“I’m going to show the world why the Rangers belong in the Octagon.”
Greg Stott, a former Airborne Ranger, prior to getting knocked out in 18 seconds.
“When the UFC was formed in 1993 there was one simple purpose: Determine which form of martial art was the most effective in a real fight.” Matt Saccaro in The Bleacher Report
If Wing Chun is so great, why isn’t somebody kicking ass with it in the UFC?
#1 In order for an art to be “represented” in the UFC, you have to have a gifted young athlete start in your style and then get the UFC bug.
This hasn’t happened with every art. Where are the Escrima UFC fighters? They have an empty hand system (just like Wing Chun has a weapons system). How about Krav Maga? I’m sure there are many styles that have yet to get a representative.
What needs to happen for Wing Chun to make a splash in the UFC is that some strong genetically gifted guy or girl has to find a talented Sifu with a simple, direct, efficient approach and then the student will need to go Wing Chun crazy, the way Ronda Rousey went Judo crazy and Lyoto Machida went Karate crazy.
Then they need to start studying the other ranges.
Wing Chun’s specialty is the close-medium-range – this is Wing Chun’s bread and butter fighting distance. If we go to the ground, if we are pushed off into kicking distance, we have tools but we are at a disadvantage against someone who is a specialist in those ranges. In our training, we try to get into and stay in our favored range, where we have an advantage.
This is why Sifu Gary Lam added Muay Thai training to his version of Wing Chun – he gave us some more long range tools (and some conditioning drills).
Our Wing Chun crazy kid has to learn BJJ or wrestling to fight in the UFC. They have to have a ground game, period. Some people try to say Wing Chun has a ground game, but it doesn’t. Boxing doesn’t and Wing Chun doesn’t.
Our imaginary Wing Chun UFC fighter have to get really good at takedown defense and also at at least surviving the ground, while also training thousands of hours in their Wing Chun repertoire. Then they have to spar with fighters from other systems: MMA fighters, Thai boxers, following UFC rules, to find the holes and gaps in their game.
This is what is takes to fight professionally in the UFC.
Does this mean that Wing Chun is not a good street art – hell no!
#2 Wing Chun was not designed for ring fighting.
No martial art was until “MMA,” a fighting style which has evolved over the last 20 years in an arms race in the UFC rings in response to their rules and the other fighters. The Gracies are awesome fighters but they no longer dominate the UFC as in the early days. The sport has evolved and so have the fighters. To fight in the UFC, to be really obvious, you have to be able to win within the rules against the sort of attacks and defenses used by the other fighters. The rules change and so do the tactics that succeed.
Guys who would have dominated in 1998 would get mowed down byt he fighters of today, with their excellent cardio and their tight command of all the ranges (kicking, punching, grappling/ground).
Fighters use strategies that work best in the ring. Various stalling tactics and pulling guard and hovering outside (Machida-style) might not work so well in the multi-dimensional and time constrained arena of the street but they can work in the ring for a while. But the ring is an evolving public space – people see what works and then train counters for that particular tactic preparing for that particular fighter.
Wing Chun works best when it is a surprise. The fight begins at conversation-distance, the fight kicks off, and you move into the in-fighting distance and relentlessly attack the head and neck, clearing all obstacles. There is no circling and sizing up. Wing Chun is designed to go for the jugular, like a Rotweiller.
On the street, 99% of fights are decided in the first few moments (as discussed in former bouncer Geoff Thompson‘s 30 second fight concept) with strikes to the head. Done correctly, this is Wing Chun’s advantage – we attack the head and neck, no waiting, no quarter..
#3 Conditioning is not the strong point of most Wing Chun fighters.
Most Wing Chun students are hobbyists. More serious Wing Chun fighters (more than a few years under their belts) might be what Gary Lam calls semi-professional. They train 10-20 hours a week. They focus on skill acquisition and structure and hand dexterity. They are training for the 30 second fight. A handful of Wing Chun fighters take it further and train cardio and train in other ranges. They are the minority.
Most Wing Chun fighters are not preparing for the ring. They are participating in a demanding art which shapes the character of its practitioners (character development). They are training for home defense and street defense against opponents who are also not professional. These fights will happen quickly.
Does this means the fighter’s skills are useless, if they can’t walk into a ring and handle Jon Jones?
If you play flag football at your company, is it a complete waste of time if you can’t play the Patriots? You might still be able to beat the people at your level. Maybe you can even get into the city league or some regional thing where you wear equipment and allow tackling. When I was single, I got good a picking up cute girls but I wasn’t in New York getting supermodels and movie stars. But that wasn’t my goal.
#4 OK – how do I put this delicately? Wing Chun has often been called the “Thinking Man’s Martial Art.”
Let call it the “Thinking Person’s Martial Art” so we can include the ladies, who frankly will benefit even more from this technology than men, because of its equalizing nature. Prize fighting has traditionally been a desperation move made by poor men who know how to fight. Its a tough, tough way to make a living.
Like most other professional sports jobs, most don’t make any real money. The people you see with contracts are the top of a large pile of people moving in that direction, with most dropping off along the way. Its a big pyramid of athletes with those having a “career” at the very tip. And most of them don’t have a long career. Like football and basketball, the UFC is a young man’s game. Guys getting past 35 are an ANOMALY. They are outliers. Most find they aren’t good enough to play at the top of the game. Many catch debilitating injuries along the way. Head injuries, nerve damage in the hands, bad knees, etc. Being a professional fighter is not a good way to prepare for a long healthy life.
While in the last few years, more middle class people and more people who we might call “intellectual” have been getting tattoos and living the live on the edge and doing a lot of edgy extreme sports like MMA, that’s a relatively new phenomenon. For most of fight history, “smart” people and people from the “higher” classes didn’t fight for money.
They called Wing Chun the “Thinking Man’s Art” because is was an early version of we today would call “hacking” the martial arts. They wanted the fastest, most efficient way to end a fight out on the street and they cherry-picked the best fundamentals and techniques form the other arts. Sort of like Krav Maga did in the 1940s. Then, as now, the fastest way to end a street fight is overwhelmingly done through striking the head. BJJ guys will argue this all day, but just ask the experts (streetfighters, bouncers, security guys, cops). Unless you have a team to help you dogpile and subdue your suspect, when you are standing up and the fight kicks off, the closest weapon is the hand and the best target is the head. You don’t want to take one guy to the ground in a streetfight, period.
The Chinese fighters who developed Wing Chun were smart and usually well-off. It also used to be called the “Rich Man’s Art.” Ip Man was wealthy. Chan Wah Shun was wealthy. They were essentially aristocrats. And like the aristocrats of 19th Century England, part of their education was how to handle weapons and defend themselves with their fists. In England, it was “fisticuffs.” In Southern China, it was “Chinese Boxing.”
In England, they started padding the hands to help preserve the faces of the young gentlemen training in boxing. In China, they developed Chi Sao, a training practice which trained fighting without actual strikes to the head (which seems smarter all the time as we discover how easily the brain can get injured, even in training).
Were these Chinese gentlemen and English gentlemen up to the task of handling a pro?
Maybe the rare person had the dedication and the talent and put in the hours but experience counts for so much in combat, and most organized combat is handled with weapons. Empty hand combat is the realm of the pro fighter and the backup of the assassin and intelligence operative and the undercover cop.
Most gentlemen who studied these arts back in the day (and most people now) did it to protect themselves and their families from random street violence and the odd personal encounter with a belligerent family member or business acquaintance, not a pro fighter.
So those are the four big reasons we don’t see Wing Chun in the UFC. . No one has wanted it badly enough yet. Maybe the few who have tried it haven’t got what it takes to go all the way. Maybe their approach to Wing Chun had limitations. Wong Shun Leung said the theory of Wing Chun was perfect. Perfect for a random violent encounter on the street without weapons. Perfect to end a street fight fast.
But to work in the ring, as with “fisticuffs,” it would need a lot of tweaking and modification and supplementation with a ground fighting strategy and training.
It is true that a lot of people kid themselves or they study with bullshit artists and con men. Sparring and skills comparisons can help give you a dose of reality. But let me tell you. I’ve done boxing and I’ve done Muay Thai and I’ve done Wing Chun and in the rights hands, they are all potentially deadly. And not just in the UFC.
But hopefully we just have to wait a little longer and some kid will train with the right teacher, get into the sport, and make their mark. Then people can start spending all the energy dissing Escrima for not being in the UFC!
For more on this, see: Wing Chun: A Gentleman’s Art
Another interesting take: How to Be a Great Mediocre BJJ Student
And my riff on that idea: How to be a Great Mediocre Wing Chun Fighter