Karate Sport or Self-Defense
Copyright By Author 2008
Combative sports have been practiced throughout history and by all societies. Wrestling and boxing are found in the annals of most ancient cultures, and their practice often complemented martial arts training. In both Ancient China and Greece wrestling was considered a prerequisite for developing martial skill, and Tegumi (Okinawan wrestling) was used by many of karate’s progenitors to enhance their strategies.
Every combative sport has rules which determine a contest’s nature and reflect a given society’s moral values. Therefore, while killing an opponent during a Pankration bout in Ancient Greece may have been considered appropriate, the same result produced during an Olympic Judo match today would be considered horrific. Furthermore, the rules of engagement particular to a contest are what imbue a sport with its physical identity. Judo is judo because it is a grappling- based art. Boxing assumes its identity because it is a striking art that excludes ground grappling. Therefore, it is not a matter of which is the superior system, boxing or judo, but which one is best suited for the rules of engagement. Thus, while the boxer would be disadvantaged during Judo randori, the Judoka would be at an equal disadvantage if forced to compete by the rules governing boxing.
The relationship between combative sports, martial, and civil styles of fighting is a complementary one, although the strongest bonds are found between civil and sport styles, since both can be used for either self-defense or competition. In 1954, Martial Arts author and long time Judoka, Charles Yerkow, Kodokan 2nd Dan, wrote about Judo’s self-defense role: “There is no definite rule as to what constitutes self-defense in judo since most of the moves begin as a defense and then face-about and become scientific attacks. If you are attacked and you kick your antagonist in the most haphazard manner you have defended yourself; if someone aims an automatic at you and you beat him to the fire, you have again defended yourself” (Yerkow, Modern Judo, 107). Likewise, even the most self-defense orientated styles of karate can be used in free sparring, provided the right amount of safety equipment is worn, and rules are observed preventing dangerous strikes.
Much of the confusion surrounding karate’s role as a sport or system of self-defense comes from the practice of free-sparring. This debate originated when western style boxing was introduced to Japan, stirring the imagination of a society long accustomed to grappling. Boxing became a nation wide phenomenon during the 1920’s and 30’s, with clubs being established in Japanese military academes and colleges. Boxing’s popularity helped promote karate free-sparring which by 1950, was the accepted way of developing technical skill within many karate dojos. Yet it was the nature of free-sparring that determined whether karate was practiced as a sport or system of self-defense.
Ippon kumite (one step sparring) embraces a one strike- one kill philosophy which is conceivable if performed with a katana, but daunting when attempted empty-handed. Yet, this philosophy was carried over into point-sparring, where each technique scored came to signify a killing blow. And while some karate-ka viewed point-fighting as a complete entity, others like Kyokushinkai founder Masutatsu Oyama, considered free-sparring fought full contact, a better alternative for developing self-defense skills.
The debate over which style of sparring was best, point or full-contact, soon led to differing camps emerging in karate. One, modern sport karate embraced point-style fighting, while more conventional teachings, emphasized dialogue of technique through free-fighting in conjunction with the practice of kata bunkai. However, point-style fighting gained initial prominence since it was widely accepted in karate tournaments throughout Japan. Consequently, tournament champions were sent abroad to teach karate, which often resulted in the fighting art being presented to the West as a semi-contact sport, instead of a self-defense system.
With karate’s introduction to the United States, point-sparring soon became the preferred way of fighting because of its fast paced nature and popularity in tournaments. Yet despite sport karate’s technical deficiencies, point-sparring was originally a rough affair fought on hard floors. It was a style of fighting requiring superb physical conditioning, and many point fighters of the 1960’s had trained in Judo and boxing, thus their skills were well rounded. Likewise dojo sparring, that which was conducted outside of the tournament ring, proved to be equally demanding, yet often a far more brutal style of fighting, as karate-ka fought bare-knuckles using punches, kicks, elbows, throws and take-downs all performed on hard wood, or concrete floors.
Karate’s competitive era during the years between 1963 until 1979 is considered by many to be the fighting art’s “blood and guts” age, both in the west and Japan. And despite rules being established to promote safe competition only the hardest fighters generally competed in what was often an all out brawl between two contestants. Corcoran and Farkas wrote about this period that “Excessive contact was grounds for disqualification. Despite this general rule, heavy contact to both the face and body was so common that competitors and officials alike appeared to accept it. The techniques, crude and calamitous by today’s standards, were as unrefined as the rules governing the infant sport. A fighter might break an opponent’s bones or knock him into the grandstand and not be disqualified. If he was a true fighter, the opponent was expected to come back and dish out the same punishment he had received.” ( Corcoran-Farkas Original Martial Arts Encyclopedia p.251)
The mid-1970’s, saw the rise of full-contact karate as champions like Joe Lewis, Bill Wallace and Benny Urquidez fought their way to international stardom using a blend of traditional karate kicks, western boxing punches and Muay Thai principles. A rough, demanding sport, full-contact karate saw the mixing of western style boxing with karate. This intercourse produced a style of fighting whose rhythm and techniques differed with traditional venues. And once again karate assumed a new identity as it evolved to meet the demands of a new culture.
Likewise, with the invention of foam safety equipment, during the mid-1970s, the effects of point-fighting increased ten-fold on traditional karate. This too, brought forth changes in the fighting arts practice which redefined it as a sport. The progression from traditional kata and kumite being one entity, to the sport realms of the 1950’s was a dramatic separation of karate’s ideologies. However, safety chop not only separated karate from its traditional bonds with kata, since opponents now fought at longer ranges and could not grapple, but it brought forth a new style of fighting, tournament tagging.
Tagging occurs when a fighter’s reach is extended by letting the safety punch slip down their forearm, so that an opponent can be tagged with the glove’s tip, rather than hit with a solid fist. It is a tactic based on speed and visual effect, leaving no time for officials to consider its viability. Tagging tactics became common place in tournaments during the 1970’s and 80’s and as the popularity of point-sparring soared, the flick of the fist or foot was widely accepted as legitimate technique, a belief contrasting greatly with the doctrines of self-defense and full-contact fighting.
The Reality of UFC
With the rise of Mixed Martial Arts contests in the 1990’s, traditional karate was deemed by many people an inefficient style of fighting. This was a result of matches that pitted point sparring, traditional and full contact karate systems against UFC jujutsu styles. During these contests, the deficiencies of point-style fighting became apparent, and even some traditionalists were forced to accept the maxim of Choki Motobu when he stated, “The techniques of kata were never developed to be used against a professional fighter, in an arena or on the battlefield. They were, however, most effective against someone who had no idea of the strategy being used to counter their aggressive behavior” (Nagamine, Okinawa’s Great Masters, 96).
Contributing to this coup de theatre was the fact that all contests were held by UFC rules. Therefore, no matter what the fighting style, point, traditional or full contact karate, it had to conform to the rules of combat governing the UFC events. And just like the baseball pitcher who suddenly found himself playing defensive end for the Chicago Bears, so was it for many karate-ka whose strategies were negated by the rules governing the new game.
The modern comparison between MMA and karate is a longstanding deliberation that has existed for almost a century. When first introduced to Japan, karate was almost immediately compared to Judo, Sumo and western boxing, and, ironically, many who believed karate the superior fighting art, were westerners. E.J. Harrison acknowledged karate’s preeminence as follows: “First then as to the name itself: ‘Kara’ means empty and ‘te’ means hand, i.e. to combat with empty hands, without lethal weapons. In this respect then karate resembles both jujutsu and judo. But as a purely ‘fighting art’, designed to dispose of an enemy in the shortest possible time with no means barred, I think we must admit that it transcends them both in its deadly efficacy. And why this should be so will appear from the fact that a single karate technique, if executed in earnest, is capable of inflicting fatal injury upon its victim more surely and speedily than either jujutsu or judo” (Harrison, The Fighting Spirit of Japan, 74).
Harrison’s glowing appraisal of karate provides valuable insight into much more than victories won or lost in the full contact arena. Instead, his acknowledgment of karate’s resemblance to judo and jujutsu indicates that early karate practitioners possessed both standup and ground grappling skills, a detail often ignored in many dojos today.
In the modern vernacular traditionalists state “I study karate, therefore I am a fighter,” a phraseology contrasting the views of men such as Choki Motobu who probably would have said, “I am a fighter, and for that reason karate exists”. Early karate evolved from a spirit of eclecticism that allowed each fighter to give rise to their own system. Moreover when one considers the close association between karate and Tegumi, then it should come as no surprise that many Okinawan karate-ka were evenly skilled in both stand up and ground fighting. Hence they could brawl both equally well in and out of the arena. Therefore, it was circumstance which governed how they fought, not style. In rule dominated combat the Okinawan karate-ka performed at a different level of intensity, than they would have during mortal combat. Likewise, the versatility of the Okinawan martial traditions allowed Okinawan fighters to function equally well, both in and out of the arena.
Ironically, it was the adaptability of early karate fighters, like Choki Motobu, which helped contribute to the modern distortion of karate’s identity. Then, as is the case today with comparisons of diverse fighting arts, the rules of engagement governing the particular types of combat were ignored while the different fighting arts were all lumped into one category, based on commonalities found among them. This is despite judo, boxing and karate having evolved in different cultures and for different types of combat. Hence it was not the victorious fighter who gained the most notoriety, but his style of fighting. This led to the belief that it was the style of karate which produced the fighter, instead of the fighter giving rise to the particular brand of fighting.
The generic comparison of karate to other fighting arts continues today, and it leads many people to believe one system superior when, in actuality, each style reigns supreme in its own environment. The following is a brief assessment of several combative sports traditional karate is frequently judged by, their strengths, weaknesses, and how the karate-ka can benefit from cross training in these sports.
Mixed Martial Arts. This is a full contact match fought between two opponents, on a safe surface, without weapons and minus killing techniques. These rules ensure that fighters can execute full-force strikes against one another while providing a limited degree of safety. The contests fought in MMA are tough affairs requiring contestants to be in prime shape. They are not for everyone, nor are they intended to be since the majority of MMA fighters are in their twenties.
Mixed Martial Arts draw heavily upon strategies from Judo and western boxing; it is a combative sport designed for a particular contest. Therefore, technical deficiencies arise when a MMA is applied to combat for which it was not intended. One drawback is that ground grappling, when used on broken pavement or against multiple opponents, can put a fighter at an extreme disadvantage since his or her mobility has been sacrificed. This is a result of MMA strategies revolving around two contestants, instead of multiple opponents, as the case may be in mortal combat. Another deficiency present is the lack of weapons during contests. This omission contrasts with existing trends in violence where weapons are frequently used. For the perspective karate-ka desiring to participate in these events, he or she will have to learn the rules of the game; the contest will not conform to the practitioner’s expectations.
Boxing. Western style boxing dates back to the Ancient Greeks and was originally a bloody affair fought with bare knuckles. Some of this brutality was quelled by rules Jack Broughton established in 1743, which forbade hitting a contestant while he was down and grabbing below the waist. In 1867, the Marquess of Queensberry rules were introduced, requiring fighters to wear gloves, and designating that all rounds were to be three minuets in duration. Boxing’s strengths are its rapid fire combinations and devastating techniques. These two features allow the boxer to execute an almost unlimited number of punches while either advancing or retreating. Boxing has significantly influenced the development of full-contact fighting in Japan, the United States and Great Britain. It also helped bring forth head punching in the Chinese fighting arts. Robert Smith observed, “Although the Western style contained something for the Chinese-primarily head punching, which the Chinese traditionally had relegated to a lesser position to what they believed was the more grievous body punching” (Smith, Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts, 19). A full contact sport boxing requires tremendous physical stamina, yet it lacks grappling techniques and strategies for combating armed opponents, a result of the rules governing the sport. Despite these deficiencies, western boxing can and has been used effectively for self-defense. Moreover, its rapid fire combinations will augment the karate-ka’s own punching capabilities should he or she decide to cross train.
Judo. Developed by Dr. Kano Jigoro (1860-1938), Judo finds its roots in traditional jujutsu. Kano, whom many consider a martial prodigy, began his study of Tenjin Shinyo-ryu jujutsu at the age of seventeen and in 1882, he founded the Kodokan. Kano’s intention was to preserve traditional techniques while at the same time stressing philosophies designed to help students attain self-realization, or the “tao.” Hence, the name judo, ju-denoting soft while do designated Kano’s system as a Budo discipline. First introduced to America in 1904, Judo has long gone hand in hand with karate training. Many of America’s early karate-ka first studied Judo and then later switched to karate as it grew more popular. Grappling is an intense practice that requires overall physical conditioning; therefore Judo can enhance the karate-ka’s training by helping him or her develop better stamina and a stronger body. Likewise, Judo’s grappling techniques can be incorporated into existing karate strategies, thereby giving the karate-ka a wide base of skills to draw upon. Judo’s one draw- back is an over reliance on throwing and grappling techniques, while neglecting striking techniques. Yet this is easily overcome by supplementary training in western boxing, or karate.
Traditional Karate. Karate’s legacy as a self-defense art imbues it with strategies designed for stand up grappling, joint locking, throwing one’s enemy to the ground and attacking vital areas. Similarly, most techniques can be employed in a lethal manner if the conflict so deems it. Traditional karate’s drawbacks are a hesitation to address current trends in violence and an absence of eclecticism which can hinder progressive ideas. Moreover, an overemphasis on point sparring has eroded the combative efficiency of many styles of karate today. Therefore, medium and even full contact fighting should be practiced in order to ensure that proper dialogue of technique is present. Sparring also helps the karate-ka grow accustomed to the stress of combat conditioning the fighter to being hit, a trait necessary for developing realistic self-defense skills.
Point Sparring Styles of Karate. Point sparring is a fast paced, dynamic style of competition that requires quick reflexes, stamina, and superior hand eye coordination. This form of competition has helped make karate popular around the world, and because of the rules governing point sparring, almost anyone, from child to adult, can participate. However, point sparring’s technical deficiencies become apparent once it is removed from the tournament. For it is only within the ring’s confines that the safety punch’s flick is effective. Point sparring has no grappling, nor has it many strategies deemed effective for mortal combat. It is a safe, fun way to spar and can serve as a useful tool for introducing the karate-ka to medium and full-contact styles of fighting. Likewise, point sparring is an excellent way to develop cardio-vascular fitness.
Differing agendas notwithstanding, combative sports, like western boxing and judo, can significantly enhance the traditional karate-ka’s skills. Cross training is an inherit theme in karate and has been throughout the fighting arts history. Chojun Miyagi was well versed in both Sumo and Judo, while others of his caliber embarked upon similar journeys. Kenwa Mabuni practiced both Shuri and Naha-te. Otsuka Hidenori (Wado-ryu) was skilled in classical jujutsu, and Masatatsu Oyama (Kyokushinkai) had extensive training in both the Korean and Chinese fighting arts.
Cross training in other styles of fighting such as Judo, Boxing, Aikido or even Tai Chi, will present the karate-ka with different solutions to problems frequently encountered during their karate training. This furthers the development of balanced strategies as contestants become accustomed to using different techniques and rhythms not normally found within their own style of fighting. Cross training is not detrimental to the Karate-ka rather it benefits skills and is in keeping with the spirit of traditional karate. However, a reasonable understanding of karate should be developed before cross training is undertaken; otherwise the student may end up with a lack of appreciation for both styles of fighting.
In addition to its overlapping relationship with combative sports karate training should encompass free sparring, provided it is used in accordance with traditional combative values. This synthesis has been accomplished by many distinguished karate-ka and does exist within certain styles of Japanese and Okinawan karate where medium, and even full contact fighting, are considered essential to the student’s development. Yet it is only with a firm understanding of the role traditional kata plays, and the differences between point and combative styles of sparring, that this balance can be achieved. Kata is the practice of strategies to dangerous to be executed free style, while sparring allows one to experience the stress and chaos of hand-to-hand combat. Without this understanding, the results gained from karate can often be of limited value due to the fighter misunderstanding the correlation between kata and sparring.
No matter what style of karate is practiced, hand- to- hand combat fought against an armed enemy is the worst case scenario one can find himself in, especially if the karate-ka is unarmed. Sadly, this is a likely occurrence today given the preponderance for armed violence in our society. This problem affects not just traditional karate, but all fighting arts, no matter what the style or system may be. The UFC fighter can be killed by a knife thrust to the chest just as easily as the traditional karate-ka. Moreover, in the handgun age, all systems of hand- to- hand fighting are at an equal disadvantage.
Should a weapon be used during an assault, the defendant’s chances of survival may diminish as much as ninety percent, depending upon the attacker’s own skill. If the assailant is proficient with a knife, then ones chances of survival may decrease as much as eighty percent. If he is armed with a gun, then the defendant’s survival rate may decrease as much as 90 to 95 percent, depending upon the type of firearm used. These are depressing facts, but this reality must be confronted when addressing the issue of self-defense. Likewise, it leads one to examine just what the term self-defense implies.
Due to the media’s unrealistic portrayal of karate, and our own societies general naivety concerning the demands of hand to hand combat, the term self-defense conjures up images of a lone fighter defeating multitudes of armed opponents, single-handedly, with nothing more than their hands and feet. However, reality is a different manner. From a tactical standpoint self-defense can mean checking one’s car before entering it, or else noticing a threatening character standing in a doorway and then crossing to the other side of the street to avoid him.
Self-defense, when defined from a purely combative standpoint does not mean conquering a gang of thugs, but instead doing whatever it takes to survive the attack, including running. Misconceptions about and the nature of an attack/street fight are as easily entertained within the dojo’s safe confines, as they are portrayed on televised UFC matches. Three of the most common misconceptions involve the friendly brawl, the unarmed fight and the notion that all fights go to the ground. Each of these is examined in the following paragraphs.
• Friendly Brawl This illusion often stems from the belief that a code of honor exists between two fighters, allowing them to ‘step outside’ and settle things like gentlemen. A sense of fair play is associated with the friendly brawl, thus preventing the use of weapons and ensuring that the combatants show respect to one another after the fight is over. In reality, there is nothing friendly about a brawl. Should you be asked to step outside, there’s a nine in ten chance that your antagonist is armed, or else has friends waiting to assist them. And, by chance, if you do leave your opponent lying in the gutter, there is a high probability that he will return, and settle the score with handgun. Mortal combat has only one rule, and that is to survive. You should never fight unless it is a last resort, and once the encounter is over, leave as quickly as possible. During a confrontation, violent execution achieves far better results than aesthetic beliefs.
• The Unarmed Fight A weak point commonly found within traditional karate training is the tendency to gear all self-defense towards fighting an unarmed opponent. These scenarios usually begin with either a lapel grab or a straight punch to the face. In actuality, many attacks are conducted with a weapon. The assailant wants to dominate the situation and get the attack over with so as to exit the premises quickly, thereby avoiding arrest. To counter such tactics, as much as 70 percent of the karate-ka’s training should be focused on knife, and club attacks. This will not hinder one’s empty-hand defenses; rather, it will enhance them. If a practitioner can successfully defend against a weapon, then the same techniques can be used to neutralize empty-hand attacks.
• All Fights Go To The Ground This mantra has been perpetrated by the popularity of MMA events. However, during hand to hand combat, the first person going to the ground is usually the first to be killed. This maxim is thousands of years old and is found in all systems designed for mortal combat, from the ancient Greeks to the United States Marine Corps Martial Arts program. Likewise, the concept of staying afoot is to stay alive is symbolized in the karate-ka’s ready or natural stance. Hoplologist Richard Hayes wrote about the combative significance of natural stances, noting that “In the pre-modern professional-of-arms, the ‘natural stance’ was equidistant between the quick and the dead. This is still valid for modern armies. While we can yet stand we remain viable human beings. When we can no longer stand we are wounded or dead. (Hayes, Hoplology Theoretics, 29). Mobility is essential for self defense because it allows the karate-ka to slip, weave, attack and retreat. Without it, one’s skills are seriously hindered. Ground grappling, used as a primary tactic within the ring is acceptable, on the street; however, it is the last tactic one wants to resort to. To stay afoot is to say alive, especially when facing an armed attacker.
The techniques and strategies needed to develop effective self-defense are present in karate, but identifying them requires casting off preconceived notions of tradition and embracing a more flexible approach concerned with results, instead of aesthetics. This perspective often entails taking an existing strategy, then modifying it to meet current threats, such as kata joint locking techniques being applied against a knife, instead of an unarmed opponent’s fist, or kakie practiced against someone holding a club. Karate has to meet the fight’s demands because combat never yields to our expectations. This knowledge has been a tradition throughout the fighting arts history and must remain so today.
Staunch traditionalists may argue that to alter a technique is to break with tradition, thereby degrading karate. Yet in matters of self-defense, karate’s progenitors placed a higher regard upon being competent fighters than on preserving set routines. This pragmatic outlook allowed Choki Motobu to reign victorious in Naha’s red light district, and it also enabled Chotoku Kyan to use live chickens for purposes of self-defense. Karate Historian, Richard Kim, told the story of Kyan’s famous encounter:
One of the hooligans held his sword in front of him in a threatening gesture.
Kyan looked at the hooligan intently and said, ‘Well, it looks like money and chickens measured against human life is not much. Okay, if you want the chickens so badly, take them. Here!’ And he flung both chickens at the men in front of him.
At the instant he flung the chickens, he jabbed his hands against the two men directly in front of him, poking one in the eye and the other in the throat. Both dropped on the spot. He quickly kicked the sword bearer in the groin and turned to face the hooligan in back of him.
The action happened so fast that when Kyan turned, the hooligan that was standing in the back of him just drew a sharp breath. He looked at Kyan’s face and lost his nerve. As Kyan advanced, the tough broke and ran. (Kim, Weaponless Warriors, 61).
In the history of karate, there has never been a formal technique for ‘flinging chickens’ discovered within any of its kata. Nevertheless, this did not stop Chotoku Kyan from employing the roosters to his advantage, as any experienced fighter would have done under similar circumstances.
Today karate is often interpreted as an empty-handed fighting art, with some people believing that any opponent, despite size or propensity to wield weapons, can be defeated with hand and foot strikes. Yet this idea also differs with traditional karate’s self-defense strategies, because using a weapon to defend oneself during mortal combat was considered perfectly acceptable by many of its early legends. Remarking on the use of weapons for personal protection, Chojun Miyagi noted in 1936 that
Our intention is to develop a sound and healthy body so that, in the event we are attacked unexpectedly, we are able to defend ourselves effectively. That is to say, the fundamental principle of karate is to be able to defeat an assailant using solely our natural weapons-our bodies.
However, in situations in which an aggressor possesses superior strength or wields a weapon, we must use, in conjunction with our natural weapons, whatever weapon we may find at hand (Higaonna, History of Karate, 82).
For the modern karate-ka, this translates into becoming aware of, or even proficient in, the use of weapons common to our society. Mace, pepper spray, car keys, extendable batons and firearms should be included in the karate-ka’s training at some point in time. Familiarity with these modern weapons is not breaking with tradition; rather, it is keeping abreast of present combative themes, a practice that ensures karate’s status as a functioning self defense art in the postmodern world.
Although the vast majority of karate-ka today will never have to employ violence to defend themselves, the differences separating karate’s sport and combative goals should never be confused. Both share commonalities; however, since no one style of fighting encompasses everything, the two differ in the results they strive for. One is concerned with rule based competition, while the other prepares us for a struggle in which there are no rules save one: survival.