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