Black Belt: Now that MMA has become so popular around the world, do you see the martial arts industry in general heading in that direction?
Mike Dillard: I think both traditional martial arts and MMA will succeed. A guy at a T-shirt company recently told me: “Traditional martial arts are dead. All the karate schools are going to close and be replaced by MMA schools.”
I said: “You can’t believe that! What will happen, to the extent that it’s appropriate, is traditional schools will integrate MMA into their teaching if that’s what the public wants.” There will always be a place for traditional martial arts.
For example, I don’t think MMA is necessarily the best thing for a 6-year-old child. When Mom walks into the dojo with little Johnny and sees blood on the floor, she’ll turn around and walk out. Traditional martial arts will always be strong.
Also, you see a far greater percentage of women and girls in martial arts classes now than in previous decades. Often they don’t want a sweaty body rubbing around on them or some guy lying on top of them. But they still want to learn martial arts and self-defense.
Black Belt: When the Black Belt staff interacts with the traditional martial arts community, some of the people say they’re concerned about how slow things are right now. Do you think that’s because of the rise of MMA or because of the poor economy?
Mike Dillard: The economy is definitely hitting the martial arts—there’s no doubt that every dollar spent in martial arts is discretionary spending. I don’t think people should be scared at all about MMA; if they are, they should learn to teach it. But they shouldn’t ever give up their roots.
Black Belt: Could you elaborate on age and MMA? What’s appropriate for young students to do in class?
Mike Dillard: Judo and jiu-jitsu are great for younger people, but I don’t think students under 18 should be forgoing other training to do MMA. If they desire to get into it eventually, they should start by developing their skill set with judo and jiu-jitsu, and maybe some Golden Gloves boxing. When it comes to developing that skill set, I was lucky. I happened to go to a high school where I became a wrestler. I happened to have a buddy who was a black belt and started teaching me traditional martial arts. I happened to have a gym nearby where they were training a world-champion boxer named Sean O’Grady.
Black Belt: If you were 20 years old right now, would you be in MMA?
Mike Dillard: I was practically there. Would I have gotten into MMA? Yes. Would I have given up my traditional training? Never. Let me say this: The mindset, the attitude and the desire—all the qualities that make champions today—were making people champions back then. The same things that made Bill Wallace, Joe Lewis, Chuck Norris and, to whatever degree, myself champions back then would have made us champions today. It’s not an evolutionary process; we’re not getting a new species of fighter. It’s the same things, just with a different set of rules.
Black Belt: What role can MMA training play in the life of a person who wants to be a martial artist but isn’t driven to be an MMA champion?
Mike Dillard: MMA is great for any adult if it’s taught properly in a controlled environment. I see MMA the way Matt Hughes described it: as a toolbox. My personal toolbox has my boxing experience, my wrestling experience, my judo and jiu-jitsu experience, my taekwondo experience and a couple years of karate experience. Somebody else’s may have kung fu and muay Thai. Kids should start building their toolbox at a young age with punching and kicking. Then they need to get comfortable on the mat, and if they do that with wrestling or judo or jiu-jitsu, that’s fine. Anybody can learn punching and kicking in a year; you can’t learn to be a great wrestler in a year. It takes longer, so they have to start earlier. Later, if they so desire, they can take their toolbox to the octagon.
However, if students get hurt all the time in training—whether it’s traditional martial arts or MMA—it’s not a good thing. No one should get hurt in class. Training should be accessible to all levels of athletes and to people who desire to be athletes.
Black Belt: Do you think MMA is a fad?
Mike Dillard: No. It’s here to stay. Will it peak? Yes. Everything peaks. Even pro football has peaked. I think MMA will peak at a high level.
Black Belt: Please explain.
Mike Dillard: You pull into an intersection, and there are four corners. Here you have a basketball game and there a soccer game. Over there is a football game. If a fight breaks out on that fourth corner, everybody will stop to watch. Fighting is not going to go away. Is MMA supplanting traditional martial arts? No. What it’s really helping is the wrestling clubs in the country; they’re full of young people talking about MMA. Now they’ve got a place to go, and that’s good because kids need something to aspire to.
Black Belt: How long did it take for you and Century Martial Arts to realize MMA was here to stay?
Mike Dillard: I won’t say we were the first to figure it out because we weren’t. I knew the Gracies and Machados pretty well, and Chuck Norris had brought [grappling] into our system early on—we were all studying Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I was enthralled by MMA, but they didn’t wear anything Century sold. So I didn’t see that it mattered much—I was just a big fan.
Then the gloves standardized a bit, and we started working with Dana White. That guy has the heart and soul of a martial artist. When he’s here at Century, he wants one of everything we sell—which I love. He loves martial arts and wants to keep the UFC about martial arts. We clicked, and now we have an exclusive contract with them for UFC training gear and gloves. So we weren’t the first to recognize that MMA would be big, but we’re sure glad we’re here.
Black Belt: What is it like interacting with the UFC and its fighters?
Mike Dillard: They help us design and test training aids. Fighters come here all the time, and we send things out to them for input. If they send back a heavy bag that ripped, we have our engineers examine it to fix the problem. They figured out their athletes’ careers are lengthened by having proper gear; they’re very cognizant of safety.
I’ve yet to meet a UFC fighter who wasn’t a gentleman and a class act.