Karate: The Recessive Gene of MMA

Karate Moves - A Guide to the Basic Blocks, Strikes, and Kicks - Sports Aspire
I do this all the time, but on the ground.

When we think of the origins of MMA, we think of fighting styles such as Wrestling, Boxing, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, maybe even Judo or Dutch Kickboxing. We think of the earliest UFC events in which Royce Gracie dominated larger fighters with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, or in which Mark Coleman pioneered the brutal “ground & pound” style; the brutal KO power of Chuck Lidell, or the devastating Muay Thai of Anderson Silva. In terms of modern athletes, we think of the dominant wrestling of Khabib Nurmagomedov (easily GOAT status) or the brutal knockout power of guys like Justin Gaethje or Francis Ngannou. 

We see how each of the aforementioned disciplines shaped the sport of MMA in some degree or another. Seldom do we think of Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Kung Fu or any of the “traditional” styles associated with the term “martial arts” as being in the same echelon. When I think of Karate, I remember being a starry eyed little kid who watched Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris movies and thought that the best way to fight was with jump kicks, spinny kicks, and all sorts of flippety dippety nonsense. As an adult martial artist, my kicks are pretty basic: the Thai roundhouse and the Thai push kick. Although, shhhh don’t tell anyone, I do occasionally use the sidekick found in Karate and Tae Kwon Do. Our secret ;). All stylistic preferences aside, I contend that Karate has a stronger relevance to MMA than we give it credit for, and the new breed of MMA athletes are living proof.

Full disclosure, I am not a Karate practitioner. My primary martial arts are Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai. Everything else I study is to improve one of those two: Studying the basics of wrestling and Judo makes my Jiu Jitsu strong, and studying the basics of Boxing and Dutch Kickboxing make my Muay Thai strong. I’m pretty straightforward like that. And yes, whether we admit it or not, grapplers (and even to an extent Muay Thai guys) tend to look down on Karate and other “traditional” martial arts derisively. Not pointing fingers or saying it’s right or wrong, just saying, the martial arts world is not without its biases. 

First, let’s take a look at the styles of Muay Thai and Dutch Kickboxing. Both of these styles have evolved to be nearly identical to each other, and here is why: Both styles have evolved over the years, adhering to the Bruce Lee credo of absorbing what’s useful, and eschewing what doesn’t work. Also, with so many different Kickboxing promotions out there, each with its own set of rules, we see both Dutch Kickboxing and Muay Thai stylists adopting their strategies for different rule sets. This is part of the reason why, when I ask my Muay Thai coach the difference between the two in terms of movement, he shrugs and says it’s all pretty much the same anymore. The differences are subtle.

Example: Muay Thai. The original form of Muay Thai did not have a jab. All punches were power punches, but mostly it was about powerful kicks, knees, elbows and clinchwork. However, European sailors would sometimes show up and fight, and they’d use the boxing jab effectively. Muay Thai now has a jab. If you learn modern Muay Thai, you are learning the jab.

Dutch Kickboxing evolved from Muay Thai, a French style called Savate, and… you guessed it… Karate. But what does this have to do with MMA? Well, if you’re an MMA fan, then surely you know the name Bas Rutten. Actually, if I’m invoking the name of Bas Rutten, we need to also acknowledge Tae Kwon Do, however in my brain I see Tae Kwon Do as remarkable similar to Karate. I realize Karate has dozens of styles and there are subtle distnctions, but potato/Tae Kwon Do ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. All the same, a Dutchman named Bas Rutten studied Tae Kwon Do as a child, then Kyokushin Karate and Catch Wrestling as an adult. He is a retired MMA legend who has taught many others. That’s Karate and Tae Kwon Do DNA already floating around in the MMA gene pool right there.

Now, let’s go back to the earliest UFC events. The earliest competitors who weren’t Royce Gracie or Ken Shamrock, were largely Karate and Tae Kwon Do stylists. But even then, these guys weren’t pure stylists; many of them were regularly entering kickboxing competitions. This means that Karate and Tae Kwon Do stylists of that era were stress testing their skill set and athleticism against Thai boxers and the Dutch. Do you see where I’m going with this? Karate practitioners have historically been drawn to MMA, especially in those early days. And before there was MMA, there was kickboxing. These are the forgotten progenitors of modern striking. In other words, the world of kickboxing was shaped as much by Karate and Tae Kwon Do as it was by the Thai or the Dutch.

UFC Fight Island 5 video: Joaquin Buckley’s ‘KO of the Year’ contender
Buckley KO’s Kasanganay with a spinning back kick his standing leg. Notice both his legs are still in the air in this frame.

Fast Forward to now. Only weeks ago, MMA fans witnessed the most insane knockout of 2020, in which up and comer Joaquin Buckley performed a move he has since dubbed the “Wakanda Kick,” KO’ing his opponent Impa Kasanganay in the second round. It was literally every Karate or Tae Kwon Do guy’s wet dream: your opponent catches your foot, and like a badass you just use your other foot to do a spinning back kick to the face, never mind that that leaves no legs to post on. I’m sure we’ve all seen it in countless martial arts movies. Some Matrix looking shit right there. This is not a scenario we train for in Jiu Jitsu or Wrestling, because a grappler’s game plan is to put you on the ground where you can’t kick or do any flying, spinning, flippy dippy stuff. That “gravity be damned” attitude is contrary to the grappling arts. And, as a Muay Thai friend of mine pointed out, that kick never should have happened: When you catch a kick, you don’t hold on to it, you do something with it, such as a sweep, or throwing the leg to the side so you can get an angle. Kasanganay, for some inexplicable reason, did neither of these things, and instead held on to the kick, allowing Buckley the necessary window to pull off the move.

But, where did the kick come from? Why did Buckley do that instead of something else? I did some digging on Buckley, thinking maybe he did Karate as a kid. Nope. He did some wrestling in high school. The gym he’s at now is the first gym he ever started at: Finney’s Hit Squad. Okay, well, what do they teach at Finney’s? Well, looks to be about the same as any other reputable MMA gym: Jiu Jitsu, Kickboxing, Boxing, Wrestling, etc. but weirdly no Karate on the menu. Worth noting, at the post fight press conference, Buckley said that he had trained for that scenario in the gym. But, why is an MMA gym working moves like that, for unlikely circumstances? What are the odds this will happen again? I can only surmise that they watched tape on Kasanganay, and noted that he has a habit of hanging on to kicks for so long. Maybe that’s where the inspiration to drill the kick came from. In fact, Kasangany had caught the kick earlier in the same fight, so I think this speculation is reasonable.

Regardless, though, the Wakanda kick is something discussed and seen in styles like Karate and Tae Kwon Do (before it was dubbed the Wakanda kick, obviously); I’ve never seen any kickboxers train for this scenario. And while we may not have seen this move before in the UFC, we certainly have seen fighters using wider stances and throwing a wider variety of kick and kick feints from odd angles, which are hallmarks of Karate. We’re seeing spinning kicks, question mark kicks, etc occurring with more regularity. And I don’t see this trend changing. So, how long before we see the famous crane kick from Karate Kid in UFC? I jest, I jest. 

It is also reasonable to assess that Karate is the “gateway drug” of Martial Arts. A lot of these guys did Karate as a kid, then discovered Wrestling or Muay Thai or Jiu Jitsu as an adult. So, maybe that is another way in which the proverbial Karate gene lives on in MMA. Whatever analogy you want to use, it’s clear to me, even as a non-Karate practitioner, that Karate is very much a part of MMA lineage. Or, as the title suggests, a recessive gene that will recur. MMA is ever evolving, and so are the disciplines that comprise it.

Anyways, whatever style you train in, I encourage you to stay open to other styles. I wish you the very best on your martial arts journey. Happy training.

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