Why Isn’t Wing Chun in the UFC?

“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!

 Josh Jauncey vs Chris Ferguson

#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.  Randy Couture is an outlier.  Most people 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 and more people you wouldn’t call “poor” or “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 Fairbairn’s Combatu did in the 1930’a and 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?

No.

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.

#5 The biggest reason we don’t see Wing Chun in the UFC: there are two flavors of Wing Chun: a more flowy Tai Chi style and a more “blood and guts” streetfighting style.

There is a Wing Chun saying: “If you want to be strong, train weak. If you want to be fast, train slow.” This is true but someday, you have to start trying to be fast and strong and most importantly, AGRESSIVE.

Most of the reported two million people doing Wing Chun are training weak and slow and lack aggression.   I’ve been doing Wing Chun on and off for 15 years and I can tell you the names of every person I would be concerned about fighting in the real world.   More than 90% I would allow to hit me as hard as they could without much concern.

To make Wing Chun do what it was designed to do, you have to work really hard.  You have to hit the bag every day for years.  You have to do all the training a lot and you have to get to the point where you can do aggressive Gwoh Sau with an uncooperative, skilled opponent.

If you want to get really good, you need to spar and get hit.

I don’t think you need to spar and get hit to handle most people (most people can barely fight), but to handle anyone with experience or skill, it helps a lot.  You can get pretty close with intense Gwoh Sao, but if you are going in the ring, you better test it out under even more realistic conditions, at least for a little while.  There is no preparation for the experience of getting hit in the head except getting hit in the head.  Don’t let your first fight be where you discover how it feels and how you respond.  Get used to it in training.

So those are the five 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: The Top 5 Reasons Wing Chun Doesn’t Work

Also: 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

Comments

  1. Carl says

    The knee destruction techniques you talk about are complely legal. Both Jon jones and Anderson silva have used them. A knee is not as easy to destroy as you seem to thing, and there is a good reason you have this misconception it’s because you probably haven’t tested it.

    The reason fighters from muay Thai, Bjj and other combat sports create consistently better fighters is because they spar. Sparing teaches you what works, what doesn’t and helps simulate a fight. Lots of realistic hits with rules in place simulated a fight far better than any amount of complaint drilling or chi Sao.

    Mma is not a game it is merely a balance between safety and realisum. It’s the best balance we have found between keeping fighters safe and allowing them to use a full range of martial arts techniques. Even in the early days on vale tudo and the UFC where everything from hair pulling to groin shots were allowed wing Chun rarely did well. This is because of the lack of alive training.

    You wouldn’t claim to be able to surf by only practicing on land and never getting in the water yet so many martial artists claim to be able to fight by only practicing the moves and never doing anything close to fighting. Chi Sao is far closer to a game than sparring is.

    Please anyone who trains martial arts and do not spar, push start sparing if you can. You will learn what does and does not work in your system of martial arts and not only will your art become better when certain illusions are shattered but you will be better able to defend yourself.

    • steven says

      I’m a big fan of MMA and have trained in Muay Thai and boxing. My Sigung ran one of the best Muay Thai gyms in Hong Kong and incorporated that training into our Wing Chun lineage. One of my former training partners in Wing Chun was a professional boxer.

      So I’m not antagonistic to your point of view and I have a little bit of understanding of the results from these approaches to fighting. My teachers and my training partners know what it means to spar and fight in the ring. But they chose Chi Sao for their long term training.

      I’ve thought about this a lot and think I’ve come closer to the truth in my later article “Wing Chun: A Gentleman’s Art.”

      Its all a matter of what your goals are in the training. If you want to fight in the MMA, then boxing and Muay Thai and BJJ are obviously the way to go. Plus tons of cardio and strength training.

      If you are a normal person with ten hours a week available and you want to be able to handle yourself in a fight but don’t want to be plagued by injuries, I think certain approaches to Wing Chun are an excellent choice.

    • steven says

      Your point about the knee kicks is well-taken:

      http://www.cagepotato.com/despite-what-rampage-jackson-says-linear-knee-strikes-are-much-ado-about-nothing/

      However, I have seen a friend sustain an injury from one of a kick to the knee in training which put him in a brace for 6 months and ended his Wing Chun training.

      I think it is one of those unwritten rules in the UFC. Most fighters aren’t trying to use “career ending” techniques on their opponents.

      And yes, I agree the timing would be tough to pull off against a skilled opponent in a cage fight scenario.

    • Anonymous says

      I pretty much agree with this. The knee technique described can be seen here:

      http://www.kwokwingchun.com/img/assets/wing-chun-style-front-kick-in-ufc.jpg

      That is a picture perfect execution, if i do say so myself!

      Sadly, wing chun suffers more than most arts for teachers who do not combat test their techniques. Finding those that have is difficult, but they do exist.

      The reason that you don’t see wing chun in UFC is not because ‘it is too deadly’ or any cop out excuse. It is because nobody has put in the hard work required to do it successfully yet.

      Karate was similarly ignored, until Machida came along. Give it time, wing chun will be represented soon enough. The system is far too good not to be!

      You read it here first!

      • Adam says

        I 100% agree with you! The problem is no that wing chun can’t work in the ring, the problem is that people spend WAY too much time on the wooden dummy and doing chi sau and NOT sparring. Sparring is essential to functionalizing ANY art. Wing chun works well, Bruce Lee was an example of that. But no art will work well without real world combat training.

        Trapping has even been used in mma as well. Check out this clip of the dutch hand trap.

    • steven says

      I don’t think its bullshit but I hear ya. I just think that the rules and context and goals are all different, so its not apples and apples. I really enjoy about 20% of the fights on the UFC. But the internet trolls bug me (I don’t know why!) with their narrow views – but they probably bug me because of the grain of truth in their comments. Most “martial artists” I’ve met wouldn’t last a second in a real fight. But by no means all. Its that Sturgeon’s Law – 90% of everything is bullshit.

    • steven says

      Well, those fights were not far from a circus. I remember watching them on VHS. It was a little sleazy. Not every martial style field representatives for those events.

  2. steven says

    I agree with what the other guy said above. Although Karate didn’t get as much bad press as WC before Machida, it took a Machida to show it could work in that context (but what he did was modified a lot for competition). Maybe someone will come around and do the same for WC – we’ll see. But not being in the UFC doesn’t invalidate WC. Escrima isn’t in the UFC. Krav Maga. Penjat Silat. Not every style has a champion in the sport. In fact, most don’t. And all the styles that are in the sport have altered themselves for participation.

    I think its interesting. Most street fighters who write (Geoff Thompson, Marc MacYoung) respect WC. Many sport followers don’t.

  3. Anonymous says

    Karate didn’t get as much bad press because despite what you guys think there were a lot of early mma fighters even champions using Karate successfully. Ever heard of guys like Bas Rutten, Guy Mezger, and Chuck Liddell?

    • steven says

      Good point – Machida was the first guy I saw fighting in what I would call a karate style. The squared hips and shoulders thing. Lidell’s standup was more of a boxing approach (to my eye). I don’t think I’ve seen Rutten or Mezger fight, so …..

      Machida seemed like a Karate guy, except for the fading away thing he developed, but that was a adjustment to the ring and the rules.

  4. B says

    This seems to be a problem with a lot of westerners, they don’t understand martial arts at all, they only want to use it to “kick ass” because of daddy problems or something.
    Wing chun wont work in MMA because its meant for street defense, and a lot of the techniques would be banned in MMA, hence not making it wing chun. You can’t use a combat martial art in sport. There’s a difference between a sport art and combat art.
    MMA isn’t real combat by the way, because they fight for the judges and the rules and the scorecards, I agree with bruce lee. If a sport MA combatant went up against a self defense martial artist combatant, the self defense would win. Why ? because they’re trained for self defense and have more tools to work with, unlike sports where they fight to impress judges and get scores. The mindset between the two is also different. Wing chun is a self defense martial art, not a sport.
    Wing chun is a very effective art, if you go up against someone that’s trained in it for years and not against someone that’s only been in it for 6 months or so and you try to pick on them to show wing chun. The biggest mistake for martial arts was it being introduced to the western world because its been ruined, bastardized, and highly misunderstood. The people you see in UFC are not martial artists, they’re just prize fighters. There’s a difference between the two.

    • Steve says

      I think its interesting that this post has by far the most comments. I think its because on the one hand there are MMA/UFC people (both people who do it and people who watch it and talk about it) who are very concerned to let people who train in traditional arts know that they suck and aren’t real fighters. And on the other hand, we have people who train in (or watch and talk about) various traditional arts who get a little pissed off at this stupididity, but there is an additional emotional content because so much of traditional training is exactly what they say it is.

      As usual in the world, I think the truth is somewhere in between. I think that many UFC fighters are highly ranked in traditional arts. Many black belts in Ju Jitsu, many high ranked karateka and Sambo players, etc. Then they get into the sport and start training for the ring, which, as you say, is a specialized thing which is not the same as a street fight. But I do not agree that these fighters would not do well in a street fight. The worst (for them) thing that might happen is they would break their hands because they are used to fighting with gloves. But in my experience, the most out of shape UFC guy is 100% better shape than 99% of traditional people, if only because they train for a living.

      As for the different techniques, really, who knows? I think all fights are determined by the vagaries of the day. Who is conscious and paying attention in that split second? Who is sick or hung over or has an injury?

      Most importantly, who hits first?

  5. B says

    I respect the UFC and MMA as a sport but I don’t like these hardcore fans that automatically think they understand martial arts because of watching UFC.
    Even Dana white has called those people idiots, and I hate dana white but I agree with him.
    The hardcore fans have no respect for other martial arts at all and put down a lot of it, just because it’s not effective in MMA. yeah ? well if your going to decide that don’t strip down the art of what it is and fight it as it is without any rules and judges and fight for yourself, not for money and scorecards. THEN decide wether the art is effective or not. In this case Wing chun, Fight someone with no rules, fight a wing chun practitioner (one whos trained in it for years and has great experience) fight the style as it is, you cant strip down an art with rules and call it ineffective, this is the problem with western culture, they’ll never understand martial arts at all.
    Now as a note id like to point out I respect all martial arts styles. Both Sport and Self defense, but I hate it when people write styles off as ineffective in particular in UFC. The ufc isn’t the god event of martial arts, those guys are just fighters fighting under rules for money, they’re not martial artists. Even joe rogans a moron, that loser pothead runs his mouth off thinking he knows everything hes so biased, only reason people like him is cus hes a pothead loser like them.

    • Steve says

      I hear you. I kind of like Rogan, more or less, and I enjoy the UFC and I appreciate both Joe ROgan and White’s outspokenness and no bullshit attitudes. But I basically feel like its all a lot of speculation. People love to talk and throw out broad opinions and shit talk and flame, but when it comes down to it, what are your goals, and what sort of training will get you there. Me, I want to be a good fighter but am not interested in being injured all the time and I want to keep training even though I’m 51 now. So its Wing Chun for me!

  6. anonymous says

    Except WC is a *real* martial art, just like Judo, Karate, Tai Chi, Muay Thai, etc.. As for why it’s not used in the octagon is due to a fact it doesn’t actually work. The Chinese banned martial arts practice during the revolution and now they’re taught very differently and less effective than they used to be. Chinese Martial Arts just aren’t combat-oriented anymore.

    • Steve says

      Well, karate and Muay Thai and Judo are used in the Octogon. George St. Pierre, Lyotto Machida, etc, etc. Everyone does Muay Thai. Its the second most popular form of striking aside from Boxing.

      You need to be careful when making broad statements. The Chinese ban had about as much effect on kung fu as the Spanish ban had on Kali and Escrima. It drove it underground or people left the country (like Ip Man did).

      And I can tell you – Chinese martial arts do work and to paint the entire martial output of a country with thousands of years of martial history and 1.35 billion people is a bit careless.

  7. Ryan says

    Great article. I’m a recent wing chun convert myself and although I have not been practicing long, I enjoy the art. I completely respect MMA folks as the finely tuned athletes they are. One thing to keep in mind, which the article nicely points out, is that traditional martial arts folks don’t have the time to fully focus on their craft. I can’t speak for everyone but I have a full time professional career, family and other obligations to attend to. I don’t have the luxury of spending hours training on end: enter wing chun and other art forms which some may find appealing.

    • Steve says

      Thanks. I think Wing Chun is an outstanding way to accomplish my goals, none of which are to fight in the Octagon.

      Also, most commenters know very little about Wing Chun outside what they see in Youtube videos. I know what my Sifu and Sigung can do. I’ve felt their power and speed and accuracy.

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