Lyoto Machida and the Revenge of Karate

By Jake Rossen May 18, 2009
Saturday, Lyoto Machida may well wind up finishing what Minoki Ichihara started.

Ichihara, if not the pioneering karateka to step into a mixed-rules ring, was certainly the first to do it for the benefit of a television satellite truck. An elite daido juku fighter in Japan -- a hybrid of judo and kyokushin karate -- Ichihara admitted himself in the 16-man draw of the second Ultimate Fighting Championship in March 1994.

Stout, serious and possessed of Bluto-like forearms, he was eager to meet Royce Gracie, whom he had watched and admired during the first tournament. Like Gracie, Ichihara sported a gi. Unlike Gracie, he was unaware it did him more harm than good: Gracie used it to choke him into submission after five minutes of protracted struggling.

Because UFC II’s success on VHS made it the viral video of its time, karate’s combat impotence was not an easy thing to keep a tarp over. As events wore on, the idea that someone who spent a portion of the day in kata or in stilted, mechanical fight posture would be an effective antidote to the Gracies -- or later, the wrestlers, kickboxers and now wrestler-kickboxer hybrids -- became laughable. Traditional arts were relics, sneered at by fight fans who knew better. Fights were won or lost based on the time spent gathering mat burn, not perfecting cinderblock parlor tricks.

But everything comes back in style eventually. (Possible exception: Zubaz.) Ichihara had fought blindfolded: His karate had no prior knowledge of what waited for him in the ring. Like all styles, it learned. The wrestlers used to beat up the kickboxers until the kickboxers learned to defend themselves on the ground; the wrestlers started getting beat up by the kickboxers until their striking caught up. Now everyone can wrestle and kick, and the better athlete usually wins.

The advent of the athlete -- as opposed to the stylist -- in the past 10 years created narrow opportunity for karate to make cameo appearances in fights, but only under the control of cross-trained competitors. Shonie Carter whipping a spinning back fist out of his pocket against Matt Serra in 2001 was a condition of his kickboxing and wrestling proficiency. He was in control of the fight, so he could get cute. You have to know the rules before you can start breaking them.

No traditionalist has validated that to greater effect than Lyoto Machida, who is taking his 14-0 record into a Saturday title bout with Rashad Evans, also undefeated at 9-0-1.

Machida is not a “karate fighter” in the sense Ichihara was; he’s trained extensively in jiu-jitsu, muay Thai and other styles to help complete his library of martial arts. What makes Machida a story is his footwork and defensive posturing, which is classically old-fashioned. And that’s frustrating, because the sledgehammer-swinging combat hybrid fighter of 2009 doesn’t go into a gym and practice mounting or defending attacks with hands low and chins up. For them, Machida’s style might as well be pluto-fu.

It’s a blend of technique that’s had answers for everyone from Rich Franklin (good striker with Western sensibilities) to Thiago Silva (jiu-jitsu, aggression) to Tito Ortiz (power, power, power). The only question left is the one Evans is more than capable of asking: What happens when an explosive wrestler decides he doesn’t want to keep swinging at air -- he wants to plant you on your ass and pummel until you sneeze bone fragments?

It’s a great question -- Evans/Machida holds more interest for me than any fight so far this year -- and the answer is going to have real influence on how aspiring fighters choose to train. When Royce Gracie proved his style’s efficacy in a real fight, schools began painting “and jiu-jitsu” in their front windows. Ichihara might find considerable irony in MMA franchises forced to add “and karate” to their yellow page ads.

Toiling in some putrid gym somewhere right now is a guy building a base of wrestling and kickboxing who’s going to start ending fights with some bizarre krav maga or kung fu mysticism. And it’ll work only because being eccentric in the ring comes with having a contemporary base.

When you can meet someone at his own game and not be disassembled by your own ignorance, you can begin to impart your own. Machida has figured this out. Now it’s up for everyone else to figure him out.

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