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Enter the McDojo: My Experience With the Bullshit Culture of ‘Traditional’ Martial Arts


(If you’ve never had the pleasure of belonging to a McDojo yourself, this is recommended viewing. Props: EnterTheDojoShow)

By Brian J. D’Souza

A revolution is something that changes the system in a radical way. It’s an advancement that brings new ideas to the forefront. In many ways, this was what UFC 1 was. Organized by Rorian Gracie, Art Davie, and Bob Meyrowitz of Semaphore Entertainment Group, martial artists from a variety of styles were called upon to prove the superiority of their art by entering an eight-man elimination tournament at a November 12, 1993, event hosted in Denver, Colorado.

Many MMA fans know about the legend of Royce Gracie defeating professional boxer Art Jimmerson, Pancrase fighter Ken Shamrock and Savate champion Gerard Gordeau in one night to be crowned the first ever UFC tournament champion. But now, nearly 20 years after that historic event occurred, how much “truth” about how to effectively train and prepare for fights has trickled down to martial artists across the globe?

Sure, there are growing numbers of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu schools and a resurgence of interest in Muay Thai or other stand-up styles suited for MMA across North America. But the same old “McDojo” styles consisting of impractical or untested methods are just as prevalent today as they were decades ago before the inception of the UFC.

I learned this for myself a couple of years ago when I was working part-time at a downtown gym. Because it was free, I checked out the “kickboxing” class that was offered. I knew the basics of boxing, and had done some Muay Thai before, so I figured I’d at least get a good workout. I didn’t bank on discovering that the McDojo mentality was still alive, even well into the heyday of the UFC’s dominance in Canada.

The class itself was basic Taekwondo repackaged as kickboxing. Some unorthodox TKD kicks can be effective, as various MMA fighters have demonstrated over the years. That still doesn’t compensate for a lack of footwork, defensive drills, or other deficiencies inherent in this variation of kickboxing.

The stone in my shoe that started with irritation and eventually became unbearable over time wasn’t the lack of useful techniques taught, but the tall tales that the instructor told. In one of his stories, a disrespectful jiu-jitsu practitioner (identified by his T-shirt) stepped to him at a bar; he responded by thumbing the BJJ guy in the eye, bragging to his students “Sometimes you have to fight dirty.” In another story, one of the instructor’s students — who knew nothing whatsoever about wrestling or grappling — had gone to a BJJ school, and “did well.” The student had also “almost KO’ed” another student.

Right.

The instructor had a strange circular-argument method he used to talk himself out of any confrontation. It’s hard to point the finger and say “You’re full of shit!” when the person you’re talking to is agreeing with your points while simultaneously overlaying their own (warped) parallel reality to the discussion.

For whatever reason, the instructor decided to allow sparring during the summer months. Things seemed to improve now that the group had more leeway with how to apply their skills. I still had to teach myself via video instructionals and doing my own extra work, but the ideas I brought to the sparring sessions seemed to divide the group rather than building camaraderie.

The instructor was pushing 40 and never participated in training or sparring, so I figured that if I bested his top/favored student, Mark, I would win the group over to some of my ideas. Mark and I were of equal weight, height and strength, so it would be an accurate way to measure whose ideas about training were superior.

Mark agreed to a sparring session before the start of the kickboxing class. From the very first punch to the last, I used my jab to control Mark. Better footwork allowed me to get out of the way of incoming shots; by catching his snap kicks, I rendered them useless and set myself up for good counters.

While we went at it with full speed, I did not do anything cheap or dangerous. I just wanted to connect enough with shots to demonstrate the benefits of Muay Thai and boxing. Surely I had done enough to break down the mental defenses that made this guy cling to archaic training methods?

My answer came at the end of the same kickboxing class when a girl asked Mark how long he had been training for. He told her “12 years, in various forms.” This included Jeet Kune Do, knife fighting, Taekwondo — Mark even claimed that he’d wrestled throughout high school. All the same, Mark made sure never to spar with me ever again.

Looking back, Mark was none of the things he claimed to be; he was just someone who wanted to call himself a black belt because it helped regulate his fragile self-esteem. The instructor was only too happy to run his students through a class that was no more intense than 60-70 minutes of light aerobics; this way, he never had any competition.

I bit the bullet, took out a loan, and went back to my old Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school. It wasn’t perfect — the cost was huge, training took more commitment, and repetitive stress injuries mounted. On the plus side, there was never any confusion over which techniques worked or didn’t work. People never made up stories about how good they were, either: They were only too happy to demonstrate their skills time and time again.

Because I still worked part-time at the gym, my friends and the gym’s members from the kickboxing class often asked why I stopped coming. I never had the heart to tell them the truth, “Your instructor is a liar and the things he teaches you to do won’t work in a real fight.”

With some space and distance, I recognized a different truth: There will always be different styles of martial arts that follow different methods. There are even McDojo MMA schools where the level of jiu-jitsu or striking is mediocre and most of the students never advance their skills. It isn’t a question of knowledge, because effective styles of grappling and striking (boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, judo) have existed for decades before the beginning of the UFC. It comes down to the human element — the people leading, and the ones following.

A legitimate martial arts instructor places the development of their students before their own welfare. They constantly look for ways to motivate their charges while introducing new technical skills to the mix. In turn, the students have to take advantage of what they are being offered. Showing up consistently, giving a good account of themselves, and setting higher goals in order to progress as fighters.

I can respect the fact that not everyone wants to swim in the deep end of the martial arts pool. The total body exhaustion and emotional roller-coaster that accompany hard sparring or an intense grappling session are not sensations that everyone can handle. If those experiences were even slightly easier to handle, there would be a hell of a lot more BJJ black belts or boxers/kickboxers out there.

This fall, the articles promoting the 20th anniversary of the UFC will begin to come out. People will talk about Royce Gracie, the rise of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and the elimination of martial arts myths. Perhaps we should also talk about what goes on behind the scenes in gyms and martial arts schools — the culture of false machismo, the glamour of violence, and the seduction of the naïve by a desire for quick results without pain and sacrifice.

Human nature insists that the yin and yang forces of McDojo and MMA will always exist side-by-side together. We are the ones who must choose which side to align ourselves with, which ideas to promote — and most importantly — how to live as an example of the values that we want MMA to represent to the public.

***

Brian J. D’Souza is the author of the recently published book Pound for Pound: The Modern Gladiators of Mixed Martial Arts. You can check out an excerpt right here.

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Red Baron- April 24, 2013 at 6:46 pm
Brian, you only need to look as far as your title to find vulgarity.

Mac, I was referring to the public image of MMA: UFC. Their very president is a Foulmouthed egomaniac.

My point was and is that the article attempted to make the point that MMA has rendered traditional karate useless. My response was, yeah maybe, but CHL has rendered MMA useless.
macreadysshack- April 21, 2013 at 6:53 am
@Red Baron - Wow, you have some pretty strong ideas about what martial arts are, don't you? I strongly disagree about MMA gyms being thug-havens. I have experience at many gyms and dojos. My experience shows me that the most forced disciplined dojos are full of either thinly veiled douche-nozzle bullies, kids who are getting bullied or adults who were bullied. The MMA gyms I've trained at are overflowing with SELF-MOTIVATED people who are further inspired by good coaches. Are there a few bad apples? You bet your crazy firing range building ass there are. By and large, men and women involved in MMA are driven, kind and disciplined in a very real and modern way. Brian D'Souza is spot on, in my opinion. I have so many of these 'Traditional Martial Arts' experiences that for me, it's irrefutable. But hey, some people thrived there. Some people's egos became so engorged on the circle-jerks and expensive belt ceremonies that they graduated from bullied to bullys - because of all that awesome fake anachronistic discipline that most cannot even take out into the real world because, well let's see, IT HAS NO POINT OF REFERENCE IN THIS GENERATION.
BrianDSouza- April 21, 2013 at 5:55 am
Red Baron: I did not "Dojo Storm" this, or any other academy. People from the class specifically asked for me to spar against Mark, and he wanted to face me as well.

Neither Rorion nor Royce forced anyone into the UFC 1 octagon at gunpoint. Some pro fighters are thugs and some are nice guys; just like some pro football players are thugs, and some are law-abiding citizens. You can't (and shouldn't) generalize.

I have no quarrel with traditional martial arts-- only TMA myths that continue to exist well into the MMA era.

Also please specify what part or statement in my original article is vulgar.
Red Baron- April 21, 2013 at 5:28 am
As corny as it may sound, Bruce Lee had the right concept, imo. Which was that all of the styles have some good techniques and you should use the good techniques from all styles and discard the mythical smoke & mirrors death punch and Dillman nerve strike stuff.

I have tried to do just that. I taught karate for years, but when I watched Royce dismantle all comers in UFC 1, I knew BJJ was something I needed to roll into my kit of techniques. I did.

Years later I got my concealed carry permit after seeing that it was now accepted in 48 states. I stopped training in martial arts, built my own gun range and became proficient in shooting, which includes some of my martial arts training including good situational awareness.

No style is 100% effective, including a gun, because there are a few places you cannot take it (very few, and I try to avoid those places). But the reality is that my CHL is a far more effective self-defense tool than martial arts could ever be. This thread argues effectiveness, and it trashes traditional martial arts to do it - thus, my counter-point is BJJ is woefully inadequate when your opponent is armed.

Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Lastly, the author's attitude is part of the problem with the BJJ mindset. The Gracies are/were disrespectful people - all the way back to their patriarch, Helio (I think I have that name right??) who made a habit of walking into karate schools and beating up the instructor. That is low class thuggery. It is NOT "The martial way." It has brought disrespect to the martial arts, and that brash attitude is pervasive in MMA today when loudmouths like Chris Leben and Dana White, and the author of this article, cannot figure out how to express their opinion without resorting to vulgarity.

You may be feared, but you are not respected.

So yes, your BJJ may allow you to win a fight with a TKD practitioner, but his skills are far more likely to give him life skills that will advance him throughout his life and make him successful in far more arenas than just the octagon...which is fleeting at best.
BrianDSouza- April 20, 2013 at 3:05 pm
Red Baron: This wasn't a karate school. It was a kickboxing class where the instructor allowed real sparring between students. We had numerous disagreements about technique. Muay Thai & MMA fights are perfect demonstrations of the most effective techniques. But to execute those moves requires more training.

If we weren't learning to fight, then the instructor shouldn't have insisted that the moves he was teaching were street lethal. He should also have refrained from bragging about himself or his students giving a good account of themselves against BJJ/MMA fighters.

I have immense respect for traditional martial arts styles like the Kyokushin GSP learned or the Shotokan Machida studied. The same goes for judo, Sumo, Krav Maga or other arts that are what they claim to be.

Thanks for your comment, I hope I've clarified my position enough for you to better understand the article (which praises TKD for some uses).
Red Baron- April 20, 2013 at 11:00 am
The author proves the opposite point he intended, even in the title of his disjointed article. He wasted no time discrediting himself.

What is missing in MMA, and where it could learn from "traditional karate," is respect and self-discipline. Neither of which most MMA practitioners have. MMA fighters are some of the most immature, maladjusted, foulmouth malcontents that ever participated in organized sports. Mr. D'Souza illustrates this perfectly, with his vulgar examples of disrespect for karate instructors, couches as thinly-veiled machismo. Might be small man syndrome at work, I don't know.

He begins with the false premise that everyone, or even most people, get into karate to learn to fight. I didn't. I boxed before, fought a good bit in high school, and I certainly never felt the need to learn to was bored. Advanced to 2nd Dan in Ni Gojuryu because I enjoyed competing and challenging myself, but mostly because I liked the regimented discipline. You know the kind, like addressing your instructors as sir and never by their first name, by observing silly ol' notions like Order of Respect, Student Oath, and other "rituals" which will be lost on people like the author.

I enjoyed watching UFC 1, and it caused me to get into BJJ. I got turned off by the loudmouth bravado of Dana White, Chris Leben, and the gutterthug Diaz brothers.

Mr. D'Souza confuses God-given ability, such as the Diaz brothers have, with their bad behavior having some direct connection to their ability.

If not for the lucky timing of UFC's success, Dana White couldn't run a Subway store, and the Diaz brothers would be robbing same.

All that said, many top level MMA stars have their roots in karate: GSP, The Dragon to name just a couple.
macreadysshack- April 20, 2013 at 8:18 am
Seven years ago, when I was just getting into my groove with kickboxing, I was sparring with a friend when a guy came up and started bragging about his kung-fu and wrestling. This guy was big, ripped and pretty scary-looking. I declined his challenge to spar but he just started putting on our pads while we were taking a break. It kind of pissed me off and I thought 'well, to hell with it. I've been sparring with varying levels of success with good ammys and pros. Let's see what I've got.' What resulted was ten or fifteen minutes of bag-time for me. I was SHOCKED that this guy had no answers for the very basic but basically sound technique I had learned at a well known and reputable MMA gym. At the same time, I knew this guy would have really challenged me ten years prior to sparring with him when I only had TKD, non-trad Kung-Fu and Shotokan under my belt. I had trained FOUR TIMES longer in those other styles but four years of kickboxing (the first year of which was unlearning footwork) made me untouchable and, if I'd really let my hands and shins go, devastating to this 'trained' tough-guy. I ended up adjusting my sparring session with him to about 50% of what I'd do in class and I was still hurting him. For me, there is no substitute for good KB, sub-wrestling and MMA training. Even though much of the more traditional training I had previously was 'serious', the only things I really took from all of it were the things outside the rule-sets of the sport-styles. The bitch of it is, I could have learned skin-grabbing, eye gouging and groin strikes in a weekend seminar and saved myself a lot of mis-information, time and money.
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cman- April 17, 2013 at 9:59 am
Like intercept my experience was a couple of decades back, but joined a gym you had to spar your way into, and wiped the floor up to a black stripe, day 2 was having an instructor tell me 'grab my gi, no higher, now expose your thumb, more' and then put me in a painful thumb lock while telling I will learn useful techniques like this. and was allowed in as a white belt. Looked at this 2 pack a day over weight instructor handing me a 95.00 a month 2 year contract in shock. I'm sure they are still in business without my money.
Red Baron- April 20, 2013 at 11:15 am
All these anecdotal stories are interesting but they prove very little. I spent many many years learning then teaching traditional karate. And yes, I had to admit to myself, after being exposed to MMA, that some of the karate stuff was smoke & mirrors. But the same can be said of MMA. If I had to fight a Nick Diaz I would be woefully outclassed and probably would be destroyed, which would force me to attempt to rake out his eyeball and/or squeeze his nuts until he cried.

All martial art styles have shortcomings in a real fight, including MMA.

I enjoyed my time in the martial arts. Some great memories, a shelf full of trophies, etc. But, a certain amount of it became useless with the advent of concealed carry laws. As with karate, I got into firearms, not because I felt vulnerable, but because it's fun. But what I learned along the way is that the Glock G26 I carry on my right hip under my shirt, renders all martial arts useless, including MMA. With my lil' ol' G26 I could easily defeat the Diaz brothers, GSP, Anderson Silva, and Rickson Gracie all at the same time, although I might need to reload.

Just when you think what you study is superior, you learn it's not.
intercept440- April 16, 2013 at 9:26 pm
hmm not sure what you call mcdojo...i havent rained in martial arts since i was 19. 20 years ago. when i did i did intermountian Kenpo from 16 to 19.. dont know if that qualifies as mcdojo. but it was cool went to a few tounrneys got second place in a kumite and got a shitty wooden trophey that fell apart after a few years on the shelf... ahhh.. those were the days .. had to were pads and no head contact allowed...yeah...wait.. that was probbaly the start of the mcdojo era....god dammit
Willa Ford- April 16, 2013 at 12:33 pm
My big issue isn't with instructors teaching impractical arts, it's with instructors who lie about their arts' practicality. The first martial art I ever trained was TKD, under a former Canadian national team member. He loved TKD and taught it with passion, but when asked, would openly admit that TKD was not the most practical art, that it was a sport and skill, and would help in a fight, but not much. I moved on to BJJ and muay thai, but maintained a great deal of respect for my first TKD instructor who was honest and proud, and loved his sport. On the other hand, nothing pisses me off more than a TKD blackbelt who maintains that his TKD will remain highly effective when his opponent is allowed to punch him in the face and take him down. Nothing wrong with an instructor who loves and teaches a traditional style, as long as they're honest and fair to their students with regards to its practical utility.
ksgbobo- April 16, 2013 at 11:01 am
@Fist

What about Bas Rutten's tapes?! Those are awesome! I can see how some of that works.
Though, I've never been in a McDojo, I can see where you guys are coming from. Don't trust someone who's never been punched in the face is a phrase I like to go by.
Deadpanda- April 16, 2013 at 10:40 am
When I was training at the MTAA a guy came in looking to spar. They gave him some gloves & had him get in the ring with some of us. Someone kicked him so hard in the upper thigh that his hemorrhoid popped and he started bleeding out the back of his trucks. We never saw him again.
The12ozCurls- April 16, 2013 at 2:32 pm
Although you never saw him again, the canvas in that ring will forever show dotted stains that he did in fact exist.
El Famous Burrito- April 16, 2013 at 1:18 pm
Fuck yo hemorrhoids!
GistoftheFist- April 16, 2013 at 10:19 am
I heard that the Enter the Dojo videos were pretty funny but I can't watch them; the shaky camera makes me too motion sick. (I wish tv shows would stop doing that bullshit already, it's not "trendy" or "cool")

However, great article. If you go to Cracked.com and look for Seanbaby's article: 5 Signs That Someone Isn't A Badass, you'll see he covers some of the same topics you covered here. These phony martial arts masters love to claim that MMA isn't effective in a REAL fight, because they have rules. I've personally heard middle-aged glasses-wearing out of shape bald guys say how BJJ "doesn't work on the street" because they assume every fight will not be one on one. As i've said many times in this comment section, I collect street fights on my Youtube account. Nearly every time I see someone with a wrestling/BJJ background in a fight, he wins almost every single time. True, most of the schoolyard scraps or barroom brawls end up being a group fight and people do jump in.

And don't forget how people will try to sell you on buying some BS self defense tool or video or book, things like "the five moves you can do in any situation!" and they make absurd claims like you can use a rolled up magazine and four quarters to make a weapon. (Oh shit, I only have two, anyone have exact change for this fight?)

I unfortunately was enrolled in a McDojo when I was a kid; Kenpo Karate. It was all a bunch of nonsense, we never put on sparring gear or hit heavy bags, we practiced combo routines in the air and didn't even condition our bones for fighting. If I ever saw that instructor Jeremy Atwood again i'd spit in his face for taking my money.

People love to delude themselves into thinking they know everything about fighting and there's no shortage of armchair experts bragging about their infinity-hundred street fight wins. Just from simply watching literally thousands of fights online, I learned more about REAL fighting than I ever did in this class.

I hope you do another article like this one and further expand on the McDojo culture, this was a good read.
SethF- April 16, 2013 at 9:48 am
@ksgbobo

Not exactly, because a lot of McDojos have national affiliations. As a general rule of thumb, any school focused more on money than the art it teaches (pressure sales, lots of belts with ridiculous testing fees; etc.) or built around false/unverifiable claims counts (instructor is vague about his lineage and who has trained him). Bullshido.net is an excellent database of all things McDojo.
ksgbobo- April 16, 2013 at 9:10 am
I assume we are talking about schools that have no national affiliation or accreditation. I trained at Gracie Barra for awhile until work consumed all my time. I have been to other GB schools but they are all the same. The only thing thats different is your professor. Like anything else, some are better than others.
If you want to go to some crack school, that's your choice, and don't go around telling people you train because you don't. I had a friend take one of those MMA cardio classes, and he thought he knew how to fight. I asked if they sparred? Nope. So, if you can't practice what you teach, how do you know it works? But if you want to go to a legitimate school, do your homework.
BrianDSouza- April 16, 2013 at 8:25 am
The McDojo mentality isn't about differentiating between sport or self-defense. It's a school system that makes false claims and strings people along without developing them. A real TKD school that claims to be TKD and nothing else isn't a McDojo.
Red Baron- April 20, 2013 at 11:33 am
Brian, you are leaving out a very big part of the equation, possibly because you just don't know. A big factor in the success of a practitioner of ANY style, is the natural ability and natural toughness of the practitioner.

It is something you can't teach, some students have it and some don't. The kids that walked into my dojo as a shiny new white belt, but had loads of coordination and athleticism, could thump my purple belts. It's the closely-guarded secret that most dojo owners won't talk about, but they know it.

Again, it's a moot issue. If you're taking MMA for sport and fun, great, But don't delude yourself into thinking you're learning to defend against an attack. Not in this day and age when concealed carry is legal in 48 states. Sorry to burst a bunch of bubbles, but if you got a black belt in BJJ under Royce Gracie, the plump banker who gets winded walking from the elevator to his office but carries a 1911 under his suit jacket, will render your training useless 99% of the time.

Yes, I know, the plump banker isn't your enemy, it was just an analogy to make the point that more and more people carry handguns these days, and everyone of them can defeat your MMA almost every time. Oh by the way, it's not just the plump bankers who carry, but also sometimes the hothead who you got into a road rage incident with because you couldn't control your MMA-inspired foulmouth...
Fried Taco- April 16, 2013 at 9:09 am
I'm aware of that, I've been to a McDojo. I'm referring on how to decide what kind of dojo/gym you want to train at.
Fried Taco- April 16, 2013 at 8:18 am
Also need to decide if you want to train for sport or self-defense. It is rare to find a good self-defense school, because most are concentrating on sport. Of course, you can adapt the sport for self-defense by using the "illegal" techniques: eye pokes, groin strikes, strikes to the back of the head, 12-to-6 elbows, indian burns, reaping the leg, etc.
algiersheadkick504- April 16, 2013 at 8:18 am
Waatch the Olympics...that's how tkd is done effectively
google- April 16, 2013 at 8:03 am
i think thats Don Zimmer on the cover.
anderson wanderlei paulo thiago alves silva- April 16, 2013 at 7:26 am
Do yiu even Crossfit paleo dude
anderson wanderlei paulo thiago alves silva- April 16, 2013 at 7:25 am
Cross fit
El Famous Burrito- April 16, 2013 at 7:05 am
Who is the guy on the cover of that book? Does he trane UFC?
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