I still haven’t seen a real application of Tai Chi in an actual combat scenario or through free sparring. Most of the applications are always shown with a complacent attacker. He puts his hand up, then I do this. Please Please Please show us some real time uses of tai chi. I respect IMA, but so few ever show any real applications.
I understand the spirit of your request. But I’m not sure you understand what you are asking for. Actual combat is brutal and usually very short, lasting only for short seconds. I know of no skilled fighter who is willing to engage in real combat for the entertainment or even the edification of others. It would be like asking us to fence with live blades. Martial art is different from martial sport. You can watch taiji players do sanshou. But that is sport – not real combat.
People use tai chi in MMA. But then it looks like MMA, not like tai chi. The best way to examine the uniqueness of tai chi is in a controlled demonstration, which is what I tried to do here. In combat, tai chi would look much like any other style. If there is a big difference between the skill levels of the combatants, it would be short and clean. If they have equal skill, it will be messier. If they are extremely good, there will be no observable fight.
You can see an MMA match with Ayron Howey (a Vancouver Sanshou fighter who does Tai chi, Xingyiquan, and Baguazhang, among other things.
I have taught students from many styles, including MMA fighters. I have also learned a great deal from them. This is the tradition of martial arts. Martial artists of old did not stick to any particular style out of loyalty to the style. They trained hard and were respectful of their teachers. But no teacher would expect their students to limit their knowledge by refusing to learn from any other style. As martial arts organizations and society in general evolved, there was even more sharing between different styles. More sharing happened at the elite level than among the mediocre martial artists. At a high level, martial arts are more about the art and more about resolving and eliminating conflict. So, whenever you get a lot of real masters together, you find people who love to learn and share what they know.
Only the mediocre martial artists will argue about the superiority of one style over another. The really good martial artists are too busy learning from each other to quibble over something so meaningless.
Styles are a relatively new invention. They have evolved for purposes of marketing and to accommodate the rules and requirements of sport. (Boxing began as a training exercise for European fencing, and became the sport that it is only a few decades ago.) Judo and Brazilian Jiujitsu (BJJ) evolved in the last century and have seen many changes to accommodate both sport and practicality.
The actual techniques in tai chi are not particularly unique. The method of applying these techniques is often seen as a characteristic of tai chi. But even the method of applications can be found in other styles. The only truly unique thing about tai chi as a martial art is the manner in which basic skills and qualities are developed, and the manner in which these training methods are taught today. This has much to do with the manner in which the style evolved.
Tai Chi has its roots in military tradition, buddhist martial arts, and daoist martial arts. The founders of the various styles of tai chi learned from as many sources as they could. Over the centuries they developed a subtle and profound understanding of martial principles. They developed many brilliant methods for developing these subtle skills in a way that did not endanger the students unnecessarily. Safety was a great concern. Elements of combat had to be left out in order to enable students to continue training. Respect for your training partner and concern for his or her safety is always of paramont importance. As we say in my classes, “If you break your partner, you don’t get another one.”
This is the same as the development of modern martial sports such as boxing, fencing, judo, and mixed martial arts (MMA).
Tai Chi was initially much like other martial arts that contained elements of daoist principles mixed with changquan. Students learned similar basic exercises as in other martial arts, and gradually progressed to the more subtle and profound skills.
But near the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), there was a change in the way that tai chi was taught. Tai chi masters had become influential teachers of Qing royalty and the elite military. Some say that tai chi got watered down because the masters didn’t want to teach the secrets to the Manchus. This is not true. In fact, rather than getting wattered down, it seems that tai chi became “watered up.”
As favoured teachers of elite military and royalty, tai chi teachers had the opportunity to share and test their knowledge with some of the most skilled and effective fighters of their time. These were people who knew combat and had experience fighting for their lives. Yang Chengfu, one of the most famous masters of the modern era was known to regularly mix it up with the elite wrestlers in Beijing.
So, tai chi became a martial art which was taught to other elite martial artists. Because of this, many basic training methods were left out of the curriculum. Instead, they focused on the subtle, profound, and esoteric training methods that would only be understood by (and useful to) other elite martial artists. These methods of training are also great ways for older martial artists to continue developing subtle and profound skills long after they reach the age when the more acrobatic methods of their youth are unsafe or impractical to do.
That is why, nowadays, many tai chi students can’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag. They are practising methods designed for people who already had basic fighting skill. But since they seldom get kidnapped by wet paper bags, fighting skill is not much of a priority for them. Most tai chi students are not interested in learning how to fight.
Since these skills tended to be studied by older martial artists, they seldom are seen in the ring. Understanding these skills required years of training. And the years of training required meant that the people whe mastered them were usually past competition age.
But that is not to say that tai chi cannot be used by itself for self defence. On the contrary, we have many stories of students who have used their tai chi skills to defend themselves in confrontations ranging from date rape and molestation situations to life-and-death confrontations with knife wielding muggers or even machine gun toting bandits.
Even those who do not practise tai chi as a martial art can be surprised by their own unknown fighting skill. One elderly student who was travelling in Rome, knocked two purse snatchers to the ground before she even knew what had happened. Her training of alignment and sensitivity to intent kicked in automatically. As the two would-be thieves arose and ran, the tai chi student (about fifty years their senior) simply remarked, “Oh, that’s interesting. I did White Crane Spreads Wings. How about that!”
As for the question as to whether or not tai chi would be practical in MMA matches like the UFC, the answer is, “Yes, it would, and it is!”
The subtle nature of esoteric tai chi training methods is one reason why elite martial artists, including MMA fighters, still come to people like me to round out their skills. I’m past my prime, and wouldn’t want to fight these guys (or gals) myself. But they see value in what I teach, and they feel that tai chi can make them better fighters.
I enjoy leaning about the arts they practise. And I love the insights I gain into my own art by teaching it to them.
– Ian Sinclair