Utilizing Karate in Stand-Up Fighting (with videos)
Originally Written on Aug 29, 2012. Updated on July 23, 2019.
This article is part of a loose series on Traditional Martial Arts in MMA featured on this blog - including Utilizing Taekwondo in Stand-Up Fighting and Utilizing Wing Chun Kung Fu in Stand-Up Fighting.
We will not reiterate our points about Traditional Martial Arts vs. Modern Martial Arts, you may re-read the previous article for a refresher.
We will, however, continue to explore the techniques of traditional martial arts and how they can be used in modern fighting.
This time around, we take a look at the Okinawan Karate techniques utilized in a world-class competitive fighting environment, (ie. the Ultimate Fighting Championship / UFC), and mainly the only man who is able to make use of such techniques in former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion and UFC Middleweight contender, and current Bellator MMA contender, Lyoto "The Dragon" Machida.
We will breakdown the most important moves that the rest of the MMA world or new-school fans unaccustomed to Karate will find "elusive" and "weird".
- The Karate Stance
- The Karate Straight Punch (Reverse Punch)
- Karate Modifications for MMA
Before we begin we must look into the origins of the style of Karate, as it matters why its techniques came to be what it is today.
Karate's Kung Fu Origins
Little do people know, a Chinese Shaolin Monk from the southern part of China (Fujian, Fuzhou more specifically) first taught Japanese students the art of White Crane Fist Kung Fu.
You may start to realize the connections between Karate stances and techniques taking the movements of a crane... long, lunging, pinpoint, accurate, and if done correctly, extremely deadly.
The Japanese students who learned the Fujian White Crane brought it to their home of Okinawa, Japan (in the Ryukuan Kingdom), and through many years of refinements and branch-off styles, it became what is now known as Karate.
Karate was first named and written in Chinese characters (or Japanese kanji) as 唐手 "Chinese hand" or "Tang hand" in Okinawa.
But since World War 2 and the rapid militarization of Imperial Japan (the mainland people of Tokyo and the island people of Okinawa / Ryukyuans are two different peoples), the mainland Japanese wanted to distance itself from any symbols of Chinese influence, and renamed Karate to 空手 "Empty Hand" instead.
You can watch the full documentary, Kung Fu Quest: White Crane Boxing (Okinawan Karate) for the full picture.
Lyoto Machida is trained under the Shotokan-style of Karate, which is more linear, lunging, and point-based (like fencing); unlike Kyokushin or Seidokaikan which is full contact and knockdown-based (more like kickboxing).
Both types of Karate have their uses but over the course of time, mainly through the rise in popularity of kickboxing / full-contact prizefighting, the softer styles of Karate (and Kung Fu in general) have been widely perceived as irrelevant in today's world.
Add onto the fact that the Karate that was brought over and imported to the west has been watered down to mostly McDojo's and strip-mall gyms in America, fewer people take Karate as a serious form of combat martial art.
Enter Lyoto Machida
The Machida family, who are from Brazil, claims they have stuck to the roots of Shotokan Karate techniques (away from the point-fighting sport style you see today) and in their own development created what is "Machida Karate".
They claim that this Machida Karate is an evolved form of the original Karate, therefore it includes elbows, knees, and throwing techniques not seen in modern-day Karate.
More importantly, the Machidas have modified their brand of Karate so much so that has become very successful in MMA competition.
The stance Machida uses is pretty much standard Karate.
It is wide, which allows for quick lateral movement and the ability to shuffle back and forth to both avoid strikes and deliver strikes.
The philosophy behind this stance (and the Karate style) is that back in the day warriors did not duel with just their hands, but with swords (or other bladed weapons).
If you were to be cut by a sword, no matter how severe or minor, you will be either severely injured (and about to die) or die immediately.
Therefore, the whole point of this stance and Karate-based point-fighting is to never be touched.
That is why Machida takes little to no damage in his fights because he trains with this philosophy in mind.
Staying elusive, and only striking when there is an opening... which leads to the dreaded Karate Straight Punch.
Ikken Hissatsu (一拳必殺)
"Ikken Hissatsu" is a term used in traditional karate, meaning "to annihilate at one blow", or "one strike, one kill". This does not always mean that any clash can and should be resolved with the use of only one stroke, but it conveys the spirit that the karateka (player) must partake in.
The Karate Straight / Reverse Punch is used in deadly fashion and at its highest technical form by Lyoto Machida.
Check out the following video of Lyoto Machida knocking out Ryan Bader with a picture-perfect Karate reverse punch:
In the video, Bader rushes in to attack Machida with some slow and sloppy hooks... which is exactly what every counter puncher (and even more specifically a Karateka) wants.
Machida steps back just enough to give Bader that space he needs to rush in... and fires a counter Karate straight punch right to his jaw.
The force of a person rushing in + the power of the straight punch + the element of surprise (timing) = a knockout.
This is the philosophy of cutting your opponent without being cut yourself.
If you watch closely, this is the exact same punch Machida uses every single time to catch his opponent with. Just ask Rashad Evans, Rich Franklin, Quinton Rampage Jackson, Thiago Silva, Stephan Bonnar, BJ Penn, Jon Jones, Mauricio Shogun Rua, and of course, Ryan Bader.
The only real weaknesses in Karate are that if you mistime yourself or miss your counter punch, it either doesn't hurt your opponent (they see it coming) or that you are left wide open for a counter-attack off the break / clinch, like the hook punch thrown by Mauricio "Shogun" Rua that knocked Machida out.
Having a wide stance also means you are susceptible to leg kicks, which is something Shogun exploited once again in their memorable championship fight.
Modifying Karate for MMA
Now, Lyoto Machida is a smart fighter. He knows that only having a straight punch in the fight game is not enough. Therefore he has modified his Karate techniques to work in MMA.
He not only has a straight punch (for long-range attacks), he uses front kicks to keep his opponent off balance (following the kick up followed with a straight punch is another classic Karate combo), a well-timed knee to counter an opponent rushing in for a takedown (as a short-range weapon to fend off wrestlers), and lastly Karate sweeps to further off balance his opponent or to go for a takedown of his own.
Watch closely - all that is mentioned above can be found in his highlight reels:
Note his famous highlight-reel knockout of Randy Couture, where he used the jumping front snap kick (a.k.a. the Crane Kick - now you see why Karate came from White Crane Fist Kung Fu), is the stuff of legends.
He was able to repeat this success with his front kick knockout of Vitor Belfort as well.
Knowing wrestlers in MMA would always try to take him down, he has combined his knowledge of wrestling from his Sumo wrestling background with the use of modified Karate techniques and is able to knee his opponents into oblivion if they ever attempted to shoot in.
He has done this against Tito Ortiz, Phil Davis, and most recently Chael Sonnen.
The Other "Karate" Guys
The other notable Karate guys in MMA are fighters like Bas "El Guapo" Rutten (Kyokushin Karate, with Taekwondo), Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson (Karate with American-style Kickboxing) and Michael "Venom" Page (Kickboxing derived from Taekwondo, Karate, and Kung Fu).
While all three of these fighters have a Karate base, they each like to utilize different techniques. Rutten prefers heavy strikes and hard kicks thrown from the square stance, Kyokushin / Dutch Kickboxing style. Thompson prefers throwing side-kicks or push kicks, deceptive question mark kicks, roundhouse kicks, and hook kicks. Page throws a whole mixture of Karate / Taekwondo / Kung Fu techniques he calls "hands down Kickboxing".
Because these fighters have already blended their Karate techniques into a more full-contact Kickboxing style, it becomes even more impressive that only Lyoto Machida is able to use more basic "pure" Karate-like moves - the reverse punch, front snap kick, and knee - and take that fighting skillset all the way to win a UFC Light Heavyweight Championship in the process (Bas Rutten did win the UFC Heavyweight Championship back when it was a tournament).
Long live Kung Fu... or we mean... Karate.
- Dynasty Team