Takeru: The Paradoxical Fighting Style of Kickboxing's Bantamweight King
The top bantamweight fighter consistently forces boxing engagements with his flicking lead leg kicks and gets the better of opponents anyway.
Photo via Twitter/@takerusegawa
The name Tenshin Nasukawa is already easy traffic in the MMA world. The Japanese schoolboy knocks out great Thai stylists in between crushing soup cans in Rizin, but Tenshin is simply the latest in a great crop of Japanese-trained kickboxers out there with an array of exciting styles. We have sung the praises of the featherweight knee-master, Masaaki Noiri on several occasions, we have also acknowledged the less flashy but equally successful Yuta Kubo, but today we are going to give some shine to the man sitting atop kickboxing’s bantamweight division at the moment and a K-1 grand prix champion at three different weights, Takeru Segawa.
Parts That Don’t Quite Match
Kickboxing is a pretty simple sport in terms of rules but the entertainment is in the variety of approaches a fighter might use to get his job done. If you were forced to watch a blurry outline of Peter Aerts, Andy Hug, or Jerome Le Banner fight through a translucent surface, you wouldn’t have any trouble identifying them. Takeru is another unique assemblage of seemingly clashing elements and it makes him firstly tremendous fun to watch, and secondly far from defensively perfect. Take a moment to watch this highlight of Takeru in action and you will understand why he is so beloved: fighting from 121 pounds to 132 pounds, he is still a top notch finisher and looks for a knockout at every stage of the fight.
That highlight shows most of Takeru’s best stoppages and flurries, but it skips over a huge chunk of his game. If you saw that highlight and didn’t know Takeru, you would expect a frantic combination puncher. In actuality, around 80-90 percent of Takeru’s output in the ring is simply harassment with his lead leg and this means that he is forced to try to gel the awkward rear-foot-lead stepping of a front kicking game, with the wider stance needed to box well in combination.
Watch the first minute or two of Takeru’s recent fight with Kosuke Komiyama and then know that he doesn’t slow down, he just keeps flicking out kicks. The bout was a peculiar one because Komiyama’s continuous running out to Takeru’s left made it more difficult for Takeru to front kick him onto the ropes. Yet as the push kicks and snap kicks became less effective Takeru was able to threaten Komiyama far more with high round kicks.
Dealing with a dexterous lead leg kicker can be a nightmare and even more so when takedowns are forbidden. As he is a Japanese kickboxer it will not surprise anyone to learn that Takeru was a karateka in his youth, but he has carried a staple of knockdown karate through to his kickboxing career: the lead leg triple attack. The front snap kick, the round kick, and the triangle kick make up this triple threat. As traditionally taught, the variation comes from the angle of the knee; straight up: front kick, turned all the way over: round kick, on a forty-five degree slant: triangle kick. There aren’t a whole heap of examples of men operating this lead leg triple attack in kickboxing and MMA, but Semmy Schilt was able to utilize the same triple attack in both sports, and before Katsunori Kikuno decided to drop his hands to his thighs and fight in the dumbest way humanly possible, he was a fearsome lead leg triple kicker too.
When you compare Takeru to Schilt or Buakaw Banchamek—K-1’s other great lead leg harassers—it becomes apparent that Takeru has a very different purpose. For Buakaw the kick was often the objective, he remained in a shorter stance with a light lead foot and threw stiff jabs from this position, always waiting to switch step and power kick or teep.
Meanwhile Semmy Schilt wanted to exaggerate his enormous reach. The lead leg front snap kick allowed him to do this, and it set up the occasional high kick. The lead knee was a barrier for Schilt and when opponents pressed in he physically blocked them with it.
Or Schilt would step his lead foot down, throw his right foot back far behind him and jab as he retreated. If you run straight onto the jab of a seven foot tall, 300 pound man you’re going to have a bad time of it even if it’s just an arm punch.
But Takeru isn’t out to keep distance or kick for the sake of kicking. Takeru is a combination puncher, something that seems completely contrary to his kicking style and yet gels with it beautifully. When we examined Francis Ngannou’s footwork ahead of his fight with Stipe Miocic we noted:
When he came into the UFC he didn’t even have the fundamentals of footwork down, shortening his stance and advancing with his rear foot first—a method which is only really useful if you have an excellent lead-leg kicking game you want to show off, which Ngannou Taekwondon’t.
To box well, a fighter should be in position to evade punches and fire back at all times. That is why, in boxing, the stance is the first thing learned and everything a fighter does comes out of it. All of the head movement and level changing that allows fighters to slip and counter, and to get to the body as Takeru loves to, comes from having the feet staggered and passing the weight of the upper body between them. You don’t see good boxers moving the back foot first when they advance. And yet with the lead leg kicking game, finding a way to either switch the feet or draw the rear foot underneath you is a necessity.
The Disadvantages of Lead Leg Kicking
When watching Takeru fight it is enlightening to focus on his rear foot. It is constantly being drawn up underneath his center of gravity to enable the lead leg kicking. There is a misconception in martial arts that lead leg kicks are longer range weapons than rear leg ones. While this is true with straight punches and a fundamental principle of boxing, kicking range is governed by the pivoting leg and not the one which is hitting the target. The closer the pivot leg is to the opponent, the longer the kick. To make any kind of distance with a lead leg kick, a step up of some kind is required. To get power into lead leg kicks it is also necessary to square the body to a degree.
That step up has its hazards. The moment the front foot comes up off the floor, and the rear foot is underneath the fighter, he has no retreat—he is locked in place until he can get his lead foot back to the floor. When kicking with the rear leg the fighter is locked on one leg momentarily, but there is no preliminary step up or extra step to return to distance. Secondly, the lead knee is all that prevents an opponent from stepping straight down the center. If a straight kick is deflected or a round kick blocked, the opponent has a great opportunity to step in and catch the kicker before he can recover distance and his stance.
One high profile example of this point is Badr Hari’s first fight against Semmy Schilt. Hari used his lead leg to cross check Schilt’s lead leg kicks. A high cross check can be a bit of an effort compared to catching kicks on the forearms but when the front snap kick or push kick is at play in a triple attack, it nicely shuts down all three angles. When Schilt kicked, he had to get his left foot back to the mat, and then move his right foot to start retreating. From his check, Hari just had to step as deep as he could with his left foot and he could swarm surge in on Schilt with his right straight. Provided Hari could move inside and stuff Schilt’s kick on the check, he stood a great chance of running Semmy down in the aftermath.
Takeru suffered a very similar issue in his first fight against fellow Japanese star, Taiga. Taiga is a southpaw so Takeru’s lead leg was kicking into the closed side rather than the open one. Simply put, the body of the opponent will always be facing one side more than the other, the side that it is facing is called the open side and rule one of kicking is to aim most of your offense into that. Against orthodox opponents the left leg kicks into the open side, meaning that dexterous lead leg kickers are a nightmare. Against southpaw opponents the lead leg round kick goes into their back—largely pointless compared to a good kick into the front of the body—and lead leg front kicks tend to be easily knocked off line by the opponent’s lead elbow or knee just as the jab is inconvenienced by a southpaw opponent’s lead arm. Against Taiga, Takeru’s straight kick was batted off line and he was brushed with a counter straight which could have been disastrous, then caught hard with a follow up hook.
Takeru won that fight by catching Taiga off exactly the same parry. As Taiga redirected Takeru’s kick and got set to blast the champ with the same counter now that he was off balance, Takeru spun all the way through with a backfist for the knockout. Since that first Taiga bout, however, Takeru has stuck to step up low kicks with his lead leg, and attacked the body with front kicks and stepping knees off his rear leg instead when facing southpaws.
But this is where Takeru’s strange blend of styles works so well. Unlike Schilt, Takeru isn’t using the lead leg kicks to maintain range and sharp shoot. All of Takeru’s best work comes on the inside or along the ropes. The front snap kicks and push kicks facilitate this by actively pushing the opponent backwards. Static, cover-up style kickboxers are easily forced onto the ropes in this way. Once Takeru has his man on the ropes his two money strikes—the right hook to the body and the stepping right knee—come into play.
The right hook to the body is criminally underused in most combat sports because it leaves the fighter feeling vulnerable and fight anatomy 101 tells us that the liver is the switch which puts grizzled veterans into the fetal position and is located on the opposite side. Takeru limits some of his vulnerability with the classic right hook to the body, left hook to the head pairing. Done rapidly, this keeps an opponent honest and in his shell. This in turn plays off flurries of body shots—with the threat of the left hook to the jaw keeping them honest, Takeru can throw a right and a left to the body. The opponent’s defenses are constantly playing catch up. These simple one-two hooking patterns were a staple of the great Roberto Duran, whose right hook to the body landed more frequently and effectively than almost any boxer you care to name.
In addition to placing the right hook to the midriff in his flurries along the ropes, Takeru looks for it on the counter.
And this brings us to the second way in which Takeru’s lead leg kicking game plays into his infighting. Many of his opponents choose to either check or to stand and fight, both of them allowing him to step in and box in flurries. The danger, however, is in being on one leg and too close to an opponent who is wanting to throw hands. The quantity of step up kicks that Takeru throws allows him to get legitimate reactions out of the step up itself, without having to kick. Often Takeru will be able to use this to simply fall straight out of the lead leg chamber and into a boxing stance where he can hit with power.
Just as often, though, you will see Takeru have to perform that difficult action of dropping his foot from the chamber and getting into defensive position to continue hitting. There are several footwork variations to make return to stance and start hitting on the counter from the lead leg chamber, but they mean nothing if the fighter doesn’t have great instincts and anticipation of his opponent. Here, Takeru gets the lead foot down and retreats with the right foot almost simultaneously, dropping down behind a leverage guard with his lead arm as he does so.
This, in a nutshell, is what makes Takeru such a novelty: he consistently forces boxing engagements with his flicking lead leg kicks and gets the better of them anyway.
Don’t let that distract from the lead leg kicks as a weapon in their own right though. They don’t make it into the highlights, but a dozen—even glancing—connections to the body with the shin or the ball of the foot each round quickly pays dividends. Most of the best offensive finishers in the history of the fight game have recognized the value of body work and whether it is in close with his hands and knees or out at range with his kicks, there isn’t a moment of the fight where Takeru isn’t trying to touch his opponent’s midriff.
There is more to Takeru than we have examined here (a love of the counter back kick, the use of the lead leg chamber to jam in on his opponents and so on) but our purpose was mainly to shine a light on a fighter who is seemingly a contradiction of styles. Takeru’s light lead foot and lead leg kicking game should make it more difficult to do the boxing in flurries and body hitting that he loves, and yet he has created a beautiful synergy between the two. His movement isn’t the most economical as a result, and he does get cracked clean as he steps up towards his opponent in almost every fight, but he’s the scourge of K-1’s lighter divisions and the top bantamweight fighter on the planet: he certainly didn’t get there by doing the same thing as everyone else.