UFC On Fox 4 Judo Chop: Lyoto Machida's Tai-Sabaki

Earlier this week I examined Lyoto Machida's use of simulteneous counters and introduced the Japanese concepts of Sen, Sen-No-Sen, and Go-No-Sen. As a passionate karateka since my infancy I was reluctant for a long time to write in great detail about Lyoto Machida because I was worried that 1) I wouldn't be able to do him justice, and 2) my view might be biased due to my strong affection for Shotokan karate. Given how well the first piece was received, many readers never having had the chance to learn traditional strategy, I feel encouraged to further analyze Lyoto's style. Where last time we examined Lyoto's use of Sen-No-Sen, or a simultaneous counter-attack, in this edition we will be looking at Lyoto's use of Tai-Sabaki, or body movement, and Go-No-Sen; countering as the opponent recovers.

It is no secret that Machida is one of the most gifted counter-fighters in the MMA today, and indeed ever. No-one uses bread and butter counters through elite timing with the same consistency and frequency. As I observed in the last article, Lyoto's boxing is below par in many respects; his non-punching hand is almost always down by his hip rather than guarding his chin but Machida's movement is the best of anyone in the UFC. It has enabled him to become an elite light heavyweight despite a lack of reach and a smaller stature than many light heavyweight competitors.

To describe Tai-Sabaki I will turn to one of my favourite texts; Masahiko Tanaka's Perfecting Kumite. I rate Tanaka as one of the greatest karateka of all time, a multiple time All Japan champion, who retired to coach the Japanese team, before returning from retirement to take first place in the All Japan one last time. My travels to Japan were largely aimed towards and highlighted by training with the great man. Tanaka described Tai Sabaki to me in person in a joking American accent as "movement of the bawdy", but I feel his account in Perfecting Kumite might give a more comprehensive definition of this concept.

"Most attacks in Karate-Do are straight movements like Mae-geri [Front Snap Kick] and Gyaku-zuki [Reverse Punch]. Tai-sabaki means to leave this direct line of an attack. As you move towards the outside, you execute a direct counterattack. This is the difference between Tai-sabaki and just moving to the left or right."

Tae-Sabaki then, is the delivery of one of karate's linear attacks, from an angle that is off of the opponent's line of attack. It may be used as an offensive, but is more often used as a counter to stop the opponent in his tracks, or evade his first attack and strike him before his second. Lyoto Machida uses Tai-sabaki masterfully on opponents who are proven knockout artists, and this is truly the highest level of the skill.

We will continue to examine Lyoto's Tai-sabaki after the jump.

There have been numerous notable examples of Lyoto Machida utilizing evasion techniques, but just a few moments where he has utilized a Tai-Sabaki counterattack, and these have often devastated his opponents. My personal favourite was the counter-flurry that he employed during his fight against Brazilian brawler, Thiago Silva. This fight was, to my mind, the most perfect striking performance in mixed martial arts to date, as Lyoto out-moved and out-thought the larger, stronger man and dropped him repeatedly without a mark to show from the encounter.


In the above storyboard the hard punching Silva is attempting to mount an offense against the evasive Machida; walking him down and throwing a right straight (the go to offense against a southpaw). Machida springs offline to his own left, moving behind the elbow side of Silva's extended right arm, where Silva can mount no effective offense (top right frame). From here Machida immediately drives off of his left foot with a left straight (bottom left frame) and steps through with a right straight down the middle, dropping Silva as the latter is on one leg, attempting to turn to face Machida's assault (bottom right frame).

The wonderful thing about using Tae-sabaki, or taking an angle in general, is that a fighter can strike through the opponent's defenses, which are set up to block attacks from directly in front. If the opponent turns to face the fighter who has taken the angle, it is easy to land a strike through the turning opponent's guard as he is focused on turning.


Here, in his rather uneventful bout against Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson, Machida initiates the only meaningful exchange of the night using Tae-Sabaki. In the first frame (top left) you can see that Machida has already hopped slightly to his left; his lead foot is inside of Ramapge's and his rear foot is far outside of Rampage's rear foot. Machida is at an angle where Rampage will struggle to hit him using his hips (particularly as Machida is far away from Jackson's money punch, the left hook). As Rampage begins to adjust his position Machida begins his strike from the angle (top right). While Jackson flails back he is not able to throw powerful shots and as you can see in the third frame (bottom left), Jackson's feet are directly under him, providing no pushing force, while Machida is driving off of his back leg. Machida follows through with a right punch, stepping forward again, and Jackson is forced to back up, unable to mount a meaningful counter-offense (bottom right). Even if an opponent turns to face you once you have taken an angle, he will not have re-established his stance and will lack power until he is completely back in position.

This spring to the left, then driving off of the left foot with hard punch is a staple of Machida's style. While against Rampage and Silva, Machida's technique remained exactly the same, his method of employing it was different. Against Silva, Machida took his angle to avoid Silva's punch, then came in with a counter attack as Silva recovered (Go-No-Sen), against Rampage, he used the spring to the left to make Rampage pivot to face him, and as Rampage pivoted, Lyoto struck him. This is an excellent example of how it is not the appearance and mechanics of a technique or combination that make an elite striker, but the intangibles, such as timing and anticipation. It is these intangibles that high level, legitimate karate training instills.

Support Jack Slack by linking to this article wherever possible and by picking up his book Advanced Striking, which breaks down the techniques of 20 of the world's greatest strikers from boxing, kickboxing and MMA.

Jack Slack blogs at Fights Gone By.

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