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The 8 Styles of Michael Jai White

Updated: Dec 2, 2023

Michael Jai White is one of the biggest stars of martial arts movies today. Much like Scott Adkins he was born a little too late, and would have been a mega-star in the 80s like Jean Claude Van Damme, but he has still carved out a nice career for himself.

A muscle bound behemoth with surprising speed and agility, who isn’t above calling his various karate styles ‘kung fu’ if it fits the joke of his movies. Michael Jai White has been perhaps the biggest martial arts star the West has produced since, the aforementioned Jean Claude Van Damme. He also has 8 black belts. So today we’re going to look at Michael Jai White and the martial arts he has trained over the years.

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Firstly, it should be said that while he holds 8 black belts, he holds them largely in styles of karate, meaning that his ability to earn these ranks, will come from cross-over skills and knowledge of kata – as despite what some enthusiasts would like you to believe – most karate styles are fundamentally the same, differing usually based on the kata or an on-paper philosophy for approaching a fight, that the practitioner is likely not to follow. It’s very unlikely that a Shotokan black belt, will show a Kyokushin black belt a technique or idea they are not already familiar with, or vice versa.

While there are many karate styles on paper, in practice you are really choosing between a style that trains for point based sparring competition, or a style that trains for knockdown based competition.

1. Kyokushin This is the primary style of Michael Jai White. Originally a student of Shigeru Oyama, White has used Kyokushin as the home base by which the rest of his skills spawn from. Kyokushin is the most famous example of the knockdown approach to karate.

Founded by Mas Oyama, the style is built around a mixture of the kata and techniques of Shotokan and Goju-Ryu, with the latters approach to tough physical conditioning. The competitions are contested bare knuckle with fights disallowing punches to the head, but allowing for gruelling bare knuckle body shots, with the way to win being through knocking your opponent down or out.

2. Taekwondo (both ITF and WTF) It’s time to get controversial. Taekwondo is a style of karate that developed in Korea. The style is born specifically from Shotokan karate, and focused further on the kicking techniques that already existed in the style, and begun to build upon it by adding more turns to the kicks. As kicks score high in TKD competition, this forced more distance closing spinning kicks such as 720 degree round kicks.

Michael Jai White has a black belt in both ITF and WTF styles, which compete under different rules and scoring systems. The common conception is that ITF is more traditional and more like an actual fight (though semi contact) whereas WTF is the Olympic style that you usually see today. WTF Taekwondo has become controversial in recent years when compared to what’s commonly referred to the ‘power era’.

While spinning kicks are taught in Kyokushin, it’s reasonable to believe that some of the more acrobatic and elaborate kicks that we see in Michael Jai White movies come from his time training in both of these styles of Taekwondo.

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3. Tang Soo Do I expect some people were annoyed by my referring to Taekwondo as Karate, especially seeing as many believe that Taekwondo actually originated from Taekkyon. In actuality this is probably not true, as Taekkyon as it exists today appears to be more a recreation of an old style, than something with direct lineage to the old days.

Tang Soo Do, is a slightly older art, that also originated in Japanese occupied Korea based upon Shotokan, and can be seen as something of a middle ground between Taekwondo and Karate. A father of a close friend of mine held a black belt in Tang Soo Do and described it as being very similar but with more balance between punches and kicks – and truthfully I couldn’t put it much better. The question becomes ‘whats in a name?’ As Taekwondo and Tang Soo Do have far more visual similarity with point based styles of karate like Shotokan, than Kyokushin does, yet for some reason we don’t refer to them as what they are, off shoots of karate.

4. Goju Ryu Unlike a lot of other styles on this list, Japanese Goju and Okinawan Goju actually are quite different. Michael Jai White holds a black belt under Eddie Morales in Japanese Goju Ryu. An approach to the art that shares more in common with Shotokan, opting for more linear stances and point based sparring, as opposed to the original Okinawan Goju which favours more square stances and hard sparring more in line with what we see in Kyokushin. Another great example of Okinawan Goju would be the UFC’s Gunnar Nelson who uses the point based footwork and timing of the style to duck in on takedowns where he can use his prodigy level BJJ to win a fight.

5. Kobudo One Okinawan art Michael Jai White did train in is Kobudo. Unlike all the other systems being used (save for Tang Soo Do which dabbles in it) Kobudo is focussed around weapons and armed combat. The weapons trained in Kobudo include bo staffs, sai’s, sickles, knuckledusters, tonfa and nuchucks which despite being a Japanese weapon, were popularised by Bruce Lee. Kobudo can perhaps best be described as an umbrella term for quite a few different weapons schools – but for an actor wanting to do action movies is absolutely invaluable. Allowing Michael Jai White to comfortable use any sort of object he may have to hand and turn it into some sort of improvised weapon for a fight scene.

6. Shotokan It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Michael Jai White holds a black belt in the most common style of karate. It’s hard to overstate the influence of Shotokan over martial arts as a whole, especially given its influence on Kyokushin, which is along with Muay Thai the reason we have kickboxing today. Shotokan is based around linear fencing like movements and focuses slightly more on hand techniques than kicking techniques. It makes for a very solid, reliable style for any purpose so long as you make sure to practise Shotokan under full contact, continuous sparring as opposed to purely point sparring. Other famous examples of Shotokan would be the likes of Lyoto Machida and his family who are widely credited with proving that Karate could work in mixed martial arts in an age where it was thought to be ineffective.

7. The Superfoot System Currently the 8th and most recent style that Michael Jai White had earned a black belt in, the Superfoot System is a kickboxing system developed by Bill ‘Superfoot’ Wallace, based on the style he developed in his days as a PKA kickboxer.

Bill Wallace’s System can best be described as ‘punches and lead leg’ as Bill Wallace’s knee injuries from judo prevented him from reliably kicking with his right leg. Instead he developed a game based around using the side kick, round kick and hook kick off his lead leg, with the chamber position acting as a soft-feint to prevent the opponent from knowing which strike was coming.

These are the 8 styles Michael Jai White currently holds a black belt in. Perhaps in a few years there will be another article cataloguing the next 8 this martial arts enthusiast learns.

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