Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Use of Ryukyu Martial Arts Techniques in MMA

I am happy to present an article by Noah Legel as the Ryukyu Martial Arts Blog's second guest-post.

Noah Legel a serious practitioner of the Ryukyu martial arts who has also successfully competed in MMA competition. In his blog (Budo no Kaizen), Noah has frequently mentioned examples of the use of old-style Ryukyu martial arts techniques in MMA events. Because of this, and his background, I asked him if he would be willing to contribute something on the topic to this blog. This great article is the result.

Classical Okinawan martial arts were not developed for competitive fighting against a similarly-trained opponent--this is a fact that most traditional martial artists will agree on. Most often, when this topic is discussed, it is mentioned that Itosu Anko said that karate was for use against “a villain or ruffian. “ Some even bring up that Motobu Choki said that karate was best used on someone who did not understand the strategies being used against him, and that “when fighting a boxer, it is better to go with his flow and take up a rhythm with both of your hands.”

These men, both masters in their own right, quite clearly stated how Okinawan arts were intended to be used. Despite that, however, there are many techniques and skills present in Okinawan arts that cross over into the competitive realm. Mixed martial arts competition, in particular, lends itself to the use of some classical methods, because of the open-fingered gloves and relatively relaxed ruleset. Over the past couple years, in particular, we have seen MMA fighters focus more on their striking skills, and this has brought some of those techniques to the fore.

Suki-Geri (Oblique/Shovel Kick)

Suki-geri, the oblique/shovel kick, is a staple technique within the Naihanchi kata. It is a rather close-range technique, and can be used to cause pain, off-balance your opponent, dislocate their knee, and more. All told, it is a very useful tool, but up until the past couple of years, it has been relatively obscure in the competitive fighting world. The range at which it is best used it between punching range and clinching range, and most fighters at this distance opt to; continue punching, enter the clinch, or shoot for a takedown. When UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, Jon Jones, started utilizing the kick in his fights, people started to take notice.

Around the same time, and increasingly thereafter, more fighters started adding it to their repertoire. Indeed, several fighters from the Jackson-Winkeljohn camp (where Jon Jones trains) were among the first to showcase it in high level MMA competition. Currently, this kick is being used at the end of its effective range, and for the same reason fighters tend to throw the front thrust kick--to discourage and stop an opponent from closing the distance. For long-legged fighters like Jones, this works well. I suspect that, over time, we will see it being used in the clinch, and to wear away at the legs the way roundhouse kicks to the thigh are currently used. Strikes directly to the joint are technically illegal (at least in much amateur competition), but most fighters can get away with them, so we may see a rise in injuries if this kick becomes more popular and they choose to use it in that manner.

Tsumasaki-Geri (Toe-Tip Kick)

Kicking with the tips of the toes is a skill that requires a lot of dedication to conditioning, so it stands to reason that it would not be a popular striking method in competitive fighting. Fighters typically train in cycles, and need techniques that can be quickly utilized in competition. As MMA has progressed, some of the more experienced fighters have been able to put in the training time to start using tsumasaki-geri. Japanese fighter, Kikuno Katsunori has used it to some degree, as has Lyoto Machida.

Most recently, Erick Silva has used it with greater success, dropping several opponents with kicks to the body using the tips of his toes. The longer people train for competition, the more likely they are to utilize techniques that are more complicated, or take more training. This technique may never become extremely popular, but I suspect we will continue to see it from time to time.

Sasae-Uchi (Supported Strikes)

We are all taught about "The Five Senses," when we are children, but in truth, there are far more "senses" than that. One of them is the sense of "body awareness"--that is, knowing where your body parts are in space without seeing them. This sense can be used to make striking a moving target much easier. If you were to close your eyes and hold out your hand at a random point in the air, you could slap it with your other hand quite easily. The same is true if you put that hand on your opponent's head. Wherever their head moves, your hand moves, and wherever your hand is, your other hand can find it.

In the heat of combat, this awareness gives you a shortcut to accuracy, and negates the need for clear vision—something that you may not have, between the adrenaline-induced tunnel vision, taking punches to the face, and getting sweat and blood in your eyes. This also has the added benefit of being able to push and pull your opponent into your strikes for greater effect. In Muay Thai (the most popular striking art for mixed martial artists to study) this is most often done from a "single collar tie," striking with the elbow; a technique we can see in Naihanchi. Now, we are seeing more fighters use the same technique for punches and kicks, as well, and I suspect that trend will continue. It becomes particularly useful when your opponent is dazed, attempting to clinch, or being overly defensive.

Tuidi (Standing Joint Locks)

Classical Okinawan martial arts make use of standing joint locks (classified as "tuidi") in conjunction with strikes and takedowns. This aspect of these arts is less widely-known than the striking aspect, but plays a valuable role in enhancing the strikes and takedowns. A seemingly large number of martial artists, both inside and outside the karate community, believe that these techniques are too impractical to use, and so they have neglected them. As the striking in mixed martial arts competition evolves, so will the trapping and grip-fighting aspects. It is in this realm that tuidi is most useful--using your opponent's grip and resistance against them.

Unlike the joint locks that are commonly taught for combat sports, tuidi is typically a means to an end, as most tuidi-waza are not intended to be submission holds. Instead, they are used to wrench the joint to cause pain and damage, before moving on to other techniques if the opponent continues to fight. Sometimes, they are used in judo as a distraction, despite being technically illegal, and widely regarded as ineffective. Aoki Shinya used a tuidi technique found in the "stacked hands" position of Naihanchi during his fight with Keith Wisniewski in the Japanese MMA organization, Shooto. That technique ended the fight immediately. More recently, Frank Mir and Jon Jones have both made use of a shoulder-wrench found in Naihanchi Sandan. This is something that I expect to increase in popularity as fighters realize that the context within which they can be utilized does exist within MMA.

Muchimidi (Sticky Hands)

In this case, I am using "muchimidi" in a very general sense, to refer to fighters using their hands/forearms to trap, jam, follow, and grip-fight with their opponents. This is an aspect of fighting that has been largely ignored within mixed martial arts competition, due to the fact that emphasis is placed on clinching range and punching range, without addressing the area in between. Typically, if fighters do anything other than continue to throw punches at this range, they will either back away, try to close the distance to clinching range, or shoot in for takedowns. These are much easier strategies than muchimidi, and require less training to be effective, so they are very popular strategies. If any hand trapping had been going on, it was mostly hikite (pulling hand) being used to move an opponent’s guard out of the way, but even that hasn’t been popular until recently.

Over the past couple of years, however, we have seen the rise of muchimidi in MMA. Jon Jones likes to use it, because of his reach, to keep his opponents in elbow range, but that is a very rudimentary use of the concept. UFC Bantamweight Champion, TJ Dillashaw, uses it to jam his opponent's lead hand, forcing them to punch with the other and making it easier for him to defend against, which is a more complex usage. The most extensive use of trapping in mixed martial arts, recently, has been by Robbie Lawler and Matt Brown. Both fighters have a tendency to grab at their opponents' hands, follow the hands, and jam strikes. When they fought each other, this hand-fighting was especially prevalent. As fighters improve their striking and clinchwork, I suspect we will see more of them venturing into this middle ground of "trapping range." That will bring with it a rise in tuidi-waza, supported strikes, and close range strikes, such as the ones described here, as they fit very well into this area of fighting.
Be sure to checkout Noah's excellent blog Budo no Kaizen
Noah Legel trains and teaches at the Peaceful Warrior Martial Arts & Healing Center


  1. Makes you wonder that if old Ryukyu karate techniques are being used as one trains longer in MMA, then perhaps straight up kung fu may start to be used later. Uechi Ryu mainly uses the toe kick.

  2. Karate deserves to be in the Olympics much more than Taekwondo does.

    The thing is, it's just the matter of choosing which style is going to be the one used.

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  4. Karate is not a sport its taught as self defence and I hope it never gets to be like taekwondo :)

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  6. Thanks to author for this post and I think after long term research author could able to share this information on martial arts history and current position. As I am new about the martial arts and don't have much idea about its history and technique but by this post gain lots of knowledge about the martial arts. For now I am practicing on karate in a karate institute and also have an own guide as "Shotokan - All Kata of Karate" purchasing from WKC Martial Arts Supplies.

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  14. Suki-geri kick that rory and condit throw is a thing of beuty. Wish I could see it utilized more in MMA. Great article!

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