As a karate man myself, I have an obvious lean towards karate and karate fighters in MMA, but I am also well aware of karate’s shortfalls and of course that no one can compete in MMA solely on the skill of one traditional art. By its definition and its very name: “mixed martial arts” to compete or to have a complete set of self-defence tools for that matter, you have to be able to fight stand up, as well as grappling, dirty boxing and ground fighting.
In this article, I want to talk about three karate fighters who have seen great success in the UFC. And in particular how karate has helped each of them climb to the pinnacle of the martial mixed arts arena.
Georges “RUSH” St Pierre (GSP)
Georges “RUSH” St Pierre is arguably the greatest MMA fighter of all time with a record of 25 and 2 and 12 straight title defences. His two defeats were also both avenged with victories in rematches. As much as I would like to say that his victories were mainly down to his karate skills but the reality is Georges big talent was being an exceptional all-rounder, his ability to switch levels and take the most experienced fighters down with seamless punches transitioning to double leg takedowns, as well as an amazing ground game, made him a threat no matter where you were.
What we can credit to his karate background is his opening straight punches particularly his jab. Many times he penetrates his opponent guard with a straight, sometimes this is so strong in and of itself it earns a TKO, other times he uses it open a barrage of punches or to distract his opponent before going for his famous double leg takedown. Georges throws a variety of straight and jabs that have subtle differences, but the most famous is his switch reverse punch where he begins to throw a jab but switches feet as he is throwing the punch this both brings him closer and also adds hip power to the punch. You will see that as George impacts these punches his stance locks in a karate long stance or Zenkutsu dachi.
But most importantly when George throws his opening straight he keeps his elbows down and minimises shoulder movement, karate style, this makes it much harder for his opponents to see it coming. So he is able to throw a punch that his opponents don’t see coming, covers significant ground and packs some serious power. What more could you want from a punch?
When he really needs to gain some ground Georges upgrades this switch punch to a superman jab.
As I write this article Georges has just announced a return to the UFC after a 3-year break. I am excited to see what he does.
Lyoto “the Dragon” Machida
The influence of karate in Lyoto’s fighting is a lot clearer than in GSPs. Lyoto is the son of a karate master and he competed for years in points karate tournaments. The biggest skill Lyoto brought from this arena was his elusive and evasive style. The dynamic footwork of karate allowed Machida to evade and disengage from his opponents attacks and also explode forward when needed with little telegraphing.
This is evident is his 7 fight, UFC winning streak to earn the world light heavyweight title. In these seven fights, Machida landed 313 significant strikes while only taking a measly 62 in return. That means on average he dished out 45 significant strikes per fight to win and only took an average of 9 per fight. That is a 5:1 ratio! That is not a close margin. To give you an idea of how significant an achievement this is let’s compare Lyoto’s stats to the 7 fight UFC winning streak Conor “the Notorious” McGregor took for him to be crowned the undisputed featherweight champion. Bear in mind Mcgregor is famous for his evasive movement and boasts constantly about his movement so you would expect him to have comparable numbers. But he is not even close. Mcgregor dished out 216 significant strikes but he also took 118 blows to do it. As good as Mcgregor is he couldn’t manage to get a 2:1 ratio and is not even close to Machida’s 5:1. I am not arguing that Mcgregor is not the better or more spectacular fighter, he is, I am simply pointing out that Machida’s karate footwork allowed him to hit and not get hit. For me personally, I feel this is the smartest way of fighting.
How does he do it? Firstly he spars at a distance this gives him more time to him to see opponent’s techniques coming. Few fighters have the footwork to explode forward far enough or fast enough make up this distance. Also as a karate points fighter, you have to become a master of spotting the slightest telegraphs and movements that allow you to spot your opponents techniques coming. Once Machida sees them coming most of the time he simply shuffles back and out-ranges them. But that is not all there is to it, as he shuffles back he usually maintains stance allowing him to explode forward again so as his opponent over extends he can come back in to take advantage.
But it is not just his great footwork he takes from karate it is the karate straight punches, the ball of the foot round kicks, his arsenal of sweeps and takedowns and who could forget his karate kid front kick to the face of UFC hall of famer Randy Couture.
Recently Machida since earning the UFC light heavyweight title Machida has lost the edge and uses less of these karate skills that got him to the top. Sadly resulting in him losing 7 out of his last 14 fights. Machida is currently out after unwittingly taking a vitamin supplement that contained a banned substance. He admitted his mistake but he might be out for some time as a result. At age 38 he may sadly never make a comeback.
Stephen “Wonder Boy” Thompson
Like Machida, Wonder Boy is the son of a karate instructor and competed in points karate and points kickboxing. Thompson is super stylised in the way that he fights with a kiba dachi (sideways stance) and his hands down. Like Machida his main defence is to shuffle away, out-ranging attacks rather than blocking, covering or slipping. Just like Machida this strategy serves him very well as he manages to make his opponents hit nothing but thin air in the vast majority of cases as they simply struggle to cover the distance to reach him.
Many including myself may question the wisdom of having his hands down, but he does bring them up in close range. I am guessing the biggest reason he has his hands down is that deceives his attacker in two ways: firstly they may simply not feel his hands are a threat or it simply it is disconcerting for them as they have not encountered someone with their guard like this before, which leads me to the second reason. Having his hands down gives him a big advantage in not telegraphing his punches. The hands down position is, of course, low, so punches come from and unexpected position or at least a position they are not used watching. The other advantage is that this low position is not conducive to punching from the shoulders which is a telegraph. With his hands low Wonder Boy must use his hips and spring from his legs to power his techniques much like GSP’s famed jabs and straight I talked about earlier. This reduces his telegraph and makes them harder to see coming.
Wonder Boy is also a master kicker and uses the reach of both his hands but particularly his feet to attack at ranges where he is relatively safe from conventional counter attacks. Not to mention the knockout power or angles he can attack from with his karate kicks.
Wonder Boy had his first title attempt back in November 2016 which was a majority draw. They rematch on March 4th 2017. Fingers crossed he takes the title and becomes another karate fighter with a UFC world champion title.
While these fighters have used karate to give them a distinctive edge over other fighters stand-up, I am the first to admit that all of these fighters had to change the way they fought in karate to suit MMA. One of the more clear differences is that they only use their karate punches at long range, choosing to punch like boxers as the range closes. They all, of course, had to learn grappling and ground fighting too. These skills are not classically taught in the over whelming majority of karate clubs but they are part of the Shinkyu Karate and combat syllabus so our students enjoy the best of both worlds.