I'm not a person who tends to be very interested in watching sports, and while this is also true when it comes to The Ultimate Fighting Championship, I have a lot of respect for one huge benefit that it has had: UFC has been revolutionary in dispelling fighting technique bullshit.
When it comes to effective fighting techniques, there is so much misinformation and misconception out there, that for years no one really knew which martial arts really were effective and which weren't. The problem is largely that fighters typically train with very strict rules to avoid injury, and frequently only train with other practitioners of their martial art, making it very hard to gauge effectiveness in the real world. This also makes it easy for people to delude themselves or intentionally deceive others about their techniques without ever really getting a chance to be proven wrong.
The extent of bullshit out there really is staggering, and when occasionally a good debunking has happened, it's hard to accept that the people involved were able to fool themselves so fully and for so long.
Check out these examples of decades long practitioners of martial arts that claim to be able to knock people down without even touching them.
A chi master demonstrates his amazing techniques but is unable to use them on a "non-believer", coming up with some stunningly lame justifications for the failure:
And this very popular video of a Kiai master who finally fights someone who isn't a student engaging in self-deception:
While these examples of ineffectiveness won't surprise most people, problems like these exist within serious martial arts too. So the UFC, particularly in its early days when it had less rules, has been a great proving ground, bringing practitioners of different disciplines together and forcing them to demonstrate the hard way which is more effective. It's brutal, people have been killed and permanently injured, but the fighting arts have massively benefited as a result.
If you wonder why most martial artists today are mixed martial artists, it's because of the UFC.
The Rise of Grappling
One big result that has come out of all of this is the rise of grappling and jiu jitsu. It became quickly apparent to everyone how often fights end up going to the ground, and when this happens, the person trained in grappling always dominates. Most traditional martial arts have little or no ground based techniques, so any well rounded fighter needs to incorporate these into their martial art. Questions like "Is karate better than kung fu?" were answered with "The jiu jitsu guy will probably beat them both."
Most modern UFC fighters include grappling or jiu jitsu training into their routine, and many fighters base their strategy on trying to get the fight onto the ground where they can dominate.
But could this effectiveness of jiu jitsu actually be misleading?
One of the most interesting things about grappling martial arts is that, because they are not strike based, people can train in them with a much lower risk of injury. Striking martial arts require literally "pulling your punches" and heavy use of pads and protective gear for practitioners to not end up permanently injured immediately.
Grappling, on the other hand, involves choking out or putting the opponent in a hold they can't escape, which they tap out from (or pass out from). The technique does not have to be watered down in training, meaning that all of those hours of fighting practice are much more directly applicable to real fights. It also means that a fighter is much more likely to be able to gain years of experience and skill without receiving a major career ending injury.
Skydiving and Effective Training
A friend of mine (Hi Paul!) who is an experienced skydiver and wingsuiter once explained to me the problem with become highly skilled with wing suits. With skydiving, you can clock up training hours not just by jumping out of planes, but also using indoor wind tunnels. Jumping out of planes takes a lot of time and money for every few minutes of air time you get, so being able to clock up hours more efficiently indoors allows skydivers to improve their skills much faster.
But with wingsuits, you can't effectively fly them indoors. The only real way to gain experience in a wingsuit is doing a jump. This means that it takes much longer to gain skill and experience, and learning new tricks and techniques is much slower than with skydiving.
This is similar to the problem with grappling versus striking martial arts. Safe but highly effective training is much easier with jiu jitsu than with kick boxing, and the injury rate much lower. Jiu jitsu practitioners can clock up hours of realistic training much faster than other martial arts, and are less likely to be interrupted by injuries. This also means that over the course of time, striking martial artists will tend to get more injured and forced to retire, so we should expect to see the best martial artists appear to be strongly grappling focused.
So this means that jiu jitsu might not be as effective as it appears. It might just mean that someone is more likely to be able to practice jiu jitsu and engage in real fights for 20 years than with other martial arts. We might be seeing an example of what's known as the survivorship bias, where we notice the examples that have survived long enough to be counted, but forget about all the cases where bad luck made them disappear from our radars.
The Future of Martial Arts
At the end of the day, it might not really matter if jiu jitsu is as effective as it appears, or if it is largely benefiting from a lower injury attrition rate. For a person who wants to learn effective martial arts, it might simply be more pragmatic to engage in an art that is less effective, but doesn't require luck to be able to practice it long term without serious injury.
But what about the future? Right now a striking martial artist can use various tools to try and train as effectively as possible with the limitation that they can't just pummel the shit out of other human beings in order to refine their technique. It helps to an extent, but it's clearly a disadvantage. However, as robotics technology improves in the next couple of decades, we are going to be able to make training partners that people will be able to engage against fully without having to modify their techniques to avoid hurting their partner, and also not have to risk receiving injuring blows themselves.
When this kind of training becomes possible, I think we're going to see another revolution in martial arts training.