Styles Make Fights But Fighters Make Styles

(Photo by Paul Thatcher)
(Photo by Paul Thatcher)

Lyoto Machida has inspired hyperbole unmatched since Royce Gracie’s glory days. He appears untouchable, invincible, doing damage at will while rarely if ever getting hit. Pundits and fans are quick to credit Machida’s success to his family’s style of karate but while it’s true that styles make fights, it’s the fighters who make styles.

In The Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explores the causation of extraordinary success; what enables the Wayne Gretzky’s, Bill Gates’, and Yo Yo Ma’s of the world to achieve greatness. There are many factors that contribute to the creation of world-class hockey players, software programmers, and cellists, but one of them jumps out as being particularly relevant to sport fighting, and that is the rule of 10,000 hours.

In Gladwell’s research he found that all of his subjects had achieved minimum of 10,000 hours of practical experience by the time they had reached a breakthrough: the draft, a eureka moment, acceptance to Julliard. For a hockey player it was ice time, for a programmer it was time spent in front of a monitor, for a musician it was time spent with bow in hand. Assuming age, ability, and socio-economic status are the same between two subjects, ten thousand hours was the line of demarcation between damn good and great. To put that number in context, it averages out to almost 2.75 hours per day, every day, for ten years.

Now there are many tens of thousands of black belts in the world but mixed martial arts has proven that rank is rarely a predictor of success in the ring or cage. That’s because every fighting system is broken down into sets of rudimentary movements and principles. Learning them is rarely difficult but applying them nearly always is, and that’s where the 10,000 hours comes in to play.

Lyoto Machida is a world-class athlete raised by an old-school Japanese karateka. Ability and environment, two key factors in Gladwell’s research, were in place. Yoshizo trained his Brazilian-born sons to be modern samurai – early mornings, hard work, and long hours were the norm for the youngest Machida, who probably passed the 10,000-hour mark before he started shaving.

After thousands and thousands of repetitions technique becomes muscle memory, theory becomes reflex, and a fighter begins to express him or herself instinctually. Machida may be rooted theoretically and technically in karate and judo, but years of free form fighting in the gym, ring, and cage, have allowed him to achieve what Bruce Lee called “the style of no style.”

This punch may come from karate, that throw may be textbook judo. But his fights are peppered with bits of wrestling, muay Thai, and Brazilian jiu jitsu as well. A lot of what “The Dragon” does is dependent on timing, rhythm and range that he honed over years of training. His stance and footwork are also products of experience. What Machida does can be learned but much of it can’t be taught.

For every Lyoto Machida there is an army of karate black belts who can’t fight their way out of a paper bag. Style does not guarantee success; it is simply the starting point on a 10,000-hour journey.

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