Recently TIME magazine had a story about how a Chinese MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter, Xu Xiaodong, beat up Wei Lei, a Kung Fu master in the discipline of Tai Chi, in about 10 seconds.
It doesn't take long to watch the thoroughly one-sided fight. Reading the story, "Meet the Chinese MMA Fighter Taking on the Grandmasters of Kung Fu," will require a lot more time.
Nonetheless, about eleven years ago I wrote a blog post that I still stand by, "Tai Chi as a kick-ass martial art." I wrote that post after I'd been studying Tai Chi for three years, which followed thirteen years of hard-style (karate, mostly) martial arts experience.
Now, with around fourteen years of Tai Chi to base my opinion on, I'm even more convinced that this internal martial art has a lot to offer self-defense wise.
My Tai Chi instructor, Warren Allen of Pacific Martial Arts, has much more experience than I do in both hard-style and soft-style martial arts. In class we never do full-on sparring, but I've seen enough real-world examples of Tai Chi self-defense techniques (and practiced them myself) to realize that they are indeed practical techniques.
Just not against a MMA fighter. And maybe not against a skilled martial artist in some other style, given that success in a fight depends on much more than knowledge of classroom techniques.
My first karate instructor liked to say, "If you have to take a bet on who will win a bar fight -- a 2nd degree Shotokan karate black belt, or a Marine who's just drunk a six-pack of beer, put your money on the Marine." Why? Because the Marine will do whatever it takes to win a fight. And he's used to getting hit.
Along that line, I found a video that my Tai Chi instructor told us about -- a tough as nails Shaolin monk who does pretty damn well against kick boxers, who, admittedly, aren't as dangerous as MMA fighters. The monk takes punches like they're marshmallows.
He uses kickboxing techniques, which don't look like traditional Kung Fu, and even less like Tai Chi. But in an actual fight, on the street or somewhere else, every sort of technique is going to look a lot more messy than it does when being practiced in a classroom.
This is the point of someone who made a right-on video, "Tai Chi - Scam or deadly fighting art?"
The speaker says that he's trained people in both Tai Chi and MMA fighting, so he knows what he's talking about. A basic message is that if you aren't training in real-world applications of Tai Chi moves, which should include freestyle sparring, you're not going to fare very well in an actual fight.
Lastly, this video does a good job of showing how a few simple Tai Chi moves can be effective in the sort of encounter that people should worry about most: someone attacks you who isn't highly skilled, just belligerent and/or drunk. The confident relaxation Tai Chi teaches will come in handy in that sort of situation.