Something strange happened at the event formerly known as UFC 196.
In the headliner of what became a run-of-the-mill Fight Night card on Fox Sports 1, Stephen Thompson knocked out former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks.
Actually, that's an understatement. Thompson cut through Hendricks like a buzz saw, stuffing a takedown attempt and carving up his shell-shocked opponent with front-leg kicks and clean counters until the referee mercifully called a halt to proceedings. Hendricks simply couldn't cover the distance to get his game underway.
It wasn't supposed to happen. Hendricks, a former national champion wrestler at Oklahoma State, closed the books as a nearly 3-1 favorite, according to Best Fight Odds. The prevailing wisdom assumed the combination of Hendricks' durability, takedowns and smooth combination striking would be enough to grind out a victory over Thompson, whose defensive wrestling had never been tested on that level.
When Thompson sliced through Hendricks and made his case for a shot at the welterweight title, he put a capstone on a conversation that has been percolating for months or even longer: Is karate making a case as the striking art of MMA's future?
There are three different things to consider here. First and foremost, how did Thompson beat Hendricks, and in a broader sense, how has he risen to the division's upper echelon? Second, what aspects of karate seem to be translating so neatly to the current moment in MMA? Finally, does this mean every fighter worth his or her salt needs to find the local karate dojo and start training?
The story of Thompson's rise to the welterweight elite is one of slick striking, obviously enough, but also exceptional defensive wrestling.
Thompson's lone loss was to Matt Brown in April 2012, back when the current Top 10 welterweight was 2-4 in his last six and an underwhelming 13-11 overall. It was a shocking upset in which Thompson had a strong first round but conceded five takedowns and was generally beaten up for most of the fight. His hype train came to a screeching halt.
Since then, Thompson hasn't been taken down once in six fights. His opponents have attempted 12 takedowns, per FightMetric, and not one of those has planed Thompson on the mat for long enough to make anything like a difference. That's an exceptional turnaround, and it speaks to many hours spent drilling takedown defense with the likes of Chris Weidman and other elite wrestlers.
When Hendricks locked up with him against the fence, Thompson stayed calm even as the former national champion landed a few hard shots and chained his attempts together. When he pulled himself upright into the clinch, he waited for the right moment as Hendricks kneed his legs to separate and then pushed off and got back to work at range. It was a beautifully technical sequence that can only come from relentless training.
Only the venerable Patrick Cote even managed to attempt more than two takedowns in any of those six fights. This points to one of the major components for Thompson's success both as a defensive wrestler and on the feet: distance management. Connor Ruebusch of Bloody Elbow covered this, as did Jack Slack of Fightland, in a pair of excellent pieces that break it down in minute detail.
When he got back to range after stuffing Hendricks' takedown attempts, Thompson didn't waste any time in re-establishing his preferred range. He feinted a side kick two seconds after spinning off the fence and used that to get back to long range, circling and moving as Hendricks tried to close the distance.
A backstepping counter right barely missed as Hendricks charged in, and then a flush side kick and a hook kick backed Hendricks off for good.
The former champion didn't really get close for the rest of the fight, conceding too much distance to the longer, more precise striker to ever cover the vast gulf between them and get his game going.
With his opponents worried about the constant barrage of side, hook and round kicks at long range, along with the occasional jab, they give Thompson too much space to operate. Rushing in to cover the distance creates opportunities for him to counter with long, straight punches and to step off to angles, which effectively ensures they'll never get close enough to get a clean shot at his hips or back him into the fence.
Just look at this sequence that led directly to the finish against Hendricks. The former champion tries a high kick and a lunging left hook, but both come up short. Thompson simply steps back and to the side before cracking Hendricks with a pair of counter right hands.
Had Hendricks decided to change levels and shoot, he never would have gotten close enough to Thompson's hips to have a prayer of completing the takedown without getting stuffed. If he couldn't pin Thompson against the fence, those takedowns in open space had no hope of success.
That's the essence of Thompson's success. He picks and chooses the range and punishes his opponents when they try to close the distance, which keeps him off the cage, shuts down takedown attempts before they happen and gives him the range to drop clean, straight counters that make use of his length and accuracy.
That sounds easy. It's not. It takes both incredible sense of the range in tiny increments, which takes years of training to hone, along with off-the-charts timing, the second major component of what makes Thompson an exceptional striker, to pick and choose the right spots to throw and the appropriate time to angle off and escape.
Cool under pressure is essential as well, since the natural instinct when an opponent charges forward to swing haymakers or shoot takedowns is either to run—note Alexander Gustafsson's performance against Daniel Cormier—or to plant one's feet and swing back, as Anthony Pettis did successfully against Gilbert Melendez and much less effectively in his drubbing at the hands of Rafael dos Anjos.
Very few fighters who prefer to fight at this distance have the cool demeanor, timing, clean movement and understanding of distance to put the whole package together. Thompson absolutely does.
Outside fighting is enjoying something of a resurgence at the moment. Its mortal enemy is pressure fighting, which is experiencing a renaissance of its own in the form of fighters Dos Anjos, Weidman, Cormier and Ronda Rousey.
To counter aggressive pressure, which focuses on cage-cutting footwork to force the opponent back to the fence, you need a comprehensive understanding of distance, tight pivots and lateral movement and the sense of timing to drop single shots or combinations and then escape on an angle before the opponent can close the gap and pin the outside fighter to the cage.
Karate excels at teaching these principles. Its competitions focus on leaping in and out of range with single punches and kicks or blitzing combinations of punches and, conversely, to land counters while the opponent attacks. It's an outside fighter's art at heart and gives its practitioners an array of tools—side, front and round kicks and straight punches—to maintain and exploit that distance.
It's not a coincidence that perhaps the two greatest outside fighters in MMA history, Lyoto Machida and Georges St-Pierre, both have backgrounds in karate. St-Pierre even credited his well-timed and explosive wrestling to the skills his karate base taught as well.
While karate has long been a presence in MMA, it has never been more visible. Thompson is perhaps the most apparent incarnation of that phenomenon, particularly after carving his way through Hendricks on Saturday night, but he's far from the only one.
Flyweight contender Kyoji Horiguchi has a long background in karate, as does his fellow 125-pounder Justin Scoggins. Flashy middleweight striker Uriah Hall practiced karate for years. The Ultimate Fighter winner Robert Whittaker, who just defeated Hall, also has a long background in karate. Many of the fighters coming to the UFC from Russia's North Caucasus region practiced karate at one point in their lives.
Outside fighter extraordinaire Jon Jones and Holly Holm, who dominated the pressure-fighting Rousey in November to win the bantamweight title, are coached by former kickboxer and karateka Mike Winkeljohn.
Striking analyst Jack Slack has also pointed to the karate aspects present in featherweight champion Conor McGregor's game.
Does this mean MMA fighters need to ditch their muay thai kru, boxing trainer or Dutch-style kickboxing coach to keep up with the evolving game of MMA? In a word, no.
Karate excels at teaching the art of outside fighting and its necessary components of timing and distance management, but it's far from the only striking art that prizes those things. Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Floyd Mayweather Jr. are all sterling examples of outside fighters in boxing, while even pure muay thai has produced Saenchai and Sam-A Kaiyanghadaogym.
The tools may differ—jabs in boxing, the thip and round kicks in muay thai, all three in kickboxing—but the principles of controlling the range and throwing hard shots before angling off and creating space are hardly unique to karate. In fact, pressure fighting rarely appears at the highest levels of boxing because trainers so effectively teach tight pivots and the timing necessary to land shots and stay off the ropes.
Anderson Silva, perhaps the greatest outside fighter and easily the best counterpuncher in MMA history, did some traditional martial arts, but he spent most of his life training boxing and muay thai. While not an outside fighter by preference, Mark Hunt's command of timing and distance, which allow him to compete with much longer and taller fighters, comes from boxing and kickboxing.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk comes from Dutch-style kickboxing and muay thai, yet she excels at those things. Jose Aldo has an extraordinary command of space and timing, and he has the same bases. Robbie Lawler's timing on his counters and understanding of distance have been at the highest level during his recent UFC run.
Elite striking in large part consists of a command of timing, distance and footwork, and any discipline can teach those things effectively. Whether the practitioner chooses to use them to fight on the outside or not, they're not unique to karate, and karate's tools are not the only things that can keep an opponent outside and create space.
Thompson is one of the UFC's very best strikers, and it's his command of the essential intangibles of timing and distance that makes him a threat to beat practically any fighter at 170 pounds, including the champion. Karate is just one path to those intangibles—and one that an increasing number of fighters are choosing to walk.