TAREC SAFFIEDINE ON THE UFC, KARATE & MANGA
He started off as a bullied high school kid in Belgium, but now he’s the greatest MMA fighter to come out of the country. He quit his first martial art in exchange for a rare karate style just so that he could pursue tougher competition. He is Tarec “Sponge” Saffiedine, the first Belgian to win a world title in the sport of MMA and the first Belgian to ever compete in the UFC.
Today he talks with Muay Thai Guy about karate and its many variants, as well as his own unique approach to fighting, and how it all started with two kids sparring in a high school gym to defend themselves from bullies.
SAFFIEDINE – THE TOUGH YEARS
MTG: Your UFC website profile says that you were inspired to take up MMA because of one of your favourite manga series. Is this true?
SAFFIEDINE: Yes, it’s a part of why I was inspired. I started taekwondo at the end of 2002, then I discovered the manga TOUGH, which was about MMA. That’s why I decided to switch from taekwondo to shihaishinkai karate, which is a form of martial art closer to MMA.
MTG: What are the rules of shihaishinkai as compared to other styles of karate?
SAFFIEDINE: The basics are very close to kyokushinkai karate, but we also train in Muay Thai, boxing, judo, and grappling. I used to compete in Muay Thai, then the week after I would go do a grappling tournament in Holland. Then it was off to a karate tournament in France the week after.
TOUGH was a manga series, written and illustrated by Tetsuya Saruwatari. It ran for 43 volumes from 1994 – 2003, making it almost as old as the sport of MMA itself.
MTG: Because you spent your early career in Belgium, so you got to take on people from both borders?
SAFFIEDINE: Yes, I used to travel every where. Belgium didn’t offer much in terms of competition back in the day. I had to go to France, Holland, England, Finland, Germany, and other places in Belgium to get to some good quality tournaments. Lots of driving and early mornings, but it was worth it.
MTG: That’s the part of being a fighter the fans often miss – when you’re just starting out it can be hard to even get a fight.
SAFFIEDINE: Tell me about it.
MTG: So TOUGH was sort of like Rocky for you?
SAFFIEDINE: Yeah, kind of. The story of book’s hero was inspiring to me. The martial artist’s way, how he learned from his father, etc. I was replicating the technique of the books. I still have the manga on my bookshelf [laughs]. That’s not the entire story of why I started, it just set the spark.
ROAD TO THE UFC
MTG: As much as I’m a comic and manga fan, I’d really like to know the rest of the story.
SAFFIEDINE: When I discovered the manga, at the end of each volume there was an ITW of a famous fighter like Rickson Gracie or Enson Inoue. So I started watching their fight videos online.
One friend of mine invited me to train at the gym in our high school. We would put some mats on the floor and beat each other up every day after school. It was fun, but we only learned from video and didn’t have trainers. Once I started looking for a trainer, I found shihaishinkai. I left taekwondo for it, as there were no tournaments for TKD in Belgium.
MTG: So even as a kid you were looking for fights.
SAFFIEDINE: I grew up playing different sports. I started judo at four years old, but I hated it and quit after a few weeks. I wasn’t a troublemaker, though. I had my share of bullying in high school, which also motivated me to learn to defend myself and be more confident.
MTG: A lot of people expect professional fighters to be mean, and they don’t realize that they start fighting in order to protect themselves from bullies.
SAFFIEDINE: I think for me, it was everything together at the same time, from being bullied and wanting to defend myself, and also discovering the manga. It all happened at once.
MTG: It clearly worked for you, as you became the first Belgian to fight in the UFC.
SAFFIEDINE: Yes, it was my goal when I left for the US.
MTG: Can you tell me more about that? You literally made history.
SAFFIEDINE: When I started training that was all I could think about. Even in high school, I would go straight to the gym and train for hours.
I would compete as much as I could, but Belgium and MMA didn’t fit well together. There were no fights or opportunities back in 2005-2006 like there are today. So after my first pro fight in ’07, I thought either I do this as a hobby and find a job or I take the chance to make it to the US where the fight opportunities were…and that’s what I did.
When I left, I had to goals – to become the first Belgian world champion and the first Belgian to go to the UFC.
FINAL STRIKEFORCE FIGHT & ADJUSTING TO MMA
MTG: Your Strikeforce title win against Nate Marquadt was a blowout victory – so all your efforts certainly paid off.
SAFFIEDINE: Thank you. It was a long camp, a tough camp, but I was well prepared for that fight.
MTG: Originally, I was planning to ask what changes you had to make to your style in order to be successful in MMA – but it sounds like you didn’t have to change your style much at all. In fact, I was watching a video from your first kyokushin tournament and even though you have obviously improved over time, it seemed like you wore that opponent down the same way you wore Nate down.
SAFFIEDINE: I think what I really had to improve was my wrestling.
When I first came to the US, I was getting beaten up by wrestlers and couldn’t strike because I was getting taken down. So I had to learn that aspect of the game. If I didn’t have good take-down defense for Nate, it would have been a different fight.
MTG: It’s frustrating, isn’t it? Training wrestling is really tiring when an NCAA guy keeps blasting doubles at you. Nowadays though, you’re quite hard to take down, and even when it happens, you have a BJJ black belt to keep you safe.
SAFFIEDINE: Yes, I really had to learn to defend take-downs in order to implement my striking game. Nowadays you have to be more than complete to compete. The game has evolved so much.
MTG: As a fighter, you usually win by decision and most fans will notice that you’re able to control a fight with a solid jab and leg kicks alone. That’s something very few fighters are able to do. How do you think your approach to leg kicks differs from the average MMA fighter?
SAFFIEDINE: I think that very few MMA fighters know how to use kicks effectively. They’re such effective weapons, especially seeing as nobody seems to know how to block them. Obviously you have to be aware of take-downs, but two good low kicks and your wheels are gone – no more take-downs for you.
MTG: I notice you’re pretty good at surprise kicks, too, like the question mark kick.
SAFFIEDINE: I do like that kick, but I don’t feel I’ve been able to use it effectively in a fight yet. It’s a beautiful kick, very technical and very powerful.
MTG: Hopefully you’ll get a Glaube Feitosa style KO with it one day.
SAFFIEDINE: [laughs] Feitosa was the master of that kick.
ONE PART KARATE, ONE PART MMA
MTG: I think on what you were saying about distancing earlier, and I think that’s why so many fighters struggle to get a clear read on you. It seems like you’re always just out of punching range and leg kicking them. It’s like they get so concerned about the kicks that they panic and accidentally run into more of them.
SAFFIEDINE: I think MMA is all a game about the distance of your own game to maximize your strengths. Whether you’re a wrestler, striker, boxer, or grappler, you have to get your distance to use your weapons effectively. Otherwise you give that distance up for your opponent.
MTG: MMA fans still seem surprised whenever they hear of a UFC caliber fighter coming from a karate background. Do you think that they are underrating karate or are there just not many good karatekas coming up in the sport?
SAFFIEDINE: I think there are different styles of karate. Lyoto Machida’s karate style and Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson are a similar kind of style, but I come from a different style. It’s like shotokan vs. kyokushin.
I think that every style has a chance in MMA as long as you’re willing to learn the other necessary styles that come with the sport. You can’t come and just use your karate without learning to wrestle; that would be insane. Mind you, if you come from aikido, it would be really hard to transition to MMA, so I wouldn’t say every style would do well [laughs].
Kyokushin and other styles of knockdown karate are based primarily on forward movement, combinations and low kicks. Shotokan and other point-based karate styles are founded in evasive moment and single strikes.
MTG: Final question: what do you think the most important thing an aspiring young fighter should learn?
SAFFIEDINE: The will to improve and learn new things, to adapt to the constant evolving game. But for that you need to be surrounded with people that are willing to let you learn new things, you need to be around open-minded people.
- Andrew Bryan is an actor, writer and martial artist based in the UK. He likes long walks on the beach, fighting technique, and history.