The Evolution of MMA and Dodo Birds

Rabid fans of mixed martial arts often consider their sport to be a proven, scientific, and highly evolved form of fighting. Modern MMA practices are contrasted with those of American Judo and Karate-do—unwittingly cast to represent “traditional martial arts” at large—and judged uniformly superior.

Putting aside the revisionist history underlying such comparisons, let us consider the possibility and implications of MMA’s evolution. What can Darwin’s theory teach us about the present state, predict for the future fate of mixed martial arts?

Ask a Dodo About MMA

Many centuries ago, a flock of pigeons departed their native land, roosting on the tiny Indian island of Mauritius. Enjoyed the relaxing tropical atmosphere, and an environment free of natural predators, they decided to stay awhile.

Dodo bird

While the vast ocean protected the birds from attack, evolutionary forces reshaped their bodies and minds. They got big, and maybe a little fat. They stopped flying around, preferring to walk instead. Some even claim the birds turned dumb. In short, the pigeons evolved into Dodo birds.

Within their restricted environment, the Dodo birds were champions of survival. Alas, mankind eventually changed the rules.

As humans settled on the island, they brought along their dogs, cats, pigs, and other domestic animals. Although the Dodo birds were much larger and stronger than their flying ancestors, they were nevertheless unable to compete against these new threats. The Dodo bird went extinct in the late 17th century, and any Dodo bird industries were shut down forthwith.

Change Is Not Progress

The story of the Dodo bird illustrates that relative fitness to a particular ecosystem, does not indicate unconditional superiority.

Cultural practices and disciplines are also subject to variation, reproduction and natural selection. Like biological organisms, martial arts evolve with their environment. If we are to seriously consider MMA as an evolved form of traditional martial arts, then we must answer the following questions:

How do we define the ecosystem of mixed martial arts? Where are its boundaries?
What are the natural predators of MMA? And for how long can it be protected?

36 comments on “The Evolution of MMA and Dodo Birds”

  1. It’s funny that your strawman uses Judo and Karate, as they are two styles well represented in MMA.

    I think the arguments within MMA against “TMA” has more to do with those schools that train without any amount of pressur testing, those that purport to teach mysticism and magic and those that sell belts. Otherwise, my experience has been that most mma guys train or have trained in one or more traditional styles.

  2. Steve,
    Any one who says that “traditional martial arts” are about lining up and performing synchronized kata in uniform, for example, is referring to offshoots of a particular Japanese teaching method. Judo and Karate were introduced to America a century ago, earlier than most everything else.

    It should go without saying that the realm of historical fighting arts is broad and vast, beyond these two styles–shouldn’t it? And this complexity is ignored in 90% of MMA vs. TMA discussions–isn’t it? So I ask you specifically, where is the “strawman”?

    A friend of mine told me about his recent “traditional martial art” test. He was given a blindfold, and a knife, and locked in a room with a wild boar. I’ve never read anything like that on an MMA blog.

  3. Chris,

    Sorry, I tried to be clear. The strawman is this stereotype you use of what MMA is and isn’t. You conveniently ignore the fact that Karate and Judo are both well represented within MMA at all levels, and TMA in general forms the basis for many MMA competitors’ martial training. Many train both in a gi and without. You are arguing against a very broad stereotype that, in my opinion, represents more the typical MMA fan than the mixed martial artist.

    You also presume that no one who trains or competes in MMA has a traditional background. Once again, many currently do or have in the past trained in a traditional Eastern style. Most train in Muay Thai. Some train in San Shou.

    The opinions on kata and the like vary immensely. The key for most guys who I know that train in MMA is an emphasis on pressure testing, sparring with varying degrees of contact and a bias toward competition.

    As for the rest, I would submit that most MMA blogs really don’t care one way or the other what TMA schools do or don’t do, which is why you rarely read a positive post. Only the ones who feel strongly enough toward the negative say anything at all. The rest likely just don’t care enough to comment.

  4. Chris, it also occurs to me that you are fundamentally mischaracterizing MMA. It is widely recognized within the MMA culture not as a “proven, effective and highly evolved” form of fighting. Rather, the training methods are proven effective.

    The style of MMA is one characterized by constant innovation and recognized within MMA as one that is rapidly evolving, rather than highly evolved. MMA now is very different than it was 10 years ago. 10 years from now it will be different again. The evolution thus far is largely as a result of better synthesis between the various arts.

    This is, in m opinion, the biggest difference and the one that seems to draw the most push back from some… the reluctance to admit that their “ancient” art is better suited for historical significance than any modern relevance. To be clear, this isn’t what many MMA guys think… it’s what TMA practitioners assert that all MMA guys think in order to help them justify the straw man that helps them… i don’t know… sleep at night, I guess. Once again, my personal experience has been that most MMA guys come from a traditional background and don’t really care all that much one way or the other.

  5. Sorry, I tried to be clear. The strawman is this stereotype you use of what MMA is and isn’t. You conveniently ignore the fact that Karate and Judo are both well represented within MMA at all levels, and TMA in general forms the basis for many MMA competitors’ martial training. Many train both in a gi and without. You are arguing against a very broad stereotype that, in my opinion, represents more the typical MMA fan than the mixed martial artist.

    Note my intentional choice of phrase, “rabid fans of mixed martial arts,” which has been there all along. Now if you think their heads are filled with straw, please, I am not responsible for that! Let me assure you, they really do exist–and I am entitled to respond to them.

    It is nearly impossible to talk about “TMA in general”, and certainly inappropriate to equate it to some amalgam of Judo and Karate. So whether mixed martial artists actually employ Judo and Karate is beside my point.

    Do you have any opinion on the evolution questions I posed above?

  6. Chris, it also occurs to me that you are fundamentally mischaracterizing MMA. It is widely recognized within the MMA culture not as a “proven, effective and highly evolved” form of fighting. Rather, the training methods are proven effective.

    In the same sense that the Dodo bird was proven effective? Or in a fundamentally different sense? 😉

  7. MMA is simply a mix of different martial arts it has the same advantages and dis-advantages of the martial arts that make it up. It is not the martial art it is the fighter in the end ALL martial arts are the same kick, punch and grab. The way the fighter is trained and what they train to do will determine what they can do. In my personal opnion krav maga training is the best form of training there is, not because of the techniques but because of the way they teach you.

  8. Darwin is something I know well. Keeping with your theme I’ll say this much: The martial arts environment has changed since certain traditional arts were developed.

    MMA is one of the top predators in the sport world. Krav Maga, Marine Core Combatives, etc., are probably top competitors on the “reality” side of things.

    There are many reasons to still learn a “traditional” art and traditional arts do bleed over into the above two worlds. However, it’s my opinion that these are three distinct and different worlds.

  9. Chris is right;
    like all armchair atheletes, it’s the “rabid fans” that build up the “undefeatable” fantasy of MMA.
    My opinion is MMA are not ‘Arts”. It is Fight Sport.
    D.R.

  10. DojoRat
    My question towards you is 1.What if MMA is used outside of the ring is it still a fight sport? and 2. What in your opnion is an art?

  11. I suppose if your article is, as you suggest, referring only to the misguided opinions of rabid fans, that would make things easier. I will admit, if you’re not writing about your position on the topic of MMA, I don’t see the point. It sounds like you’re saying that, instead, this article is about what you think rabid fans think of MMA which you seem to acknowledge is not founded in reality. It reminds me of the Princess Bride quote: “Clearly, you have a dizzying intellect.” 😉

    On the subject of your Dodo metaphor, it seems to me to be more applicable to those schools which are large, bloated and long removed from any practical defense mechanisms.

    The training methods I mentioned are methods used in virtually every type of human endeavor from math to sports. Introduction of a concept. Isolation of key skills and techniques. Incorporation of those skills into overall proficiency. Nothing magical. Nothing new.

  12. I have no problem with multiple arts and cross-training.
    I started out for nearly 10 years in Tae Kwon Do, 2 in Aikido, and to date the rest of my time has been spent on Kenpo, small-circle jujitsu, Tai Chi Chuan and Bagua. My first Black Belt was in 1984.
    – But all those are ARTS, with solitary form work, ritual, ranking (for what it’s worth).
    I believe combat brings necessary pain, ART necessarily brings pleasure.
    Arts don’t even have to relate to contemporary fighting; who uses swords to fight with these days? Yet a sword form can be ART and a thing of beauty.
    To answer your question about MMA in a fight outside the ring? If you hit something it may be drawn from a striking art. If you use joint locks or throws, they are from grappling arts. But a street fight itself is not ART.

  13. I suppose if your article is, as you suggest, referring only to the misguided opinions of rabid fans, that would make things easier. I will admit, if you’re not writing about your position on the topic of MMA, I don’t see the point.

    The point, Steve, is to jointly consider the significance of an evolutionary model of martial arts. Robdog provided the inspiration.

    Yes, it is funny to think that the Dodo bird (and its survival methods) were “proven to be effective”, but in fact they were so. They remained effective, up until the point when they were not. Such is the nature of the evolutionary beast–no pun intended.

  14. Do you think that it’s possible, for the sake of argument, that MMA is the introduction of a new predator and TMAs are the Dodo birds?

  15. Yes, most (all?) creatures are both predator and prey.

    The Dodo birds are an interesting case, because they were, temporarily, nobody’s prey.

    Or, to put it differently, they “competed” only with each other. While wisely avoiding the more difficult competitions on other islands. 😀

  16. A lot of those same fans scream about WWF not being real. But if it’s not real, why don’t they get in the ring and prove it? The fact is, their all scared. That’s why they want to be undefeatable!

  17. Amen, brother! One clothesline from Rowdy Roddy Piper, and it’s all over! 🙂

  18. The World Wildlife Fund is real, and evolution dicates its legal survival at least.

    I think my own art –Taijiquan– is much more Dodo than MMA. Its bloated philosophies and unrealistic fighty-pushy training (in an overall, cultural sense of course, I can never admit to my own bloating) push it into extinction as a martial art. Rightly so.

    I apologize for tangential talk. I admire the attempts to be realistic and train realistically given in the MMA.

    I wonder though (as you do in unwritten rules) about the lack of throat punching: it blows holes in the reality of street survival for MMA training concepts and in usefulness for teaching smaller folks.

  19. Steve said: “You also presume that no one who trains or competes in MMA has a traditional background. Once again, many currently do or have in the past trained in a traditional Eastern style. Most train in Muay Thai. Some train in San Shou.”

    Actually, Steve, Sanshou is a modern rip-off of Muay Thai that has very little to do with traditional Chinese martial arts. It also appears that Muay Thai itself is a relatively young *sport* quite distinct from older battlefield traditions collectively known as Muay Boran.

    ***

    Chris, good call on the “proven-effective training methods”. My first reaction was that you were being a little unfair and that MMA training methods certainly do produce results of some sort. But then I realised that the MMA claim is other-comparative and is a direct and blanket refutation of the efficacy of traditional training concepts.

    ***

    Cobra-Kai, not all martial arts use “the same kick, punch and grab”. While a punch is a punch and a car is a car, different cars are powered by different engines and all the tune-up in the world is not going to make a Ford Mondeo run like a Porsche 959.

    ***

    S.Smith, if your Taijiquan is not admirably combat-worthy, it is not Taijiquan.

  20. Steve said: “You also presume that no one who trains or competes in MMA has a traditional background. Once again, many currently do or have in the past trained in a traditional Eastern style. Most train in Muay Thai. Some train in San Shou.”

    Actually, Steve, Sanshou is a modern rip-off of Muay Thai that has very little to do with traditional Chinese martial arts. It also appears that Muay Thai itself is a relatively young *sport* quite distinct from older battlefield traditions collectively known as Muay Boran.

    They’re all modern rip offs of some other art. Judo is probably the oldest actual TMA around, having a clear history back into the 1800s. Some are older, but most are not, and many have a historical record that is as much myth and legend as any documentable historical fact. Most of the celebrated “grandmasters” of modern martial arts were around in the 1900’s. Karate, Judo, Aikido, TKD, Kenpo, BJJ….

    Even WT/WC/VT, despite overblown claims to the contrary, comes in its modern form from a single guy in Yip Man. Doesn’t it? I’ll freely admit I’m not an expert, but I know some and intend to ask them, just for my own personal edification.

    But be that as it may, I think it’s telling that you appear to have read through an entire discussion and chose that particular nugget to respond to. Whether Muay Thai or even shan shou meet your particular definition of “traditional” is tangential to the discussion. We could spend some time ferreting out your definition of “traditional” and then I could point to some successful MMA fighters with significant backgrounds in that art (and I’m pretty sure I could do so) and it would get us nowhere.

  21. Steve, touche. And it’s just as true that many of the arts thought of as singular and traditional are mixed martial arts. The mixing just happened a long time ago. For instance, it’s recorded that Che style Xingyi has Chuojiao’s Yuanyang kicks incorporated into it, and Sun style Taiji contains the principles of all three major internal styles.

    However, speaking from the viewpoint of Chinese martial arts, there is a clear divide between the traditional and modern. The traditional arts are qi-based and stance-rooted, and they emphasize striking to kill or maim. Modern wushu is all about looking pretty: it was neutered into an empty shell on purpose. Sanda is a failed copycat attempt to make wushu work in actuality. (It’s not that sanda doesn’t work, but sanda just isn’t a validation of wushu because it is not wushu.) It is not qi-based, and the stances used serve functions quite different from and often antithetical to those deemed necessary for combat by traditional styles.

    Furthermore, training methods are different and lead to different ends. I’ve never heard of sanda guys who do zhanzhuang (standing meditation) to build power and toughness, but *all* serious traditional CMA do this. Likewise, internal martial artists do *not* hit sandbags or carry dead weights because these activities interfere with the building of neijin. Despite that, we still hit ridiculously hard.

    So, no, sanda (and I assume MT) do not count towards a person’s traditional training background.

    Taking a detour, I’d like to note that the sport emphasis of sanda makes it great in the ring but somewhat less effective without safety rules. On the other hand, while traditional kungfu was useful on the battlefields they were created for, they are less useful today both in sports (rules) and for self-defence (laws).

    As for the presently popular MMA (the specific sport, not the age-old general idea), what I’ve seen suggests to me that there is little mixing taking place. MMA guys are learning two effective arts for two different fight stages. There is no MT in the ground game and no BJJ in striking. Furthermore, the two arts are ideologically different enough that they mutually exclude, leading one to specialize as a striker who knows enough ground to get back to his feet or a grappler who knows enough striking to avoid getting KOed. This is not wrong, but it is not really mixing, is it? Please do educate me if I am mistaken.

  22. Yes, you are a bit mistaken, I’m afraid. The ground phase influences the standing phase a great deal, and vice versa. If it was strictly a striking match, even with throws, a fight would be stopped when someone hits the ground, but in MMA it does not. Because wrestling style takedowns are a threat (especially with the high number of wrestlers), the ranges of kickboxing are fundamentally altered, as is the clinch game. This has led to the use some techniques which are unpopular in kickboxing (ie, the overhand right, superman punch, flying knee) because the range is often too close for them to be effective otherwise.

    Likewise, BJJ, judo, wrestling, and other grappling arts prohibit striking while on the ground. MMA, as far as I know, is the only competitive sport which allows such tactics, fundamentally altering the ground game. The saying goes, “Punch a BJJ black belt in the face once and he’s a brown belt. Do it again, he’s a purple, again, and he’s a blue.” Frank Mir, one of the top submission artists around, was just shut down by Brock Lesnar, whom he beat before with a submission, but this time was pounded out with hammer fists while on his back.

    The most successful mixed martial artists continue to evolve the sport by mixing and adapting styles to work best for them. Georges St. Pierre’s pinpoint striking allows him to execute his smooth takedowns, which set him up for great top control and submission opportunities. Likewise, Rich Franklin’s excellent escapes and takedown defense allow him to stay on his feet and outlast most of his competition. Then you take a fighter like Fedor who overwhelms his opponent at all phases, constantly threatening them with powerful punches both standing and on the ground.

    As for the original intention of the article, I would consider MMA to be less an organism than the ecosystem itself. Traditional martial arts like Muay Boran lived in the ecosystem of the battlefield and duels to the death. MMA represents a new ecosystem for unarmed combat, and will only become unpopular when a new cultural combat sport rises to take its place. Similar to how folk wrestling was replaced by boxing, and how boxing is losing the race to MMA, there will eventually be a new form of entertainment that will be socially acceptable to take its place in the future. Perhaps when headbutts, eye gouging, groin shots, and other techniques become socially acceptable for entertainment will a new MMA or combat sport emerge. Until then, however, I don’t think it’s going anywhere soon.

  23. Nobody seems to have brought up the genesis of MMA from Vale Tudo. People died in those sport fights. If I am not mistaken they were eventually canceled due to how graphic and disturbing they were.

    Likewise, internal martial artists do *not* hit sandbags
    Some certainly do. But not in the same way as external styles. Many “internal” artists I have met have never hit anything hard in their life. There are some things to learn from applications practice of energy transmission.

    Tree training is a well known part of some internal styles. It is not the same as hitting a bag, a bag is so much more forgiving of error.

    I think comparing TMA to MMA is like comparing apples to outhouses. The contexts are so different, what can be gained through such a comparison?

  24. Thomas Tan, thank you for that very educational write-up. I stand corrected.

    Josh Young, I do not know of any internal martial artists who hit stuff. All the teachers my friends or I have met have insisted that hitting bags or trees or whatnot does more harm than good. But that could simply be because we’ve met a special (not necessarily better or more authentic) subset of the IMA population.

    A comparison of TMA and MMA is inevitable because the fans and, in less obnoxious fashion, the practitioners of both claim supremacy on the same stage, and each group accuses the other of missing the point. And then we have a third group who seem reasonable and enlightened because they stand above the conflict and declare a mix of both the best approach, but they’re really just as partisan as the ones they criticize, if you see what I mean.

    Basically, we all have opinions about what is right and what is wrong, and having an opinion makes us necessarily disagree with the opposite point of view. We may choose not throw them in anyone’s face and we may be willing to change them when motivated by new evidence, but opinions are still opinions.

  25. My teacher spent some time in Taiwan and reported to me that many taiji players train on trees to some degree. I have seen video of this as well, in one line said to come from Yang Ban Hou.

    However in the states these types of training are little known. Several instructors who I think highly of have striking training but do not hit trees or bags. Others who I think highly of have very little striking training.

    My teacher reported meeting two people he asked to do push hands with where the person asked my teacher to strike them as hard as he could. After being convinced that is what they wanted he gave it a try and hurt his hand on them! My teacher has no training at striking though.

    One man I know online commented on a video of tree training saying that it is well known in Taiwan and was nothing special or unique.

    I have been training on striking things, testing out taiji moves. It is not easy to apply single whips palm strike easily and properly this way, indeed it takes some training. I don’t know if I have any skill this way, I have never been willing to do to a person what I can do to a tree or a streetlight.

    My opinion is that it is all about the person. TMA or MMA, big deal, only those who obsess and practice will obtain true skill. There is always someone better, bigger, faster or stronger. There is no such thing as a superior art, only people who have shown more dedication and so have recieved more benefits.

    You can find bad examples in TMA and MMA and some very good ones too. Both of those categories and pretty vague anyway. As a primarily traditional taiji enthusiast I have found friends trained in MMA have been supportive and after training intensely for 3 years they have nothing but praise for the skill I have gained.

    I suggest that TMA people learn to not only get along, but train with MMA people. We can learn a lot from each other, besides it sucks to be taken out by a move you could have countered if you were more familiar with working against it. There are a lot of cocky over confident people in both MMA and TMA, they love to berate each other but have more to gain from friendly competition that bickering and backbiting.

  26. You may note that this is a different direction than my previous comments about MMA, I am not a fan of sportfighting. But I know that MMA is both common and effective in these modern times. It is not superior nor perfect, nor is any martial art to me.

  27. Josh Young said:
    “My opinion is that it is all about the person. TMA or MMA, big deal, only those who obsess and practice will obtain true skill.”

    And:
    “I suggest that TMA people learn to not only get along, but train with MMA people. We can learn a lot from each other, besides it sucks to be taken out by a move you could have countered if you were more familiar with working against it.”

    You’re a man after my own heart, Josh. Cheers, and happy training!

  28. Many martial arts and teaching methods have not been put to a real test for decades, but now MMA, the new predator, comes and many many so called “fighters” are not prepared because they didn’t have to prove themselves and their claims to anyone. They’re killed like Dodos by pirates.

  29. “A friend of mine told me about his recent “traditional martial art” test. He was given a blindfold, and a knife, and locked in a room with a wild boar. I’ve never read anything like that on an MMA blog.”

    WTF??? What has that to do with TMA?? If I actually believed you I would want that school shut down and the instructors prosecuted. If I believed you…

  30. …What has that to do with TMA??

    Knife fighting is one of many diverse traditions in the world of martial arts. If “TMA” actually existed as a monolith (does not), and if MMA was its evolution (under consideration, just for fun), then we might ask why they dropped the knife work.

    What is your answer to that question Jack?

  31. I think MMA is a great martial art to train in – and I train in it myself. It’s practical for street combat, and many of the Mixed Martial Artists I train with are, or have been, security guards, leading me to believe it is an effective fighting art, that can not only teach self defense, but also restraint of, for example, a drunken friend, or arrest for a police officer.

    However, I will also concede it is not a perfect martial art. Whilst it is practical, it doesn’t teach weapon or weapon defenses – those wishing to learn knife fighting or other improvised weapons must learn elsewhere. It also doesn’t teach fighting multiple opponents, nor other pressure point strikes (throat punches, eye gouges)

    MMA isn’t perfect. Neither is any martial art. Personally, I would like to, at some stage, train in a reality-based martial art, but at the moment, I’m learning plenty from MMA.

  32. Well, to be on the same line of thinking with the Dodo Birds vs human analogy, I’d say MMA’s natural predator shall be an unknown alien specie from outer space, or gun.

    Hopefully, MMA will incorporate gun, or at least weapon into its competition.

    Once again, the Romans had been ahead of us. They came up with a lot of realistic scenario for a fighting: against animals, being outnumbered, being shackled,…

Leave a Comment