Please note: Whenever Karate is mentioned here-in, it refers to the movement based point style karate, and not to knockdown karate, whose emphasis is entirely different.
Lyoto Machida is as fine a striker as has ever stepped into the octagon. A master of movement and timing despite his limited move set and technically mediocre kickboxing, Machida has shown how much of striking is in the intangibles and not in how pretty one's technique looks on it's own. In my humble opinion, Lyoto Machida's performances against Thiago Silva and Rashad Evans are the two striking performances which came closest to true perfection. Against elite level competition Lyoto left both matches almost untouched and with knockout victories on his record - no-one can argue that this isn't the objective of traditional striking martial arts.
As a passionate karateka since infancy, I have had the pleasure of training with a great many of the Machida family's competitive opponents and have been saving my thoughts on Lyoto Machida until I feel I can begin to do his style justice on paper. I even excluded Lyoto Machida from my first ebook, Advanced Striking, with the intention of saving a detailed examination of his technique for a second volume - simply so that I could articulate his style as completely as possible. With his meeting with heavy handed wrestler, Ryan Bader approaching, I felt that it was time I broke down some of the subtlety of karate to Bloody Elbow readers.
The first thing to establish is that in karate, the reverse punch is king. This is the right straight for an orthodox fighter or the left straight for a southpaw fighter (often mistakenly called the "cross"). The reverse punch is known as gyaku-zuki in Japanese, and landing it is the single most practiced facet of Shotokan karate. Training at the Japan Karate Association headquarters in Tokyo, I must have been counted through well over two hundred thousand reverse punches by various instructors in my brief few months there - not to mention in my private training.
Gyaku-zuki is seen as the heart of karate-do, and it is certainly the heart of Lyoto Machida's fighting style. A strong reverse punch alone does not make a good fighter however, and I have encountered dozens of karateka in my travels who have believed themselves to be competent martial artists but have fallen apart terribly when movement and "aliveness" is added. Indeed, many karateka do not even engage in Jiyu Kumite or free sparring all that often.
The genius of Machida lies in his timing - which can usually be defined under the Japanese concepts of Go-No-Sen or Sen-No-Sen. Go-No-Sen is the act of taking the initiative after an opponent's attack, blocking the opponent's strike and striking back as they recover - such Lyoto famously used against Sam Hoger, or even as Rampage used in his block and hook against Wanderlei Silva. Sen-No-Sen, however, is the highest level of skill in karate and all striking arts - the act of taking the initiative by attacking simultaneously with the opponent.
It is Lyoto's application of Sen-No-Sen that we will discuss after the jump.
The traditional ideal of Sen-No-Sen is to begin your attack simulteneous to your opponent's and land first. A more practical use is to take your head or body off the opponent's line of attack as you attack, so that their punch cannot land on you after yours has on them. It was famously seen by Bruce Lee as the pinnacle of martial arts perfection and he named his own philosophy The Way of the Intercepting Fist to reflect this. Anderson Silva's counter jab against Okami, BJ Penn's counter jab against any number of his opponents, and Alistair Overeem's cross counter can all be considered applications of Sen-No-Sen, but few utilize it as purely and as frequently as Machida does with his Sen-No-Sen Gyaku Zuki.
It should be noted that Lyoto's elite striking comes almost entirely from his timing and distance or maai, and not from his technically strong boxing or kickboxing fundamentals - in fact his hooks are wooden and his non-punching hand is almost always moving towards his hip rather than it is defending his jaw. The Japanese martial arts, for the most part, tend to focus on the intangibles of basic technique. The Japanese judo team are the most practiced in the world from the standard collar and sleeve grips, but they, on the whole, dislike unorthodox grips and the move to ban pick-ups from international competition has largely been attributed to the Japanese distaste for their practice. Karate is much the same. Hours and hours are spent practicing the basics and learning to land the gyaku-zuki without much care given to combinations or set ups - only to timing and feints.
Lyoto Machida has held excellent timing since he first burst onto the Mixed Martial Arts stage, and though his technique, footwork and comfort in the octagon continue to improve, his timing has remained the focal point of his style. Against the undefeated UFC veteran, Rich Franklin, a young Lyoto Machida looked rigid and uncomfortable in the ring, but his excellent timing enabled him to step in with his gyaku-zuki and stun Franklin as the Ohioan stepped forward with a combination. Lyoto followed by finishing Franklin with a front kick to the face along the ropes (almost ten years before Anderson Silva's front kick KO of Vitor Belfort).
Lyoto has picked up on Franklin's non-commital jab, behind which Franklin steps in hoping to throw bigger power shots. As he steps in, Lyoto immediately moves in also, lands his own left straight, and crashes in chest to chest with Franklin. From here, realizing that Franklin is hurt, Lyoto shucks his opponent off and drives him towards the ropes. As a southpaw, Lyoto normally encounters orthodox fighters. The goal of elite level striking is not to spam combinations at an opponent as they move back or stand still, but to cause collisions by luring the opponent in then stepping in as they do.
When an orthodox and a southpaw fighter meet it makes what was called by Shotokan great Masahiko Tanaka, an open guard. This is due to the combatants lead feet forming a sort of barrier, so that most of the action takes place at a greater distance than it would in a closed guard - where the two fighters are in the same stance. In an open guard, the rear hand is key, and with a small lean to the the outside of the opponent's front foot, a counter gyaku zuki can be thrown with little fear of repercussion. Notice in this storyboard, as Lyoto counters Rashad Evans' 1 - 2, that as he parries Rashad's jab and throws his own gyaku zuki, after he has landed, his head is already off line, so that Rashad's dazed second punch flies straight over Lyoto's shoulder.
It is important to notice that Lyoto fails to keep his right hand up. This is a habit from his competitive karate background, where points are only scored if the non-punching hand is drawn back to the hip in hikite. It is fine against fighters in the opposite stance to Lyoto (who will happily switch to accommodate his gameplan). As you can see, Rashad is in no position to throw a left hook as Lyoto counters him.
Jon Jones was the first fighter to truly exploit Lyoto's lack of disciplined boxing technique. Against Shogun, in their second meeting, Machida became overconfident and threw a punch from too close in, allowing Shogun's instinctive swing to travel over the top in a chance "cross counter". But this was more Machida's mistake that Shogun's effectively setting him up. Jon Jones, however, switched to the same stance as Lyoto whenever possible, and had success landing his rear hook as a result. The finishing strike of the fight (which effectively secured the guillotine for Jones) was an excellent faked kick from Jones, which he turned into a rear hand hook. As Lyoto dived in to counter the kick with his rear hand, his lead hand was low - and Jones, being in the same stance, was able to connect a rear, left hook through the gap.
Notice above how Jones has faked his left kick, which Machida had stepped in and countered earlier in the bout, but instead throws a long, left hook. Rear hand hooks are rarely useful against decent boxers, but against Lyoto, who dives in with his lead hand low, it is perfect. If Machida could simply learn to keep his lead hand high when he dives for his counter, he could alleviate this major counter opportunity. If it remains low, however, he can still claim to be one of the best strikers in MMA history based on his timing and strategy alone.
Stay tuned on Bloody Elbow for my piece on the legendary Shogun - Machida matches later in the week. To learn more about elite level karate, check out the pieces on my blog and look out for news on my upcoming project, a guide to karate kumite. To learn more about the three initiatives - Sen, Sen-no-Sen, and Go-No-Sen, pick up Miyamoto Musashi's Book of Five Rings, or Masahiko Tanaka's Perfecting Kumite.
Pick up Advanced Striking and learn the striking techniques and strategies responsible for the success of 20 of the world's top boxers, kickboxers and MMA fighters.
Jack Slack blogs at www.FightsGoneBy.com.