The simple answer is yes. It can and it is being used in MMA bouts like the UFC. Several MMA fighters are using tai chi to refine their skill, power, balance, sensitivity, and awareness.
Can tai chi stand on its own as a combat system in battles against other styles? Well, that depends on what you mean by combat and what you mean by “tai chi.” (see last weeks post “What Tai Chi.”)
Tai chi chuan is a comprehensive martial system that is seldom taught in its complete form these days. The benefits of the art are so wide ranging that many teachers, like any good marketer, will teach to their most profitable demographic. These days, that means catering to senior citizens who are not looking for combat skills, but are more interested in improving health, balance, flexibility, strength, relaxation, and peace of mind.
If a teacher does practice tai chi as a martial art, it is often difficult for him or her to find students who are willing to learn that aspect of it. So, the art tends to get watered down with each generation. This is the same with all martial arts, however.
It is even happening already with MMA. The early UFC had very few rules. The first one, I believe, even allowed biting. But many techniques that would be taught in traditional martial arts classes are no longer allowed in MMA fights. If they were, MMA would not survive as a sport.
Likewise, karate and Tae Kwan Do have long been marketed towards youth, with children as young as three and four years old being targeted by clever marketing programs. You would not expect to teach sanchin kata or choke holds to five-year-olds. Just as you would not expect to put arthritic octogenarian in the ring with George St. Pierre.
So, while MMA is limited by its need to appeal to the sporting demographic, and karate and TKD are limited by their need to appeal to children, Tai Chi is limited by its focus on seniors and the health market. That is all just good responsible business, and should not be faulted.
But to call MMA, karate, and tai chi, martial arts, when they are taught in such limited contexts, is to do a disservice to real martial arts.
“MMA” is a sport. It is not, in spite of its name, a martial art. As a sport, however, it is awesome. It is also extremely useful for martial artists to study and participate in.
“Traditional Martial Art” such as karate and kung fu, are usually taught more as tradition than as martial art. As tradition, however, they are extremely valuable for individuals and for society as a whole.
Tai Chi Chuan” is usually taught as the “ultimate exercise” not as a martial art. The exercise benefits of tai chi are increasingly well documented. But for a martial artist, or an MMA fighter to dismiss the combat value of the traditional art it to demonstrate a limited understanding to the true scope of traditional tai chi.
“Where is Martial Tai Chi?”
Just as many so-called “traditional martial arts” schools are really glorified day cares that guarantee black belts in 2-3 years, most so-called “traditional Tai chi” schools only teach routines and basic qigong for seniors. These are not martial arts if they are not taught as martial arts.
Real martial arts include practical training in all ranges (ground, mid-range grappling/striking/kicking, medium-range, long-range, weapons, etc.)
Traditional tai chi includes all of these, as well as rather intense physical and mental conditioning exercises. So the question is, “If traditional tai chi includes all of these skills, why do you almost never see them practised in tai chi schools? Where can one go to learn tai chi as a combat system?”
When tai chi and the other internal styles became famous in Beijing at the end of the Qing dynasty, they were most often taught to elite martial artists who had already developed combat skills through other styles. They learned the “internal” stuff in order to take their skill to the next level. Therefore, the internal curriculum often didn’t need to include basic skills. What they learned, instead, were subtle exercises for refining core power, alignment, sensitivity, and awareness. It was the art of making your combat better. But it was seldom taught as a combat system from the ground up.
That is why many tai chi people can’t fight in the ring. They haven’t learned the basics, even though they may have some very cool skills.
It is like building a Ferrari in your garage, and never learning how to drive it or open the garage door. The Ferrari owner will lose a race to the roller skater who can find the street.
Tai chi, if it is taught from the ground up, will produce some very profound skills that only a few mma fighters have. If taught without basic training, it will produce some fairly relaxed healthy people who wouldn’t know a punch until they regained consciousness.
If you want to learn tai chi as a complete martial system, you must be prepared to:
- Find a teachers who teaches the complete system
- train for 3 – 8 hours per day until you become the art 24/7
- learn basic martial calisthenics like any other martial art. (this means repetitive kicks, punches, stretches, etc.)
- practise hitting things.
- practise not getting hit by things
- learn qigong
- stop thinking about qi as some magical supernatural force.
- practise slow “boring” forms until they are not boring anymore, and you understand their meaning and power.
- learn all there is to know about yourself, your “opponent,” and the nature of combat.
- see balance as a verb
- find inner peace.