In the beginning, mixed martial arts contests like Pride and UFC were created with the aim of testing different arts against each other. The question being asked was which, if any, martial art would dominate in the ring or octagon.
It is tempting for a practitioner of a classical art, like myself, to say we have learned nothing from mixed martial arts contests. The steady torrent of abuse from those who insist that classical martial arts are dead causes unnecessary animosity between traditionalists and those who practise the more modern arts. There is a similar line from Krav Maga practitioners, for example. Such animosity is, as I have often said, unnecessary.
MMA, Krav Maga, Jeet Kune Do and various modern arts were not plucked out of the air. What they did was to survey the arsenal of classical arts, absorb them and adapt them to a particular environment. Jeet Kune Do, in particular, continues to survey the spectrum of traditional martial arts and "absorb what is useful."
So, what have we learned? Muay Thai, which was once a minority art in the western world, when compared to the more established arts of Karate, Judo, Kung Fu and others, came to dominate as a striking art. In the early years, the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu of the Gracie family similarly dominated. So, these must be the most effective arts, right? Wrong! All we know is that a vast majority of mixed martial artist are able to make this combination work for them. Before practitioners of both arts start lambasting me, allow me to explain.
I have great respect for Muay Thai - in the hands of a master, it is a devastatingly effective weapon. Similarly, I grew up on Judo, from which Brazilian Jiu Jitsu claims its ancestry, so it would be foolhardy to write it off. Have both these arts had success in UFC and other contests? Yes! Have other arts been successful? Yes!
My chosen art of Wing Chun has had limited success in the octagon. We claim this is, quite rightly, because Wing Chun is basically for life and death situations, not winning prizes. However, Karate practitioners have had successes in the octagon, and Karate was most definitely a combat art when first developed. What's going on?
If you look closely at Muay Thai and BJJ, one thing becomes clear: sparring is an important part of training. Karate, Judo, Wrestling, and other arts that have been successful in the ring or octagon, also emphasize the importance of actually fighting to obtain the skill of fighting. Wing Chun? Not so much. My own experience of this came when sparring with a practitioner of Tae Kwon Do, BJJ and Eskrima. It's true that the moves I had repeatedly conditioned into muscle memory allowed me to give a good account of myself in that exchange, but I initially found it difficult to make the transition from my training to having a live opponent trying to get the better of me.
I see a similar thing when Wing Chun practitioners, and those of other traditional arts, enter the arena. I take the resulting videos with a large pinch of salt, however. Is the art useless? Have centuries of development been wasted? Is it true that what once worked on the battlefield can not adapt to the modern age? No, no and thrice no. What has changed is the way we train. Mixed martial arts is nothing new. The people who developed the traditional arts did so from their own experience of combat, and even stole what worked from others.
Furthermore, if you believe the art you study is the same as when it was first developed, you are fooling yourself. Some have been subject to "cultural considerations": the more deadly aspects of the art were deemed unacceptable, and so were removed. Others may have escaped such a fate, depending largely on where they developed. People ask why some arts were practised in secrecy, or only handed down within families. Well, I have just answered that particular question.
We are not immune to this in the modern age either. If we gouge eyes, strike to the throat or break bones, our laws may judge that the force we used to defend ourselves was unreasonable. Similarly, arts where throws are a mainstay of the arsenal become impractical when we are faced with throwing an attacker onto tarmac or concrete. Serious injury, or death, may be the result. Then again, punching someone could also lead to them falling awkwardly and the result may be the same.
Despite what some MMA enthusiasts insist, the traditional arts are not useless. When I see someone lose in the ring or octagon, whatever their background, my conclusion is the same. Whether it is lack of experience, fear, choosing the wrong technique or simple incompetence, they have failed to make their art work for them. We must also ask, if one martial art was useful to everyone, why are there so many of them? If we are unable to make our art work for us, it may not be the art which is at fault, and we may also say we are not at fault. Maybe choosing the correct art is also a part of making it work for us. If karateka, wrestlers and boxers can do well in octagon, maybe it is because they learned how to make their art work for them.
So, what have we learned from MMA? First and foremost, we must be able to make our art work for us. This may mean stepping outside of the boundaries of our art and making it our own. If we are unable to do this, we must reconsider how we train and, possibly, what we train. Second, and linked to the first point, we must spar. Ideally, we should spar against martial artists of other styles.
MMA's contribution to the continuing development of traditional arts? We must make that which we have learned work for us, in whatever situation we will need it to work for us. Many of us already knew this; MMA just might have awoken those who were ignorant to the reality of training for combat.