Kenpo is not only an effective martial art for practical self-defense, it’s also effective when elements of Kenpo’s style and techniques are incorporated into the tool bag of any mixed martial artist.
That doesn’t mean that Kenpo should be the only style utilized by an MMA practitioner. It is called mixed martial arts for a reason. The master of Kenpo isn’t just going into the arena to fight other Kenpo stylists.
But it doesn’t mean a Kenpo master can’t maintain their grounded, well-constructed foundation while also incorporating other styles. In a way, Kenpo already does this through the blending of Jiu-Jitsu, Karate, and kickboxing into its primary form and education.
In the end, there is an argument to be made that Kenpo is effective in MMA. So, let’s examine why.
Is Kenpo Effective in MMA?
Kenpo is effective in MMA for several reasons, ranging from fast, powerful strikes to quick footwork to an emphasis on defense when in close-quarter combat. It doesn’t play lightly and seeks the quickest way to victory while minimizing damage to oneself.
Sounds like that would be useful in an MMA environment.
What is also useful, in the broader scheme of things, is that Kenpo incorporates other forms under its umbrella.
There tends to be a heavy emphasis on striking, kicking, combinations of both, circular movement, evasiveness, and footwork.
In addition, depending on the school you train at or receive instruction from, you’ll probably learn a lot of groundwork and submissions.
All of this is quite effective for use in MMA while sticking to your Kenpo roots.
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However, there are some drawbacks in Kenpo that aren’t effective in MMA. This has a lot to do with the rules of MMA and the intention of Kenpo.
Remember, Kenpo is first and foremost a martial art that exists to teach someone self-defense. Brutal self-defense against, what is assumed, is a vicious attack.
Yes, MMA has its share of vicious attacks where it would be great to know the defense techniques of Kenpo. But the rules of MMA kind of frown on a lot of what Kenpo Karate teaches to counter such attacks.
You know, like eye-gouging, fish hooking, throat shots, and foot-stomping on downed opponents. Kenpo also includes killing techniques like neck-breaking. Yeah, MMA doesn’t want any of that smoke.
So, it’s probably better to say a great number of elements of Kenpo are effective in MMA, but the practitioner of Kenpo will definitely have to tailor their use of said elements to conform to MMA rules.
Kenpo vs MMA: Who Wins?
If a straight-up Kenpo practitioner fought a professional mixed martial artist, the winner would probably be dependent on the environment. That’s not to run away from answering the question. The reason for the vagueness is the environment absolutely needs to be taken into account.
Say a Kenpo artist stepped into the arena with just their basic knowledge and squared off against an MMA professional.
If the Kenpo artist has no real ground game or is limited to basic defense on the ground, you can assume their submission game is also probably lacking.
If they fight an MMA fighter with limited striking experience but excellent on the ground, the Kenpo artist will want to stay on his or her feet for as long as possible.
In this scenario, the Kenpo artist has a chance, but if they go to the ground, they’re more than likely done.
But, if the Kenpo artist can get in some heavy strikes or kicks, with their speed and power, they can absolutely win.
If a Kenpo artist with a lot of experience on the ground squares off against someone who is also a gifted striker and has a good ground game, then you probably have a push or a winner in the form of Kenpo. See Chuck Liddell, who will be covered later.
Now flip the script.
Say an MMA fighter decides to try and rough up a true Kenpo fighter on a subway car. And by true, this Kenpo fighter is true. Someone who doesn’t just practice techniques but spars often and has been in Kenpo for a while.
The reason being this will not be a fair fight and the Kenpo fighter will go for every weakness the MMA fighter allows access to. And it will happen fast.
Before it’s said and done, the MMA fighter will have received an eye gouge, a hard kick to the knee, a shot to the testicles, and probably a throat shot or an elbow to the face.
The best the MMA fighter can do is get in an early strike to keep the Kenpo fighter from closing the distance and getting in his or her strikes, or grapple the Kenpo fighter, secure their arms, and get them down to the ground.
But beware, Kenpo artists also like headbutting and throwing knees, especially when their arms are pinned.
Kenpo Fighters in UFC
There are several fighters that have fought in the UFC that also have backgrounds in Kenpo. What will be emphasized here is the word background. Why? Because, as with almost all UFC and MMA fighters, they tend to have backgrounds in other martial arts as well.
Below you’ll find a couple of stand-outs that have Kenpo within their arsenal.
Notice there won’t be an emphasis on whether their background is in Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu or Kenpo Karate.
It’s enough to just identify Kenpo because, more than likely, they also have backgrounds in such arts as kickboxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Vale Tudo, amateur wrestling, etc.
Chuck Liddell’s Kenpo Black Belt
Chuck Liddell is a legend in MMA and the UFC. Some even consider him one of the saviors of the UFC that helped keep it afloat with viewers during the rocky ownership years of the early 2000s. He is also a black belt in Kenpo.
Chuck would have needed to dedicate at least two years of training to earn his black belt in Karate, this is a common Karate belt order and time investment required.
That doesn’t mean Kenpo, in and of itself, made Chuck Liddell a champion. But it sure as hell didn’t hurt.
As with the bulk of MMA fighters, Liddell also has a background in a variety of other styles.
He started studying Koeikan Karate at age 12, wrestled in high school and in college at California Polytechnic State University in Division 1, kickboxed, and trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Later, he earned his black belt in Hawaiian Kempo, where he continued to train throughout his career. In fact, he earned his name “The Iceman” from his Kempo instructor and trainer, John Hackleman.
Side Note 1: Kenpo and Kempo mean the same thing. The only thing that is different is the English spelling. Translated, both mean either “Fist Art” or “Fist Method”.
Side Note 2: Hawaiian Kempo is derived from Kajukenbo, which was derived from the original Kenpo Karate form started by William K. S. Chow in Hawaii in the mid-1940s. With Kajukenbo and later Hawaiian Kenpo, more emphasis was put on techniques that “work in the streets”, eliminating stuff that may be considered superfluous (like katas).
If you’ve ever seen a Chuck Liddell fight, you’ve probably heard the term “sprawl and brawl”. This is an appropriate way to describe Liddell’s fighting style.
He emphasized and leaned heavily on keeping his fights upright with devastating strikes, elbows, and knees (the Kenpo and kickboxing stuff) and defended against going to the ground as much as possible (the wrestling background).
Chuck Liddell is a perfect example of how the elements and philosophy of Kenpo can be utilized in MMA.
Glover Teixeira’s Kenpo Black Belt
Like Chuck Liddell, Glover Teixeira is a well-respected MMA fighter who fights in the UFC. In fact, he’s due for a Light Heavyweight Championship shot in the near future. Oh, and he’s also a black belt in Kenpo.
It should be noted he did not start out in Kenpo. Teixeira, from Brazil originally, started in the world of martial arts by studying Boxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Later, he caught the eye of John Hackleman (yes, that same John Hackleman) and began to train under him and with Chuck Liddell in Hawaiian Kempo and MMA.
Currently, he holds black belts in Hawaiian Kempo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Vale Tudo. See, successful MMA fighters equal a blend of several arts.
Besides fighting in the UFC, Teixeira has also opened his own school of MMA training (appropriately named Teixeira MMA & Fitness), which emphasizes study in Kempo, Jiu-Jitsu, kickboxing, boxing, grappling, and submission wrestling.
Each MMA fighter brings with them a plethora of forms they’ve cobbled together and mastered to become a good “all-around” fighter.
Striking, grappling, groundwork. Every fighter should be proficient at most of those three to become a champion.
Kenpo is a very useful form to incorporate into a fighter’s bag of tricks. Especially, the focus on movement, speed, and combinations. What doesn’t work for MMA is all the eye-gouging and killing stuff.
As with any martial art, there are many aspects within Kenpo that can be utilized in MMA.
This is another article from our What is Kenpo? series, where our Kenpo Karate Instructor, Erik, teaches you more about this significant martial art.
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Erik Williams is a former naval officer and defense contractor (but he’s not allowed to talk about it). He is also the author of Demon, Guardian, Bigfoot Crank Stomp, and numerous small press works and short stories. He’s also a certified Kenpo instructor in the Tracy Kenpo Karate system.