Wushu Watch: Lessons to Learn from Aikido

Photo by Lynn Bo Bo/EPA

If you are a fan of MMA the chances are that you have seen the now legendary Joe Rogan Podcast segment with Andrew Hill. You might know him as 'Aikido Guy', the rest of the Internet does. In the course of a three hour show with all manner of discussion, Hill—who has a PhD in cognitive neuroscience and is by no means a silly man—revealed that he is something of a mark for Aikido. This in itself isn't a bad thing but the further into the conversation Rogan and Hill went, the more it seemed to be that Hill believed in the classic nonsense tropes about any martial art where the smaller man turns the energy of the bigger one against himself and so on...

So Joe Rogan's line of questioning went “you can't believe this would work on a trained opponent though?” and Hill doubled down and went with “oh not me, but O sensei”. O sensei refers to Morihei Ueshiba who was the founder of Aikido. Along with Gichin Funakoshi and Jigoro Kano, he is considered one of three forefathers of the modern Japanese martial arts tradition. Similar to Kano, Ueshiba was a student of traditional forms of ju-jutsu and aiki-jutsu who developed his own system and stressed martial arts as a tool for self development. But where Kano stripped away techniques which were dangerous in sparring and then had his students focus on randori or free practice in creating Judo, Ueshiba went the opposite route and removed all agency from the attacker.

The main problem with Aikido generally is that it goes to great lengths to teach its students how to attack in the least practical manner, and then builds its defence off of that. This is not just an Aikido folly though, the same can be seen in Karate, Taekwondo, and even in various kickboxing schools across the globe. The belief that the bad guy will attack in a fully committed and impractical way because he is the bad guy and that the defender, the trained martial artist, is the good guy. Unfortunately, the moral high ground has never given a technical edge in any fight. And when you ask any traditional martial arts teacher or even master about this they will normally say that the lunging punch or swing is just a place holder and at higher levels you can of course replace it with any kind of strike. This is as silly as a professional fighter training to fight a southpaw by only sparring orthodox opponents for an entire camp.

When you search for videos of Morihei Ueshiba, Gozo Shioda, or any other top Aikidoka of your choosing you will be treated to clip after clip of demonstrations wherein their opponents willingly run into them. The aikido master will take a grip on the wrist and fling his opponent through the air.

Or he will allow the opponent to run onto his forearm and the uke's legs will go flying out ahead of them like they've run into a Scott Steiner clothesline. Not young, flying through the air Scott Steiner but the “my legs don't work so sprint into my arm please” Steiner of modern day.

Block out the pain and make your body grow.

Now the problem is the same as the problem with a bad novel. The hero is a rounded person with a base of knowledge and experience to draw from, the villain is one-dimensional, lacks believability, and exists only to allow the hero to show how heroic he is. And you can hear that in Hill's argument “a skilled martial artist is not going to walk around trying to kick people's asses, that's what an unskilled asshole does!” Of course in reality, as Stephen King put it, we are all the protagonist in our own lives. When uke and tori become competitors or fighters rather than 'attacker' and 'defender', suddenly neither man wants to throw himself off balance and do cartwheels any more. The crux of the issue is that you cannot hope to understand how to defend yourself in any situation unless you grant some agency to the attacking party.

And this can be shown in Tomiki Aikido / Shodokan Aikido, or competitive Aikido as it is sometimes called. Kenji Tomiki was a high ranking Aikido practitioner, but also a high level Judo practitioner and founded a tradition of Aikido which contained competitive elements. They aren't particularly fun to watch, and the comments on youtube are full of “that's not Aikido!”, but if you want to see someone trying to apply their techniques against a man with a knife who isn't going to throw himself past them with exaggerated lunges this will suffice.

I can't think of a better advert for not confronting a man with a knife than this video, or perhaps the one where Jon Fitch pulls guard against a shock knife. You will notice that the man with the stick representing the knife has normally shanked his opponent a dozen times before the two fall to the floor, normally with the knife in between them. But you can learn the same lesson if you have a white t-shirt (or even better, a gi) and a friend who is willing to wield some lipstick like it's a blade.

But if you want me to write Aikido off as one hundred percent nonsense, I'm about to disappoint you. Once you strip away the cult-like hierarchy of throwing oneself through the air for sensei, Aikido contains a good number of mechanically sound techniques and principles. However, mechanically sound doesn't mean practical yet.

Controlling Posture

A great many of Aikido's techniques build around control of the wrist, which you will know does not come that often in a fight with no gis and especially not on the feet. Partly because the wrists become so slippery when sweating even lightly, and partly because nobody actually leaves their punches out there to be grabbed if they miss. It is, however, becoming a more commonplace focus in no-gi grappling. You will see butterfly players like Eddie Cummings and Marcelo Garcia focusing on getting the two-on-one wrist grab so that they can elevate and reap a leg. Equally, Rambaa Somdet had great success going two-on-one on his opponent's hand and kicking them out from his guard. Marcelo Garcia and Josh Barnett, among others, are also showing the importance of wrist control when passing the guard. And the way they do it is either as their opponent is reaching for control, or by reaching for a control of their own and catching the opponent's wrist as they try to knock it away.

Eddie Cummings demonstrating the two-on-one as an entry to single leg x-guard and leg attacks.

That problem is the constant. How do you get control of the wrist? You sure as hell aren't snatching up a punch. The first successful application of kote-gaeshi, that infamous twisting wrist throw, which I have seen in MMA was Volk Han against Kiyoshi Tamura in RINGS. RINGS, like Pancrase and many of the other early MMA promotions, grew out of a stable of professional wrestlers. The striking was generally abysmal and so it was far more common to see men come out and throw a few low kicks before trying to wrestle.  It likely helped that many of these men were friends who had professionally wrestled against each other and so the bouts took more of a competitive grappling than competitive fighting feel.

With early RINGS bouts it is always difficult to tell the real ones from the works, but comparing the wrestling match between the two in 1996 with their three MMA matches in 1997—it seems clear that this must have been legit, because when they were pretending to fight each other it looked absolutely dreadful.

While Aikido contains wrist and arm locks which are supposed to serve as compliance or fight ending techniques, many of its standing techniques and throws stem from manipulation of the wrist or elbow joint to effect posture and move the opponent. For instance the idea of locking out the attacker's arm by extending his wrist. This is a neat one you can try with a friend or spouse. By barring behind the wrist with your own and flexing your partner's wrist backwards, you can get them to straighten their arm and rise on their toes to lessen the pressure. Neat, but never going to happen in a fight. 

But it works the opposite way too, if the opponent's fingers are pointing downwards as you extend their wrist, they will straighten their arm—if their fingers are pointing upwards they will bend their arm to alleviate the pressure.

Claudio Calasans has built a reputation as a master of the wrist lock in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but his favorite guard attacks are armbars. You don't see so many armbars from the closed guard in pure grappling nowadays because they're pretty difficult to set up—guys aren't just going to let you drag their elbow to your centerline and break their posture just enough to start moving into it, but Calasans' wrist locks serve as posture breakers which open the path for the armbars. Calasans has broken a couple of wrists in competition, but here's a nice example of one of his favorite pairings from an instructional video:

And it works so well because opponents will so often try to control one of his wrists as they attempt to stand, as is the standard in grappling nowadays to avoid easy sweeps.

The effect of the goose-neck style wrist lock with palm being brought towards the wrist and the fingers pointing towards the opponent is the exact same—a bending of the arm and a crumpling of the posture to relieve pressure. Where posturing up is the answer to most attempted attacks from the guard, posturing out of a wrist lock attempt will only serve to further extend or flex the wrist.

Another principle upon which Aikido relies in order to move opponents is the external rotation of the shoulder. Rather than Kimura, think Americana. In fact, the Americana began as ude-garami, which began as the standing ude-garami, a classical ju-jutsu and aiki-jutsu technique.

The aforementioned kote-gaeshi, while partly a wrist attack, may also take advantage of external rotation of the shoulder. Similarly, this common shihonage takes the opponent down by spinning under the opponent's arm and externally rotating it.

That all relies on being able to lift the opponent's elbows and spin around underneath his arms without him dropping his weight and bringing his elbows to his sides, but interestingly enough, the universally respected Pedro Sauer teaches a couple of methods of mounting from side control which rely on external rotation of the shoulder. One of these sees Sauer take a grip on the elbow which is between him and his opponent, and turn to his side to raise it above the bottom man's elbow. This serves to force the opponent into raising their hips and allowing the top man to mount without the threat of a powerful bridge.

And you can see the same principle of utilizing an only semi-effectual joint attack to create movement and opportunity to improve position in the knee crank of brilliant half guard players like Lucas Leite and Oliver Geddes.  Aikido's focus on opening the elbow is also significant, as that has become such a key issue in grappling. Marcelo Garcia and others will escape side control by opening the opponent's elbow, most attacks from guard rely on opening the elbow, to open the opponent's near elbow from the top of side control massive increases the level of control and attacking options.

Josh Barnett hitting an elbow escape on Daniel Cormier

Even Roger Gracie has to put a bit of muscle into opening a resisting opponent's elbow.

The issue is that where in grappling this is an opportunistic thing, or takes some force from a dominant position, in Aikido it is assumed that you can just raise your arms and the opponent's elbows will flare out for you. Or worse, you are encouraged to put your “energy” into their elbows... whenever someone begins to talk about nebulous forces it is a giant asterisk against any point they make within a breath of it.

Returning to Aikido Guy, Hill begins talking about footwork and pivoting being an enormous part of Aikido. The blind repetition of how he'd just move out of the way was the part of the interview which really stuck in the collective consciousness. The tremendous importance placed on pivoting in Aikido is particularly fascinating to me though, because pivoting is so underutilized in MMA in general.

Just step to the side and pivot.

Now when Hill talks about looking at the eyes and hips and knowing what they are going to do, it's hard not to believe that he is thinking of opponents lunging in with the stepping punch. The shomen-zuki / oi-zuki / jun-zuki, pick your poison, they're all useless to train with or against.

A fighter cannot hit with power without using his weight, this is true, but equally the entire process of learning to fight is about recognizing when to use your weight. Good fighters or even competent fighters aren't just going to rush in blindly for the most part. That being said, in MMA we are still living in a world where charging in on a straight line gets results in many fights. Ronda Rousey's entire career was built around it, and it worked, until Holly Holm came along and it didn't.

The real trick is pivoting off against skilled fighters, and that can actually be a fight changer. Take a look at Floyd Mayweather versus Manny Pacquiao. Every time Pacquiao stepped to his favorite inside angle along the ropes, Mayweather would hook and easily pivot off.

And pivoting can be effective even when the opponent isn't lunging wildly. Getting him to slightly commit his weight to one direction is more than enough. It can be a bigger, more glaring thing like Eddie Alvarez faking Michael Chandler into trying to meet him with a left hook and circling out the other way:

Or a smaller, subtler thing as when Mayweather, after getting cracked with a good left straight to the solar plexus and a flurry, convinced Pacquiao he was headed one way, then pivoting hooked out the other.

To see effective use of the pivot in MMA, Jose Aldo is your man.

You see? You wait for the guy to shoot at you and then you just pivot off to the side. Obviously I joke but the value of cutting the hips to a new angle, and such an extreme one through an almost ninety degree pivot, is tremendous.

My purpose isn't to put the boot in to Aikido while it's down, people have been doing that for years. Rather, I choose to believe that every martial art at its root is a fighting method. They get torn off course along the way, when people stop sparring, or decide to place some kind of spiritual or supernatural meaning on physical movements, but they all began the same way. Judo and Aikido started in very similar places from very similar traditions and through two similar individuals they ended up in completely different places. All it would take would be Jigoro Kano being a little less level headed in his later years and discouraging Judo competition and we would all be laughing about that now instead.

What makes the martial arts so special to me is the rediscovering of ideas which have fallen victim stiff, formal tradition. There were guys teaching wrist locks in BJJ for years, don't doubt that, but Claudio Calasans went out and manufactured situations where he could score them regularly and follow up from them. The more terrific, thoughtful athletes can look at some traditional technique on YouTube or in a book and say “that's silly... I wonder if I can make it work”, the better for the world of martial arts as a whole.


Check out these related stories:

Did Steven Seagal Really Break Sean Connery's Wrist With Aikido?

Wushu Watch: George Dillman and the Magic of Kyusho

Wushu Watch: Rousey versus Holm, and the Cloud Bursting Speed Master