Wing Chun and MMA: Controlling the Center

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Wing Chun remains the punchline of many jokes in the mixed martial arts community. In fact, I often receive tweets and emails asking me to come down on one side or the other in an argument between friends—one will say that Wing Chun is useless in a modern combat sports context, the other will argue that it is simply because no true Wing Chun masters feel moved to compete.

What if I were to tell you that both were wrong? Obviously, the man who thinks a true Wing Chun master could mop up in mixed martial arts is more laughably erroneous, but the idea that Wing Chun can hold no value is short sighted and arrogant.

The legendary Yip Man training on the wooden dummy.

Wing Chun's origin is foggy, but the traditional story has Ng Mui, a nun and one of the Five Elders—the five survivors of the burning of the Siu Lim temple—as the founder. Mui travelled and, as is inevitable in these kung fu origin stories, had an epiphany upon seeing a crane and a snake fight. One day she met a young woman named Yim Wing-Chun who was set to be forcibly married to a bandit or local ruffian. Mui stripped back her vast martial arts knowledge to what she thought were the most important and fundamental principles, taught Yim Wing-Chun, and the young maiden challenged her husband-to-be to single combat, before soundly drubbing him.

There are more lines of Wing Chun than you can shake a stick at, and it's hard to learn much about any of them without debates about lineage nose-diving into smear tactics. So-and-so didn't learn this, he wasn't shown the real Wing Chun, and so on. But across the board you will notice similar characteristics—the focus on hand trapping, the more square on stance, the rapid fire vertical fist punches and backfists, and the use of sticky hands practices.

When watching these extended chains of trapping and counter-trapping, most likely you are thinking “what nonsense”. When you see the chains of vertical fist punches from a square stance with the shoulders and fists failing to guard the jawline, you probably think it looks ludicrous.Yet, I would posit to you that the fundamental principles of Wing Chun are very sound.

Martial arts develop to best suit their training environment. If you train a ton of hand trapping and sticky hands work, you're going to go down the rabbit hole of trapping and counter trapping which non-Wing Chun / Kali opponents will never oblige you in. Just as if you train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in a gi, you will have done a ton of work against De La Riva and Reverse De La Riva guards which you will likely never encounter in an MMA fight.

The principles which Wing Chun is built on are sound as a pound, it is taking the style as a complete system which is dangerous.

The Principles of Wing Chun

If we take the traditional origin story with a pinch of salt (which is probably for the best, because Ng Mui is credited with being the founding teacher of half a dozen major lines of Chinese martial arts), we can speculate that Wing Chun was designed for the physically smaller fighter. Consequently, it is focused on speed and smothering.

Yip Man supposedly popularized the saying 'Lui lao hui soong, lut sao jik chung', meaning roughly 'As an opponent comes, I receive him. As he leaves, I escort him. Upon losing contact, I charge forward'. You will find similar sayings in other lineages of Wing Chun though, and they summarize the idea of Bik Ging—crowding power.

Rather than the karate idea of ikken hissatsu, 'one hit, certain death', Wing Chun's traditional ideas have always been far more pragmatic. Get in close, smother the opponent's hands and keep hitting until they fall. If they start moving away, stay in range. If you lose contact, charge in until you find it again.

If you want to see an example of this crowding power at the highest levels of combat sports, look to arguably the greatest fighter, pound-for-pound, of all time—Henry Armstrong. Armstrong was a featherweight who won the world title, then jumped right over the lightweight division up to welterweight—after winning the title there, he went after the lightweight champion and won that belt. Hammerin' Hank even went all the way up to middleweight and lost a decision to the champion which many thought he won.

Watch this featherweight take on one of the savviest counter punchers in the game at the time, welterweight champion, Barney Ross. Ross looks like a rag in the wind as Armstrong charges in, looking down at the floor, and fights by feeling. Crowding Ross, keeping contact, controlling the centreline with his head and shoulders as he chops away with short blows to the midsection and head.

Occupying the Center

This brings us on to perhaps the main tenet of Wing Chun—controlling the center. The idea that straight blows are the quickest between two points is nothing revolutionary in this day and age. Though world lightweight champion, Joe Gans was still astounding many with the line “Straight hitting gets boxers' plums” as recently as 1908. In fact, Gans as well as Jack Johnson and other old timers favored straight punching with the fist held vertical. You will still see men like Badr Hari do this today to drive their fist between an opponent's forearms when they're shelling up.

Wing Chun stylists focus great effort on being able to rattle off the vertical fist arm punch as fast as possible. But the idea of occupying the center line is perhaps the most interesting. The idea that if you occupy the shortest path between yourself and your opponent, be it by rapid, constant punching or by 'bridging' (hand trapping), the opponent will be forced to punch around, in slower blows.

This is summed up in this challenge match between a Wing Chun stylist and a karateka. The Wing Chun man flurries with his vertical fist straights, the karateka covers up and eventually attempts to swing around the incoming punches, throwing himself off balance and eating punches in the process which forces him to the ground. Challenge matches pretty much a stupid affair—you essentially have two men taking pride in refusing to broaden their horizons—but this one has a couple of nice moments.

Okay, but that was sloppy as hell. Yet the same principle can be seen at the highest levels of boxing in the great George Foreman. Foreman didn't flurry punches to occupy and control the center; he simply placed his palms in the way of his opponent's straight blows. Foreman's occupied the centerline nonetheless—you can't punch through someone's braced palms.

Foreman's right hand occupied the path of his opponent's jab, while his left alternated between checking his opponent's right and slamming in jabs, hooks and uppercuts. Notice that Norton jabs into the hand with little effect, before attempting to hook around it. Occupying the center line is forcing Norton to swing around, and these are slow and easy to see.

In this instance Foreman finds a beautiful right hook to the ribs as Norton recovers. The right hook to the body was Foreman's second best punch, behind his tremendous jab.

Foreman's head movement wasn't tremendous, but by occupying the path of his opponent's straight strikes he gave them a choice: punch into his gloves with no effect, or open up and swing, which would probably allow him to step in on them. Foreman fought plenty of straight punchers, including Ken Norton and Muhammad Ali and none of them had much luck out in the open, because he was willing to sacrifice the use of his hands just to occupy the line of their only hope of keeping him off them.

As soon as his man started getting frustrated, Foreman would thud another jab through. At his best, he really was a marvel to watch.

And this brings us on to the main element I wanted to talk about today, hand trapping. If you build a system around trapping, and assume that everyone is going to do their best to get a hand in front of your strike at any cost, you can start putting together flowing sequences of back and forth trapping and blocking. Here's Rick Young, a hugely important man to the growth of Jeet Kune Do, mixed martial arts, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Scotland and the U.K., demonstrating some old school trapping:

You will notice that firstly, there is a lot of backhanded strikes like knife hands etc to the neck. I'm not so keen to write them off since the return of the 'tattoo' or backhanded hammerfist has been making MMA more exciting for a short while now.

Hell, Jeff Curran even got knocked out by one a few weeks back.

But more importantly, much of the sequence is built around “if I do this, he does that”. The thing is, most people who know how to fight will do so from a boxing / kickboxing stance. If you slap their left hand down, their right hand isn't going to come across, it's going to stay pinned to their right jawline, protecting that. And that is the strength of hand trapping in combat sports—you trap their left hand, their left side is undefended, there is no reaching across to block with the other hand in boxing, kickboxing or MMA.

Now it may not have looked like Wing Chun, but Fedor Emelianenko did a pretty damn good job of hand trapping to get in and overwhelming a couple of his opponents. Here's the famous right hand trap to left hook against Zuluzinho:

“But Jack, that's Zuluzinho...” Oh yeah? Here's the exact same technique being used to easily get past Tim Sylvia's jab and dispatch the former UFC champion in 26 seconds, fresh off of a UFC title fight.

If that lead hand is dangling out there at all, as it is wont to do for most fighters, it can be trapped and written off for a moment.

In Muay Thai hand traps gain more importance each year. Muangthai PK Saenchai, 2014's Fighter of the Year, looks nothing like a kickboxer—instead stepping in with his hands over his opponents and landing knees.

Or landing quick elbows as he steps in while smothering the boxing of his opponent with his gloves:

I highly recommend reading Muay Thai Analyst's extensive article on this fascinating young fighter.

But more and more in MMA, it is trapping range which is proving to be the difference. Much of the first Hendricks-Lawler bout was spent striking from a range where both men could grasp the other's wrists. The final round of Machida versus Weidman was almost all fought in trapping range, rather than the clinch proper.

Weidman even landed that beautiful turning over elbow that he loves.

Once both fighters know how to strike and how to wrestle, the middle range between the two takes on new importance. The range where you can place your hands on your opponent and maneuver him, but also get force on your strikes. This sport is constantly changing and evolving, don't be surprised if this is a common feature of the game in five or six year’s time.

I've prattled on for some time now, and I would hardly call this a definitive treatise on Wing Chun in MMA, but over and over again we are seeing that the fighters who are willing to learn, change, and retest ideas from the past are finding keys to the future of MMA. There is a tendency to throw anything which doesn't fit on the slop pile immediately, only to see it vindicated later—high kicks, side kicks to the knee, and so on. Bruce Lee said that we should absorb what is useful and discard what is useless, but I would add the caveat that everything discarded should only be placed on a pile to re-evaluate at a later date.

In fact, earlier in this article I wrote that extended series of traps and “if he does this, I trap it and hit like this” hypotheticals were not suited to combat sports. A couple of examples already exist to prove the potential of such trapping sequences. The first being George Foreman's wicked double hand trap against Gerry Cooney:

Foreman checks Cooney's jab with his right while jabbing, then draws his left hand down on top of Cooney's left to fire his right hand over it. It’s just gorgeous technique.

And in terms of predicting an opponent's reaction and building “he'll do this and I'll do that” sequences, here's an example from the great Anderson Silva. Silva throws a faked left straight, in order to get Yushin Okami to parry, then uses his left hand to drag Okami's hand away from his head for the high kick. But then, Silva utilizing a valuable technique before it's fashionable is about as unsurprising as a professional athlete using performance enhancing drugs.

As a bonus, Silva follows Okami to the fence while trapping both hands and delivering a knee strike.

So there you have it. Is Wing Chun useless? Goodness no. Its training practices are outdated, and much of it has been made irrelevant to combat sports or self defense by going too far down the trapping rabbit hole, but there's still plenty of good stuff to be gleaned from a study in the art. Learn to box, learn to wrestle, learn to trap. Value the old stuff and the new; you never know where you'll find a technique which will give you an edge.   

Pick up Jack Slack's ebooks at his blog Fights Gone ByJack can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.


Check out these related stories:

The Bible of Striking: Elements of Defense

Fighting Motives: How Rules Change Styles

Return of the Dragon: How Bruce Lee Predicted the Future of Fighting