Why do some styles of Kickboxing transition well to MMA and some don’t?...It’s all kicking and punching, right? Kickboxing is a catch all term used to describe any stand up striking art that allows both kicks and punches as legal strikes to your opponent. Some styles allow knees and elbows. Some allow clinching and throwing. Lets explore some of the most popular styles, and see how they relate to MMA.
FULL CONTACT KARATE. Karate (I am including Tae Kwon Do here) has long been the most popular Eastern Martial Art practiced in the United States. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of styles. Some styles place more emphasis on kicking than punching, but for the most part the way kicks and punches are set and delivered is very similar. Most everyone who has ever sparred in Karate class has done so under the points rule. Basically as soon as a clean strike is landed both fighters reset and go again. Usually it’s three points is a win. Think of the Karate Kid movie. Tournament rules for Karate can vary greatly. Some allow light contact to the head, some no contact to the head. Knee and elbow strikes are not allowed, and you are not allowed to clinch. Also contact can only be made with the fists or the feet.
Professional Full Contact rules (also called American Kickboxing) can also vary. For the most part if a contest is called Full Contact Karate then the rules don’t allow leg kicks. Punches and kicks are to the body and head only. Clinching is not allowed and if the fighters don’t break quickly they are separated. Think of it as Boxing that allows kicks. Early Pro Karate fights had rules in place that said you were not allowed to throw more than three hand strikes in a row without throwing a kick. This rule came about because fights would degenerate into boxing matches if the fighters didn’t have to use kicks. Why this occurred is one of the reasons that Full Contact Karate is not seen as a good base for MMA completion.
The fighters , coming from a (points) karate base, would face each other bladed off. This makes sidekicks easy, but roundhouse kicks are slow, also they were not really used to complex punching and kicking combinations. Remember in points karate you reset after a strike lands. So after a kick the fighters would find themselves in close quarters, with no clinching allowed, a boxing match would then break out. As Full Contact Karate evolved the fighters began to adjust their stance so the bladed style is not seen as much, but the overall rule set is still limiting to a fighter trying to make a transition to MMA. No elbows, knees, leg strikes or clinch fighting would not prepare you for an MMA fight. There are fighters who have come from a Karate background and had some success, but for the most part they are the exception.
SANDA. ( Also called SanShou) Sanda, means “free fighting”. The Sanda rule set was developed by the Chinese military. The Soviets also developed a similar style called Draka for their military. In the West SanShou and Sanda are both used interchangeably. Also you will hear people in the West call it Wushu, but most Chinese speakers that I know only use Sanda. Confused yet? Let me break it down. Wushu means Kung Fu. Wushu encompasses all aspects of Kung Fu, forms, weapons, and sparing. So if you are at a Wushu tournament and you are going to compete in sparing, you are going to do Sanda.
The other difference I have noted is in the rules. Most Athletic Commissions in the States sanction SanShou rules fights. These fights do not allow elbows (some do not allow knees either). Sanda rules fights do allow elbows and knees. Both rules allow for throws, takedowns and sweeps.
Traditional Sanda/Sanshou fights occurred on a Lei Tai. This is a raised platform with no ropes or other barrier to keep fighters from falling off. The rules say if you fall of the platform your opponent scores a point. It doesn’t matter if you were pushed, thrown, knocked or simply stumbled off. This platform plays a significant role in how Sanda fighters act and react during a fight.
No matter what style of fight you are in if you are in a ring or cage you can use it. If you are being out struck by your opponent you can clinch him and drive him into the ropes to stop his assault. If you are out striking your opponent you can use the cage or ring to pin him down to continue your attack. However on a Lei Tai you must constantly be moving and you must be moving at angles. If you stand still you will be bull rushed off the platform. If you rush an opponent straight on you could be sidestepped and tripped off the platform. When you clinch, you must quickly work for a throw or disengage because if you do not you can be maneuvered off the platform. Think of Dominick Cruz and you see how a fighter on a Lei Tai must constantly be moving.
So, how does this translate to MMA? Sanda is an excellent base for MMA. It allows for leg strikes, clinch knees and elbows. Furthermore it allows for all the common throws, takedowns and standing sweeps seen in MMA. One thing I have noticed is Sanda fighters actually have poor takedown defense as needed for MMA. I believe it is the Sanda rules that lead to this. A clinch can only last 5 seconds. After that the Ref will break it. So the takedowns are lightning fast, but if you can stall it for 5 seconds you are OK. In MMA you clinch and work or drive a takedown for much longer periods. Sanda fighters don’t need to pummel or fight for under hooks.
Right now there are not a lot of top MMA fighters who come from a traditional Sanda base. Eduard Folayang that fights in ONE FC is a prominent Sanda fighter. He has competed and medaled at the World Wushu Championships and several other international events. Cung Le is probably the best known SanShou Champion to compete in MMA, but he is not a classically trained Sanda fighter. He holds a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and was a Junior College wrestling champion. He took those to skill sets and adapted them quite well to the SanShou rule set. In fact, some of his Pro fights were actually held under Draka rules.
MUAY THAI. Muay Thai is the traditional kickboxing style of Thailand. Muay Thai had its first large scale exposure in the United Sates with the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie KICKBOXER. I was 18 when Kickboxer came out and had been studying Karate for 7 years. My friends and I were blown away. Who ever imagined that you would strike with your shins that way? That movie made Muay Thai seem like some ancient killing art and we were enthralled. The reality is not far from that perception.
Muay Thai allows for strikes from the elbows, knees, fists, and legs. Strikes are allowed to the legs, body and head. Clinching is allowed, and strikes from the clinch are common (knees and elbows). Takedowns are not allowed but foot sweeps are (foot to foot).
So how does Muay Thai relate to MMA? Very Well. Most modern MMA fighters use Muay Thai as their standup base. All Muay Thai strikes are allowed in MMA completion. In a Muay Thai fight the clinch is not broken by the ref just as in MMA. The Muay Thai stance is more squared off, which aids in takedown defense in an MMA fight. Overall, Muay Thai is an excellent choice for an MMA fighter to train.
INTERNATIONAL RULES (K-1). International Rules Kickboxing is the rule set used in K-1 and It’s Showtime events. K-1 rules allows for leg kicks. It also allows for limited clinch fighting. One strike is allowed if both hands are around your opponents neck. Most clinches are quickly broken. No elbows are allowed. Kicks can land with the foot or the shin.
K-1 rules is the most popular style of Pro Kickboxing in Europe. Many K-1 rules fighters have transitioned to MMA. Just as in Muay Thai, all K-1 rules strikes are allowed in MMA. International Rules fighters mostly suffer from their lack of takedown defense and clinch fighting skills.
So what style makes the best base for MMA. Overall style wise, I think Sanda would be the best , but Muay Thai has proven to be very effective. In the end it really comes down to the fighter.
Thanks for reading.