Katsunori Kikuno (22-5) has a reputation in Japan for the unorthodox yet effective striking style which helped establish him as one of the country's leading lightweights, as well as the Deep 155-pound champion. He wasn't so well known outside of Asian MMA circles until the UFC picked him up and put him on the inaugural Singapore card earlier this month.
Kikuno was up against the much taller Quinn Mulhern but was able to comprehensively outclass him despite hanging his hands by his waist in a traditional Karate stance. The tall Hawaiian was frustrated throughout by his inability to land any meaningful shots on an opponent who had no guard whatsoever.
After the fight, a Japanese journalist told me that Kikuno never practices striking for MMA, preferring instead to perform the Karate form or "Kata." It is an intriguing rumor, but one the 32 year old Japanese fighter immediately debunked.
"Actually that is not a correct information. First of all there are many styles of Karate and what I am learning now is Okinawa Kenpo Karate and its not Karate for competition, it's an old style karate that is considered as Bujiutsu (martial arts). Almost everyday, I train Okinawa Kenpo Karate and that includes kata, weapons, and disciplines. In addition, I do MMA sparring three times a week and when my fight gets closer than I also do weights and conditioning training as well," he told me through his manager and translator Shu Hirata.
It is still a highly unusual training regime and one which most MMA fighters would probably feel wasn't sufficient to prepare a fighter for the intense competition in the UFC. Kikuno dispelled those doubts emphatically by beating Mulhern, who subsequently retired, by a clear cut decision but says he has no intention of turning his back on his Karate roots as he goes in pursuit of glory inside the Octagon.
"I trained in Kyokushi Karate from age 18 to 23 and I am a first degree black belt and won Kyushu area and Kansai area open-weight tournaments. I began training Okinawa Kenpo Karate back in March 2012 after I attended a seminar by Sensei Yoshitomo Yamashiro of Okinawa Karate Kenpo and I was truly amazed by the strength of his "tsuki" (jabs / thrusts). I was inspired by this concept of gaining power of "tsuki" through Kata and for the first time in my life, I started to think, 'in order for me to become number one MMA fighter in the world, this is absolutely necessary'," he said.
When the essential ingredients for success at MMA are being considered the key disciplines which tend to consistently be cited are wrestling, jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai. However, Kikuno thinks that relying on a style which most fighters are unfamiliar with actually gives him an advantage.
"I study every day and night on a most effective way to utilize Okinawa Kenpo Karate in MMA and I will continue to do so. Therefore, I am adjusting to MMA but I don't think I will ever be a wrestling and boxing type. UFC fighters are all fantastic in boxing, wresting and jiu-jitsu so for me, I have a better chance of winning fight using a different style," he said.
While Kikunori doesn't want to adopt the boxer / wrestler style which is perhaps the most predominant in the UFC, he does believe that effectively countering fighters with this skill set is his greatest challenge and wants to put himself to the test as soon as possible.
"I would like to fight my way up the ladder so I would like to face a fighter that is in the similar place as myself in the UFC ranking. Next of all I would like to experience facing a boxing and / or wrestling type fighter though."
The UFC was built on the concept of throwing fighters from contrasting martial art's styles together inside an Octagonal cage. In an era where the top ranked mixed martial artists are increasingly similar in terms of there skill sets, Kikuno is a breath of fresh air and it will be interesting to see how far his Karate can take him in the 155-pound division.