The East Resurgent: Why Karate, Taekwondo and Judo Are Making a Comeback in MMA

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The East Resurgent: Why Karate, Taekwondo and Judo Are Making a Comeback in MMA
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

If we were to examine the styles most commonly adopted by Mixed Martial Arts competitors it would be difficult not to conclude that Muay Thai, wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu lie at the core of our sport.

Indeed, it is debatable whether any successful competitor can claim total ignorance of these disciplines, so embedded are they in our new, international fighting culture - if MMA is, as some commentators argue, becoming a "style" in its own right, then our very own Frankenstein's monster is wielding Thai kicks, shooting thunderous doubles and rending flesh from bone with Rio's slickest subs.

This much is undoubtedly true, yet, as any martial arts fan will excitedly tell you, the Octagon is becoming increasingly crowded as of late - Thai, wrestling and BJJ are losing their hold on the center of the cage, being forced to share the limelight with techniques drawn from a range of previously marginalized disciplines.

The world's fastest-growing, fastest-changing sport is on the move once again, leading us to ask which styles fighters are using to broaden their combative horizons, and why? Why are fighters using Karate footwork, Taekwondo kicks and Judo throws over say, movements drawn from Shaolin Kung Fu and Aikido? To find out, we must examine what these re-emerging styles offer the aspiring fighter, also discussing why knowledge of the "big three" alone will never lead a competitor to success from this point onwards.

We will first examine both Karate and Taekwondo, highlighting aspects of these arts which can push an MMA fighter's game to the next level.

Our first point of note relates to stances and footwork - while Thai fighters have become famous for their plodding, stalking movement, we are now seeing fewer and fewer fighters achieving success with this approach.

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The striking game is changing - has already changed, in fact, selecting fighters who use the more hand-oriented "Dutch style" of kickboxing over proponents of pure Muay Thai.

With 4oz gloves and increasingly-skilled competitors, successful fighters increasingly eschew the "rock-em-sock-em robots" approach, looking instead for ways to avoid being hit; Karate is of obvious interest to those who seek to improve their evasive movement - many Japanese styles like Wado-Ryu and Shotokan emphasize diagonal movement and "in and out" footwork, allowing competitors to augment their traditional boxing/kickboxing defense with a sophisticated method of cutting angles, leaving opponents with nothing but air to counter.

Alongside Taekwondo, Karate training also provides strikers with the ability to fire "chambered" kicks, circumventing the need to "switch step" and telegraph the slower, albeit more powerful, Thai kicks we normally associate with MMA. Indeed, a new generation of fighters are beginning to add Taekwondo to their training, following in the footsteps of Anderson Silva, Ben Henderson and Anthony Pettis by diversifying their kicking game and reaping the multiple benefits of improved leg dexterity in the cage.

No-one is suggesting that boxing and Muay Thai have become useless in MMA - fighters arriving in the Octagon with nothing but a Karate or Taekwondo belt around their waist will have their legs battered black and blue, as we would expect; rather, what we are seeing is an MMA "arms race" - as competitors refine commonly trained styles, both up-and-comers and prescient veterans seek to unveil weapons that opponents do not regularly encounter, putting a spanner in the best-laid game plans and maximizing their "ways to win".

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Contrary to what we might think, it is not only the Western boxer or seasoned Thai fighter who may want to think about grabbing a phonebook in MMA's current climate of change - grapplers too must keep their finger on the pulse, paying attention to the interest shown in Judo by many successful competitors, including both Nick and Nate Diaz.

What does a Judo player bring to the table? Ask any BJJ player who has rolled with a champion Judoka, and they will immediately point out three things: strength, balance and posture. Judo players are nigh-on impossible to take down, hard to keep down and a nightmare from the top position, especially when pitted against guard specialists.

This much we know, and have always known about Judo, yet the takedowns found in the "gentle art" have often proved too technical or "gi-centric" to be applied successfully in MMA - until now, that is, as fighters like Manny Gamburyan and Ronda Rousey (in a manner not dissimilar to one Fedor Emelianenko) begin to use Judo in conjunction with a comprehensive "no-gi" skill set, countering Greco-style clinch takedowns with a series of beautiful leg elevation throws and sweeps.

As with Muay Thai, while no fighter will be able to enter the Octagon without solid fundamentals derived from wrestling and BJJ, we may yet see a time in the near future when the Uchi-mata is learned alongside the double-leg shot as a "bread-and-butter" technique.

The point, ladies and gentlemen, is this: one day, each and every useful technique will have been adopted into the MMA canon, and fighters will only be able to get better at what they already know, being unable to add new strings to their bow - that day, however, is a long, long way off.

For brevity's sake, this article has neglected to analyze the one-thousand-and-one new movements being practiced in MMA, ranging from the beautiful guards associated with Eddie Bravo's 10th Planet system to flamboyant strikes drawn from systems like Capoeira.

While we may not think of MMA's infancy when we watch a master like Anderson Silva strutting his stuff, the fact remains that our sport is very, very young - expect to see more Judo, more Karate, more Taekwondo; when these styles become normalised, expect the unexpected, perhaps even some Kung Fu. As MMA fans, we live in an era of perpetual change - sit back and enjoy the sheer dynamism of our sport.

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