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Technique Talk: Stephen Thompson Retrofits Karate for MMA

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Outside of Lyoto Machida's shotokan, can other styles of karate be retrofitted for success in MMA? Stephen Thompson believes they can and that he's living proof.

The mixed martial arts arrival of karate and kickboxing standout Stephen Thompson to the UFC raised eyebrows before he ever set foot in the Octagon. By the time he fought and won his first bout at UFC 143 and walked out of the cage, he put the MMA world on notice. A blistering front-leg roundhouse kick - one Thompson has used his entire kickboxing career - sent opponent Dan Stittgen crashing to the mat.

What made me curious was not only why that particular combination worked, but how Thompson planned to leverage his unorthodox skill set against the talent the UFC welterweight division had to offer. Machida made his style of karate work for him, but could Thompson or other karatekas do the same?

I spoke with Thompson a week after his UFC 143 win to understand more about how he won his fight. More specifically, I wanted to know how he planned to stay true to his karate roots and continuing winning. Outside of Lyoto Machida, can the various different styles of karate be retrofitted to deal with the challenges of modern MMA?

In this interview with MMA Fighting, Thompson discusses the fight-ending combination he used on Stittgen at UFC 143, but also the health of the sport of karate, how karate styles differ from one another and the methods he's used to adapt his game for mixed martial arts.

Full audio and partial transcription below:

Luke Thomas: I want to talk to you about how you actually won and karate if we can. Talk us through the final move. I saw somewhere in another article you had called it "The Moneymaker." From a technical perspective, imagine you're talking to your students, how did you execute that final kick?

Stephen Thompson: Well, actually, "The Moneymaker" is a combination of using kickboxing and it's a very simple combination. It's a simple jab-cross and you can use the back leg or the front leg round kick or a roundhouse kick. It was actually very simple. I listened to my coaches and sometimes they see stuff outside the cage that I don't see but I did know that whenever I threw a combination or my punches, after I threw the punch or the combination, he would drop his hands directly after which set up "The Moneymaker" perfectly because 1-2, the jab cross and there's kind of a delay between the punches and the kick so as his hands started dropping, that's when the foot came over the shoulder and he didn't see it. Those are the techniques that hurt, the ones you don't see.

Luke Thomas: The jab-cross, is that designed to back him up? Is that designed to create timing? What's the purpose of it?

Stephen Thompson: It's just, the roundhouse follows the 1-2. I use it as more of a distraction. I don't try to hit them with it, I just try to throw it in their faces to they don't see that leg coming over top.

Luke Thomas: Now it looked to me like it's a very similar kick to a Brazilian kick. Is that a fair characterization?

Stephen Thompson: Yeah, you kind of roll it over. You see a lot of muay Thai throw the kick at a 45 degree angle, but I like to roll the hip over and that's where the power comes from off that lead leg is just the turning of the hip.

Luke Thomas: What is your opinion about muay Thai? Would you ever study it? Do you feel like you need it to compliment your game at this level?

Stephen Thompson: Oh, definitely. I've got a muay Thai coach here. Even though my striking is a little different and my stance is different, it's good to know all aspects of the game and you've got a lot of guys who, their stand-up is muay Thai, which is a lot different than my style. Just the knees and elbows and the clinchwork, that's just an art in its own. I've got a muay Thai coach. We work in the clinch. We work knees, we work elbows, we work defense so it's different. Actually, I like it because I like to know all aspects of the MMA game.

Luke Thomas: Is there a different ethos to Thai boxing? Thai boxing, if you watch it in real life, especially in the third rounds, it's very aggressive, like this war of attrition and many times they just stand in front of each other and just go to work. Your striking style seems to be a little bit of "less is more." Is that a fair characterization as well?

Stephen Thompson: Yeah. You get a lot of the muay Thai guys, they're so conditioned. The shins, thighs, form, elbows, everything is so conditioned they can just stand there and take those shots. With me, one shot could definitely determine the outcome of the fight so I don't want to get hit at all. So instead of just standing there in front of somebody taking those shots, I'd rather move a half a step back to where it barely misses me and then counter off of that.

Luke Thomas: When you look at a fight like the first Shogun versus Machida fight, where nobody had figured out Machida and then Shogun went in there and did his Thai boxing right in front of Machida and most people believe obviously that Shogun won and then in the follow-up he won rather handily. What happened there? I heard some people suggesting maybe that Shogun's style of Thai boxing is maybe better than Machida's style of karate. What's your response to that?

Stephen Thompson: I wouldn't say one style is better than the other. It's just how you execute it during the fight. Obviously, Shogun definitely showed the conditioning and the strength and whatever Machida threw at him, he was conditioned to take those shots and plant. As Machida came in, he just planted his feet and countered off of Machida. He hit Machida as he came in so his timing was really on that day. I've had the privilege to train with Machida. He's amazing. His movement, his timing, his speed is awesome but I think Shogun had the better day that day.

Luke Thomas: Let's talk a little more about Machida. What is it about his karate game? Like if you had to describe his karate game to other people who maybe haven't seen him but had also trained karate, what would you say?

Stephen Thompson: I would say, it's very similar to mine. He likes to stay on the outside. He likes to blitz. He covers distance very quickly. He stays out of your reach but then he can cover that distance and people don't expect it and he hits you with it and then he's back out again before you can hit him. The only thing about that is, I find too that you have to be able to keep that pace up. It's very tiring having to move in and out and in and out very quickly. Your conditioning has to be on point.

With me, I know Machida now too, our conditioning definitely plays a factor in a fight. He's very quick and one of the things that makes him so quick is his timing. There's no telegraph in his technique, none at all. Just like Anderson Silva, I had the privilege to train with him and those two are training partners. He's not quick, he just has amazing timing and there's just no telegraph and that makes it appear that he's very fast.

Luke Thomas: Talk to me about some of the stances that you take in karate. I don't mean metaphorically, I mean literally. There were times during your fight in the UFC where you were basically perpendicular with him. Do you believe that you can really keep that style of karate and still excel against the better wrestlers in the welterweight division?

Stephen Thompson: Yeah, I've also had the privilege of being able to be one of Georges St. Pierre's training partners and I know up in Tristar, there's some phenomenal wrestlers. That stance that I have, it makes it a little easier for me to stand against a double leg takedown. I would give a wrestler my front leg because I can defend that and I can counter off him going for my front leg but when they go for both, it's very difficult to defend against a double. So the reason I stand almost sideways is number one, I use my front leg a lot with the front kick and side kicks. I almost use it as a jab to keep them away and it's very hard to catch a leg actually coming straight at you like those high kicks and stuff so I use it a lot against wrestlers. It's very hard to catch. It's almost like the Frank Shamrock and Cung Le fight. Frank Shamrock was a great wrestler, Cung Le was a former kickboxer and he used his high kicks very well and Frank had a very hard time taking him down. I switch sides which throws a lot of wrestlers off too.

Luke Thomas: Do you believe that that style, that position will be effective against say an ankle pick or a single leg?

Stephen Thompson: You know what? It really depends on who the wrestler is. Georges St. Pierre, if he wants to take you down, you're going down. He's trained with the Olympic team and he does a lot of that stuff. Of course I'm finding different way to defend against it. I've had people throws those on me a lot and sometimes I've been taken down by it and sometimes I defend them. It's just whether or not I can see it coming or not.

Luke Thomas: Why haven't other guys who maybe have achieved similar levels to you in kickboxing, is there any desire from them to crossover? Have you talked to them? What's their opinion about maybe making a move to MMA like you have?

Stephen Thompson: Yeah, actually he kickboxing world back when I first started was very big. Kickboxing is dying out here in the States. Over in Europe, it's still very big but even with K-1, one of the most popular kickboxing organizations in the world, you don't it as much just because MMA is overshadowing everything and UFC is one of the fastest growing sports in the world so you're going to see a lot more kickboxer/strikers move over to the MMA world but the thing is, the question is, can they adapt to it like others? Sometimes, you get kickboxers and all they've done is striking and they don't have the wrestling or jiu-jitsu background that I have had since I was young. It's just a question or not on if they're going to be able to adapt to it, but I think you'll see a lot more kickboxers moving over to MMA.

Luke Thomas: You mentioned one thing over and over again and I just want to make sure I'm clear on it. Do you believe Thai boxers or Thai boxing places a stronger emphasis on physical conditioning than say, the kind of kickboxing we saw that you have practiced historically?

Stephen Thompson: Body conditioning, I would say yes because a lot of those guys, their shins are like metal poles and they condition all of that. I do that to some sort, but in muay Thai, over in Thailand, they're kicking rubber tires daily. I think they emphasize that more in Thai boxing than American style kickboxing. They want to stand there and take those shots and counter but I want to counter off of when you miss me so it's a a little bit different. I still my conditioning but not as intense as the muay Thai.

Luke Thomas: Talk to me about Cung Le. He's a taekwondo black belt and he certainly has his own style, but what would you say is the difference for folks who never trained karate and never trained taekwondo. What is the difference for the kinds of striking he brings from taekwondo that you bring from karate?

Stephen Thompson: Well, the kicks in taekwondo are very similar. We roll the hips over like muay Thai, their kicks, they kick at a 45 degree angle so they get the majority of their shin into their target. I like to roll it over because I get more power in my kicks even though I'm not hitting with all my shin. Taekwondo, those are some major kickers right there. That's what they bring. That's all they do is the kicks. They don't have the punching and the ground but it's more of a kicking art than anything. Our kicks are very similar. We like to roll our hips over and they like the flashy spins which in MMA can catch an MMA fighter off guard just because they're not used to seeing it as much, but it's just the way they set their kicks up. It's very similar.

Luke Thomas: Talk to me about the different kinds of karate. We hear about all sorts of backgrounds . There's Shotokan which I believe is the kind that Machida comes from, there's a kind St. Pierre comes from, kyokushin, and then we hear about kenpo. What separates the different types of karate?

Stephen Thompson: I would say they're all fairly similar. At one point, they all come from one style and it just kind of branched off from there and then you come up from these many different styles. It's almost like the Gracies and judo. They branched off from judo and created Brazilian jiu-jitsu. They all have their similarities. My background in karate is a little more, we do our traditional stuff, but from the point-sparring game. You look at Machida as more traditional, his style is more traditional but it's kind of Americanized a little bit, the point fighting. That's where we kind of get different in our styles. It's kind of hard to explain really.

Luke Thomas: I've read that the kyokushin tournaments are a little more full contact. Is that true?

Stephen Thompson: Yes, that is true. I've done some kyokushin tournaments before and definitely a little more contact in there. They're pretty much going full contact, they just can't punch in the face. They're bare knuckle, bare fist, they can hit to the body. They can kick to the head. They can kick to the leg. They can knee to the body. They can elbow to the body so it's more of something you would see in MMA striking than point fighting is.

Point fighting, I can compete with a kid just because it wasn't as rough as kyokushin, but it definitely helps with the movement and speed and accuracy in your techniques because in point fighting, you've got to get from point A to point B faster than your opponent. Whoever can cover that distance first will end up winning, getting that strike off or hitting them with that. So we've combined that with the full contact.

Luke Thomas: How is the health of the sport in American in terms of karate? Obviously, with the growth of MMA, in some ways it feels like karate got put on the backburner. It was big in the 80s and part of the 90s and now I'm not sure how big it is. How is the health of the sport here in America?

Stephen Thompson: The point karate sport or all karate sports?

Luke Thomas: I guess karate more generally.

Stephen Thompson: It's been so long that I've actually been in the point karate game. 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. The competitive part of it, I haven't been in the point fighting game in such a long time so I'm really not sure where that lies. You hear of karate tournaments here and there, but everybody nowadays, they want to compete in MMA. Like I said before, it's the fastest growing sport in the world.

Luke Thomas: If folks want to learn more about karate and they want to get on YouTube and you could name maybe two or three other guys who have a similar background to yours, maybe not identical but similar. Give me names of some interesting strikers who have a similar background to yours that maybe others should look into.

Stephen Thompson: 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.

Luke Thomas: You didn't have any Octagon jitters and if you look at your career, it makes sense. Yes, you've only had just barely more than a handful of fights in MMA but you've been a competitor at some level of martial arts for quite some time and at some pretty high levels. Would you say that just being an active and high level competitor generally can really help negate any Octagon jitters you might get?

Stephen Thompson: Oh yeah, definitely. I've been competing for a very long time and I still get the Octagon jitters or ring jitters because it definitely helps you out. It keeps you sharp because it makes you more body aware. Just as long as you don't let it overcome you, you get a lot of fighters who just get that adrenaline dump and they tire themselves out in the first round because of the nerves but you've got to learn to control it some. How to do that is to keep positive people around you who can give you positive feedback, give you positive energy before you step out in the cage and that's what helps me out so some of these up and coming fighters, especially amateurs, really think about doing that.

In Technique Talk, we'll not only explore the techniques that win fights, but where they come from, why they're used and what they say about the fighters who employ them.