It's no secret that I'm always on the lookout for fighters who successfully implement innovative tactics in MMA. It's even cooler if they manage to successfully apply some traditional martial arts -- karate, kung fu, etc -- to MMA. Therefore I've been a huge fan of Katsunori Kikuno since he first started drawing attention in Deep and ZST. Now that he's in DREAM, I'm totally marking out.
I did a judo chop on his use of the standing neck crucifix in his DREAM.12 fight with Eddie Alvarez, but that was a fairly atypical move for Kikuno. He's much better known for his somewhat eccentric stance and Kyokoushin Karate strikes. He put on a display of his bread and butter moves at DREAM.13 against UFC veteran Kuniyoshi Hironaka.
Here's Kikuno talking about the fight, from Sherdog:
A thoughtful Katsunori Kikuno made mention of his mental discipline and how it led him to best UFC veteran and Cage Force lightweight champion Kuniyoshi Hironaka. As a stalwart karate practitioner, Kikuno asserted that there was more to his fight style than a particularly effective crescent kick.
"Honestly, I didn't think (the crescent kick) would be so incredibly effective. But I believe I saw him make a face as if he didn't like it (when I crescent kicked him), so maybe it was somewhat effective," said Kikuno. "But I was completely concentrated on the fight, so I didn't notice anything outside of the voices of my corner. I'm not even sure how I beat him -- I just kept aiming for his jaw and liver."
D.W. of Head Kick Legend gives us some background on Kinkuno's unusual style:
Katsunori Kikuno is one of those rare cases of a fighter who was able to take a more traditional fighting stance and bring it into the modern world of MMA with success. Of course since Kikuno is a Kyokoushin Karateka by study, his use of a Sanchin Dachi stance is a bit odd, as Sanchin is generally related to Chinese kung fu. The version of the kata used by Kikuno is from the Uechi-ryu style of Okinawan karate and stays closely to the kung fu roots by utilizing quick hand speed to set up powerful follow-up attacks.
The main concept behind the stance is using controlled breathing to help channel your power as well as controlling your center of balance to channel that power through punches. Part of the reason that nobody had bothered to bring sanchin dachi to MMA before is that the core of the kata is through the use of tension and being rigid throughout. It both looks odd and is extremely tiring to stay that tense and keep the proper form, but the tension helps to create more rapid-fire, powerful strikes, and as Kikuno has demonstrated, it helps lead to powerful follow-up shots as well.
Kikuno has shown to favor following up with a flurry of punches after pushing the opponent offguard with an initial shot, the first shot varying. He tends to use the crescent kick, which is a strike mostly intended to break an opponent's defenses down to set up the follow-up shots, where in the traditional kata usually involves a roundhouse kick to the legs to break the defenses, he also opens up with a strong punch to the top of the chest before unloading on his opponent's face with a flurry.
One of the big pluses of using such a stance in MMA is how it changes the center of gravity for Kikuno and makes it difficult for the opponent to land any sort of kick without being swiftly countered as well as makes it dangerous to attempt a takedown due to how stable and tense Kikuno is, leaving the opponent open to shots and having to work extra hard to break his balance to take him down.
As always keep in mind that I neither fight nor train so this is a learning experience for me as well. If you see a mistake or disagree with my interpretation or terminology, please speak up in the comments.
Let's look at some gifs in the full entry.
On the right we see Kikuno using the "zombie walk" or Sanchin Dachi stance to stalk down Hironaka. Note the stiff posture and the two arms dangled out in front of his body. Here's more from Wikipedia about hte stance:
Only one stance is used-the sanchin (meaning "three battles") stance, from which a name of the kata is derivative now (initially it was named as Peppuren 1. Sanchin-dachi is a practical stance, and yet is the most difficult stance to master. The legs protect the body from sweep kicks, the thighs are to trap low kicks. According to a tai chi manual ("Zhengzi 13 postures"), the punch draws its power from the earth through the legs-the flip of the hips enables the strength of the whole body to be channeled and focused into one punch.
Properly employed, Sanchin kata follows the "hard" style of karate-all the muscles are to be flexed and tensed throughout the kata-actually making it the most strenuous kata. This type of strength training, is only recently understood in Western science and is known as "isometric training" in bodybuilding.
The narrow (shoulder width) upright "pigeon-toed" foot position of the Sanchin stance (Japanese: sanchin dachi) balances stability in two directions (front and side) with the flexible waist rotation needed for strong punches and kicks. The toes attempt to "grip" the floor, attempting to turn the feet outward while actually turned inward, creating a rooted stance, whilst the pelvis remains tilted upward along with the turned-in position of the front knee and the bent back knee help protect the groin from kicks.
On the left we see one of Kikuno's early assaults on Hironaka. He opens with a left crescent kick to Hironaka's liver. This visibly stuns Hironaka and forces him back against the ropes. Kikuno quickly follows up with a blitz of punches -- left hook, right hook, left hook -- before Hironaka manages to establish a clinch and ride out the storm.
Note that Kikuno starts the sequence with his left leg forward but does a switch so that the left leg is in the rear when he actually fires the crescent kick.
On the right we see the final assault. Kikuno again leads with the left crescent kick. Note the stutter switch step at the beginning of the sequence. He comes very close to crossing his feet here, a technical no-no. It was this sort of thing that allowed Eddie Alvarez to beat him up on the feet, but Hironaka has no answer.
After landing the crescent kick to visibly devastating effect, Kikuno wickedly follows up with a lead left hook to the liver without resetting into his stance. This is a classic karate technique and allows the punch to draw power from the down step from the kicking leg. He then shoves Hironaka back up to his feet and fires a left-right hook combination that lands with crushing effect, sending Hironaka to the canvas.
Here we get to relish the KO sequence in slo-mo and from a different angle. Note that Hironaka was trying to catch Kikuno's left leg with his left arm and even managed to somewhat block the kick with his forearm. Unfortunately for Hironaka, the impact of the crescent kick comes from the upward motion of Kikuno's lower leg, so blocking the thigh at that point did nothing to lesson the impact of Kikuno's instep on his liver.
You can also really see the deadly efficacy of the final two punch combo. The short sharp left hook really raises Hironaka's head and sets the table for the coup de grace right hook to the jaw.
Here's Chris Nelson (who also found the fight):
On the right is a similar KO from last year, when Kikuno beat Koichiro Matsumoto to win the Deep lightweight title. His weird, pigeon-toed karate zombie stance was even more pronounced in this fight, and just like with Hironaka, he uses the crescent kick to set up the home run shot.
In this instance he totally crosses his feet while switching his stance to throw the left leg from the rear for more power. He lands the shot though and sends a stunned Matsumoto reeling into the ropes. From there Kikuno leaps forward with a huge overhand right to the jaw after briefly resetting his stance. He follows up with some perfunctory straight punches, but the matter had been decided already.
Bonus gif: Kikumo doing some Kyokushin kata before the match (gif by Bulletproof):
On the right we have a bonus gif of Kikumo demo'ing the crescent kick. Here's some info from wikipedia about the crescent kick:
The crescent kick, also referred to as a 'swing' kick, has some similarities to a hook kick, and is sometimes practised as an off-target front snap kick. The leg is bent like the front kick, but the knee is pointed at a target to the left or right of the true target. The energy from the snap is then redirected, whipping the leg into an arc and hitting the target from the side. This is useful for getting inside defenses and striking the side of the head or for knocking down hands to follow up with a close attack. In many styles of Tai Chi Chuan, crescent kicks are taught as tripping techniques. When training for crescent kicks, it is common to keep the knee extended to increase the difficulty. This also increases the momentum of the foot and can generate more force, though it takes longer to build up the speed.
The inward/inner/inside crescent hits with the instep. Its arch is clockwise for the left leg and counter-clockwise for the right leg. Force is generated by both legs' hip adduction. The inward variant has also been called a hangetsu geri (Crescent moon kick) in karate and is employed to "wipe" an opponents hand off of one's wrist. It can quickly be followed up by a low side-blade kick to the knee of the offender.
And here's a magazine photo showing the zombie/Sanchin Dachi stance: