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Roberto Pedreira












Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu versus Chinese Tai Chi

(aka, It's not about Styles)

By Roberto Pedreira

May 6, 2017

Updated May 12, 2017

Could Rickson Gracie and his jiu-jitsu defeat a bona fide Tai Chi master? Probably, but that is speculation. Until Rickson accepts the challenge, gloves up, and climbs into the ring, we'll never know for sure. If a promoter comes up with the money, the mystery will be solved. Make it happen, Dana!

In the meantime, a somewhat similar test recently took place in China. (See here for video, note that it will probably not be up long.)  It isn't exactly BJJ but it's close enough. An MMA guy needed no more than a few punches and 10 seconds to wipe the floor with a Tai Chi "master", proving that MMA is the best style. Right?

Wrong. One fight can't prove anything. There are too many possibly relevant variables apart from the style that might account for the outcome (or "effect"). We need to take matched samples of representatives of the two styles, and then compare them under conditions as identical as circumstances allow.* A styles vs. styles fight can't count as a comparable condition. In one case, the samples (representatives of each style) are undergoing a different "treatment" (i.e, fighting a Tai Chi guy, versus fighting an MMA guy). The results can't be compared. They need to be tested against  a common opponent, e.g., they both fight boxers.  Or street thugs, or whatever. Then we compare the results. Consider the situation if they were both tested against an MMA guy: What conclusion could we draw about the efficacy of MMA if the MMA guy defeated another MMA guy? The answer is nothing. The conclusion is at best limited to the artificial conditions of the test.

Above, standing, Rickson Gracie, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu stylist, demonstrating a jiu-jitsu technique that might be used to defeat a Tai Chi practitioner. (Note, man on bottom is not a Tai Chi practitioner.)


Rickson recently expressed his concerns about what's wrong with jiu-jitsu nowadays. The problem is basically (1) over-emphasis on competition, especially sports BJJ and (2) under-emphasis on practical self-defense. People who want to spend their BJJ training careers collecting medals and applying for 50/50's and  berimbolos are welcome to do that, Rickson says. But the art of jiu-jitsu is being lost if self-defense is not preserved. BJJ is for ordinary people, not only super-athletes. The root of BJJ, Rickson thinks, is and should be self-defense. Maybe people who spend 99% of their training time on the latest awesome sports techniques are prepared to deal with a street encounter. Probably not. If you don't train it, you aren't going to do it when you need to. On the other hand, maybe you'll never need to. Or you just really don't care. 

But, at risk of putting words in Rickson's mouth, there's something sad about a BJJ black belt who can't deal with someone throwing a punch at them. It's sad for several reasons. One, it's bad for business. The value of a black belt is not what it used to be. The picture of BJJ black belts getting their asses handed to them has dented the popular image. (We all know anyone can get KOed, even Rorion said so, but it should not happen, in theory, if BJJ is used efficiently). The second reason is that it is very easy to train basic self-defense skills, such as how to block or evade a punch (of course, MMA guys do this....don't they?). It doesn't even have to take any time away from "sport BJJ training". Roberto suggested several simply ways here.  

Many years ago (1998 or so), Roberto's BJJ teacher asked him to contribute to a new "drill". The teacher wanted to introduce self-defense to his BJJ white and blue belts. Knowing that Roberto had some striking background, the instructor asked him to throw punches at the white and blue belts (there was no one higher than blue at that time). Throw fast punches, lots of them, from all angles, but not hard, he said. And don't grapple, just punch. The white and blue belts' task was to clinch without getting hit. That is generally a prerequisite for applying your jiu-jitsu. You have to clinch safely. Sadly, it is a neglected skill.  Sadly, also because it is not hard to learn. It requires the basic skills of timing and distance, acquiring which can happen in only one way, which is by practicing clinching while punches are coming in. (As Sakuraba said, striking and grappling are not that much different, both are based on timing and distance. Saku interview here). 

Tragically, the instructor did not do this drill again. It wasn't what the students thought was "jiu-jitsu". Their image of jiu-jitsu was ground grappling with a gi and no striking. And they didn't like the drill. It was frightening to most, who refused to even try to enter into a clinch, ironically leaving themselves in range to be thoroughly punched out (if it had been a for-real scenario). As a result, they didn't want to do it, while in reality, that was precisely the best reason why they should have done it regularly. Until they could clinch safely. At least that is what Rickson thinks. 

It's doubly unfortunate, because "bob & weave" -> duck under, or clinch, or duck -> penetration step, can easily be drilled as a warm-up. Students can learn 5-6 versatile, effective, efficient, generally applicable, high-percentage moves without even being aware that they are practicing them. Literally, nothing is simpler, more useful, or easier to practice than a basic "bob & weave". Instructors don't do it. Why not? Too similar to boxing or wrestling. Too easy. Not BJJ.

"Clinching is easy. I don't need to practice it", some folks seem to think. In that case, the striker needs to dial up the intensity. If your clinching is efficient, it doesn't matter how hard the punches are, because you aren't going to get hit (not solidly at least).

There are many ways to enter into a good clinch. The exact technique depends on the circumstances. Are punches coming in? Kicks? Knees? Etc., etc. Everything must be weighed. 

Evading punches and clinching are just two examples. Experienced instructors can come up with many more. Some students won't want to practice self-defense (e.g., not getting punched in the face). No problem. But even sports-only practitioners will appreciate the value of being able to clinch effectively (and to apply for throws from body to body tie-ups). It will expand their sports game by giving them more options.   

A last thought on the MMA versus Tai Chi debacle and style versus style comparisons generally: If a particular style is designed for self-defense by ordinary average people against unskilled aggressors, then it makes no sense to "test" it against trained, skilled practitioners of a combat sport. It might turn out to be worthless for its intended purpose, but we can't know that by testing it against what it wasn't designed to deal with.

It goes without saying that the training method is highly relevant. Styles that do not have a training component involving resisting opponents have a low probability of ever being effective. Because if you don't train it, you aren't going to do it when you need to. But there is nothing inherent in any style that rules out "live" training. As a historical note, aikido (合気道) was originally created with live training in mind. In response to the "market", it devolved into something very different. Rickson is concerned that BJJ might go the same route.

Similarly, good cardio is a big plus. Anyone can run, skip rope, climb stairs, or hills. No matter how awesome your art is, you can't apply it if you don't have the cardio.

Just to be perfectly clear, Roberto is not recommending that you give up your boxing, BJJ, Muay Thai, Judo, wrestling, or UFC fighting to join a Tai Chi school. The point is rather, think of a style as a tool box containing techniques and principles, and ask, is there anything in this box that you personally, after training enough and in the right way, can use for any application that you are likely to have?**  The answer might turn out to be no. But you won't know until you try. Before the Gracie Revolution, it was very, very common for traditional martial artists to scoff and say, "I don't go to the ground....I'll keep him off with my side kick". We know how that worked out. (Historical fact: that's more or less what Helio Gracie said about the fight he wanted to have with Joe Louis--he wouldn't get hit, because he'd keep Joe off with a pisão side kick; see Choque 1 and Choque 2 concerning that).

Update MAY 12, 2017: It seems that the Chinese MMA fighter, Xu Xiaodong, paid a price for pretending to demonstrate that Tai Chi is a fraudulent fighting form. Hounded by traditionalists and nationalists (MMA is "foreign"), Xu lost his job and had to go into hiding. Mr. Xu pummeled and humiliated Wei Lei, master of the Thunder Tai Chi style, but he failed to prove anything about the combat or self-defense effectiveness of Tai Chi, as clarified above. What Xu Xiaodong did succeed in demonstrating was that publicity-seeking can be expensive. Sometimes it's better to let sleeping dogs lie. Reported here.






*The size of the sample would depend on the variability within the population sampled from. Random (or almost random) sampling is designed to deal with variability. For example, we take the total membership of any group of people, and divide them into two groups. One group will be trained as MMA fighters, the other group as Tai Chi fighters. The style (the techniques) will be different. But the training methods will be the same for the purpose of the comparison. Either the MMA guys train their techniques the way Tai Chi people train, or the Tai Chi people train their techniques the way MMA guys train. Or they train in some other way. Doesn't matter, as long as it's the same. They will then undergo a treatment (fight a representative of a common style, or deal with a street self-defense scenario style). We then compare results using an appropriate statistical procedure. Note that this will never tell us which style is better for any particular individual. Also, that the conclusion is limited to the assessment measure (fights won or not lost versus the test style).


**Yes, this has been said before, by Bruce Lee among others. But, obviously, it needs to be said over and over again.



For more about the relative merits of various "styles" see The Best Style.

For Rickson's views about Jiu-jitsu and self-defense, see here.

Interview with Rickson's yoga teacher, Orlando Cani.

A champion wrestler discusses the value of Tai Chi here.



(c) 2017, Roberto Pedreira. All rights reserved.

Updated May 12, 2017.



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