FIGHT! Magazine, March 2012
Kung Fu for MMA – The Overlooked Art of Chinese Sanshou
Sanshou, The Art of the Free Hand.
One of the most popular martial arts in China is Sanshou, a combat system that focuses on hand-to-hand self-defense. Other than catching a fleeting glimpse of Cung Le Scissor kicking an opponent on ESPN3 at 4am, its a sport that most Americans are not familiar with.
You know how boxing works,and kickboxing simply adds kicks. Jiujitsu gets simplified to submission grappling and wrestling is all about takedowns and control. Sanshou is a bit harder to explian as it combines multiple elements of boxing, kickboxing, judo and wrestling but typically stays away from ground fighting.
There was a time, not so long ago, when hand to hand combat was virtually guaranteed to occur in wartime- trench fighting in natural elements where multiple attackers were attacking.
Originally, Sashou was developed for soldiers who found themselves in this exact situation- facing an enemy whose sole intent was to leave them dead in the muck. By combining traditional Chinese wrestling (the standing variety, not the American version) with boxing, kickboxing, sweeps and throws, Sanshou became an ever evolving form of mixed martial arts. During its inception, ground fighting was deemed unnecessary.
Strikes, both from the hands and legs were to be thrown with quick ferocity. Once the enemy was stunned or you were close enough to grab them, you would be in position to throw them to the ground and deliver a lethal blow. Those lucky enough to still have a weapon in their hand could sink a bayonet into the downed enemy. Other could deliver a kill shot with whatever was handy, be it a knife, helmet or fist. Then it was on to the next enemy.
“Sanshou is one of the most effective ways to fight multiple opponents, “ Says Ian Lee, the current head coach of the US Sanshou Team and instructor at United Martial Arts in Lubbock, Texas. “The strategy is Sanshou of going from strikes to takedowns is not matched in other sports”.
The art of kick-catch-takedown is rarely seen in other disciplines. Even though wrestlers and Muay Thai practitioners employ the technique when entering the MMA world, they do not use it in their original disciplines.
“Any time you’re watching the UFC and you see a fighter take an opponent down but remain standing- that’s a Sashou thing” says former Sanshou competitor and current UFC fighter Cung Le. “Originally, a hip throw or double leg takedown was used to put an enemy in a vulnerable position and at that point you would deliver a lethal blow and return to your feet. Wrestling and many other combat sports don’t do that.”
Sanda, or “Free Fighting” is the sport form of Sanshou and it has thrived in various countries around the globe. Much like its real life counterpart, Sanda employs many of the moves found in Sanshou – although you cannot utilize chokes and joint locks – and the matches take place on a raised platform (Lei Tai), which you can throw your opponents off of to score more points.
Countries such as China, Iran, Russia, and Turkey have all become deeply involved in the sport and attend the World Championships, held every two years (on the odd year).
The most recent World Championships- held in Turkey in Oct 2011- had 354 Athletes from 86 countries competing. Fighters from China, Iran, Russia and Turkey dominated the field, while American Max Chen brought home a bronze medal in the 70kg class. The most successful Sanda athletes are not only praised by adoring fans, but they are rewarded by their own governments in many instances.
“I was friendly with a couple of Iranians when I was coaching the US Team,” says Cung Le. “I would see them at the World Championships year to year, and if they performed well, I would see them the next time and they would tell me of the nice bonuses they received, like a new house or a new car.”
In China, when a Sanshou Athlete retires from competing, they are offered jobs, not just as a coach but as high ranking positions in the military or police force.
“If you win a gold medal in China, the government rewards you,” says Ian Lee. “It’s definitely a way to make a sport more appealing to athletes. Not only are they getting paid to compete for their own town or country, but they also get offered a job to support their family after they are done.”
Unlike in the United States, athletes in many countries treat martial arts as their profession. In China and Russia, for example, athletes attend sports universities and major in their respective discipline. They don’t major in marketing and then join the wrestling team – they major in their sport. Students learn the techniques and why they were developed so they can teach others in their country.
“Academies in China are very different than in the United States,” says Lucas Geller, a former US Wushu team member and current instructor based in Albany, New York. “In America, we have private gyms all over- gyms anyone can join where you can go as much or as little as you would like. In China, there are two types of schools, professional and amateur. Both are fairly difficult to get into and difficult to stay at. If you’re slacking, the coach won’t let you stay”
Academies, such as the Beijing University, recruit the best of the best from around the country and mold them into high caliber instructors and competitors. “In China, it’s a way of making a living,” says Cung Le. “You become a part of a team in a province. It’s a way of putting food on the table.”
The biggest MMA Star to hone his craft in the Sanshou system is Cung Le, who won the Strikeforce Middleweight Championship in 2008 and now competes in the UFC. The Vietnamese born fighter also teaches his own version of Sanshou at his school in San Jose, California.
“Sanshou is a mix of traditional arts where individuals can add their own methods that work in a particular situation,” says Cung Le. “As a coach of the U.S. team, I would teach my students to prepare for certain types of fighters at the World Championships. Every nation is strong in something different The Russians are really good boxers and wrestlers. The Iranians have great power moves, as do the Egyptians. The Chinese are good with throws and kick. Each nation brings a specialty to Sanshou and they develop it to fit their situation. They learned quickly what worked and didnt work in a real life setting.”
Sanshou has grown from its beginnings, as fighters have added their different strategies to accommodate their varying backgrounds. What worked on the battlefield may not work (or be legal) in the sport setting.
“Sanda is one of the best arts to learn about real-life fighting techniques because it’s full contact,” Geller says. “You will learn quickly what work and what doesn’t work against an angry opponent who’s fully resisting and whose sole purpose is to win the fight. Sanda is much more realistic than other martial arts that emphasize scenario training with a cooperative partner and a rubber knife.”
In traditional martial arts schools, Sanshou seemsto be ganing steam as a self-defense mechanism, but it stil remains relatively unknown when compared to Muay Thai or Brazilian Jui-Jitsu.
With the UFC expanding into more and more countries eery year, expect to seemore Sanshou competitors make the transition to the MMA arena. Dont be surprised if many enjoy the success that Cung Le has, either, as the athletes have years of experience in taking their opponents to the ground and stuffing takedowns.
As bigger promotional companies move into Iran, Turkey, and China, they may find a new crop of athletes ready to emerge. Say what you will about their group prowess but you cannot deny the level of excitement that these fighters bring to the Lei Tei-and hopefully the cage.