When fans of combat sports think of the first karate fighter in MMA, they may think of Lyoto Machida. This is because popular martial arts lore results from tribalism, hype, and commercialism.
This blog post is about the father of full-contact karate. I will explain how his style has been present in mixed martial arts since the very beginning.
The father of full-contact karate was born in southern Korea in 1923. His name was Masutatsu (Mas) Oyama. His martial arts training began at the age of 12 in the southern Chinese martial art “Eighteen Hands.” When Mas Oyama was older he continued his training in Shotokan Karate and Judo. Due to his intensity, Mas Oyama earned a high rank in both systems in a short time.
Mas Oyama was so dedicated to his training that he retreated to the wilderness to devote his life to it. He trained 12 hours a day, meditated under ice cold waterfalls, and pounded trees with his fists. After several years, he returned to civilization.
Mas Oyama began to make a name for himself in the 1950’s. This is when he began demonstrating his power by fighting bulls. He fought 52 bulls, 3 of which he killed with his bare hands.
Mas Oyama became world famous after traveling to the United States. He took on all challengers through the 1950’s, resulting in 270 challenges. His approach to fighting was like a samurai’s. He tried to disable his opponent with every strike. Thus, his fights never lasted more than a few minutes, and he earned the nickname “Godhand."
His most famous feat is when he completed a 300 man kumite. That's when he fought 300 people in a single event. No one has completed this test of endurance since Mas Oyama.
Mas Oyama began to call his system Kyokushinkai Karate in the 1950's. This translates to “Ultimate Truth” in English.
Mas Oyama was intent on proving his fighting system was the strongest in the world. It didn’t take long for a rivalry between Muay Thai and Kyokushinkai Karate to develop. In the 1960's Mas Oyama sent his top blackbelts to Thailand to test his system against Muay Thai. These contests marked the beginning of the of modern sport of Japanese Kickboxing. The limitations of traditional karate were plain in Kyokushinkais early experiments. Mas Oyama and his protege, Kenji Kurosaki, adapted the art for full-contact fighting.
Two combat sports formed from these adaptations. The first is Kyokushinkais traditional competitive format called Knockdown. It's bare knuckle but disallows punches and elbows to the head. Full power kicks and knees are allowed to the legs, head, and body. Many offshoots of Kyokushinkai Karate compete in Knockdown today.
The second combat sport is Japanese Kickboxing. Japanese Kickboxing is often mistaken for Muay Thai. But, Japanese Kickboxing is more mobile, they don’t throw elbows, and they’re better at punching. The premier Japanese Kickboxing promotion in the 1990’s and 2000’s was the K-1.
Another style worth mentioning is Dutch Kickboxing. Dutch Kickboxing is the best-known style of Kickboxing in the Western world. In the 1970's Dutch Kyokushinkai blackbelts fused Kyokushin Karate, Muay Thai, and western boxing. Dutch kickboxers are aggressive, and they throw stinging punch combinations punctuated by powerful kicks.
You might be wondering about that other style of kickboxing. You know, the one where they wear Hammer pants and booty’s. That’s not Kickboxing. That’s American full-contact karate and it has a separate history. American karate-ka's who grew tired of losing over technicalities created American full-contact karate
Technicalities like the one that happened in the Olympics this year inspired American full-contact karate.
Kyokushin karate has been present in mixed martial arts since the beginning. Royce Gracie defeated a Kyokushinkai Karate fighter to win the first UFC. You may remember Gerard Gordeau from the event. Gordeau was billed as a savate fighter because he won a savate championship a year earlier. But, his real style was Kyokushinkai Karate.
Other Kyokushinkai Karate blackbelts from mixed martial arts are George St. Pierre, Guy Mezger, Bas Rutten and Uriah Hall.
What about Lyoto Machida?
Lyoto is from Shotokan Karate. Unlike the Kyokushinkai fighters he had to adapt from non-contact karate. This is a difficult transition but his elusiveness gave him an advantage.
There’s a lot of trash talk in martial arts. Tribalism gets the best of people, and they don't see how everything interconnects. One time while training in a gym I overheard guy say, “Don’t train it that karate bro, do Kickboxing.” He clearly didn’t know the history of Kickboxing. If he did, he would know that Kickboxing evolved from karate. The father of full-contact karate is Mas Oyama and his protégé Kenji Kurosaki