“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 Wing Chun was not designed for ring fighting.
Ring fighting used to be one art at a time.
Boxers fought boxers. Wrestlers fought wrestlers. In the East, Thai boxers fought Thai boxers. With the creation of the UFC and K1 and other venues (and rule sets), a Mixed Martial Arts “style” began to evolve. Its been like an arms race, limited by the rules. The rules create the context or medium for the evolution of the styles.
At first, in the UFC, the Gracies dominated. If you weren’t familiar with BJJ tactics, you were sunk!
Few of the fighters had both a stand up and a ground game developed to a high degree. It was one or the other in those days.
Really good wrestlers had yet to enter the sport in large numbers and they were at that time unfamiliar with some of the BJJ tactics. One of the unspoken truths about fighting is the advantage of mystery. This is why fighter with eccentric styles (like Jon Jones) are tough to handle. How do you train for them? What sparring partner can prepare you for what you will face?
Then the money started to get a little better and the sport became more popular. Sponsors evolved from Bob’s Taco Stand to Tap Out to Nike.
In all the MMA venues, the bar began to get raised slowly. New fighters would show up who had learned how to stop the Gracie BJJ strategy (usually by learning BJJ or by being good Greco-Roman wrestlers with competent BJJ-move counters) but on top of that they had new stuff.
A better striking game, better conditioning, a better mix basically.
The Gracies are very tough 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 by the fighters of today, with their excellent cardio and their tight command of all the ranges (kicking, punching, grappling/ground). The UFC fighters of today are some of the top athletes in the world, with teams of trainers (boxing, BJJ, etc) and nutritionists and weight coaches and on and on behind them. A team of Dr. Frankenstein’s rebuilding them.
And lets not forget cutting weight and gaining it back. Winners these days are often guys who not only can do all of the above, but they are also good at cutting weight temporarily then gaining it back and not being weakened too much by this unnatural process. Guys who are good at this cut 20-30 pounds for the weight-in, then gain it back before the fight, effectively fighting someone from a lower weight class (unless both are good at this skill).
UFC 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, with a lot of training backing it up and a lot of aggression in the moment, this is Wing Chun’s advantage – we attack the head and neck, no waiting, no quarter.
#2 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!
#3 Conditioning is not the strong point of most Wing Chun fighters.
Most Wing Chun students are hobbyists. The most serious Wing Chun fighters (more than a few years under their belts) are 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 whose fundamental aim is usually to shape the character of its practitioners. As with most traditional martial arts, its really about character development. Also, they are training for home defense and street defense against opponents who are also not professional. These fights will happen quickly.
Many internet comments denigrate any fighting that won’t work in the ring against a pro fighter.
Does this means a fighter’s skills are useless, if they can’t walk into a ring and handle Jon Jones? Its a silly argument.
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 was good a picking up cute girls but I wasn’t in New York getting supermodels and movie stars. But that wasn’t my goal. I was good in my league.
#4 Wing Chun was historically practiced by Chinese aristocrats, until the 1950s.
Prize fighting has historically been a desperation move made by poor men who know how to fight. Its always been a tough, tough way to make a living (even when the top guys started to make millions).
Like most other professional sports jobs, most fighters 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, fighting is a young person’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.
For most of fight history, “smart” people and people from the “higher” classes didn’t fight for money. Guys like Marco Barrera (who came from a rich Mexican family) were the exception.
In China, they used to call Wing Chun a”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. Just ask the experts (bouncers, 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.
They also used to call it “Rich Man’s kung fu.” The Chinese fighters who developed Wing Chun were usually well-off. Ip Man was wealthy until the Chinese revolution. 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 (whose first recourse is a weapon).
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.
But the class thing is changing, so expect to see more and more fighters from all “classes.” Doctors and lawyers and executives these days can have tats and piercings and train MMA. The world has changed.
#5 Most UFC Fighters come from a competitive sports background.
Amateur and professional Boxers, Muay Thai fighters, High School and College wrestlers, BJJ (which has competing in the ring built into most curriculum), and TKD. These are the people who make up the ranks of professional MMA fighters.
For these people, the move into competitive fighting in the ring for money is not such a big leap. They have already been competing. They obviously like to compete, including all that entails. It is a extrovert activity for the most part, getting out there in front of people in fighting.
Traditional martial artists have a lot of introverts. Its a lot like Salsa dancing – its a safe place for introverts to participate in a highly regimented social activity where they are not required to be very spontaneous. Wing Chun has more than its share. Even the really good ones often have no interest in teaching or competing. They are often engineers, computer guys, academics, and the like.
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.
In my opinion, the two guys who put Wing Chun on the map were Bruce Lee and Wong Shun Leung. Both were scrappy and aggressive street fighters. Wong had been a western boxer. Bruce had been a delinquent getting into street fights. They were both exceptionally aggressive and quick to fight.
Most of the reported four million people doing Wing Chun lack this aggression. What you might call the “eye of the tiger.” 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 a little bit.
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.
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’s 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
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