Home > Martial Arts > My perspective on Shotokan Karate in MMA and the fight between Lyoto Machida and Jon Jones at UFC 140.

My perspective on Shotokan Karate in MMA and the fight between Lyoto Machida and Jon Jones at UFC 140.

December 10, 2011

As a 2nd degree black belt in Shotokan Karate, myself, I definitely relate to Lyoto Machida’s style. I have trained in various martial arts throughout my life prior to Shotokan, but it has been my dedicated style for the last 8 years.

Karate can be a very effective tool in the world of mixed martial arts and even in simply “street fighting” or protecting one’s self against an attacker. It just has to be properly utilized for maximum effectiveness.

The thing with Muay Thai for instance, is that all kickboxers train to fight. They train repetitively to punch, kick, knee, and elbow and do so hard against each other, on pads, and so forth. It’s the reason why the artstyle gets a lot of credit and recognition as being effective, because those practitioners train for one reason: to fight. It was my main motive when I regularly did it and though I can’t speak for all, that did seem to be the general intention of virtually everyone that trained in it.

It makes you tough, it makes your bones and skin more resilient, and you have a very aggressive offense and build your body up to the point of having a strong defense.

Technically speaking, Muay Thai also has its strengths in its attacks and defenses, but like all martial arts, it has its weaknesses as well. Writing this now reminds me of an article I wrote last year, about the difference of the roundhouse kick between Shotokan Karate, Muay Thai, and Tae Kwon Do. I wrote from experience the pluses and minuses of each style’s kick. And of course, like with the roundhouse kick, there are pros and cons for every single move in each style, when compared to each other.

Now the reason why Karate and even the division of Shotokan itself gets disregarded as being effective, is because not all practitioners train with the goal of being a fighter in mind. You have Kata training, Kihon Ippon, Jiyu Ippon, Sanbon Kumite, Hapon Kumite, basics, and Kumite point fighting as all different things to learn and do.

Each one can be very useful in turning you into a fighter, but only if that’s your goal. I know 4th and 5th degree black belts in Shotokan that can do every basic move, every combination, every form of traditional Shotokan kumite, and every kata as crisp, technical, and powerful looking as you could possibly imagine, but in a “fight”, I’ve been able to take the win over them when I was just a green belt, fairly fresh into my Shotokan Karate dojo.

True, this came from 16 years of prior martial arts experience that I had, but the fact remained that these 14-18 year veterans in Shotokan with 4th/5th degree black belts should arguably have been able to beat me, but they could not.

This is in no intention an effort to brag; rather I’m trying to make an intelligent point. These people, like many karatekas, trained for the art, not the fight. Like learning how to paint, playing the guitar, or being a professional dancer, to them, Karate and all of the katas in it, were simply to memorize and demonstrate as powerfully as possible. Yes, they could hold their own in a fight. Yes, they were competent in both kumite and “fighting”. And yes, they did understand the practicality of their movements and were not simply regurgitating information. But they simply did not train to fight.

I’m both an old school martial artist at heart, because I love and appreciate the roots of these old styles, like the teachings, value the dojo kuns, the respect that comes from studying them, etc….and am also a serious fighter in that I strive to be the most effective striker, blocker, grappler, and so on, as I can possibly be.

It’s why I’ve taken a very long, serious look at what Shotokan Karate is, breaking it down from a complete physiological and kinesiological standpoint, and see why it works. There are certain, brilliant designs in Shotokan that if you apply them and use them in a real fight, after training to fight with those very movements, then a strong, fast karateka can be an extremely powerful force to be reckoned with.

It’s like the common misconception of the outside world that sees a karate practitioner doing a kata by him or herself and thinking it’s just a silly dance or that “no fight every goes down like that”. That’s not the point. The point is that these moves, when repeated and visualized so many times in these possible situations will get you so prepared, that in the event you get attacked, your muscle memory and realization of what to do and how to react, will come in and you’ll counterattack and be successful.

It is however where a lot of people stop though when training in karate. There are those that learn the kata and stop. There are fewer that learn it and make it look good. Even fewer go as far as to learn it, make it look good, and know why/how to utilize it by demonstrating some possibilities through bunkai (application). And then there are the elite handful out there that learn it, make it look good, know the whys/hows/demonstrate bunkai…but also, actually FIGHT and train hard with those moves.

That’s what I’m talking about. That’s why it’s hard to find a Shotokan Karate guy or girl that exists in the world today that can take that artstyle and that artstyle alone and truly fight with those very movements and be devastating with it. I’m not talking about getting in and out and scoring 1 point in a “non-to-semi-contact” kumite match…I’m talking about utilizing real karate in a real fight.

You better believe that Shotokan is the real deal. I have a Bachelor of Science Degree in Kinesiology and have studied the movements of Shotokan and other styles for a very long time and can say without a doubt that it has all of the necessary components to be effective in a fight.

Lyoto Machida, though I have never met the man in person, believe knows how to adapt Shotokan Karate into the fighting world, probably as good as anyone that I’ve seen do it. More or less though, it is why he’s been successful thus far and why if he continues to train in such a way, can continue to do well (though I’d argue to say that not all of his training goes towards fighting-first in mind…and that’s ok because of his tradition and spiritual connection to the artform; though if he dedicated more of it to fighting, he’d be even better).

He’s still young, has a lot of experience, is coming off an incredible win against a legend in the mma world, has good height, strength, speed, precision in his attacking, stamina, timing, and elusiveness that he can give Jon Jones a run for his money. Not to mention he can wrestle, has a good core, is well balanced and doesn’t trip up easily, and has a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

On the other hand, Jon Jones is an exceptional young athlete. He has great cardio and conditioning, he is fast, strong, brings forth good wrestling, doesn’t have any prior injuries that are holding him back physically, is both very effective with his own, dedicated, precision based, technical striking, and in his unorthodox, spinning back elbow techniques…simply because he’s good at them, makes them work, and has turned them into his own, actual precision striking that other fighters resort to as a jab or leg kick…and not just a flashy technique that someone gets “lucky” when they land. Add to his list a great height of 6’4″, being 4″ taller than Lyoto and his reach being quite incredible, and he too has what it takes to give his opponent a very tough fight.

This article’s intent was mainly to share with you my thoughts on Shotokan Karate itself. And now, if you have any opinions…I’m all ears. Here’s to UFC 140 tonight. It’s a completely stacked card and may all of the best fighters win!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

KaratePlayer September 8, 2013 at 3:20 pm

Paul, I have a more fundamental look on Shotokan karate, karate in general. Moreover, I don’t think Lyoto Machida is anywhere near a karate ‘master.’

This is somewhat a dated post, so here goes….

My theme focuses on what really comprises traditional karate training…. You point to kihon, kata, kumite, which are three descriptive components of the traditional karate curriculum.

You state that you have 4th & 5th degree Shotokan black-belts who can’t fight effectively, even a your ‘green-belt’ level. My general response is that these Shotokan black-belts haven’t been practicing traditional karate.

The underlying skill of traditional karate is not just physical conditioning, not great body mechanics, not muscle memory, not visualizing your opponent, etc. The underlying skill of traditional karate is the mental discipline to control and direct the muscular strength of the entire body through conscious thought at all times. Kata practice is what develops this capability to its highest level.

This is the overriding difference between traditional martial arts, here Shotokan, and the sports-based arts like Muay thai, boxing, bjj, etc….

The lionshare of Machida’s success comes from a narrow application of the concept I’ve stated, the reverse punch, which he launches faster than the opponent can react. We see the constant use & emphasis of this technique in Shotokan kumite free-fighting and tournaments…. In fact, the reverse punch speed shot is an overused convention in Shotokan kumite, hence to the detriment of combination techniques, appropriate defensive blocking, adjustments, etc…. there you have the source of defeat of Lyoto by Rua and Jones….

It is also key in traditional karate to put the full strength of the body into the strike. Lyoto often fails to coordinate his full body into the strike: hence the technical out-striking of DAvis in the latest UFC bout–whereas Davis was able to continue to outfight Lyoto to win the fight….

Shotokan karate is a mental discipline, not a physical sport– an the mental control of you whole body’s strength placed into precision movement is what makes karate effective in application–because what I just described is karate….

Paul Gale September 8, 2013 at 8:07 pm

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and Shotokan certainly is powerful, fast, and requires a lot of dedication to coordinate everything to make it effective. If a practitioner trains in karate, the way it’s indended and gets in bunkai along with the katas and true applications of the different techniques (counters and all), then you’ve definitely got a formidable art style that’s rooted with a very old (all the more impressive), kinesiologically sound/accurate setup. A lot of dojos unfortunately limit their students’ overall understanding of how Shotokan works, because what they do tell them, they don’t necessarily practice. I’m glad that contributed to this piece. Oss.

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