Style-versus-style remains one of the most attractive promises in combat sports. For some reason nothing is more interesting to the casual observer than fights that supposedly prove the superiority of one fighting style over another. Boxing versus MMA, karate versus kung fu, wrestling versus judo—you name it, someone has booked it and marketed it. Even in the modern UFC 'striker versus grappler' is still a compelling match up, despite training daily with top tier Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioners, Khabib Nurmagomedov can get people talking about 'sambo versus jiu jitsu', and of course fictional news about Conor McGregor versus Floyd Mayweather makes the headlines in publications that should know better every couple of weeks.
The dojo storming is a proud and silly tradition in style-versus-style debates, not just true styles but even sub styles of the same martial arts. For every Gracie family or Kano Jiu Jitsu dojo storming where an important and overlooked principle of combat is proven, there are a hundred that are just stupid beyond words. For examples of sublimely ridiculous dojo wars one need only read about the life of Count Juan Raphael Dante. Count Dante (who predictably was not a Count or Spanish) had various run ins with the Chicago Cobra Kai, supposedly had a friend murdered in a dojo storming, and was caught strapping dynamite caps to a rival dojo in 1965. When he died of a bleeding ulcer at just 36-years-old, Dim Mak rumours started flying.
For an example of the kind of disgusting, pig-headed stupidity that can be involved in this almost tribal dojo storming stuff you need only look up the footage of the Bobby J. Blythe incident wherein a mentally retarded man was supposedly beaten to death. The 'supposedly' is because conflicting stories have been drummed up in the aftermath, but you can readily watch the man have his head stomped into the floor on camera and be dragged out leaving a trail of blood after already verbally yielding long before. Video of the incident is available all over the Internet but as a fair warning: it is revolting and watching it will ruin your day. It is hard to find information about the aftermath but it seems as though nothing ever came of the video evidence of what seems to be at the least grievous bodily harm or even attempted murder.
Xu Xiaodong vs. Wei Lei
Style versus style challenge matches are back in the news this week as a retired MMA fighter named Xu Xiaodong met a Taichi master named Wei Lei in Chengdu for the honour of Chinese martial arts. Wei Lei was apparently the hot thing in Taichi since appearing on a Chinese documentary demonstrating chi-based magic tricks such as using a force field of chi to prevent a bird from leaving his hand. In the kung fu canon of street magic—and it is a grand tradition with an interesting history—that was a new one for this writer. As magical feats go it was also kind of underwhelming.
Apparently the populace believed it though, and why wouldn't they? Fighting is hard to appreciate and magic is not. The legendary Mas Oyama built his reputation on magic tricks and feats he learned as a performing strong man more than his actual fighting ability. It is well worth reading Jon Bluming's account of his time with Oyama and the many methods of 'monkey business' that Oyama used. The footage of Mas Oyama wrestling a bull seems remarkable but there is something off about it that you just can't put your finger on. Then you realize that it is just an old, dying ox that they then hit in the horn with a hammer until it was hanging so that Oyama could karate chop it off. This explains why the 'bull' at no point fights back and just wants to be left alone, and the video becomes a lot sadder. But that one piece of theatre on film was evidence enough that you will now regularly hear the story of how Oyama fought and killed almost thirty bulls with his bare hands in his lifetime.
Xu Xiaodong was apparently largely self-taught which is believable because mixed martial arts is still in its infancy in China. And doubly believable when you see that even against Wei Lei, who clearly has no clue how to carry himself, he runs straight past the Taichi master as the latter pivots off line by accidental instinct.
However, Xiaodong followed up with his running, lunging strikes and easily put Wei Lei down, following up with strikes on the ground for an easy knockout to a stunned silence from the crowd. The impetus for the fight was Xiaodong calling Chinese martial arts outdated and fake, and the results certainly helped his case. Now he is public enemy number one to the Chinese martial arts community and is attempting to hustle together money fights with professional boxers and the bodyguards of millionaires. One Chinese soft drink magnate has just offered a two million dollar bounty to any kung fu stylist who can beat Xiaodong, missing the point entirely by treating Xiaodong himself as the problem. Xiadong is not the problem and in fact he is completely unremarkable as a fighter. Beating him does not restore the honour of Chinese martial arts to anyone with an ounce of common sense. Xiaodong's victory over Wei Lei should instead be seen as a symptom of a focus on mysticism and a fear of actual feedback within the Chinese martial arts world.
Xu Xiaodong wasn't born a better fighter than Wei Lei or any other Chinese martial arts master. He became a better fighter by fighting, and that is the part that so many traditional martial arts purists struggle to deal with. A blacksmith learns to make horseshoes by making a thousand rubbish horseshoes. An artist learns to draw by trying his best a thousand times and producing nothing but fractionally improving garbage. Why would fighting be any different? You don't have to take professional fights to get better at fighting, but you do have to struggle against the will of other people regularly. This so called 'aliveness' in training is what makes people better and prepares people for the worst. But Wei Lei had a set idea of what he was going to do coming in and so did the famous kiai-jutsu master who was easily drubbed in a challenge match a few years back:
I don't know much about Xu Xiaodong or the fighter from the above clip, but I can guarantee you that they spent their first grappling session being smashed, their first boxing session unable to touch their opponent, and their first kickboxing session getting kicked in the leg whenever they had just missed a kick of their own. That is the real value of 'aliveness' in training, it prepares you for the absolute worst and builds you from the ground up. Dominick Cruz goes into a fight looking to stay off the fence, but he knows what to do if and when he gets there. A kiai master finds out that he cannot paralyze his opponent with his shout in the opening seconds and then what is there? When the opening gambit fails for a man who has been repeatedly promised that his non-fighting training will making him unbeatable in a fight, it undermines ten to twenty years of belief he has placed in magic. What would be a minor setback becomes an all-out crisis of faith. But when something goes wrong for someone who trains with people better than him, day in and day out, it is just a mild inconvenience that necessitates a quick tactical adjustment. In the aftermath of the Wei Lei – Xu Xiaodong 'superfight', Lei is apparently claiming that he held back his true internal strength for fear of killing Xiaodong. We can only hope that this is an embarrassing attempt to save face and not something that Wei Lei actually tells himself to rationalize his inability to fight.
But that is the real shame about challenge matches like these, and the reason it can be hard to get joy out of them. Real charlatans don't agree to challenge matches publicly and invite the press along. Men claiming to have the death touch or the 'answer' to MMA are a dime a dozen, but you won't see many backed into the corner of actually proving it. When a no touch knockout master fails to make someone fall down in a careful demonstration, there are zero repercussions with the believers—maybe he had a bad lunch or something. But the fact that Wei Lei and the kiaijutsu master actually drummed up the interest, set the date and turned up to prove their art suggests that they aren't knowingly running a scam and stealing people's money for techniques that don't work. It means that they themselves actually believe in what someone else sold them. When you look at it like that it is hard not to feel bad for these men.
Dojo Storming for the Better
Style-versus-style fights have served their purpose. While James Toney versus Randy Couture in the UFC and Conor McGregor versus Floyd Mayweather in a boxing ring will tell the experienced fan or practitioner nothing at all about their 'styles', there have been style-versus-style fights that change the way we practice martial arts. When Jigoro Kano was advocating a style of jiu jitsu which abandoned more dangerous techniques in order to allow more free sparring or ' randori', he and his students were able to prove not the superiority of Kano's 'style', but the superiority of his practice methods and philosophy. When the Gracie's were storming dojos and winning vale tudo tournaments the lesson learned was not really that 'Gracie Jiu Jitsu' is the best martial art, but that ground fighting is an enormously important and undervalued element of fighting generally.
Wushu Watch: Dojo Storming for a Better TomorrowOn the other hand, however, it is a good thing that these campaigns were not entirely successful. There were plenty of taekwondo or karate practitioners who saw the Gracies In Action tapes and quit their art thinking it was useless in a real fight because at the time it seemed to be the truth. In the modern era techniques and principles from karate, taekwondo, and a dozen other arts are changing fights at the highest levels of MMA. The absorbing of ideas and testing them is what makes a martial artist, not whose flag or gi patch he's sporting. Certainly there is value in examining the old if only for the inspiration it provides. Studying classical forms and texts is an excellent past time for the bored or injured martial artist. The old Chinese text The Bubishi contains some remarkably solid ideas about fighting and self-defence, but also contains a heap of disproven nonsense about the death touch, chi meridians, and alchemy. Who knows, maybe one day chi will be proven to exist and effectively weaponized—but no one is going to do it without testing it day in and day out against resisting, competent sparring partners. Whether someone believes in chi balls or not is relatively unimportant: the fact that there are apparently still hordes of angry Chinese martial artists who believe they can fight without meeting an ounce of resistance or adversity in the gym is extremely disappointing.