Is Wing Chun a waste of time for MMA? Or could it be an underrated component of a well-rounded mixed martial arts game… While some athletes have a deep love for the craft, others feel it’s almost entirely useless for true combat. So what’s the deal?
Here’s the complete low-down on Wing Chun and its history in MMA. The good, the bad, and the ugly – I’ve covered it here. Before breaking down its utility in MMA, let’s kick things off with a background on the martial art of Wing Chun…
What is Wing Chun
Wing Chun is a concept-based martial art that originated somewhere in southern China. Like many traditional martial arts, specific details on its origins are unclear. Legend says it was created by a Shaolin Kung Fu master, Ng Mui.
What we do know is that it became widespread after a Wing Chun master, Ip Man, started to teach the style throughout mainland China and Hong Kong. And with both Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan being amongst the martial artists drawing on the concepts of Wing Chun in their practice, its popularity sees that it remains taught worldwide, to this day.
What are the principles of Wing Chun?
Wing Chun is a highly fluid style of self-defense, which is designed to immediately shut down explosive and high-powered attacks. Basic Wing Chun concepts include:
- Simultaneous attack and defense
- Centerline control
- Constant forward pressure
The techniques are designed to be performed in a relaxed manner, with reflexive responses being used to off-balance attackers and turn their own attacks against them.
Wing Chun is designed to be used at high-speed and when engaging at close-range. Think ‘fighting in a phonebooth’ style. With this, consistent forward pressure is emphasized, and common striking targets include vulnerable soft tissue areas, like the groin and throat.
Sounds pretty vicious, right? It certainly can be. But while I could pull up clips of Wing Chun masters making fools of their students – there’s a big difference between the dojo and real competition.
So how does Wing Chun hold up when it comes to MMA?
Strengths of Wing Chun in MMA
Wing Chun is all about direct action and attacking whenever an opportunity presents, which is very useful for MMA. Here are 3 of its key strengths in mixed martial arts…
1. Hand Trapping
In Wing Chun, hand trapping is used to create openings for further attack, controlling an opponent’s limbs by pinning their hands against their own body.
Learning to immobilize an opponent in this way can be very useful in MMA, especially when fighting for grips and as a way to effectively cut off the hooking hand.
2. Economy of Motion
Wing Chun can help to make your movement more direct and efficient. This is done by using the motion of attack to your advantage.
Even when your offense fails, rather than withdrawing your attacks Wing Chun encourages you to keep fluid and use the motion to create a follow-up offensive.
As Wing Chun uses circular interpretations in punching and kicking, the direction can also be altered during the movement. This keeps your opponent guessing and gives you a highly flexible and unpredictable style.
3. Offense as Defense
As Wing Chun uses fluid in-the-pocket striking, straight punches can be very effective inside an opponent’s range. When this punching technique is used alongside constant forward pressure, the barrage of attacks keeps your opponent too defensively minded to launch their own offensive.
Weaknesses of Wing Chun in MMA
Wing Chun is not without its flaws, though. In fact, many within the MMA space have been highly critical of Wing Chun’s utility. Here’s why:
It Wasn’t Designed for Competition
Wing Chun does not have ‘rules’ and was not designed for use in competition.
In fact, the art of Wing Chun focuses on landing strikes to ‘illegal’ areas, such as the groin and throat. Of course, this is a huge drawback in a sanctioned competition. If you can’t use core elements of a martial art due to the rule-set, you’re unlikely to get far!
For example, each of the below areas is considered as a ‘primary striking target’ in Wing Chun – but all are illegal in most MMA competitions:
- Back of the head
It’s not Practical Against Trained Athletes
A common criticism of many traditional, old-school martial arts is that they’re great in theory, but quickly fall apart against opponents with training.
While the fast-paced unorthodox striking would work nicely against a random street attacker, can you imagine using pure Wing Chun against a wrestler who’s persistently working for a single-leg takedown? Or a long kickboxer who is able to keep you at his range? It’d be a nightmare.
Wing Chun just doesn’t teach the skills to effectively defend these types of attacks, all of which are commonplace in MMA. This ties in nicely to the third weakness of Wing Chun – its lack of ground game!
Wing Chun is a striking art. The ‘trapping system’ of Wing Chun and reliance on close-range striking can be highly effective.
But for MMA, where many of the fights go to the ground, this is a big problem. It’s similar to the age-old debate of boxing vs Jiu Jitsu. If you plan on using solely Wing Chun in MMA competition, the likely outcome is a quick takedown and finish via ground and pound, or submission.
Just as importantly, Wing Chun’s reliance on closing the distance and engaging with close-range striking, means you’ll be fighting in your opponent’s grappling range almost constantly. This puts you in the sweet spot to get taken down by a fighter with strong wrestling or Jiu Jitsu skills.
Using Pure Wing Chun in MMA
To my knowledge, there’s only been one pure Wing Chun fighter who made it to the UFC stage, and even this was in the very early days of the promotion.
His name is Asbel Concia and he fought at UFC 5… for 21 seconds.
Yeah… it didn’t go great.
In fact, in this short fight, you can see examples of all the disadvantages I mentioned above. Concia is immediately vulnerable in grappling range, is unable to defend the takedown, and has no answer for the ground game of his opponent. Yikes.
With that in mind, you may think that training Wing Chun would be pretty disastrous for MMA. But it’s not that simple. In the past, elite-level MMA fighters have suggested that, due to its damage-potential, Wing Chun may actually be too dangerous for MMA…
Is Wing Chun too dangerous for MMA?
Considering the disadvantages highlighted above, it might seem crazy to consider that Wing Chun is too dangerous for MMA.
But high-level fighters like Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson and Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson have previously called for certain Wing Chun techniques to be outright banned.
And this is not coming from the uneducated. Wonderboy has over 70 in-competition wins and is known as one of the best strikers in all of MMA – that’s about as credible as it gets. So what’s the concern? Is Wing Chun a deadly martial art that should be forbidden from the UFC?
Well, Wing Chun techniques are designed to viciously incapacitate an attacker – not score points in a sport competition.
While Wing Chun hand strikes are designed to cause eye and throat damage, these are banned in MMA. Wing Chun kicks however aim to tear through tendons and ligaments – usually in the knees and ankles. And basically all MMA rulesets allows them.
If these Wing Chun techniques are executed as they are intended, there’s the potential for career-ending injuries. To be fair, Wing Chun isn’t the only martial art that is subject to this criticism. The Filipino martial art of Pekiti Tirsia Kali is another fighting style that has proven effective in self defense but isn’t a good fit for the rules of MMA.
There’s an argument to be had about how ‘unsportsmanlike’ techniques should be policed in MMA (take foot stomping for example). But when some of the world’s best strikers are concerned about the potential for Wing Chun techniques to cause irreversible damage, it’s clear that it must be a useful tool for MMA.
So while using pure Wing Chun in MMA may be a no-go, incorporating aspects of the style into an overall MMA game could be a great idea. In fact, some of the world’s best are already doing it…
Which MMA Fighters use Wing Chun?
Many athletes in the UFC use elements of Wing Chun in their attacks. For example, against the cage you’ll often see hand trapping as a way to open up strikes. An example would be pinning an opponent’s left wrist with your left hand, to open up a right elbow.
This is a textbook example of the defend-attack principle and hand-trapping technique of Wing Chun. Of course, other martial arts like Muay Thai use close elbow strikes too, and the distinction between styles is not always clear.
At the very least, this shows that Wing Chun striking has a role in an effective MMA striking offensive. Here are three specific examples of Wing Chun influence, from some of MMA’s biggest stars.
Tony Ferguson has multiple training videos showing him practicing on the ‘Mu ren zhuang’ or as it’s more commonly known, the Wing Chun Wooden dummy.
Even UFC color commentator Joe Rogan, who has in the past mocked Wing Chun for being ineffective, watched Tony Ferguson’s training videos and had two simple words: “it works.”
So how does he do it?
Tony is known for his unorthodox, fluid striking and constant forward pressure. Both are key elements of Wing Chun. In his UFC 229 fight versus Anthony Pettis, Ferguson could be seen using Chi Sao, a Wing Chun approach that focuses on making your hands move reflexively to create the impression of ‘sticking’ to your opponent.
Anderson Silva is undoubtedly one of the greatest combat athletes of all time. He also uses Wing Chun, and like Ferguson, is known to train with the Wing Chun dummy.
The straight punch is one of the defining strikes of Wing Chun. It is used primarily because it is so difficult to telegraph. Silva is a true master of this and has caught many opponents off-guard with fast strikes that are not visibly ‘loaded’ in his body movement.
Intercepting by deflection is another key tenet of Wing Chun and one that Anderson is famous for. His fluid hand movement benefits from the ‘economy of motion’ and makes his striking highly unpredictable.
While Silva doesn’t use forward pressure in the way Ferguson does, he’s also been seen to use other Wing Chun techniques in his fights, like Tan Gerk (vs Nick Diaz) and Bong Sao (vs Michael Bisping).
Jon Jones is famous for his knee stomp kick (also known as an oblique kick). This is one of the controversial techniques mentioned earlier, as it can tear up the knee joint. Indeed, in Wing Chun, you are taught to kick towards the knees specifically because of the joint weakness at certain angles.
Why is this effective in MMA? Well, apart from the direct damage to the knee joint, it also keeps an opponent at range, preventing them from grappling. Buckling the knee also disrupts balance and striking rhythm, forcing your opponent to reset.
Similar to Anderson Silva’s straight punches, knee stomp kicks are also very difficult to predict. Most fighters read intention from shoulder movement, and this is minimal in the oblique kick set up.
How Can You Learn Wing Chun?
Are you sold on the benefits of adding Wing Chun techniques to your repertoire? If you want somewhere to start, here are my suggestions for getting started in the art of Wing Chun:
- Understand the ‘centerline’ principle and stance
- For your warm-ups, try incorporating Wing Chun footwork drills
- Learn the core Wing Chun hand forms
- Practice hand drills on a traditional Wing Chun dummy or wall bag
Once you’ve got the basics down, be creative and try to throw the occasional technique into your sparring, or traditional bag sessions.
The Bottom Line
So we’ve gone back and forth sparring with the idea of Wing Chun in MMA. So what’s the deal? Is it legit?
I’ll say this…
Jon Jones is widely considered as the number one pound-for-pound fighter on planet earth right now. Before him, it was Anderson Silva. Tony Ferguson is a former Interim World Champion and just came off an 8-year win streak.
They all use elements of Wing Chun in their striking arsenals. For me, that’s more than enough evidence that Wing Chun is useful for MMA. The key is knowing how to incorporate it and adapt it to an overall gameplan.
As a standalone martial art, it’s simply not good for MMA. Wing Chun is not a complete system and success in single-style MMA is a thing of the past.
Still, Wing Chun can (and arguably, should) be used in your MMA training. It’s not intended for MMA competition, but the principles which it uses can be adapted and used to great success.