THE ART OF THE FREE HAND
One of the most popular martial arts in China is Sanshou, a combat system that focuses on hand-to-hand self-defense. Other than catching a fleeting glimpse of Cung Le scissor-kicking an opponent on ESPN3 at 4 a.m., it’s a sport that most Americans are not familiar with.
You know how boxing works, and kickboxing simply adds kicks. Jiu-jitsu gets simplified to submission grappling, and wrestling is all about takedowns and control. Sanshou is harder to explain, as it combines multiple elements of boxing, kickboxing, judo, and wrestling, but typically stays away from ground fighting.
There was a time, not so long ago, when hand-to-hand combat was virtually guaranteed to occur in wartime—trench fighting in natural elements where multiple enemies were attacking. Originally, Sanshou was developed for soldiers who found themselves in this exact situation—facing an enemy whose sole intent was to leave them dead in the muck. By combining traditional Chinese wrestling (the standing variety, not the American version) with boxing, kickboxing, sweeps, and throws, Sanshou became an ever-evolving form of mixed martial arts. During its inception, ground fighting was deemed unnecessary.
Strikes, both from the hands and legs, were to be thrown with quick ferocity. Once the enemy was stunned, or you were close enough to grab them, you would be in position to throw them to the ground and deliver a lethal blow. Those lucky enough to still have a weapon in their hands could sink a bayonet into the downed enemy. Others could deliver a kill shot with whatever was handy—be it a knife, helmet, or fist. Then, it was on to the next enemy.
“Sanshou is one of the most effective ways to fight multiple opponents,” says Ian Lee, the current head coach of the U.S. Sanshou Team and instructor at United Martial Arts in Lubbock, Texas. “The strategy in Sanshou of going from strikes to takedowns is not matched in other sports.”
The art of the kick-catch-takedown is rarely seen in other disciplines. Even though wrestlers and Muay Thai practitioners employ the technique when entering the MMA world, they do not use it in their original disciplines.
“Any time that you’re watching the UFC and you see a fighter take an opponent down but remain standing—that’s a Sanshou thing,” says former Sanshou competitor and current UFC fighter Cung Le. “Originally, a hip throw or double-leg takedown was used to put an enemy in a vulnerable position, and at that point, you would deliver a lethal blow and return to your feet. Wrestling and many other combat sports don’t do that.”
Sanda, or “free fighting” is the sport form of Sanshou, and it has thrived in various countries around the globe. Much like its real-life counterpart, Sanda employs many of the moves found in Sanshou—although you cannot utilize chokes and joint locks—and the matches take place on a raised platform (Lei Toi), which you can throw your opponents off of to score more points. Countries such as China, Iran, Russia, and Turkey have all become deeply involved in the sport and attend the World Championships, held every two years (on the odd year).
The most recent World Championships— held in Turkey in October 201—had 354 athletes from 86 countries competing. Fighters from China, Iran, Russia, and Turkey dominated the field, while American Max Chen brought home a bronze medal in the 70kg class. The most successful Sanda athletes are not only praised by adoring fans, but they are also rewarded by their own governments in many instances.
“I was friendly with a couple of Iranians when I was coaching the U.S. team,” says Cung Le. “I would see them at the World Championships from year to year, and if they performed well, I would see them the next time and they would tell me of the nice bonuses they received, like a new house or new car.”
In China, when a Sanshou athlete retires from competing, they are offered jobs—not just as a coach, but as high-ranking positions in the military or police force.
“If you win a gold medal in China, the government rewards you,” says Ian Lee. “It’s definitely a way to make the sport more appealing to athletes. Not only are they getting paid to compete for their town or country, but they also get offered a job to support their family after they are done.”
Unlike in the United States, athletes in many countries treat martial arts as their profession. In China and Russia, for example, athletes attend sports universities and major in their respective discipline. They don’t major in marketing and then join the wrestling team— they major in their sport. Students learn the techniques and why they were developed so they can teach others in their country.
“Academies in China are very different than in the United States,” says Lucas Geller, a former U.S. Sanshou team member and current instructor based in Albany, New York. “In America, we have private gyms all over—gyms anyone can join where you can go as much or as little as you would like. In China, there are two types of schools, professional and amateur. Both are fairly difficult to get into and difficult to stay at. If you’re slacking, the coach won’t let you stay.”
Academies, such as the Beijing Sports University, recruit the best of the best from around the country and mold them into high-caliber instructors and competitors. “In China, it’s a way to make a living,” says Cung Le. “You become part of a team in a province. It’s a way of putting food on the table.”
The biggest MMA star to hone his craft in the Sanshou system is Cung Le, who won the Strikeforce Middleweight Championship in 2008 and now competes in the UFC. The Vietnamese-born fighter also teaches his own version of Sanshou at his school in San Jose, California.
“Sanshou is a mix of traditional arts where individuals can add their own methods that work in a particular situation,” says Cung Le. “As a coach of the U.S. team, I would teach my students to prepare for certain types of fighters at the World Championships. Every nation is strong in something different. The Russians are really good boxers and wrestlers. The Iranians have great power moves, as do the Egyptians. The Chinese are good with throws and kicks. Each nations brings a specialty to Sanshou, and they developed it to fit their situation. They learned quickly what worked and didn’t work in a real-life setting.”
Sanshou has grown from its beginnings, as fighters have added their different strategies to accommodate their varying backgrounds. What worked on the battlefield may not work (or be legal) in the sport setting.
“Sanda is one of the best arts to learn about real-life fighting techniques because it’s full contact,” Geller says. “You will learn quickly what works and what doesn’t work against an angry opponent who’s fully resisting and whose sole purpose is to win the fight. Sanda is much more realistic than other martial arts that emphasize scenario-training with a cooperative partner and a rubber knife.”
In traditional martial arts schools, Sanshou seems to be gaining steam as a self-defense mechanism, but it still remains relatively unknown when compared to Muay Thai or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
With the UFC expanding into more and more countries every year, expect to see more Sanshou competitors make the transition to the MMA arena. Don’t be surprised if many enjoy the success that Cung Le has, either, as the athletes have years of experience in taking their opponents to the ground and stuffing takedowns.
As bigger promotional companies move into Iran, Turkey, and China, they may find a new crop of athletes ready to emerge. Say what you will about their ground prowess, but you cannot deny the level of excitement that these fighters bring to the Lei Toi—and hopefully the cage.
Sporting a 16-0 record in Sanshou, Le transitioned to MMA and rattled off six straight victories, including a knockout over Frank Shamrock to win the Strikeforce Middleweight Championship in 2008. Le recently made the move to the UFC, earning Fight of the Night honors in a TKO-loss to Wanderlei Silva in November 2011.
The “Mongolian Wolf” is making his mark on the MMA scene, going 15-2 with wins in the WEC and UFC. After winning the Inner Mongolian Wrestling Championships at 16 years old, Tiequan was recruited to attend a Sanshou academy in China before moving to the United States in 2010.
Barry earned a spot on the U.S. Sanshou National Team and won a silver medal at the World Championships in 2003. The UFC heavyweight prospect trained with the Chinese National Team before moving to K-1 competitions and eventually MMA, where he sports a 7-4 record, including a KO of Christian Morecraft in January.
All forms of boxing in combination with kicks to the body and head. Low kicks to the thighs.
Rear (reverse) kicks to the body or the head, spinning back-kicks to the body and to the head with full contact to knock out the opponent, also foot sweeps are permitted.
Any kind of throwing.
Holding the opponent’s leg while executing striking or punching techniques.
Best 2 out of 3 rounds—scoring varies from tourney to tourney.
Any legal punch to the body or head.
Any legal kick to the body or legs.
When the contestants do not fight for 8 seconds, the referee chooses which of the two athletes is to attack. If the athlete chosen does not attack within 8 seconds, he loses one point.
When the person doing a throw falls on top of the opponent.
When using a sacrifice technique (sweep, scissors, flying kick, etc) an athlete falls to the ground without touching the opponent, the opponent gets 1 point.
Any legal foot sweep if the balance is broken or the opponent is downed.
Any legal kick to the head
Any legal jumping kicks to the body
The opponent falls to the ground and the person doing the throw remains standing.
Any legal punch that makes the opponent fall to the ground.
Any legal kick that makes the opponent to fall to the ground
Jumping kicks to the head.
Forcing the opponent off the platform.
THE ROUND IS AWARDED IF:
The opponent is forced off the platform twice.
THE FIGHT IS AWARDED IF:
The opponent is knocked out or incapacitated.