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Best Striking Martial Arts for MMA

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Kenpo Karate in MMA

Keith Hackney and Chuck Liddell

The first somewhat spectacular showing of Kenpo Karate in the UFC was in the battle between Keith Hackney, the somewhat unassuming air-conditioner salesman, and the massive Sumo wrestler Emmanuel Yarborough. In the bout, it looked quite impossible for the smaller (though not small) Hackney, the Kenpo man, to get a clean shot at the towering giant Yarborough. However, in Kenpo fashion, Keith got his shot in: It was a wild and heavy heel palm strike to Yarborough's temple, knocking him to the mat. Keith chased the fallen giant to the ground and pounded him with fists, swinging his strikes like a club into the face of the helpless behemoth. It was quite a sight, and shocking for anyone unaccustomed to fights with no rules (except no biting or eye gouging was allowed) and no weight class divisions. Hackney eventually became famous for his sometimes spectacular punches and strikes, forcing one opponent to tap out from continuous punches to the groin.

But those were the old days of the UFC, when it was young and new and no one really knew what was going on. Eventually we began to see very seasoned fighters that were experts at powerful and accurate striking and were experienced in the ring. Chuck Liddell comes to mind. His version of Kenpo came from a man named John Hackleman who had originally trained in Hawaii learning an art called Kajukenbo, which is heavily influenced by Kenpo, but has elements of Karate, Judo and boxing. I'd like to state here that Kenpo generally is a hybrid art, with elements of Jiu Jitsu and boxing in it, among other martial arts styles. It is an art that was developed in Hawaii and was the result of much cross-training of the arts in the Islands; namely, there are usually elements of Dan Zan Ryu Jiu Jitsu in Kenpo. I know this from personal experience, having trained in Kenpo for about 20 years: I've met many Kenpo fighters who have trained in Jiu Jitsu and I also personally know that Jiu Jitsu is part of the curriculum and also that grappling is common during sparring sessions. The version of the art that Liddell learned from Hackleman is called Hawaiian Kenpo, a very stripped down version strongly laden with boxing and meant for real fighting, no fluff.

At any rate Chuck Liddell became famous for his very powerful and fast punches; and his ability to defend himself against being taken down to the ground. He has a background in wrestling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu too. He's well-rounded for fighting in the Octagon.

Why Kenpo Technique Works

Kenpo teaches principles; logical principles and scientific principles of physics and kinetics. Both Hackney and (especially) Liddell have made use of power principles and body mechanics, in addition to angles and position, probably burned into their neural-pathways and muscle memory from training in Kenpo. Here I list the principles both fighters used and how they used them.


This is a biggie in Kenpo. Simply, a strike, kick or punch will only be effective, have enough power to have an effect, if it travels a far enough distance. If it travels only an inch it will have close to no effect. If it travels a foot it will have a pretty good effect, and more than a foot a heavy impact. If the blow is fast but has no travel, it's basically worthless. However, if it has travel and is fast too, because speed generates power, it will have a very significant impact on your opponent.

Both Hackney and Liddell used significant travel on their punches. Liddell knows how to use some good shorter straight punches, but swings the heavy hammer punches for the knockout. Which brings up the further point that Kenpo uses both straight lines and circular movement, like any well-rounded system; boxing also uses both kinds of movement. Kenpo has a principle of diversifying zones, which Liddell uses well, he attacks at multiple angles.

Power Principles

There are 3 main power principles, rooted in physics and kinetics, used in Kenpo: These are Marriage with Gravity (generating power by using gravity), Back-Up Mass (generating power by having your mass move directly in line with your weapon) and Torque (generating power using a turning or twisting motion). Liddell makes heavy use of power principles, particularly torque. He turns his whole body, synchronized, with the swing of his heavy shots. He generates incredible power using torque.

Obscure Angles

Using obscure angles is very common in Kenpo. These are angles that are difficult for the opponent to see because they are outside of his periphery vision. Chuck uses angles below and above his adversaries peripheral vision with his over-hand hooks and hook punches. He dips them low, below his opponent's vision and swings them from high and totally penetrates defenses.


Kenpo to a great extent is the study of what to do from what position and what position works for what technique. It is the study of the correct angles and the use of timing and position to pull off techniques. Liddell is very good at this. He sets up his techniques with a series of punches and as the opponent moves into position, he times his knockout punch to score the win. He typically zones to a position outside of his opponent's reach and nails him with the heavy blows. He also positions himself where he has good and full use of his weapons but has his own targets covered fairly well, a major factor in Kenpo defense and offense.

Chuck Liddell fighting in the UFC Octagon
Credit: By Bad intentionz (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Muay Thai in MMA

Muay Thai kick boxing seems to have become standard curriculum for mma fighters. For good reason. It has devastating techniques, use of heavy elbows and knees and crippling low round-house kicks to the thigh nerves. Those low kicks are like bats swinging into their victims' legs, completely followed through with, with no retraction; unlike the traditional Karate kick which is snapped in and out at the hinge. These are power shots, perfect for mixed martial arts.

Generally kick boxing is effective in mma. Boxing is too, but kick boxing also uses the hand techniques of boxing. Good boxing techniques, jabs, upper-cuts, hooks, over-hands and crosses are fast and powerful weapons in the Octagon and other mma venues. Pretty much all of the fighters use them; they are efficient, fast and make use of good body mechanics to get the job done.

Pat Smith, from the old days of the UFC, is a good example of a kick boxer that did well in mma. Though he had difficulty against seasoned grapplers like Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock, he was knocking out many of his opponents with brutal punches and elbows. Orlando Weit, early UFC contender and agile Muay Thai man, also showed incredible striking skill, though lost to the hulking Jiu Jitsu fighter Remco Pardoel but only after defeating previous, and formidable, competition with his swift kicks and punches.

When it comes to Muay Thai, the art is handy in a clinch when you can drive knees into the opponent to weaken his fight or even knock him out.

Muay Thai and kick boxing in general are perfect for mma.

Muay Thai Kickboxing low kick
Credit: Loura Conerney, Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA-2.0


Grappling vs Striking

I think it's safe to say that a fighter should have a good arsenal of both striking and grappling knowledge and skill. The successes in the UFC and other mma arenas have had knowledge of both, evidenced by Liddell's well-rounded background in both pugilistic and wrestling disciplines. It has long been said by those interested in the practical aspects of the arts, people such as Bruce Lee with his functional system of Jeet Kune Do, that a fighter should train in all ranges of combat; the ground (grappling), standing close-range (for elbows, knees and head-butts), mid-range (where you can reach with punches) and long-range (with kicks and weapons). It's also been said, very aptly, that you should use what is useful in any art. Bruce would have said: If it works, use it.

It's really that simple.

Chuck Liddell

Striking Tips



Jun 6, 2014 3:25am
I don't know much about martial arts, but it looks as if you did a great job with this.
Jun 6, 2014 7:11am
Thanks, ologsinquito. Much appreciated.
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