Traditional or mixed martial arts – what’s the difference? 


Traditional or mixed martial arts – what’s the difference?

These days mixed martial arts (MMA) is all the rage. More and more people are searching for a complete body workout that fulfils not only their fitness needs but provides additional benefits like self-defence skills. And MMA has gained popularity precisely because it appears to offer the best instruction when it comes to facing danger in the modern world. As South Africans, this is sure to catch our attention.

However, before you dismiss the value of Traditional Martial Arts like Tai Chi or Sanda too quickly, take a moment to appreciate what sets MMA apart. Both approaches have distinct features that yield their own pros and cons.

So, if it’s your intention to actually keep up this martial arts thing, you should first check which art form fits your needs.

What these martial arts approaches share

Let’s start with what Traditional and Mixed Martial Arts have in common. Both will teach you to coordinate multiple actions in service of a single goal. You will need to master the ability to maintain focus on what you are trying to achieve if, and when, chaos ensues. While being attacked, you have to control your breathing and body movements even though you may be experiencing panic and stress. No easy feat.

You also have to learn to capitalise on the environment you find yourself in if you’re going to overcome your adversary. Whether there are steps, a chair, or a rope ready to be used, you need to notice it. This demands situational awareness and quick thinking.

In essence, both approaches prepare you for combat and condition you to face trauma.

There are meaningful differences though.

The traits of traditional martial arts

Martial arts of the Chinese tradition, such as Tai Chi and Wushu, are firmly rooted in a specific cultural convention. What this means is that these martial arts are structured and follow a set curriculum because the origins and lineage of these practices are reverently safeguarded.

What is valued is perfection of the technique. This is not to suggest that these styles are just for the sake of show – they wouldn’t have been around for so long if they weren’t effective. It’s rather that mastering the ability to perform a movement properly acts as a marker of the discipline which sets that style apart from the others.

Traditional Martial Arts are also more holistic in their approach. Because these styles are concerned with preserving an ethos and way of life, the styles critically involve not just physical ability but mental discipline and adherence to a code of conduct. Consider the well-rounded development that Shaolin Kung Fu encourages by focusing on the cultivation of key virtues in addition to physical training. Self-control, patience, and respect for oneself and one’s opponent are all traits that apply outside the studio as well.

In other words, engaging in Traditional Martial Arts is a pebble that’s dropped in the pond of your life, and whose ripples have far-reaching effects.

The movements that are prioritised in class are the ones that allow one to progress through the belt system in tournaments, so be prepared for less experimentation and a largely purist approach to class content.  Traditional martial arts classes also favour classical approaches to training where perfection is achieved through a specific developmental path.

This is all enormously beneficial if one craves structure and the evolvement of dedication towards becoming the best person you can be. You get to learn deeply about a culture that’s likely to be different from your own, which will shape your outlook and provide a unique perspective.

How does MMA differ?

The markers of MMA

More a professional sport than a martial art, this practice is not about the wholesale engagement with a cultural tradition and the techniques that represent it. Rather, it’s about combining moves for the sake of the outcome you want.

Rather than concern yourself with an ethos and system of rules that guide conduct, you focus on whether a specific combination of moves will bring down your opponent in the cage.

Relaxing the structure of Traditional Martial Arts is a defining feature of MMA. It offers the benefit of opening up a greater range of moves because there is more space for experimentation. As a result, MMA has evolved at a rapid pace which makes it more varied than Traditional Martial Arts and very exciting to watch.

So, if you feel like mixing things up – so to speak – and engaging with a more exploratory approach, this route may be for you.

MMA instructors are also inclined to adopt more current approaches to teaching which has the potential of accelerating progress. They test and try the latest ways of helping their students learn, which provides more varied and customised instruction. In MMA the goal is to be the last man or woman standing. You are not participating in the adoption of a specific approach to life as much as developing the skill to handle conflict at a moment’s notice by drawing on your entire arsenal, yielding an interesting fusion of traditional styles.

If you’re interested in fitness, self-defence, or simply exploring an ever-changing sport, then MMA is a good option.

Ask first, choose later

As you can see, there are enough differences between Traditional and Mixed Martial Arts to warrant the consideration of two important questions: First, why are your pursuing martial arts? Is it to develop yourself in a more fundamental way or is it to gain the skills necessary for self-defence? Perhaps you are just looking for a full-body workout?

Also, what kind of training do you respond to? Are you someone who appreciates order and a focus on detail, or are you looking for something more dynamic that allows for greater variation? Perhaps you are naturally more structured and you are specifically looking to explore your wilder side.

Why not?

Shuaimeng Liu’s studio focuses on traditional Chinese arts and also offers the traditional arts from which MMA is composed, such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. If you’re more conventionally inclined, consider Qigong or Wushu. The adventurous among us have the option of San Thai or even Wuxian Combat – both of which are hybrid martial arts that align with the MMA tradition of mixing styles and are exclusively offered at the Shuaimeng Liu Martial Arts Centre. Book a class today!


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