Why you should care
Martial arts is taking a turn to a Wild West ethos, with fighters challenging each other with fists and smartphones.
Jake Shields, former Strikeforce middleweight champ and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter, was standing in line at a bank when a man noticed his ears. Shields, who has been wrestling since the age of 9, has cauliflower ears, gnarled and misshapen like badly beaten clay.
“He asks me if I do martial arts and I tell him I do and he … starts wondering if I could take his sensei,” Shields recalls. Even though Shields is laughing at this point in recounting the encounter, he’s a professional fighter, so he takes fighting seriously, especially when there’s a challenge. “I’ll beat your sensei’s ass,” Shields told the man. Currently pimping his act in the Professional Fighters League, Shields cooked up a plan he wanted to call a jiu jitsu challenge, in which he would show up at schools and if he could beat the head coach, or sensei, all of the students would leave with him, because what would be the point in staying? Though he never followed through on it, Wild West challenges like Shields’ are catching on in the fight sphere.
Which is how in a fit of internet hype, Beijing-based mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Xu Xiaodong — aka Mad Dog — found himself across the mat from wing chun master Ding Hao in March. In the world of traditional martial arts (TMA), wing chun, a southern Chinese style of kung fu for close-quarters combat, has a reasonably decent reputation, but only among other wing chun practitioners. Nevertheless, Xu and Ding squared off, and in about the time it’s taken you to read this, Ding was done.
Moreover, hundreds of rank amateurs are duking it out and uploading their videos to websites like World Star Hip Hop, as well as proprietary lines like Felony Fights. World Star Hip Hop started more than a decade ago with, as its name suggests, a focus on hip-hop. But for the past six years, it has posted videos of what it calls a “Fight Comp”: Amateurs battling it out bare-knuckled around the world. It could be brawls on the street, at a Wiz Khalifa concert or “teens versus McDonald’s employees.” These fight videos on World Star Hip Hop have racked up more than 100 million views.
People are sometimes crazy, and we don’t want anyone hurt.
Leopoldo Serao, five-time Brazilian luta livre champ
Helping the discerning sort these social media–driven fighters from real martial artists is Bullshido.net (the name is a portmanteau of “bullshit” and Bushido, the Japanese word for the code of the samurai). Bullshido started in 2002, but, according to the website, it was with the “advent of the smartphone” that its mission became how to “help people not get scammed” by showing them “what real fighting looks like.” In response to martial artists who claim they can defeat armed attackers by looking at them, by waving their hands, by using secret powers that emanate from their mind, Bullshido has become a clearinghouse for the tip of a much more gooned-out iceberg. To wit: People trying to sell martial arts fantasy versus those meting out martial arts reality.
“I travel from martial arts school to martial arts school, country to country, for business,” says Damien Noorbakhsh, a longtime martial arts apparel manufacturer and co-founder of Not in This Dojo web hub. “And, dude, I’ve seen it in about seven out of 10 of them. That is, I’ve been there when it happened.”
The idea of such nontraditional fight challenges itself isn’t new to those in the sporting world who dig interpersonal combat. Well before Brazil’s Gracie family helped start the UFC, they had launched the Gracie Challenge, where the breakdown was simple: You walk into any Gracie Academy and beat a Gracie? The cash is yours. The challenge was reported to have had as much as $100,000 at stake, and at its peak, in the 1990s, they all came running: bodybuilders, karatekas, judokas, former high school wrestlers. All for some of that P.T. Barnum kayfabe and a chance to make some cash.
But the Gracie Challenge was a unique one. What’s emerging now is a trend that’s transforming the fighting world, and causing many professionals to worry. While martial arts schools might find it useful for guerilla marketing, the motivations for the beaten are less clear. Noorbakhsh suspects it’s a styles-make-fights scenario. “If you’ve invested years in a martial art,” he says, “on a certain level you just need to know. So they usually come in already trained in another martial art and start asking about lessons and next thing you know they’re challenging someone.”
Surveying a half-dozen martial arts school owners supports this hypothesis, even more so than the 11 million-plus views on YouTube videos flying under the banner of headlines like “Top 10 Idiots Who Challenged …”
Getting beaten up isn’t the only worry for fighters. When “Mad Dog” Xu thrashed his wing chun rival, everything blew up. TMA folks flipped out, seeing it as a Western assault on Chinese culture. Despite both fighters being Chinese, and several fight leagues working out of Asia, the Frankensteinian monster of MMA was branded as Western. The internet fed the flames and almost before the day was done, the Chinese government had stepped in and banned a future fight between Ding and Xu, who had secreted himself away from the public eye following death threats.
That’s where traditional fighting schools remain different. “Here no one fights their first day,” says Leopoldo Serao, five-time Brazilian luta livre champ (luta livre is a jiu jitsu derivative) and the owner of Serao Academy. “People are sometimes crazy, and we don’t want anyone hurt.” But as long as people are willing to get hurt and film their attempts at matching skills and wits with other willing participants? It’ll keep drawing audiences who want to see nurture work its magic by having skill defeat stupidity every time.