By Sensei Guy Hagen, March 21, 2017

Aikido Vs. MMA: The Unflinching Comparison

Recently, a fellow Aikido teacher shared a video with me of a YouTube commentator evaluating Aikido videos.  In general, this commentator expressed incredulity and disdain regarding what he saw of Aikido as a fighting art.  As this was about the 300th video, article, and forum thread I have seen on this topic, and because it occasionally comes up in discussion with my students, I felt it was time to bring a larger perspective to this debate.

The commentator was trying to be open-minded from his perspective, but his core assertion was this: Aikido is an ineffective art against any trained fighter.

As most of you know who are reading this article know, I have rank and experience in a number of different martial arts including competition experience in three (Tae Kwon Do, Judo, and a little Kendo).  I also have rank in two very different Aikido traditions, and have visited dojos and taken seminars from top instructors from every major branch of Aikido today. Let me start right away and say that the commentator is absolutely correct, and here’s why.

  • Most Aikido practitioners train in comfort, and may train their entire martial careers without ever being “physically challenged” in any meaningful way.  Most learn and study under teachers who themselves have never been challenged, or concerned themselves with the question of combat efficacy except in very limited fashions.
  • Aikido as a modern art is often disconnected from its historical roots as a battlefield art.  The purpose of training, the techniques that are learned, and the cultures and environments in which modern Aikido is practiced often have little resemblance to their origins (more to be discussed later in this article regarding this point).
  • Most Aikido syllabi do not include practice against kicks or real punches, and generally Aikido attackers are not trained to attack well. Aikido tends to attract non-violent people, who often are uncomfortable about “gritty aspects” of training like realistic punching.  Most Aikido attacks are somewhat idealized, slow, and well-telegraphed; while this doubtlessly was not the intent of the Founder, the “kid gloves” attacks used against beginners are never really discarded, and fierce, meaningful attacks are almost never studied for their own merit in Aikido dojos. Many schools and senior teachers require attacks to be performed in very specific ways that are not measured by conflict effectiveness.
  • Most Aikido syllabi do not include groundwork or training against groundwork attacks.  Unfortunately, a lot of Aikido is in fact practiced at a comfortable standing height without a lot of vertical movement, and one doesn’t have to look far to find groups of Aikidoka who are uncomfortable bending their knees (and not just due to age or injury).
  • Aikido training partners are collusive. While “training partner culture” varies from dojo to dojo, style to style, generally attackers are encouraged to maintain a helpful mindset instead of a combative one.
  • Aikido attackers train to give up their center through ukemi.  Ukemi is the practice of breakfalls, of learning how to move to be able to receive full power head and joint techniques without injury; there’s a lot of very real value in ukemi, and far more than can be discussed in this article.  However, there’s a very fine point between cultivating self-preservation through ukemi versus persevering as an attacker, and it’s easier to find examples where all attackers are “trained to fall by themselves” than examples where ukemi-capable Aikido attackers are fierce and convincing.
  • Aikido doesn’t really incorporate conditioning.  I’ve belonged to a couple of dojos with brutal aerobic warmups and training energy levels, but in general Aikido practice focuses on movement efficiency; Aikido practitioners do not tend to be overly athletic as a rule.
  • Aikido is learned as kata.  Sure, it’s kata that is sometimes fast and fluid, but 99% of training in Aikido dojos is accomplished by designating one person as the attacker and one as the defender, with such roles not to change until each partner has had a chance to do the same technique from the same attack four times each (right and left, front and back).  It’s so characteristic of Aikido training as to be nearly universal, and this foundation of training can definitely impede the back-and-forth spontaneity and tactical mindset one can witness in any combat sport match.
  • Aikido training techniques have been deliberately modified to be less “effective.” Here’s the real kicker – many modern Aikido techniques have been deliberately modified to be ineffective and drawn out.  I think there is plenty of room to discuss (as an example) the merits of being able to practice a full power sumiotoshi (corner arm bar throw) rather than a pretend, “limited power” elbow break; similarly, the separation of a technique into component parts to better analyze timing, balance, continuity and connection can only really manifest when a technique is drawn out over a longer period.  However, it does mean that many Aikido techniques aren’t nearly as destructive, explosive, effective, or potentially dangerous as their original Daito-Ryu Aikijujitsu counterparts. The late Stanley Pranin was perhaps the most diligent historian of O Sensei’s techniques and life; based on his research, he stated “… Morihiro Saito used to say that O-Sensei ‘hid’ his techniques with extra fancy movements so nobody could ‘steal’ them from him. What we see is, I believe, just a glance into his actual techniques… Morihei’s teaching curriculum does not have much of an impact on today’s practitioners.” (2015, Aikido Journal).

If you are just reading this article to justify why MMA is best, you can stop reading now.  However, if you are interested in why none of the points I just made concern me greatly, please continue reading.

First, There’s Aikido, and Then There’s Aikido.

There are more than 1.2 million Aikido practitioners in more than 50 countries worldwide (source: Aikikai Foundation, 2011; Aikikai world headquarters no longer lists this statistic on their website); with this many participants one can expect a large amount of “mainstreaming” of the art as a whole.  There is a lot of variation dojo to dojo, style to style, and my observations above are based on a sort of “collective average” Aikido I have encountered.

That being said, none of those points are necessary parts of Aikido.

Training under the Founder was likely much more martial than it is today.  I have been told numerous times that many of O Sensei’s early students were yudansha (black belts) from other martial arts, who apparently considered that what Aikido had to offer fit on top of the teachings of these other arts, versus being a replacement for them.  O Sensei was renowned for his ferocity, served in wartime and trained military troops, and was an acknowledged genius for his accomplishments in many different combat arts.  O Sensei’s training regimen was severe, and he maintained discipline his entire life.  Certainly no-one would accuse his Aikido of being ineffective or unrealistic against trained fighters; O Sensei faced trained fighters on many occasions.

My teacher, Mitsugi Saotome Shihan, was one of O Sensei’s most martially-oriented disciples; he is known for his weapons work and his talent with multiple attackers.  He has been a consultant with the U.S. Pentagon helping to train and test special operations soldiers.  He speaks regularly at his seminars about the importance of cultivating intense training and a severe mindset embracing the life-or-death implications underlying Aikido practice, and I have written elsewhere about his assertions that studying the “dark side” of Aikido is critical to gaining a true understanding of the art as the Founder practiced it.  He had a reputation for honing his skills against live blades.  Saotome Sensei once told me that “it is the responsibility of every true [Aikido] deshi to discover the weaknesses in their training, and to go out and fix them with training in other arts.”  While one could argue that this is evidence that Aikido is not an all-encompassing art, I would argue the opposite.  for O Sensei, simultaneously having Kenjutsu students in his dojo thinking and attacking like Kenjutsu experts, having Karate students thinking and attacking like Karate experts, and having Judo students thinking and attacking like Judo experts all fit easily into his vision of Aikido.  If the typical dojo today doesn’t resemble that kind of eclectic, dynamic training environment it certainly isn’t the fault of the Founder and isn’t necessarily definitive of the art.

Always imagine yourself on the battlefield under the fiercest attack; never forget this crucial element of training.” – O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba

Aikido isn’t a body of techniques, it is a philosophy, a strategy of mind, movement, connection and redefining the battlespace.  I recently asked Saotome Sensei – “Sensei, a lot of information has been published recently implying that O Sensei actually practiced Daito Ryu Aikijujitsu his entire life, even while he was building the Aikido community.  What is the difference between Daito Ryu and Aikido?” Saotome Sensei simply said “Daito Ryu is technique; Aikido is principle.”  Principle can be applied in any environment, with any tool or technique, and as such Aikido training can encompass ne-waza, kicks, deadly strikes, realistic attacks, conditioning, exploration of battlefield techniques, and incorporation of other arts.  It is the philosophy, attitude and greater purpose that changes and integrates these things into Aikido.

If one takes the time to look around, it is possible to find Aikido dojos filled with frightening veterans of other martial arts.  They joined Aikido because it provided an opportunity to continue their training without having to pretend they were still 25, and because it provides a path for them to continue studying insights from their prior arts in new and challenging ways.  They did not surrender their prior arts to join Aikido, they added Aikido to their prior arts.

It’s Not Useful To Compare Strengths To Weaknesses.

First, I think it’s worth noting that the average Aikido practitioner is, well, “average”, and typically older than most MMA athletes.  It’s a strange comparison when one is contrasting the performance of a 45-year old against a 25-year old athlete.  Aikido “ages well” compared to most arts, and that’s one of the reasons so many older martial artists migrate to Aikido.

I have a Darwinian evolution-based philosophy about the origin of every martial art.  I believe that each martial art evolved to be the very best at dealing with the most likely life-or-death hand-to-hand encounter that might be faced in the time, culture, economic and political environment in which they came to be.  In other words, they each are potentially really good at the specific thing that they do.  If you dropped an MMA champion into a jungle with a machete and he tripped across an enraged Kali / Arnis expert, the MMA champion wouldn’t be leaving the jungle.  Alternately, if that same Kali expert was dropped into an octagon or ring with an MMA expert – particularly if suddenly not allowed to do anything against the rules of the sport – the MMA expert would prevail handily.  This is not to denigrate either tradition, it’s just to highlight that it’s pointless to measure arts against each other based upon what one is good at and what the other isn’t.

Aikido has a very specific historic context that evolved its syllabus of techniques, broadly speaking (let’s set aside discussions about Aikido styles and affiliations). Many of its techniques are evolved from the context of battlefield combat, often wherein the combatants were wearing some level of armor but also wherein most combatants were armed; this influenced both the attacks were performed (to penetrate armor) and how defenders responded (going to the ground in the middle of a battlefield is risky). In many cases the techniques were developed to be used in grossly unequal situations, such as against multiple armed attackers, or when one combatant found himself unarmed against an armed opponent.  Aikido incorporates many formal military arts including spear, staff, more than one school of swordsmanship, on top of the Daito Ryu Aikijujitsu from which our modern art has inherited most of its hand-to-hand techniques. These original techniques were developed on the battlefield, and the ones that were passed down through the few major ryu-ha (traditional Samurai art lineages) were the ones that succeeded and whose practitioners survived.  When Aikido is most deadly and applicable as a combat art is when these original roots are considered and explored, and these combat situations are examined.

Let me give a personal example.  I was Head Instructor at the University of South Florida Aikido for many years.  Each semester, we would have to struggle to keep our “slot” in the university sports center’s training room that contained wrestling mats, and each semester we would either have to compete with (for scheduling slots) or be “neighbors with” (having a schedule immediately before or after) some different martial art or martial sport club.  Since our room had wrestling mats, frequently we were uneasy neighbors with some MMA club (these clubs rarely survived for more than a couple semesters, but another club would reincarnate soon after with new members and teachers).  Inevitably, I had to deal with a familiar pattern where (over the course of days, possibly weeks) athletic young male MMA practitioners (sometimes the teacher) would start by loitering in the hall outside our door before or after our class, becoming increasingly bold with deprecating comments amongst themselves about what we were doing.  The next step would be for them to start coming into our room during class, and either trying to help themselves to our mats or stand with their arms crossed looking derisive.  Sooner or later, somebody would eventually challenge us in some way.   At first, my tactic was to invite them to train with us and experience the art before they formed an opinion.  A surprising number of hecklers couldn’t handle the invitation, and would leave never to be seen again.  However, some would, and as I knew that they would spend the entire class trying to “win” against their partners and prove how weak our Kung Fu was, I would use them as my teaching ukes and only let them train with me or a senior student.  I figured, “if my training was legitimate, it shouldn’t matter.”  Unfortunately, the first few times I did this I tried to stick to my syllabus – and if I was teaching shomenuchi ikkyo (downward strike, first technique /arm control) then I was going to take it as a personal test that I could perform shomenuchi ikkyo in a textbook/testing fashion, even though it was against a strong young man who knew what I was going to do and was going to try to do everything they could to stop it.  I am strong, large, and have a lot of experience, so I can say that a) I generally succeeded, b) it was never pretty, c) I learned alot about teaching, and d) I never succeeded in convincing any MMA visitors that Aikido wasn’t worthless.

Later, I got a little smarter.  I realized that “anything that ends in ikkyo is still ikkyo”.  This was immensely liberating, and by taking away the challenger’s knowledge of what I was going to do made it much easier and more successful for me.  My Aikido improved, but I observed that a) I still never convinced any MMA visitors that Aikido wasn’t worthless, and b) refer to point a).

I finally gave up, and by dint of frustration discovered a final strategy which worked like a charm on two or three occasions (until we eventually left the University).  When our MMA visitors worked up to coming into our room and started throwing attitude during class, I would stop everything, hand shinai (practice swords) to three senior students, have them surround one of my petite young lady students, and just say “attack!”  I would let the visitors watch a full-speed weapons randori for a while, and when I stopped I would just gaze politely and inquiringly at the visitors, inviting comment.  Every time, their comments were gone, and they would leave never to bother us again.  Say what you can about the ferocity, power, and effectiveness of modern MMA, it was always clear that MMA training wasn’t going to prepare them to look good or do well in a situation involving multiple, fast attackers with weapons.  By showing one of the strengths of Aikido, it removed the visitors disrespect of Aikido.

(As a side note – if these groups had been more respectful, we would have happily cross-trained with them, as we had with the Kenjutsu and Tae Kwon Do clubs.)

It Is Very Compelling To Be Pulled Into An Opponent’s Strength.

About twenty years ago – I think I was shodan in Aikido – a friend who practiced a striking art (I forget which) asked me to spar with him.  Always up for training, I said “sure!”, thinking the engagement would be informative – and it was.  We stepped together and immediately, all my warning instincts fired up – and then the sparring started.  In general, I remember it was all I could do to hold my distance, and I relied on falling into a lot of my old Karate patterns to accomplish even that.  After a break, I thought about it, and realized the problem – my opponent was used to all of his training at a certain sparring distance, and I let him define that distance for me.

Why in the world would I do that? I was playing his game, the game he was good at.  I was throwing out all the effective principles I had learned in Aikido, like ma-ai (distance control), de-ai (timing, and working with partner’s triggering of intent), irimi and tenkan, in order to plant myself toe-to-toe within range of my opponent’s weapons, tactics and techniques.  When we re-engaged, it was an entirely different interaction; while I only touched him a couple of times, they were quality touches, and it was clearly very frustrating for him that I wouldn’t “stay put” and just fight with him on his terms. I use the term “fight” in italics, because I have come to feel that the deeper meaning of “fighting” also signifies “to maintain or reinforce a struggle,” and my experience with my friend made that meaning clear.

When invited to spar, inevitably we are being invited to spar on the terms of the inviter, and there is a very insidious and compelling force that draws us into doing so without critically examining what is happening.  Unfortunately, this same thing happens when we get drawn into online (or in-person) debates about the merits of various martial arts; we start using the terminology of the person on the other side of the debate, and measuring our art against what they value and easily understand while simultaneously forgetting what is important about Aikido.

Sometimes we find the lure of defending our art in these online debates irresistible, because we hold in our most secret of hearts a deep insecurity about what we have been taught, and whether or not we could “measure up” if we had to.  “How dare you impugn my training!” I think it’s important to be aware of our motivations for responding to debate; Aikido doesn’t need to be defended on this front, and if we were truly confident in our training and convictions, we wouldn’t feel the need to be defensive.  It’s up to us to discover if we have that insecurity, and as Saotome Sensei said, “go out and fix it.”

Aikido Is About Living.

The biggest point that gets lost in these debates is that Aikido isn’t about winning a street fight, it’s not about winning toe-to-toe against a training fighter, it’s not about winning a sporting match or duel. Aikido is about exploring conflict to learn how to live life better, learning how to be a better and happier person, and how to gain insight into how martial training can be applied to all aspects of life, family, career, etc.   I didn’t stop training in Judo because it wasn’t effective, I left because I realized I needed something more in my life; that the rewards of winning at a competition every 2 or 3 months didn’t justify the time and energy and money I was pouring into training. I realized that most of the competitors I encountered never had the introspectiveness to examine why they felt the need to prove themselves over and over.  Don’t get me wrong – I have written in other articles that there is some real warrior value in stepping into the ring, and I have met and trained with numerous devout followers of the Way in these arts.  However, it seemed to me that a lot of the men I faced were driven by some need or deep insecurity to “measure up” in a way that was never going to be fulfilled no matter how many matches they won, and the attitudes they brought to their training and matches (win at all costs, never lose, cheat when the judge can’t see, intimidate opponents whenever possible, never show weakness, etc.) were going to serve them very, very poorly when they manifested as reinforced personality patterns in their work, family, and other relationships.  This is the michi (spiritual path) that Aikido offers, that MMA does not.  You can tell me about sportsmanship and cultivating integrity and how bad sportsmanship isn’t representative of everybody, but I was there, and I didn’t develop these impressions from reading books or watching videos or wearing TAPOUT gear.

So, I often read questions like “why aren’t there many Aikido practitioners in MMA competitions?” To me, the question can be turned around, “why aren’t there many MMA practitioners practicing Zen sitting meditation?”  Because one is about winning trophies, and the other is about winning peace and happiness.

“The Way of the Warrior has been misunderstood. It is not a means to kill and destroy others. Those who seek to compete and better one another are making a terrible mistake. To smash, injure, or destroy is the worst thing a human being can do. The real Way of a Warrior is to prevent such slaughter — it is the Art of Peace, the power of love.” – O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba