Is Taekwondo Effective for MMA Fighting? Full Analysis


The Korean martial art of Taekwondo(TKD) is an incredibly popular martial art all over the globe.  In the last twenty years, the sport of Mixed Martial Arts has become the most popular battleground for fighters with different martial arts backgrounds to compete against each other.  This has made many people wonder if TKD can be effective and dangerous in MMA.

Taekwondo skills alone aren’t effective in MMA, because it is regarded as too one-dimensional. It is limited almost entirely to an array of different kicks. Taekwondo techniques must be combined with another discipline in order for an MMA fighter to succeed in a fight.

In this article, I will explore why Taekwondo alone is not effective in MMA, as well as look at how Taekwondo was used by high-level fighters to succeed in MMA.

Is TKD Effective in MMA?

There are a few reasons why Taekwondo just didn’t appear to be used in MMA competitions. There are several different versions of Taekwondo, but the most recognizable one is the Olympic point fighting sport, which some have referred to very derisory as “safe space karate”. This point-based sparring is looked down upon by MMA practitioners because it doesn’t appear to be based on realistic fighting. 

Both MMA fights and street encounters aren’t immediately paused upon a single strike being landed, before fighters are reset and told to continue. In competitions judged on points, it often makes sense to throw quicker, but lighter tip-tap strikes which may lack the power to cause any concerning damage to a highly-conditioned mixed martial artist.  Thereby, not fitting the paradigm of a realistic fight.

This competition style of Taekwondo has rules which place severe restrictions on what a fighter can do with their hands, limiting to only utilizing kicks.  This is obviously hugely detrimental in an MMA environment as both throwing and defending against punches is a key part of the sport.  

A fighter trained purely in Taekwondo is likely to be unused to blocking or slipping punches and almost certainly won’t be able to throw precise or powerful punches of their own. This is further confounded by the fact that they usually hold their hands with a very low guard.

This sole reliance on kicks and the constant movement required to throw them, may also be incredibly draining on a Taekwondo practitioner’s stamina and without a great gas tank, they may struggle with the later rounds of the fight.

However, it would be foolhardy to say that Taekwondo was useless. Over the last ten years, more and more fighters have been emerging who have had significant Taekwondo training.

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Do MMA Fighters Use Taekwondo?

An argument could be made that Taekwondo has always been around MMA, but hiding in plain sight. Whilst Anderson Silva is one example of a high-level Taekwondo practicing legend, Bas Rutten is another, who defied his conservative parents when he began studying Taekwondo, before transitioning to Kyokushin Karate.  Pride FC Champion, Mirko Cro Cop trained Taekwondo from the age of seven. 

However, to prepare for ground fighting, all these fighters have trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu(BJJ) extensively and not just focusing on Taekwondo training. Ground fighting is just as important as stand-up fighting in MMA.

MMA fighting can be broken down into three main components; stand-up, clinch and ground fighting. Below is the definition of each.

Stand-up Fighting: Hand-to-hand combat in a standing position. This includes Taekwondo, boxing and kickboxing.

Clinch Fighting: Grappling your opponent in a standing position. This includes Wrestling and Judo.

Ground Fighting: Hand-to-hand combat on the ground, which also involves grappling your opponent. This includes BJJ, Sambo or Collegiate Wrestling.

As you can see, each martial art will focus on one of these components. This is why fighters will often combine techniques they have learned from different martial art disciplines. In order to succeed in MMA, it is absolutely essential to learn techniques in all three fighting styles.

That being said, over the last five to ten years though, a good number of featherweight and lightweight fighters have been showcasing their high-level Taekwondo skills in MMA.

Notable MMA Fighters with Taekwondo Backgrounds

Edson Barboza

Barboza has thirteen knockout victories in the lightweight division is celebrated for his incredible blend of Muay Thai and TKD, both of which he began learning from an early age. Perhaps his most dazzling display of Taekwondo was back in UFC 142 when he landed a spinning wheel kick knockout of Terry Etim, earning him a “knockout of the year” award.  

Yair Rodriguez

TUF: Latin America winner who is arguably the purest example of a Taekwondo practitioner in the sport has grabbed both “Performance of the Night”, and “Fight of the Night” bonuses with flying kicks and a legendary last-second elbow out-of-nowhere KO over the Korean Zombie. Yair presents an awkward arsenal to all of his opponents, utilizing great timing and precision, making it very uncomfortable for his opponents to attempt to predict his devastating tornado kicks, cartwheel kicks and spinning back kicks.

Nina Nunes

She may unfortunately be more famous for being Amanda Nunes wife, but that isn’t to say that the American Taekwondo practitioner isn’t a force to be reckoned with in her own right. Nina’s 3rd-degree TKD black belt was on a four-fight streak tear until losing a tough decision fight to Tatiana Suarez before taking a break to become a mother.  

Although her first fight since returning to the Octagon ended in defeat via armbar submission to Mackenzie Dern, Taekwondo practicing MMA fans are no doubt clamoring for Nina Nines’ slick footwork and vicious kicks to light her opponents up again.

Valentina “The Bullet” Shevchenko

Flyweight Champion, Shevchenko is one of the most intimidating female fighters in all of the UFC.  “The Bullet” is a very apt nickname for her fast and devastating style. The Ukrainian, who was influenced by her mother began training Taekwondo at the age of five and later went on to become a Muay Thai world champion.  Shevchenko took the UFC gold from Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 231.

Rose Namajunas

Strawweight Champion, Namajunas is one of the most well-rounded athletes in all of the UFC.  Namajunas took up Taekwondo at the age of five, whilst trying to escape the harsh reality of her rough home life. Rose would earn a black belt four years later and pick up karate and BJJ soon after, moving onto earn black belts in both.  

One of her best displays of Taekwondo would be against Tecia Torres at Invicta FC 6. Despite losing the fight, Rose threw axe kicks, roundhouse head kicks and plenty of front kicks. Rose’s belt-grabbing lead roundhouse kick knocked out of Weli Zhang also appeared to look straight out of a Taekwondo match.

Benson Henderson

Henderson, whose Korean mother insisted that he take up the art began practicing at the age of nine, so that he would learn about family culture and tradition. Benson earned a black belt in the art and fulfilled his mother’s wishes, prior to shifting to wrestling and gaining a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as well.  One of his most famous fights, would be against Anthony Pettis, who Henderson beat by decision in a legendary five-round fight.

Perhaps what elevated this fight to the regard its held in, was Henderson’s resilience in surviving a Matrix-style-cage-running head kick thrown by Pettis that would have left other fighters completely bereft of their senses. 

Anthony “Showtime” Pettis

“Showtime” had always wanted to take up boxing as a child, but his protective mother was highly against seeing Anthony and his brothers put their face at risk and in lieu of the sweet science, Pettis took up Taekwodno from the age of five.  He was already a third-degree Taekwondo black belt when he joined Roufusport when he was eighteen.  

Although he defeated Benson for a second time to win the lightweight UFC belt at UFC 164, Pettis’s career has had peaks and troughs since then, with the fighter currently on a two fight losing streak in the PFL. He still celebrates his Taekwondo, however, stating “for me the biggest thing I take away from Taekwondo is the use of distance and range, which teaches you where to strike from”, Pettis is adamant that rangey-strikes present a problem for wrestlers attempting to shoot.

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Are TKD Kicks Effective in MMA?

In a vacuum, devoid of punches, grappling, submissions and takedowns, taekwondo competitors learn to kick very well. After all, as Bruce Lee famously said “don’t fear the man who practices ten thousand kicks, fear the man who practices one kick ten thousand times.”

They have some of the fastest, sharpest and most deceptive kicks in all of martial arts. Additionally, they are incredibly accurate.  A well-executed taekwondo strike will have pinpoint precision. Just because a Taekwondo fighter has learned to throw these kicks with reduced power in a point fighting scenario, doesn’t mean they can’t throw these kicks with full power in another environment. Rangier fighters will often be able to control distance with these kicks as well, occasionally spelling doom for the unsuspecting fighter, unused to these kicks.

In MMA competitions, fighters may be used to defending against Muay Thai roundhouse kicks, but the snappier Taekwondo kick though much less common, is still used, alongside its more powerful jumping or 360 variant.  

Barring question-mark kicks, Muay Thai kicks are typically less chambered and are designed to kick through the opponent. The majority of the kicks are thrown from the back leg as the greater distance away from the opponent will allow for more opportunity to build the power of the kick. The focus is on destroying their body to prevent them from fighting back.  

Taekwondo on the other hand is much more focused on deception and precision. Chambered kicks can change direction at the last second, completely baffling the opponent into putting their guard into an unfavorable position.  

This misdirection and guard bypassing especially applies to both inside and outside crescent kicks, along with axe kicks, which kick straight up and drop the heel on top of the opponent’s head or chest and hook kicks. Hook kicks used by the likes of Edson Barboza account for some of the most stunning and devastating knockouts in all of MMA.  Much like crescent kicks they can wrap around an opponent’s guard to strike the side of an opponent’s head.    

Lastly, although Muay Thai’s teep kicks are somewhat similar, to Taekwondo’s push kicks (Mireo Chagi), used to disrupt combos and create distance, Taekwondo’s front kicks (ag chapi) are unparalleled in their precision.  It is this kick that Anderson Silva utilized to knock out long-time rival Vitor Beflort.

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What is the Best Martial Art for MMA?

In terms of number of champions, Taekwondo has only four practitioners listed as UFC champions. Compare this to the grappling arts of Wrestling which produced 37 UFC champions, or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu which 36 champions have practiced, it seems apparent that grappling arts are far more effective overall. Unfortunately for Taekwondo, it is not the most successful striking art either, with boxing overshadowing it with 23 champions and Muay Thai with 19.  

Despite this, the incredibly talented fighters who have taken their Taekwondo skills and developed their arsenal on top of this, wowing crowds with huge kicks and gaining fans along the way. In a world where ticket sales can determine the likelihood of getting that title fight, being able to pull off a perfectly executed spinning hook kick is only going to enhance the chances of a fighter’s financial success.

Jeff J.

Jeff J is a retired Gunnery Sgt. with the United States Marine Corps and a former Federal Police officer. He was involved with extensive training with weapons systems, and hand to hand combat, mentored and trained hundreds of Marines in high-level fitness programs.

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