Thursday, June 9, 2011

Enter the front snap kick

I recall how, many years ago, an overseas visitor (with a kickboxing background) came to our dojo to train. After the lesson he went over the heavy bag and proceeded to kick it with a roundhouse shin kick. He kicked the bag so hard it swung up to the roof. If you know heavy bags, you’ll know how hard that is to do. The demonstration was nothing if not impressive. I knew very well that it was intended to impress. More than that, it was intended as a negative comment on our own (karate style) front snap (or "shock" as I sometimes call them) kicks - specifically that they are “manifestly less effective than these ‘power’ kicks”.

Indeed, if you try to kick a heavy bag with a front snap kick you get a very unsatisfying result: the bag hardly moves and your kick looks rather insipid.

I think this is the main - perhaps solitary - reason that muay thai boxers, kickboxers, and hence most modern combat sports practitioners, don’t invest time and energy into developing a front snap kick: it just doesn’t “work” on a heavy bag. And the heavy bag really has been the cornerstone of gloved combat sports training.

By contrast, other kicks, notably the roundhouse kick using the shin, manifestly “work” when applied to a heavy bag. With enough conditioning to your shin and a bit of practice in terms of coordinating your hip and your kick, you can get the heavy bag swinging quite strongly.

Yet no matter how hard you try, front snap kicks still look and feel "weak" when applied to a heavy bag.

In this context I am really not surprised to see kickboxers, muay thai fighters, and now MMA practitioners, defaulting to a "pushing" front kick (called the “teep” in muay thai). This is the only one that seems to “work” against the heavy bag, so it is seen as the only front kick that will “work” against an opponent.

The “teep” or pushing front kick favoured in muay thai, kickboxing and other combat sports

But I’ve argued before and I'll argue again: the fact that one technique is visibly more “powerful” than another is not the issue. As I outline in my articles “Hitting harder: physics made easy” and "Visible force vs. applied force", what matters is how much force is transferred to the target, not how much force is visible through the target's movement. A push is far more “visible” in its effects (ie. the amount your body is displaced) than a blow. But a push is a push and a blow is a blow. I know which one I’d rather cop.

Accordingly, while many in the combat sports world have used their experience on the heavy bag to conclude that the traditional martial arts front snap kick is not an effective technique (and that the “teep” or front pushing kick is better), I find their conclusions irrational or misconceived.

Instead of concluding that the front snap kick was the problem, I wonder why they didn’t consider the limitations of the heavy bag as a training tool. Sure, the heavy bag is useful - but is it really the best striking target? I would argue that it isn’t: it certainly doesn’t lend itself to any snap technique because it is simply too heavy and resistant. Generally speaking it is nothing like a human body which is pliable and "deforms" on impact. In this context, the heavy bag has far more in common with a brick wall than it does with a human, standing on 2 legs, receiving your blow.

I can understand how the heavy bag came to be the striking target of choice for boxers; any gloved sport requires you to use more “push” (ie. displacement) than you might with a bare knuckle blow. There is also the fact that it is one of the few striking targets conceptualized by early western boxing fighters - and is the principal one among these (others such as the floor to ceiling and speed balls were ancillary at best).

By contrast, in Okinawan karate the makiwara (a pliable wooden striking post) was used as the main striking target to very different effect.

The heavy bag is suitable for training gloved punches, the makiwara for bare knuckle punches. Regardless, neither is particularly suitable for the front snap kick.

Which leaves us with the fundamental question: is the front snap kick really all that useful?

I have always maintained that the front snap kick is manifestly effective. In my article “‘Secret’ techniques” written almost exactly 3 years ago I went so far as to describe it as one of the traditional martial arts' best kept “secrets”. In that article I wrote:
    “We've had "freestyle" visitors bested by "shock" kicks who still leave convinced that their method of training "pushing" kicks" is all that is necessary. Perhaps they put the shock kick down to a "lucky hit". Perhaps they think they just haven't done enough "pushing" kicks. The latter just feel so much more "powerful"...”
So, this leaves us with the more obvious question: if the front snap kick is so useful, why isn’t it being used more, if at all, in kickboxing, muay thai and MMA stables around the world? The answer lies in the relative difficulty, and the specific training required, in achieving a good front snap kick.

Effecting a good front kick is a subtle craft requiring years of dedicated, isolated, formal technique training. When asked how he developed his amazingly effective front snap kick, Matsui sensei (of kyokushinkai fame) responded: "By doing thousands of kicks". You can bet that most of these were of the (much derided) traditional "air kicking" variety...

A good front snap kick isn’t something as “obvious” as kicking a heavy bag. Even when a kick shield is employed, it isn’t easy to “pick up” just like that. A substantial amount of time still needs to be invested in “air kicking” in order to isolate, and perfect, the right body mechanics. As I wrote in my article “'Secret' techniques”:
    “In respect of the former, doing lots of front snap kicks (one of our “secret” methods of developing the "shock" kick) is going to be a boring chore until you're half decent at them. Once the penny drops as to how useful and effective the "shock" kick is you might shout "Eureka!" That realisation might as well be a secret, because the beginner watching you might not have any idea what you're shouting about. He or she is more likely to understand that which looks more visually impressive...”
“But,” I hear you say, “surely combat sports practitioners would have gravitated towards this training method if it were effective?”

Judging by their technique, in the last few months it appears at least 3 MMA fighters have done just that: in each case they have effected a textbook “Karate 101” front snap kick to score a decisive knockout.

The first of these was Anderson Silva who knocked out Vitor Belfort as is shown in the above gif.

Anderson Silva’s front kick knockout of Vitor Belfort

You'll note from the above video that the commentator refers to the fact that this is the first time he's ever seen a front kick to the face knockout. He says that Silva does "wild, unorthodox stuff" (when in the traditional martial arts there is nothing "unorthodox" about the front snap kick - it is "bread and butter stuff"). He goes on to say:
    "The front kick is classically used to the body. When a guy gets hit in the face, usually it just knocks him backward. But Anderson landed it perfectly, the ball of the foot to the chin."
To my mind this shows that the commentator is used to seeing "push" kicks using a flat foot - not a "snap" kick using the ball of the foot (as per karate and other traditional eastern martial arts).

The commentator notes that Belfort doesn't appear to react to the kick, possibly because he is expecting the kick to land on the body. I think this partly shows an indifference to push kicks; they don't do any real damage and you can "wear" them relative to other techniques (as I discuss a bit later).

However what the commentator fails to note is that Anderson doesn't telegraph the kick. Watch his supporting (front) foot: it doesn't shift or move at all before the kick (where most fighters would turn the front foot out as they commence their kick off the back leg - see Justin Buchholz's kick below, for example). This is, again, "Karate 101". I spent many years being hit with a shinai (split bamboo sword) if I so much as twitched my front foot before kicking. Part of classical karate training is to learn to kick (or step) from one zenkutsu dachi (forward stance) into another with no telegraphing.

The other point is that Silva keeps his body movement to a minimum: he doesn't bob up or make any extraneous movement during the kick.

In summary, what Silva shows here is near-perfect traditional technique in the basic front snap kick.

The second recent example of a front snap kick knockout was the infamous “karate kid” kick scored by Lyoto Machida against Randy Couture.

That technique is a kind of jump kick, but it is a front snap kick all the same. The only real point of difference is a little "hop" or leg change. In karate this is called "mae tobi geri" (front jumping snap kick) - a variation on the basic mae geri (front snap kick).

As a matter of interest, this is indeed the technique so curiously rendered (and given mystical "crane-like" qualities) in the first "Karate Kid" movie:

Lyoto Machida’s “karate kid” front kick against Randy Couture

And the most recent (that I’m aware of) - and possibly the most classically “karate-like”, example of a front kick knock out is that scored by Justin Buchholz against Steve Lopez.

It is worth noting that the kick employed in any of these 3 examples would have failed miserably against a heavy bag. Yet it was supremely effective against a human body.

What is also interesting in the Buchholz example is that he kicked in precisely the same way as the (much lampooned) karate basic "air kick" is practised: from a zenkutsu dachi (front stance), snapping out and returning to another zenkutsu dachi. This is clearly evident from the adjacent frames.

This should put to rest both the age-old arguments:
  1. against using formal stances like zenkutsu dachi ("I'd just kick your front knee!" - as if the stance were intended to be used statically!); and
  2. against using front snap kicks ("they just aren't powerful enough!" - as if only techniques effective against a heavy bag were "powerful enough" for use against an opponent).
But I know it won’t stop the arguments. Critics will start distinguishing these examples on myriad fine (and flawed!) points (“this was an exception to the rule”, “Lopez made a mistake”, “this isn’t really a karate technique” etc.).

Others will try to argue that they always knew the front snap kick was useful (and if so, my question to them is “then why haven’t you been using it?”).

Justin Buchholz’ knockout of Steve Lopez

Others will create a straw man by asserting that we “proponents of the front snap kick” seek to argue that it is an “invincible technique”. It is nothing of the sort and I have certainly never made that argument. It is just another technique that just happens to be supremely useful in the outside edge of the melee range.

On my way home from work I walk past a kickboxing/MMA gym where I regularly see people circling each other in sparring, both assuming that they are out of range when they are, in fact, in the ideal range for a front snap kick. Because they are unaware of this, they don't expect a front kick and take no precautions against it. This is precisely what happened with the 3 fights featured in this article: one fighter assumed he was in a "circling" range rather than an "engagement" (ie. melee) range. The other fighter knew better. I'm fairly sure that as the awareness of the front kick increases, fighters will be less likely to "circle" in this range.

But if front kicks of some variety have always been around why weren't fighters more aware of this range issue? The answer is that the front snap kick succeeds where poorer copies (notably the dreadful “teep”) fail. Many fighters will stand in the "teep" range because that technique is relatively slow and, frankly, not terribly concerning. When have you ever seen “knockout by teep”? I venture that you never have and never will. Pushes are pushes. Blows are blows.

So, in summary, the heavy bag does not decide which techniques are useful and which are not. And the front snap kick is a very useful technique indeed; not so much to the face but to the lower abdomen (eg. the bladder or even as low as the groin).

In fact, it is as a low abdominal kick that the front snap kick really "shines" in the melee. It is less an offensive technique than a defensive one: if someone comes into your personal space with intent to harm you, you can unleash a quick snap kick to the lower abdomen.

I've found it to work very effectively indeed; it can drop your opponent on the spot (especially if you kick below the strong mid-abdominal muscles and your opponent does not tense in expectation of the kick). This is a standard karate tactic for use in civilian defence. Offensive front kicks - especially ones to the face/head - are useful in combat sports, but less so in civilian defence.

An out-take of a 2 person version of the kata gekisai dai ni, featuring a low front snap kick that wasn't deflected or evaded.

I think it's just a matter of time before traditional forearm and other "blocks" also start to be used in MMA. As with front snap kicks, all it will take is someone who:
  1. understands how they really work; and
  2. has the requisite skill; and
  3. is willing to break from the gloved boxing paradigm...
Until that day I'll have to continue to endure arguments such as "blocks are impossible to effect", "you have to be The Flash to use them" and "they would be used in MMA if they really worked".

Well, similar arguments (in particular the last one) were put to me in relation to the humble front snap kick myriad times over the last 2 decades or longer. Excuse me while I indulge (just for a moment) in saying "I told you so."

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic