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Wushu and Boxing

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WUSHU AND BOXING: WHAT CHINESE MARTIAL ARTISTS CAN LEARN FROM WESTERN PUGILISM

By: Matthew Lee

Written March 31st, 2015

“Train for both combat and beauty of movement.  Contrary to popular belief, a serious practitioner can achieve excellent fighting ability while looking fantastic.  Always remember that top Western boxers are as engaging to watch as contemporary Wushu athletes.  Don’t be scared of one or the other.” —Rule Number Five of “Donnie Yen’s Five Rules of Martial Arts Mastery”, Kung Fu Magazine “Donnie Yen: The Evolution of an American Martial Artist”

Abstract: Wushu and boxing have had a history of stylistic comparisons, with stylists from both backgrounds establishing a longstanding rivalry.  However, this is folly.  Wushu stylists, both modern Wushu Sanshou athletes and traditional Chinese martial artists alike, can learn from boxing.  The subject of this write-up will focus on how and why this can and should be done.

I am still in my “offseason” from competitive Wushu training.  However, as I’ve said before in “A Look at Taijiquan: What You Need to Know”, this does not mean I have not been training at all.  When I’m not training competitively, I focus on other areas of Wushu, such as Sanshou, Taiji, and even traditional Wushu training.  And among these different areas of training, I’ve been thinking a lot about boxing lately.  Actually, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about boxing for years now, ever since I started training in Sanshou.  As someone who has been focusing more and more on sparring and fighting, I’ve come to respect and love the sport of boxing.

Now, you might thinking, “Wait a minute, Matt, why would you, a Wushu guy, be thinking and talking (in this case, writing) about boxing?”  Well, actually, boxing has gained a lot of attention from the perspective of Chinese martial arts and its various practitioners, especially today.  Recently, the rise of Olympic boxing gold medalist Zou Shiming has elicited some attention to Chinese fighters in full-contact fighting.  And with the upcoming bout between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, perhaps the greatest anticipated boxing match of the century, the sport of boxing is regaining some of its old attention, in the face of the rising mass awareness and marketing of the MMA (mixed martial arts) industry.  And its influence is to be respected, as it should be, for good reason.  Contrary to popular belief, Chinese martial artists can learn a lot from boxing in order to improve the practice of Chinese martial arts today.  This includes the practice of modern Wushu.  Today, modern Wushu is standardized into two disciplines; Taolu (套路; tàolù), the practice of forms and sequences, and Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand), the practice of freestyle sparring and scientific martial applications, also known as Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting).  Because the topic of this write-up concerns boxing and sparring/fighting, the write-up will exclusively focus on the Sanshou component of modern Wushu.  However, this write-up can apply to the rest of Chinese martial arts as well.  It is interesting to note that the term “Chinese boxing” was used to define and translate Chinese martial arts from a Western perspective, although the two practices are not equivalent.  However, this does not necessarily mean that the two should remain mutually exclusive.  Boxing has many values that should be acknowledged and respected, which Chinese martial artists can learn from for sparring and fight training.

The first of these values, is that the practice of boxing is simple and direct.  This simplicity and directness allows boxing to be efficient and practical, and therefore a recognized method of fighting today.  The most obvious indicator of boxing’s simplicity and directness, is its small, yet completely useful arsenal of techniques.  There are many specific techniques amongst the various styles of Wushu.  By comparison, boxing has only a few array of techniques, which are, again, simple and direct; straight punches (jab and cross), hooks, uppercuts, catching, blocking, and slipping.  Yet with such a simplistic and small array of techniques, the practice of boxing can become so complex, with various tactics and strategies of attack and defense that employ countless combinations of these techniques in fighting, like a game of chess.  This kind of paradox of complexity in simplicity, is something that all martial arts styles with sparring or fighting disciplines embody.  It is interesting to note that in jujutsu and judo, there are over a hundred moves and techniques within a single system, yet fighters from such styles only specialize and utilize at most four, perhaps one or two more if they are lucky in fights, and more often than not, they are the simplest, direct, and therefore most useful techniques.  This is a value that Chinese martial artists should strive for in sparring and fighting; aim for simplicity and directness in technique.  As established, this makes the method of fighting efficient and practical.

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The other value of boxing that is to be acknowledged, is the fact that it is an “alive” method of training and practice.  This is something that Bruce Lee extolled, and something that he said traditional Chinese martial arts lacked, which he implemented into his own martial arts system of Jeet Kune Do (截拳道; jiéquándào, the Way of the Intercepting Fist).  Unlike the majority of Chinese martial arts training, which is in general dominated mostly by theory, boxing consists solely of the direct use and application of its ideas.  Boxing is respected as a method of fighting, because it has been proven time and time again that it works.  This is because, as is the case with many other modern methods of fighting, boxers spar.  I said a long time ago in one of my first ever write-ups, “Forms vs. Fighting: A Critique on the Dichotomy of Wushu Training”, that Chinese martial arts is not taken seriously in the realm of fighting, because of the perceived lack of sparring, as opposed to other styles such as boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, wrestling, jujutsu, BJJ (Brazilian jujutsu) and MMA.  Sparring allows for an “alive” method of fight training, which conditions fighters to face freestyle, unrehearsed environments and situations, puts their skills to the test and allows them to develop and grow as better prepared fighters; it also validates what works and what doesn’t under pressure and unrehearsed environments and situations.  This is why sparring disciplines in Wushu, such as Sanshou, are ultimately beneficial to the fighting aspects and practice of Wushu.

The influence of these values and ideas, whether they are from boxing or not, are the basis of actual sparring and fight training today.  No legitimate traditional martial arts training today undergoes fight training without some consideration of these values.  And the fact that boxing is one of the most well-known sports and combat styles that embodies these values only serves to validate its relevance and influence.  This influence is most prominent in the employment of boxing gloves in most martial arts sparring disciplines today, from kickboxing to Muay Thai.  Modern Wushu Sanshou also derives its own gloves from the design of the boxing gloves.

Boxing is also a primary basis for which many traditional martial arts styles, namely Chinese martial arts styles, teach self-defense tactics.  Popular and well-known examples of this include demonstrations of defense and counterattack techniques in response to a “one-two” (jab and cross) combo in boxing.  While there is good intention in these theoretical techniques, it is astounding that many traditional martial arts masters, including Chinese martial arts styles, believe in the practicality of these theories without any actual concrete or scientific proof behind them.  The problem with the interpretation of these theoretical techniques is that they are just that—theoretical.  In general, there is no in-depth training in its actual practice or application to validate these fighting theories.  A real, skilled boxer would never just stand there and punch slowly, or even hold his or her fists out as in theoretical demonstrations; the practice of boxing and its training, as with most real fighting and sparring disciplines, is alive—real fighting is dynamic, with constantly changing factors and continuous movement and conflict, not static like one-sided martial arts demonstrations, and those martial artists, especially Chinese martial artists focused on fight training need to understand this observation.  This illustrates the need for Chinese martial arts practitioners to recognize the aforementioned values that boxing has realistically, in order to improve the actual fighting aspect of Chinese martial arts.

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There are those critics who believe that Chinese martial arts and boxing, are two completely different things, and should remain separate.  Many traditionalists believe that the cross-training of Chinese martial arts and boxing somehow “dilutes” or “waters down” the essence of Chinese martial arts.  However, there are in fact many martial artists from a Chinese martial arts or Wushu background, who in actuality have liked, and have even trained, in boxing, because of these aforementioned values in sparring and fighting.

The most famous example of this is perhaps Bruce Lee.  Aside from the well-known fact that Bruce had training in Wing Chun (咏春; Yǒngchūn, literally “eternal spring”), Bruce had also trained in Western boxing, and was an amateur boxing champion at the 1958 Hong Kong Inter-School Amateur Boxing Championships (an interesting fact about Bruce’s life, which disproves the belief that Bruce never fought competitively).  In fact, Bruce was said to have been an avid fan of Muhammad Ali, arguably the “greatest” boxer of all time, having studied tapes of his fights extensively.  It is clear that boxing had a prominent influence in the practice of Jeet Kune Do (截拳道; jiéquándào, the Way of the Intercepting Fist), with the use of gloves, focus mitts training with boxing techniques, and the practice of full-contact sparring, which Bruce was doing years before the advent of American kickboxing.

Another notable example is the late Grandmaster Ma Xianda, a traditional Chinese martial artist, objective critic of modern Wushu, and master of the traditional Wushu system of Ma Style Tongbei (马氏通备; Mǎshìtōngbèi, not to be confused with the traditional Wushu style 通背拳; tōngbèiquán, literally “through-the-back” fist).  Just like Bruce Lee, Ma Xianda studied Western boxing, wrestling and fencing.  Ma Xianda’s son, Ma Yue, inheritor of Ma Style Tongbei, also studied boxing, in addition to studying modern Wushu Taolu, Sanshou, and duanbing (短兵;duǎnbīng, literally short weapon).

But perhaps the most prevalent example of boxing content in Chinese martial arts is the Sanshou component of modern Wushu.  In modern Wushu Sanshou, the majority of fist techniques in the standard training curriculum of the sport are parallel, and practically the exact same techniques as boxing punches and techniques.  Theoretically, this should mean that the practice of Sanshou should be able to absorb the same technical strengths and skills as boxing.  However, the reality is quite different.  Fight training in Sanshou is based on the four general elements of fighting from Chinese martial arts: kicking (踢; tī), punching (打; dǎ), takedowns (摔; shuāi), and grappling (拿; ná), with modern Wushu Sanshou covering the first three out of four aspects and prohibiting the last for safety reasons.  In modern Wushu Sanshou competition, takedowns are the biggest point gainers, making all other fighting skill sets and ranges secondary, and thus turning the average Chinese Sanda athlete into sloppy wrestlers with flicking kicks and wild haymakers.  And as I have said regarding the various shortcomings and flaws of Sanshou before, the most notable of these flaws is the lack of sophisticated boxing skill.

In his featured interview with Qi Magazine, “Master Ma Yue – From Tongbei to Taijiquan”, Ma Yue briefly talks about his experience training in boxing in relation to Sanshou.  Regarding his boxing training, Ma Yue related, “…I was in the western boxing team.  I found that this helped a lot in the professional San Shou team.  I like the way boxers protect themselves and at the same time not lose eye contact, because in the San Shou fighting a lot of people lose eye contact, they may look this way or that way, but in boxing you cannot.  In boxing it does not matter how much you get hit you always look at your opponent.  Also the reaction to a punch from boxing helped me a lot.  When I started I found every time the opponent punched me, I blinked.  I thought, ‘How do I stop this?’  Boxing helped me and eventually when I was hit I did not blink my eyes.  This is important because if you blink all the time you can get into big trouble.  Secondly, boxing helped my footwork.  So boxing helped me to stay calm and not have a scared reaction.”

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To clarify, when I state that Sanshou training lacks boxing skills, I am not referring to punching power.  I have no doubt that Sanshou fighters and athletes can pack a punch, and power is definitely an important aspect in fighting skill.  However, punching power is only one thing, and it does not fully define or capture the complete essence of actual boxing skills.  This includes, speed, timing, and fast reaction simultaneously with one’s own hands and against an opponent’s hands, as well as getting used to getting hit.  All of these skills are valued in high-level boxing, which can improve overall boxing skills in Sanshou.  As I first said in “Forms vs. Fighting: A Critique on the Dichotomy of Wushu Training”, Sanshou fighters need to study boxing, kickboxing, and wrestling in-depth and properly, which are skills the average Chinese Sanda athlete lacks, and whose sparring and fighting skills could benefit from this kind of cross-training.  In this case, the study and training of boxing can undoubtedly enhance sparring and fighting skill in the striking range of combat with the aforementioned boxing skills.

Ma Yue also expands on this.  “If you are calm, no matter how fast your opponent is you can protect yourself better.  If you are not then you will always be thinking, ‘When is he going to punch me?  When is he going to kick me?’ this makes you nervous and your opponent knows this and will knock you out.  If you are experienced at fighting it is easy to find out if your opponent is nervous or calm.  If he is nervous, then it is easy to attack him because his reaction is too quick, he over reacts.  You can fake him and control him.  When he tries to slow himself down that is the time I attack him because he won’t move.  Boxing helped me a lot with this.  When you have sorted all this out then you can use all the martial arts skill you want, any style.  You can try this style or technique, try that angle, whatever!”

The collective combination of fighting values and skills in boxing makes it both an art and a science, which also makes it both a beautiful and enjoyable combat sport to watch at a high level, and a respectable method of fighting.  Wushu should be able to envelop the same combination of these qualities as well.  The study and cross-training of boxing can help us Wushu practitioners to improve the fighting aspects and quality of Wushu.  Although there may be some traditionalists that will remain stubborn in so-called preservation, we modern martial artists, including modern Wushu stylists and other contemporary traditional Chinese martial arts practitioners, must find a way to adapt to the contemporary venues of martial arts, and keep our art relevant in practice today.  And boxing is a great way to go in that direction.  I would now like to close with the fifth rule in “Donnie Yen’s Five Rules of Martial Arts Mastery”, at the end of the Kung Fu Magazine article “Donnie Yen: The Evolution of an American Martial Artist”: “Train for both combat and beauty of movement.  Contrary to popular belief, a serious practitioner can achieve excellent fighting ability while looking fantastic.  Always remember that top Western boxers are as engaging to watch as contemporary Wushu athletes.  Don’t be scared of one or the other.”

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Matt began practicing Wushu at the age of 7 under US Wushu Academy, and is a coach of the UMBC Wushu Club. He has held positions in national, international, and local modern Wushu competitions, and is currently training in Sanshou/Sanda and traditional Chen Style Taijiquan. He is a four-time consecutive US Wushu Team member and former Pan American Champion and multiple times Pan American Championships medalist, and is continually trying to improve himself both as a competitive athlete and as a real martial artist. If you have any questions you would like to ask Matt, please email him at matthewlee@jiayoowushu.com.