Part 1: McGregor Movement
At the height of McGregor mania, movement training was all the rage. What is movement training? Sometimes it will depend on who you ask, things like Yoga and bear crawls can be considered movement training but this article will focus specifically on the type of movement training popularised by Ido Portal and other movement gurus that took off in the MMA world.
This type of training essentially comes down to body awareness, being able to physically move your body in a multitude of ways, be it through imitating various animals, and flowing between different types of movement. Here is a legitimately great demonstration from Ido Portal:
There’s no denying that this approach to exercise has got Ido Portal in great shape, along with resistance training. My issue comes less from what he’s doing, and far more with how the modern martial arts community has latched onto it.
Conor McGregor took a particular interest in this type of training and while practising it, he happened to become the most famous MMA fighter in the world. McGregor would be constantly talking about movement, and flowing and the common notion was that McGregor was the best fighter, because he had the best movement.
MMA fans would always say they loved McGregor and his ‘movement’ essentially just parroting what McGregor said in interviews, as though it was some sort of novel concept. There was an issue however…
Conor McGregor’s movement in the cage was genuinely nothing special. While McGregor could absolutely pull off impressive movement routines in the style of Ido Portal, with videos of him doing alligator crawls and different flows in training, this did not translate to him in the cage.
McGregor in the cage was a good striker whose success came primarily from a step back counter. For the clearest example of this, just watch his Jose Aldo fight. McGregor did not succeed because of great movement or mobility, he succeeded because he knew how to counter as an opponent over-committed. McGregor wasn’t much of a kickboxer in the same way Alexander Volkanovski or Dustin Poirier is, he wasn’t a great jab or hook artist, he was specifically good at landing a left straight counter. He was so good at it that he could comfortably rely on it.
The movement he really excelled at was just a simple pendulum step, keeping him moving back and forth, like any boxer would do. As far as movement when it came to kicks, McGregor wasn’t exactly the picture of excellent kicking form.
The truth is, you don’t actually have to be a great kicker in order to benefit from kicking. A kick with bad form does leave you open to be countered, but so does any action you can possibly take in a fight. McGregor wasn’t able to generate much power in his kicks, and his obsession with the false notion that Muay Thai would leave him flat footed (laughs in Saenchai) meant he never really developed that power. McGregor instead would kick frequently to wear down his opponent, but his kicks were often off balance, and you would see him firing off in weird trajectories.
None of this is to say McGregor was a bad striker, that would be silly, but McGregor wasn’t a great all-around striker with excellent technique in the way that say Israel Adesanya is.
So, the question becomes, what WAS this movement training supposed to do for his fight game?
Part 2: Everybody Laughs at Kata
Frequent readers of mine know that I’m a Muay Thai practitioner, and we do not have or use kata. This isn’t going to be a defence of kata as something that you can just train all day and suddenly be a good fighter. Kata and forms do not make you good at fighting, and any serious martial artist either knows this, or is deluding themselves. The purpose of Kata is to be a syllabus, a way to catalogue techniques and move sets while training fitness.
The irony with the MMA world, is that they seem to have decided that kata, or any aspect of martial arts for performance is just useless. There are videos of experts performing excellent demonstrations of kata and winning competitions, and the comments sections on social media will be full of naysayers laugh reacting and saying that they are useless skills.
So why is crawling about on the ground in various animal inspired styles superior to actually training martial arts movements in a choreographed manner? What do they think animal style Kung Fu is doing?
I believe that movement training can be a benefit to your overall health and mobility, but what benefits does it provide that aren’t provided in a more sport specific way than training forms? Kung Fu forms will have you practising very low stances, improving your flexibility and mobility while still emphasising punching and kicking.
When you are training to be a fighter everything you do have to be optimised for performance in the cage. Bodybuilding and power building workouts? Not especially useful, even if it’s cool to look good and lift heavy. Olympic lifting? There’s far more overlap because you’re building explosive movements. When you’re training a fighter, you need to work on both skills and strength and conditioning and no time can be wasted, if kata is ‘a waste of time’ then how can anyone begin to justify doing movement training? By virtue of training martial arts, you are already training the movements that you need to be good at.
Part 3: Old vs New
This is a symptom of a wider problem; unlike a lot of older sports like boxing, which are still developing, but in more subtle ways, MMA is very fad oriented. Look no further than Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida’s front kick knock outs of Randy Couture and Vitor Belfort (who fell for the same kick twice). After those knockouts every subsequent card for months was filled with people spamming the front kick in the vague hope they would recreate that knock out, disregarding any of the set up that made them possible.
Traditional martial arts that are not focussed on active competition often run into the problem of becoming more museums than living, breathing arts. It’s easy to be too bogged down in tradition and not assessing whether the art is still practical. Mixed Martial Arts seems to have the opposite problem, of constantly jumping to the new big thing, and neglecting very basic concepts and training principles that will build a strong fighter.
It’s no secret that traditional martial arts not named judo or muay Thai, have had trouble finding their place in MMA, there have been a handful of good karate practitioners, but generally the opinion is that traditional martial arts simply don’t work. The word McDojo gets thrown around a lot and it’s often said that karate guys don’t succeed because they spend too much time practising kata. I think the important words there are ‘too much’. Kata isn’t bad, it’s a very useful tool, but it shouldn’t be used in place of hard full contact continuous sparring that you will find in kickboxing gyms. As for movement training? I’m just not seeing the direct benefit.