Karate: The Driving Force Behind the Best MMA Fighters in the World

From Lyoto to the Karate Hottie. The Best in the Business Studied this Ancient Sport.

Staff Writer,  Karate Combat   //   Apr 8, 2019

The best offense is a good foundation in karate.

The best fight videos often show tough but agile MMA fighters facing off with unique, strategic fight styles. MMA fighters train in any number of styles, including Brazilian jiu jitsu, muay thai, wrestling, taekwondo, judo, and karate. Though karate, with its point sparring system, may be the least flashy of the bunch, don’t count it out. Hey, don’t take it from me. Just ask this long list of successful MMA fighters that parlayed a strong foundation in karate into an established career in fighting.

Enter the Dragon: Lyoto Machida


Most lists save the biggest names for last, but let’s flip the script and start with the most well-known crossover karate fighter in MMA: Lyoto Machida. This Brazilian powerhouse broke out in the UFC in 2007, ultimately taking a Light Heavyweight belt and ranking as a title challenger for a Middleweight Championship. Over a decade since going pro, he’s still fighting, albeit under the Bellator banner. Machida studied karate under his father, Yoshizo Machida, who was a Shotokan master. He earned a black belt by age 13, and used speed, counter strikes, and clever forethought (not to mention some ridiculously great front and spinning back kicks) to make a big name in the world of fighting.

King of the Liver Shot: Bas Rutten


UFC Hall of Famer and Karate Combat league ambassador, Bas Rutten has accomplished so much in the world of fighting, we could dedicate a whole series to his career (and we’re not ruling it out). Bas holds a 5th degree black belt in Kyokushin karate and a 2nd degree black belt in Shintai karate (plus a 2nd degree black belt in Taekwondo). The former UFC Heavyweight Champion retired in 1999 as a three-time King of Pancrase world champion with an unbeaten streak of 22 fights. His karate background played a role in his reputation as a surgical striker-- by the time he retired, his strike accuracy was 70.6%. Plus, Bas has proved to be as legendary a commentator as he is a fighter. Lucky us.

One of the Greatest Ever Retires: Georges St-Pierre


A legendary fighter and contemporary of Machida, Georges St-Pierre announced his retirement just last month. The former UFC welterweight and middleweight champion has an incredible 26-2 record and goes out having won his last 13 career fights. St-Pierre started his storied career by training in Kyokushin karate (he’s a black belt, and there are some great karate videos online where you can watch GSP spar as a young karatephenom). Cheers to you, GSP. You were one of the finest competitors of all time and did it with such class.

Kyoji Horiguchi: the force of a great typhoon


With a 25-2 record, UFC alum, Kyoji Horiguchi is a fearsome competitor who’s still going strong. The flyweight fighter now competes in Japan’s MMA organization, Rizin FF. Horiguchi began his karate training when he was five, and has described his style as “100% karate.” In 2017, “Typhoon” conquered three opponents over three days, a feat that few pro fighters can boast. Over half of his wins have been the result of KO/TKO with the quickest to date coming in at nine seconds (sorry, Ian McCall). Horiguchi attributes this insane knockout rate to his strong foundation in karate. You do us proud, Kyoji.

Lifelong karateka: Wonderboy Thompson


No list of MMA fighters who got their start in karate would be complete without Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson. Some have credited him with the return of karate to the UFC Octagon. The welterweight fighter and former GSP trainee is undefeated through 37 amateur and 58 pro kickboxing match-ups. Coming from a martial arts family, Thompson started training in karate when he was just a toddler, and began competing in competitions at 15. That experience has made the 5th degree Kenpo black belt fast, powerful, and skilled at staying on his feet. More power to you, sir.

The Karate Hottie heats up: Michelle Waterson


Michelle “The Karate Hottie” Waterson is a credit to her name. The UFC strawweight fighter began her karate training at ten years old, ultimately earning a black belt in American Freestyle Karate. Though she took a break from MMA in 2010, Waterson came back in fine form, signing with the UFC in 2015. Surgical strikes in combination with skillful groundwork have landed her in prime position to make a go at the championship, especially with a recent win against Karolina Kowalkiewicz that was one of the best performances of her career. We’re behind you all the way, M.

The second coming of Super Sage Northcutt


Love him or love to hate on him, Sage Northcutt rocked the world of martial arts at a very young age. The lightweight MMA fighter, now signed to ONE, graced the cover of Sport Karate Magazine at just nine years old and won 77 world youth championships in the sport. Northcutt has generated some great fight videos where he makes front flips look like jumping jacks and shows off the stand up skills he mastered at such a young age, For the foreseeable future, Sage will be facing off overseas in an effort to prove that he’s got a lot more in him than his current 11-2 record.

Every rose has its thorn: Thug Rose Namajunas


“Thug” Rose Namajunas has packed a lot of success into her 26 years. The current strawweight division champ holds black belts in both karate and taekwondo, not to mention a brown belt in BJJ. After rising to prominence on season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter, she captured the belt from reigning champ, Joanna Jędrzejczyk in 2017 and successfully defended the championship from the former title holder the following year. Wins by submission were more common in her early career, but true to karate form, her dynamic striking style has evolved in recent years. She looks to defend her title against Jessica Andrade in May.

The rising star: Michel Pereira


Brazilian middleweight, Michel Pereira may have been responsible for a few of the best MMA fight videos you’ve seen in the last year. The free agent has gained widespread recognition for his viral “moonsaults” off the cage walls and spinning kicks. With a 22-9 record, he’s vying (loudly) to land on the UFC roster. Pereira, who started training in karate at 12, is being touted as MMA’s greatest showman. When asked where on earth these high-flying stunts come from though, Pereira says they’re actually “a gift that God gave me.” No doubt, the “Demolisher” is one to watch.

The Reign of the Reaper: Robert Whittaker


Current UFC middleweight champion, Robert Whittaker is a force to be reckoned with, and arguably in the prime of his career. The Australian fighter rose to prominence on The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes, winning the welterweight tournament. Whittaker has earned his 20-4 record with a well-rounded fighting style; his impeccable timing, clean footwork, and skillful wrestling is hard to beat. As a child, he trained in Goju-Ryu Karate for many years before switching to Hapkido. We’re sure that background has plenty to do with all the success. Long live the Reaper.

Gunnar Nelson, the Force from the North


Icelandic MMA fighter, Gunnar Nelson is a star on the UFC Welterweight roster. The Goju-ryu black belt played football and ice hockey as a kid, but started training in karate as a young teen before switching to BJJ and grappling. His powerful bursts are game-changers whether he’s fighting a methodical game on his feet, or demonstrating his immense skill on the ground. We’re always down to see his “Keep calm and carry on” poker face take on another challenger in the cage.

MMA Hall of Famer, Special Ops Trainer, Commentator: Pat Miletich


Pat Miletich now calls fights for AXS TV and ESPN’s MMA LIve, but the “Croatian Sensation” started out as a wrestler and karateka in Davenport, Iowa. He holds a third degree black in Shuri-ryu karate and is well versed in boxing, kickboxing and BJJ. Pat won his first 15 MMA fights as well as the first UFC welterweight championship for UFC 16. He was inducted as a UFC Hall of Famer in 2014. For 15 years he trained federal law enforcement and their special ops groups, and created the successful Miletich Fighting System. Karate-do is always there, and Pat shot a clip for Karate Combat’s #IAmKarateka campaign, along with our own Bas Rutten.

The Ice Man meets Ip Man: Chuck Liddell


If you know one name in the MMA world, it’s probably Chuck Liddell. The legendary fighter and UFC Hall of Famer built his career on a foundation of karate and kickboxing, among other disciplines. Liddell is still active in the fight community, and was a notable partner in modernizing karate for a new generation with full contact karate league, Karate Combat. Though the Ice Man’s fighting style is clearly a mixture of multiple styles, many have observed his use of kempo strikes in the cage. Plus, he has kempo and koei-kan tattoos on his shoulder and scalp, respectively. You can’t beat that dedication.