Given the popularity of modern combat sports events like the UFC and the history of combat sports like the lei tei (擂臺) , it seems strange to have to make the argument for the value of combat sport training in today’s martial arts community. However it is still very common to see posts in online communities dedicated to traditional martial arts attempting to make the argument that combat sport fighting is not real fighting. The primary purpose for training the martial arts is as a method of self protection using physical force to counter an immediate threat of violence. Such force can be either armed or unarmed. In either case, the chances of success depend on a large number of parameters as situations where one is forced to use their skills are largely unpredictable. Choy Lay Fut was a system originally employed as a method of fighting for militias and fighting troops during a turbulent period of Chinese’s history. The original purpose of the system has led some opponents of sport combat training to believe that the system is not intended for sport and such practice is deluding the practical nature of the system. While many practitioners can often be resistant to new ideas, modern sports combat training can offer a wealth of benefits to the traditional martial artist.
A combat sport is a competitive contact sport that usually involves one-on-one combat. Typically in a combat sport a combatant wins by scoring more points than the opponent or by disabling the opponent within an established set of rules. Combatants usually fight one-on-one. Different combat sport formats involve different skill sets and rules. In Ancient China, combat sport appeared in the form of Leitai, a no-holds-barred combat sport that utilized the full spectrum of Chinese martial arts, striking, wrestling and weapons. Lei tai in its present form appeared during the Song dynasty when it was used for striking and Shuai Jiao exhibition matches and private duels. An ancestor of the lei tai was used during the Qin dynasty to hold wrestling competitions between imperial soldiers. The winner would be chosen to act as a bodyguard to the emperor or a martial arts instructor for the Imperial Military.
The author on the Lei Tai saluting the judges before the beginning of a SanDa (free fight) match. In the Second picture the author is using a leg catch followed by a punch and sweep counter to take his opponent down. SanDa is a Chinese combat sport which usually takes place on the Lei Tai and allows punches, kicks, knees and takedowns
A tradition in the Chinese martial arts was for a practitioner whom wanted to establish themselves as a martial arts instructor in a new location, to initiate an open challenge on top of the leitei to established martial art practitioners in the area. A fighter lost the match and his credibility if he fell, was forced off or was knocked to the floor of the stage. The winner of the match remained on the leitei unless he was forced off himself. If there were no more challengers, he became the champion and or established the dominance of his system of combat in that area. In order to become a champion, a fighter had to defeat countless opponents. For instance, Lama Pai Grandmaster Wong Yan-Lam set up his own lei tai platform in front of Hai Tung Monastery in Guangdong after having worked as a famous bodyguard in Northern China. For 18 days, he fought over 150 other martial artists and was never defeated Shortly afterwards, he was elected as the leader of the Ten Tigers of Canton, who were the top ten martial arts practitioners in Guangdong.
The irony of the Traditional martial arts versus combat sports debate is that combat sport fighting has always been a vital component of martial arts. Many who practice the traditional martial arts view the practice of combat sports as antagonistic towards their practice. To understand the issue it’s helpful to re-evaluate our terminology. What is a “traditional martial art”? The term in itself, while conjuring images of Shaolin monks in robes wielding ancient weaponry, doesn’t really mean anything in the context of this debate. Combat sports have existed in China since antiquity, and current combat sports are undeniably linked to traditional martial art and exist as a continuation of those methods. Training for combat sports can help the traditional martial arts practitioner reorganize their training and make it more efficient by focusing in a specific direction.
Hung Sing Martial Arts Association instructor Maickon Carrico delivering a devastating straight left hand that downed his opponent in a SanDa Match
Chinese Martial Art Refocused
The Choy Lay Fut system was created in 1836, by founder Chan Heung in Guangzhou, a southern province of China. Seeking out the most information he could find on the Chinese martial arts led Chan Heung to seek the tutelage of 3 different teachers during his life time. Like many contemporary mixed martial artists, he sought to consolidate the 3 different methods of his teachers into one method utilizing the strengths of each. Because of this, Choy Lay Fut is a well rounded method combining powerful striking methods with grabs/holds, kicking and solid yet nimble footwork.
Choy Lay Fut is often thought to be a vast and complex system of martial arts by both the casual observer and even many students of the system. This line of thinking can be attributed to a large quantity of empty hand and weapons forms practiced by the various schools teaching the system. The number of forms practiced by an individual Choy Lay Fut practitioner can range from only a few to well over forty. If you take into account all the variations and unique forms created by and taught by the different lineages of the system the number of empty hand and weapons forms can easily number in the hundreds. If you include the different apparatus training sets and partner drills, the sheer volume of the system can become such that even a diligent practitioner can seem overwhelmed and unsure of how to properly identify those things that should be priorities in training for combat efficiency. The key to making effective use of this vast library of material is through an understanding and proper focus on the systems core concepts.
The Choy Lay Fut method is centered on its key combative concepts such as the 10 elements, asterisk footwork, gate theory etc. These concepts give a practitioner the tools to deal with various vectors of force leading to a better understanding of fighting in general and as such making it easier for the practitioner to fight against an aggressor regardless of that aggressor’s background and training in other systems. Approaching the system as a conceptual method will allow the Choy Lay Fut practitioner to cut through the vast quantity of material and understand how to effectively apply the system in combat. The conceptual method of training a martial art can be compared to learning a new language. Learning only forms and techniques with no understanding of the concepts behind them is similar to attempting to communicate in a foreign language using a phrase book. You may be able to ask specific questions like “where is the bathroom” but you will not be able to express your own ideas and converse fluently. The conceptual method of learning a martial art is similar to learning a foreign language in its entirety. You begin with the core concepts which can be compared to an alphabet then you move on to combining concepts together which is like forming words. Finally you can put together combinations and apply these concepts where they are needed and, in essence, converse freely with your opponent.
A video explaining one of Choy Lay Fut's 10 elements, Sau, and showing it being trained for combat sport application. Simple strikes such as these, not complicated applications or "deadly" techniques, are what the practitioner should be focused on when training for combat efficiency.
One of the most critical problems facing the Chinese martial arts today is a lack of adequate training to prepare the practitioner for an actual fight. While there is a variety of training methods used to develop attributes to be used in combat the main method of instruction and practice in most traditional Chinese martial arts is related to forms practice. A form is a set of formalized prearranged movements, techniques and set combinations of movement that a practitioner of the traditional Chinese martial arts performs either against an imaginary attacker, with partner mimicking an actual fight or on a training apparatus such as a wooden dummy or heavy bag. A legacy of the Chinese martial arts foundation as a battlefield combat method many of the techniques in the Chinese martial arts cannot be performed in anything but an all out fight. Techniques such as clawing, eye gouging, hair pulling etc are commonly used in most methods. Obviously these methods cannot be used safely on a training partner. So complaint drilling and forms practice have become the main method of practice in most schools. Over time the aesthetically pleasing movements of the form have become an end to itself. “Mastery” in performance of the form is often mistakenly taken as mastery of combat itself.
Traditional forms, if unaltered for aesthetic appeal, utilize the core fundamentals of the system and utilize different exercises meant to develop attributes useful in combative situations. The efficiency of forms training in developing combative skills has been questioned for some time now. Though not necessary to reach proficiency in combat, forms can serve as a valuable training tool for practitioners of the Chinese martial arts. The principle of specificity in modern athletic training states that in order to derive benefit from physical training for an activity the training should mimic the activity one is training for as closely as possible. Perhaps the greatest advantage a Choy Lay Fut practitioner can reap from forms practice is the ability to consolidate technical training with physical conditioning. As stated previously, the principle of specificity states that performing a specific exercise primarily develops the physical attributes or skills of that exercise. The practice of forms provides a type of drilling that develops not only the conceptual and strategic components of a system but also helps to develop the physical attributes needed to employ the system in combat.
When utilized properly traditional forms can be a valuable part of an over all training regimen. Here a Choy Lay fut practitioner from the Ng Family Chinese Martial Arts Association does the technique Kuixing Kicks the Stars 魁星踢斗 in both the form and in free sparring
Live training is an essential part of preparing for combat sports. However, the problem with many systems of traditional martial arts is that many of the techniques have unsafe elements that are unsuitable for daily live training. If sparring practice becomes too dangerous, practitioners will not progress as a result of high injury rate and attrition. The solution to this problem has been the removal of these “dangerous techniques” replaced with a focus on those that can be used in regular training an excessive injury rate. For instance the Chop Choi sparring method used by the Ng family Chinese Martial Arts Association removes attacks to the upper gate (head) as a way to counter the high rate of head injury experienced by regular free sparring. The criticism of decisions such as this has been that by removing dangerous techniques or limiting targets the system will become watered down or less combat effective. Fighting techniques are physical skills and like all other physical skills they require realistic practice to make them effective. “Deadly” techniques only have theoretical deadliness and little practical deadliness as they have never been practiced in any situation that approximates the resistance they will get from an actual opponent. On the other hand regular practice of “safe” techniques in a realistic way creates a more effective practitioner through regular practice of the core concepts in a situation more approximate to what they would face in combat.
There is a gap between technique and application of a technique. A technique may be considered effective independent of the practitioner, however if applied poorly it will fail to have the desired effect. The value of a technique is limited by the practitioner’s ability to apply it. It therefore makes sense that the practitioner should prioritize the effective application of the core concepts over the accumulation of “deadly” technique.
At the Ng Family Chinese Martial Arts Association a method of applying the progressive resistance method of training the Choy Lay Fut system’s core concepts has been instrumental in the practitoners success in full contact combat sports competition. Compliant drilling with a partner allows the practice of correcting structure and correct application of a technique. However, in order to achieve correct structure and application in free sparring, a practitioner’s technique must be stressed by additional stimuli such as changes in timing, distance and the partner’s compliancy levels. If these stimuli are not introduced in a gradual incremental increase, then the attributes developed in the early compliant stages of drilling will degrade when there is an excess of stimuli introduced during free sparring.
The Value Of Combat Sports to the Traditional Martial Arts
One criticism many traditionalists make is that the rules of a given competition may not allow for the full range of techniques their system employs. As a traditional martial art Choy Lay Fut employs a wide range of strikes that with little modification or exclusion can be used in most competitive formats. The key is finding the competitive format that most aligns with your values as a martial artist. Full contact fighting events are what we have found most align with our values. We do use other formats such as continuous sparring as a primer for those that are new to competition that want to try it out and may not be ready for full contact. Even if the practitioner doesn’t wish to compete, using combat sport methods as part of the overall training can yield significant results. For instance, the removal of “dangerous techniques” and using safety gear such as head gear and gloves offers protection that allows training with more intensity more frequently in a way that is a closer approximation to the aggression and pressure one would face in an actual fight. Having a goal or event to actually train for can provide motivation to ramp up the intensity in your training. Periodization is the systematic planning of athletic or physical training. [The aim is to reach the highest level of performance for the most important competition of the year. Conditioning programs can use periodization to break up the training program into the offseason, preseason, in season, and the postseason. Periodization divides the year round condition program into phases of training which focus on different goals. Adding modern training protocols such as this can help develop attributes needed in both sport combat and self defense.
Situations where one is forced to use their skills are unpredictable. The primary purpose for training the martial arts is as a method of self protection. Even with that being the case the only thing you can do to prepare for the unpredictable nature of a true fight is to develop attributes that are beneficial to fighting in general. Sport combat methods train these attributes and offer a multitude of benefits for both the competitive and non competitive martial artist.