Xingyi, Bagua, Taiji: Tim Cartmell

Tim began training in Kung Fu San Soo in New York at the age of 11. At the age of 23, he moved to Taiwan to study the fighting aspect of internal martial arts, something he had failed to find in the US.

Enrolling at the Taiwan Normal University to study Mandarin for five years, Tim spent his spare time seeking out practical minded teachers, “for methods that were not based solely on brute strength, speed and superior size; I was looking for arts in which the soft could really overcome the hard.”

Among others, he studied He Bei Xing Yi Quan with Xu Hong Ji and his son Xu Zhen Wang as well as Yi Quan with Gao Liu De. In Tai Ji Quan, he studied old Yang style with Chen Zhuo Zhen. In Chen style, he studied Zhao Bao with Lin Ah Long and the old frame with Xu Fu Jin. In Bagua Zhang, he studied Gao style with Luo De Xiu, who also taught him Chen Pan Ling Tai Ji.

In 1985, Tim visited the mainland for the first time. Several years later, he accompanied Dan Miller (who was then publishing the Ba Gua Journal) as his interpreter, meeting a number of well known martial artists. This trip led to Tim studying Sun Style Tai Ji Quan and Ba Gua Zhang with Sun Jian Yun, Sun Bao An and Liu Yan Long in Beijing. He also learned Shan Xi Xing Yi with Mao Ming Chun.

After about six months in Taiwan, Tim entered his full contact tournament.  Though he lost he gained valuable experience and insights which led him to revise his approach to training. From then on, his training emphasized the importance of really mastering fundamental techniques that can be used in a real fight; the importance of being well rounded in striking, wrestling and grappling arts; and the need to spar regularly with skilled, non-cooperative opponents.

A few months after his first tournament, Tim entered and won another full contact competition. The following year, he took first place in the middleweight division of the Asian Full Contact tournament.

In 1994, after 11 years in China, Tim returned to the US. Soon after, he began practising and competing in  Brazilian Jiu Jitsu under Nelson Monteiro, an art which he found complemented his Chinese martial arts experience perfectly.

Tim has also published several instructional books and DVDs. More information can be found at ShenWu 

Here he talks about why the method is more important than the art; the benefits of the traditional methods;  why he emphasizes striking, clinching and then the takedown;  how to use Chinese throws and Xingyi striking drills for MMA;  why Tai Ji Quan is best thought of as a grappling art; why forms used to be taught after you could fight, not before; physicality and specific strength vs technique; how to balance sparring and forms practice; how he got into BJJ and its similarities to the internal arts; BJJ’s usefulness in street situations and sport;  the role of tradition, the ‘laboratory’ of MMA and the future of Chinese martial arts.

So, Tim, what makes a martial art traditional? 

Basically there’s only one thing that makes a martial art traditional, and that’s time, because it’s been around a long time. It just means that whoever invented it lived a long time ago, and over time the new becomes traditional.

You go back 300 years in China and someone was practising a martial art that was even older. He creates a synthesis of the disparate martial arts he studied, comes up with a unifying theory and if his new combined style takes off, a couple of hundred years later it’s become ‘traditional’.  In that sense, every single martial art in existence started off as a mixed martial art. So it depends on how you define the terms.

What we have now is the same thing, but on a bigger scale. For most traditional martial arts you have one guy who was the founder. Modern MMA is different, it’s superior in that it wasn’t founded by any single individual or even small group, it was founded by an almost completely open laboratory of fighting.

One guy could never hope to experiment as much as hundreds of thousands of people can. One person will always be limited to his own environment and his own teachers, his access to instruction; whereas modern martial arts are not limited in this way:  with MMA, thousands of martial artists and fighters got together and actually fought to see what works best.

It didn’t take long to work out what would work, at least in the venue of MMA. Within 15 years it became pretty much solidified. Modern MMA draws on a huge sample of people who are actually fighting one another.

You go back in time and hear stories about who fought this guy and or the other. But who knows the truth? Obviously if said person had students, he most likely had something going on, he likely wasn’t pulling in students without at least some level of success as a fighter. But who knows what his experience really was: maybe he was from some small area, where nobody knew how to fight and he came up with his own thing, was a bit better than everyone else and got famous.  But MMA’s not like that: everyone gets to watch. So there’s no way you can bullshit your way into a reputation.

Another advantage MMA has over traditional arts is traditionally you only had access to what was in your culture. If I live in northern China in 1700 I’m not going to see Muay Thai, I’m not going to see Japanese arts , I’m not going to see Western boxing, I’m going to see Long Fist and Shuai Jiao. There was way less of a sampling of things to choose from. Now you can go on YouTube and in an hour see more types of martial arts in five minutes than anyone back in the day could see if they travelled their entire life.

With the crucible of the entire world fighting and access to video and all this talent and all these styles coming in, it’s on a much bigger global scale. That’s how modern things are: it’s better. You have more access to information.  Traditional martial arts were all ‘mixed martial arts’ at their founding, but with modern MMA there are more scientists on the job and anyone can see it on video.


Tim Cartmell tournament victory

You’re well known as a practitioner of Chinese martial arts. How did you get into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and MMA?

After I came back from Taiwan in 1994, I saw a tiny ad in the back of Black Belt magazine. It said Brazilian Jiu Jitsu : Real Fights. So I bought the VHS and I thought these guys are spectacular at what they do.

I showed the tape to one of my friends who used to do kung fu with me and he was like ‘Aw, they’d never take me down.’ He was a big guy, worked as a bouncer. The Gracies had just opened the first Torrance Academy, so he went and challenged them and because he was big, they sent Rickson out. He said, ‘You know, when I looked at Rickson I thought I was going to lose the fight, but I never dreamed how fast.’ Rickson choked him unconscious in 10 seconds.

My friend quit everything he’d done, and now he’s a black belt in Jiu Jitsu. When I heard what Rickson did to him, I thought I’ve got to learn this stuff. For the next year, I would drive to San Diego from LA to train with my first teacher, Nelson Monteiro, the guy who set up the Abu Dhabi fight club.  There were only a few schools around. Then after the UFC started, lots of Brazilians came to teach.


I was listening to a John Danaher podcast where he was saying BJJ gave you a rational attitude that you could then take and apply to your life. Would you say BJJ has had that effect on you too? 

Absolutely. John Danaher’s book with Renzo, Mastering Jiu Jitsu, is a work I recommend. It’s got a section in there about multiple opponents and Danaher’s asked what would happen if you get attacked by three guys. He says, ‘Well, you fight as hard as you can and then be prepared to take your beating like a man’. That’s the correct answer. You try to run away, obtain a weapon or you get the shit kicked out of you. You don’t do flying kicks and spinning hooks – that’ll get you killed. Unless they stand passively in place or line up to take turns attacking, you can’t fight more than one person at a time. If you’re determined enough you can maybe escape.

You have to be honest when you teach people, otherwise they have this false sense of what they can do. You can’t fight more than one guy simultaneously, there’s no technique for it. You’ve got to fight your way out and get away. If you’re always sparring, working against real resistance, you find out there’s no way to be dishonest with yourself.

When you fight, you expose your weaknesses immediately because your opponent is really trying to knock your ass out. If you’re not engaging in some form of full contact, non-cooperative sparring, you’re fooling yourself. It’s like anything else: you can’t really practice for any event without approximating the event as closely possible. You get these guys who think they’re too deadly to spar: the US army spars with weapons, are you more deadly than they are? No. You have to have war games. That’s just the way it is.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no other purpose for martial arts in the modern world: people use it for self cultivation, or they just like the culture of it. That’s good, but you can’t lie to people and tell them they’re ready to fight in the street. Unfortunately a lot of people are not honest. Their students would probably be better off never having a martial arts lesson if they got into a fight, than trying to apply what they’ve been shown.

Most regular students from my academy compete in BJJ tournaments, we fight at amateur MMA and submission grappling tournaments (not counting the pro MMA fighters), so really what I have is an academy of sport fighters. And it worked well as preparation for the ‘street.’ I’ve had a dozen guys get in fights and they dominated their opponents. And in most cases, they were fighting people who could kick the shit out of them had they not trained.

All my guys can fight because every class we fight each other. That’s why the US Army’s programme is based on BJJ. You add in weapons retention and strategies like that, but fundamentally the strategies that really work are the techniques that really work, in sport, the street or in close quarters military encounters.

If you want to learn how to fight, look at the main arts that make up MMA.  In the old days in Rio when there were no rules, the people who did sport martial arts were the people who won. Across the board. Just like the early UFCs. Wrestling, Muay Thai, boxing, jiu jitsu . Because those guys used techniques they could actually train. You don’t want to ‘try’ things in a real fight you’ve never even used against someone offering resistance in a sparring match because you don’t want to take it on faith that your untested techniques are going to work the first time you attempt to use them in a life and death situation. I can’t understand why anyone would want to risk their lives on that kind of training.


Copa action

What were your first impressions of BJJ? 

When I first started practicing BJJ, the things the teachers were saying things about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu were virtually identical to what my Chinese teachers had said: they talked about levers, about sticking and following, about keeping your grip soft. I thought, ‘I can understand this, it’s the same thing.’ You get to a high level in anything and it all starts to blend together.

One of the differences between BJJ practitioners and practitioners of the traditional Chinese internal martial arts is the motivation for training, and expectations of results from training.  Many people who are attracted to the Chinese internal martial arts based on far-fetched stories about fantastical powers and abilities. They want to be special and have unusual powers, but expect to develop such skills without the requisite extreme hard work and contact sparring that is vital.

You will still often hear practitioners of ‘traditional’ styles proffering bullshit ideas about BJJ and MMA only existing as ‘sports,’ while the traditional arts they practice are for ‘real fighting,’ as if training to punch, kick, knee elbow, throw, grapple and submit in the most realistic context in existence would leave an MMA fighter helpless once he leaves the cage or ring.  Realism in training is the key: the body is the body, strategy is strategy and if you train long enough you’ll develop certain kinds of power and form certain strategies because they work.

I had a background in one area of fighting, so I could see the similarities when I went to train BJJ. I had an idea of it already. I couldn’t ground fight though. You could be the greatest stand up martial artist in the world and it would still be like you’d never practiced a day of martial arts when you go to the ground. It’s completely different. But you’ll recognise the same principles if you pay attention.

Is it possible to learn to fight with traditional Chinese martial arts in the ring? 

I have guys ask me, ‘I just want to do Chinese martial arts, can I learn how to fight with them?’ And I say, ‘Sure, you can learn to fight standing up with them’. I’ve streamlined what I teach somewhat, but there’s some really good stuff in traditional styles.  I tell them if they get really good at Xingyiquan, Baguazhang,  Taijiquan, if you have a real handle on it, and then you spend a few hours on ground proofing and you keep that up, for self defence I think you’re fine.

The problem in my old school was the traditional martial arts guys would spar with guys from MMA class, but they could rarely win. Sooner or later they’d hit the ground, would have no game there and they’d be like fuck it, I should just do MMA.

So here’s the thing: I’m not criticising traditional martial arts at all, I’m criticising the training methodology you’ll commonly see. If you came to practice BJJ and all you did was lay there on the floor passively and worked through submissions cooperatively for 10 years, you couldn’t fight anybody. It’s not like BJJ is magic, no, it’s the training methodology that makes it work. When I did Xingyiquan in Taiwan with Xu Hongji and his son, we did an hour and a half of hard conditioning, hundreds of push ups, hundreds of sit ups, all kinds of conditioning, then we’d stand and do forms, then we’d do techniques and spar in every single class.

Some of the sparring drills probably came from their judo training, because we did a lot of gripping and throwing, but because it was a fight school we practised sparring all the time. We’d light spar without gear, heavy spar with gear on, do padwork and use then use those skills in the ring.

A lot of martial arts might work, but they won’t work if you don’t practice them for real. Even if every single technique has been vetted by some master, you still have to try it for yourself. What I can do under pressure with my body type and my speed, power and level of technical proficiency might not be what you can do. You can’t take those things on faith. When you’re sparring all the time, all bullshit gets weeded out. You’re not going to practice anything that doesn’t work, it’s just a waste of time. How do you know if something’s going to work? Well, you try it in the ring, or when you spar.

You can take any traditional martial art, but you’ve got to spar, but you’ve got to do it correctly. There’s no art that includes practical, useable techniques that’s too deadly to spar with. Is every technique in your art absolutely deadly?  The answer is no, so why can’t you take the practical techniques and use them against a resisting opponent?


What benefits are there to the traditional approach? 

It’s a lot easier to train a natural athlete than someone who’s not coordinated. That was the point of some of the older traditional Chinese styles’ training methodologies. The idea was, before showing a student any fighting techniques, training was first used to condition him and make him coordinated. Then when it came to teach him how to fight it would be a lot easier. So they really did think about the principles of basic training.

Training traditionally started with stance keeping. Why is that? Because the most basic thing you have to work on is your alignment. If that’s out of whack, nothing’s going to work with 100 percent efficiency. How to fix that? Make them stand still. Reduce all the physical variables to a minimum. If you teach a beginner complicated movement, it’s too hard. You line them up anatomically and tell them not to move. So you stand for a while, and your brain starts to inhibit your bad habits and in a few weeks, your posture’s corrected. Now let’s show you how to move your arms. Next let’s have you move your feet. Then you’ll learn more complex combined movements.  In a few months you’ll start to learn practical applications. In a year you can fight.

If you teach too much at once, you’re doomed to bad habits. First alignment, then coordination, develop relevant power, then technique. Otherwise you’ll go back to what you’ve always done and you’ll never get that fundamental correct posture and movement.


On the other hand, different aspects are often missing in a lot of modern combatives. They do conditioning, no doubt, but they’ll skip over the rest: they don’t talk about alignment, about how to correctly generate force. You just get in shape and start fighting.

The good thing about that is that over time you’ll start to figure it out from trial and error. The savvy person might end up in the same place, but some people get left by the wayside because they’re losing too much, and think “I just don’t have an aptitude for this.” If they’d gone the traditional route of stance keeping and coordination first, they would have done much better. So there’s a place for this type of training.

The problem with the traditional approach, though, is you get teachers who want their students to have everything absolutely everything perfect before they ever let their student block a punch. If I want to teach someone how to swim, I’m not going to explain the stroke, have the student practice by the side of the pool until the movement is perfect in the air then push them into the deep end of the pool. You get in, hold the side and kick your feet. I’ll spot you as you work on your movements in the water and in a reasonable amount of time I’ll let you swim a bit on your own. Mastery comes with attempting the skill, approximating the skill and refining the skill, in a live rehearsal.  But following the training paradigm of many of the traditional martial arts, you’d spend 25 years blowing bubbles and kicking your feet and never let go of the side of the pool because your movement is not 100 per cent perfect yet.

At the other extreme, you don’t want to push your students into the deep end and only teach the one who doesn’t drown. You want to be somewhere in the middle: you want to have some basic training, some basic partner training so you can reinforce it with some controlled resistance and then build it up from there. And in a year, you’ve got a guy who’s corrected his body use, he’s building up some real power, and he has some actual technique he can use against real resistance. You need a balance.

The problem is when people think they’re deadly and they don’t train realistically. Then they have effectively limited themselves until they are unable to build any realistic skills. Xingyiquan has a lot of striking and knockdown throws. The idea is to box your way in, hit the guy really hard, close and knock them down. Nothing’s wrong with that. It’s a great way to train as long as you’re sparring, as long as you graduate beyond forms and two man forms.

All of traditional training has its place. Those are the basics, and then you pull the trigger and start training against realistic resistance at whatever level. People might want to learn forms for health, and might not want to spar. As long as they’re honest and say ‘I’m not training to fight, it’s a cultural thing, I like the exercise, I like the discipline, the camaraderie,’ that’s fair enough. But if you want to do it as a martial art, you have to gear up and spar.


How do you integrate traditional martial arts with combat sports?  
In my old school, I taught MMA as a complete system. The stand up was a mixture of Chinese martial arts plus the boxing and Muay Thai I’d learned, as well as takedowns from the Chinese styles and wrestling and Judo as well.  With trial and error, I found quite a lot of the techniques I had learned in the traditional martial arts were ineffective (at least for me) against trained fighters (primarily MMA fighters), so I either modified or deleted anything I or my students discovered were not high percentage techniques.

What remains are the highest percentage techniques that work most often for most people. I concentrated on teaching basics, technique and drilling, a lot of coordination drills and conditioning, but no linked forms. I incorporated some of the more sophisticated Xingyiquan striking drills.  But of course there’s a lot of boxing as well. If you want to punch a man in the face, you cannot beat Western boxing.

I teach everyone Piquan as a pre-emptive strike. I’ve had at least three students who’ve knocked someone completely out with Piquan in street fights. The best time to hit someone is when they’re not expecting it right? So everyone learns how to throw Piquan from a passive ‘I don’t want any trouble’ stance. I always have them aim for the forehead because it rattles the brain.

I remember someone came to the gym for a challenge match and my student knocked him out with Piquan. One strike. I use lots of Chinese hand techniques when I spar, and when I throw. A lot of it is blended in.

Punching to the chin is good, but you might miss and hurt your hand. Then when it comes to hands up fighting, like a duel, in the street or ring, you throw the lead and he puts his hands up, you check it down and hit him in the face and we move into the clinch from there. That entry’s straight out of Xingyiquan. For the follow up, we usually go close to take him down. Also we work classic Xingyi combinations, like hitting high and then hitting the Beng Quan to the body.

As for throws, the Bagua I learned originally came from Cheng Ting Hua who was a Shuai Jiao guy, so it contains a lot of entries to throws. And the kung fu I did as a kid had a lot of throws. I’d already used hip throws in street fights before I went to Taiwan, so I had a good idea about how to throw someone to the ground hard. I punched guys hard and it didn’t always do enough damage, but if I threw them it ended a fight. I’m average size, 155 pounds, so throwing someone was always in my mind. So it was natural for me in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to go to the clinch and the takedown.

Taijiquan has a lot of really nice takedowns. Xingyiquan has many knockdowns and Baguazhang has a wide variety of throws and takedowns. When I came back from Taiwan, I started training wrestling and I wasn’t very good with the gi, so I started doing Judo to deal with the grips, and started putting it together.

Throws are throws. A hip toss it’s almost always exactly the same in any style. It’s how you generate force, how you set it up that might different.  In a sport venue, it also depends on the rules and the uniform. You’ve got to modify things for the event.

I’ve wrestled with a couple of Olympians and many Division 1 wrestlers, and if a wrestler of high calibre is in range of you and he shoots and you’re not very skilled in defence, you’ll certainly be taken down.  People don’t realise:  stopping a shot is like trying to stop a jab when you’re learning to box. You put it all together and that’s really what I did.

I favour striking in close and then getting a superior position with body contact and throwing the opponent to the ground.

That’s my idea of a street fight as well: the longer you’re in the fight, the more likely you are to get hurt. You could be kickboxing the shit out of someone in a fight, and they get one lucky punch and knock you down, then maybe they kick you to death.

The ultimate goal is to knock someone down and out with the first blow. Following that of course if the opponent doesn’t go down you’re going to get close together. Of course you’re going to hit in the clinch, but you need to understand how to control the hierarchy of clinching because in my experience if no one gets knocked out straight away, in the initial first blows, you’ll go to the clinch. That’s why most sport grappling styles in the world start in the clinch. That’s where push hands drills in the various Chinese martial arts start, in the clinch range.

If you are really good at boxing and striking, the chances of you knocking someone out are higher. But you want to be prepared in case it doesn’t work out. It’s the same with grappling. Better to do a bit of ground proofing. You don’t have to be a master grappler and win tournaments to defend yourself in a fight if you go to the ground. You have to have some basic skill. You can learn most of what you need to defend yourself on the ground in a few days of training, as long as you continue to practice it. But many people are intimidated by learning to fight on the ground.

You can specialise in any area you want, but you have to be well rounded enough to get into your own game. You’ll be in for a rude awakening if the first time you throw a punch in an actual fight you get taken down. To me it’s unacceptable to be unprepared like that.

What’s your take on Taijiquan?

Taijiquan techniques are primarily based on throwing and locking. Look at where the art comes from. You virtually only grapple and rarely strike when you’re on a battlefield in armour and you lose your weapon. You’re not going to kick and punch an opponent wearing body armour, you’re going to grab his weapon arm and wrap it up and try to wrestle him to the ground and then access your own weapon or stomp him in the face until he’s dead.

In battlefield fighting, you don’t do a lot of punching and kicking, you do a lot of grappling. Wrestling is the foundation of all martial arts. It’s the same in ancient European martial arts.  You learn to wrestle first, because close quarters combat is the foundation of battlefield combat, armed or unarmed.

Many Chen Taijiquan techniques start with an over and under hand position. All wrestling forms that start with an over and under position are based on the idea that you both have swords, and we’re both over hooking each other’s sword arms and the first one who gets thrown down gets stabbed to death. That’s where Sumo came from too. It’s the same with belt wrestling styles. All those styles are about stopping the guy drawing his weapon, or you’re holding his weapon hand and you start wrestling.

The second place where you see mostly grappling is in street fights: initial punches are thrown, no-one gets knocked out, so you start grappling. Taijiquan as martial art is based on grappling. Push hands is a type of wrestling drill. Their emphasis was to strike and do some damage and then throw the opponent down. What the style lacks, as with the rest of the traditional Chinese arts is the finish if the fight goes to the ground.  If you throw an opponent down you still have to close the deal, unless you knock him out with the throw which is not likely.

Taijiquan certainly isn’t too deadly for the ring. If you do free push hands (including throws and takedowns) on a padded surface, as long as the practitioners know how to break fall correctly you can practice all day long. There’s not one technique in Taijiquan which will kill you. If you watch a push hands competition, they’re throwing each other as hard as they can, sometimes off a Lei Tai platform. How many of them die?  With correct practice and the development of realistic skills, Taijiquan is a completely relevant wrestling style for inclusion in combat sports competition.

On the other hand, traditional Chinese styles like Taijiquan are not complete enough on their own to compete in MMA. There’s no ground fighting. Yes there are strikes in Taiji, but if you compare the striking techniques with boxing techniques for example, Taijiquan’s striking techniques will most often be found lacking.

Take a Chen Style practitioner who’s really good at stand up grappling.  If you teach him how to box and a little Brazilian Jiu Jitsu , why couldn’t they go in the ring? They could use their Taiji throws. What we called freestyle push hands when I trained in Taiwan and China, we call stand up wrestling in the US.  If you’re good at it, you’d be very good at self defence as long as you learn to defend against striking attacks.

Many Chen style guys still spar. Not only soft push hands, they really throw each other practising against full resistance. They have real skills at what they do. Just like Shuai Jiao practitioners. Taiji was invented for stand up fighting. If you said, let’s wrestle, they’d say ‘Sure, why not?’ But if you said to them, let’s do MMA, their correct response should be ‘I’m not prepared for MMA, I don’t know how to box, I don’t know how to ground fight’. It wasn’t created for an MMA ring. It’s the same with boxing: boxers can’t win MMA. It’s not invalidating Taijiquan as a style, it’s just not complete. They need to cross train, as do the practitioners of all other styles.

And how important are forms?

You have to realise that linked forms are more recent inventions. Look at Shuai Jiao, that’s what forms training was originally like. You basically do one technique left and right, repeating the basic movements over and over. Linking basic movements into long chains of movement is a more ‘modern’ creation, a physical mnemonic so you could remember so many movements.

Until 1950 most martial artists in China couldn’t read or write, or have money to hire someone to draw pictures, make notes etc., so they made poems about strategy and the practice of the linked forms. If I had you memorise a long list of random words compared to learning a song, you could remember thousands of lyrics comparatively speaking. So the linked form is also like a physical song.

But a form is not one long fight. Form movements teach techniques or different ways to generate force, linked together. Have you ever wondered why no other ‘creator’ of subsequent Taijiquan forms ever changed the basic directions and structure of the original Chen Taiji form? All traditional forms of Taijiquan follow the same pattern, because the post-Chen style creators recognised that the creator of the original form had much more realistic combat experience than them. The direction you do the form tells you the direction the techniques are applied, so it helps you remember the strategy of application.

So you’d say ‘You know that knockdown technique, I wonder how you enter it?’ Then you do the form and you go ‘Oh yeah, it’s got to be from this specific angle.’ So the way you were facing, the way you would turn, the angle you did it at in relation to the north south axes, the eight points of the compass, that was all embedded in the form.

But that was for the guys who already knew how to fight, not how you learned to fight. First you did single movements, for example single whip. Do it left right left right, and then you learn how to apply it. You’d drill it and apply it in sparring. Only then would they teach you the next move.

I love watching people do forms well. I really do. I can watch them on YouTube for hours. Many of the practitioners have great skill at forms, but it’s still no indication of their actual fighting ability. Maybe they can defend themselves as long as their training involves some non cooperative, full contact training, correctly done. But hopefully those guys wouldn’t lie to you and say it would work in the ring. If they have integrity, they’ll say ‘I can defend myself against most people’.

How much time should be spent on sparring if you want to produce a decent fighter who can use the art?

You need to maximize the effectiveness of your training time in class.  You can do your conditioning in your own time – run, lift weights – so let’s not count the warm up in class. You should completely minimise forms training, or do them just enough to get the movement down. Once you can do the form correctly, you’re not getting anything else out of it. You can use it to keep yourself coordinated, but it’s like teaching someone to do a jab cross in the air for three hours a day for a year and then you put him in the ring. He’ll get killed. So I would minimise that training in class.

A quarter of the time should be spent showing new movements. These can be practised at home. Of the time spent in class, at least 50% of it should be drilling,  for example a cooperative drill where you throw a jab cross at my head and I deflect those, and we go back and forth for timing. Or I punch at random and you cover. Or you keep shooting a takedown and I stuff the shot. Pick a limited format and then work on certain elements.  Drilling with your partner should always involve an ‘aliveness’ and not just be rote, repetitive and predictable.

The other 50% should be sparring. Again it might be in a limited format, limited to say, wrestling or boxing. I’m going to throw you and you’ve got to fight to get back up. Or we’ll spar using only kicks versus punches etc.  But it’s got to be non-cooperative and against full resistance. You need to be do that a lot.

I’m not saying forms are a waste of time. I’ve never said that, that’s completely false. Forms have their place. You need to practice them a lot to groove the relevant movements in your muscle memory. The most important thing they can teach you is the relationship between you, gravity and momentum. Gravity and momentum, the two great forces you have to learn how to deal with besides an opponent’s force.

A form can teach you how to use gravity and momentum to your advantage, and they can teach you correct footwork and how to coordinate your limbs. They can teach you how to generate power. They can teach you how to focus your vision with your strikes. They can even teach you strategies with your movement and act as a physical mnemonic to remember techniques.

The one thing forms cannot teach you is how to fight. Impossible. You have to have another person there. Some people think they can magically translate forms training into fighting. It will never happen. You’ve got to understand that forms, qigong, stance keeping, they’re all part of a system. Drills are part of a system. So when you’re with your partner in the school you should be spending almost the entire time with your partner, not doing solo training.

Partner forms also have their place. They are a big part of Xingyiquan training. You’ve got to have a transition from doing your movements in the air with no one there to applying the movements on another. You have someone holding a bag or pads, but then you’ve got to do it against a human. Two man forms can be a useful transition before you’re thrown in with gloves and full contact sparring.

Once a student knows the two person forms, it is important to begin throwing the strikes with full power. Because you know what’s coming. I step in with 100 percent commitment and you learn to deal with it with 100 per cent commitment. You go back and forth like that and it starts to give you an idea of the distance and timing of a real fight, in a safe format and it builds some useful reactions.

Just like when you’re boxing and you hold the pads and learn some combos. It’s the same idea as the two man form. Or in Thai boxing with the belly pads and shin pads. Then you go beyond that to fight. Hitting bags is necessary but won’t make you a boxer. Train with live partners is most important.  Fighting is fighting.

Is there any room for qigong in your approach?

Qigong’s a modern word that means breathing exercises or ‘breath work.’ These types of exercises, in a martial context, can be very good for you. They teach you to coordinate your intent, your breath and your movement. All the Qigongs for health, those are different, I’m not going to comment on them because I’m not a Chinese medicine professional.

Every boxing coach I’ve ever met has taught me how to breathe. If you want to talk about circulating mysterious energy, that’s not really part of the martial arts. But breathing correctly and using the breath as the bridge between your intent and your body, that’s very useful in fighting.

Intent, what the Chinese call yi, is interesting because everyone has a conscious mind and everyone focuses it to a certain extent. It’s a matter of developing it. It’s not mysterious. But you can develop intent to different levels: for body control and to generate force.

There are three factors that are necessary, but I put them in a different order than the traditional Chinese slogan. The first thing to develop if you want to fight and be successful is mindset, the focus of your intent, including your motivation.  That is by far the most important thing. The second factor is physicality: you need to be as strong, coordinated and fit as possible. The third factor is technique. Technique’s at the bottom of the pyramid.

People who practice martial arts without proper physical conditioning or pressure testing don’t like to hear that because they want to think that when a 280 pound streetfighting maniac attacks them, they’re going to defeat all that mass and power with technique alone. Maybe, but I’d put my money on the big guy.

No matter what you have, without the proper mindset you cannot win. There’s an analogy, I think originally taught by Yiquan teachers. It is ‘If you had a rabid wolf in a cage, and I grabbed you and forced you into the cage, you’d give me every dollar you have to stay out of the cage. If I put your son in there, you’d give me every dollar you have to get into the cage.’

So what’s the difference? Intent. The mindset to save your own life is completely different from trying to save a loved one. You have to have the will to fight. Attack a 110 pound mother’s child and see what she does to you. She’ll gouge your eyes out, she’ll rip your carotid artery out with her teeth. If you intimidated her in another situation that didn’t involve the safety of her child, she might turn to jelly and fall down.  No matter how strong and trained any fighter might be, without the proper mindset and motivation they will not be able to beat even a much weaker, untrained opponent who is determined to win. Mindset and motivation first.

Then comes physicality. People argue with me about that. They tell me, if you’ve got the technique it doesn’t matter how big and strong your opponent is. I say, go to your local TKD school. Find a 10 year old tiny tiger black belt. He’ll have absolutely perfect kicking form, are you telling me he’s going to kick the shit out of you in a real fight? No. Why not? He’s not big and strong enough.

Obviously you can overcome superior strength with technique to a great extent, but you’ve got to have the physicality. Was Masahiko Kimura easier to beat when he was 32 or 82? He had the same technique but his physicality had declined.

You’re fooling yourself if you think you’ll cultivate perfect technique and beat anyone no matter how strong they are. Yes, a 125 pound jiu jitsu blue belt will destroy a 240 pound strong guy who doesn’t know grappling. The big guy has no technique.

I have a formula: take two trained people: person A is 100 percent technically better than person B, but person B is 50 percent stronger than person A. Person B will probably win. It’s just the way it is.

A good example is when Royce Gracie fought Matt Hughes. Matt was a very good wrestler, but he beat Royce on the ground with Jiu Jitsu. Royce had to be 200 per cent better than Matt Hughes technically, but Matt still won because he is probably three times stronger than Royce.

So there you go. Now, in a street fight there’s the element of surprise, if I can introduce massive overwhelming force before you know what hit you, well I’ll never find out how good your technique is. I know people who knocked their attackers out on the street with pre-emptive strikes that would have had no chance had they not attacked first.   As I said, I have several students who have won fights using pre-emptive Piquan strikes to their adversary’s heads. But if all things are equal, the strong guy wins. Mindset, physicality, then technique.

If you’re not physically stronger, then you have to have superior leverage, or superior strategy to get the advantageous position, or you have to first weaken them. All those variables come into play, there are many ways to beat a guy, but you need to be strong specific to what you do.

A gymnast is strong and so is a powerlifter. The gymnast can’t deadlift as much as a powerlifter, but a powerlifter can’t do 50 pull ups. That strength is specific to its method of development. A professional Muay Thai boxer might be 120 pounds, but if you held pads for him you wouldn’t believe the amount of force he could generate with his strikes. But if you are a grappler and you wrestled the same guy, you’d probably throw him like a child. You’re good at what you practice.

It’s always better to be stronger than weaker. There’s no down side. I grapple guys who are massively stronger than me but I can dominate them because they don’t know how to use their strength yet, as it applies to grappling technique. But strength will allow the diligent to close the gaps in skill comparatively quickly.

Specific strength is what the Chinese call jin. I remember a Chinese teacher who told me to never lift anything heavy, because it’s going to ruin your chi and sensitivity. The same guy would have you take a 14 foot pole, hold it at one end, then stick out your arm and see how long you could hold it. But that is weight training, for a specific reason. Jin development involves specific strength and conditioning methods designed for specific types of use.

Once you have general physical preparedness, training needs to be specific to what you do. But I believe you could do same thing with weights more efficiently. Take deadlifting: is picking something up from the ground useful? Of course it is if you wrestle. If you do an Olympic lift where you have to use your whole body power in a big wave, how is that not useful for fighting? Sitting in a chair with your arm on a pad and doing a bicep curl, not so much. I don’t lift, but I’m all for it. Heavy compound lifts, what’s wrong with that? Every time you do a push up you’re lifting a weight.  Again, jin is power development for specific applications.

What sort of strength training do you favour yourself?

I use bodyweight exercises almost exclusively for the kind of power I want to develop. I also do partnered power training, but I don’t lift weights. I have nothing against weightlifting. If I was a pro-fighter I would lift. I just don’t have enough time.

I condition myself about an hour a day, and the rest of the time I might be on the mat, training, holding pads or rolling, but that’s not exercise, not for me, mostly for my students. In my competitive career some of my opponents were very strong, but never out of the ballpark strong, so I believe my methods are adequate for the techniques I use.

For me, the ability to do hold a one-armed handstand for minutes, or do handstand pushups, or repetitive standing back arches builds the kind of strength that I feel is functional for me in the time I have to train.

Your primary job is teaching BJJ now. Do you teach pure sport BJJ?

Now I teach BJJ with the gi and submission wrestling, and I coach MMA fighters as well. I teach self defence in the BJJ curriculum. For self defence classes, I teach a combination of BJJ combatives and other martial arts material, basic stuff like how to get out standing holds, dealing with punches and other common attacks.

Some of the basic techniques are straight out of Chinese arts. Anything I thought was the highest percentage that most people could do, I teach. In an actual fight, on the ground the strategy is very basic: fundamentally, you’re going to kick the opponent with your feet and try to get up and get away.

Whereas the strategy in MMA is to knock out or submit your opponent, in a street fight, the over-riding directive is to escape. So you don’t have to go into as much detail. There’s a lot more to learn if you’re an MMA fighter. MMA fighters are way over-qualified for basic self defence.

To a certain extent there’s a lot of misunderstanding among traditional martial artists that Brazilian jiu jitsu is just about ground fighting…

Well, they have a point. Modern sport Jiu Jitsu guys can fight on the ground, but in general they are not preparing for street fights, and many focus solely on sport fighting. A lot of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu schools are just sport schools, they do very little training stand up or with takedowns, matches start with pulling guard. They can fight on the ground, but if a guy walked up to them, grabbed them and punched them, they wouldn’t know what to do.

You have guys who are totally focused on sport ground fighting now because that’s how you make a living. You can get sponsors and win tournaments. They’re not doing what I’d call traditional Brazilian Jiu Jitsu , which includes all manner of techniques dealing with street attacks, including dealing with punches and kicks. In my academy, for part of our blue and purple belt tests, we put on boxing gloves and punch the students full force. They have to defend and cover, take their attacker to the ground and submit them. At a lot of schools there’s none of that anymore.

It’s kind of what happened in Judo: it went from being a well rounded mixed martial art to just throwing each other with hardly any ground fighting. If you go to a traditional BJJ club, their training will include self defence, how to defend against punches, how to get out of holds etc.

But the sport BJJ guys don’t have delusions of grandeur. If you ask them if they would win an MMA fight, they’d say not a chance, I wrestle on the ground in a gi. MMA guys who do jiu jitsu will kick the shit out of those guys who only do sport jiu jitsu . MMA fighters can fight.

What we forget is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was invented for the street. Tournaments came in much later, in the 70s. There were only Vale Tudo fights, and there were no rules at all. You could bite and gouge and anything else. Jiu Jitsu was basically for smaller people to defend themselves against people in street fights. You don’t see much of that anymore because you don’t get famous for having street fights. The Gracies got famous by challenging people and fighting in rings.

BJJ was based on Mitsuyo Maeda’s version of Judo and the Gracies added to it. There were three parts. One part was self defence. The self defence involved situations such as defending against someone with a knife or a gun, or when someone puts you in a hold, strategies for when there’s more than one guy, how to stay off the ground, how to block punches, how to be aware that someone’s drawing a weapon.

The next part was sport and that had two aspects: sport fighting in tournaments, in a gi and no gi, submission grappling.  And the third part they called Vale Tudo , which evolved into MMA. And to them that was the hardest part because now you’re fighting a trained dude one on one. Vale Tudo  back in the day was absolutely anything goes. It was a duel.

But although the techniques were the same across the board, the strategies changed. For instance, in a street fight, very few Gracie Jiu Jitsu techniques go to the ground, you always aim to stay on your feet. Whereas if you’re in an MMA ring, you immediately take your opponent down and look to finish on the mat.

Gracie Jiu Jitsu went to the sportive aspect in a much shorter time than Kodokan Judo. In Judo, self defence fell by the wayside, with weapons defences codified in katas that many modern Judo practitioners don’t bother learning. Then in Judo they introduced more and more rules against ground fighting to make it more exciting. Meanwhile Jiu Jitsu went the opposite way: concentrating on the ground with less throwing.

If people can go to the Olympics in the sport or become famous and make a living, that’s all they’re going to train for. Who can blame them? You would never see Buchecha or Keenan Cornelius spending hours a day learning knife defences. They don’t care and understandably so. Sport’s what they do for a living.

You’d hope the sport guys would spend some amount of time in the gym doing self defence, so they’d have some idea. But many have never been in a fight in their lives. They’re upper middle class kids in nice neighbourhoods.

It’s like saying, ‘Dude you’re really good at basketball, what if someone attacks you with a knife?’ What the fuck, are you crazy? The sport guys don’t really think about fighting, they think about sport wrestling. If athletes that focused on sport competitions would spend some time twice a week doing some combatives training with the gloves on they’d be perfectly capable of defending themselves in a fight. But most just don’t care.

That’s why in our school, they really recognise the value of putting the gloves on. I tell students, rolling on the ground might allow you to win a tournament, but the combatives training one day may save your life. You only need to spend 10 or 15 per cent of your time on it. It’s part of the traditional art.

Why do you think MMA still hasn’t taken off in China?

I taught a seminar in Shanghai two years ago, but when I taught it, of 30 guys, 22 were foreigners. It’s slow coming with the ground fighting. You’d think that if you taught the Sanda guys some rudimentary ground fighting, they’d be great in MMA.

When Kano modernised Judo the whole world was modernising. He said ‘Look, people think jiu jitsu is for thugs fighting in the street, samurai arts are going to be totally lost unless we modernise. Let’s create a modern curriculum, and make it sportive so people can compete’.

The Chinese decided to concentrate on forms, and a lot of promoting ‘martial arts’ for health. The Chinese mentality is left over from that era. At that time everyone was trying to codify things so they weren’t completely lost.

Old Chinese martial arts books reference sparring training. Back in the day martial artists would get big winter jackets and would sew a brass plate in the front as a breast plate inside the clothing and would wrap their shins with cloth so they could spar full contact. If you are a warrior in ancient China would you practice just by yourself? No, you’d spar.

Now you go to most any Chinese martial arts academy and you go ask the teacher to show you their style and I can almost guarantee you they will show you a form.

You walk into any real boxing gym and ask what boxing looks like and they’ll show you two guys punching each other with gloves on. You go to a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu academy and ask to see BJJ they’re not going to show you students shrimping up and down the mat, they’re going to show you students grappling on the ground. Judo? They’ll show you stand up grappling and throwing, not breakfalls.

The major exception in China is Shuai Jiao. If you went to a Shuai Jiao school and asked what Shuai Jiao looks like, you’ll see competitive throwing not forms practice.

If you really want to learn how to fight in any venue, in the street, in the ring, you’ll do best to go to a combat sport, or at least a style that includes non-cooperative full contact sparring on a regular basis. All the styles that make up MMA are sport styles. Guys who compete can really apply the techniques in their arts.  They keep it real because they’ve got to fight against another guy who is also trained. Their techniques are practical, their conditioning’s good, they’re always sparring.

There’s always the guy who says ‘We can’t fight in the UFC because we’re too deadly.’ But people realise it’s a ridiculous argument. People see through that bullshit.  Unless your entire style is comprised solely of groin grabs and eye pokes, you can spar realistically and develop real skills.

Some Chinese arts are going to adapt and combine with MMA. They’re going to knock off all the stuff that doesn’t work and learn some ground fighting and be able to compete.  Training for reasons other than fighting is perfectly legitimate, but practicing only forms, techniques and cooperative drills will not build realistic fighting skills to a high level. Teachers (and practitioners) need to be honest with their students and themselves and understand what types of training produce what types of results.  Misleading students into thinking they are learning skills that will translate into real fighting ability when they have been clearly proven ineffective is dangerous.

There are no guarantees no matter how you train, however when it comes to developing realistic fighting skills, the primary reason for the creation and development of all martial arts in the first place, I’d advise going with empirical evidence and proven results over tradition, anecdotes and promises.