I've written plenty about Lyoto Machida's karate over the past two years, but I thought we would try something different.
I usually speak at length about Machida's striking style, which is very much influenced by tournament karate and indeed Japanese karate. Shotokan is, after all, considered a Japanese style of karate rather than an Okinawan one.
The differences are many, but among the most obvious are that Japanese styles (Wado-Ryu, Shotokan, Kyokushin and its variants) tend to focus more on repping out basic techniques and practising kata (forms) into infinity.
They use longer stances and tend to be more about pure striking than self-defence. This is for the simple reason that when Gichin Funakoshi (the founder of Shotokan) went to mainland Japan from Okinawa, he found himself teaching high-ranking judoka at the request of Jigoro Kano (the founder of judo).
Not wanting to teach simple throws and grapples to guys who had spent years turning that into an art form and having to teach in the regimented environment that the Japanese love, Funakoshi's karate became less Okinawan and more like it is today. Looking at Shotokan next to more traditional Okinawan styles such as Goju-ryu and Uechi-Ryu, they are starkly contrasted.
The truth of it is that real karate, as in the original applications (or bunkai) of the forms, is not going to win you many tournaments. Karate developed from the citizens of a disarmed Japanese colony's need to defend themselves from attackers in self-defence scenarios, not the need to fight off samurai or other trained martial artists.
Old-school karate, the kind found in decent applications of kata, is pretty much all about grabbing at the crotch, headbutting and breaking free of grabs or defending basic street-attacker-style swings.
That said, Machida himself has shown some slick little techniques that hark right back to the old days of rough and tumble karate.
I am a firm believer that many (though not all) old, traditional techniques that look ridiculous can be reconfigured and given an appropriate setup to make them effective. Hell, Anthony Pettis' Showtime kick should have made us all a little more open-minded—that was straight out of a kung fu movie.
Today we'll look at one ugly, simple, wooden old-school karate technique that Machida has demonstrated successfully in the Octagon.
The Wedge Throw
This technique is sometimes referred to as sukui-nage, which means scooping throw, but there are already two throws in judo which are known as sukui-nage...so let's not confuse things further. For now I'm just going to call it the wedge throw.
Before we go on, I know some of you are curious so here are the two sukui nage from judo.
The first is the traditional version.
The second is the one that proved more practical.
Now onto the throw that I'm talking about. It's different from those two, but more akin to the first.
The idea of stepping behind the opponent's lead leg so that the inner thigh is high on his outside thigh, then dumping him over that leg, is an incredibly old-school move. Pretty much any time you see a downward block (gedan-barai/gedan uke) in a karate kata, it can be applied as scooping the opponent over that lead leg. Indeed this is much of what Gichin Funakoshi taught himself.
Here it is demonstrated in the eccentric Shigeru Egami's book, The Heart of Karate Do, as an application of a basic downward block. Egami was one of Funakoshi's original students, but became gradually more eccentric after Funakoshi's passing.
Now of course, in a fist fight in the pub or a dark alley, the opportunities to dump someone over your lead leg are going to be more forthcoming than against a professional fighter in his well-practised stance. Heck, plenty of altercations at a bar see one or both men trip over themselves while throwing punches anyway.
So here is how the Japan Karate Association thought this technique could be best applied against an opponent in a stance during a kumite match.
Yep, that is the legendary Keinosuke Enoeda, and no there isn't much tact to it. You dive in deep, and they fall over or they don't. Most of the time they didn't. Watching back any old kumite match, it's the usual skittish trading of reverse punches and running. Not much of this being applied at all.
Here's Seiji Nishimura, a living karate manual and coach of the Japanese team, demonstrating a much more sensible application of the same technique, in counter to an opponent's attack. And not some BS stepping punch either—the kind of jab you might see in competition or in any combat sport. Even then, however, you would be hard-pressed to find examples of it in high-level karate competition.
Even Mas Oyama, known for founding a style of karate that was all about striking and not so much about old-school self-defence techniques, became enamoured with techniques like this in his later life. In Advanced Karate (an incredibly hard book to find in English and one which I am very luck to own), Oyama demonstrates dozens of variations of this simple step behind and bail them over-type throw.
Here's one over the arm, as in traditional applications.
And here's one under the arm, as has proven to be more applicable against decent strikers. Notice Oyama takes the leg as well in this variation. Advanced Karate contains hundreds of pages of this sort of stuff, the stuff which Oyama really isn't associated with.
Now here's Lyoto Machida, showing a beautiful application of it. His opponent kicks, Machida parries it across the body (always the smartest option in any martial art) and steps in behind it, already in position to dump his opponent over the lead leg. I'm getting excited just watching it.
Still, that's a karateka at a local competition. They don't have great throws. What about against Kazuhiro Nakamura? That guy was a student of Olympic gold-medal-winning judoka, Hidehiko Yoshida.
So what made the difference? How did this old-school technique designed to unbalance attackers in self-defence situations become an effective takedown in MMA? The clue is in the name I gave it at the start of the article: the wedge.
The problem with old martial arts techniques is the same as any technique: How are you going to get into position to do it?
Nobody is going to attack you with a stepping punch and allow you to use an upper rising block to smack it upward, then let you start your technique as Oyama did above. But change that stepping punch to the more popular jab or right straight, and the block to a driving arm or elbow used to parry the blow and enter in behind, and you're on to something.
Throughout the fight Nakamura kept throwing his powerful right hand and looking to step into the clinch. By both committing to a swing and bringing his feet close together in order to enter a clinch, Nakamura gave Machida the perfect opportunity to drive in behind his elbow and hit the wedge throw.
Now this trip is, in traditional karate, considered an application of downward blocks, but also just about any time a chest level "hammer-fist" is thrown out in a karate kata, it's safe to assume that there is more going on there.
Gojushiho/Useishi/Hotaku is a kata that appears in many styles of karate and features a similar throw as well as headbutts and all sorts of other slick nastiness. If you're a karateka and all you're doing is repping out the moves in the air, go have a think about some of the cooler stuff you can do with the motions you're practising instead of just assaulting your own personal space.
Now is the lesson here that traditional karateka are awesome fighters and can easily throw judoka? God, no.
Karate, like all traditional martial arts, has a lot of catching up to do. The lesson is simply that it is always worth looking into the techniques of various traditional martial arts. Funakoshi himself said, "Look to the old to understand the new."
For a long time simple high kicks were thought too risky to attempt in MMA. Wrist locks were scoffed at in Brazilian jiu-jitsu as aikido nonsense for a while, then as cheesy one-off tactics for a while.
Now Claudio Calasans is snapping the wrist joints of people who fail to respect the threat. Marcelo Garcia even sets up the previously unappreciated north-south choke off of the threat of a wrist lock. And how many of us would have thought that the big problem against Jon Jones, an excellent wrestler, would be getting past the Bruce Lee side kick to the knee?
Old techniques will keep coming back in new formats, because there's nothing new under the sun. The trick is getting them to work against what is the combat sports norm.