Over the near 20 year history of the UFC, one of the dominant trends has been the relative ineffectiveness of more traditional stand-up martial arts forms. Once wrestling and jiu jitsu entered the picture, disciplines like karate, taekwondo, and aikido seemed out of place and outdated. But in recent years we have seen a change in this area. Led by the highly successful karate of Lyoto Machida, more and more traditional striking arts are making their way back into MMA, and they're having great success.
At UFC 145 this weekend, we'll see some of those disciplines in action as three of the company's most interesting strikers compete. Kenpo karate practitioner Stephen Thompson takes on Matt Brown, and two fascinating strikers meet as taekwondo representative John Makdessi faces Muay Thai stylist Anthony Njokuani. All three men bring something unique to the table in terms of stand-up, and it will be intriguing to see them all together on one card.
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Makdessi's fight with Dennis Hallman showed that stand-up alone can't carry you to UFC gold, though Machida proved that it can be the cornerstone of a complete game. As we watch these three fighters this weekend, I have to ask - are these the new faces of MMA striking? Is this return to traditional martial arts what will carry MMA striking forward in coming years? It's too early to say at the moment, but these men could be on the vanguard, and I look forward to seeing how each one responds to the moment this weekend.
To get you excited about seeing these strikers in action, read the full article for a breakdown of each man's stand-up skill.
The 9-1 Makdessi started his martial arts training at an early age, focusing on Taekwondo at first. He's since added both shotokan karate and kickboxing to his skill-set, but taekwondo remains the basis for his MMA stand-up game. Makdessi is a shotokan karate black belt, a USA Kick-Boxing Association Gold Medalist, and trains under Firas Zahabi. He made an impressive UFC debut in 2010, taking Pat Audinwood apart with a beautiful array of Taekwondo strikes, which Kid Nate and I examined in a Judo Chop. Here's a portion of that Chop:
One of the chief techniques Makdessi employs is the side kick. You see this kick used from time to time, but it's rare in MMA that you see anyone use it as effectively as Makdessi does here. The side kick is typically thrown from the lead leg, turning your body so that you are perpendicular to your opponent's body. Often it's used almost like a jab, or a front kick, as a way to keep your opponent back. Makdessi uses it in the much more aggressive style. The key to his technique is in his rear leg. Note the way Makdessi jumps forward with his rear leg before throwing the kick. He brings that back leg all the way up to where his front leg was, while at the same time throwing that front leg as the kick. This gives him the momentum to kick through Audinwood, so that the point of impact on his kick is far past Audinwood's body.
Style: Kenpo Karate
Thompson is the new kid on the block here, fighting in just his 2nd UFC bout at UFC 145. He's competed in Kenpo karate and kickboxing events for years, picking up a wide array of accolades along the way. He made his UFC debut at UFC 143, immediately turning heads with his KO of Dan Stittgen. Again, KJ Gould and I covered this in a Judo Chop, and here's what we had to say:
In Karate and other Japanese arts, the names for moves are often descriptive of the entire process and end result. For example, Geri means 'Kick', Mawashi can refer to 'circular' or 'roundhouse', and the part of the body that's used such as Haisoku meaning 'instep'.
The technique Thompson used then can logically be called an instep roundhouse kick or Haisoku Mawashi Geri. As it was aimed at and hit the head or Jodan, it could also be called a Haisoku Jodan Mawashi Geri.
It's been debated by some that Thompson threw his kick low first and switched it to kick high much like the Brazilian / Question Mark Kick. However after a closer look I myself believe the kick was simply 'chambered' in the karate style, and through Thompson's hip mobility he was able to bring it up and over the shoulder.
Some kickboxing coaches are against chambering - the bending at the knee before the extension - due to the decrease in power that can be achieved compared to a straight roundhouse which is like an iron bar coming up from the ground. The benefit of chambering though is the smaller space and closer proximity a kick to the same target can be executed within, and sometimes the surprise element makes up for the lack of power. Power is great, accuracy with enough power is better.
In the case of Thompson it appeared it was his lead leg that landed, rather than an all out power kick from the rear you'd usually associate with Muay Thai. However on closer look after he retracted his kick he brought it down rather than back and switched stances to compensate, so his right leg became his lead. In other words at the beginning of the sequence he was in orthodox stance, and by the end he was in southpaw stance.
Style: Muay Thai
WEC veteran Njokuani is not quite the same traditional striker as Thompson and Makdessi, but he's still incredibly skilled and entertaining. He uses Muay Thai as his base, though I would consider it more of the MMA style of Muay Thai rather than the pure style used in Muay Thai fights. He's had mixed success, going just 5-5 in the WEC and UFC combined, but he puts on very fun fights every time, earning 4 separate bonuses. Here's a bit more on his style from Dallas Winston's UFC 141 and UFC 132 Dissections:
Anthony Njokuani, a student of Muay Thai legend Saekson Janjira, is a dynamic and aggressive striker with fan-friendly kickboxing tactics. Vicious low kicks, punches and spinning-everythings have become an expected delicacy when he finds his range and rhythm.
Anthony Njokuani's creativity and unpredictability are probably his best assets.
Drawing from an extensive array of Thai-based techniques, Njokuani weaves together a cryptic assembly of everything but the kitchen sink. Elbows, spinning back-elbows, straight and roundhouse kicks (from every direction and landing at every level), and the whole enchilada of punches make him extremely difficult to plan for.
Instead of trying to anticipate what clever amalgam of strikes he might braid together, it's easier to expect anything and everything, with shooting for a takedown being the only affront to scratch off the list.