The Traditional Stance of MMA (And Other Combat Sports)
Yes, you, dear reader. Don't move.
Freeze and take notice of how you are standing or sitting. I'm willing to bet you're not standing or squatting in a completely brand new way. In fact, think about how many times you have actually positioned yourself in this exact same way.
Let's start with a fact we all know and agree on: There are only so many ways the common human body can move.
If your main goal at the moment is to get comfortable, you likely have habitual postures ingrained in you. Perhaps you typically cross your legs when you sit down or maybe you often slouch to one side when standing at ease.
Human beings are creatures of habit and we are limited by a finite number of movement options, it is only natural that we find ourselves in familiar postures often. This is especially true if we are trying to accomplish a particular goal (in this case, the resolution of violence).
Once you recognize the positions you commonly find yourself in, you can better refine them through focused training. This is all the more important from a pedagogical perspective, you have to be able to properly teach the next generation.
Here's the second fact of the day: only a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robot stands still while fighting.
In the realm of martial arts, a stance is simply meant to be a snapshot of a moving moment, a position you are momentarily in while you withstand or express force or movement.
What's interesting is, if you look at the ideograph commonly used in Traditional Chinese Martial Arts when discussing stances, the character translates literally to "step" or "stage(s) in a process".
It isn't about posing pretty, it is about how you got to that posture. It's about the rotation and/or transference of weight that got you there. A stance means nothing without the context of what led to the momentary posture.
When you bend your front leg and straighten out the back one for Zenkutsu-dachi or Gōng Bù, it can simply be for a brief moment in order to properly launch a powerful strike with structure.
When you remove the weight from your front leg to go into Neko Ashi Dachi or Xū Bù, this can simply be the initiation of a kick, a knee strike, or evasive movement.
And what about when you are done with the strike or block, you ask? In the wise words of Jay-Z and Swizz Beatz, you go on to the next one!
Stances are positions you move through, not simply postures you stay in. The evolution of your stances is to become natural phases of movement. If you study the 20 Guiding Principles of Karate written by Shotokan Karate founder, Gichin Funakoshi, you will hear a similar idea.
The seventeenth principle states, "Kamae wa shoshinsha ni ato wa shizentai". In other words, "Fixed positions are for beginners; later, one moves naturally."
With this perspective, what are common positions you see occur in MMA? Let's change gears for a bit and look at the current state of fighting. Think about how you defend against somebody shooting for a takedown.
Often the defense against an attempted single or double leg takedown involves shooting your feet and hips back and letting your weight fall on top of the aggressor, driving them down to the floor. When you sprawl like this, the position you briefly end up in is essentially a stance.
Like traditional stances, it is simply a captured frame of your movements.
When you load weight on your front foot in preparation for a lead hook or recovery from an evasion, is this truly different from transitioning momentarily into a horse stance in preparation for a powerful side kick?
The height and commitment of a traditional stance is going to vary depending on many factors, however the intention of the posture is what truly matters. Ask yourself what is motivating the movement.
When you understand what you are doing and how it can be used to empower other actions (whether it be a strike, kick, or even an evasive maneuver), you can train with better specificity and further refine the movements.
If you are a boxer or MMA fighter, observe how you stand and move. When you hold your hands in a specific guard, such as the tight defense or Peek-a-Boo guard that Cus D'Amato taught Mike Tyson how to use (hands touching your chin, forearms held close, and hips turned forward), you are simply training a posture and preferred tactics.
Gichin Funakoshi would be proud.
Just as karateka drill stances such as Kiba Dachi and Zenkutsu Dachi to better drive powerful movements, a boxer can isolate the pivot that shows up on a rear straight or a hook punch and make drastic improvements to his performance. When you focus on the pivot alone, you can better rehearse driving off of the back foot to initiate rotation and simultaneously gripping the ground and pulling your weight forward with the lead leg.
Learn how to isolate the essentials of your movements and tactics in order to refine them to new levels. Once you have done this repeatedly, divorce yourself from the thought that stances must only be static and sturdy.
Make your stances come alive with purpose.