and in an especially ugly exchange, Obasi, resenting what he sees as arrogance and contemptuousness on Echteld's part, gets down on his knees before the M-1 representative. With great sarcasm he begs for a chance to fight. Obasi carries on for a bit more before his team mates help him out of the gym. Thus the footage ends, and thus it made the rounds late March through the MMA community.
Of course, there's a barely concealed current of derision running through MMA Confidential's myopic report. You need not look any further than the video's title to see it: "WING CHUN FAIL," it reads. There's certainly no excess of professionalism here. No human interest or journalistic objectivity, either. Just off-hand ridicule and a dash of smugness, and this is troubling. Why, having viewed a report on the M-1 tryouts, don't we get a look at any actual prospects? Why, instead, does the video's final cut focus solely on Obasi? Why such fascination, such pleasure at the guy's total meltdown? Rubbernecking aside, a lot of it may have to do with the MMA community's general attitude towards what it calls "traditional martial arts."
If MMA serves as the whipping boy for boxing elitists, so do disciplines like wing chun, an ancient Chinese martial art, serve the self-styled parvenu of MMA. Mention tae kwon do or kung-fu, suggest their viability in mixed martial arts, and feel that hot scorn. To most diehard fans, the template of a mixed martial artist is set: muay thai or kick boxing, wrestling, and jiu-jitsu (or some approximation thereof). Anything else, any traditional martial art, "sucks dick."
The curious vitriol reserved for traditional martial arts is, of course, ironic, and the argument against them is porous to the extreme. Porous because the very history of mixed martial arts and its constant evolution-fight by fight, pay-per-view event by pay-per-view event- serve to dismantle such rigid notions. Ironic because muay thai, jiu-jitsu, and wrestling are themselves, by definition, traditional martial arts.
We can trace muay thai's development from China to Thailand to Brazil, and likewise jiu-jitsu's migration from Japan to that same South American hotbed of MMA. Meanwhile, wrestling (collegiate and Greco-Roman) has its roots in ancient Greece, where it was one of only two sports, next to the footrace, practiced at the first Olympics (and, I suppose, when it comes to America you can't get much more traditional than the cradle of Western democracy). These are ancient fighting systems. If we pay attention, we will find a spiritual element as well; the belief that through intense ritual we might come to master our bodies, and hence our hearts and minds. The difference between these and other martial disciplines is that muay thai, jiu-jitsu, and wrestling have already been widely, effectively repurposed for MMA. And yet we'd do well to remember that it wasn't always like that.
17 years ago Royce Gracie seemed to render anything but jiu-jitsu obsolete. Today we know better. Wrestling remains a brutal instrument when coupled with submission defense. Boxing, despite the early mistakes by the likes of Art Jimmerson and Francois Botha, is as destructive as ever when bolstered by a good sprawl. Why, then, does prejudice against an art like wing chun persist? Why does such a mocking headline accompany that video, and yet no one crowed "Jiu-Jitsu Fail" after Demian Maia's disastrous fight with Nate Marquardt? Why is it so hard to believe that elements of other martial arts might be similarly adapted for MMA competition? It is, after all, already happening. On some mid-decade UFC broadcast you can surely hear Joe Rogan declare karate as good as dead. He howls something different when, a few short years later, Lyoto Machida makes his quick, violent argument for the UFC light-heavyweight championship, knocking out incumbent Rashad Evans in the first, and claiming the title for himself, and for Machida Karate.
So alright, let's make our own quick argument: "traditional martial arts," as we so often use the term, must refer not to any discipline or fighting system, but to a particular frame of mind: that a single art (jiu-jitsu or Shaolin kung-fu or whatever) once mastered, can triumph in any given situation. The difference, then, between mixed martial artists and traditional martial artists is a matter of application. Mixed martial artists accrue, they adopt and synthesize; the rear naked choke, the double leg takedown, elbows, the clinch, the roundhouse kick, the right cross, etcetera. Traditional martial artists-whether from tae kwon do, wing chun, judo, or wrestling backgrounds-insist on a singular approach. And so mark themselves for extinction.
Shawn Obasi's mistake wasn't relying on wing chun. It was relying only on wing chun.
As a seventh grader I was the proud owner of a purple belt in tae kwon do. I trained frequently though not always willingly and, nearly adolescent, both dreaded and anticipated a time when I might have put my manly skills to use. As it happened, the chance presented itself on a class camping trip. With the eyes of my friends on the back of my skull I came face to face with that awful opportunity, and it deadpanned, "You may have a purple belt in tae kwon do, but I have a black belt in ass whooping." This was true. Though we scuffled briefly, pried apart in short order by someone's dad, I could feel it. Though I was allowed to walk away with some measure of dignity, I could feel that, despite the hundreds of roundhouse kicks I had drilled, I had come within an inch of an unceremonious beating.
That was, for a time, a difficult memory to bear. I resented the martial art that I was so furiously, mistakenly, sure had failed me, and I resented the Tank Abbotts of the world who seemed to proffer that failure. I suspect, among MMA fans, that this is a widely familiar pain. I wonder, how often had Shawn Obasi's beloved wing chun been dismissed? What burden of proof did he bear into those tryouts? And when the guys at MMA Confidential scoffed and sneered at Obasi, were they also laughing at some past selves? Were they just trying to bury some kung-fu-loving version of themselves? Were they embarrassed once? Were you, was I? Are we all a bunch of would-be ninja and stillborn karate stars? Are we so compelled to turn our backs on those romanticized martial arts we loved, a bunch of wild kids on some Saturday night? Can't we hope for their return? Yes. Georges St. Pierre's turning back sidekick says yes. Cung Le's roundhouse says yes. Machida's karate says yes. The same old stuff is there, or is getting there. Just a little different, and better.