Next weekend the world will be introduced to a magnificent, ancient, deeply spiritual martial art in the Hollywood film, “Never Back Down.” This movie depicts the grace and beauty of a young man destined to prove his worth and show his determination by studying the magnificent history of MMA. Wait, this movie’s about MMA? Since when did MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) have such a deep philosophical background? Answer; It doesn’t.
MMA is a touchy subject here in Portland, where the fighting “art” has taken deep roots and has garnered the city a modicum of fame. MMA started in Portland thanks mostly to Team Quest, the local training gym that has pumped out more than its share of champions. In fact Portland gyms regularly send fighters trained here to championships around the world, and are known for their mostly “ground and pound” style.
Popularity of MMA has spread like a wildfire since the early 90’s and the advent of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship). Originally a place where multiple disciplines of fighting arts could prove once and for all which style was the best, in recent years it has become a watered down version of those original bloody fights and is now a tame spectator sport idolized by all the (mostly white) high school kids that like to act tough but don’t feel as though they need any real skill. Ironically, the heroes to most MMA practitioners taught that these arts were about survival and not about pretty gold belts or trophies.
Perhaps the most influential icon in creating modern MMA is a man named Royce Gracie. Royce comes from an extremely long line of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu masters that began testing other martial arts against theirs in the early 1920’s. When Royce came to the UFC, his (at the time) unique style of grappling and submissions were unheard of and quickly became the most exciting part of any match.
Most fights in modern MMA styles inevitably go to the ground, and that’s where the Gracie method goes into play. What modern “fighters” miss is that Gracie was a brilliant tactician. He never went to the ground unless he knew exactly how many seconds it would take to make his opponent submit. The match would end shortly after his lightning fast hands would catch an arm bar or choke. Opponents today lay together on the ground for what seems like hours chipping away at the other’s defense less like chess masters and more like rutting pigs.
If Royce Gracie embodied the physical aspect of MMA, no one represented the true “spirit” of a fighter than the immortal Bruce Lee. Or rather, an immortal Bruce Lee quote. More often than not, any discussion with a MMA fighter about their legitimacy will invoke some garbled misquoting about how Lee thought the best martial art would be a mixture of all martial arts. In his own words, “The best fighter is not a Boxer, Karate or Judo man. The best fighter is someone who can adapt to any style." What most don’t realize is that while Lee’s words will always be inspirational, he was never talking about MMA.
Lee said, “Many will probably end up as a prisoner of a systematized drill. Styles tend to not only separate men - because they have their own doctrines and then the doctrine became the gospel truth that you cannot change.” He never said that mixing techniques is the best way; he said that becoming stagnant in one style is counter productive. For that matter, MMA doesn’t mix styles. It took the three different aspects of grappling, wrestling, and boxing and formed strict rules around them creating a steadfast system that can’t and won’t change. The complete antithesis of Lee’s outlook on martial training.
MMA wishes that you’ll believe it is a valid martial “art”, instead of the evolution of what amounts to bear wrestling. They are incredibly strong, and there is no doubt that they need to be physically fit to compete in their sport. However, the attempt to fabricate a rich history and philosophy behind what is essentially prize fighting is down right insulting.
The attitude of many MMA faithful is accurately represented by next weekends sure to be blockbuster. To, “Never Back Down” is to encourage the idea that if you always fight, eventually you’ll have to win. That anything can break if you just punch it enough times with the right mixture of rock/rap music in the background. I’d rather take an actual lesson from the words of Bruce Lee. I’ll flow like water, right past every MMA gym I see.