With Karate as popular as it is, it’s surprising that a professional Karate organisation hasn’t taken the world by storm. Some have tried but failed to reach mainstream success. During MMA events, it’s not uncommon to hear onlookers jeer as striking exchanges transition into grappling affairs, there’s clearly demand for high-level striking contests. A new organisation, Karate Combat, is attempting to reinvigorate the public’s interest in the Japanese art by putting on Karate matches with a modified rule set. The rule changes (see here) bring the matches more in line with a real fight, allowing a variety of takedowns and ground and pound, while wearing MMA style gloves.

Karate Combat’s surprise announcement in early 2018 garnered a lot of hype. Having watched the first event, that hype is justified. It’s clear that the organisers are striving to set the standard for production value. The lighting and music sets a cinematic atmosphere; a mix of Bladerunner and Fight Club, the combat area a literal pit. The commentary team is strong, featuring the likes of Bas Rutten and Sean Wheelock. Innovation seems to be a priority for the organisation too. The accompanying app displays biometric data as the action unfolds, giving even more insight into the combatants and the contest.

With the next event streaming this week and Karate making its way to the 2020 Olympic Games, we caught up with the only Aussie currently competing in the Karate Combat organisation – Tsuneari Yahiro – to get some inside info. When we caught up with Tsuneari, he was watching a competition, having won gold in the men’s open division just a day prior…
 

 
The Neversphere: Congratulations on winning yesterday! To start off, it’d be good to know how you got involved with Karate and what got you down the competition path?
 
Tsuneari: Thank you, thank you.

Well, I started Karate when I was nine. One day, my Dad just chucked me and my brother into the car. That was it. One day we get into the car, ‘we’re going to do some Karate’. That was the start.

My Dad did a bit of Judo when he was younger but he didn’t do anything competitive like I do. I think I was just given the pathway at a young age. I started competing and I was kind of good at it. My brother was competing too, so I was just following in his footsteps. And at around 14, I changed to a major club that competes a lot; a strong club in Australia. From there I got good results at the National Championships. At 16, I went to my first Junior Worlds and won bronze there. That’s when I got really hooked on competition.
 
The Neversphere: Speaking of competing at the highest levels, you said in an interview in 2016 that you were considering moving from Karate to Taekwondo, as Karate wasn’t an Olympic sport at the time. It’s recntly been announced that Karate will be an Olympic sport at the 2020 games in Japan. Is this still a goal for you?
 
Tsuneari: I also did the sports draft at the AIS like a year ago. My aim is to do 2020 and we’re working hard on it. When I was getting ready, I got a call from Karate Combat. Everything is coming into place for me right now. It’s really nice, actually.
 
Tsuneari Yahiro competing1
 
The Neversphere: Do you think competing at Karate Combat will help you make it to the 2020 games?
 
Tsuneari: Yeah, in a bit of a different way. Karate Combat is a bit different, it’s more in line with the MMA and the UFC. In terms of the exposure that Karate Combat gives me, it gives me and the sport a boost. And there’s one Aussie in the whole league, so there’s a bit of hype.
 
The Neversphere: There’s definitely a bit of hype around Karate Combat. Did you catch the first event: Genesis? It was pretty impressive.
 
Tsuneari: Yeah, I was invited but couldn’t go to that one, I had the national camp on the same day. But I saw the fights, it looks really exciting. Something more mainstream, a bit of a blood sport. The first time you see it, you think it’s a movie.

It’s bringing different people, a totally different type of audience. Once it gets more mainstream, I think things like sports betting will get involved. I think it will really explode. The organisers put in a lot of effort and they shot it at the right time. My offer was made last year, October-ish last year. By the end of the year, I signed the contract. And then in April, it went viral.
 


Check out Dionicio Gustavo vs. Rafael Aghayev at Karate Comat: Genisis

 
The Neversphere: It certainly did. Over the years, have you trained in other martial arts or do you plan to do so in preparation?
 
Tsuneari: My older brother does Kyokushin Karate, so I train a bit with him. I do cross training with boxing, I train a little bit with Gary St. Clair in Gymea. He’s a two time world champion and a great coach.
 
The Neversphere: Having done some boxing, what do you make of the rules in Karate Combat. No short hooks, for example?
 
Tsuneari: Yeah, I think the rules a bit volatile right now. It’s run, not by Karate people, but by business people. They’ll listen to what the experts think is good for the sport and adjust. There are no hooks in Karate. I think at the start they’re trying to adapt the Karate moves into a real, full contact situation. I think in the long run, they’ll [short hooks] be included.
 
The Neversphere: And what do you make of the 5-seconds worth of ground and pound?
 
Tsuneari: I think it’s quite good, it’s cool. It kind of changes the game…It really changes the game. It’s a good opportunity for those who are good at the close range.
 
The Neversphere: And I guess you’d have to be a bit more judicious throwing kicks too, to make sure you stay on your feet, away from the ground and dangerous positions…
 
Tsuneari: Yes. Right now in Karate, for the WKF and the Olympics, the takedowns are fairly limited. But now it’s in the game, so you need to be really careful when you’re in close, trying to kick. It’ll be interesting, because I’m a bit of a kicker. So, I got to be careful. I’m thinking I might do a bit of Judo too to help with that, with the ground game too.
 
The Neversphere: It seems like this could be a good avenue for Karateka who want to transition over to MMA, what are your thoughts?
 
Tsuneari: Oh yeah, I think in the long run, you’ll see people from Karate Combat signing with the UFC and Bellator, and those kinds of organisations. And having a lot of smart people on board helps too. People like Chuck Liddell, Bas Rutten. It’s something really special, it’s very professional. I really look forward to being a part of the team!
 

 
The Neversphere: I take if we were to talk MMA, you’d be a Machida brothers / ‘Wonderboy’ kind of guy? Is that a path you’d like to go down?
 
Tsuneari: They’re really good, aren’t they? Wonderboy is really amazing.

I don’t know what the future will be but it could be quite interesting. I’d love to give it a shot! The future’s out there, isn’t it?
 
The Neversphere: Very much so. Any word on when we can expect to see you competing at Karate Combat?
 
Tsuneari: I think from the 18th to the 20th of May, I have the Oceania Championships; that’s a bit of a qualifier for points towards the Olympics, that’s my first focus. But I’ve asked them to sign me a fight after that. The sooner I sign a fight, the better I think it is for me.
 
The Neversphere: Is there anyone in particular you have your eye on, or whoever comes your way?
 
Tsuneari: Whoever comes is good. Right now, I think everyone is on the same page. We are all new and I just want to get a fight under my belt. But I’m really excited, I think I’ll have a great time!
 
The Neversphere: Definitely, we’ll keep an eye out for any announcements! Any shout outs before you go?
 
Tsuneari: My main sponsor is Subito Supplements, they always look after me. The Australian Karate Federation is backing me up with this, they always offer great support. My team too, team T Dog. It’s a great team, we want to change the game.

 

You can catch Karate Combat here. Sign up to watch the stream for Inception on the Karate Combat website live on April 27th, with the main card starting 11.30am (AEST).