MMA vs. Tai Chi: the story of master Wei Lei and Xu Xiaodong

The two circled sizing one another up. Master Wei Lei looked poised and expert, his hands raised in practiced precision. Xu Xiaodong brought his arms up languidly. Xu Xiaodong was questing, making probing motions as he circled, gauging his opponent. Master Wei Lei moved with care, left arm raised forward just above head height, the right closer, a palms reach from his chin. His fingers were slightly splayed each pointing toward Mr Xu Xiaodong. His back was straight his knees bent. It was a commanding stance. Wei Lei’s proud bearing was matched by his splendid traditional white tunic and black trousers, as is befitted of a Tai Chi master. Shaven headed, he looked the picture of the monk warrior of Chinese historic tradition. He awaited Xu Xiaodong’s attack.

Xu Xiaodong’s movements were less defined. He rubbed his face. Wiped his hands on his red and black sports t-shirt. Fidgeted slightly with his face. Then balling his fists, he fell into a low stance. His back bent, his knees poised to spring. His feet were loose and bouncing lightly in luminous pink, garishly modern, sports trainers.

This was the long anticipated meeting between MMA and Tai Chi. The fight had been scheduled following claims by Xu Xiaodong that master Wei Lei’s Tai Chi was a scam, and was not an effective fighting style. Master Wei Lei responded by issuing a challenge and the two faced off six months later.

Xu Xiaodong is a retired MMA fighter turned coach, at thirty-eight years of age, he sees it as his purpose to expose a Tai Chi tradition that teaches ineffective styles at premium costs. Master Wei Lei represents a pure form of the Chinese tradition of martial arts, while Xu Xiaodong represents a more westernised, international interpretation. It is for this reason that the fight took on a symbolic nature, as old China took on the new.

Xu Xiaodong surged forward with a flurry of attacks, advancing on Wei Lei springing from the back leg. His form broke into a run as he punched repeatedly at the retreating master Wei, and then Wei was down. Xu Xiaodong stood over him punching again and again towards the crumpled master’s head. The referee moved in and the fight was over.

Master Wei Lei lasted twenty to thirty seconds against a former professional MMA fighter’s focused attacks. He claimed that the fighter had not hit him while he was standing, and that he had been able to block and evade Mr Xu’s blows until he was grounded. Even if this is true, a style that brings a flailing MMA fighter over you in twenty seconds perhaps isn’t the most effective one.

Mr Xu Xiaodong claims to be taking on the mantle of a kind of Chinese later day Houdini. While Houdini sort to expose scams based on superstition, such as fortune telling and the séance, within his own culture. Xu Xiaodong sees himself as shining the light of realism on an outmoded tradition.

The striking thing about the fight is less the styles of the fighters. Indeed, Mr Xu appeared to forsake any recognisable style as Wei Lei backed away, opting to pursue with haste and ruthlessly press his advantage. Mr Xu gave a casual approach to form. His attacks were those of focused aggression, which quickly overwhelmed Wei Lei.

Mr Xu is correct in that the test of a style must be empirical. When tradition becomes disconnected from the realities of combat, it is style for styles sake and not a living breathing form. Though perhaps Wei Lei’s failing had more to do with his isolation from a hardened opponent, than a complete betrayal of Tai Chi per se.

MMA fighters are rigorously tested, they are pitched against one another in intense contests, it is in this environment that styles swiftly adapt and survive, or fail and die. Had master Wei Lei come from such a background, there is no doubt he would have faired better. Ultimately the fighter, not the form, wins a fight. Perhaps master Wei Lei could learn the lessons of Houdini. If not his empiricism, than at least how to make a better escape.

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