The Way of the Hand and Foot
Hiding in the point-fighting style of Taekwondo are some serious skills that talented mixed martial artists aren’t afraid to use.
Brian Davidson says there are legions of Taekwondo fighters ready and able to chop the competition in MMA.
“I believe in the Korean style,” says the bantamweight, who’s also a sixth-degree Taekwondo black belt. “It’s underrated. There are a lot of good Korean artists out there who are fast, accurate, and just need to learn a couple of the little things that translate to the cage.”
If that’s true, it’s a much scarier image than the one usually associated with the kick-heavy Korean art—rows of weekend warriors chamber-punching to the soundtrack of “Ki Hup.”
Until the artists come out of the woodwork, Davidson says it’s his mission to show the world that Taekwondo can be a force inside the cage. He’s been on it since 2005 and holds a 10-3 record in MMA, with six wins by knockout.
“When you get out there in the cage, you have a confidence,” he says. “It’s probably how a collegiate wrestler feels in MMA. He feels confident against a guy who’s never wrestled at a collegiate level. That’s how I feel. I’m like, ‘I’m world-class at striking, and this guy’s in trouble.’”
He understands there may be skeptics. Taekwondo didn’t exactly take the world by storm at UFC 1. Right beside traditional siblings, such as karate and kung fu, it was relegated to a long list of disciplines that weren’t effective in the cage. Davidson admits that in search of a complete fighting system, Taekwondo has more holes than the Octagon. But with understanding of the little things, he believes a one-dimensional fighter can become a dangerous combatant.
“The style itself—with the hands being so low, not being able to defend punches really well—is keeping a lot of guys from doing it,” he says. “They kick hard and they hit hard, but they don’t necessarily take punches very well. If they would learn a little boxing defense and a little wrestling defense, they would have an awesome opportunity to let those kicks go.”
The easy question is, why haven’t they? The answer, he says, is as old as the Gracie Challenge.
“A lot of instructors have so much ego,” Davidson says. “They think that the art itself is perfect. I haven’t met a Taekwondo person that’s not a fan of MMA. But I’ve met a lot of Taekwondo people that won’t do MMA. They’re scared. Taekwondo decorates you. They have a lot of awards and achievements. To lose that recognition and go back to the drawing board and learn how not to get taken down, you’ve got to swallow your pride.”
While Davidson might be the most fervent advocate for the traditional art, there are many others carrying a symbolic fl ag. Bas Ruten, Anderson Silva, Benson Henderson, and Anthony Pettis are well-rounded mixed martial artists with the ability to grapple with the best in the world. But at one point, they all grunted and broke balsa wood, and the explosion in their kicks could dynamite The Palms.
They’ve learned the little things.
“I think a lot of guys have proven it to be effective,” Henderson says. “It’s not something you can just do for a week and expect to be successful at it. It’s something that’s going to take a while, just like all the other aspects of mixed martial arts.”
Finding the Way
Historians debate Taekwondo’s origins. Some believe it’s a descendant of taekkyeon, a dance-inflected art that predates modern civilization, and subak, a more combative form romanticized by stories of an ancient warrior-like tribe known as the Hwarang. Others say it’s largely a relative of Shotokan Karate, which was imposed on Korea during a 35-year occupation by Japan (1910-1945). All agree that politics played as big a role as any in its birth.
In a wave of post-occupation nationalism, the South Korean government ordered nine schools (kwans) to unify under the name of “Taekwondo.” Made offi cial in 1955, the system was a mishmash of styles and influences that hardly were original. Nevertheless, Taekwondo was exported as a distinctly Korean product.
Over the next 20 years, Taekwondo would become more and more decentralized, with several rival organizations promoting different rules and teaching methods.
Worldwide, the martial art enjoyed an explosive growth, becoming an Olympic sport in 2000. By then, another martial arts revolution was in full swing.
If ever there was a martial art that MMA put a chokehold on, it was Taekwondo. The Korean export expanded more rapidly than others in its 40 years stateside and came to dominate the dollars spent by middle-class parents looking to appease their kids (or instill some discipline into them). As with any commercial success, the product eventually became watered down. Some schools were belt factories where middle-age fatsos held black belts in three years. Others produced Olympic caliber athletes.
MMA, nonetheless, exposed Taekwondo’s excesses and lack of practicality. Its extreme image wasn’t as palatable to worried soccer moms. But for those who sought serious study of the most effective way to fight, it was the thing to do.
In 2006, Benson Henderson wasn’t about to try any wheel kicks when he stepped into a cage in Omaha, Nebraska, on a lark. He had earned his black belt in Taekwondo as a pre-teen and swept the local tournament circuit with his older brother. But when the bell rang, he took his opponent down and threw punches until the ref stopped him.
Bas Rutten begged his parents for Taekwondo lessons after seeing his first Bruce Lee movie. In 13 months, he had his black belt (and would have had it sooner had he not knocked out his neighborhood bully). Then he took a Thai boxing class and took a liver shot when he raised his guard in sparring. A love affair was born. Still, when Rutten fought in his first kickboxing match, he used an old standby—a jumping-spinning-back kick. He knocked his opponent out.
Both men veered sharply away from their roots as developing mixed martial artists, only to return later. Henderson adopted a sideways stance. Rutten kicked his opponents into submission.
“Taekwondo was always there,” Henderson says. “I just had a long layoff between when I did Taekwondo and when I started fighting. Because of that, I wasn’t very good at it, and if I’m not good at it, I’m not going to do it in an MMA fight. After I got into MMA, I started working more Taekwondo. Because of that, I was able to implement it into my MMA game.”
Rutten’s love for Taekwondo is like a roundhouse: “I thought it was cool as shit.”
Davidson, who inside the cage went from getting double-legged in 60 seconds to timing head kicks, says Taekwondo is open to change. The American Taekwondo Association has developed a new style that resembles Pankration rules and employs grappling within the standard framework of kicking and punching. Dubbed “Korean Integrated Martial-Arts System,” competitors can employ throws and move to jiu-jitsu rules when a match hits the ground, where they have one minute to work before the action is stood up.
Limited? Yes. But as fast as the Gracie Challenge opened eyes to the ground game, tradition has its own pace, and change comes slowly. In some cases, there’s more at stake than just pride.
“For 80 percent of the gyms out there, it’s a moneymaking machine,” Rutten says. “Every six weeks, they have belt testing because there’s money. But when you go to the gyms that have the top guys that go to the Olympics, I guarantee any professional MMA fighter will stand there like, ‘That’s awesome.’”
Anthony Pettis shed one gi for another and learned how to submit opponents with triangle chokes. But he also used the gym as a laboratory when it came to thumping opponents with kicks. Some didn’t make the cut. But one, inspired in part by martial arts flick Ong Ba, reignited imaginations of what’s possible inside the cage. The “Showtime Kick” saw him vault off the cage with one
leg and slap Henderson in the face in the final WEC fight before the merger to the UFC.
Maybe the artists have already arrived in the cage.
“Everybody does MMA as a Muay Thai style, where it’s really basic kicks,” Pettis said after winning the now-defunct WEC’s Lightweight Belt. “Taekwondo is what makes me different from all the other strikers.”
The Way of the Rogan
“In my 20 years of martial arts experience, I have never seen anyone throw a turning-side kick harder than Joe Rogan.” —Eddie Bravo
There’s not a more excited man than Joe Rogan when a wheel kick is thrown inside the Octagon. It’s a little homage to his Taekwondo upbringing—Rogan was a four-time state champion in Massachusetts and taught the art at Boston University. As MMA has evolved, he’s had a front row seat to the innovations that fighters are bringing into the UFC, and he’s the first to call out a setup for an acrobatic kick.
“Parts of it really does translate over,” Rogan told HDNet. “The timing, the footwork—there’s some kicks that work from Taekwondo, like the spinning-back kicks and wheel kicks. They would work in MMA.”
Rogan has even provided a blueprint for fighters. UFC Welterweight Champ Georges St-Pierre once said the comedian had the best spinningback kick he’s ever seen.
“I wanted to know if the mechanics of my spinning-back kick were right,” St-Pierre said. “So he corrected me, and he really helped me out.”
Rogan, of course, doesn’t say that pure Taekwondo fi ghters are anything more than cannon fodder for trained mixed martial artists. However, in small ways, and with a few screams, he carries the TKD flag.