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The evolution of karate in MMA: Wonderboy

Stephen Thompson has now established that he is an elite level MMA fighter, with a highly evolving game. The question now is whether the sport can keep up with him.
Stephen Thompson, Wonderboy

The basic blueprint for achieving the highest level of success in mixed martial arts was created by UFC Hall of Famer Pat Miletich. He showed that you need a skill set broad enough to hang with national-class wrestlers in the wrestling room, roll with national-class BJJ players in a BJJ academy, and spar in a training ring with national-class kickboxers or even boxers.

It doesn't mean you can tap terrific black belts, take down Div I wrestlers in class, and beat the dog food out of a solid pro boxer in the gym. It just means you can hang. When you put it together, it means a lot, some times everything.

However, the sport continues to evolve. UFC color commentator, and three combat sport black belt Joe Rogan has several times identified Sport Karate as the next style that will influence the play of the game.

In the early 1950s, Tsutomu Oshima developed the first sportive rules for karate sparring matches in Japan, inspired by the fact that there were a lot of pretty girls at baseball games. The underlying theory was that like fencing with a real sword, a real karate blow was too dangerous to actually do full power on another person. So like fencing, a points system was developed.

Punches and kicks were thrown, but controlled to the body, and pulled just short of the face. The action was then stopped, and a center referee and four corner judges determined whether the pulled blow was thrown with sufficient power and speed.

Oshima brought his rules to the United States, and they spread worldwide; these traditional karate sparring rules continue to be used to this day, with modifications. Here is Chuck Norris vs. Allen Steen, in 1966, competing under these rules.

Oshima's rules proved to be popular in the USA, and remained largely intact, until Pat Worley, a student of Jhoon Rhee's, suffered a broken jaw. Rhee, The Father of American Taekwondo, set out to develop protective gear for the hands and feet.

In 1974, he debuted his Safe-T-Gear, foam-pool floaties for the hands and feet. They were widely adopted in the USA, and radically changed the play of game for those athletes that adopted them. Footwork increased, as did the distance at which the players competed, and variations on basic punches and kicks were developed. The sport was very much like fencing - the object was to dart in and land a clean, controlled punch or kick, all without being hit. It was called variously "point karate" or "point fighting" or "semi contact" or "sport karate." Detractors called it What's The Point Karate.

Simultaneously, athletes looking for more contact and realism were starting Full Contact Karate, a trend that actually began with karateka Joe Lewis in 1970, wearing conventional boxing gloves and sneakers.

This is Joe Lewis vs. Greg Baines on January 17, 1970, in Long Beach, California. It is the first kickboxing match in USA history.

Lewis's innovation turned into PKA full contact karate - "The Kick of the 80s." This is a preview by PKA president Joe Corley of Rick Roufus (Duke's brother) vs. Mike McDonald.

The mix of karate kicks with boxing hand techniques, was almost entirely ignorant of low kicks, clinching, and Muay Thai, and was gone by the 1990s. Kickboxing in Japan rose and fell and rose. Muay Thai remained the national sport in Thailand. A number of European countries, notably Holland, developed world-class competitors. But kickboxing was and is not a real sport - it entirely lacks agreed upon rules or champions. And kickboxing was largely gone from the USA.

However, point karate continued to evolve, with some rules allowing for continuous points, where the action was not stopped whenever a point was scored. The contact however still had to be limited.

This had a distinctively different style of play than kickboxing, as can be seen in this highlight clip from Michael 'Venom' Page.

Then this long-range, flashy, super fast, timing-based style of striking made its way into kickboxng. And now into the elite level of mixed martial arts.

Although Lyoto Machida's father realized the need for more footwork, and added it to his Machida-Do Karate, it is still a distinctly different animal than Stephen 'Wonderboy' Thompson's karate.

Saturday night Thompson made Johny Hendricks look like he did not know what was going on. Given that Hendricks' head striking coach has a boxing background, the former UFC welterweight champion probably literally did not know what was going on. He may have never once sparred with someone using the long-range, kick heavy, side stance striking style.

That would be a mistake. No style of fighting is invincible. But if you don't know what it going on, things get a lot harder, as you can see.

And now Thompson will likely get a title shot. If Robbie Lawler spars the same way with the same guys, the outcome could be very much like Saturday night. And of course Thompson has far more going on than just the novelty of his techniques. He has now established that he is an elite level MMA fighter, with a highly evolving game.

Like the Gracies who founded the sport, Thompson started martial arts as soon as he could walk, or earlier. The question now is whether the sport can keep up with him.