san da

Many of the older members of the Vietnam national san da team in Hanoi said they went to China for training, but I learned that the juniors remained in Vietnam. Another interesting point was that the juniors didn't fight that often.

Juniors spend all their time in Vietnam training, not really fighting," Jerry Nguyen said. "If they have to fight, it's like a test."

This was similar to what I'd seen in China, where the approach is to have an athlete train for years to refine his skills before competing. Then, when he finally fights, he should win. On the wrestling team I trained with in China, members said they competed a maximum of four times a year. In contrast, the American method revolves around viewing competition as part of training. Within months of beginning wrestling, you're competing. Win or lose, you accumulate experience and, it is hoped, improve.

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The person who introduced me to the Vietnam national san da team was a Ph.D. candidate I'd met at Shanghai University of Sport named Vu Van Trung.

When we were in China, he came to watch my training and fighting on a number of occasions. Each time, he implored me to accompany him to Vietnam, where he'd connect me with the best fighters and teachers. I always take such offers lightly because people tend to exaggerate the strength of their own connections.

The minute we walked into the national training center, however, everyone stopped and ran over to welcome him. Later, I found out that he'd been a national and a Southeast Asian Games champion and now served as a director of the san da federation. He hadn't exaggerated.

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Black Belt's Asia correspondent tries his hand at san da while studying at Shanghai University of Sport. See the "Brooklyn monk" in action!

“Strictly speaking, san da is a Chinese martial arts amalgam composed of kickboxing and wrestling-style takedowns,” Antonio Graceffo says. “Some writers have referred to san da as ‘Chinese MMA,’ but that’s inaccurate because it normally doesn’t include ground fighting or submissions. Furthermore, in competition, san da fighters are permitted to clinch, but they’re not allowed to hit while doing so.

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Sanshou is not quite kung fu, and it's not quite MMA. It's a Chinese amalgamation that lies squarely in the middle, and it has a lot to offer competitive martial artists who value tradition.

When people talk about the mixed martial arts, countries like Brazil, Japan and the United States come to mind. China seems to be more closely associated with the traditional arts. The average enthusiast probably imagines remote villages, where old people do tai chi chuan in the morning and children learn their families’ esoteric styles of kung fu after nightfall. Welcome to the 21st century. The mainland Chinese martial arts community, while still stubborn in its stylistic chauvinism, has followed a relatively new training format for decades. Called sanshou or san da, (“free hands” or “free strikes”), it’s not bounded by one martial art. Lacking only the ground-grappling portion of vale tudo, it allows for full expression of nonlethal techniques.

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