Will Mixed Martial Arts Overtake the Traditional Martial Arts?

Shihan Michael Whiteside


There are a number of trends which suggest that the traditional martial arts (TMA) like karate might be losing out to mixed martial arts (MMA) in appealing to mainstream American culture.  MMA is a sport that has been growing in popularity, profitability, and renown. 

Firstly, TMA dojos may be losing students to MMA schools.  Studies done by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association show that the overall number of people participating in martial arts for fitness in the United States has been steadily decreasing over the last decade.  At the same time the number reporting use of MMA training has been rising.  There were nearly 7 million martial arts practitioners in the US in 2007, but only 5.5 million eight years later in 2015. The same group reported 1.3 million MMA competitors in 2015, just twenty years since the first UFC event was broadcast in 1993.1  In a 2009 interview about the growing popularity of MMA, Sports Illustrated executive editor Jon Wertheim noted that, “I’d walk by karate dojos - even here in Manhattan where MMA isn’t even sanctioned - and see signs: ‘We offer mixed martial arts training.’”2 He has written that more and more dojos are offering MMA to stay open because, “that is what customers are looking for.” 

Secondly, MMA has become hugely profitable for its organizers and star athletes.  The dominant organizing body for MMA competitions, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), brought in a record annual revenue of around $600 million last year (2015), largely from Pay-Per-View events.3The UFC was recently bought by ESPN for $4 billion, making it the largest-ever sale of a sports franchise in history.4

Finally, TMA is increasingly portrayed in the media as ineffective in competition and, by extension, for self-defense.  Even a quick internet search will find video after video showing MMA beating TMA in competition.  Of the top web pages I recently found when searching for “MMA vs karate,” one asked “Can Karate Hold Its Own in the Mixed Martial Arts Era?”4 and another tried to explain, “Why Traditional Martial Arts don’t work in MMA.”5 

However, these comparisons of MMA to TMA often ignore several important strengths of TMA -- strengths that are a major part of why I have enjoyed my more than 40 years with karate – strengths which give me hope for the future of TMA.  Unlike TMA, MMA is not an independent art, it does not have a historical tradition, and does not promote the development of the spirit and character of its participants. 

MMA is not an independent art but typically is a cross-training program that blends several traditional disciplines, with TMA often used as the source for stand-up striking skills.  According to Jordan Breen, administrative editor for Sherdog.com, a site that covers competitive MMA, most MMA fighters base their training on three primary arts: the grappling skills of Greco-Roman wrestling; the ground fighting skills of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu; and the striking skills of Muay Thai.7  Many MMA fighters learn their grappling and clinching skills from traditional Judo schools and striking skills from traditional karate schools. 

Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida is often cited as the most successful example of a fighter transitioning from traditional karate to MMA, given that he won the UFC light heavyweight title in 2009 and had a background in karate. As the son of the head of the Brazilian branch of the Japan Karate Association, Shotokan master Yoshizo Machida, Lyoto started training in karate at age 3, earned his black belt at age 13, and won a number of amateur karate tournaments, including the 2001 Panamerican International.  However, Lyoto also studied sumo at age 8 and boxing and jiu-jitsu at age 16.  Later, as an adult, he travelled to Thailand to study Muay Thai and to Japan to study puroresu wrestling.8Currently, the Kyokushin style of karate, with its emphasis on knock-down sparring, enjoys particular popularity among MMA fighters interested in TMA.  Three time UFC welterweight champion and “most accomplished MMA fighter of all time” George St-Pierre studied Kyokushin from ages 7 to 16 before expanding his scope to include wrestling, boxing, and jiu-jitsu.9

MMA fighters see themselves as trying to integrate the most effective and applicable techniques of a variety of fighting styles.  This concept has deep roots in TMA.  In his autobiography, master Gichin Funakoshi wrote that, “there is no place in contemporary Karate for different schools. I have heard myself and my colleagues referred to as the ‘Shotokan School’, but I strongly object to this attempt at classification. My belief is that all ‘schools’ should be amalgamated into one, so that Karate may orderly progress into man’s future.”10The way that TMA schools have continuously split off from one another over theyears suggests that Funakoshi’s ideal has been forgotten or has been too difficult to follow.  The concept of using a mixture of styles gained greater public awareness when expressed by martial arts legend Bruce Lee, who warned against the risk of stagnation inherent in being devoted to one martial art, described his own fighting as having “no style” and who encouraged others to, “Research your own experience; absorb what is useful, reject what is useless and add what is essentially your own.”11

Modern MMA does not have much of a history to speak of, although it can be seen as the latest in a long line of full-contact fighting competitions that have come and gone over many centuries.  The ancient Greeks and Romans fought in spectacular empty-hand submission matches called Pangration (“all of might”) in which biting and eye-gouging were the only techniques not allowed.12Other examples of no-holds-barred type fighting styles from the late 1800s and early 1900s include French Savate, British Bartitsu, and Brazilian Vale Tudo.  Matches pitting artists from different fighting styles against one another became particularly popular in Europe and the Pacific Rim in the early 1900s with exhibitions called ’merikan (American) by the Japanese.  Modern karate has gone through many shifts in organization but can trace its origins in Okinawa back at least 600 years and to China and India many hundreds of years further.  There is a strong sense of respect for tradition and for past masters that is integral to the practice of karate and of kata in particular.

In most TMA tournaments, points are given for contact and can be taken away for “excessive” contact, while MMA matches end with submissions and knockouts. TMA competitors sometimes jab and fake toward one another weakly for much of a match, waiting for one good opening.  It is no surprise so me that there is a general impression that MMA is more geared toward practical application than TMA, and more suitable for learning self-defense techniques.  TMA schools may have a hard time changing this perception, but can continue to compete for students by emphasizing their other strengths.  MMA too should continue to evolve, as it has since the establishment of the UFC, with the rules for matches changing to provide more safety for competitors and to allow the sport to gain acceptance by sports commissions.13An high percentage of bouts underwent late revisions and cancelations in 2014 due to injuries, which contributed to a drop in PPV purchases and a 40% decline in overall revenue for the UFC for that year.14 New safety rules were introduced yet again this year to prevent injuries due to the drastic weight cutting fighters have used to try to qualify for weight classes far below their training weights.15

When I started karate in 1967, people like me who wanted to learn how to fight and be in good physical shape were drawn to TMA from seeing the examples of stars like Bruce Lee in movies.  Once drawn into a dojo, students had a chance to experience and appreciate the other benefits of training.  The dojos where I studied did teach close-in hand-to-hand self-defense techniques, but they were given relatively little emphasis in most classes.  I believe that this was in part because my teachers feared that beginning and intermediate students would be tempted to misuse dangerous techniques outside of the dojo.  Our classes were routinely made up of 1/3 kihon, 1/3 kata, and 1/3 kumite, with self-defense applications largely relegated to a separate class for advanced students.  Because it was normal in those days for students to train 3 or more days a week, most of us did eventually gain sufficient exposure.  At brown and black belt levels we would regularly practice ippon kumite where we would combine blocks, counters, throws, and submission locks.  These days, only the most dedicated students are able to train more than twice a week and I have seen our classes increasingly made up of young children and progressively less focused on sparring techniques and strategies.  The philosophies and approaches of schools vary widely, but I suspect that other TMA dojos have seen similar changes over time.  With MMA schools almost exclusively focused on sparring and applied techniques, I can see why they would at least initially hold greater appeal for young adults interested in quickly learning self-defense and not much else.  But my own experience with karate has taught me just how rich with application our traditional art form is, and how much more TMA has to offer.

For me, kata is at the heart of karate and, while students can practice kata for many reasons, I see self-defense being at the heart of kata.  Each movement of a kata has numerous possible interpretations and I find it fruitful even to this day to delve into the same katas I have been practicing for 40 years.  Seeing the self-defense applications of a kata, the bunkai, requires thought and practice.  The five Heian kata alone are a rich resource for self-defense techniques, perhaps complete enough to deliver a student to a state of “peaceful mind”, as the Japanese characters are often translated, or a sense of being “safe from harm”, as the same characters might be read in Chinese.   Japanese arts emphasize the do (the way) to improve one’s character, for which a peaceful mind is an idyllic goal, and kata can certainly be practiced for health and meditation.  However, realistic bunkai is anything but peaceful.  In his seminars, Patrick McCarthy makes the point that martial arts like karate were invented for self-defense, not for improving one’s character.  In his view, katas, while superficially very stylized, were originally designed to reinforce self-defense lessons and contain a multitude of brutally effective grappling, throwing, choking, and joint-locking techniques appropriate for close-in combat.16

But a kata is so much more than its techniques.  As the late Sensei Randall Hassell wrote, the art of karate is in developing “awareness of ourselves, our talents, our hidden or unused abilities, our environment, and the purposes and intentions of others.”17 I believe it was also Sensei Randall who broke this down further, explaining that while kihon training primarily teaches us how we relate to ourselves, kata teaches us how we relate to the space around us, and kumite teaches us how we relate to others.  The traditional martial arts use combat and combative techniques as a tool to bring out personal growth and character development that can be a lifelong pursuit with application to all aspects of living, bringing a gentleness, awareness, and control of impulses to our dealings with our thoughts and with other people. As Funakoshi wrote, “'The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory nor defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants.”18 A greater emphasis on sparring and competition in our schools would have some benefits, and would be welcomed by some, but it would also threaten to weaken our connection to the budo philosophy and its focus on developing all aspects of our students.  As Sensei Hassell warned, “when sport becomes the main thrust of training, with emphasis on winning and losing, modesty and humility are destroyed, and the sense of budo is lost.”19

MMA schools may be creating effective fighters, but are they developing the characters of their students?  Watching the UFC on television, I’m led to think not.  Competitors appear to have little respect for one another, taunting and intimidating one other before fights and jumping up and down and beating their chests after victories.  Sensei Jake Lease, CEO for USA Karate (USAKNF) and a mixed martial artist of the classic variety (4th Dan in Tae Kwon Do, 4th Dan in Karate Do, 3rd Dan in Aikido, 3rd Dan in Judo, 3rd Dan in Jujitsu, and 3rd Dan in Iaido) has expressed concern about MMA schools tending to lose sight of some of the core values of TMA.  Like master Funakoshi, he has said that the paramount goal of TMA needs to be the creation of students who are of value to society.  “Karate is about making people better. This isn’t just physical. It’s about developing the whole person.”20

I am glad that karate was vibrant and appealing to me in my youth and that I followed the path that I did.   I would (and do) recommend it to anyone.





1      http://www.sfia.org/reports/352_Mixed-Martial-Arts-(Competition)-Participation-Report-2016

2      http://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/12/interview-with-l-jon-wertheim-blood-in-the-cage/

3      http://www.mmamania.com/2015/12/28/10675158/lorenzo-fertitta-ufc-will-generate-record-high-600-million-revenue-2015-mma

4      http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2016/07/11/ufcs-dana-white-confirms-4-billion-sale-the-largest-in-sports-history/

5      http://onlyagame.legacy.wbur.org/2013/08/17/mma-karate

6      http://www.amam-magazine.com/traditional_arts.html

7      http://www.sherdog.com 

8      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyoto_Machida

9      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_St-Pierre 

10   Funakoshi, G. Karatedo: My Way of Life. Kodansha America, Inc., New York, NY, 1975.

11   Lee, B. The Tao of Jeet Kun Do. Black Belt Books, Valencia, CA, 1975.

12   http://www.worldpangration.net/index.php/component/k2/item/277-pangration-history 

13   http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1614213-a-timeline-of-ufc-rules-from-no-holds-barred-to-highly-regulated

14   http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-11-19/fertitta-brothers-ufc-staggered-as-injuries-hurt-profit

15   http://www.bloodyelbow.com/2016/5/14/11674464/ufc-200-fighters-must-check-in-within-8-of-fight-weight 

16   http://www.theshotokanway.com/interviewwithpatmccarthy.html

17   Hassell, RG. Karate Zen Pen Sword. Empire Books, Los Angeles, CA, 2006.

18   Okazaki, T. Perfection of Character: Guiding Principles for the Martial Arts & Everyday Life. GMW Publishing, Philadelphia, PA, 2006.

19   Hassell, Karate Zen Pen Sword.

20   http://www.csbj.com/2012/03/01/at-age-31-jake-lease-is-ceo-of-usa-karate/