Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Straw men 2: kata and pretend fighting

I often encounter criticism of kata based on the analysis that it is "pretend fighting" and is accordingly as "useless" as pretending to lift weights or swimming on dry land. Superficially this seems like a very strong argument; until such time as you actually lift something or go swimming in water, you're wasting your time.

The problem with this kind of analysis is that it is an "argument by analogy". Analogy is often useful in illustrating a previously made argument because it gives your audience some sort of context for understanding complex points. However an argument should never comprise an analogy and little more.

In this case the criticism of kata is a straw man. Kata and "pretend weights"/"dry swimming" are not equivalent - even remotely.

Kata is principally a series of isolated techniques. Every physical discipline - including every fighting system - involves some element of technique isolation as part of training.

For example, boxers, kickboxers and MMA practitioners "shadow box" or do "air drills". Are these practices "a waste of time" on par with pretending to lift weights?

A video showing Goldberg and Kimbo Slice doing MMA "air drills" - see 1:22 to 1:27

BJJ practitioners will do drills on the ground without a partner, learning to move from their backs onto their front etc. Why is this any different from learning tenshin/taisabaki (principles of body movement) in traditional martial arts? One of the principle purposes of forms/kata is to teach (and provide a means of isloating and practising) such movement...

A good grappling solo drill

The real issue is whether kata alone is sufficient for realistic defence. The answer would be of course not. But if you think that just because someone practises kata he or she is not effective, you're mistaken. Obviously then you haven't trained with the likes of Morio Higaonna (who trains kata intensively - as well as hitting makiwara, bags etc.).

Morio Higaonna in "The Way of the Warrior" - an excellent fighter and a kata practitioner

In the end, traditional martial arts have a very different tactical approach and a different skill set from modern Western combat sports. Kata might well be "useless" if your sparring is a type of "faux boxing" (as I have called it) unrelated to the kata. I apply my kata techniques and methods. And I suggest to anyone that if you want to use traditional techniques properly you're going to find kata useful in developing that skill set.

I certainly disagree with the assertion that the traditional martial arts skill set "doesn't work" or is "incapable of being applied" or "ends up being identical to [your] Western combat sport if applied" (more on this in due course). Again, visit Morio Higaonna's dojo (as one example) and try your luck there. I suggest that particular dojo because it is an example of "practical" kata-based martial arts in a world where most traditional fighting systems are practised in the suburbs principally for "recreation", "exercise" or "art.1

The flip side to the "kata = pretend fighting" argument is of course the unspoken/unwritten assumption:
    "What I do isn't pretend."
Do they mean to say it's real? That would, of course, be complete nonsense. Unless your training involves real contact with malicious intent it is still "pretend".

When confronted with this observation, proponents of the "pretend" argument back down quickly with the qualification:
    "No - I mean my training is more like real fighting than yours because I spend more time sparring where you devote some time to kata."
But once again "reality" is not the issue. Sparring is nothing like real fighting and can even encourage bad habits (see my article on "faux boxing" for some idea of how sparring on its own can lead you into habits totally opposite to those needed in "reality"). Indeed, many reality-based defence systems such as krav maga have no free-sparring at all: instead they substitute specific stimulus/response drills.

Accordingly what people usually use as a benchmark for "reality" - free sparring - is just one drill of many that you need for all-round effective training. Other training might include hitting bags, shields etc. (in itself still nothing like "real" fighting because, as Bruce Lee famously said, "they don't hit back"), "air drills" (as noted above) and last but not least, exercise and conditioning. Few would dispute that the latter (weights, running, skipping etc.) are useful for fight training, yet none of these activities are anything like "real fighting".

Presumably what proponents of the "kata = pretend fighting" argument mean to say is just this:
    "My training is more useful for self defence than yours because I do more sparring where you would spend time on kata."
I beg to differ. But regardless, in this particular debate the issue of "reality" is a red herring - or a straw man. Nothing more.


1. I think it is appropriate that I choose for my example an elite practitioner such as Master Higaonna since most combat sports practitioners pick their examples of from elite ring athletes (where they could pick one of the many "salarymen" who goes to a "white collar boxing/kickboxing/MMA gym" once per week, kicks a few bags and dons some gloves for third-rate sparring).

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, October 24, 2008

Faux boxing


Readers of my blog will be familiar with my frequent reference to my "pet hate" - something I call "faux boxing". What is this? It is a method of sparring often employed by traditional martial artists but which is virtually devoid of traditional martial techniques. In their stead, practitioners will substitute moves that resemble boxing, even though the particular practitioners have no training or other experience in that sport.

For example, instead of seeing a karateka use karate punches, kicks, evasions, blocks/deflections and stances (in a dynamic sense - not in static postures), one sees purported boxing punches, kickboxing style kicks, no blocks/deflections and, as I shall discuss, a facsimile of "flashy" boxing footwork. Ditto with taekwondo, kung-fu etc.

I recall going to an "all-styles" tournament in the late '80s with my primary karate instructor Bob Davies. After watching for a while he lamented that all the practitioners looked the same, regardless of art, style or school. The only fighters who looked a bit different were the pencak silat practitioners who used low circle reaps to great effect. The remainder did the same, tired moves that bore no relationship to their basics, forms or training in general.

Skipping or bouncing

The footwork is possibly the worst element of faux boxing, particularly as it is, to my eye, not only misconceived and purposeless but even counterproductive, if not dangerous. I am talking of course of the ubiquitous bouncing or skipping that many so-called "traditional" martial artists use today. As I have said above, it manifests in practically every major traditional martial style, even though it has nothing to do with any of those styles. In this article you can see 3 seperate animated gifs showing (from the top down) typical examples of sparring/competition in karate, taekwondo and kung fu.

What's so wrong with skipping? The question should be: "What's right with it?"

It began as a show of fitness and "flair" by boxers like Sugar Ray Robinson and was later adopted by the great Muhammed Ali. Essentially it is a flashy extension of standard boxing "pre-engagement" footwork - ie. that used by boxers at a distance before they enter what I have called the "melee range". [For those who haven't read my article on this subject, the "melee range" is what I call when you are "toe-to-toe", punches flying thick and fast (ie. close in, but not as close as a clinch).]

In general, boxing footwork involves keeping the legs at roughly equal distance apart and generating movement from both feet with a springing motion. Once the gap is closed to the melee range the springing motion ceases; the centre of gravity is lowered and footwork takes the form of lunges or, if backpedalling occurs, natural steps.

By this stage the major reason why I feel "skipping" is not functional for traditional martial arts should be readily apparent; it is designed for certain limited combat sports, not for civilian defence. The latter trains for the melee range, not the lead-up where 2 competitors "square off" and circle each other. In the melee range you simply don't have the time or capacity to skip; events are too fast and furious.

And even if you are at a distance, boxing footwork is not entirely appropriate for civilian defence purposes. For a start a boxer is not anticipating a blow to the groin so he or she can afford to move around with his or her legs kept apart. A boxer also doesn't expect to be caught by a foot sweep. I believe it is for these reasons that "skipping" is seldom seen in MMA type bouts (which allow a much wider range of blows and kicks than in boxing and kickboxing).

In any event, apart from "show", I can't see that bouncing up and down has any real function: it uses up valuable energy for no discernible gain. Furthermore, study any type of fight - sports or otherwise - and you will see that skipping is highly disruptive to both your attack and defence.

In respect of the former, it hampers your ability to take advantage of openings. As I have said above, you have to stop skipping to engage your opponent, whether in the melee range or at a distance. If you are "mid-skip" this can be problematic.

The latter is even more problematic; skipping sets up a rhythm that your opponent can discern and use to his or her advantage. This means that you might well be attacked while you are "mid-skip"...

Factors that gave rise to faux boxing

I believe the advent of modern non-contact sport fighting (particularly karate's "ippon shobu" contests from the late 1950s and early 60s onwards) changed the manifestation of traditional martial arts completely. This is particularly relevant if you consider that few in karate, taekwondo and Chinese quan fa (kung fu) even did free-sparring in their training prior to the 1960s.

As the first martial art to be popularised in the west, karate was at the forefront of this movement. Add to that the Japanese influence (based on the sword) of "ikken hitsatsu" or "hito zuki, hito geri" (where you concentrate on aesthetic "single blows") and you get the kind of "distance" fighting so prevalent today.

The next generation: teaching kids to "bounce"...

In other words, I've always felt that distance fighting in karate is a fairly modern dilution based on a combination of cultural considerations and sport influence.

Because boxing was, for a very long period, the principal striking combat sport in the West it's influence on sport karate and similar traditional eastern fighting systems was inevitable. In the west, boxing is and was intuitively understood at a cultural level where eastern fighting disciplines with their blocks/deflections and strange thrusting (non-retracting) techniques were not.

It is in this context that I believe "Ali-esque" skipping slipped into the subconscious of mainstream sport karate and its ilk, perhaps on the springboard of the tentative, shuffling distance approaches used in "ippon shobu" single reverse-punch contests. In other words, karate, like boxing, was being used as a distance-fighting discipline whereas it was, in my view, designed almost exclusively for the melee range.

I believe the same is can be said of any traditional art that relies on blocks/deflections (see my articles "Why blocks DO work" and "The melee: karate's fighting range" for more on this subject). In my mind this explains why few, if any, traditional techniques are actually used in sparring by traditional martial artists; they simply cannot function in a "distance" framework.

The above argument is usually countered by the lingering story about shorin-ryu karate being descended from northern Chinese "long-range" systems while goju-ryu and other Naha-te karate systems are descended from the southern Chinese "close-quarters" systems. I don't believe there is much historical fact to back this up, if any. Okinawan karate of all kinds has always been a "mid-range" proposition as far as I can tell from a structural/technical analysis.

Consider the fundamental hand positions of all Okinawan kata you see the same range (the "uchi uke" of shotokan has the same "finish" position as goju's "chudan uke", to name just one example). If you look at any footage of early karate, nothing suggests "darting in and out" of the melee; even in the basic drills (sambon kumite) participants always stay continuously "toe-to-toe". The footage below provides a good example. While the practitioners have not distanced their techniques realistically they are still in the "melee". And you will note that there is no bouncing. In fact, I can find no evidence of bouncing pre-war and immediately post-war...

Old footage of "sambon" (3 step) kumite - a basic karate drill

It is my view that even the "long fist" schools of northern China are "melee range" schools; they just operate at the outer fringe of the melee. Why do I say this? As previously mentioned, the traditional eastern martial arts were all designed as civilian defence systems, not sports. They are not designed for circling your opponent, looking for openings. They focus on that moment when you are attacked while sitting on a bar-stool, fumbling keys in front of a door, confronted in the street by a jealous boyfriend etc. These kinds of situations have fundamentally different dynamics to a boxing or other combat sport fight. (For more on this topic see my article "Civilian defence systems").

Is faux boxing really so bad?

Some of the best karateka/taekwondo/kung fu practitioners I have met are adept at the modern "sport fighting". I have created the above animated gifs from screen captures of martial artists of a very high calibre. However saying this is not the same as saying that I agree with their approach to sparring. I remain firmly of the view that they are not using their arts as they were designed to be used. They are not using their traditional techniques (except for a somewhat slavishy applied basic reverse punch).

That faux boxing is not on a par with real boxing or MMA type fighting has been demonstrated all too emphatically in various ring contests. It fails to use the strengths of traditonal civilian defence systems (the melee skills), falling back on a second tier of highly stylised techniques suitable for various "tag" distance-related contests. In other words, I feel many martial artists succeed as formidable opponents despite their reliance on faux boxing - not because of it.

Conversly, with many martial artists the "wrong" type of free-sparring can be worse than doing limited "correct" sparring. I have had more than a few friends who have come off second best in a fight because they started doing the "competition bounce" and were overwhelmed with a simple jab and right cross. The bad habits and false confidence that can be learned from sparring only with those who "play the right game" can be catastrophic.

What to do?

In my view the answer is simple: go back to basics. In your training, go into the melee range and stay there. Slow it down if you have to initially. Use your traditional techniques. If you can't use the basic form, use aspects of it (the "yi" or concept rather than the exact "xing" or form). If your form cannot be applied at all, revisit what you're learning. Has it been modified too far from an earlier version? Does it make sense in the context of the melee range?

I have undertaken this journey and found that it yields surprising results. It also provides answers to many common criticisms of traditional martial arts, exposing some fundamental misconceptions and false assumptions along the way.

In the end I have found that the traditional martial systems work. You just have to use them - not replace them with a "poor man's copy" of a western combat sport.

Randori: a "soft" sparring method where you stay in the melee and use traditional techniques

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, October 17, 2008

Straw men 1: martial arts and character

The issue of "martial arts and character" seems to be a fairly hot topic on the web: certain sites can show you any number of examples of so-called top instructors who don't have any semblance of ethics, morals etc. It is described as one of the big "myths" of martial arts and there are no shortage of people wanted to fulfil the role of "myth buster" in this regard.

However is there even an argument?

Traditional martial arts might be associated with a particular ethos or philosophy - via Chan/Zen Buddhism and Daoism in particular (see "Buddhism, Daoism and the martial arts"). However this is not, has never been and cannot be the same as saying that the practice of these arts will somehow make the practitioner adhere to or reflect that ethos or philosophy.

Clearly some instructors feel that training with an instructor who adheres to a given ethos/philosophy can have an impact on a student.

There is also the feeling that prolonged, strenuous, challenging and disciplined training in the martial arts can give you insights into your character, human nature and the nature of conflict. That's not the same as saying that you WILL have such insights or that even if you do, you WILL change your behaviour in accordance with those insights.

Rather, insights in training, gained under the tutelage of an influential instructor who strongly adheres to a particular ethos or philosophy, MIGHT lead you to reflect that ethos and arguably become a "better person" (ie. in a "moral" sense as viewed in your society etc. - all these terms are subjective and changeable, but I think you understand what I mean).

However the idea that you WILL become such a "better person" simply through physical martial arts practise is so obviously without foundation that it scarcely warrants attention at all. In almost 3 decades of involvement in the traditional martial arts I have never met anyone who has advocated such a position. Usually their own organisations are so riddled with internal political strife that ongoing human frailty is obvious for all to see.

Accordingly I am strongly of the opinion that the issue is nothing but a straw man. There is no real "myth" to bust (except perhaps with some cultists etc. - whose ridiculous views probably don't warrant "debunking" anyway).

Put another way, the vast majority of people practising traditional martial arts might well be aware of the particular ethos or philosophy of their school/art, but they are not under any illusion that they will somehow magically "absorb" and manifest that ethos just through physically performing certain moves. Most of us are also smart enough to see our "grandmasters" as ordinary human beings with the usual human frailties. If we don't see it straight way, we see it soon enough. Most of us aren't waiting for some helpful "myth-debunker" to come along "to set things straight" in this regard.


"Ethics" or "values" are specific to certain philosophies and religions or cultures. Certainly there are particular ethical principles or values ("there is no first strike in karate") associated with traditional martial arts. As I noted above, these are more than likely derived from Zen Buddhism and Daoism (again, see "Buddhism, Daoism and the martial arts").

"Moral" behaviour depends on how these ethics are effected in today's society. We would probably agree that someone who uses karate "for self defence only" is acting "morally" within the prevailing Western standards of behaviour.

"Character building" is a process by which you adopt certain ethics which in turn translate into moral behaviour.

As I have said, in my experience, few, if any, traditional martial artists buy into the myth that "martial arts builds character". Rather:

    1. Traditional martial artists know that martial arts are associated with certain ethical standards.

    2. They think that if one abides by those ethics one will exhibit what is generally regarded as "moral" behaviour.

    3. They feel that if they can learn to exhibit that "moral" behaviour they will have "built character".
All this is very different from the "myth" referred to above.

When people put "character building" on brochures and advertisments they are ostensibly using short-hand for the above. They are assuring the public that the particular dojo teaches adherence to those values/ethics (teaching fighting can, after all, be a shady business).

Assuming the dojo actually teaches adherence to traditional ethics, whether a student adopts those values/ethics and hence "builds" character depends entirely on the student. And I don't know anyone who thinks otherwise.


When I first wrote this article I forgot to make one more important point, and that is the use of the martial arts as a personal tool for character building. While many might lampoon this, it is something to which I subscribe. Training in the martial arts has coincided with / augmented my endeavour to build my own character. In teaching the martial arts I have endeavoured to help others in this task. Regardless of my success or failure in either, I strongly adhere to the traditional principles underlying "budo" - the martial way. It is worth noting that the character for "bu" or "martial" ("wu" in Chinese) comprises 2 distinct elements -
    1. a bladed weapon such as a sword; and

    2. the injunction "never to be drawn".
That learning the art of fighting for the purposes of peace is a paradox has never troubled me. In order to manage violence and conflict you need to understand these facets of human nature first - not only by examining others but by looking into yourself. Martial arts training is ideally suited for this purpose. Again, the fact that someone else doesn't use martial arts for this purpose is neither here nor there as far as I'm concerned.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Telegraphing vs. staged activation

I think there is an important difference between sequential body movement (which is necessary) and "telegraphing" (which is undesirable).

The activation of a staged sequence of body parts is an essential component of a punch/strike/kick. Without it you would not be able to impart any real force. Consider the basic uraken (backfist): if you moved your wrist first, then your elbow, then your shoulder your strike would simply not work. Instead your strike must originate with movement in your shoulder, then your elbow, then your wrist.

The same applies to kicks, punches and any other strike. You move from your big joints through to your small joints. In your kick the hip moves first, then the knee. In a punch your hip moves, then your shoulders, then your arm. The video below illustrates this principle in the context of a reverse punch.

Nenad illustrates the "staged activation" inherent in a reverse punch

What this means is that every technique has an element of "telegraphing". Our challenge is to minimise it. It is not useful to "bounce up" before a punch, nor is it necessary to raise the shoulder, yet I see many karateka doing it. It is easy to avoid a kick if the kicker turns his/her front foot before kicking with the back foot. You pick this up subliminally after a while.

Recently however I have been made aware of an argument that chambers always constitute unnecessary telegraphing rather than necessary staged activation of body parts. By this argument, all chambering should be avoided.

However, as explained in my article “Chambering punches”, if you freeze the frames in any ring sport like boxing, kickboxing or MMA and you'll see loads of chambers - not necessarily right at the hip, but anywhere along the arc from the hip to the ear. These are all variations on the same theme.

I recently had a combat sports practitioner tell me that these were examples of "bad technique". I disagree. They are examples of necessary human biomechanics. Put simply, you can't get any power out of a punch unless you load it somehow - be it by chambering or by swinging (I’ll deal with swings in a minute). Both leave openings, but then again every attack leaves an opening.

How and when you load for a punch or kick is called timing. Without loading you'd be walking around with stiff legs and arms doing tiny little jabs and flicks. You would never have any staged activation of body parts. So why does the combat sports practitioner think examples of "loading" in ring fights constitute "bad technique"? Because, he explained, it is not how one trains in the gym; in that situation there is little or no loading at all.

The combat sports practitioner to whom I have referred no doubt practises the standard “air punching” used in boxing/kickboxing MMA. It is clear that he also assumes (as many do) that he “fights as he trains” (unlike the traditional martial arts). Yet have a look at 1:22 to 1:27 of this video I watched the other day in the aftermath of Kimbo Slice’s loss to Seth Patruzelli:

Goldberg and Kimbo Slice do some training

The frames to which I refer show some fairly standard “air boxing” drills. Note the short jabbing punches and compare them (honestly) with anything that actually happens in a ring fight. Note the hissing breathing with every technique and again, compare it (honestly) with what people really do in the ring.

Ah yes," was the inevitable response, "but it is more like applied fighting than a kata". Indeed - a little. But hardly. I think that it is highly stylised. It's just that we are all more used to seeing this form of "stylised" shadow boxing than traditional Eastern forms of "air techniques". Both are "traditional" ways of isolating movements. Just like the speedball, a great part of a boxer's "air" training is nothing like "applied fighting" - it has more to do with tradition. It is a tradition we are so used to seeing that we are numbed to its disparity with applied fighting in the ring.

Note that this is NOT a criticism; I am not seeking to invalidate “air boxing” as a training method. I’m merely trying to make it clear that "air" training and fighting are always 2 separate things. Without an object to hit any "air" technique becomes a modified version of the "real thing". If you don't believe me, try this test:

Have someone hold a bag you're hitting. Then have them pull it away at random and watch what happens when you "hit air" unexpectedly. Chances are that you'll overbalance. You might even hyperextend joints or otherwise injure yourself. You'll be anticipating impact and relying on it to halt your momentum. In the sudden, unexpected absence of that impact your body will be thrown off balance. When you are "air boxing" you know there is nothing to stop your momentum, so you don't throw full "boxer type" punches; you pull back a bit.

In other words, contrary to what an angry emailer just said to me, you can't shadow box "at full extension and full speed". It is biomechanically impossible to do any "power" boxing techniques (such as a right cross) in the air in the same way as you would do them when hitting something/someone (cf. traditional martial arts where your air and impact techniques should look more similar due to "kime" or focus).

Accordingly, many of a boxer's "air techniques" are typically smaller or abbreviated versions of what he/she does in a fight. A karateka's moves will often be larger (for reasons I shall go into another time). Both are using the training to extract the "yi" or concept, not to literally follow the "xing" or form. I believe both are useful and effective training methods, albeit for very different reasons.

The idea that movements quite as small as “air boxing” will be applied in that form in a fight is, I think, unlikely, as any “freeze frame” of a fight will show. Rather, strikes are loaded – be it by chamber or by swing or something in between – if any power is to be generated.

With kicks my correspondent seemed to accept loading as necessary; it’s just that he was of the view that a swing was the preferable loading “method”. Why swings should be preferable with kicks and not with punches remains unclear to me; in both cases swings telegraph far more than any chambered (ie. bent elbow/knee) loading. Swings are also far slower in terms of reaching their target, even if the maximum velocity ends up being higher due to greater distance travelled.

However, the biggest problem with swinging is that it is inapplicable in the case of front kicks; while you can swing a roundhouse kick at your opponent’s thigh, swinging a front kick is practically useless (except in the case of the marginally useful taekwondo “axe kick”).

Even Muay Thai’s “teep” or pushing kick must proceed from some sort of bent knee “chamber”. That chamber is typically the same as any applied front kick; the only real difference is the distancing and penetration depth (note my article “Visible force vs. applied force” for a detailed discussion of this particular issue).

Accordingly I am of the opinion that we should practice minimising our telegraphing. We might be able to do so until there is practically none that can be usefully discerned. Eliminating it altogether is however impossible. And dispensing with “chambering” of techniques on the basis that they “telegraph” is, in my view, misconceived.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Goju-ryu as an internal art?

That goju-ryu karate has some of its roots in the Chinese martial arts is a certainty. Most people focus on white crane, ngo cho kun and similar "external" Fujian-based martial systems when it comes to examining its origins. However even earlier ancestors probably included xingyi or perhaps bagua/taiji like internal arts.

However those arts are still significantly different in their dynamics. It is possible to perform goju using these dynamics (even the kata) and if you do so you end up with an interesting beast.

Here is an example of Goju movements applied with xingyi footwork:

Goju techniques performed with xingyiquan footwork

The footwork in issue is a kind of suri ashi (ie. footwork that includes sliding where the stance changes or legs pass). The significance of this is that the front foot moves first, immediately putting the whole bodyweight into the movement. You'll note that unlike goju, in the internal arts your strike lands with the leading foot, not the rear foot. The rear foot then slides up (or in xingyi, stamps up) creating an extra percussive "moment"). Suri ashi is better shown below:

Suri ashi

Contextual, hip use (cf. external "pre-loading" of the hips), and no unnecessary antagonist muscular action (ie. a relaxed, flowing movement) are also features of the internal arts. Here is hiki/kake uke applied as a taiji type push hands, illustrating both features:

"Sliding" push hands - hiki uke applied as a taiji-type push hands drill

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, October 10, 2008

Retracting punches vs. "leaving the hand in"

Over the last 6 months I have been staggered by the number of correspondents who say that karate and other traditional martial arts are ineffective because their practitioners "leave the hand in". By this they mean the arm is not retracted in a punch.

Simply put, this issue is completely and utterly misconceived. It is so misconceived that I hardly know where to begin in terms of addressing it...

Let me start by making this fundamental observation:

Leaving the arm there or retracting it makes no difference in destructive terms.

It's the outward speed that counts (and your ability to deflect it in its outward phase)!

In my school we train traditional punches first (no retraction) so as to develop kime (focus). This is the concept I refer to in my article "Visible force vs. applied force". After the students have developed focus they move to snap punches.

Nenad demonstrating kime in reverse punch

In the last 22 years of teaching I've found that if you go straight to "snap" punches the student won’t develop focus (shock blow technique) properly - the snap retracts too much of the outward energy.

And I don't care if my opponent grabs my wrist (something which many people lampoon as "never happening in a real fight" anyway). As Bruce Lee famously said, if he does you just hit him!

When faced with these explanations one correspondent replied with the following:

"I have to again disagree with leaving the hand in especially when you are a beginner as I feel it instils bad habits. Ok you say you do that in the beginning of training but why not start it that way and confirm good habits."

The answer is that it’s about not creating other (far worse) habits - the most important being that you never might develop "kime".

In any event, I go back to the fundamental issue: how is retracting the arm is going to make the outward speed/power any different? (Note that retracting the arm can make beginners retract momentum too.)

Suffice it to say that I have very good snap punches (no "bad habits") and I learned the basic karate punch first (I'm very glad I did). I've also tried teaching it the other way round with disastrous results in terms of students developing focus/kime.

The second issue is that basic punches are a training tool. Just because some people might attempt slavishly to apply their training tools literally, doesn't mean those tools don't have a function. The bigger issue is that many traditional martial artists don’t apply their techniques at all but default to a poorly copied "sport" method I call "faux boxing".

So what is this "kime" or "focus" I keep talking about? As I discuss in my article "Hitting harder: physics made easy", it is the ability to generate impulse – ie. transfer momentum efficiently. Well, pictures (or video) really say more than any words can. Take a look at the kime in Higaonna's punching in the video below at about 6:40 or so (and his snap is as fast as lightning and just as powerful if you’re wondering):

Morio Higaonna on "Way of the Warrior"

If you think this is easy, find a makiwara and try to hit like this. Now granted, I don't punch as hard as he does, but I do have good enough kime for my purposes. I can do it with a snap just as easily as with a thrust - I don't differentiate between the two. In fact our higher kata use snaps exclusively. But the thrust can be likened to a right cross - it follows through but in a linear fashion, with less push. The right cross doesn't retract, after all...

So is this "kime" necessary? Why not just punch like a boxer? After all, people like Higaonna might hit hard – but so does the average heavyweight boxer (even if they can’t hit a makiwara, they hit hard don’t they?).

As I said in my article "Visible force vs. applied force", it is simple physics that the more you move someone, the less your energy has been converted to destructive energy. It has been converted to kinetic energy. Contrast a hard push that throws you across the room with a focussed punch that drops you on the spot.

Most boxers haven't trained for this type of "focus". Unlike a boxer's punch (which has a certain amount of push to commit the same momentum given the padding of the glove) the karate (or any traditional punch) imparts a "hydrostatic shock" which doesn't move the opponent very far, but is calculated to cause maximum damage with the hard knuckles with minimal movement (ie. a punch with maximum efficiency).

I've been hit by people of Higaonna's calibre with punches that are not any where near maximum and they do, literally, drop you on the spot. Just as one example, I've trained with Higaonna's apprentice of 15 years, Graham Ravey who can hit very hard with this type of blow. On the other hand I've been hit many times with blows that have sent me flying - little damage in comparison. (Again, I discuss the exact physics behind hitting in my blog article "Hitting harder: physics made easy".)

I'm not saying that I'd like to take a full punch from Bas Rutten etc. I'm saying that focussed punches are more efficient for bareknuckle fighting - and you can't develop the concept with boxing style punching. On the other hand I don't differentiate between different kinds of punching nowadays - each has its place. To me its part of a continuum. Every boxing punch exists in karate: the right cross is what we call "kosa zuki". The jab is "kizami zuki". The fact that you only see basic karate training is neither here nor there for my purposes.

If you doubt me, find a makiwara and try to give it a bit a hit. Wear whatever padding on your knuckles you like. See if you can hit the makiwara with anything like the power (and without pushing it) in the way (if not with the force) demonstrated by Morio Higaonna. And he can hit the heavy bag as well as any boxer (even now in his 70s). On the other hand, I severely doubt that any top boxer, kickboxer or MMA practitioner could hit the makiwara properly. They simply don't train for it; "kime" or focus is not part of their "gameplan".

On the subject of kime, I'd like to share with you a kata performance from Tsuguo Sakamoto that I feel embodies excellent focus. Note the whip-like crack of each technique. This is real focus. As I said, you can't get it without learning thrusting punching basics. But if you think Sakamoto can't jab or has "bad habits", you've got another thing coming...

Tsuguo Sakumoto performing the kata Anan in 1986

Again, a snap is a feature of many higher goju kata. Consider the video below of me doing seisan in 1993: although the kata features a formal snap with a full chamber, you get the picture - kata is a formal exercise after all).

Me doing seisan kata in 1993

And punches don't just snap - they flow into other techniques. Again here I am demonstrating a basic block/parry and (back on topic) punch drill. Note that it doesn't change when you hit something (the telephone book at the end). At the time this was filmed I was one month out of being in a hospital bed for 3 months with bowel surgery - I'd lost 20kg, yet I could still "focus" (even though I wouldn't have been able to push someone across the room).

Me performing a punching drill

So, in summary "leave the hand in" is a non-issue. If you’ve built an "understanding" of traditional martial arts punching around this, you’ll have to go back to the drawing board (and re-examine your understanding of punching, martial arts and physics generally).

Presumably what people are criticising when they refer to "leaving the hand in" is the practise of ippon kumite or one step sparring. This is often done with a punch, kick or other attack executed with a single step - after which the attacker remains motionless while the defender executes (often elaborate) counters to a passive opponent. If this is the issue then it is a very different one - unrelated to the retraction of punches. Ippon kumite is a very basic training method, and one I shall deal with at another time. Suffice it to say that any confusion between these issues simply echoes the general level of misunderstanding of traditional martial arts.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Dealing with untrained fighters

I had this question asked of me recently:

"Curious situation, I find that in sparring I am better able to deal with orthodox, skilled fighters rather than raging brawlers who throw flurries.

In a technical sense brawlers are easy to deal with but when it actually comes to going at it I'm thrown off by such a chaotic and aggressive style. I can handle them but it always throws me for a loop at first and it takes awhile to get my bearings and deal with that strategy. The punches thrown by "brawlers" tend to have less sting but they're supremely confusing. How do you deal with that?"

If this happens to you, then whoever you're sparring with in normal training is "playing the game"; probably bouncing/skipping, jabbing, etc. outside the melee.

This is why I have stressed the importance of methods like randori which train you for the melee.

This also necessitates learning deflection (because deflection is the key to "living" in the melee - not just darting in and out like in a sports fighter fighting another sports fighter.

And again, this is a key difference between civilian defence and sport; in sport you circle each other looking for openings. Untrained fighters just go crazy with flurries staying in the melee.

I have, in the past, been quite surprised by how crazy untrained fighters can get - they can catch you quite by surprise. The only real way to be prepared is to train in the melee ALL the time. This is quite opposite to sports preparation.

On the other hand what most sports fighters say is that if you can beat a trained sports fighter you'll make mincemeat of an untrained fighter. True - unless you get caught by surprise because he isn't "playing the game"; or unless the skill/power differential is so vast that the surprise element just doesn't matter.

So you have 2 options:

1. co-opt a civilian defence strategy into your existing training by deliberately staying in the melee (and acquiring the necessary skills of deflection etc. to survive there); OR

2. get so freakin' good in ring fighting that it just doesn't matter!

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic