Top 5 Traditional Martial Artists in MMA

The traditional martial arts of karate, taekwondo, and judo have made a comeback in the sport of MMA in recent years. After all, back in the early UFC days they were in effect considered useless by many accounts in the cage. Not so much anymore.

Which leads us to our list of the top 5 traditional martial artists in MMA today. Keep in mind the criteria here, which are the following:

  • Only MMA fighters with significant training in either karate, judo, or taekwondo will be considered. There are other traditional styles, of course, such as aikido, but to date there are no high level competitors effectively using such training in the cage.
  • It's not enough simply to have a background in the traditional arts. One has to use it to a significant extent in the cage.
  • High level fighters, either by record, fighting organization, or both, will be considered over others.

Honorable Mention- Anderson Silva

UFC Champion Anderson Silva
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Silva did not come from a wealthy background, but by the age of 12 or 14 (depending on the article you read) his family was able to muster enough money for him to take taekwondo lessons. It was the first martial arts style he took seriously. And eventually, Silva achieved black belt status in it. More recently, the Brazilian Confederation of Taekwondo honored him, shortly after that Vitor Belfort front kick knockout, with a 5th dan promotion.

In the end, Silva uses a variety of fighting techniques from taekwondo, Capoeira, karate (see those side kicks to the knees), and especially Muay Thai on his feet. He makes honorable mention on this list not because he is a pure taekwondo stylist, as he is not. But his use of many traditional techniques which seem to lead to pinpoint striking and the most impressive string of victories ever, make it appropriate that we mention him.

5. Georges St. Pierre

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St. Pierre is a Kyokushin black belt (full contact karate fighter) who attributes a lot of his success to what he learned while training. First, his striking is very accurate. Next, it is powerful. And finally, he possesses very good kicks, a staple of the traditional arts.

Beyond that, St. Pierre believes that karate training improved his overall explosiveness for all aspects of martial arts. Why is one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time only number five on this list? Simply because his obvious use of the traditional arts is somewhat limited in that he has become best known for his wrestling, ground and pound, and jab in the Octagon, none of which are truly traditional in nature. But mostly based on his belief regarding how much the traditional arts have helped him, he lands at number five.

4. Cung Le

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At the age of 10, Le was enrolled in taekwondo classes by his mother. And that plus his high level wrestling background have felled opponents ever since.

Le is a spinning back kick and side kick waiting to happen, which are both staples of taekwondo. His punches are of a traditional mindset as well, in that most are very straight. And his obvious traditional background has done him very well in Sanshou (kung fu based kickboxing) and MMA competition.

In fact, if Le was still competing on a regular basis, he would likely be higher on this list. But given the lesser amount of fights he now takes, he comes in at number 4.

3. Anthony Pettis

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Pettis is a 3rd degree black belt in taekwondo who still trains in the discipline today. He attributes a lot of his success to the style. And the way he is able to kick- fast, without warning, and with great athleticism- one cannot argue with his use of his traditional background, nor his inclusion on this list.

Jumping round kick off the cage to drop Ben Henderson- yep, that's all I need to say. In fact, if it wasn't for the fact that we've seen Pettis use his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and wrestling background before to win fights, he might be ahead of the next person on our list.

2. Ronda Rousey

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When Rousey was young, her mother, a judo black belt, would constantly put her in positions where she had employ an armbar. Guess what? She got awful good at it, as evidenced by her 7 wins in MMA by way of armbar (all of her wins and fights to date have ended in this fashion, actually). In sum, Rousey, a Bronze Medalist in judo at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, almost seems to exclusively use her judo training in MMA. Her takedowns, overall strength gained from the sport, and submissions are thus far her entire arsenal.

Thus, she relies on her traditional martial arts background as much as anyone, and has been very, very successful with it. Thus, her standing at number two on this list.

1. Lyoto Machida

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Karate is back in MMA folks, and the reason for that is Lyoto Machida. The Dragon is the epitome of karate, namely Shotokan karate, done right in MMA. He kicks like a karate practitioner. His unbelievable elusiveness and movement comes from a point fighting background. And like all karate practitioners, his attacks are sudden and deadly.

Machida uses his background in the traditional arts as well as anyone, he uses it often, and he is a very, very high level fighter. For those reasons and the fact that his use of karate seems to have spurred on the traditional martial arts movement in MMA, he deserves to be number one on our list.