Sunday, December 28, 2014

Parker's hand postures

Before I leave the subject of Ed Parker behind completely, I'm going to delve into something I touched on very briefly in my last article - his hand postures.  I'm doing so because the issue was raised recently on the Kenpotalk forum.

A friend of mine, MarkC, posted that he felt the postures were "fake".  Another replied to him as follows:
"So tell me again why posing with the extended fingers is some kind of fake. In fact tell that to Ed Parker and his followers. This is the form of the Crane and there is a specific application for it."
So I replied with the more or less what follows below:

There are two types of "postures" seen in photos of quan fa practitioners:
  • poses of strikes; and 
  • poses of "guard positions".
The poses of "strikes" are usually what quan fa people adopt for photos. Here's me posing with others at a temple during training in Taiwan:


The strike is used in action in the tiger crane form (which is related to the one used in modern kenpo). In this case we're using tiger claw - not as a "guard" but as a strike.

Here is a picture of how blurred it is in actual movement when you don't freeze for a pose:


It's at about 0:30 in this video:



By contrast, it seems to me that many kenpo hand poses are usually not indicative of a move from a form, but rather a "ready" or "guard" posture (what is known in karate as a "kamae").


These hand configurations seem to use (very loosely) the sorts of striking forms found in Parker's book "Secrets of Chinese Karate". The one above looks like "eagle claw" (although it is rather too loose and floppy in the fingers to be a "strike").

The "Secrets of Chinese Karate" hand configurations are indeed authentic but they are never, ever used in "guard" or "ready" postures, as far as I know. They are only seen at the moment of a strike.

Yes, I know, Bruce Lee did some strange hand movements too.  This was his brand of nonsense.
I'm pretty sure that it was mostly for cinema; if you watch Lee sparring or demonstrating something seriously, he didn't seem to use any of these.  In other words, they seem to have been poses purely for the camera.

Regardless, just because Bruce Lee did something doesn't make it necessarily practical or meaningful in a martial sense - particularly if he did it in his movies.

I think it's also fair to say that Lee one of a kind - he could get away with his eccentricities, given his athleticism, skill, speed and popularity.  Everyone else using funny hand "guard" positions (including his legions of imitators) just looks plain silly.

Furthermore, as MarkC pointed out, everyone (whether Bruce Lee or not) who uses such hand postures risks the very real problem of having his/her fingers badly jammed and bent/dislocated/fractured/broken.

Having had damage to my fingers many, many times (and bearing permanent signs of this - including bones that jut out at odd angles, fingers that won't come together, etc.), I've learned the main reason to keep your hands in fists when in a "guard": to protect your hands.

There's a reason boxers, MMA, Muay Thai, karate, etc. all use fists in guards.  It's not necessarily because you want to use them for punching.



Jammed fingers can end a fight very quickly as your hands become useless when one or two fingers have been bent back 180 degrees in the wrong direction. Over the decades I've had to visit Accident and Emergency at least a dozen times with fingers like the x-ray below. I've since learned now to keep my hands in fists when fighting. That's kept me out of the A&E for 10 years or so and I wish to keep it this way.


So basically, my summation is that anyone thinking they can get away with a "guard" using a loose-fingered "guard" is really affecting a "kung fu look" rather than a real fighting posture. 


It's an affectation and it's positively dangerous - to you.

Real kung fu "poses" look something more like Shaolin kempo practitioner Steve Demasco in the image on the left. 

I don't know what technique Steve is doing, but it looks like a strike or pull/claw etc. He's certainly not "guarding", but is instead executing something - a technique - using his fingers. Note the relative tension in the "claw" fingers.

So yes, this is a pose and uses a "funny hand shape". But it isn't an "guard" or "ready" posture. It is a snapshot of a movement in a form.

By contrast, the standard Parker/Parker-inspired hand postures look "fake" because they look like "imitation kung fu" rather than the kenpo Parker actually used.

Now please note: I'm not saying that Parker's art was "fake" - merely that these hand postures don't do it justice; they look out of place in his art.  The hand postures don't look like they "fit".

They look "fake" in much the same way as early Hollywood impressions of "karate" did when they used strange "hand chop" postures that no one in karate had ever seen.

Consider the picture of Clouseau fighting Kato on the right. 

No one in karate fights, or has ever fought, like this - just as no one in quan fa (or kenpo) actually uses the strange hand postures Parker and Lee made famous (at least, not when facing a resistant partner).

I suspect that these hand postures were retained long after the art of kenpo had substantially evolved from its early 60s incarnations.  They were kept for the reasons Lee kept his own "fake" hand postures: because they "looked the part".  Now they look plain dated and silly (on both Parker and Lee!).

Despite the above observations and my previous ones, I want to make something clear about Ed Parker: I believe he truly did contribute something important to the martial arts.  In many respects he was well ahead of his time.

Parker, along with Bruce Lee, was one of the principal martial arts teachers to break the mould of "single counter" responses that were so common in the first decades of Oriental martial incursion into the West.  The prevailing "single counter" philosophy at the time was certainly a result of the rather literal interpretation of "ikken hitssatsu" (killing with one blow) philosophy employed in the most popular schools of Japanese karate at the time - and their somewhat basic manifestation (in the West particularly).

So to me, kenpo's strengths lie in its amazing combinations and "technique conversions".  Consider the demonstration below - still impressive today.


An impressive demonstration of Ed Parker's contribution

I credit Parker because I don't think these types of combinations came from his teachers (Mitose and Chow). Rather, the whole "combination approach" of kenpo seems to have been Parker's innovation (if not entirely, then mostly).  Others have since built on his work.

Apart from his kenpo legacy, I'm fairly certain that Parker also indirectly influenced many karateka and gongfu practitioners to go back to their roots - to discover applications that involve such combinations and not just the old stilted "single technique responses".

The idiosyncrasies that "tagged along" with Parker's art - like his hand positions and his "cover outs" - don't detract from his overall contribution.  They should, however, not be preserved uncritically as part of his "lore".

Copyright © 2014 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Cross-stepping: power and pitfall

Introduction

Like any transition in martial arts, the cross step ("kosa dachi" in Japanese) has its uses - sometimes very powerful ones.

It also comes with significant, inherent weaknesses.

On the latter subject, let me quote from the fantastic MMA writer Jack Slack in his recent article concerning Machida's "triangle kick" knockout of CB Dollaway:


In karate there is the idea of kyo, something I was writing about at length this week, but actually abandoned in order to publish my Karate's Holy TrinityKyo is a moment of weakness in an opponent. When he is recovering from an attack, when he hesitates between techniques or mid combination, when he is breathing in or recovering his guard. 

A cross step (kosa dachi) is such a kyo.  Let me explain why.

Weakness #1: extra time and telegraphing

First, it is important to understand that the cross step is really a species of "tsugi ashi" - where one leg skips up to the other (or crosses over it) then the other leg extends forward to re-widen the stance again.



The cross step is really just a longer, deeper tsugi ashi (what I think kenpo call a "drag step").

The tsugi ashi is problematic because the skip of the leg up to, or crossing, the other takes place in "dead time" (the "drag") - during which you are not really advancing on your opponent, but rather setting up for a bigger leap.  The first part doesn't really do much on terms of applying your momentum towards your target; instead it merely allows for a very large (and usually momentous) second step.

Which should tell you that the tsugi ashi (including the cross step) has another problem: it telegraphs.

In this regard, tsugi ashi is the polar opposite of the "drop step" as used in most martial arts, especially xingyi.  The drop step is where you extend the front leg first and the back leg second (when moving forwards) or vice versa (when moving backwards).

It is known in karate as either suri ashi or yori ashi (depending on whether or not the second leg continues to overtake after the initial "drop" step with the lead foot).





Weakness #2: vulnerability

Apart from the extra time/telegraphing issue, there is another problem with the tsugi ashi / cross step: instability.  During the whole of the "dead time" your feet are either together or they are crossed over.

In both cases you are in a kyo - a position of weakess - particularly as regards balance.  You can be swept off your feet, charged or simply punched - and there is precious little you can do about it during that moment of "dead time" when you are "flat footed" (I don't mean this literally but rather that you are relatively immobile compared to when you are not in "dead time").

In fact the cross step is seen as such a vulnerable position in boxing that it is often regarded as a sign of gait disturbance" - ie. significant brain injury leading to instability / lack of bodily control and warranting the stoppage of the fight.

Consider the recent tragic of the death of amateur debutante Dennis Munson Jr - and the criticism of the referee, doctor and corner men for failing to stop the fight once they noticed tell-tale signs of gait disturbance - which included leg crossing.

In the video below you'll note a commentator saying the following:
"It was the first indication of a deteriorating fighter. As the second round progresses the change in Munson becomes more apparent. His feet cross, putting him in a vulnerable position." 
I counted at least a dozen obvious leg crosses.  And, contrary to what some people allege, boxers don't "cross" legs as they circle, nor do MMA fighters; rather they employ a skipping motion with both legs (exaggerated by fighters like Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali and now employed by every single "faux boxer" on the planet).



[Addendum: I must make it clear that I'm not trying to correlate voluntary cross stepping and head trauma - I am merely noting that the use of cross steps is regarded as so risky in boxing/MMA that its appearance might be assumed to be involuntary (ie. due to diminishing body control). In other words, I am highlighting its relative danger only - not trying to suggest that doing a cross-step is always akin to brain damage! You'll note that I use a cross-step in my video and in the bagua still frame series below - so clearly I don't subscribe to the idea that they are "immutably weak" - just that they require care in execution and should not be a "default" step.]

The power of the cross step

So why would you use a cross-step?  Because it has very legitimate uses.

One is as an offensive movement to create twisting/torsional force in close quarters.  I illustrate this in the video below:



In karate, the naihanchi kata series make extensive use of precisely these sorts of tactics.

But great care must be taken in using these torsional methods; they must be executed offensively, entering into the opponent's guard (mostly for civilian defence grappling).  To avoid the pitfalls of timing, telegraphing and instability, they must be executed when the opponent is in the midst of his/her own kyo - ie. moment of vulnerability - and not otherwise.

A second use of the cross step is to move across a great distance - and generate a lot of momentum from this movement.

A prime example is when one is executing a side thrust kick.

Bruce Lee did this spectacularly in his commercial movies and home films.  You can see just how much extra ground - and hence extra momentum - Lee can garner by using the tsugi ashi "skip up" to get the kick.

This use of the the cross step / tsugi ashi must also be executed with great care - that's probably why you don't see it all that often.



You'll note that with the recent Louis Smolka kick, you don't necessarily need to cross your legs; a simple tsugi ashi will do.  But the timing has to be just right.  The extra time, telegraphing, and instability during the skip up are all very pressing reasons not to go out and try this in your next MMA fight.  Not without understanding exactly when you can do so safely and effectively.


The other thing to note from the above gif is that any sort of side kick can also necessitate a reverse tsugi ashi or cross step to recover balance, especially when the kick is high.  This is one of the pitfalls of high side kicking that has caused this skill to fade in the MMA era, where broader rules (such as allowing low leg kicks) make such tactics highly risky while in the kickboxing era they were de rigueur.


The third use of the cross step is found in arts like bagua - where it is employed (somewhat counter-intuitively) to move quickly to the outside against an attack.

Note: it must be to the outside.  It must also be quickly reset to a normal position, because you don't want to hang around facing your opponent in a cross-legged position.  That "stance" is a transitional movement held for only the briefest of moments.

I demonstrate this concept in the adjacent images against a deeply committed lunge punch - but it can be used against a cross or hook or uppercut etc.  It just depends on the context.

Note that in the application shown in the adjacent images you must move your front leg across to generate instant momentum transfer (a drop step).

(In this case I move to my left to evade the punch, using my right leg.)

After that, you must quickly bring your back leg through (ie. in the manner of a bagua step) so as to remove the "crossed" element and reorient yourself relative to your opponent.

In this application, I demonstrate an elbow break using a momentary friction hold but there are many different options available with this stepping evasion; I'm simply using a rather literal interpretation of the first palm change.

It is important to note that I would never use this application on the inside: that would invite disaster!  I'd be walking straight into his follow up punch - and doing so in the most unstable position there is.

So if my front leg couldn't step across to the outside, I would have do something else (bagua has other alternatives, as do other fighting methods).

The Ed Parker "cover out": a critical analysis

I know I'm not popular with kenpoists for recently taking on their senior grandmaster, Ed Parker.  And I really didn't want to go back to criticism of him; I think he made some important contributions to the martial arts and I wanted to leave it on a more positive note after my last concessions towards him.

But one element of his (in my view flawed) '60s fighting method that Parker doggedly retained up to the end (and which is kept by many kenpo lineages - although by no means all) is what is called the "cover out" - a retreating cross step employed after you've managed to dispense a string of brutal counters to your opponent.

The video below shows a number of "cover outs" by both Parker and his students (note also the opening image which is taken from the video):



You can already tell that I don't like this technique.  The reason is simple: it contravenes every single principle of appropriately using the cross step.

First, it is being used defensively - to retreat.  That is the time of your biggest kyo: your moment of greatest vulnerability.

I've lost track of the number of times I've been swept when stepping backwards in the face of a particularly fierce onslaught; my opponent has waited until I started to step and caught my feet at the mid-point - the "dead time".

Take a look at the talented Andre Bertel in this video and you'll get some idea of what I mean:



I'm afraid this is exactly what the kenpoist is inviting with the "cover out" (at least, one that uses a cross over retreat): they are attracting a devastating unbalancing attack.

In my view, any retreat would preferably employ a previously-mentioned suri ashi - in reverse.  In other words, you would engage your back foot first (to get instant momentum away from the target) then follow it up with the other leg stepping back past the first leg.

That's if you're serious about "putting distance" between yourself and your opponent (what I understand to be at least one purported justification of the "cover out").

And presumably, you would do this because your opponent might not really be "finished off" as you had hoped with your string of brutal counters - so you're retreating out of an abundance of caution.

Or perhaps you're doing so because he might have accomplices (which raises the question of whether you're backing into these accomplices!).

On the latter point, I've heard it said that the "cover out" with a cross step "allows you to see a wider field".  But I don't see how a cross step can do that - at least, any better than a normal step.

Alternatively, if your string of counters has obviously been so successful that your opponent is "down and out", and you're confident that he/she has no accomplices, why would you bother stepping back with more than a simple, normal step?  Why step back at all?

In respect of the latter, it concerns me that many kenpoists demonstrate this "cover out" after one technique that might not be all that "determinative".

In the adjacent pictures, the practitioner does the "cover out" after a snap kick to the abdomen - which fighters routinely absorb.

I wouldn't be stepping back into a cross-legged stance after such a kick even if I were Anderson Silva or Lyoto Machida; to do so would invite catastrophe should the kick miss or be absorbed, or should opponent recover quickly and pursue.

Certainly grooving such an automatic "unstable retreat" after a technique like a snap kick is, I think, a bad idea.

(I don't want to appear to be particularly critical of the practitioner shown - it is taken from a video I saw on a forum and is fairly typical of the method used by many kenpoists.)

So I see this kenpo "cover out" as almost certainly a hangover from Ed Parker's rather strange '60s era fighting method.

In this respect the "cover out" is not unlike Parker's strangely gnarled "hand positions".  I'm not sure what these are - they look like the various finger and hand strikes shown in "Secrets of Chinese Karate" but under Parker they seem to have morphed into "kamae" - ready postures or "guards", albeit ones that dangerously present the fingers for jamming and wedging, especially in the face of fast and hard attacks.

It seems to me that these sorts of "techniques" are more about what people used to think karate/jujutsu/gongfu look like than actual fighting methods.

Accordingly I think the cover out (and the hand positions) should have gone the way of the judo/karate chop and other seemingly "Oriental" affectations that plagued early Western exposure to Eastern martial arts.

Conclusion

The human body only moves in so many ways. Fighting tactics don't change much as between cultures as a result.

There are a few constants common to all fight schools, eg: "turning your back to your opponent is a bad idea".

Crossing your legs is one of these.

But just as "the rule against turning your back" doesn't prevent you from doing the odd, judicious, spinning kick/backfist/elbow etc., so too is there a time and a place for crossing your legs.

I think doing so in retreat is hardly ever going to provide such a time or place.

Copyright © 2014 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Are you stuck in basic karate/gongfu?

Introduction

I recently canvassed a favourite issue of mine - namely the need to time your punching/striking hand at the same time (or a fraction before) your front foot lands in a step.

A typical xingyi step.  Note the punch lands with
the front foot.  The back leg draws up later.
As you'll recall I first raised this in my article "Xingyi stepping vs. karate stepping" as a means of discussing some of the particular technical approaches used in the internal arts of China.  I principally did so as part of my drive to explain that these arts actually have some genuine, quite advanced, fighting methods that rely on simple, unadulterated physics - not "woo" (ie. "qi" or some other supernatural/paranormal phenomenon) as many people unfortunately seem to think.

I followed this up with my article "Giving away the big secrets" in which I discussed one major reason why this was so important: because it uses your stepping momentum in the most efficient way possible - utilising your whole body mass behind the punch.  Put another way, as soon as that front foot lands, the brakes come on.  So if you punch after you step, you'll be punching after you've applied the brakes.  Less velocity means less momentum, which means less applied force.  The physics are really quite simple.

Lastly, in my most recent article "The fundamental problem with karate?" I discussed how timing your hand with your front foot had another, arguably more important function - in eliminating telegraphing and lost time: if you step up to someone, then try to punch him/her the person will stop the punch from landing.  The millisecond you take to punch after "arriving at the scene" is about the same as your opponent's reaction time.  You can't give that sort of time away if you want your techniques to work.

However the other observation I made in that article proved more controversial: I argued that punching after stepping was a common feature in how karate is practised (at least in the modern era).  It's fair to say that I copped a bit of flak here and there for making this observation.

Some admitted it was common in karate - but felt I was making a mountain out of a molehill (I disagree - for all the reasons I've previously stated).

Others disputed that it was even a feature of karate in the first place...

So which is it?

Is punching after stepping really "karate"?

On this latter question, one correspondent wrote the following:
"[R]eferencing the problem as a fault with Karate as opposed to a deficiency in the way some teach it is a mistake."
Sakamoto sensei's incredible performance of "anan"
kata.  But note the timing of the punch to coincide
with the rear leg - not the front...
In other words he was saying: "This is not "real karate"; rather it is "karate done badly".

Certainly when I wrote the article I was being deliberately provocative in my title (as I am being, to some extent, with the title to this article); I didn't mean to imply that it is a problem with karate as much as it's a problem with the teaching of karate in some (actually, many) schools.

However I need to be clear on one thing: I didn't mean to imply that such teaching a "two count" version of karate was always "wrong".  Rather, I meant to say this teaching was basic.  Basic training is important.

Unfortunately many seem to be teaching this basic training as "senior training".  And when I say "many" I really mean this.  It is more than a select few karateka who "punch, then step."
It's actually nothing short of endemic.
It is in virtually every kata - from ryuei ryu, to goju ryu, to uechi ryu to shorin ryu.  It is really part and parcel of karate practice.  Every karate style has it.

Consider the adjacent image of Sakamoto Tsuguo performing the ryuei ryu kata "anan": a clear case of "step up, then punch".

Unlike the xingyi example above, the punch isn't timed with the front foot.  If anything, it is timed with the rear foot dragging up - ie. well after the front foot has landed.

The photos of Sakamoto offer quite a stark contrast to the earlier xingyiquan example.  For all the faults (from a combat perspective anyway) in the way xingyiquan is commonly practised, in this timing respect the exact opposite of karate is true: the timing of the strike with the front foot landing is regarded as standard.

Don't believe me that the "step up, then punch" really is the "norm" in karate (rather than the exception)?

Let's consider different examples of what is arguably the "universal" kata of karate - seisan.

Seisan kata: the universal example

Here I am demonstrating the kata in 1993.  It is, I think, a fairly representative performance of the kata in most goju schools (barring some small differences).  The one thing you can be assured is consistent across the various schools is the "step, then punch" timing that I employ.



Mine is a goju version.  But you need only look at another, completely different, style - shorin ryu  - to see that, once again, the stepping is always completed before the strikes are commenced.  In other words, it is always a question of "step, then strike":



Or we can try a completely different system again: uechi ryu:



As with the gojuj and shorin versions, there is a clear "step, then strike".  There is simply no ambiguity about this.

Is it just in karate - or is it in the Chinese arts as well?

This raises the question: Is this timing an Okinawan innovation?  What might any Chinese ancestral forms of seisan (assuming they existed) have looked like?

I really don't know the origin of the form below.  It looks distinctly Chinese "in flavour" and is obviously related to the uechi version of seisan, albeit it almost certainly too close to uechi ryu seisan to be the "original" (forms never retain this level of fidelity over more than 100 years and especially after transmission between different cultures!).

Whichever way you look at it, one thing seems fairly certain: the the stepping, then punching doesn't look out of place or or otherwise "non-Chinese" in this form.



Indeed the other nearest "seisan relative" I've found on the Chinese mainland also has precisely this "step, then punch" timing.  The form I'm referring to is Yong Chun's "shr san tai bau" (thirteen treasures).  Note that the "step, then strike" underlies practically every single move.


And the same can actually be said of every white crane, Hakka and other Fujianese - indeed external southern Chinese - form.

In other words, the Okinawan karate model of "step, then punch" is nothing new.  It is appears to be based squarely on the Chinese models that probably influenced karate's development.

So what's going on here?  Why have these various arts and schools adopted a "less than optimal timing" of strikes and steps?

I think the answer is simple: it comes down to priorities in teaching/learning.

Learning fundamentals through isolation

Here's the thing: the other night at training a senior student was being examined on material relevant to a teaching qualification.  The issue of this timing arose - especially as regards teaching white and green belt kata.  The question was asked: "Should I be stressing the hand and foot timing thing?"
The answer from my brother and me was a resounding "No!"
In karate, beginners and intermediate students (ie. those under black belt) need to focus on fundamentals.  If they are too obsessed about how these fundamentals fit together, they will never get the individual pieces correct.

Southern Chinese arts are taught similarly - with a great deal of emphasis on correct, optimal movement.  This is achieved by grooving those movements - in isolation initially.

It isn't just limb movements, like blocks, punches and kicks, either.  It's learning (over many years) important skills like grounding.  This is achieved through stances.

When you learn about stances, you're not only concerned with their form but how you've effected your posture, tension and relative relaxation of certain muscles in that form.

It's also about how you move between stances; their function as snapshots of transitional positions.  It's about your stability and efficacy in the process of transition.  It's about understanding optimal transfer of momentum - for evasion and counter attack.

You simply can't expect to get your limb movements or your stance/posture/grounding correct when you're busy obsessing about timing them correctly together.  Particularly when this timing is actually very hard to do.  It is so hard, I consider it to be an advanced skill - in other words, it takes a long time to master and it isn't the first thing you need to worry about.

When I say all this, I know a lot of people won't believe me.  To those who don't, bear with me:

In our school that hand and foot timing is basic!

I had one karate practitioner write the following:
"In the style of karate I have studied for the last 25 years , this is very basic. Even white belts are taught that hand and foot " finish " at the same time."
I replied that this was good to hear.

Until relatively recently I probably would have said the same thing.  Indeed, from my earliest trainings I was taught that the "step then punch" was for beginners.  "When you get to black belt, your foot and hand will move together," was something my karate teacher would often tell us.

I never forgot this.  It was imprinted in my brain as "true karate".

But this didn't mean that when I eventually got to black belt I somehow found myself timing hand and foot together "naturally".  Far from it.

Rather, it was only when I started studying xingyi in earnest - about 10 years ago - that I realised my "fairly good" hand and foot timing was actually always off.
By xingyi standards it was still clearly a two count movement.
Likewise, many people in the karate world don't even seem to notice that what they perceive as "at the same time" isn't anything like that.

I think this is attributable to the fact that most of us karateka, regardless of our experience and seniority, still practise our kata and isolated movements in a "two count" fashion - especially when we are working slowly.  Anything less obviously "two count" is regarded as "the same time".  But it isn't.

Consider the adjacent pictures of world champion Luca Valdesi (he was just the first performer I came to when searching for "karate kata" in Youtube, so I'm not trying to pick on him!).

I've embedded the video from which the pictures were taken below.

You'll note that in every instance of "slow" movement, Luca doesn't even attempt to time the hand and foot together.  As with the seisan examples, he follows the standard, basic karate pattern: step, then punch/strike/block, ie: he follows two very distinct counts.



But then you'll notice everything seems to change when Luca puts on the speed.

Hooray!  Just as my teacher predicted all those years ago, the "advanced karateka" seems to be timing his and and foot at the same time!
Or is he?
Luca's speed is amazing so it makes it hard to observe what is happening. But if you take it frame by frame you'll notice that, essentially, his foundation is still built on a two count platform.  Have a close look at the pictures below:

Okay, his incredible physical skill makes up for this - so arguably it doesn't matter too much.  But it still isn't a true "one count".

I'm not trying to be critical - simply pointing out that what people perceive as "same time" actually isn't.

I've been teaching this for many years now and I'm used to disbelief.  It's only when I film students that they really accept that they are still doing a "1-2" (and it's usually more pronounced than this very subtle two count by Luca).

Getting a true "one count" is very difficult in my humble opinion.  The hardest part is getting the last few milliseconds right.  It is far from "basic".

Okay, it is true that Luca's momentum is still largely moving forwards as his punch lands.  That is true even if his foot has landed.  (In this regard you'll note his knee continues to bend and only reaches full zenkutsu at the moment the punch finishes.)

But the fact remains: this is not a true "one count".  The foot has come down before the punch has landed.  And the moment the front foot reaches the ground it starts to brake the body.

Okay, does this all really matter?

From the perspective of what "advanced karate" should be, I think it does.

Luca is a world champion.  And we are entitled to hold his performance (and those of his rivals) up to the highest standard - and grade these performances accordingly.  His timing should be as near to the "ideal" as possible - whether in kata or kumite.

And, as I've discussed, the ideal is that the hand should land a fraction before the foot does.  At the very latest, it should land at exactly the same time as the foot (which I've noticed is the usual default of students who finally manage to get this timing correct).

Luca is, however, tending the other way.

Compare his performance to how, say, Lyoto Machida strikes while stepping in MMA.  What you'll notice is that the punch is always landing while Lyoto is in full flight - just before, or at the very latest at the moment - his foot lands.

Obviously not all punches are thrown when stepping.  In many cases punches are thrown from a more or less standing position.  In that case bodyweight transfer, rather than foot landing, is the key.  For example, taiji stresses techniques landing at, or just before, the full weight transfer is completed.

But in the end weight transfer and stepping are not really different issues; steps are just bigger weight transfers.  Aside from jumps, they are the weight transfers that carry the most momentum - ie. they deliver the most powerful punches/strikes etc.

But they also risk the most telegraphing and take the longest time.

And remember that even a 0.1 second time lag between your foot landing and your punch landing can make all the difference between you hit your target or not.

Given all of the above, why on Earth would anyone risk practising a step and punch as two distinct actions?

The answer, I think, comes down to this:
It is actually very, very hard to get used to punching while your body mass is still in flight.  
This skill isn't to be taken lightly as "basic" (ie. "even our white belts do this"). It takes some practise. And there is a big difference between mastering this and getting it "almost right".

So when it comes to Luca, please be aware: I'm not trying to be critical of him as a performer.  He's doing what most karateka are taught to do.  He is basically performing the kata according to the current standard.  And he's doing an amazing job.  He is nothing short of phenomenal (although I think Rika Usami is better!).
I'm merely illustrating that how we train affects how we perform.
Luca is, like most of us, doing his slow movements in the "basic karate" way.  Why is it so surprising that he doesn't achieve the optimal timing when he steps quickly?

The relative difficulty of learning optimal hand/foot timing

My observation above should be all the less surprising when you consider that this hand and foot timing thing is darn hard.  I should know: I've been doing my best to get it right for more than a decade, especially in xingyi.

In that art, hand/foot timing is (I think) hardest in the context of "zuan quan" (the "drilling fist" - a rising inverted strike like that found in naihanchi shown in the video below at 0:19 and 0:24).



I'm not sure why this is: I think it has something to do with one's natural inclination towards associating a rising motion with the rear leg.  It takes a while to realise that the forward movement is a bigger part of the force component than the rising movement.

Regardless, the difficulty associated with learning zuan quan in xingyi explains why even fairly senior martial artists can get the timing wrong. Of course, I can't claim to be senior, but I have been practising this stuff for decades - yet I occasionally still get the timing wrong despite my best efforts.  For example, if you look closely at the above video you'll notice that the first zuan quan (0:19) isn't timed as well as the second (0:24).

When I get it right, I feel it though; and I think the force is also visibly greater. I certainly notice when I hit things with it.

In future articles, I hope to explore the more intricate details of hand and foot timing.  So far, I've been focused on the basic step forward (be it a lunge of the front foot or step through, with legs passing).  But arts like xingyi also teach you lessons about timing when stepping back, or simply swapping legs on the spot (which is a totally different kettle of fish) - or any variation in between these possibilities.

Conclusion

In my last article I implied that karate had a "fundamental flaw".  I don't think karate has such a flaw.  But I do think that how we practise karate and most external southern Chinese gongfu systems is, to some extent, flawed.  The flaw is this:
Basic training patterns are still being used in daily training by senior practitioners.
These very basic training patterns are particularly (or perhaps entirely) found in solo performances (ie. kata).  While there are very important reasons to train beginners and even intermediate students in a "two count" paradigm, there is simply no good reason to perpetuate this practise well into the the dan grades.

I think more experienced students must move towards optimal timing in solo practise.

Put another way, there is no good reason for solo forms to be timed in a way that is antithetical to how we would apply the movements against a resistant opponent.  We shouldn't have to "modify" our karate in terms of how we do solo forms and how we apply these against an opponent - at least not in respect of hand and foot timing.

If we persist with a "timing division" between kata and kumite, we risk invalidating the practise of kata as anything other than the most basic training.  At best, it will serve as nothing more than a kind of "encyclopaedia" of isolated techniques and applications - without providing any clue to application in movement (what I've called the "dynamic context").  At worst, it will groove movements that are entirely sub-optimal - indeed unworkable - against a resistant, never mind real, determined, attacker/opponent.

Lest I sound too critical, it is important to note that I think this flaw coincides with karate's/gongfu's greatest virtue: perfecting fundamental skills.  I say this because when push comes to shove, it is likely that your fundamental skills are the ones that will count the most, particularly in civilian defence.

However it is also important to remember that timing of hand and feet is another fundamental skill.  It is the skill that we should use when combining our other fundamental skills and applying them in a dynamic, resistant environment.  This skill might be secondary to grounding and correct form but it is still vital.  I think it's time we karateka and gongfu practitioners paid due attention it.



Hopefully this will explain to some of my critics why I chose to perform suparinpei recently in the manner of the above video - and why I titled that video by reference to "internal arts timing".  It has to do with the timing of the steps and weight transfers (including on the turns).

I will deal with the specifics of the kata performance in another article.

Copyright © 2014 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Another Machida mae geri?

Lyoto Machida has delivered another keage geri (snap kick) win - this time a body shot (a kick to the liver) - to finish CB Dollaway  at only 1:02 into the first round (after some punches on the ground).


At first I thought the kick contacted with the ball of the foot but closer examination shows that the kick landed on the instep near the top of the toes.

It seems possible that Machida was going for a toe kick but changed angles at the last second.  



[The toe kick might seem strange until you realise that it's been done before - see my article on this very technique.]

Anyway, I've often taught this very application for the Chen Pan Ling taijiquan kick (which seems to use the toes but with the right target uses the instep).

Alternatively, Machida can be said to have effected a kind of  hybrid mae geri / mawashi geri: the so-called "triangle kick".

I prefer the former analysis, ie. a "late conversion" from one to the other - highlighting the fact that in the traditional martial arts the front and roundhouse snap kicks are really just minor variants of each other depending on what opening presents itself at the relevant split second (this "morphing" of kicks is something my brother Nenad frequently demonstrates very effectively).

Whichever way you look at it, the kick Machida used here was definitely a snap/shock kick - and a variant of the front snap kick.  It definitely wasn't the "teep" - a pushing action.  Nor is it a "swing through" roundhouse typically used in Muay Thai etc.



Hopefully the idea that the front snap kick and its variants/adaptations somehow aren't "effective" in fighting - particularly in competition - should well and truly be put to rest now.  

There's nothing wrong with the snap kick - which clearly works - depending how and when you use it.  It's all in the timing.  Most people today don't have the skill to pull off such a "simple" technique.  But mastery is often expressed as simplicity...

Copyright © 2014 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, December 19, 2014

The 7 signs of a Martial Personality Cult

Introduction

There is a trend I've noticed growing lately in the martial arts.  I call it the "Martial Personality Cult."  To me it's a most disturbing trend precisely because it seems to go largely unnoticed and unchallenged.  When it is questioned, followers of the particular Martial Personality Cult so vociferously defend it that even the likes of Bullshido seem to shy away.

What is a "Martial Personality Cult"?  Basically it is a form of "martial worship" that revolves around one individual.  Typically this person is highly gifted, athletic and well-skilled.  More than anything, this person is also highly charismatic.

So what's wrong with the above?  So far, nothing.  Many masters who come under the latter description are in no way, shape or form "Martial Personality Cultists".  I can freely name a number of such excellent masters: Taira sensei, Higaonna sensei, Kanazawa sensei, Chen ZiQiang shifu, Luo De Xiu shifu, Su Dong Chen shifu, Guro Inosanto, Guro Presas... I could go on and on.  They are both skilled and charismatic - and their followers exhibit no "cult-like" behaviour.

So what distinguishes the "cult" variety" from these genuine masters?

The first thing to note is that however skilled the "Martial Personality Cult" leaders are, not one of them makes it into the list of true masters I've started above.  They are good - but not that good.  Not by a long shot.  In fact, there's a good chance that most of you - be it in the established traditional martial arts or the world of pragmatic combat sports - won't have even heard of them.  Rather, they have built their own niche - which in this case consists of organisations of fanatical followers drawn in by amazing Youtube videos showing fantastic skills.

Again - what's wrong with this?

Basically the problem is fairly straightforward:
They don't seem to be teaching anyone anything remotely useful.
They spend their time demonstrating their own athleticism and exercising mentalism - without passing on a single useful skill to their legions of adoring fans.

The martial arts niche 

My guess is that Martial Personality Cultists don't teach any real skill for one simple reason: there's not enough money in it.  In this regard, my own teacher Bob Davies once told me:
"Martial arts practice was never meant to be a popular activity."
By this he meant that at no time in history has martial arts practice ever been an activity that the bulk of society has taken part in.  It has always been a niche pastime - something with a "cult" following, if you'll pardon the pun.

Yes, there was a time during and after Bruce Lee that "everyone was kung fu fighting".  Then the ninja craze hit us all.  And just after that the Karate Kid movies drew in lots of folk to dojos.

But the truth is that these waves were relatively brief and few long-term students resulted; thousands joined and then, a month, week or day later, stopped.  Today, as at any point in history, you can hardly compare the number of people practising martial arts to those playing football, basketball or tennis.

No, lots and lots of people are attracted to the idea of martial arts.  But very few could be bothered to actually practise them sufficiently to acquire real skill.  For the most part, Joe Public would love to be able to "kick ass" like the heros in the movies.  But the thought of going to a school and doing hours and hours of kicks, punches, throws, falls, padwork, matwork - and all the necessary sweat, tears and, indeed, blood - just doesn't appeal.

So it's unsurprising that martial arts remains, and will always remain a niche activity.

Enter the Martial Personality Cultist

This is where the Martial  Personality Cultist comes in.  He (or sometimes she) knows that a vast number of people would care to "dabble" but have no interest in training seriously towards attaining real "gong fu" (ie. a skill acquired through great effort).  The Cultist exploits this tendency to entice as many people as possible to join his or her school, promising rather awesome "powers" - for very little effort.

Master Ken - the perfect parody of the real
Martial Personality Cult leader
When I say "little effort", I mean this from a long-term, serious martial artist's perspective.  Clearly the students who attend the Cultists schools think they are putting in effort.  But let's be frank:

It's nothing like the effort they would have to put in at an MMA gym; no hours and hours of hitting heavy bags, having knuckles rammed into your face, being choked out and having your joints wrenched.

It's not like a boxing gym - where you train to exhaustion and you fight till your head pounds like you've been hit by a Mack truck.

It's nothing like a hard traditional school where you spend hours in deep stances till your legs shake like jelly, you kick, punch and strike till your gi is so wet with sweat you might as well have jumped into a swimming pool, smash your calloused knuckles into makiwara and pound (black and blue) arms against another.

And it's nothing like a soft traditional school where you have to learn lengthy complex forms with mind-numbing exactitude; forms that require flexibility, dexterity, core strength and and a precision grooved from hours upon hours of tedious, back-breaking practice - all to the strains of "one more time!"

No, comparatively speaking the Cultist's school offers you the "Dire Straits lite" version:
"Your qi for nothing and your skills for free".  
By the above I mean that students assume that a few random qi/ki exercises (or similar "structural" training - whatever that is) will somehow net them physical skills - such as kicking, punching, deflecting, kinaesthetics and proprioception - all without every practising any kind of actual technique - be it against a bag/shield, in drills with a partner or even just in the air.  The most they will have to do is repeat (rather poorly) some random, one-off "partner exercises" or serve as punching bags for their master.  The skills will take care of themselves - somehow magically "absorbed" from the amazing leader.

So what are the trademark signs of a Martial Personality Cult?  Let me list them:

1. The charismatic, reasonably skilled figurehead/idol

The first requirement is, as I've said, the charismatic physically skilled and athletically gifted leader.

Typically his videos will be all over the internet, wowing everyone with the leader's power, strength, speed, agility... and did I mention power?

Yes, the "power" is... almost magical.  Yes, that's the only way to put it.  Magical.  It's so awe inspiring that it's almost too amazing to be true...

2. Demonstrations defined by zombie attacks using string defences 

The "power" isn't just some sort of "woo" involving pushes that are jumps.  Oh no - the Martial Personality Cultist has real skill and athleticism.  The problem is, it's typically manifested as a kind of "shock and awe" or "blitzkrieg" - a string of "overkill" counters delivered with blistering speed and ferocity.  Or maybe just brutal nastiness - like a sickening punch to the solar plexus or a kick to the groin.  Or a cringe inducing bend of someone's elbow till it bends the wrong way while the student is screaming, writhing and tapping the ground faster and harder than a jazz drummer.  Or a dangerous choke out/knock out - delivered coldly and methodically to a willing victim.

But here's the thing: in each case the "defence" is so fast, so brutal, so "awesome" you forget to notice... there was never any real attack.  Or the attack was so slow, so insipid, so out of range, so ineffectual, it might as well have been the movement of a zombie.

The videos showing the above demonstrations are all expertly produced to highlight the "defence" and ignore the lack of attack. This is done using cinematic flourishes, exciting graphics and fonts that spark, flame or curl into the titles, cut to blistering counters by the master, students flung to all corners of the room or slapped and stunned into submission.

Each video has but one clear function - to advertise The Product; a kind of system that promises that "If you build it, the skills will come."

3. A non-existent product

Despite the videos promise, there really is no identifiable "product" in evidence.  Indeed, this is virtually a boasting point; the Cultist doesn't bother with "forms" or "techniques".  He teaches "principles" that "transcend technique/form".  But in the end, he really doesn't teach anything concrete at all - no consistent pedagogy (ie. structured learning programme).  And yet he somehow "teaches everything you need to know".

Confused?  Well let's look at what little the Martial Personality Cultist does identify by way of a system of learning:

"The Product" which you "build" so the skills "will come" amounts to some banal "qi gong" type exercises or other similar (strange) breathing rituals.

Other than that, the master shows a different drill each night - never repeating any such drill twice.  Generally these drills exist merely to showcase another awe-inspiring demo by the Cultist - only to be copied (ineptly and without correction) by the students.

Which brings me to the next point:

4. No "star" other than the Cultist

In the Martial Personality Cult there is room for but one star.  Maybe that's why no one can point to a single student of the master who is any good at repeating the master's skill.  Indeed, no one can even name a top student.  If you happen to visit a branch, you see some rather inept person leading some rather banal activities in a class.  It seems that when the master leaves the building, all the "magic" goes with him/her.

That's why I've called it a "Martial Personality Cult"; it's really revolves around one personality.  No one else with any other skill is associated with it.

Indeed, the most damning indictment of the Martial Personality Cultist is this: he/she appears to produce no worthwhile students at all.  The average shodan teaching at a suburban dojo seems to produce better quality fighters by far.

In the rare event that a "top student" does emerge, this is never advertised or heard of until an entirely new "Martial Personality Cult" has been spawned by that student.  At this point, the student seems to teach his/her own thing.  A new brand name and logo emerges, new videos are produced and new "drills" appear - all variants on the original model but with the "student's" unique touch.  So there is a new focal point - a new "star", a new "personality" to worship.  The original master is never mentioned in this breakaway - except in some historical information buried in the site relating to "lineage".

Which brings me to...

5. Vague lineage

The Cultist's lineage is (assuredly) very impressive, steeped in the history and heritage of some particular exotic country.  But the details are... somehow absent... seemingly lost in the "mists of time".  References are made to cultural terms, icons and traditions; legendary figures are sometimes named.  But no one is able to point to the master's actual teacher (unless it is another similar Cultist with similar videos).

Sometimes tales of secret masters passing on deadly information in clandestine environments are mentioned.  Tales of late night exchanges or death bed transmission of knowledge.  I've heard it all.

If a name of a supposedly legitimate teacher is provided, no one has ever spoken with that  teacher and verified that he/she taught the Cultist.  No one even knows if that teacher is actually legitimate.  All anyone has is the Cultist's word.

6. Very subtle allusions to "woo"

The Martial Cultist is a lot cleverer than the two-bit "woo" merchant.  He/she strenuously avoids any mention of the supernatural.  The "build it and the skills will come" routine is spun as something physical, structural, obvious, yet mysterious; a "higher technology"; a "deeper wisdom" - a kind of "knowledge of the ancients" rediscovered and updated for our modern times.

Except that this "technology" is never explained scientifically or logically.  It is always couched in terms like "tensegrity", or "biodynamics" - or in more mundane, banal and useless terms like "structure" or "core".  It's clearly "woo" by another name: a game of semantics.

The above-mentioned glossy videos are very careful to avoid the "woo" element; they present the Cultist as the ultimate pragmatist - dishing out "power" to all and sundry with ferocious speed, accuracy and ruthlessness.  But if you look closely, you see students starting to comply by falling way too easily, being thrown way too far; you see that everything is carefully scripted and choreographed...

Sometimes a "woo-like" video is leaked of the master going too far - but it's existence is hurriedly explained away as "demonstrating a deep philosophical/metaphorical concept".  Any and all criticism is adamantly dismissed as "you don't understand what is happening."

Which brings me to...

7. Fanatical following

The Cultist has a fanatical following that defend his videos and other materials on the web.  They spring up on every site - including Bullshido - vociferously proclaiming the master's ability and that of his students.  Any criticism is slammed down with a flurry of coordinated anecdotal accounts whose sheer volume leaves even the hardened skeptic confused.  Surely the master must be good?

But this still leaves some uncomfortable questions in the backs of people's minds, all of which are answered by the students:

Why haven't we heard of him before?  Oh he was training for years at X or Y (major school in a large capital city) or with A or B (military/special forces of some exotic country).  He or she studied with a series of masters who passed on their most secret knowledge to him in the most secret circumstances.

But no one ever verifies this.

Why don't any of the students fight in MMA?  Oh they do!  In X or Y (large capital city in an exotic land) they regularly compete in full contact.

But no one can ever name a single fighter from this school.

Why don't we see the students sparring?  Oh there are literally hundreds of videos on the net of our sparring!

But no one can ever find any.

How good is this [Cultist] in person?  Oh he's amazing!  You have to cross hands with him to understand.  The power he generates - with absolutely no range or wind up - is incredible!  He has these amazing punches that no one else has!  I've seen him throw people across the room - they fly backwards, jack-knifing and then running.  Oh - and he takes on all challengers!

But no one has ever seen a video of this master that isn't entirely choreographed or done against zombie-like, compliant attackers...

Too good to be true?

If these elements seem familiar to you, there's a good chance you've been exposed to a Martial Personality Cult.  If you're tempted to believe in it, ask yourself this: why does it seem too good to be true?

If they boast of beating MMA fighters why aren't they actually doing this?

If they are so much better than the traditional masters, why aren't they recognised by the various traditional associations?

And above all, why aren't they presenting a more humble, less "glossy" and "marketed" persona typical of a true traditional (or sports combat) master?  Surely a true master lets his or her actions speak for themselves - a reputation built on actual ability and achievement - not on glossy Youtube videos?

The answer is, that true ability doesn't need spin.  And if anything typifies the "Martial Personality Cult" it is spin.

If someone is promising you amazing skills of a kind you see on scripted/zombie Youtube videos, and that all you need to do to acquire these skills is attend some classes that teach no technique and feature no hard, repetitive training - other than some strange breathing or other rituals - then alarm bells should be going off.

Basically, if it seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is.

Copyright © 2014 Dejan Djurdjevic