Sunday, November 21, 2010

Karate fighters in MMA

Watching the prelims to UFC 123, with the main event being Rampage Jackson vs. Lyoto Machida, there was a bit where I believe it was Greg Jackson who said, "We learned a long time ago that karate sucks." Which is interesting because Machida is a karate fighter and ranked #2 as a light heavyweight.

It goes back, I think, to this "a long time ago". That being seventeen years ago, around about UFC 1. I haven't seen every UFC. I saw the first and was sorta "meh" about it at the time. In particular, I had trouble believing the fighters they got were, with the exception of Royce Gracie, actually top representatives of their styles. So, as the representative of karate and/or savate they had Gordon Gordeau . . . who kind of famously made up a bunch of fight credentials, indeed, perhaps all of his pre-UFC fight credentials. I'm not precisely saying that Gordeau isn't a good fighter -- I am sure he would destroy me quite completely were we to meet -- but without doubt Royce Gracie was one of the best Brazilian jiu jitsu fighters in the world at the time. Heck, he still is. In UFC 1, the only other fighter that was for real, in the sense of being fit to represent his style, was Ken Shamrock.

In the early UFCs, there were some other karate guys but . . . they weren't really the best. A lot of styles of karate reject that kind of competition and, really, why would a really skillful karate fighter want to fight in the UFC? Additionally because, in Japan, MMA had unpleasant associations with pro wrestling -- puroresu -- because the first Japanese MMA-esque fight promotions originated in pro wrestlers wondering, amongst themselves, who would really win in a fight. While Shooto and Pancrase would become pretty popular, in the eyes of "serious martial artists", of which Japan has many, it was seen as a kind of prostitution of the skills. (Indeed, Machida labors under this very problem. Many of the big shots in Shotokan karate want to see him give up MMA and return to the art.)

So, what I am alleging that Machida might be the first really skillful karate fighter to try to fight in a karate-based style in MMA. Most Japanese karate masters are against the kind of fighting that happens in the UFC (mostly for bad reasons -- such as the class-based unwillingness to be associated with low-brow prize fighters and pro wrestlers). So, unsurprisingly, the top karate fighters -- who make pretty good livings off of the traditional styles of karate that they teach and who are heavily invested in the existing karate establishment -- avoid MMA.

I say this because Machida (whose style of fighting I don't particularly like, I should note) does things that I have long wondered why other MMA guys don't. Like . . . long front kicks. The most common MMA stance is mostly facing your opponent because you've got to have a good base in case someone shoots for a takedown. Fighters generally hold their hands in a boxer's raised position. Which means there's this line straight in that's . . . kind of vulnerable to straight attacks to the midsection. A hole, if you will, and one of the ways to exploit that hole is a straight forward kick from long range . . . which also minimizes the chances of a counterattack. From a fairly long range you snap a straight kick in. It attacks a weakness in your opponent's stance. If they fade back, there's almost no chance of them catching your foot. If you don't do any damage or they block or dodge, you're far enough away that they can't launch too many counterattacks. It's a good, solid move. It's not a kickboxing move because kickboxers have a far more sideways stance, presenting profile, and the lead arm blocks a lot of the effective target area. But it's definitely a karate move and Machida uses it. He'll snap in with long forward kicks. Then he'll move away from any possible counterattack, looking for another long strike that minimizes his risk.

In an MMA fight is this particularly exciting? No. But neither is Brazilian jiu jitsu. BJJ is extremely defensive and it's fairly easy to neutralize the guard by doing nothing. Still, it would be wrong to say that BJJ teaches no useful MMA skills. It absolutely does. I feel the same thing about karate.

Which is to say, I think Greg Jackson is wrong when he says that "karate sucks" and it's been "proven". I think what's been proven is that karate masters are a bunch of class obsessed jerks who think their style is "too good" for the rednecks and street fighters of the UFC. I think the only reason why BJJ is so well represented in MMA is the Brazilian in Brazilian jiu jitsu -- the Gracies were prepared by their long association with vale tudo events. A lot of Asian martial arts feel they're "above" MMA. Which doesn't mean it's been prove their art sucks. It just proves that they don't feel any particular urge to compete in MMA events.

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