Update - 10-MAR-2019
Below is an essay from May of 2013. After 14 years in Chinese boxing styles, thousands of hours of training, and a year into my journey of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, in 2012 my ideas and approach to the art of praying mantis boxing began to shift. I was not happy with the ‘status quo’, the failure of the art (meaning the methods within forms) to ‘work’ in fighting, and I began to approach mantis from a different angle - a grappling mindset. What you are about to read, is written during this early period in my transformation. Some of this (the history in particular) is incorrect, or incomplete. Later, through further training, research, and sparring, I was able to more deeply develop an understanding of the art. This is the foundation, the beginning of the evolution. I consider this to be when my art truly began. While I could delete this, hide it, or pretend I was never ‘new’, I leave this here to demarcate a point in time on my journey in martial arts. - Randy
The Heart of Mantis - What is Praying Mantis Kung Fu?
By Randy Brown - 28-MAY-2013
photos by: Max Kotchouro
The story goes something like this...
Wang Lang observed a Praying Mantis fighting a larger and more powerful Cicada sometime in the 1600’s. After watching the Mantis defeat the Cicada with ease, he adopted the Praying Mantis' combat style into his Kung Fu. He began mimicking the hooking techniques, as well as the fighting strategy into his own fighting, to much success. Mantis is said to be a hybrid of 18 different styles of Kung Fu; streamlined and polished for efficiency in combat.
Here is a style created some 350+ years ago in an area of northern China known as the Shandong Province. The style has survived dictators killing/imprisoning/exiling martial artists, rebellions, war, racial boundaries, distrust, and cultural diversity through the annals of time. It has survived in part because of it's legend as a superior fighting art. So why isn't it being used by anyone in the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championships)? Why isn’t it at the forefront of self-defense like other systems? Why isn't it as well known as Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, Jiu Jitsu, Karate?
As with much of the Chinese Martial Arts known as Kung Fu, the fighting application was lost over the centuries or decades. Practitioners and teachers were left with choreographed forms; empty shells of a bygone fighting art. Speculating on what it meant to fight like a Praying Mantis, and what the true art contained. After all, we don't have 4 legs, 2 arms with large hooks and spikes on them, or the ability to fly. So how does a human fight like a bug? And how is it relevant to hand-to-hand combat in the 21st century?
What is Praying Mantis Kung Fu?
A Praying Mantis seizes it's opponent with it's large arms and hooks. It pulls it's prey off balance, and devours it on the ground. When observing the mantis against a larger foe, one can see the mantis pounce, take the back of it’s foe, use it’s legs to hold on, and continually try to control it's opponent while it bites and gains better hook positions to keep it safe.
We don't have large mandibles to chew on our opponents, nor would I advocate biting your enemies unless absolutely necessary. What's important about the mantis' tactics is, the controlling, the seizing, the binding up...the hooks! This is what I love about Mantis, and what I believe has been misunderstood for quite some time - where the hooks belong.
We often thought Mantis was all about grabbing wrists and pulling our opponents around. Some have made that work quite well for themselves, especially those with large hands, or body types. What of the rest of us? How do those techniques get used against a full speed attacker coming to take you down, or knock you out? How does a smaller person use that to grab someone with wrists twice as thick? It doesn't, and they don’t. Plain and simple. It might work on low skill opponents, or those under the influence of drugs/alcohol. If it worked in full out combat against a trained opponent, you'd see that style of fighting in a venue such as the UFC.
Mantis should be based on the following - if you had two large hooks, not small hands with 10 fingers, how would you control a human opponent? How would you fight like a Mantis? What would you take away from watching a real mantis that could function in live combat?
A Stand-Up Grappling Art
You would use these hooks to clinch, to control your opponent; latching onto their neck, their upper arms, their body - over hooks, under hooks, clinch. Similar to what is seen in other fighting arts - Judo, Jiu Jitsu, Wrestling, Muay Thai, etc. These techniques are still alive today in other art forms. Minus the defining attribute of Mantis - the hooking hand (more on that below).
The moves inside the Mantis forms make much more sense when viewed from this perspective. Many obscure and often seemingly useless applications/movements, suddenly come to life as amazing and ingenious solutions to combat at mid to close range. Approaching it from this angle, one can also disseminate and get rid of stylized marketplace Kung Fu, stuff that has the practitioner just trying to act like a bug with no real purpose.
The hooking hand is used to grab an opponent’s wrist in some applications. Mantis accounts for the range it likes to function in; the hooking hand vs. the forearm/wrist becomes an important tool for maintaining the dominant position or winning the fight when grappling for control.
The Hooks (Gōu 勾)
The Mantis Hook - an obvious indicator of the Kung Fu style. Making it readily apparent that the practitioner is doing Praying Mantis Kung Fu. This seemingly innocuous shape is highly effective and ingenious in it’s design.
Other martial arts styles use hooks (White Crane, Muay Thai, Wrestling - Mongolian and Western), but unlike Mantis, there is no emphasis on the curling of the fingers. The little finger (a.k.a. - the pinky) is the grip finger. This finger controls our grip and governs the strength of such. When latching onto an opponent, focusing the energy and intent in the pinky increases the tightness of the hold.
When practicing Mantis in the air, folding the fingers into the hook hand engages the muscles in the forearm, making your hooks stronger, thereby giving you more control, and being more difficult to contend with. Use this to clinch and control your opponent so you can topple them to the ground, or cling to them while you strike, knee, elbow. The common hooks are neck hook, over hook on the tricep, under hook, arm hook, wrist hook, leg hook.
Hook positions, And Where They Attach
Some applications involve wrist hooking and lower arm control as stated - defensive measures in the clinch, but predominantly the hooks are used to control upper limbs and body. Control the head, and you control your opponent.
The following pictures show some of the common holds in Mantis, as well as other fighting arts.
The Mantis Boxer Strategy
Bridge, Strike, Kick, Contact, Cling, Takedown/Throw, Destroy
The 5 elements of a Mantis Boxer:
Bridge using deceptive kicking.
Overwhelm with ‘crushing’ strikes (Beng Da) or block counter-strikes.
Contact/Cling - engage the hooks for control in the clinch. Use elbows/knees where necessary.
Takedown or throw the opponent to the ground.
Finish them with ground strikes, kicks, knees, elbows, or joint locks.
This is the overall offensive strategy in Mantis. Overwhelm, seize, control, strike with knees, elbows, tight hooks, uppercuts - all from the clinch; then take to the ground, and finish the fight, mimicking the same actions of a Praying Mantis in the wild. If the opponent is offensive, block incoming blows, close to the clinch, then strike, knee, and take to the ground.
What makes Mantis different from so many of the other fighting arts in the limelight today? Not much. A few incredible things that were developed for the range that Mantis likes to control from, and the nuances of the hooking hand - using it to delay an opponent’s return to a defensive position long enough for a counter attack, etc.
Like many of the Northern Kung Fu styles, Mantis descends from centuries of Mongolian Wrestling (Elephant Style Wrestling). An artform in and of itself, whereby Genghis Khan tested the fortitude and skills of his warriors.
Northern Kung Fu styles such as Praying Mantis developed from these roots and evolved to include combat effective techniques. Used properly, Praying Mantis Kung Fu can be a highly effective and destructive fighting system.