The term "karate master" conjures a strange duality of notions. To one person, the phrase "karate master" evokes images of the comic character in an action film who sweeps his hands in bladed motions through the air before being felled by a single punch from the square-jawed protagonist. In another conversation, "karate master" might bring to mind a powerful figure of fighting prowess whose hands and feet are dangerous weapons. The term is used mockingly by those who are practiced in more commonly practiced combat disciplines, and with wonder by those who practice karate.
To the author, "karate master" brings to mind but a few men and women of true note. This scarcity of masters is not for lack of trying to meet the mythical shihan. The author has traveled to Tokyo for months at a time in order to train at the Japan Karate Association. Despite a great many years experience in the art and having trained under a good many tougher karateka than most have the privilege to, I can still only point to a small number of true masters of karate.
When karate is considered as a martial technique whose very nature is in the form of techniques in their appearance and performance, there are more masters on earth than one could shake a bo at. Training in dojos with All-Japan champions in both kata (forms) and kumite (point sparring), I have been privy to some beautiful technique and dazzling speed of movement. Immamura, Kawawada, Ogura, Ogata; each impressed me enormously and was capable of technical prowess which I cannot come close to imitating, but I would consider them masters of karate in form alone.
When we consider karate as a martial art, that is, a fighting method, the number of true masters in the world drops into single digits. Lyoto Machida is most certainly the most accomplished karateka in the world today in actual combat against trained opponents.
The Machida Method
Machida's modus operandi seems to never change. Controlling the centre is a boxing strategy which extends to chess (or vice versa) because of the offensive options opened to the player who achieves this. Machida never, ever looks to control the centre of the octagon and win points based on aggression. Instead he flits around the outside of the cage.
Each time an opponent moves to attack Machida he darts away as if scared or overly cautious and each time his opponent becomes more and more frustrated that they cannot mount an effective offensive.
Fighters are taught from very early on in their careers to cut down on telegraphing when striking. If a fighter takes a step before he attempts his strikes, it is clear when they are coming. By maintaining a larger than normal distance, Machida forces the opponent to take a step before they can hit him. In effect, when he eventually stops back tracking and steps in with a punch, he is acting in counter to this step.
Machida isn't a huge power striker, nor is he one of the stronger men in his division. When Machida does knock opponents out he completely starches them. This is the kind of power which can be generated from a collision rather than an exchange stood in place or by chasing strikes.
Machida's kicks are an annoyance at best for the most part (brilliant KO of Couture aside) and serve the same purpose that many of Anderson Silva's low kicks do: to get him ahead on the scorecards and force a chase from an opponent who has been told not to chase him.
Whatever Machida chooses to intercept his opponent's charges with—his left straight, his springing left knee or his newly shown lead elbow strike—he sets it up the same way. False retreats offer little threat to the fighter using them (spare the low kicks to the trailing leg which Machida has shown a weakness to) as he is moving out of range, they limit exchanges, and they force the opponent into a counter-puncher's game. Absolute reluctance to lead with authority—as Lyoto Machida and Anderson Silva have occasionally shown—tends to alienate fans, though.
Machida Karate versus Traditional Karate
This intercepting of the opponent mid strike or sen-no-sen is commonplace at karate point sparring competition but—and here is the key in differentiating a karateka from a karate master—these competitions are normally simply match after match of karateka exchanging gyaku-zuki (reverse punch or the rear hand straight) and the point being awarded to whoever the judges think landed first.
Competition karateka, and by extension the vast majority of karateka in the world, do not have anywhere near the level of defensive savvy that one will see in boxers or kickboxers with the same amount of experience because their chosen sport does not require it.
Scoring in karate competition is entirely subjective and everything that happens after the first punch is irrelevant to the result of the scoring of that exchange. Hence we see karateka leap across the mat with unparalleled quickness, land their punch, then stand in range with their hand on their hip, playing up their posture to judges (often while turning their back) and giving little regard to their opponent's return.
Is there skill to traditional karate competition? Most certainly, competitors on international teams are ridiculously quick in their execution of their actions, but there is also great skill to all number of non-combative sports. Those who are called "Master" in the karate world are almost invariably clued in only to the technical details of how they would like to see basic air punches and kicks be performed; few have anything worthwhile to offer on fighting strategy or method.
Make no mistake, Lyoto Machida is pretty much one-of-a-kind in the Shotokan world. He is intelligent enough to apply his karate against elite fighters, but also to realize many of the shortcomings that karate training can and does bring.
The old adage that a karateka's hands and feet are deadly weapons or should be like swords is often taken to mean that a karateka should smash his hands against a makiwara day in and day out or rep out thousands of punches. I put it to you that Lyoto Machida's hands and knees are as impotent as anyone's out in the open—it is his understanding of strategy and his relationship with his opponent which makes him such a dangerous striker.
It is when an opponent becomes infuriated with Machida's Will-o'-the-Wisp movement and charges him that Machida's short rear straight is turned from a simple thrust of the fist into a telephone pole in the path of a sprinter.
A Little Karate History
In concluding an article on why I believe Lyoto Machida is one of a handful of men in the world who can legitimately be called karate masters, it might be interesting to look a little at karate's history in brief.
Karateka have been very reluctant to grow or adapt as a whole; their love of tradition is well known, but karate itself is a method developed in Okinawa from Okinawan wrestling techniques, Chinese kung fu, Taiwanese boxing and other methods from abroad. Okinawa as a small, weaponless island under oppressive samurai rule had to develop methods of self defense and the Okinawans were more than happy to learn from anyone who had anything to offer.
Karate originally contained a lot more rough neck-throwing movements and was certainly anything but a polished, competitive striking martial art. It was for the most part used against untrained aggressors, plain and simple.
Sparring came to karate very late after it came to mainland Japan. Kenwa Mabuni (founder of Shito Ryu) played with the idea in the thirties, as did Gigo Funakoshi (son of Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Machida's Shotokan style).
Sparring became more popular when karate moved into the universities and the Japan Karate Association worked to make a competition system for Shotokan. To put it another way, the idea of the ancient high kicking karate master is a myth. Circa 1960 karate sparring looked like this, while the significance of head movement, footwork and combinations had been demonstrated amply by Joe Louis almost twenty years before this.
Lyoto Machida brings to the octagon not only a karate style, but a style all of his own. If karateka hope to actually have something to show for all of their effort in the dojo, Machida is the man to look at. His methods are sound, simple and effective, not to mention easy to practice (though difficult to master). His fighting method relies on skill and anticipation, not speed, and yet the traditional karate community refuses to sit up and pay attention to a true genius at work.
In a world where most touting the "Master" moniker have it for time served or adopted it to attract a few more punters into their dojo, Lyoto Machida is perhaps the closest thing we have to a true master of karate as a martial art.
Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking at his blog, Fights Gone By.