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Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

The Rise of Taekwon-Do in MMA

There was a time when there was no place for traditional martial arts such as Taekwon-Do in MMA. They seemed anachronistic and useless. The martial arts that had proven effective in the cage (or ring) were Muay Thai, boxing, wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. And maybe Judo. For a long time, fighters and coaches even believed that Muay Thai’s high kicks had no place in MMA. Good kickers usually weren’t strong grapplers and high kicks put a fighter at too much risk of being taken down and dominated on the ground.

But then things slowly started to change. First, those fighters who were primarily strikers started to get better at wrestling and grappling, out of necessity. Likewise, wrestlers and grapplers got better at stand-up striking. With this, fighters were no longer as afraid to go to the ground and they learned that a swift kick to the head could quickly end a fight.

As fighters got more experience and better coaching, the level of stand-up striking started to get better.

Then along came fighters like Lyoto Machida. Machida came from a Shotokan Karate background and integrated aspects of Shotokan’s point fighting style. He uses a long Shotokan-like stance, keeps his distance from opponents, and uses lengthy periods of relative inactivity to draw opponents into devastating counterattacks.

Machida was one of the fighters who opened the doors for traditional striking arts in MMA. And those doors are continuing to open. Now some fighters are beginning to integrate some of Taekwon-Do’s kicks into their repertoires. And they’re finding great success.

Time for Taekwon-Do in MMA

Not only was there a time when traditional martial arts were dismissed in the MMA community, but Taekwon-Do was one of the arts particularly looked down upon. People thought that TKD’s kicking style was too flashy and impractical, and that it would never work in the ring.

In many ways, those people are right. The wide stance that most Taekwon-Do fighters use would leave them vulnerable to kicks to the front leg. Unnecessary flashiness puts a fighter at risk of being taken down or countered. WTF fighters have a tendency to leave their hands low (for good reason in a WTF match) and often don’t have a lot of practice punching. Even Ch’ang Hon (ITF) fighters aren’t usually fantastic punchers.

But these issues can be overcome and Taekwon-Do techniques can be blended with the other aspects of MMA.

There are some advantages to TKD-style kicks. They’re fast and are often unexpected in the cage. Most MMA fighters are not terribly dextrous kickers, so those fighters who can pull off these kicks can find themselves with an advantage on the feet.

So let’s look at nine examples of fighters who use Taekwon-Do-style kicks in the cage, in no particular order of skill. Some of these people brought their existing Taekwon-Do skills (or skills from similar martial arts) into MMA. Others learned the kicks as part of their MMA training.

9. Anthony Pettis

Former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis is a 3rd degree black belt in Taekwon-Do. See here for one of his matches before he made it big in MMA.

He uses his TKD skills to kick a little differently than most people in MMA. For example, most Muay Thai-style kickers will take a step or a shuffle before kicking. They will kick from slightly off to the side of their opponent (around 1 or 2 o’clock) so they can follow through the kick and put more power into it. They also tend to finish the kick with their knee bent and hips not completely turned over. Pettis, on the other hand will throw faster kicks without a telegraph. For example, he will often kick to 12 o’clock, meaning he doesn’t have to move to get in position for the kick and he can throw it without a telegraph. This also makes the kick slightly faster.

Anthony Pettis - turning kick

If you take a look at that GIF again, you can see that, unlike many Muay Thai kickers, he will turn his hips completely over until they face the opposite direction. Not only does this re-add some of the power he loses by not stepping, but it also gives him a longer reach. Adding to that reach is the fact that he will sometimes hit with the instep instead of the shin, as Muay Thai kickers are taught to do, and will extend his leg the whole way. This means he is able to reach people with kicks when they think they’re out of kicking range.

As you can see here, he also has a quick back kick.

Then there’s his acrobatics. Because of the combination of athleticism and his Taekwon-Do background, he can pull off things in the cage that most people would never dream of. MMA fans around the world are familiar with his famous “showtime” kick that helped win him the very last WEC lightweight belt.

Anthony Pettis - showtime kick

Look familiar? In Ch’ang Hon Taekwon-Do, that’s called a reflex kick. And that’s hardly the only acrobatic kick he’s ever tried during a fight. See here for an example of a spiral kick.

8. Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson

Thompson doesn’t come from a Taekwon-Do background. Instead, he trained in Kempo and American Kickboxing. Both of these styles have some similarities to Ch’ang Hon-style Taekwon-Do. And depending on the rule set used, American Kickboxing in particular can sometimes look a lot like TKD.

“Wonderboy” has been been having a lot of success in his MMA career, which is no surprise. His grappling has gotten pretty solid to complement his already outstanding standup game. How outstanding, you ask? His kickboxing career stands at a whopping 20 wins and zero losses. And at the time I’m writing this, he only has one loss in MMA.

His trademark move is probably his front-leg turning kick. While you see this a lot Taekwon-Do and other point-fighting styles, it isn’t used much in MMA, mainly because it doesn’t have the same kind of power as a rear-leg kick. But watch the kind of oomph Thompson can put into it:

Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson - front-leg turning kick

And then there’s his beautiful spinning reverse turning kick.

7. John Makdessi

I like Makdessi for a few reasons. For one, he was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, where I lived for a long time. It’s a great city if you’ve never been. Two, he makes frequent use of the front-leg side kick, a staple in ITF-style Taekwon-Do sparring.

John Makdessi - side kick

The front-leg side kick is a great weapon for keeping opponents at a distance, and it’s one that many MMA fighters don’t use. It’s hard to learn how to put power into it. But when you can drive people back as Makdessi does above, it’s an excellent way to keep someone under control.

But those aren’t the only Taekwon-Do-style techniques he uses. Here’s a rare example of someone in the UFC actually landing an axe (a.k.a. downward) kick:

John Makdessi - axe kick

And here’s a link to Makdessi throwing a 360 back kick (although with less-than-stellar results).

6. Dennis Siver

Siver comes from a background in Karate, not TKD. But there are lots of similarities between the traditional striking arts. Like Stephen Thompson, Siver also makes regular use of the front-leg turning kick. But his hallmark is his powerful back kick.

Dennis Siver - back kick

5. Uriah Hall

I realize that for an article on Taekwon-Do techniques in MMA, I’m bringing up a lot of fighters who trained in other arts. Uriah Hall trained in Kyokushin Karate before he found MMA. But while Kyokushin contains some spectacular techniques, they’re usually put aside in favour of brutal, but exciting forward plodding. Hall’s fights don’t look like that. He has a dynamic style that looks like it was influenced more by TKD than your typical Kyokushin fight.

Hall’s greatest claim to fame to date came when he was one of the first people in MMA to show off the devastating power of a reverse hooking kick.

Uriah Hall - reverse hooking kick

4. Edson Barboza

OK, back to actual Taekwon-Do athletes. Barboza is a back belt in TKD, and makes great use of his kicking skill inside the cage. He used a fantastic kick to finish Terry Etim with with first spinning reverse turning kick KO in UFC history.

Edson Barboza - spinning reverse turning kick

3. Jon Jones

If you’re not a regular MMA fan, Jon Jones might just be the first name on this list that you recognize.

While he has no actual Taekwon-Do training, he has made good use of the side kick to keep his opponents at a distance. And for good reason. Jon Jones has a ridiculously long reach and knows how to use it well.

Jon Jones - side kick

Not only does he throw the side kick to the body, but also throws it to the thigh (a.k.a. the pressing kick). This puts Jones at less of a risk than when throwing a turning kick to the thigh and makes his opponents worried about protecting their knees.

2. Anderson Silva

Silva is a 5th-degree black belt in Olympic-style Taekwondo. While his fighting style is primarily Muay Thai-based, you can definitely see some TKD influence there. For example, take a look at him throwing a front snap kick: a technique that is rarely, if ever, seen in Muay Thai.

And just look at the way he turns his hips over, even while in punching range.

Anderson Silva - turning kick

1. Conor McGregor

The interim UFC featherweight champ (as of the time I’m writing this) wanted to improve his kicking game. So who did he go to? An ITF Taekwon-Do instructor, of course. While his kicking is still not as polished as a long-time TKD athlete, he’s come a long way in in a pretty short amount of time. He now uses side kicks, pressing kicks, long turning kicks, switch kicks, spinning reverse turning kicks and front snap kicks—all to great effect.

Conon McGregor - TKD kicks

And what’s more, whereas other MMA athletes avoid the wide, side-on stance that Taekwon-Do fighters love, McGregor has been getting away with it. While it puts him at greater risk when taking low kicks, it affords him greater mobility. And he’s just quick enough to make it work for him.

That’s a lot of Taekwon-Do influence to cram into an MMA fight. Especially for a fighter who has just recently found TKD.

And others

That’s definitely not an exhaustive list of MMA fighters who are using Taekwon-Do and other traditional martial arts inside the cage. Former lightweight champ Benson Henderson and women’s strawweight competitor Rose Namajunas have both trained in Taekwon-Do in the past. So has Bas Rutten, a pioneer and legend in the sport. Even UFC commentator extraordinaire Joe Rogan is a black belt, and has used his TKD skills to teach Georges St.-Pierre how to throw a better back kick.

That’s more than a dozen people, and there are lots more examples. What are your favourite examples of people using TKD-style techniques in MMA?