Shotokan Karate Stylist Lyoto Machida: MMA’s Black Swan

The current light-heavyweight king of the mixed martial arts is Lyoto Machida, a dyed-in-the-wool shotokan karate stylist. Sure, he’s also a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, but when he’s on his feet and knocking people out, he’s mostly using shotokan karate techniques. Watching him take apart top fighters with his shotokan skills is definitely satisfying for martial arts pluralists like me, but it’s more than that. Lyoto Machida’s career is one long object lesson in how knowledge can limit us.

We learn about the world through direct observation, but no one can observe or experience everything. That makes all personal knowledge finite. Because of that, we have to take the sum of our experiences and make judgments about truth based on our limited knowledge. That means extending the most reliable truths and assuming that they’ll continue to be true in the future. It’s called inductive reasoning, and it’s almost the default setting for how-to experts like martial artists. But there are problems with induction. The most important one for us is that there’s no guarantee that any truth, no matter how reliable it’s been, will continue to be true. Lyoto Machida’s career in MMA is a good example of this.

After a period of style-vs.-style experimentation in the 1990s, MMA settled into a nice groove. Everybody learned from those matches, and people who wanted to win cross-trained in the winningest styles: muay Thai, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing and Olympic wrestling. Because we learned that these ways of fighting had consistently worked well, we “knew” they’d work in the future. Other styles, like karate and kung fu, had failed miserably in MMA, and we “knew” they could safely be ignored. But what happens when an Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder is a karate guy that no one can beat? We run up against the problem of induction.

The classic example of this is the black swan. We see a number of swans over a stretch of time, maybe years. Every swan we see is white. Because we’re not able to observe every swan in existence, we reason from what we’ve seen that all swans are white. We even feel safe in saying we know that all swans are white. Then a black swan shows up, and inductive reasoning looks pretty weak. It didn’t really give us the truth, and it didn’t prepare us for an anomaly like a black swan.

Right now, Lyoto Machida is our black swan. He’s the guy who shouldn’t exist but does. He’s the champion who puts the lie to any blanket dismissal of karate in elite MMA competition. It doesn’t matter if it turns out that Lyoto Machida is the only martial artist who can make shotokan work at that level. Just like one black swan changes what we know about swans, one karate guy winning the UFC belt is enough to change what we know about karate and MMA. In both cases, all it takes is one example to show us the limits of our knowledge and the need to learn and understand more.

Of course, there have been other black swans in MMA. When everybody knew that stand-up fighters were easy prey for wrestlers and jiu-jitsu stylists, kickboxer Maurice Smith won the UFC heavyweight title. When everyone knew that pro wrestlers were just entertainers who couldn’t actually fight, wrestler Kazushi Sakuraba was tearing up the middleweight division. When everybody knew that muay Thai was the best way to fight standing up, Manson Gibson was winning titles using a backfist, a side kick and lots of lunatic spinning techniques. Sometimes these men changed our minds about what was effective, and sometimes they didn’t. What they didn’t change was the tendency to believe that the future will be like the past.

The lesson we should all learn from the black swans of the fighting sports is that inductive reasoning can take us only so far. After a point, it becomes a self-justifying circle (i.e., reasoning inductively because it’s worked in the past) and inadvertently limits knowledge. The way forward is to go beyond what we know and discover what impossible things we can make possible. If we’re as talented as Lyoto Machida, that way might lead to the top.

(Keith Vargo is a freelance writer, researcher, martial arts instructor and author of Philosophy of Fighting: Morals and Motivations of the Modern Warrior.)

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