Boxing Vs Karate
“My Name’s John L. Sullivan and I Can Lick
Any Son-of-a-Bitch Alive”
Ask any karate-ka how they rate boxing as a fighting art and many will answer, “Boxing? Well… it’s a sport, unlike my style which is a true martial art designed to kill people.” Every so often though, someone replies, “Boxing? It’s the sweet science of killing” and you find yourself thinking. “Hum, maybe I should workout with this person.”
From my own experiences of having boxed (not professionally) and being involved in the Asian Fighting Arts since 1966, I’ve come to the conclusion those giving the first answer are seriously delusional, much less even heard of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Archie Moore or Ken Norton, while those giving the second answer tend to be pragmatic, well-rounded fighters.
Ignorance, personal insecurities and an unhealthy dose of Asian mysticism all contribute to the snobbery displayed towards western boxing today. Corcoran and Farkas listed it as a miscellaneous art in their Martial Arts Encyclopedia while Reid and Croucher devote but a paragraph to it in their work, The Fighting Arts. Similarly, many karate-ka haven’t a clue about Boxing’s history, or else deride the “sweet science” because its raw violence and superior punching scares them. Then there are those who wax philosophical, reasoning that theirs is the superior fighting art because boxing doesn’t utilize the chi, never strikes the vital areas, nor has any kata. Well, horse hockey I say, because as a striking art boxing is equal to, if not superior to all styles of karate. In fact legendary karate-ka Bushi Matsumura warned against such philosophical meanderings when he wrote: “Those practiced by scholars, or courtly nobles, for aesthetic reasons where much debate is held over various strategies and techniques but little effort is made to understand combative applications.” (Nagamine,
Okinawa’s Great Masters, 21)
Prior to karate’s widespread popularity western boxing and wrestling were the preeminent combative sports/fighting arts in both
and America . Boxing’s history, however, reaches beyond either country’s shores and dates back much farther than karate’s. England
One of the earliest depictions of boxing known is from the Minoan civilization when around 1500 B.C.E, the image of a fighter wearing gloves was carved into a stone vase. In the Odyssey, Homer gives evidence of boxing and systematic forms of unarmed striking when he writes of Odysseus fighting Iros:
Both men put up their fists-
with the seasoned fighter Odysseus deeply torn now…
should he knock him senseless, leave him dead where he dropped
or just stretch him out on the ground with a light jab?
As he mulled things over, that way seemed the best:
A glancing blow, the suitors would not detect him.
The two men squared off-
And Irus hurled a fist
At Odyesseus’ right shoulder as he came through
with a hook below the ear, pounding Irus’ neck,
smashing the bones inside-
suddenly red blood
came spurting out of his mouth, and headlong down
he pitched in the dust, howling, teeth locked in a grin,
feet beating the ground-
(Homer The Odyssey Book xviii, 100-120)
The ancient Greeks included boxing in the Olympics and twelve hundred years before Bohidharma entered the
the Halstatt Celts recorded boxing scenes on their pottery. In Rome boxing resembled the modern version in that kicking, biting or grappling were considered illegal while at the same time any punch was allowed, there were no rounds, no set time limit and the fight continued until someone was knocked-out, or gave up. Let’s face it, boxing has never been for the faint of heart. Virgil tells us when he wrote: Shaolin Temple
Down in the ring he threw his pair of gauntlets,
massive weights that violent Eryx used to sport,
binding his fists to fight with rawhide taut and tough.
The crowd was dazed-seven welted piles of enormous oxhide
stitched in ridges of lead and iron to make them stiff.
Dares, dazed the most, shrinks back from the bout.
But the hearty son of Anchises tests their heft,
turning over and over the heavy coiling straps.
(Virgil, Aeneid, Book 5, 447-455)
Two thousand years before the word karate became synonymous with fighting, boxing was introduced to
by the Romans. It disappeared at the beginning of the Christian era, but during the medieval era, boxing- complete with kicks, throws and locks- was popular amongst both the ruling and common classes. Terry Brown wrote in his splendid book “English Martial Arts”: “The fighting prowess of King Edward was such that there are fourteenth century tales of his ability to hold his own at wrestling and fisticuffs with the great Robin Hood himself.” (Brown, English Martial Arts, 79) Britain
By the end of the 17th century (one-hundred and fifty years before Itosu Anko was born) boxing was an urban phenomenon in
and schools of pugilism were blossoming in many cities. These schools, sometimes referred to as guilds or academies, offered instruction in both armed and unarmed fighting and it was common for tournaments to be held as public entertainment.[i] England
Born in the
in Oxfordshire, James Figg ran an academy in village of Thame that held a 1000 people. Figg was noted for his skill with sword, cudgel and fist and he frequently staged tournaments to drum up business. A large man with broad shoulders, Figg would exchange blows with anyone for enough money and was considered the undisputed champion of London . Although Figg died in 1734 it was through his efforts and those of others- George Taylor, Tom Smallwood and Jack Broughton- that the art of bare-knuckle boxing became the national sport of England during the late eighteenth century. England
The mid-nineteenth century saw the Marquess of Queensberry Rules introduced to bare-knuckles boxing in an attempt to make it a safer sport. The Queensbury rules implemented the use of gloves, a ten-count in case of a knock-down; three- minute rounds followed by one-minute breaks and a ring, 24-feet square. Gloves made boxing safer, but they also protected the hands should a clean blow go astray. As a result, head punching became common and fighters competed more since gloves reduced the amount of damage inflicted to both body and hands.
, bare knuckles’ boxing was introduced to England in the nineteenth century, one-hundred years before karate found its way to America . Initially practiced for dueling and self-defense, boxing was considered a saloon centered blood sport, but with the introduction of the Queensbury rules to Japan , it gained respectability and grew into a profitable enterprise. Elliott J. Gorn wrote, “The four-round Queensbury fights against all comers proved a goldmine, for the new rules greatly expanded a professional’s opportunities. Gloves protected his hands, and the elimination of wrestling removed the danger of injury from a chance fall. So long as the rules were enforced and he fought men of only moderate skill, a good boxer like Sullivan could repel attacks and dispatch almost any opponent. Add to this the stage fright of a local hero or neighborhood bully going against the great Sullivan, and the result was a formula for easy victories. Americans gladly paid to see the king in action, and the new rules allowed him to oblige them.” (Gorn, The Manly Art, 219) America
Boxing great, John L. Sullivan realized that fighting under the Queensbury rules was not only acceptable to
’s middle-class principles, but was a much more lucrative way of displaying his skills. Sullivan toured the country promoting his beloved sport and helped to legalize boxing in the America . [ii] United States
Boxing’s popularity swept not only
but America , Japan and to some degree Hawaii . In fact Boxing’s influence on the Asian fighting arts is well documented, though seldom mentioned. When introduced to China during the 1920’s boxing was included in both civilian and military physical fitness programs, much the same as karate was. Robert Smith wrote about its influence on Chinese martial arts that: “The Chinese knew little about Western boxing until the first half of the twentieth century. 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-because of its restrictions, Western boxing never became popular on the mainland.” (Smith, Comprehensive Fighting Arts, 19) Similarly, Maung Gyi, founder of the American Bando Association, included boxing in Bando’s training curriculum while Joe Lewis, Maurice Smith, Bill Wallace and Bruce Lee all boxed at some point during their careers. Today Western Boxing’s influence is seen in the MMA, full-contact karate and many realistic based self-defense programs. Japan
One fundamental difference between karate and boxing is the training objectives of each style. This usually, is what makes the boxer a superior fighter. The boxer’s reason for training is clearly defined. He or she trains to fight an equally skilled opponent in a match that often turns into an all-out war. Every aspect of the boxer’s training is examined and geared towards developing the highest state of physical stamina as well as the highest level of martial prowess. Each technique, stance, shift, bob, cover and feint is analyzed and if it doesn’t work it is discarded. Hence the boxer masters a handful of techniques and strategies that are frequently tested in live contests through which the boxer receives real time feedback.
By comparison, a karate-ka often trains for a myriad of reasons other than fighting. Spiritual development, sport, self-defense, physical fitness, cultural- studies are all grouped in under the heading of martial art. And while beneficial to one’s personal development, they’re often peripheral to the art of fighting. Hence reality becomes distorted due to lack of realistic feedback.
For the boxer physical conditioning is essential not only for success, but survival. Getting hit is a fact of life in the sweet science and matches often turn into brutal slug fests, fought toe to toe. Boxing not only involves punching but slipping, bobbing, head-butting, elbowing, and trapping as well as stand-up grappling. As much as seventy percent of a boxer’s training can be devoted to physical conditioning and that which isn’t is still physically demanding. For instance try working the heavy bag for thirty minutes, or sparring ten rounds, non-stop.
For the karate-ka all too often their workout consists of solo forms or ippon kumite. In fact it is not uncommon to enter a karate dojo and never see a heavy bag. Plus, unrealistic expectations drawn from point fighting often lead to the belief that a flick of the safety punch and a well thrown punch are one in the same. This simply is not so, especially where full contact and street fighting are concerned. Sadly enough this point has been demonstrated time and time again within the martial arts community thanks to the MMA, Thai Boxing and full-contact styles of karate, though it has yet to gain widespread recognition.
Knowledge is power and where fighting is concerned knowledge usually helps a person become a better fighter. Ken Norton, Joe Frazer, Joe Louis and Jack Johnson possessed knowledge of their opponents’ techniques and strategies as well as the history of boxing. However, theirs was a knowledge built on experience, not theory as is so often found in the karate community where chi, death touches, pressure points, Grand Masters and Great Grand Masters draw legions to seminars, yet impart little real knowledge about fighting.
Similarly many karate-ka believe the more complicated a technique is the better it works in combat. This idea completely ignores the human body’s loss of fine motor skills while experiencing high degrees of stress. Moreover it does not account for the pain numbing effects adrenaline has on a fighter during combat.
Boxing, on the other hand embraces the KISS method: Keep It Simple Stupid. The jab, hook, upper-cut and cross may not have the complexity or aesthetics of a spinning heel-kick, but they are strong and effective and easily executed during the high stress of toe to toe fighting. Hence economy of motion and a direct response is used in place of complexity thereby reducing the risk of failure.
Today many people love to dwell on the stories and mysticism surrounding the old masters, yet seldom do we consider how Gichin Funakoshi, Choki Motobu or Zhang Manqing would have fared against Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Archie Moore or John L. Sullivan. One can only speculate, but had it been possible to arrange championship fights between these legends then most certainly our appreciation for western boxing would be far greater than what it is today.
Boxing Tips for the Karate-ka
· Live training/partner training is always better than solo forms practice.
· Physical Conditioning is a must for the fighter. Bag work, weights, road work, sparring, striking pads should all be included in your workout.
· Boxing fills the need for mid to close range punching perfectly. Many karate/kung fu stylists can kick and grapple, but lack effective punching skill.
· Head Punching is both viable and effective, though punching the mouth is not recommended.
· Combinations work best, never rely on the one punch-one kill philosophy.
· KISS- Keep It Simple Stupid in your approach to fighting.
· Hands up, elbows in. The guard/fence position works both in and out of the ring.
· Always move the body. Bobbing, slipping and circling should be perfected.
· Head-butting works.
[i] Just like their Asian counterparts Western practitioners were equally versed in armed and unarmed styles of combat. In fact, many of the strikes, throws and locks used by western fighters would have been right at home in most Asian styles. Hans Talhoffer’s Fechtbuch, or Fight Book published in 1467, is the western equivalent to the Koryu Jujutsu’s Densho- written records of a tradition.
[ii] John L. Sullivan was a larger than life figure and the reigning world champion for ten years, longer than any previous fighter known. Tough, vicious and fearless, his Irish working-class upbringing gave him a temperament well suited for the ring. Sullivan grew up in
and began fighting in saloons, theaters and music halls. From those humble beginnings he became one of the most popular sports heroes of nineteenth century Boston , if not the world. America