Why is MMA vs Tai Chi Even Debated? – And It’s Negative Impact

tai chi vs mma comparison

It’s been several years since Chinese MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong quickly defeated a purported tai chi master in a televised fight. While the fight only took seconds, the MMA vs Tai Chi debate has continued on for years and does not appear to be losing steam. Three things are becoming the casualty of the viral-like nature of discussions like this:

  • Finding high-quality instructors willing to share
  • Our ability to cross-train with other martial artists
  • Our development as well-rounded martial artists

The MMA vs tai chi debate pins modern fighters who feel their art is more credible against practitioners of traditional martial arts. MMA fighters have been incensed by claims of traditional martial artists without a way to test their fighting skills. Traditional martial artists are insulted by age and expertise differences between the competitors as well as restrictive rules and monetary grandstanding.

The truth is that “A vs B” questions like this can never be fully answered to satisfy anyone because there will always be doubt about whether two fighters are on the same level and whether a bout’s rules favor one style over another. So aside from some enjoyment at the allure of it all, I think there is a darker side which might be limiting our martial and internal development and that’s what I want to cover here.

Let’s begin by talking about how we got into this current climate of comparison, three ways that it doesn’t support any of our goals, and ways we can benefit from interactions with all types of martial artists. I am going to end with a specific comparison of MMA vs tai chi for those of us who are considering doing both.

mma fighter against tai chi

How the Grand MMA vs Tai Chi Fight Went Viral

Affronted by kung fu martial artist claims of having fighting abilities and even special powers, Xu Xiaodong, a Chinese Mixed Martial Artist challenged Wei Lei, a tai chi – kung fu master to a fight that ended in 20 seconds. Xu Xiaodong is a legitimate fighter and his goal was to expose people claiming to have fighting abilities but are actually hiding behind tradition. The “tai chi master vs mma fighter” video went viral on YouTube and while Xu Xiaodong won the fight, a lot was lost in the days and years that followed.

Blowback Against Xu Xiaodong and the Aftermath

Following the fight, the Chinese Wushu Association accused Xu of violating the morals of martial arts. He was banned from social media and was accused of humiliating Chinese culture. His business was hurt as people protested outside and he was banned from organizing bouts for anyone at his gym. On top of that, he and his family received death threats1 and he is uncertain about being able to travel outside of the country2.

While Xu accomplished his goal and continues to fight, it’s clear that the blowback and raging MMA vs Tai Chi debate is not what he expected. To understand the fierce reaction we have to look a bit at China’s history and current political state. It will then be more clear to see how playing into any of the many Martial Art A vs Martial Art B arguments across Reddit, Quora, and YouTube aren’t doing any of us any good.

Why China Reacted So Harshly to the MMA vs Tai Chi Debate

The History

Xu and Wei’s fight hit a very deep cultural nerve. China has a long history and rightful deep-seated anger over other cultures claiming to be dominant over Chinese culture. It finds its origin in the warring centuries and came to a head in the 19th and 20th centuries as China was subjected to occupation after occupation by foreign countries. Overcoming the resulting subjugation of its people and loss of identity has been a focus of every government since the Cultural Revolution. While Xu probably didn’t plan it, he gave fire to these old sentiments as he positioned a new, modern, Western system against something uniquely Chinese and traditional.

Monument to the People’s Heroes – Tiananmen Square 

The Culture

There is something inherently Eastern about respect for elders, people of position, and people who have contributed to family, their profession, or a body of knowledge in their lifetime. Xu made derogatory remarks about specific tai chi grand masters such as Chen Xiaowang and Chen Zhenglei. Setting aside the fact that these men are in their 70s, lived through the Cultural Revolution, and kept tai chi intact for decades, his remarks so angered many Chinese that wealthy businessmen offered million dollar payouts to anyone who would beat him.

The Politics

China has reemerged onto the international scene since the 1980s and sees its cultural heritage as a gift and a way to introduce China to the world. The government now openly funds the arts and grants travel to artists of all classes to serve as China’s ambassadors. It is especially fond of those things that are uniquely Chinese because of the sense of pride it instills in its citizens. So Xu was not just trampling over culture and history but was planting a boot squarely on a government initiative.

Again, its apparent that arguments of this style have taken their toll in every direction. Just fun and exciting debates on the internet right? I think it is a little more detrimental and all of us are additionally losing out in three unique ways.

3 Additional Casualties of the MMA fighter vs Tai Chi Phenomenon

1. Access to High-Quality Teaching from China

There is a beauty and history in the applications of the moves in tai chi chuan. Moreover, by learning the martial purpose for a move it orients your body correctly. In the workshops that I have seen recently, there is still a focus on forms, philosophy, and health. However, conversations about applications and even portions of the weekend focusing on push hands are becoming more rare. This makes sense. It would be a risk for a teacher’s reputation and health if they thought they were going to be challenged publicly. So we are left with the boiled down version of the art or at least, not the full story.

2. Development into a Well-Rounded Martial Artist

No matter what art you study, it has a primary focus and limitations. Soft arts can be too soft and hard arts can be too hard. Ground arts have weak stance-work and form arts don’t know what to do when they fall down. Internal arts are not often challenging physically and external arts suffer unneeded injuries.

We all benefit from cross-training and learning from others. It has had the added benefit for me in my personal and work life because I it has taught me to look for what is missing and seek out other expertise. It is hard to enter another school if you feel challenged or feel like you might be made an example of.

3. Ability to Cross-Train with Other Martial Artists

When I began training in the marital arts I routinely attended sessions with other martial artists in town. There was a free push hands group that met in the park on Saturdays. An internal strength workshop we hosted was well attended by Aikido, Jiujitsu, Judo, and Tai Chi students. We had an infrequent get together with a school who did a lot of grappling. They tested out there locks and we tested out our use of ground force and root. There was always a bit of ribbing about “real fights” but for the most part it was genuinely enjoyable to interact with other martial arts.

And now? More and more, cross-training means working out with someone who does the same art you do. International World Tai Chi and Qi Gong Day is primarily attended by those practitioners. Such a tiny percentage of people actually do the martial arts so limiting our interactions further is just sad.

Cross-training and Choosing Between MMA vs Tai Chi

I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer here but actually want to wake everyone up to the negative impact of this debate so we can interact more. Learning about another or several arts can positively influence the art you are most interest in. As an example, here is an an MMA fighter who has successfully merged what he learned in tai chi vs mma fighting strategies.

MMA and Tai Chi Fighter

So there are definitely benefits to cross-training. I will conclude here with a comparison of MMA and tai chi for people that are new to the martial arts and trying to choose what to do. This is one of nine essays comparing different martial arts to tai chi with the hopes of getting more people training in whichever art is the best fit for them.

MMA vs Tai Chi and Self Defense

While this distinction might be subtle when comparing other arts to tai chi like kung fu, if fighting is your main goal then MMA is the way to go. If self-defense is your top concern, then MMA and arts like Krav Maga are better than tai chi.

Physical Fitness

You need to look no further than the physiques of most MMA fighters to know that physical fitness is a top priority in this art.

Popularity / Availability of Both Arts

Both tai chi and MMA get high marks based on how easy it is to find a school, find workshops and competitions, and find resources online to continue learning. If you want to join either school you will probably be able to find something near you.

Ability to Practice

The ability to practice MMA is limited due to the need for a training partner and school to be able to workout and make progress. I will add recovery time here as I asked a MMA fighter I know about how he would rate his art based on these nine criteria and he added that he has to stop training when he gets injured. That or switch over to active recovery or fitness activities. Additionally, there are very few MMA practitioners over the age of 40 so it’s not something that you could expect to do long term.

Community / Socialization

MMA has a really strong community where there is collective goodwill among school mates, interactions with other schools in an area, and travel to local, national, and international competitions. It is one of the rare martial arts that has universal fame and can be viewed like any other global sport. This can’t be said for most traditional martial arts which hum along more along the edges of obscurity.


One area you will save money on, is the MMA uniform or should we say, lack of! MMA wins there! Joking aside, MMA training can be expensive. With the popularity comes the rise in cost. Gyms need to be outfitted with rings, mats, and modern gear. Insurance might be needed as well as. Competitions and entry fees can be pricey. Added together it might be a worthy investment for quite an education but a limitation if your budget doesn’t allow for extra expenses. That being said, it could replace your gym membership!

Need for Gear / Location

You do need specific protective gear to fight and definitely need a proper location to train in. The communal, hands-on aspects of MMA is exactly why people love it. But if there is not a gym near you, this is not an art you can do. Tai chi or some of the form-based martial arts are a better option for you if there isn’t a gym up the street.

Taking all of this into consideration, here is how taking a look at MMA vs tai chi stacks up.

A Comparison Chart of MMA vs Tai Chi

ConsiderationTai ChiMixed Martial Arts
Self Defense / Fighting310
Physical Fitness510
Popularity / Availability109
Ability to Practice104
Community / Socialization76
Need for Gear / Location104

Choosing Between Tai Chi and Other Martial Arts

This is one of a series of articles covering the similarities and difference between tai chi and other martial arts. We all have very different personalities and luckily there is a martial art for everyone. What is important is that more people on the planet are pursuing fitness that is functional and addressing their external and internal development. Whatever you choice and where ever you are in life, we all benefit by having more people improve themselves and interact with a like-minded community. Check out how all the major martial arts compare to tai chi be clicking on the headings.

ConsiderationTai ChiKung FuWing ChunKrav MagaMuay ThaiMMAAikidoBJJKarateTaekwondo
Self Defense / Fighting35710101031075
Physical Fitness587810104978
Popularity / Availability1088359101088
Ability to Practice1010433467610
Community / Socialization7775467877
Need for Gear / Location10786444487
  1. New York Times Article
  2. Inkstone News Article

Scott Prath

Scott has been practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong since 2000. He is a lead instructor for the Austin Chen Tai Chi Association. His interest in the internal martial arts began after traveling in India and Nepal, and he has since traveled to China to train. Scott has published over 100 articles on tai chi with a focus on research showing the benefits of practicing.

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