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Is Karate Effective In MMA?

As an MMA fan, it’s interesting to see different styles of fighting, and how they are used to counteract an opponent’s style. However, you may have noticed that there are some styles that get used by most fighters, such as Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. This may leave you wondering about the effectiveness of certain styles in MMA, such as Karate for example. So is Karate effective in MMA?

Yes, Karate can be very effective in MMA, and several top contenders use this style, most notably Stephen Thompson and Lyoto Machida. They effectively use their Karate to manage distance and win rounds using side kicks. They also use Karate kicks to score knockouts, such as Thompson’s spinning hook kick, and Machida’s snapping front kick, otherwise known as the crane kick.

There are many different ways in which a fighter can use Karate to their advantage in MMA. Let’s talk about the advantages and disadvantages of this style, as well as how top contenders make Karate work in MMA.

How Karate Ends Fights

In MMA, karate can be used to very effectively end fights. The best way to win a fight is to end it quickly, and Karate fighters have an ability to set up their kicks to maximize their efficiency. For example, Lyoto Machida may not have the strongest kicks, but he knocks out opponents with the nonetheless.

Lyoto Machida has a nasty snapping front kick, which is very precise and always has knockout power behind it.
Lyoto Machida has a nasty snapping front kick, which is very precise and always has knockout power behind it.

Let’s cover some Karate-style kicks that have been used to end fights, and how they were used. First up is Stephen Thompson’s spinning hook kick.

Stephen Thompson faced Jake Ellenberger in one of the best performances of his career. Thompson is a Karate specialist, known for sticking to his traditional style, despite some (including Ellenberger) disputing its effectiveness.

With about one minute left in the first round, Thompson managed to drop Ellenberger with a spinning hook kick that landed flush on Ellenberger’s chin. Thompson let him back up to his feet, and once Elleberger got up, he landed another spinning hook kick.

Karate specialist Thompson lands the spinning hook kick that ended the fight against Ellenberger.
Karate specialist Thompson lands the spinning hook kick that ended the fight against Ellenberger.

This one landed on the top of the head, causing Ellenberger to lose his equilibrium and fall, where Stephen Thompson finished the fight. This even prompted Thompson to later say, “he was talking bad about karate before the fight, and you can’t knock anybody out with something more ‘karate’ than a spinning hook kick.”

A stellar performance and great display of karate in MMA by Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson. Another karate specialist who uses his style well inside the octagon is former UFC Champion Lyoto Machida.

Machida faced former Heavyweight and Light-Heavyweight champion Randy Couture at UFC 129. In the second round of the fight, Machida landed an impressive front kick knockout reminiscent of the crane kick used in the Karate Kid movie.

Lyoto Machida lands a beautiful snapping front kick, widely known as the 'crane kick used in MMA'.
Lyoto Machida lands a beautiful snapping front kick, widely known as the ‘crane kick used in MMA’.

Machida is a very tentative fighter, using a lot of feints to trick or lure his opponent into his strikes. This was exactly the case with his snapping front kick. He faked as if he was going to throw a kick with his back leg, but instead, he jumped and threw his front leg instead.

Couture didn’t know what to expect, blocking his left side as if he were expecting a roundhouse kick. This left his chin open, leaving a perfect shot for Machida’s snapping front kick to land.

Many people praised him for his knockout victory, with many more using this as an example that traditional martial arts can work in MMA when used correctly. The kick was so similar to the one used in Karate Kid that many simply refer to this knockout as ‘the crane kick in MMA’.

Creating Distance Using Karate

Another useful aspect of Karate is creating distance and winning rounds. Karatekas are known for their good lateral movement, and their ability to land at will, without any giveaway that they are about to strike.

First I will talk about how lateral movement can be used effectively to avoid an opponent, and then we’ll cover Karate-style striking.

What Even Is Lateral Movement?

Lateral movement is basically a way of circling around your opponent. However, it is different from the circling used in boxing. Fighters who are traditionally Karate practitioners move sideways, heel-to-heel, in contrast to a boxer, who keeps the front foot always pointing at their opponent.

Notice how Thompson (left) is standing. He is waiting for Till to attack so that he can circle out using lateral movement.
Notice how Thompson (left) is standing. He is waiting for Till to attack so that he can circle out using lateral movement.

Usually, karate fighters stand very sideways, as it is faster and easier to land sidekicks and spinning kicks. However, when they are moving straight forward or backwards, they adopt a more ‘squared’ stance.

By this I mean that they don’t angle off, with their stomach almost facing their opponent. This allows them quicker sideways (lateral) movement, than if they had their feet in the traditional boxing stance.

Noteworthy UFC fighter Conor McGregor is known for bringing a more traditional martial arts approach to movement, especially when he was fighting at featherweight. Conor combines his quick Karate-style movement with other martial arts like boxing to create a powerful style, which I explain in depth in the post What Martial Arts Does Conor McGregor Know?

This is especially useful in situations such as the one pictured above, where the karate fighter is pressed against the cage. Lateral movement can get them out of the situation quickly, without having to remain against the cage and rely on just head movement.

An advantage of lateral movement is that it improves your position, as you can take the center of the octagon after circling out. Whereas if you remained against the fence, you would have to significantly hurt your opponent to force them to step back.

Karate Style Striking

In Karate, the striking style is very different from that of Muay Thai or even Boxing. Because Karate competitions put an emphasis on point-fighting, Many Karate style strikers simply aim to land their strikes, regardless of power.

For example, let’s take a look at Muay Thai, which is basically the opposite of Karate. The kicks are slower than those in Karate, but when they land they generate a lot of power.

Look at the image below, which shows the fighter in black trunks landing a roundhouse kick.

Thai-style kicks use a lot of momentum, and land at close range. This generates a lot of power, but also makes you vulnerable.
Thai-style kicks use a lot of momentum, and land at close range. This generates a lot of power, but also makes you vulnerable.

The fighter in black trunks is using a huge amount of momentum to throw this kick. Imagine that he missed this kick. He would have to quickly follow through with the kick and then spin back into position. Also, notice how close he is to his opponent. The close proximity makes his kick stronger.

Of course, the kick is very strong, due to both proximity and momentum. But the disadvantages are in how vulnerable a Thai-style kick leaves you. A fighter that notices a Thai-style kick coming could easily launch a counterattack.

In contrast, the purpose of a Karate style kick is to land quickly, without getting hit. Let’s take a look below at a roundhouse by Stephen Thompson.

A karate-style roundhouse kick by Stephen Thompson. Notice the distance between them.
A karate-style roundhouse kick by Stephen Thompson. Notice the distance between them.

There are some differences here that we notice immediately. First, the distance between Thompson and his opponent. Secondly, the part of the foot that Thompson lands with, the foot. Thai kicks are almost forced to be thrown at close range, because Thai-style fighters are taught to land with the shin.

In contrast, Karate fighters are taught to quickly strike and exit. However, this fatser style of striking causes the kicks and punches to be weaker than those in Muay Thai. For this reason, many fans colloquially refer to these fighters’ fists as ‘pillow hands’, due to their inability to knockdown opponents with their punches.

Karate makes fighters less likely to get hit, as in point-based competitions, any light tap can be considered a 'strike'.
Karate makes fighters less likely to get hit, as in point-based competitions, any light tap can be considered a ‘strike’ and is awarded a point.

The benefit to this style is the fighter can accrue ‘points’ without getting hit, helping them win rounds. For the same reason, fans initially referred to Lyoto Machida’s style as ‘boring’, although many eventually came to respect it due to his ability to neutralize his opponents.

So sure, maybe this style isn’t the go-to when looking for knockout strikes. But as we’ve already seen, Karate style strikers can land knockouts with their kicks, as long as they are set up correctly. And when they don’t, their quick, snappy, kicks and unorthodox movement can win them a fight.

So yes, Karate can be very effective in MMA when used correctly. Karate-style fighters win rounds through quick, snappy strikes, and they avoid getting hit by using their unorthodox movement and distance control. Karate fighters also land impressive knockout, such as Lyoto Machida’s famous crane kick knockout of Randy Couture.

If you enjoyed this post, consider checking out the Training Tips page, where I answer martial arts questions similar to the one in this post. Thanks for reading!