The Most Effective Tournament Karate Style for MMA
We’ve recently seen an introduction of more unorthodox striking techniques into MMA stand up fighting such as the use of spinning heel kicks, front kicks using the ball of foot (as opposed to heel push kicks), sidekicks, and back fists. Many of these techniques have roots in karate, so below is my dissection of which karate styles may translate well in the cage. By karate styles, I’m not referring to actual style (Shotokan vs. Wado vs. Shuri-Te) but instead defining them as “sparring styles” as seen by tournament competition. The 5 major types of karate tournaments include Kyokushin, JKA (Japan Karate Association), WKF (World Karate Federation), Koshiki, and American Point Karate (I lump this together to included tournament styles such as NASKA, NBL, and USKA).
1. Kyokushin – Most MMA practitioners typically refer to this style as the most effective because of its practical application of leg kicks, knees, and body shots in competition. However, Kyokushin in my opinion is a lesser version of Muay Thai without punches to the head. The only unique aspect is really just the use of axe kicks. Practitioners exhibit virtually no foot work, keep their hands very low, and utilize no head movement. Therefore, you are better off just going to a standard Muay Thai training facility and learning the effective art of leg kicks, knees, and elbows.
2. JKA – This is the tournament style that the great Lyoto Machida hails from. This bareknuckle style enforces timing, straight punches, and usage of various sweeps. Machida utilizes the sweeps well in MMA as most fighters are used to defending Freestyle and Greco roman wrestling techniques. The straight reverse punch to the face is also effective from this style to counter when an opponent is rushing in. Timing is the key to master these techniques. The downside of the style is the lack of combinations, lack of defense (hands are very low), and lack of head movement.
3. WKF – Well, every karate school in the world is jumping on the bandwagon here since it is “the” tournament style recognized by the International Olympic Committee. The athletes who compete in the WKF are typically very athletic and exhibit almost cat like footwork. You can even see WKF fighters using solid head movement and throws from judo. Outside of that, the striking is practically worthless and the rules too rigid to allow for techniques that actually work in a fight. This coupled with screaming (Kiai) make spectators wonder whether they were watching a kung-fu movie. Another issue is that hook kicks are pulled back to the point of no power, and fighters receive the maximum points for this ineffective technique. As another example, this style heavily relies on scoring with a reverse punch to the body, pulling back after the reverse punch while holding your hands to your belt, and screaming for about 4 seconds after the technique. These bad habits can create big problems for WKF fighters in MMA. As with JKA, WKF practitioners also exhibit the lack of defense (although their hands are slightly higher). Although there is some head movement as I mentioned before, the fighters in WKF typically keep their heads up when striking and usually pay for it. Additionally, the lack of inside fighting in WKF is mindboggling to watch as fighters almost don’t know what to do when they get within a few inches of one another. Search for Igor Dyachenko vs. Wellington Barbosa on YouTube as a case in point example. A seasoned boxer would make quick work of a WKF fighter. Overall, we haven’t seen a single WKF fighter transition into MMA and we probably won’t ever (Thank God).
4. Koshiki – This style pits karate fighters in bubble masks and body armor in a full contact, continuous fight. Fighters are tough and show good use of punching combinations, various kicking attacks, knees, and throws. The downside is that it resembles a bar room brawl more than anything. With short rounds, it’s meant to teach you how to quickly beat your opponent in a street fight. Additionally, fighters are less worried about blocking and getting hit in the head due to the face and body armor so they typically focus on offense as opposed to defense. This wouldn’t fair too well in an MMA match with 4 ounce gloves and no armor. Overall, this tournament style could be a good cross training preparation for fighters training in MMA to help with offensive karate techniques.
5. American Point Karate – This tournament style has been the ridicule of thousands if not millions of forums over the years. Instead of ridiculing the style by saying it’s a bunch of monkeys in pajamas jumping and throwing off balance back fists, let me state the facts and have you decide. American point fighting actually gave rise to American Kickboxing in the 70’s when point fighters literally got in a ring and realized they had to adjust their style to actually fight in a full contact continuous fight (as opposed to stop and go light contact). Because of this, we can say that many American Point fighters have successfully transitioned to full contact kickboxing. Joe Lewis is a great example of this. Currently, you see fighters who come from point fighting backgrounds in circuits such as NBL (National Blackbelt League) and NASKA (North American Sport Karate Association) have successful transitions to both full contact kickboxing and MMA. Raymond Daniels is a good example of an American Point fighter who transitioned to kickboxing (Chuck Norris’ World Combat League) utilizing snap round house kicks, back fists, and spinning hook kicks. Stephen Thompson is yet another American point fighter who successfully transitioned to MMA, most notably the UFC. Although the sloppiness of American karate point fighting appears to be a game of tag when you watch NASKA for instance, the flexibility of rules (vs. WKF) and the more use of pressure and continuous fighting make it better in transitioning to full contact. WKF has so many rules that all fighters appear to have the same exact style and minimal arsenal of weapons (reverse punch, hook kick with pull back, reverse punch to the head, front sweep). WKF fighters are rigid in techniques and hard to coach outside of their comfort zones as they’ve built years of bad habits. Although we have seen various American point karate fighters hail from the NBL and NASKA circuits in full contact kick boxing and MMA, we have yet to see a recent fighter from the USKA (United States Karate Alliance) outside of Josh Quayhagen enter the professional MMA arena. Josh has used karate angles and foot work to win fights in Bellator but overall doesn’t have the punching technique or power to make a heavy splash in MMA. Other fighters in the USKA such as Adrian Galvan out of Texas have shown they have talent. Adrian Galvan is the reigning USKA sparring grand champion and has won various WKF tournaments (US National Championships and Ozawa Cup) with his great athleticism and footwork. However, his lack of punching power, lack of defense, and ability to take a punch as seen by tournament footage would make him easy shark bate in any local boxing gym within a short radius of his karate school in Colony, Texas. The problem with Adrian and other point fighters is that they spar in the gym the same way they spar in a tournament. Other fighters in the USKA, such as Richard Poage out of Arizona appear to be a bit more realistic as they train in the gym to prepare for street altercations. Although apparently a bit of this would have to do with Richard’s pankration training under Richard Hamilton (the original coach of Mark Coleman, Don Frye, and Dan Severn during the early UFCs), there actually are quite a bit of traditional karate schools in the U.S. that train to fight as opposed to train to point fight. Based on the facts, American point karate fighting has bred some successful full contact kickboxing and MMA fighters. However, fighters who hail from this style have to still make significant adjustments to ensure a successful transition.