Could Tai Chi Benefit Combat Athletes?

I think this is a Jet Li movie. Or maybe it’s a photo from the Kung Fu dojo down the street.

When I decided to study martial arts, I knew it was going to be a commitment. So naturally, I researched all the different styles of fighting out there so that I could make an informed decision as to which discipline to study. This is how I ended up choosing combat sport oriented disciplines over the so-called “traditional” arts (check out my rant on terminology here). Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Muay Thai, Boxing, Wrestling, Judo… based on research, observation and experience, I honestly believe styles like these easily dominate Karate, Kung Fu, Aikido, Tae Kwon Do, etc. And most certainly, any of these styles can easily dominate so-called “Internal” martial arts such as Tai Chi. So, that being said, why should anyone give Tai Chi, or any other “internal” martial art a second thought? We’ve all seen the videos of MMA fighter Xu Xiadong steamrolling so-called Tai Chi “masters” in mere seconds. What possible benefit could there be in these ancient, internal disciplines for today’s modern warrior? What can Tai Chi give us that Muay Thai or Jiu Jitsu cannot?


Doing Jiu Jitsu, Muay Thai and other combat sports has had a net positive effect on my body. I am strong, durable, I move well and I can fight. My brain-body connection is strong. Knowing how to fight and how to control myself under duress also gives me peace of mind. But, these same martial arts I practice also have a physical toll; sore muscles, aching joints, fucked up toes. Inflammation, bruises, calluses and deadened nerves. Various injuries sustained over the years from drilling, sparring and competing. This is the nature of combat sports, or any sport, really; there will always be wear & tear on the body. Sometimes, I feel so beat up that I walk around looking like an old man.

Speaking of feeling elderly, my introduction to Tai Chi was when I was in high school. Walking home from school, I’d frequently notice an elderly Chinese woman in my neighborhood who would practice Tai Chi in her front yard. It always struck me how fluid her movements were, how agile and limber she was for someone her age. That is how I would like to feel in my old age. Hell, that’s how I’d like to feel right fucking now! As I type this, I am taking time off from the gym to recover from some injuries.

In a viral video, Chinese MMA fighter Xu Xiadong proved that MMA is superior to Tai Chi as a fighting style. But there is more to Tai Chi than combat.

The concept of active recovery is becoming more popular amongst combat sport competitors; hot yoga, cold ice baths, stretching, massage, foam rollers, etc. So, while I maintain that in terms of self-defense and fighting, combat sport related disciplines are still superior, it’s also my argument that Tai Chi and other internal disciplines reflect an aspect of martial arts that we tend to overlook or undervalue: the recovery and maintenance of our bodies. I get it, there are many idiotic so-called Tai Chi “masters” who claim their style is great for self-defense, and as a realist and pragmatist, it feels only right to rail against these nonsensical claims. But, if we take the combat element out of the discussion, and look at how Tai Chi is practiced, we can actually find a wealth of benefits. Harvard University seems to think so. Their studies show that Tai Chi also prolongs your cognitive abilities into old age. It’s also considered beneficial for recovering from surgeries or illness.

The fact of the matter is, there are no “complete” martial art styles out there. Not really. One of the appeals of MMA is it represents the journey to become a complete martial artist. These are top fighters training across multiple disciplines to have a well rounded fight game; styles like Muay Thai, Boxing and Karate for striking; Wrestling, and Judo for takedowns and takedown defense; Wrestling and BJJ for ground fighting; Judo and BJJ for chokes, armlocks and other submissions. Etc. We also know that conditioning your body is an important part of fighting. We run, lift weights, practice explosive plyometric drills, do all sorts of ridiculous things to improve our strength, speed & durability. Should it not stand to reason, then, that an art like Tai Chi is also important, in that we must maintain and repair our bodies?

Tai Chi has been shown to improve flexibility & cognitive function. It’s also been shown to help with recovery from PTSD, surgery and other injuries.

There are, of course, challenges with learning Tai Chi. For example, it’s a very slow moving discipline, and it takes years to master. Not like a couple of years either. It’s a slow moving, long haul process that can make you feel impatient. Also, it’s something best practiced with a coach who can observe and correct your movements. If you live in the western hemisphere like me, it’s difficult to find a legitimate master to study under. There is a guy in my area who claims to teach Tai Chi, but he is one of these snake oil hucksters who claims Tai chi is a self-defense style that can beat boxing. Dude, no it isn’t, this has already been disproven countless times. So, as much as I would like to learn more about Tai Chi, I am for now relegated only to what I can find on the internet (if you know of any good online tutorials or resources for Tai Chi feel free to drop a link in the comments below).

All the same, I feel the points in this article stand. While MMA and combat sports are superior for fighting and self-defense, we can still benefit from Tai Chi. I’d like to be as good of a fighter as the great Muhammad Ali in his prime, but I would much rather age like the graceful elderly Chinese woman who practiced Tai Chi in my neighborhood all those years ago.Of course, I also would like to learn more about the movements of Tai Chi from a legitimate, non-clown entity, but given the part of the world I live in, I’m not holding my breath for it. All the same, take good care of yourselves, my friends. Happy training and remember to breathe.

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