Katate Combat might not be the most established or well known name in fight promotion, but it might be the only one that can be called retro-futuristic. Two men in karate gi pants, stripped to the waist but still wearing black belts, fight out of long karate stances in a giant pit with sloped sides at the center of a sparsely-populated warehouse. It could have been plucked from the mind of a gawky teen reading Black Belt magazine in the 1980s, imagining what the gladiatorial combat of the distant future would look like.
Most fight fans likely heard of Karate Combat when Pancrase legend, Bas Rutten appeared on Joe Rogan’s MMA podcast last week. Rutten, a man who got his start in knockdown karate, has a tremendous amount of goodwill with MMA fans and the great minds behind Karate Combat obviously realized that when they hired him to commentate their first fights. If Bas Rutten was on board, it had to be worth a look right? Bas wouldn’t attach his name to just anything.
Karate Combat has uploaded its preseason fights to YouTube, and apparently once their official season begins their fights will be available through a free stream on their website. The owners might be trying to copy Bellator’s brave model of not worrying about making money back, but as the large logo on the center of their mat indicates—they have landed a major cryptocurrency sponsorship. Time will tell whether or not this is good for Bitcoin—a Bitcoin awareness group set it up—but Karate Combat scored its biggest victory by securing the domain name Karate.com, which we can only imagine cost more than all the fighter’s purses combined.
While Rutten himself practiced Kyokushin karate, a knockdown style, the competitors in Karate Combat have come from point fighting backgrounds. Both styles of karate competition have substantial flaws once you open up the rules to make it an actual full contact fight—knockdown karate is about standing toe-to-toe and trading body shots, point karate is about being touched as little as possible but action completely halts once the point has been scored. Karate Combat is trying to do full-contact point fighting, but the results have been so-so.
The point fighting game rewards throws and sweeps very highly if they are followed by a strike. Rafael Aghayev, a great competition karateka who appears in one of Karate Combat’s preseason bouts, has made a career out of bursting in on taller opponents and throwing them to the mat. We examined this extensively in Lyoto Machida and the Double Edged Sword of Competition Karate.
Of course, karate’s rules on sweeps and follow ups were made back in the 1960s and 1970s, when going to the ground meant dying in the eyes of most karateka. Now we know that the vast majority of the time you won’t have much success punching down on someone. So Karate Combat allows its fighters to strike from above the opponent for a set time—according to Rutten on JRE, five seconds, though it seems to be entirely the referee’s discretion. It makes for awkward viewing as men who don’t know a thing about the ground game spastically flail their legs in answer to the fumbling downward punches of the opponent.
The vast majority of fights then go to a decision and are awarded to the man who fumbled his way to completing the most takedowns. Additionally, Karate Combat allows single leg and double leg takedown attempts but with no uppercuts, no knees, no submissions, and no continuance on the ground, there is nothing to stop or deter them.
It’s essentially Sanshou if you removed half the weapons. The only way to punish a takedown attempt that any of the preseason fighters found was to throw straight punches to the opponent’s brain stem and rely on the referee being completely decorative.
Karate Combat seem to want to stay as close to point karate as possible, hence the ban on hooks and uppercuts, but it allows "long hooks," or furi-uchi if you’re feeling fancy. Blows that land with the ridgehand surface are allowed which amounted to Aghayev being able to throw overhands at his confused opponent.
More noticeable is the lack of true hooks. Their absence complies with the idea of it being a karate thing, but this writer suspects the moment the left hook is brought in you will start seeing a lot more knockouts. Why? Competition karate ends at the point and emphasizes the rear hand. Fighters completely disregard what happens after their own attempt to score, instead choosing to hold out an open lead hand and pose for the judges while whooping out a kiai.
In the few fights that Karate Combat has hosted you can watch the fighters again and again get cracked with awkwardly angled lead hand punches immediately after they throw the rear hand.
Sometimes both get cracked at once. The rear hand is always dangling, the head is always high. Allow the hook and a retired Felix Trinidad can enter and be crowned the greatest karateka in the world. This is the reason that at any WKF or JKA kumite event there is always a grizzly knockout—chins are high in the air and hands are low for hikite to score points. Karate Combat’s only two knockouts have been scored as men tried to trade with their head straight up, then turned their back as soon as they were cracked clean.
The other decision in the rules pointed out on Joe Rogan's podcast was the choice to allow low kicks below the knee but not above. Karateka have been gaming this rule since the 1980s; you aren’t allowed to kick your opponent’s leg but you can attempt a “leg sweep.” Elwyn Hall made a point karate career out of delivering low-low kicks and claiming they were sweeps.
Most high level karate competitions are much stricter on sweeps nowadays. In fact some specify that the sweep must be done with the sole of the foot, or that the foot must be in contact with the floor when it makes contact with the opponent. Either way, the Karate Combat competitors took to the low-low kick like ducks to water because it is presented so readily in the typical point karate stance. Rafael Aghayev hurt his man with one and the two paused to check that yes, it was indeed legal.
The most likely reason that the promoters are reluctant to allow kicks higher on the leg or hooks is that the more restrictions you lift, the less reason there is for this to look like point karate. A full contact fight is not about scoring one perfect point and then stopping, and is rarely about covering huge distances in a bounding step with the head straight up in the air. If Karate Combat can run a few events, it will be fascinating to see how the styles of the fighters adapt because the promotion wants its product to remain recognisably karate while taking away the one thing—the points system—which made karate into the elusive style of fighting it is.
The final decision that Karate Combat made which cannot go without scrutiny is the pit. Long time readers of Fightland, and followers of the most obscure types of MMA, will fondly recall the Yamma pit. Yamma Pit Fighting teased a new fighting surface that would revolutionize MMA as we knew it. The Yamma pit, a regular cage with a mat that sloped up towards the fences, was supposed to prevent stalemates along the fence and make it more difficult for wrestlers to stall. Unfortunately all that happened was that it made takedowns easier and then left the bottom man on a slope.
You can’t shrimp and play guard on an incline, you can’t wall walk up on a slope. Every bout in the Yamma tournament saw a quick and easy takedown turn into a stalling top performance.
Of course wall-walking and guard play aren’t going to be an issue in Karate Combat, so really the sole purpose the slope serves is tripping anyone who gets near to it. A couple of fighters tried to use the slope to throw a superman punch, but ultimately wound up being easily bundled over as a result and then didn’t try again.
One karateka tried to perform an Anthony Pettis wall run, but again, the walls are sloped so he had to go considerably further off to one side as his opponent easily circled away.
The only practical use for the angle of the slope so far was found by one fighter who held himself up while trading less-than-vicious side kicks with his opponent in symmetrical non-violence.
Then there are the production issues. Karate Combat has invested heavily in a number of cameras and angles that have never even been seen in combat sports before, because they are pointless. As a basic rule in combat sports production—whether it be kickboxing, boxing or anything else—the camera must show a side view of the combatants with as much of each competitor in the shot as possible. Any time the camera is behind a fighter, the view of the action is being obstructed. Any time you shoot a close up of a fighter’s chest and face, you are wasting the audience’s time. Yet Karate Combat’s auteur seems to think that mid fight is a good time to cut to three different wide angle shots of the crowd that isn’t present, followed by an overhead shot. It’s made worse by the fact that both men are wearing white trousers and black belts with nothing significant to differentiate them.
Across seven fights, there were occasional moments of impressive combat sporting prowess. Aghayev with pick ups is a fun sight, and from an open stance position some fighters showed the beautiful reverse punch which competition karate is built around.
The trend with "revolutionary" ideas in the fight racket is that they don’t tend to stick around long. Bob Meyrowitz and Art Davie followed up founding the Ultimate Fighting Championship by creating the aforementioned Yamma Pit-fighting and X-Arm (arm wrestling with strikes) respectively. Neither of those had a second event because they were garbage. The joy of combat sports is in the simplicity—the more permissive the rule set, the more approaches you will see develop towards winning a fight.
For the most part Karate Combat is heavy on gimmick and light on substance. There might be something here if the promotion stays around long enough to tidy up its rules, particularly if they can keep paying decently talented karateka for long enough to develop some sort of meta-game. Frankly the whole endeavor might be a combat sports version of The Producers—a scheme to drive a terrible idea into the ground and flee with investors’ money—but the production values seem just a little too good for that to be the case. If Karate Combat actually goes ahead with its planned events, they will be worth watching just for a laugh. Just don’t expect The Kumite and a night full of spectacular knockouts, because takedowns and wrestling still rule the fight game even if the fighters are wearing gis and made to stand up after the fight hits the mat.