A Debate That's Been Brought Up Since UFC's Early Days
Even before the days of UFC and the creation of the sport known as “mixed martial arts” (MMA), there have been tournaments in the past that pitted practitioners of different styles against each other.
It has brought the question of which is better: traditional martial arts schools or MMA schools/fighting gyms?
As a person that has experience in traditional martial arts (Tae Kwon Do, Wado-Ryu Karate, Hapkido, European Fencing, Judo, some Aikido, & Yang Tai Chi Chuan), MMA (Boxing, Muay Thai, Kickboxing, Wrestling, & no-gi Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu), and purely combat-oriented martial arts (Basic Army Combatives & FCS Kali), this is a debate that had piqued my interest for many years.
Since the days of UFC, the “mysticism” behind many of the Eastern traditional martial arts were shattered. In the earliest days, the predominant styles of MMA were Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Wrestling, Submission Wrestling, and Japanese Shootfighting.
Striking wasn't that relevant in MMA, known as “no holds barred” in the past, since the early days of the sport. Keep in mind that MMA had little regulation back then. The sport wouldn't make it to the mainstream until early 2005 since the success of UFC's reality TV series called “The Ultimate Fighter.”
Before 2005, the sport was still underground with a negative reputation. Politicians back then equated MMA as “human cockfighting” due to the lack of regulations.
The sport was banned in almost all 50 states. If it weren't for the mass changes, MMA would've been completely banned in the United States. Now MMA has become a steadily growing mainstream sport; however, there are only a few major promotions in the USA. Invicta FC is the first American promotion that features all-female competitors.
However, the popularity of MMA hasn't hurt the traditional martial arts schools one bit. Since the emergence of MMA, it's acted as a figurative “double-edged” sword. There are many reasons that MMA should be looked as a double-edged sword:
On One Side Of The Sword:
On one hand, MMA served as the needed wake-up call to all martial artists. There are plenty of martial artists that stop training over time as they get too comfortable.
They gain weight, they stay less in shape, etc, etc. The United States, unfortunately, is full of martial artists that stop training because they are too content with what they know.
With many MMA fights taking place on the ground, it emphasized the importance of cross-training and ground-fighting. MMA emphasized fitness, cross-training, and going outside of your usual scope of training.
- MMA shattered the myths of martial arts that we see in various martial arts movies, TV shows, and video games. When you see two people of different martial arts styles go at it, the outcome isn't what you'd think you'd expect watching a bunch of martial arts movies.
MMA is the personification of Bruce Lee's philosophy: the ultimate style is no style. The late Bruce Lee, by all means, is the father of MMA. His style, Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do, is the original style of MMA.
Wing Chun Kung-Fu was used as the base, then Lee went beyond his scope to implement moves/concepts of other styles such as Western Boxing, Tae Kwon Do, Epee Fencing, Tai Chi Chuan, etc.
Keep in mind that many martial artists across the world consider Lee as one of the most controversial martial artists in history.
MMA, as it became more popular, personified the importance of going beyond the parameters of what you are already being taught.
As a philosophy, never be content with what you have learned, but don't ever forget your previous training.
Those that went beyond their parameters found success in MMA. Examples are Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva, Cung Le, Chan-Sung Jung, etc.
MMA showed the weakness of singular or “incomplete” martial arts. You could enroll at a traditional martial arts school that doesn't teach you how to defend against certain attacks or being able to defend yourself on the ground.
GSP, in “The Striking Truth,” talked about learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for the first time. He was a 2nd Dan in Kyokushin Karate at the time; but, he was getting schooled on the ground.
- MMA has shattered the false sense of security held by those that hold black belts and those that won trophies at various martial arts tournaments.
- MMA directly attacked the lack of a “universal standard” of martial arts ranking. Truly, there's no universal set of standards when it comes to belts, sashes, certifications, etc.
The Other Side Of The Sword:
- MMA, when it went into the mainstream, made the less-informed about martial arts even more less-informed. This brings up the debate of what is “real fighting.” On the outside, MMA seems nothing more than just striking and wrestling; but, it's a physical and mental chess game.
- Many less-informed people equated MMA as “real fighting.” But, they fail to see that MMA is in a controlled environment. Violent, yes; but, the referees quickly stop the matches before things get out of hand. The concept of “real fighting” is very subjective and is difficult to give an absolute definition on it.
Many less-informed people equated MMA to “street fighting.” As a result, many so-called “street fighters” develop an interest in MMA much to the annoyance of MMA school owners, trainers, and fighters. Luckily, those types of people don't last long. They either leave or get kicked out.
But many MMA schools still get those types of people that come in.
They're not really interested in learning, they're simply interested in “showing off” and proving that they're “the best.” At the MMA school I train at, I came across one that talked about “never losing a street fight;” he didn't come back after two classes.
Due to the number of wrestlers finding success in the sport, many MMA schools, unfortunately, have the problem of “meatheads” calling themselves “wrestlers” wanting to join. Like the “street fighters,” they don't really have the interest in learning.
They become stubborn about their ignorance. There was this one very ripped person that joined the MMA school that had that mentality. He was stubborn and refused to learn anything. After three weeks, he got kicked out after he started cursing out the instructors and other students.
In terms of Jiu-Jitsu, the less-informed equate to Jiu-Jitsu as “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.”
Traditional Jiu-Jitsu schools get plagued with the problems of people wanting to learn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The less-informed tend to think Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is the only style of Jiu-Jitsu.
- MMA fighters are athletes; unfortunately, the less-informed tend to think they can just jump in and defeat those people in a fight. Those people learn the errors of their ways the hard way.
The debate between TMA and MMA cannot produce a definite answer. This debate should be considered as invalid to the highest extent.
Furthermore, this is a debate that has more holes than a block of Swiss cheese.
Traditional Martial Arts, or TMA, are the foundation of martial arts in general.
MMA, Kickboxing, Tournament Grappling, Cardio Kickboxing, Military Fighting Arts, Self-Defense Systems, etc, etc, all come from traditional martial arts.
It is common for TMA to be classified into Karate, Tae Kwon Do, and Kung-Fu. When the less-informed think about TMA, they usually think about the eastern martial arts without thinking much of martial arts outside of that scope.
The thing one has to understand that TMAs have formalities and traditions behind them.
Keep in mind, there is a difference between TMAs and “classical martial arts” (CMA). My FCS Kali instructor, Guro Mark Cody, talked about the difference between the two in his book called “Wado Ryu Karate/Jujutsu” in the introduction area.
TMAs have their roots in the past, but they do consider the present and the future. In short, TMAs adapt to modern times while trying to maintain the practical applications of techniques.
In regards to CMAs, they have the objective of trying to preserve history without any concern for modern-day applications.
You have many different martial arts styles that can be classified as TMAs. Examples are: Karate (in its many styles), Tae Kwon Do, Hapkido, Tang Soo Do, Judo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Tai Chi Chuan, Muay Thai, Muay Boran, Lerdrit, Wushu, Wing Chun Kung-Fu, Choy Lee Fut Kung-Fu, Praying Mantis, Russian Sambo, Arnis, Aikido, Yaw Yan Buno, Capoeira, European Fencing, Kenjutsu, etc. Just because a style doesn't have traditions like the Eastern martial arts, they are still traditional. TMAs do have their pros and cons:
Enrolling in TMAs is a start of a life journey. In training, you have something to help you see yourself in many different ways. This is the biggest positive thing that you can do in your life.
A master instructor who teaches Matsubayashi-Ryu Karate told me that MMA is temporary, but martial arts are for life. TMA gives you a lifelong thing to strive for provided that you are able to stick with it.
TMAs are a good way to make friends. Many people became friends due to spending a lot of time with each other in classes.
The martial arts school acts as a family dynamic in most cases.
If you are a parent, TMAs with children's programs are a good way to go.
They can pick your children up after school and then you can pick them up when you get off work.
- If you are going to work and/or school, TMAs do have evening classes that you can take advantage of.
- There are TMA schools that teach you how to train with weapons such as swords, sais, kamas, bo staffs, jo staffs, etc.
TMAs are a good way to get physically fit instead of having to hit the gym. Martial arts, in general, are a physical activity.
You get something more positive out of it instead of hitting the gym.
You learn how to defend yourself against armed thugs and multiple attackers.
Provided that the school doesn't focus solely on tournaments, though, many martial arts schools do. This is a trap that many TMA schools fall in to.
- If you're into MMA, the TMA school might have an extensive MMA program. In the bigger cities, that is the case.
- You learn how to use your body in different ways to better defend yourself.
- The TMA school might be a CMA school. If that's the case, then that's going to be very dangerous. The reason this is dangerous is that you're not adequately prepared for an actual self-defense situation. There are many who will argue that TMAs don't prepare for you for any realistic encounter.
If the school has a kid's program, be careful as the school might mainly focus on advertising to children.
Unfortunately, that's the best way for a school to generate revenue. Schools need revenue to survive.
The TMA school you enroll at may only be focused on tournaments. There are plenty of those schools around.
Those schools give you a false sense of security.
When the time comes to really defend yourself, you'll still be used to the tournament setting where you'll have the habit of pulling punches. You won't be prepared for dirty tactics and weapons.
It's worse if the school is focused too much on winning tournaments; again, this happens a lot. Should that happen, you don't learn the important stuff of learning how to take a hit or dealing if and when taken to the ground. Many martial arts styles get watered down because of that.
In a style like Tai Chi Chuan, though it can be very effective, you probably won't learn the applications until after two to four years.
Forms are done slow as a means to physically prepare your body for the applications.
Normal calisthenics, let alone martial arts calisthenics, won't help you get the combat benefits of Tai Chi Chuan. It is incredibly difficult to find a good Tai Chi Chuan teacher that focuses on the combat aspect. It also takes a very long time to become effective in the style, too.
If the school is a “Karate” school, you need to ask the right questions.
Many dubious, shady, and illegitimate schools use “Karate” as a legal loophole because they don't have the legal qualifications or permission from their masters.
In my mid-teens, I almost joined one of those schools because I saw the pamphlets on the counter at my high school. Many years later, I learned that school was one of those shady establishments. When talking to one of my acquaintances, I received more dirt on the former school's instructor.
You might come across instructors who are “purists.”
Those so-called “purists” tend to have a close-minded view of martial arts. They are only able to teach and instruct within a very limited parameter. Those people aren't necessarily open to new ideas.
Avoid studying under those instructors.
The instructor might teach you an incomplete and/or watered down style. Many American instructors are guilty of this.
Those that focus mainly on teaching kids are usually even more guilty. Keep in mind, there are great instructors that know how to effectively teach kids and make it fun without compromising combat effectiveness.
- If the instructor doesn't trust you, then you may not learn the incredibly important stuff.
In the case of the “street fighter,” “professional fighter,” or “meathead” that joins and causes problems, you don't necessarily have the freedom to kick his/her @$$ around.
If there are children around, you have to grin and bear it.
Those that specifically cater to children will usually have parents watching and do “backseat instructing.”
That really ruins the dynamic of martial arts. Because of those parents, many great instructors decided to stop teaching kids or stop teaching period.
Keep in mind, not all parents are like that. It's usually the soccer parents, hockey parents, pageant parents, etc.
- Depending on where you live, there might not be any diversity. If you want diversity in martial arts schools, your best bet is the bigger cities such as Miami, New York City, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, Washington DC, Toronto, Vancouver, London, Paris, Moscow, etc.
- You might come across a TMA school that frowns upon cross-training. In most cases, you're not exactly trained to go up against a trained fighter or another trained martial artist.
If you're a fighter, TMA schools in most cases cannot help you.
This is because you need to go through a lot of physical and mental training.
Many TMA instructors aren't familiar with the Unified Rules of MMA.
- If you're not into formalities, you probably won't last long in TMA classes.
- There's always that firebrand or young firebrand who you just want to smack upside the head but can't, mainly because that person's much younger than you and/or outranks you. That's probably one of the most frustrating cons of a TMA.
- The martial arts world is full of ideological hypocrisy, too, and it can happen at the school level or go up to an organizational level. You may come across instructors who preach the philosophies of their style or organization but do the complete opposite.
MMA Schools/Fighting Gyms
These are your MMA schools, your wrestling schools, your Kickboxing schools, your Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu schools (if they have an MMA program), and your Boxing gyms. The main objective of these schools or programs is to train and prepare you for amateur and professional fights.
If you want to compete in K-1, you join an MMA school or a Kickboxing school. If you want to become an Olympic or professional Boxer, you go to a Boxing gym. If you want to become an MMA fighter, then you go to an MMA school.
While they are focused on preparing you for fights, you don't necessarily have to fight. The important aspect is that you enjoy it.
If you're serious about being a professional fighter, then you have to train at those places. MMA Schools/Fighting Gyms do have their pros and cons:
You'll be learning multiple styles at the same time. That's always a plus when you're taking martial arts.
In most cases, you'll be learning any combination of these styles, Muay Thai, Kickboxing, Boxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Japanese Shootfighting, Submission Wrestling, and Russian Sambo.
With the exception of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, many of the styles taught at MMA schools don't have a ranking system. In a sense, all students are equal regardless of how many years experience.
The instructors, trainers, and coaches still have seniority over you.
This is a great place to make friends.
Like TMA schools, MMA schools operate on that family dynamic. If you want to be successful, your training partners are there for you and vice versa.
- The environment of an MMA school tends to be more liberal, whereas a TMA school environment can be more authoritative.
- If you're physically fit, that puts you at an advantage. MMA is a physically grueling sport and physical fitness is everything.
- If you have a previous martial arts background, that puts you at an advantage than someone who enters with little to no previous training at all.
At the good MMA schools, there's an unspoken ethos.
People that enter are there to work and train. Most aren't there to goof off and play around. Those that do end up not lasting long in such an environment.
After a long day on the job or at school, MMA schools offer the training without the strict formalities of most TMA schools (mainly Karate and TKD schools).
All you would need are comfortable training clothes.
- If you aren't into doing kata, MMA schools get right into the training.
In the case of the “firebrand,” “street-fighter,” and “meathead” that think they're all that and a bag of chips, you have the freedom to kick their behinds in the ring or in the cage.
The parameters of an MMA school are usually looser than the parameters of a TMA school. Meaning, you can get away with knocking the crap out of them. If they can't handle it, then they got no business trying to fight at all.
If you aren't physically fit, you're going to be at a disadvantage.
Not only do you have to learn the moves, you have the task of getting back into shape. Those that want to become professional fighters will have a very difficult task at hand.
Even if you don't plan on fighting, MMA training is still going to be brutal. If your body's stiff, you'll have problems practicing styles such as Kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. If you lack upper body strength and cardiovascular endurance, then Wrestling's going to be brutal on you.
If you don't have a previous background, you'll be at a disadvantage. If you don't have a ground-fighting background, you'll be at a disadvantage against those that do such as people who wrestled in high school and college.
If you don't have a striking background, you're at the mercy of experienced strikers when it comes to sparring. In short, it'll take you much longer to be ready for even an amateur fight.
If you want to fight in promotions such as the UFC, you can't just do it.
The major organizations recruit fighters and offer them contracts. You have to work your way up the MMA ladder. You have to start out with the amateur fights before you can go into professional fights, in most cases by law. With that said, you need to get way more wins than losses which makes it easier for you to go pro. Once you go pro, you have to fight in the smaller professional matches first before the bigger promotions take notice.
If you have a traditional martial arts background, it's a double-edged sword. There is the psychological training involved in getting you prepared for Kickboxing and/or MMA matches.
If you have done Karate and TKD point-sparring matches, you have to learn how to deal with receiving attacks outside of your normal parameters. If you have done Wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and/or Judo, you have to learn how to deal with receiving punches and kicks.
MMA schools only teach a certain number of styles.
You probably won't be learning stuff like Tai Chi Chuan, Jeet Kune Do, Shotokan, Tae Kwon Do, Capoeira, etc, at an MMA school.
Refer to my hub called “MMA – The Four Staple Martial Arts Disciplines.”
You can find the training very boring. If you're training to become a fighter, you'll bear through it. If you're not, you probably leave because you're not learning anything new. MMA schools emphasize the basics because the basics win fights most of the time. MMA schools grow and fighters become successful because they win fights, simply put.
Most fights are won with basics such as the roundhouse kick to the head, basic jab & crosse combo, rear choke, ankle lock, straight armbar, and guillotine choke. Don't expect to be learning many flashy things.
At an MMA school, you might not learn anything “flashy” at all because those moves are risky to pull off in the cage.
Since MMA is classified as a sport, MMA schools mainly focus on the sports aspect. That means MMA schools aren't ideal for learning self-defense. You're not trained on how to deal with intentionally dirty attacks, weapon attacks, and multiple attackers.
Even MMA has its own set of rules.
MMA is in a controlled setting where it's just you and your opponent with a referee watching the fight.
That's mainly applicable in the ring and the cage. Simply refer to the episode of “Fight Quest” where the hosts learned Krav Maga; the episodes of “Human Weapon” where they learned Krav Maga & USMC MAP; and/or the “Our Marines” videos on YouTube where they cross-promote with the UFC.
- If you're a military service member or a private security contractor on the battlefield, there are plenty of ground-fighting tactics you don't want to risk trying. This is in case your assailant is armed and/or with buddies in wait. Also, you have to focus the weight of whatever combat gear you're wearing which makes the movement more difficult.
- MMA schools will forever be plagued with receiving the “meatheads” and “street fighters.” Even though they don't last long, they are still a nuisance to deal with. Those people make the atmosphere unpleasant.
- If you're a female, you may be out of luck if there are not enough female students to sustain a female MMA school.
- There are many MMA schools do not have a program for women.
TMA & MMA Are Dependent Upon Each Other
TMA and MMA schools have their merits. They have their pros and cons. However, the two types mainly cater to two crowds.
Both types of school are generally for everybody, but keep in mind that most MMA schools focus on preparing and training fighters. In terms of both types of schools, the two are depending on each other.
Without the TMAs, MMA wouldn't even exist today.
Styles taught at MMA schools (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, Wrestling, Boxing, etc) are traditional martial arts styles or derived from traditional martial arts. That is something one has to remember.
People that teach MMA do have backgrounds in Karate, Wrestling, Judo, Boxing, Tae Kwon Do, Kickboxing, etc.
The main purpose of martial arts, in general, is not to do combat with another martial artist.
Remember, martial arts are for life.
If you are a fighter, you need to remember that you can't do it forever.
Even if you stop fighting, it doesn't mean you stop learning. If you're young, don't just jump into MMA. It's best to start out in the traditional arts to develop your base.
Remember that MMA is a sport.
Like any other combat sport such as tournament Judo, Kickboxing, or Olympic TKD, it's only a small portion of martial arts. The martial art and the sport are two completely different things.
Don't be too fixated on the sports aspect of martial arts.
Finally, there are too many variables at play when debating if TMA or MMA is better than each other.
It's simply unfair to give an answer to either of them.
The Martial Arts Are Not Monolithic
No two TMA schools are the exact same.
No two MMA schools are the exact same either.
A person's views towards a facet are often determined by the experiences one has at their school. I can use two of my Facebook friends from a martial arts group as an example, who dub as "D" and Z."
D's experience in the TMA was all right, but he preferred the MMA environment. He was treated better by the MMA gym than he was treated by the TKD school he previously was part of.
Z was training at one MMA school and got ejected because he had a falling out with the owner/head instructor. Given the situation, I wouldn't want to train at that school either. He found a better MMA school nearby and he's happy with it.
Say that you had a bad experience at one TMA school, you could find another TMA that provides a better environment.
This also applies to MMA schools, too.
A martial arts curriculum is not monolithic either as it varies from one school to another.
A TMA school could have an MMA program and vice-versa.
You could come across an MMA school that doesn't focus on tournaments.
I have written other related hubs. If you want to know more about the difference between TMA and MMA, be sure to take a look at these hubs. I will be adding more relevant hubs to this list once I go ahead and create them, enjoy.
- MMA – The Four Staple Fighting Disciplines
- Karate, it isn't just “one style”
- Martial Arts: Sports vs. Self-Defense
- Tae Kwon Do & MMA: Effectively Applying TKD Into MMA Training
Mamerto Adan from Cabuyao on June 27, 2017:
Nice article! MMA and TMA should get together in the real world, as MMA started as TMA mixing together! I know a karateka who trained in MMA to improve his moves, and an MMA guy who got a TMA (kali) lesson for street readiness.
PS; did you know that MMA fans and not MMA practitioners are more annoying?
sean crawford from los angeles on April 18, 2013:
I agree that MMA is not suitable for street fighting. However, it will certainly get the job done against untrained fighters. I defintiely know how grueling the training is. It takes a lot of dedication just to practice the moves for fitness every day. Traditional martial arts tend to lack the cross tarining aspect, but offer great moves, which will injure people on the street easily.
Eric Vu Tran from Washington, DC on November 20, 2012:
Wow, I think you just wrote a book. I admire how you put so much thought into this. This is also a big debate I am having in my head...and it hasn't been easy to resolve.