Is Becoming A Champion MMA Fighter the Pinnacle Of Martial Arts Achievement?

Royce Gracie

The Good

I have mixed feelings about mixed martial arts (MMA).  One one hand, it keeps the martial arts honest.  Before Royce Gracie fought in the first UFC, most martial artists would tell you that their system was the best.  If you opened up Black Belt magazine, every month there would be one article that would compare two styles.  “Tae Kwon Do vs. Shotokan: Which is better?”  Open up the magazine, and in one set of photos, the Tae Kwon Do guy wins.  In the other set of photos, the Shotokan guy wins.

I started learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at the Ann Arbor YMCA when I was a student at the University of Michigan.  One day I was walking though the CCRB (recreation center), and I saw a Ninjitsu class.  The lights were off, everyone was facing a wall, less than a foot away from the wall, with their eyes closed.  No one was moving.  Later I spoke to the instructor or assistant instructor, and the topic of sparring came up.  He said that they can’t spar, otherwise they would kill people.

My first reaction was that he was living in a dream world, suffering from a false sense of security.  But I couldn’t say for sure, I would have to see them in action.  I always believed in the reality of experience over the theory of words.

After I opened my martial arts school, I was invited by one of my students who was having a meeting of different martial arts instructors and students to get together and train.  Like a UFC, but with light to no contact.  One of my matches was with a Black Belt in Ninjitsu.  At first, I was moving conservatively (he might kill me!)  But it didn’t take me long to see that he could barely block a punch.  I started to feel bad for him, and I was embarrassed for him, so I started to slow down my strikes.  We ended up on the ground and he knew even less.  I was surprised to see a Black Belt that was a White Belt in terms of self-defense.

I’m sure there are many Ninjas who can defend themselves.  But this guy would probably get hurt in any self-defense situation.  How far had the martial arts become detached from reality when a Black Belt could barely block a punch!  After the UFC’s had been around for a few years, at least people stopped saying their style was “unbeatable.”  It became for more difficult to live in delusion in the face of the mounting evidence that you have to know how to do at least basic ground grappling, takedowns and defending takedowns is important, and fancy techniques are generally not useful in real situations.

That is the good news about the UFCs.  It has become a proving ground to see what works and what doesn’t work in a real situation.  But it is not the final test.  There are many, many, techniques that would work in a realistic self-defense situation that I have never seen even attempted in the cage.  And I believe that most of the best martial artists in the world do not enter the cage to fight.  However, it is a great way to see what works without getting into street fights and real self-defense situations.

bloody mma image

The Bad

Here’s the bad news.  As a school owner whose school offers Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Boxing, Wrestling, Judo, MMA classes, you would think that MMA becoming so big would be great for my business.  It has helped a bit, but I am now getting more phone calls from people wanting to get in the cage than ever before.  Not too long ago someone called and told our front desk manager “I want to learn to hurt people.”  I didn’t call him back.

The growth of MMA has brought with it an ugly monster.  It is a culture of violence and ego.  It is so removed from martial arts that I don’t believe it can even be called martial arts.  Martial arts has two parts to it.  “Martial” means war, fighting, and self-defense.  “Art” means to create something beautiful, something with meaning.  The motivation of most fighters has nothing to do with art.  For 90% of the fighters, it is to get in the cage and hurt someone, get the respect and fear of others, to look good, to make money, and to feel good about themselves.  Having spent time around fighters and the MMA world, I can say with confidence that it is not uncommon to hear a guy openly admit that he loves to fight, and it is a dream come true that he can fight, get paid, and not end up in jail!

For this reason I don’t like calling cage fighting MMA.  I think it is more accurate to call it NHB- no holds barred fighting.  For many competitors, it is not an art.

This is not to say that all NHB fighters are violent ego-maniacs.  There are a few that I believe have higher motives.  A good example is Randy Couture.  He wrestled his whole life, almost making it to the Olympics several times, and loved competition.  Wrestling may have become a little stale to him, and NHB was a great way to push him self through competition.

I don’t believe Couture competes to hurt anyone.  He wants to set a difficult goal and push himself to reach it.  I think he wants to see what he is capable of.

When he is interviewed before a match, he is respectful of his opponent.  After the match, he is respectful.  After a loss, you can’t easily tell that he just lost.  He remains even minded because his purpose is not just to win, but to compete.  It is a zen like attitude to not be attached to the outcome, the product, but to enjoy the process.

Compare that to other fighters.  Before the match, they say terrible things about their opponent.  They make threats and violent promises.  One fighter said something to the effect that with his right leg, he’ll send you to the hospital.  With his right leg, the cemetery!

What ever happened to martial arts being for self-defense?  What about the development of body, mind, and spirit?  The point that I am making that either extreme of the martial arts is bad.  The Ninja probably had a lot of art in him, and little self-defense.  The NHB fighter has a lot of self-defense in him, and little art.  Don’t call it martial arts if there’s no self defense value- call it an art.  And don’t call it martial arts if it’s all fighting- call it fighting.

I have a big problem with low minded people learning how to fight effectively.  I think it is the responsibility of instructors to teach those that they feel will not abuse their skills.  In the Shaolin Temple in ancient China, students would have to prove themselves before being accepted as a student.  They may make them wait outside the temple for weeks or months before letting them in, then making them clean the temple and grounds for a period of time, then just showing them difficult exercises to strengthen their body and mind.  I the mean time they were seeing how bad the student really wanted to learn, and seeing if they were humble.

It is different today.  As a business owner, each student that wants to sign up means more money for the school.  But what I have found is that one bad apple will scare away 5 or 10 good students.  They are bad for business.

Recently I have been thinking about police officers.  The chances of an officer having to arrest someone who is trained in NHB at some point in their career is high.  What about when they go to arrest someone who knows how to fight, and doesn’t live a life of self-control, and this guy shoots in, slams the officer, and ground and pounds him?  I was talking to a guy in a foreign currency trading class, who is from Temecula, California.  He said, “You can’t get in bar fights anymore.  Everyone in Temecula trains in some fighting gym!”

My concern is that people with no self-control, the violent, the low minded, are now learning some of the most effective fighting techniques in the world.  It does not take a lot of practice to learn the rear naked choke, or guillotine, for example.

I had a student who learned at an incredible rate.  He is highly intelligent, extremely creative, and tremendously focused and disciplined.  He earned a Black Belt at East West, and quickly rose to the level of a very good grappler (at least Purple Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu).  We were watching a UFC, and the fighter he had trained with lost.  He then announced that he was going to face the guy who just beat his friend and teacher in 4 or 5 years.

This student has the focus, dedication, and discipline to do it.  I believe if he sets his mind to it, he could get to a high level in NHB competition.  The question is why would he want to?

This student is from a good family.  He does not have a painful childhood like many NHB fighters, and he doesn’t like to hurt others.  He has Black Belts in 4 different martial arts.  I believe that this person wants to challenge himself.  The thing that may hurt him is that he is an evolved person, and I believe some part of him won’t like hurting others.  In boxing and fighting, it helps to have a “mean streak.”  I don’t believe this person has this.

It made me ask myself, “Is this the highest goal of the martial arts?”  My answer is an absolute no.  I believe that much greater things can come out of one’s training than hurting and dominating someone publicly.  I believe NHB has it’s place in the world of martial arts.  It isn’t inherently evil or bad, but I believe most are using it for harmful goals.

It is sad, because the martial arts used to have a bit of a mystical glow to it.  Now that it is associated with getting into a cage and beating someone, the glow has become more faint.

I believe that training in the martial arts makes one powerful.  Your focus, confidence, discipline, and physical skills grow.  You develop the skills to control others.  You then come to a crossroads: do you use it to control others, or do you use it to control yourself?  I have found that dedicated martial artists, wrestlers, and others that can fight usually become either very humble, down to earth, and kind, or they become egomaniacs.  In the worst cases, they become chronically violent.

I have heard of school owners with restraining orders on them from their wives.  I have seen high level fighters losing all control of themselves in their personal lives, becoming drug addicts.  Very sad.

In it’s highest most beautiful form, effective physical skills are taught along with a philosophy of respect, discipline, control, humility, and kindness.  It is modeled by the teacher and the high ranking students.

BJJ

If I had to pick a “favorite” martial art (even though I don’t believe that there really are different forms, they are all just based on principles of movement, leverage, and strategy), I would choose Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.  Sadly, it is one of the worst offenders of teaching the techniques without the philosophy.  They say they teach it, but it is rarely taught.  I have trained in many different BJJ schools with many different teachers, and I can say with confidence that there is a lot of ego and a lack of the teaching of the highest principles of the martial arts.  It is not to say that all BJJ schools are like this.  But it is not uncommon.

I was just looking today at the website of a BJJ teacher that was saying that he teaches the philosophy of martial arts in his school.  I have heard stories of him cursing at students and throwing things at them in anger.

Another well known teacher called a friend of mine, who is his student, and said that one of his students tripped him in his own school, and that the other students laughed.  He was sad that his students weren’t respectful, and my friend told him, “It’s your fault.  You don’t teach them the philosophy, how can you expect them to live it?”

A cop in California was recently telling me that he cannot train in a certain school, because there are known felons training there.

If the philosophy of the martial arts is not taught, and a good example is not set by the instructors, and the high values of the martial arts are not being practiced, it cannot be expected of the students.  If a student has violent tendencies, they should not be taught.  If one slips through and an instructor finds out after they are already a student, they should be kicked out.  There is a reason that students bow when they enter and leave the mat or school, and before and after matches in a traditional martial arts school.  It is to practice the virtue of respect, appreciation, and humility.  Like a technique, the more you practice it, the more it becomes a part of you.

It is much greater to take the confidence, discipline, focus, and will power developed from training and turn those skills on yourself.  Use it to get rid of your bad habits in all areas of your life.  Use it to stop smoking, or drinking a lot, and being a slave of your bad habits.  Use it to set and achieve goals.  Learn a language, become financially free, become a professional martial artist, or become a successful business owner.  Or use it to excel in your spiritual life and find peace.  Use it in relationships.  I have found that when martial artists become confident, they are less afraid of others.  They are then either proud that they can hurt and control others, or they will be kinder and more open because they do not feel threatened by others.  So martial arts training can actually make relationships better.

This is why ancient warriors often went from fierce fighters in their early life, to monks in their middle and late life.  Miyamoto Mushashi is the most famous swordsman in Japanese history because he was the greatest swordsmen in all of Japan.  He fought in dozens of death matches, and often killed his opponents with a wooden bokken, when they had live blades.  He spent the last part of his life as a wondering monk and artist.

Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, which is one of the most peaceful and philosophical martial arts, was a tough and brutal fighter in his early years.

There are many stories of fighters becoming saints and mystics.  They get to the point where others fear them, respect them, and they still feel empty.  They can’t sleep at night because of the pain they have inflicted.  They reflect on the pain they have caused others and the lives they have taken, and they see the futility of violence.  Lao Tzu said, “The triumph of violence ends in a festival of mourning.”

I am not saying this to say that NHB is bad.  My point is that there are goals to be achieved that will result in much greater happiness than being a NHB champion.  If you have a desire to fight, find out what your motives are.  If you are honest with yourself, and you want to test yourself, to discipline your body and mind in preparation, fine.  Try a grappling competition.  If you like it, look into NHB.

Even still, you can discipline your body and mind and test yourself without fighting.  But if you examine your motives, and you find that you want to express some anger you have towards the world, or you are doing it for glory, or to hurt others, this is not the therapy that will help you.  You will feel a temporary relief, like you would from drinking or another drug, but your issues will return.

Of all the goals you can achieve in your life, the greater will always be the ones that result in the greatest benefit to yourself and others- win/win situations.  Win/lose situations are actually lose/lose.  Whatever you do to others, you are actually doing to yourself.

15 Responses to “Is Becoming A Champion MMA Fighter the Pinnacle Of Martial Arts Achievement?”

  1. Matt says:

    Fantastic read Ryan. Thanks!

  2. Shawn King says:

    I agree with you Ryan… We share a lot of the same philosophy on cage fighting…

    It is also one of the major reasons that I never got into the ring in the earlier days when MMA was first brought onto the scene and all of my students wanted me to.

    I also learned the hard way when I first began teaching Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu back in ’95… Some of my first students wanted to learn self defense because they were getting beat up all the time…

    Being that I wanted to teach them effective self defense… I showed them mostly fighting skills in the very beginning without the philosophy of it…

    Bad move… After they became proficient in the fighting skills they ended up getting into more fights and hurting people… for the first time they were gaining self confidence by street fighting every chance they got…

    Even beating up other martial arts school owners and students around town…

    Needless to say they lost there position as my students and I realized the hard way that teaching the “Philosophy” and “Art” aspect was more important for the beginning student then making good fighters.

    Even though I have not been teaching lately… I can only imagine with the influx of “Fighting shows” that this is going to become even more prevalent in our society as those that know the skills need to earn a living and supply and demand kicks in…

    Maybe we should come up with our own show that teaches “Martial Arts Philosophy” and it comes on before and after the cage fights…

    That would be a revelation…

  3. Dave Rybski says:

    Ryan,

    Thank you for sharing this. I have often felt a sense of “disappointment” in the fighting philosophy side of this art. There is far too much focus on personal glory and physical harm in the current explosion of MMA. MMA is essentially a business, and businesses like to grow. It is unfortunate that there is more entertainment value in watching some guy get his head knocked off than of watching someone meditate… such is life.

    Your teaching philosophy is one I have always appreciated and find that I share with you. I have sometimes found it difficult to tell someone (outside of the school) that I refuse to show them techniques because at first it feels like I am helping them. But as Shawn has pointed out, this can quickly come back to haunt you. “A fool with a tool is still a fool.”

    I have often wondered if it wouldn’t benefit both the students and their instructor if activities like meditation, community service or other philosophic pursuits were more of a requirement in rank promotions.

  4. admin says:

    Dave,
    Thanks for your insights. I really like your ideas.
    I love the quote by the way!

  5. Mark Lajhner says:

    Ryan,

    I’m really enjoying your articles and I’m glad to have found this site.

    I agree with most of what you wrote and tend to teach “eclectically” in my MMA dojo. Taking the best of Judo philosophy and combining it with functionality of MMA. But I’m not sure if MMA is inherently bad or not?

    As Dave pointed out MMA is a business and as such it’s goal is PROFIT. Not wholesome, evolved human beings and the spirit of kindness and respect. PROFIT.

    On one hand Randy Couture is truly a role model when it comes to fight preparation, respecting an opponent and generally his whole demeanour. However, why does he throw fundraisers for the injured soldiers in Iraq? Why does Dana White support the US Army and many fighters after the fight dedicate their victories to “our boys in Iraq who are fighting for our freedom”?
    I find both Couture and White to be intelligent human beings and it’s hard for me to understand why they would support the greatest evil this planet has ever seen – the US Army, which is an extended arm of multinational corporations.
    It’s hard to understand from an ethical point of view but from a business one it’s easy – PROFIT.

    If 90 % of all MMA fighters are there for reasons other than their personal development (and they are) we can safely conclude that MMA (and all professional sports) are in fact pure Evil that are based on the spirit of competition and PROFIT, not cooperation.

    Is sports the spirit of competition, scarcity, aggression and PROFIT that drives the sport industry, not self-development, humanism, ethical values, compassion and cooperation.

    The question is how to combine the best of both worlds? I do it in my academy but the functionality of MMA is there just because there are many MMA events that are taking place and through trial and error the skills are being refined – but at what cost? I’m afraid that if it wasn’t for the egotistical and “I’m glad I can hurt people and not go to jail” people (but mostly Capitalism since it is the driving force behind sports) we wouldn’t have sophisticated fighting skills that we do today.

  6. admin says:

    Hi Mark,
    Thanks for sharing- you have some interesting observations.
    I disagree that the US Army is the greatest evil the planet has ever seen. There are many things that armies all over the world have done that are evil and nothing less, but there is good as well.
    I appreciate your thoughts, even if we don’t agree on everything. I’m glad to hear of MMA fighters and trainers thinking about what they are done and what effect it has on the world.
    Take care!

  7. Francisco says:

    Ryan this a very good article and your right about everything you said. Its sad when people whom originally want to defend themselves from aggression become what they once despised. Its sad me being a guy who was mocked in school a lot i would never turn into some ego maniac on a power trip if I learned martial arts but that is sadly whats happening to many.

    As for violent thugs getting skills. I have heard its far worse in some circles like gang members enlisting in military institutions and bringing back those skills they learned to there gangs making them even more efficient killers giving cops a lot of hell. Some gang members do reform but there are others whos loyalty is not to there country but to there gang.

    As for the US army the men and women who fight in the army are not evil its the people who control the armed forces that are. Leading well more like deceiving good men and women to believe there fighting for freedom when there really fighting for interests of a group those are the evil ones not the army itself but those behind it.

  8. Andy says:

    Really great and eloquent article. It perfectly balances the chaos that is cage fighting. I pray that your view and purity has the power to spread. I prey greed doesn’t get in the way of wisdom.

    It is a worrying state where such fighting is becoming so normal and mainstream. Worrying indeed.

    Personally I don’t fight anymore, but focus more on meditation as its had a more effective influence on my life (sahajayoga.org), but I still also practice Tai Chi as it gives me everything I desire from martial arts.

    Thanks.

  9. Freddie Lee says:

    Ryan,
    Thank you for taking the time to write the article. I completely agree with all that you said. It brings great joy within me to see someone else see what I see and actually express it. You are a true Martial Artist that has achieved a very high level of understanding in the Martial Arts. There needs to be more teachers that have this understanding.

    I will be sharing your article with as many people as I can.

    Shi zu
    Founder of the Tao of Freddie’s Modern Kung Fu.

  10. Garin says:

    Sensei Fiorenzi,

    I really enjoyed this article, and I wanted to comment and say, that as an avid mma fan (I would never do mma) the disrespect some fighters bring is very troubling to me. Guys like Tito Ortiz, Chael Sonnen, Josh Koscheck have ill wishes for their opponents every time. What seems to trouble me even more is that it has even affected some of the bjj guys, even some high level black belts like Frank Mir said he was going to kill his opponent, Bj Penn stated he was going to fight Georges St.Pierre to the death. Of course their are obviously some respectful people like Demian Maia are always class acts, but the point I’m trying to make is MMA as a business has killed respect, for instance after the Josh Koscheck lost to Georges St.pierre he openly admitted that the feud was just to sell the fight! I wonder how much control and influence MMA company’s like the UFC, WEC, Strikeforce, Dream, Sengoku, Shooto have over their fighters. I watch MMA for the same reason i watch the Pan Ams, hockey, football etc. because it is entertainment but I dislike anyone who is disrespectful or has ill intent in all sports, and in every day situations.

  11. Mike says:

    As a vet I’m very sad to hear someone think of the army as an evil organization. Sounds like a severe case of over-generalization. The army has a lot of outstanding people as well as a few bad apples. If you disagree with the wars overseas it may come as a surprise that the average US soldier did not directly start the war or decide to invade. They joined when their country needed them. No one asked me whether invading Iraq and Afghanistan was a good idea but when the US needed people to enlist I answered the call. The politicians make the call to go to war.
    Are you sure you want to call the entire US Army the greatest evil the world has ever seen? I’m not sure you have any idea what you’re talking about and it’s sad that you have such a narrow mind that you’d make such a large generalization because they don’t line up with your own political philosophy. By declaring a very large organization as the greates evil in the world you include a large number of people that you have, and will never, meet yet you are willing to judge. Judging such a vast and diverse group without being fully informed tells me a lot about your own lack of proper judgement. This is an excellent demonstration of self-centered fallacious thinking. You cite ethics and compassion while using major fallacies to claim the army is evil. Where is the compassion in your own critique? Your thinking is so backward that I can’t even begin to logically address your argument because you refuse to use logic and you don’t even have a valid argument. Just a wild assertion. Picture-perfect nonsense while pretending to be intellectual. You have all the buzz words in your post. You just don’t know how to actually use them. I sincerely hope you are a better person than you appear to be because you may realize that holding such judgements don’t foster a positive mindset. How can you be good when you hold harsh judgement and utilize poor critical thinking skills?

    As far as MMA and martial arts goes, I think you’ll have a hard time finding the traditional mindset that martial arts employs in our own culture. Every sport encourages trash-talk. The more the merrier. It’s also all about commercialization. We love our athletes to be cocky. Sponsors are everywhere and there is serious money at stake. I hate the commercialization of sports. All the flashy ads, photo shoots, publicity, commercials, endorsements, and glamor. It’s ruining sports. Have you ever been to a pro American football game? There are tons of ads and the players get tons of breaks for commercials. It’s terrible that they get paid that much to hang out for so long during a game. Go to a professional rugby match. You still get a few commercial breaks but it’s nowhere near the same as in America. I find that they are trying to turn MMA into wrestling with all the drama between the fighters. How about the stare-downs in The UltimateFighter? Those are ridiculous. They don’t even know each other or who they’re going to fight and as soon as the coaches pick out their names they go up in front of the cameras and stare at each other for 10 minutes like they’re going to kill their entire families. MMA has turned into a testosterone fueled duel with a dash of soap opera. Training for months for one fight gets a little ridiculous too. It would be more admirable to do the grand prix style tournament like the first UFC events.
    I’m a proud American but I hate how we have to throw drama into everything and commercialize the crap out of it all. We don’t really follow any solid moral character anymore. It’s all about the trash-talking athlete or the over-the-top actress that is a total train wreck. There isn’t a lot of respect between fighters anymore. Not sincere respect anyway. The pre-fight predictions are a joke anyway. You can’t foster a sportsmanlike atmosphere when they talk about each other as though they’ve been mortal enemies for life.
    The real spirit of martial arts is seen everywhere but tv. It’s in the BJJ gyms where there is open mat time and two people roll to better themselves. When one gets a submission the other can ask how he did it so well and they work it out. Thats what it should be. I don’t think there is an objective measurement to the pinnacle achievement of martial arts. To live a virtuous life the Aristotelian way you must be virtuous over a complete life. The same could be said for martial arts. A Buddhist monk once told me that everyone seeks perfection but no one actually wants it because that would be the end of the journey. Once you attain perfection there is nowhere to go and nothing to work towards so the journey is what matters.
    As a disclaimer: I only did a small amount of judo. Most of my time is dedicated to philosophy and BJJ so that’s why I use the analogy of BJJ rolling as the perfect example of martial arts. I just don’t have the experience to add examples of other forms but I’m sure you can parallel what I talk about to other forms.
    Nothing against football either. I just had the opportunity to compare the two and noticed significant differences.

  12. You learn the Martial Arts discipline from around the training, the more discipline you have to the
    Martial Art the very best you become. This may
    be a very subconscious area for a lot of people and they usually start working harder and concentrating more without realising.

    The respect comes from the sparring, the harder you hit someone the harder they are
    going to hit you back, the more you respect that fighter the
    more they will respect you.

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  15. kevin says:

    Ty brother. I train the old school jujitsu & its nice to know others feel this way. Much respect

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