Last Saturday, December 17, former Invicta FC Atomweight Champion Michelle “The Karate Hottie” Waterson made her biggest mark in the UFC women’s straweight division when she caught rising star Paige VanZant with a rear-naked choke at 3:21 in the first round of the UFC On Fox 22 main event.
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As her nickname suggests, Waterson is a Karate expert. Although her mixed martial arts style has evolved over the course of the past two decades to include a dangerous submission game courtesy of her BJJ training and the bulk of her striking can now be attributed to her background in Muay Thai (she was also a contestant on the reality show Fight Girls with Master Toddy), it’s Karate that gave the Hottie her start in martial arts. She began training in American Free Style when she was 10 years old and now holds a black belt in that discipline. The influence of that early training can still be seen in her work today. Last September, she even shared a footwork drill that she first learned when she started Karate and is still practicing today in a segment on her official YouTube channel. https://youtu.be/lL6CKloseas Karate has always been one of the martial arts that was blended together to form the sport that we now call mixed martial arts. American Kenpo was represented by 1980s Karate champ Zane Frazier at the inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993. And Karate became the foundation for the next generation of fighters, like Anthony Pettis, Ben Henderson and MMA legend Georges St-Pierre, who took up Kyokushin after he was bullied as a child. Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida has attributed the success of fighters with a substantial Karate background to the work ethic and philosophy that comes with a background in the discipline. “You see all of those champion, you know they all learned outside the Octagon – their persistence and discipline to be a champion – they learned from Karate,” he says in Michael Huang’s in-depth look at Karate in the UFC for ESPN this past November. But Karate’s influence in MMA has grown far deeper than that in the past decade. It was the foundation of the infamously elusive style that allowed Machida rise to the top of the UFC light heavyweight division and clinch the belt in May 2009 at UFC 98. https://youtu.be/1Bls8kJMoQY According to Ray Thompson, the kickboxing and karate star turned coach whose son Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson is leading the current Karate revival in the UFC, Machida’s dominance changed both the perception and use of Karate in the sport. “I think the perception of Karate, until the Machida era, was Karate doesn’t work. Early UFCs Karate guys got crushed because they couldn’t grapple. They’d try their kicks and punches and just get taken down. They just got beat up. They had no idea what to do on the ground,” he told ESPN. In the same piece, Machida also spoke about the way that MMA fighters are beginning to embrace the timing and the use of distance that comes with good Karate training. “You’re seeing it more and more in MMA, in the movements and stances. That’s my goal, to bring Karate back and to help it grow in the UFC,” Machida said. “But it’s not an easy technique to learn. It takes a long time to build up the muscles in the front leg and the balance on the back foot. It’s not something you can learn in a couple of months.” Perhaps the best demonstration of this is in Stephen Thompson’s rise to UFC glory. With long limbs, a more traditional Karate approach to striking and stance, and devastating accuracy, Wonderboy has developed a style just as – if not more – elusive as Machida’s was in his prime. Here’s a few highlights of Thompson in action: https://youtu.be/PhO4aqPSKn8 Thompson’s Karate (and competitive kickboxing) background has helped to propel him to a 13-1-1 professional MMA record, with 8 UFC victories against top fighters like Rory MacDonald and former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks. He’s been undefeated since mid-2013 and he came just short of winning the welterweight belt last month. His epic five-round battle against current champ Tyron Woodley at UFC 205 ended in a draw. It’s highly likely that we’ve only just begun to see what the Wonderboy can do in the Octagon. Although Thompson’s focus is on MMA now, he still understands and appreciates the role that Karate training and tournaments play in the martial arts universe. “Karate is still big in the world just because of the discipline, the self-control, self-confidence, that’s a big part of what we teach in Karate. The kicking and punching is just kind of a bonus,” he said in a 2012 interview with MMA Fighting. Wonderboy then went on to recommend some fighters to study if you’re interested in learning more about Karate: “Of course, you’ve got Lyoto Machida. He’s definitely a Karate guy and he’s made a big presence in MMA. I would say look up Lyoto Machida.There are some other Karate guys who are phenomenal at what they do at their Karate game, the point fighting game, Raymond Daniels, who is an amazing point fighter and very flashy. He’s done some full contact kickboxing and also fought in the WCL which was where I competed in before I switched to MMA. I would definitely watch Joe Lewis, not the boxer Joe Louis, the kickboxer Joe Lewis. He’s an old school Karate guy as well and he was a kickboxing world champion.” Now we can add Thompson himself and Michelle Waterson to that list. https://youtu.be/RqFgoZBI4fE Have you been following The Karate Hottie and Wonderboy ? What do you think about its evolving importance in MMA? Let us know in the comments! And be sure to check out our online store for all of your own Karate training and competition needs!