Saturday, May 23, 2009

Lyoto in the New York Times

Normally I don't pay any attention to that liberal rag but this is Lyoto!

When Lyoto Machida faces Rashad Evans for the Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight title on Saturday, his greatest asset may be something long scoffed at in American mixed martial arts: a black belt in karate.
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In two years in the U.F.C., Lyoto Machida, top, has yet to lose a round, let alone a fight.

Machida, a native of Brazil and a son of a Japanese karate instructor, is not the first karate expert to vie for a mixed martial arts title. Yet more than anyone else in the sport’s short history, he has effectively used karate techniques — along with those of other disciplines — to confuse, avoid and dominate his opponents. In two years in the U.F.C., he has yet to lose a round, let alone a fight.

That success, martial arts experts said, is refurbishing karate’s long-tarnished reputation among U.F.C. fans and reinventing American notions of what it means to be a mixed martial artist.

“If you asked M.M.A. fans five years ago what they thought of karate, they would probably snicker,” said Jake Rossen, the editor of Real Fighter Magazine, a mixed martial arts publication. “If you ask 10 fans today, they would have to stop and think about it.”

Before 1993, when the first U.F.C. tournament introduced mixed martial arts to Americans, karate was largely considered a highly effective form of self-defense, martial arts experts said.

At the time, most Americans equated martial arts with the high-flying choreographed moves seen in kung fu films, which became popular in the 1970s.

“There was this idea of Asian people who could strike you down with one blow,” said Dayn DeRose, a longtime mixed martial artist and the owner of South Mountain Martial Arts in Madison, N.J. “We didn’t realize that was legend and myth.”

Daniel Schulmann, the owner of Tiger Schulmann’s Mixed Martial Arts, a chain of martial arts schools, recalled that “people were just mesmerized with Bruce Lee.”

“I don’t think they understood the difference between karate and kung fu and tae kwon do,” Schulmann said.

During the kung fu craze of the 1970s, karate schools popped up across the country. And in the 1980s, the popularity of movies like “The Karate Kid” and actors like Chuck Norris brought karate to the mainstream.

“I can remember being in elementary school and people saying, ‘Jean-Claude Van Damme can beat up anyone in the world,’ ” said Jordan Breen, a writer and radio host for, a mixed martial arts Web site.

As karate’s popularity grew, instructors began marketing their schools to parents of young children, emphasizing karate’s self-confidence building and disciplinary aspects.

“That’s where the money is,” said Adrian Serrano, a mixed martial artist and instructor in Milwaukee.

Yet not long after karate’s commercial popularity skyrocketed, its reputation among serious martial artists was dealt a big blow. In 1993, at the first U.F.C., Royce Gracie, the tournament’s smallest competitor and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, cruised through the competition by quickly wrestling his opponents to the ground and choking them until they quit.

With little to offer in terms of ground fighting technique, karate practitioners — along with other martial artists who had little grappling experience — lost handily. And they continued to do so in later tournaments.

In response, a backlash against non-grappling martial arts ensued among mixed martial artists in the United States; karate became stigmatized as ineffective and impractical.

“There were so many karate instructors doing a disservice to their students,” said John Hackleman, a black belt in karate and the trainer of the former U.F.C. light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell. “They were teaching moves that weren’t going to work in the streets.”

Elsewhere around the world, particularly in Europe and Asia, karate maintained a stronger reputation among fighters, in part because it was less commercialized.

“Every block in America has an 8-year-old black belt in karate,” said Serrano, the fighter in Wisconsin.

“A green belt in Europe is the same as a fourth-degree black belt here,” said Bas Rutten, a Dutch-born black belt and a former U.F.C. heavyweight champion.

Today in the United States, most professional mixed martial artists train in three disciplines: Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Thai kickboxing and wrestling.

“There’s been a great homogenization of mixed martial arts,” said Breen, of “The reason that Lyoto Machida is different is he’s subverting this idea.”

Of course, as Machida himself points out, he is no mere karate stylist; he has also studied numerous martial arts, including jiu-jitsu and sumo wrestling. And he has incorporated them into his traditional karate style.

“This guy is a well-rounded athlete,” said Dana White, the U.F.C. president. “One style doesn’t work. You have to have a little bit of everything.”

Still, many fight analysts and martial artists stress that it is Machida’s unorthodox punches, kicks and footwork that make it so difficult for today’s mixed martial artists to figure him out.

“It’s not something that M.M.A. camps have trained for,” said Rossen, the Real Fighter Magazine editor.

Whether Machida wins or loses on Saturday, some martial arts instructors and analysts said that he had already forced fighters to take a second look at karate and broadened the definition of a professional mixed martial artist.

“Karate used to be a very tough sport,” said Georges St.-Pierre, a black belt in karate and the current U.F.C. welterweight champion. “Hopefully, the standard will be rising up.”


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