ATA MMA – When Tradition Meets Progression

ATA Martial Arts

ATA MMA – When Tradition Meets Progression

Martial-Arts-For-AdultsThe American Taekwondo Association (ATA) recently celebrated 40 years of honoring traditional martial arts. Though ATA has been known in the past to embrace training systems from other martial arts styles, its most recent venture into the mixed martial arts world may raise some eyebrows. Can an organization with such powerful roots step out of the traditional Martial Arts Taekwondo box and make a name for itself in the modern MMA ring? According to some of Songahm Taekwondo’s highest ranking members and MMA professionals, ATA already has.

By: Jenny O’Connor

When ATA founder, Eternal Grand Master H.U. Lee, opened his first martial arts school in the United States he was on a mission to build strong martial artists. But despite his Taekwondo background, Lee opened a school that had a Karate and Judo sign out front. Chief Master William Clark, one of the founding members of ATA, explains, “Eternal Grand Master’s theory was that once you got in the door, learning martial arts was the priority. To become the best martial artist possible, you had to be willing to understand multiple styles, and he encouraged his students to try anything.”

Thirty years ago that encouragement meant supporting Clark as he competed in 19 fights for the Professional Kickboxing Association. In the 1990’s, Lee welcomed the opportunity for some of ATA’s martial arts high ranks including Chief Master G.K. Lee, Chief Master Robert Allemier and Clark, to train under the guidance of Rickson Gracie, a professional mixed martial artist and 8th Degree Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The training with Gracie paved the way for new ATA training courses in ground fighting.

This open door policy has led to many programs taught in martial arts classrooms today, including the most recent addition: ATA Martial Arts new curriculum, ATA MMA. The popularity of mixed martial arts continues to rise, so it’s no surprise that some members and instructors with the ATA have crossed over as MMA professionals. And as Pat Miletich, former UFC Welterweight and Lightweight Champion explained while visiting the American Taekwondo Association, the ATA’s World Championships, “Some of the most successful MMA fighters out there today have a long history in traditional martial arts. I look forward to seeing a high level of martial arts training and talent from an organization like ATA.”

So how can ATA Martial Arts make an effective impact in mixed martial arts? Is there room for tradition in a non-traditional martial arts arena? Let’s review the tale of the tape.

Fight Card: How ATA Martial Arts Stacks Up

One recent success story is Anthony “Showtime” Pettis, a 22 year old MMA professional, and a 3rd Degree black belt in the ATA. Pettis recently signed a five fight contract with World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC). He’s already fought the first of those fights, and though he entered the cage as an underdog, he won the fight by submission only 1:49 into the first round.

But Pettis doesn’t come from a long line of professional martial arts fighters. He actually started as an ATA Martial Arts licensed location as a Tiny Tiger at age 5. “My instructor, Master Larry Struck has been my karate instructor for 17 years. He’s taught me the fundamentals of traditional martial arts while allowing me to try new things that have come my way. I wouldn’t be the martial artist I am today without that background,” says Pettis.

Pat Miletich understands how that traditional upbringing can make a fighter more prepared. This mixed martial artist out of Davenport, Iowa is well known for his wins in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and as founder of Miletich Fighting Systems, training such championship athletes as Matt Hughes and Tim Sylvia. But it was his history in traditional martial arts that paved the way for his career. “I have a long background in traditional Karate and I believe traditional martial artists make the best transition into MMA. Unfortunately there are few MMA fighters who come from a traditional style, so I think ATA can bring a huge influence into MMA,” says Miletich.

Currently, some of the biggest names in MMA are traditional martial artists. Georges St. Pierre and Lyoto Machida are both title-holders in the UFC, and they both come from strong traditional martial arts lineages. However, as Miletich points out, it’s not just the martial arts talent of these traditional fighters that make them a force in the ring. “These fighters are hugely successful because of their strong technique, but they also bring good vibes and attitudes to a sport that isn’t always known for showing mutual respect,” Miletich explains.

That respect is something Clark believes ATA martial arts can bring to the sport in multiple ways. “ATA martial artists may bring a positive energy to the sport, but even more importantly, they will bring a willingness to learn. Because our organization has never had restrictions on what students could learn, we’ve created athletes who continue to grow in their own style but are eager to find out more about styles to become true mixed martial artists.”

In fact, that’s how Pettis made his move to MMA (mixed martial arts). “Three years ago I started kickboxing. Then, I started learning some jiu-jitsu. I was still training in Taekwondo, but it was awesome that my instructor supported me in trying new workouts. When I started in these other styles, it was a little different, but my body was conditioned in a way that it made it easy to adapt.”

Preparing for the Fight

ATA Martial Arts licensees and karate instructors may have an interest in adding mixed martial arts to their resume, but what is ATA doing to support this move?

Clark says they continue to make big strides. “Over the last year, ATA has had several MMA fights in conjunction with national and regional tournaments. There have been many ATA fighters who’ve participated in these events and even more ATA fans who have enjoyed watching and supporting their fellow martial artists,” Clark explains. And at their national and international tournaments, many instructors have participated in the mixed martial arts seminars led by Chief Master G.K. Lee. As Clark says, “ATA will never abandon our traditional roots, but we will also never shy away from finding new ways to build stronger martial artists.”

The next step in ATA’s quest to add mixed martial arts to its curriculum is adding Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) elements to its competition circuit, but not in the way you might think. “Cage fighting is entertaining and there is a market for that, but we want students to enjoy MMA without the danger of being injured,” says Clark. “That’s why in 2010 we want to add new divisions of competition for students, including a continuous sparring category with rules similar to kickboxing.” But as Clark explains force would be regulated in these divisions and the intention would be to score points by executing successful strikes, passing the opponent’s guard. The other new competition division would be MMA point style where competitors would earn points for certain submission techniques and locks, all in a safe, controlled environment.

“I started training at a Try ATA martial arts school years ago. In just six months I lost 32 lbs. What I liked and love about the ATA is that the classes are not the same old boring gym routine. It fun, challenging and a great martial arts fitness workout that teaches a reality based life skill. My ATA instructor is more then a coach or a teacher, and a mentor in life. Thank you for all that you do for me and my family. A true “Victory in Martial Arts”.”
-Jamie T.

The potential for these new competition divisions was something Pettis thought could be ground-breaking for ATA. “My brother and I both have both had success as point sparrers in ATA and that success led us both to an interest in kickboxing. I think ATA students would find that the techniques they already know can transfer easily and be used in new ways they may not have thought of,” says Pettis.

Even Miletich believed this was something that could be big for both ATA Martial Arts and MMA. He stated, “I believe ATA has a lot to offer the mixed martial arts world both technically and financially.”

And the financial aspect could be big according to Clark. He believes that teaching ATA Martial Art members proper MMA strategies and creating a venue for them to compete can pave the way for athletes, like Pettis, to test their skills on different playing fields. But another thing he believes will take what ATA is doing a step further would be finding a strategic MMA partner. “We’ve negotiated with potential partners in the past, but nothing has panned out. There is a lot of opportunity out there so I hope we can find a partner who can help take our mixed martial arts to greater levels,” Clark says.

The Founding Grand Master, Eternal Grand Master Haeng Ung Lee would probably be proud of his organization, for constantly staying on the cutting edge of martial arts. If ATA hadn’t been open-minded in the past, chances are they would never have added weapons to their curriculum, and may not have ever started its most successful curriculum program, “Karate for Kids.” Only time will tell if Songahm Taekwondo trained members and other traditional athletes can truly make an impact on mixed martial arts. But if ATA’s history tells us one thing, it’s that this organization isn’t one to tap out.

Jenny O’Connor is the media relations director for ATA and also serves as editor-in-chief of ATA World magazine. She can be reached at If you would like more information on a strategic partnership with ATA MMA, contact Chief Master William Clark at

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