Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"Attack, attack, attack!"

There's a Frank Zappa song called "Attack, attack, attack" that came to mind as I started writing this article. I suppose most kids today would probably be more inclined to think of the song by Ejectorseat, but that's a different story. Regardless of which song you prefer, it seems to me to sum up the tactics or mindset adopted in many martial systems. And I think it is something worthy of closer examination.

Somewhat synchronously, I have had a couple of different conversations over the last week or 2, all on the same theme. In particular, a blogger who goes by the nom de plume of Ymar Sakar averted my attention to a martial system called TFT (Target Focused Training). Then my esteemed colleague Victor Smith referred to this quote from “Motobu Choki – Karate My Art” translated by Patrick and Yuriko McCarthy at page 31:
    “The blocking hand must be able to become the attacking hand in an instant. Blocking with one hand and then countering with the other hand is not true bujutsu. True bujutsu presses forward and blocks and counters in the same motion.”
As my good friend Zach points out, this reflects a particular "attacking" or "aggressive" mindset:
    "The way I interpret the statement is that Motobu felt this idea of "defensive", or block + counter Karate is undesirable enough that you might as well just not do it at all... it is more important to have a strong core philosophy and strategy than it is to cover every little possibility in training... I believe the gist of the statement is, mindset is an important thing, and he is saying that you might as well simply not train with a defensive mindset, rather than saying "well...maybe sometimes"."
I had a good look around the TFT website and I find that, like krav maga and various other reality based systems, the philosophy is quite similar to that of Choki Motobu.

And, in broad terms, I find nothing to disagree with about that philosophy.

A krav maga practitioner friend once said to me: “Learning to fight is 90% learning to be aggressive.” I think he was right. So to the extent that systems such as those of Motobu, krav maga, TFT and others have aggressive, disabling attack as their mainstay, I can see why: it gives you a more immediately practical set of skills.

In fact, in any kind of conflict or competition, disabling aggression is going to be your first, most useful, weapon. Consider for a moment a genteel game like chess. You might think that aggression has no role to play in it, but you'd be wrong. And I'm not talking here just about the new sport of "chess boxing" - I'm talking the usual, sit down and think variety, where the only strikes comprise your hand hitting a clock, and your only grapples comprise taking pieces. How can aggression help chess? I'll digress to tell you a little story:

As a child I was very lacking in any competitive spirit. I had no interest in sport, academia, the arts - anything. I'm sure my parents and teachers despaired more than a little. Then, at the age of 10 or so, my family took in boarder named Charlie. Charlie was a knockabout 20-something year old who had grown up on the streets. He was lean, muscled like whipcord, explosive in his movements and intense, almost manic, in his manner. He certainly knew his way around real fights and we spent many an afternoon where he smacked me about until my nose was bloody (something my father tolerated for whatever reason - perhaps because he felt it would "toughen me up a bit", which I have to say it did).

Many of Charlie's lessons of combat remain with me still ("If you're going to kick someone, make sure you snap it back faster than you kick out otherwise they'll grab your leg and then you're stuffed!" and "Jab twice with your left and follow with a right cross - works like a charm!" - which, as I found, it did).

But Charlie also played a mean game of chess. And it was he who taught me that, as in hand to hand combat, attack is the most important factor in that game. "Attack, attack, attack!" he would say (and I'm pretty sure he was a Frank Zappa fan).

The concept was quite revolutionary for a disinterested, non-competitive kid like me. But I gave it a go. Before long I realised that while most kids (or even adults) I played vacillated on complex strategy, I headed straight for the jugular. Practically overnight I went from not playing chess at all, to becoming the school champion. Many of my early victories were based on the most innane chess maneuver of them all - fool's mate. But as time wore on (and the tactic stopped working) I had to become more sophisticated. Nonetheless, I was, from the very outset, formulating a victory plan. I was playing to win, not to "set up" or "dominate portions of the board". I was going for the jugular. Before I knew it, I was playing in, and winning, inter-school competitions. Then inter-provincial competitions (well, one anyway).

But my "chess phase" didn't last long. Why? The more experienced I became, the better the quality of my opponents became. While I was beating the local kids and even Charlie, aggression was most of what I needed. But then I started encountering kids who had read up on the greatest chess games of all time - who understood the nuances of the opening, a middle game and an endgame, who knew the Sicilian Defence, the Lasker-Bauer combination etc.

In short, they were adept at the science and art of thwarting my attacks, and how to (simultaneously) set up their own attacks. Unfortunately I was disinterested in studying the famous chess-plays and so I started to flounder. In a game of this complexity there really is only so far one can go as a "gifted amateur". You can only rely on quick thinking and cunning for so long. After a while you need knowledge; knowledge I really didn't care about acquiring. I have probably played chess only once or twice since those days.

Of course, in physical confrontations aggression plays a much, much bigger role. I simply include this anecdote to illustrate how it can affect even non-physical pursuits. In fighting, aggression really is almost everything - at least the 90% to which my krav maga friend referred.

But, after 30 years of training, I am increasingly interested in that last 10%. To me, that is what is most interesting. It is there that I think you find the true science and art of fighting. To be successful against most opponents, all you need is a small set of well-honed, disabling responses - and aggression. But to truly master the art or science of fighting, you need to understand the complex skill of the "set up" - where you thwart your attacker and understand how to turn the tables when you are being thwarted.

As I discuss in my articles titled "Boards don't hit back" Parts 1 and 2, the biggest problem with aggressive plays is that they assume your opponent is a dummy who will stand there inertly allowing you to attack. He or she won't. Instead, as you launch your attack you will find the "dummy" actively resisting you. Your punch will be evaded or blocked and you will be facing a counter. Indeed, as Choki Motobu suggested, you might find the counter emerging more or less simultaneously with the defence.

At this point it is important to note that I take aggression to be a “given” necessity – hence I have no disagreement with Motobu's quote or the methodology employed by krav maga, TFT etc. which, manifestly, works. For me it’s a question of: “Where to from there?” It really is no different in this respect to what I faced as a young chess player; I'd reached the end of where simple aggression and quick thinking could take me. I needed more - knowledge in the form of an art or science.

Clearly, if you haven’t got to this point in your martial arts study in the first place, learning more complex sets of skills is not inherently practical.

On the other hand, most folks I know in the martial arts don’t do it for practicality anyway. We can get carried away imputing our own reasons for training onto others. Periodically I find myself remembering that x or y does it purely for “gong fu” – to achieve a skill through hard work. So I try to avoid disparaging wushu or any other “artistic” form of martial art (unless it is manifestly silly, like some of the Xtreme martial arts which employ impressive gymnastics but add an unfortunate, cheesy parody of traditional martial arts postures/mannerisms). Increasingly my own reasons for training are straying further and further from "fighting" and "practicality". Today I mostly train because of "gong fu".

If, on the other hand, someone wants quick practicality, I can think of no better system than TFT or krav maga, systema and similar "reality-based" schools.

Consider the TFT approach, by way of example: it is very sound and effective. It is, under my definition, a system leaning heavily towards military or law enforcement model, rather than a civilian defence model. I say this because TFT is “target focused” by its very name/definition. While agreeing with everything I heard the founder Tim Larkin say in the TFT videos, the philosophy seems to be centered on attacking (albeit counterattacking) your target. It does not focus its primary attention on teaching you how to thwart an attack initiated by your "target" (except by the obvious tactic of disabling the attacker before this becomes an issue).

While disabling an opponent is clearly highly desirable from a civilian defence perspective (he/she can’t attack you any longer) this raises the question: If you can’t hit him first, how do you avoid being hit by an attack that is heading your way? You deflect/evade, of course. But how do you do this? It is easy to say “just deflect and/or evade” – in my experience it is another to do so.

To me, the primary focus of civilian defence-oriented traditional arts is always on how to deflect/evade/thwart that first (or second, third etc.) attack – be it by preemptive strike (which is rarely available when you’re surprised), by deflection, evasion or (more commonly) deflection with evasion.

Traditional fighting arts thus put a lot of emphasis on the art of deflection and evasion (or deflection with evasion). It is “target focused” more in terms of dealing with the attacks – not with viewing your attacker as a “target” for your counters.

This is true even of Motobu's karate: while he might well be seen as an early pioneer of "reality-based self defence" (I encourage you to read Graham Noble's article "Choki Motobu... A Real Fighter"), his fighting method retained the science and art of deflection. It's just that he applied it with a pragmatic "attack focused" emphasis or mindset.

So karate kata begin with a defensive move – as do most Chinese martial arts (including the internal arts). In this regard I invite you to read my various articles on “blocking”, evasion and evasion with “blocking” and on using and adapting the flinch reflex.

Then there is the specific traditional martial art focus of counterstriking after you’ve deflected/evaded etc. Learning how to strike disabling targets is necessary in training and forms a big part of the traditional fighting arts. But civilian defence arts go further: as I’ve said, they teach you how to avoid being hit by your target. And how to strike a target that won’t let you strike it.

Assume you’re down on one knee after being blindsided (as Tim Larkin shows in one of his videos). You see his groin and you hit it. So far so good: to this point the TFT and traditional martial arts approaches are identical. However what happens when you go to strike his groin but he blocks/deflects/evades your counterstrike? To me, that is the most interesting part – how to “turn the tables” and establish control. That is what the traditional martial arts spend a lot of time answering.

And remember that in my view the primary focus of the traditional fighting arts (as civilian defence systems) is not to hit a target – but to not get hit (ie. to avoid being a “target” yourself). This difference is subtle, but significant. The civilian defence focus is not suitable for military or law enforcement purposes where your goal is to effect a particular result to your target. But it is eminently suitable for civilian defence where you succeed so long as you remain unaffected by the threat posed. If you run away from a civilian defence encounter, you’ve “won”. If you run away from military or law enforcement encounter, you are remiss in your duties.

Because neutralising a threat through counterattack is a big part of civilian defence systems, there is a huge overlap with TFT’s approach. What TFT teaches seems very effective in civilian defence encounters. But there is a difference in emphasis and that difference plays out on the fringes. That difference is bigger than just the differences in our laws about self-defence in Australia vs. those in America. Wherever you are, running away, if it is feasible, remains an appropriate option in civilian defence. By contrast it is generally inappropriate in military and law enforcement situations. This philosophical difference filters down into technical differences and emphases in training.

Accordingly, "attack, attack attack!" is a necessary starting point for any person studying the martial arts for reasons of practicality. But where to from there? That's what I am eager to learn more about - not just for practical reasons, but because I enjoy the art and science for its own sake.

After all, most of what you are ever likely to need in defence will probably come down to your simplest technical skills - applied with a whole lot of aggression. If my reasons for training were confined to practical self-defence, I doubt I would have started studying traditional martial arts in the first place.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Low "blocks" against kicks - are they ridiculous?

Introduction

Recently I came across this video titled "A low block is not used to block a kick, that's ridiculous". I couldn't disagree more, and I'll explain why.


A video titled "A low block is not used to block a kick, that's ridiculous"

I'll start with a fundamental observation that I have used low "blocks" successfully against kicks for more than 30 years. And yes, I mean full-force kicks that are in striking range (more on range in just a moment).

Bear in mind that when I refer to "blocks" I principally mean deflections or parries, not "blocks" per se. As I've often said (see my article "Why blocks DO work"), I only use the term "block" out of habit. It is a bad translation of the Japanese term "uke" (which comes from the verb "ukeru" - to receive). "Blocks" in kata can indeed be literal "stops". But more often than not, they intercept and deflect attacks rather than use "force against force". This is because the former is generally more efficient and effective in achieving its objective; a deflection requires less physical strength, speed and conditioning to perform, is safer to the user and reduces the openings created during the deflection.

None of my "low blocks" have been done in the manner suggested by the presenter: that would indeed guarantee a smashed arm as well as a belly/faceful of kick. I hold it to be self-evident that the presenter's examples are not in any way, shape or form indicative of the "problems inherent with low blocks against kicks". Rather, they set up a straw man; the examples are so poor that they guarantee the conclusion to which the presenter has come.

The "straw man"

The presenter notes at 5:21:
    "If you throw a full-force kick of any sort at me and I do a low block, you're gonna kick right clean through my arm and bust my leg all to pieces and put me down."
The underlining constitutes my emphasis but I have put it there to highlight the principal flawed premise.

Yes, if you tried to block a roundhouse kick with the shin by using your forearm to literally stop the shin, you'd have to have your head examined - if there were anything left to examine... Your forearm would be smashed and the kick would indeed "kick right clean through" and "put you down". But whoever said that this was a typical example of a "low block against a kick"?

Two issues arise out of the presenter's "straw man" examples:
  1. Low "blocks" using the forearm were, in my view, never intended as "hard blocks". Because of the size and weakness of the forearm relative to the leg, it is even more imperative than usual for such "blocks" to be "soft" - ie. to deflect the oncoming force, not stop it in its tracks. This means intercepting the kick early at its weakest, slowest point and using a circle to redirect it. I'm sorry to say, but the proverbial "Blind Freddy" should be able to see that; I don't know anyone who ever thought otherwise. If the presenter had, at some previous stage of his training, labored under the misimpression that it was possible to (literally) "block" a powerful roundhouse kick using forearm to shin contact, I'm not surprised that he reached the erroneous conclusions that he has reached.

  2. There are many, many more kicks than just the roundhouse with the shin and the approach for deflecting each of them can be profoundly different. Against which of these is the "low block" as demonstrated by the presenter mainly good for? Answer: the simple front kick.
Dealing with the "King of Kicks" - the front kick

In my most recent article "Enter the front snap kick" I discuss the inherent usefulness of the front snap kick as a weapon of civilian defence. I believe it to be so useful and effective that, once it is understood and mastered to a sufficient standard, it changes the nature of a conflict profoundly. For one thing, you realize that you are not "safe" standing at a particular range (ie. the range most people stand when "circling" each other in a sports fight). For another, you know just what to do if your opponent continues to occupy this range.

These points were amply illustrated in the three fights to which I refer in my recent article; in each case the fighter who was knocked out didn't have a clue he was about to cop a seriously dangerous kick. In each case the fighter just stood there like a stunned mullet.

Now its true that each of these examples comprised a front kick to the face, so the low block would have been ineffective anyway. However, as I note in my recent article, high kicks aren't the preference of civilian defence arts. Rather, low kicks (below the navel) are arguably the safest (and most effective) in this context.

And it is against such kicks that low blocks (either gedan uke or gedan barai) come into their own, as I argue in the video below.


A video in which I discuss the application of downward deflections generally

"But no one does front kicks anyway!"

I've often encountered the argument that "most ordinary folks don't know how to do front kicks, so why would kata bother teaching defences against them?"

My answer to this is 2 fold:

First, I find it self-evident that the front kick is an exceptionally useful technique which, as I've noted above, has the potential to fundamentally alter the dynamics of melee range exchanges. Having become aware of this powerful weapon, it would have been highly remiss of kata designers to ignore defences against it - particularly when they saw its potential effect on fight dynamics.

If you know how to do a front kick but can't answer one, then you have only learned half the lesson of front kicks. And woe betide you if your attacker has learned one or both of those lessons.

In modern terms, in order to practice front kicks with safety (especially in sparring) you simply must learn to defend against them - otherwise you will be walking into front kicks all the time. We're not talking rocket science here. If you're going down the road of learning front kicks, the expression "in for a penny, in for a pound" really does apply. There's simply no use learning half the formula. In fact, it is arguably impossible to do so (at least properly) if you intend to apply it in sparring (and not just against stationary targets like kick shields).

Second, the front kick is really one of the hardest attacks to defend against. I really can't think of a harder one. If you can deal with a full power front snap kick in the melee range, I think you probably have the timing and skill to deal with practically any other striking attack.

In short, there are very good reasons to learn defences against front kicks - both to facilitate your own defences and your own kicking attacks.

But we digress: there are many other kicks. And the low block, while ideally designed for the front kick, is by no means ineffective against other kicks, including the side kick or even, as I'll note at the end of the article, the dreaded roundhouse shin kick favoured in Muay Thai (and as ineptly demonstrated in the opening video). More on that in a moment. Let's get back to the essential "support cast" for the low block.

The importance of "tenshin" - body evasion

You'll notice that body evasion (tenshin) is an essential part of effective low deflections: You can't just stand there and hope to deflect something as powerful as a kick using a skinny little forearm (well, that's what mine are like anyway!). You've got to move the hell out of the way.

This body evasion puts you less in the firing line. To the extent that you remain in the firing line, your task in deflecting the kick is reduced. The maths and physics are simple: if you have to shift an attack one foot to the side in order to avoid being hit, then if you move your body half a foot to the side, your block only needs to work half as hard.

Implicit in all of this is that you're not opposing the kick "head on". Mostly you're not trying to "stop" it. You're catching it from the side and redirecting it. It is this approach that enables a (relatively) light, weak forearm to shift a much heavier, stronger leg that is coming at you at speed.

Hip use

The next most important thing to do is note the hip use. As I discuss in my video above at 2:55 (a topic I cover in greater detail in the next video below) there are 2 main ways in which the hip can augment a low "block", namely:
  1. "jun kaiten" or forward/positive turn; and
  2. "gyaku kaiten" or reverse/negative turn.

I discuss the 2 main hip uses - jun and gyaku kaiten (forward and reverse hip turn)

The presenter of the video at the start of this article demonstrates the forward turn (jun kaiten). This is commonly the first hip use studied in karate because it occurs in the various "beginner" forms, ie. kihon, takiyoku, pinan/heian etc. It also occurs in higher kata, but that is beside the point. The salient point I'm making here is that it is the principal, if not only, hip method to augment low "blocks" used in the various basic kata.

And herein lies the problem: those who lack depth of knowledge in relation to deflections (low or high) never really get to grips with how forward/positive hip turns ("jun kaiten") can make a low block effective. Why? Because it is inherently much harder to understand than the (less frequently seen) reverse/negative hip turns ("gyaku kaiten").

Furthermore, they get so caught up with the more obvious jun kaiten that they fail to see that various kata (eg. naihanchi/tekki) were designed with gyaku (not jun) kaiten in mind. Again, see my video above and note at around 0:43 how, once you've committed yourself to a horse (as opposed to forward) stance, naihanchi downward blocks necessarily coincide with gyaku kaiten.

And note that it is irrelevant whether you are using a kiba/naihanchi dachi or a shiko dachi (as per gekisai kata) because the principle remains the same: your hips are "opening out" in a reverse motion - ie. they are turning away from the attack, not turning into it. I think gyaku kaiten is more easily understood precisely because of this fact; I for one can relate to the idea of "turning away" from a powerful attack such as a front kick. But this does not invalidate the use of jun kaiten - it merely makes it less intuitive for beginners to grasp.

Why are basic kata designed with jun kaiten so firmly in mind? I'm not sure I have the answer to that. I have some ideas, but I'll leave these to another time. Suffice it to say that what beginners need to learn in terms of basic kinaesthetic principles and what they will apply in a fight are 2 different things. Furthermore, I'm not entirely sure that the masters of old had actually worked out the "ideal" beginner syllabus. For my own part, I modify the stepping and hip use for beginners when they are executing applications of kata such as heian shodan. See for example our 2 person version of fukyugata ichi below:


Our 2 person version of fukyugata ichi. Note the stepping (forwards 45 degrees) and the modification of the jun kaiten to make the low blocks more effective for beginners.

"But you can't do low blocks because you drop your guard!"

One of the most common arguments I hear to support the "impossibility" of applying low "blocks" against kicks is that they expose you to danger because you are forced to drop your guard. Rather, they argue, use your legs to deflect legs and your arms to deflect arms. Indeed I have some time for this approach: it borrows from an old shaolin maxim. I demonstrate such methodology in my first video at the start of this article (see at around 1:50 onwards).

But not every kick can or should be dealt with using legs. Rather, in the vast majority of cases, I've found that you just don't have the time. Why? The arms are what you naturally "flinch" with - not your legs. Moreover, you arms are quicker to get into position - both because they are smaller and lighter and because they have far more neurons dedicated to their control. This latter factor makes your arms more dexterous and sensitive, allowing greater fine motor skill. When it comes to "last minute" movements, you just can't beat the arms.

The examples I offer of using legs to deflect legs are a case in point: the low roundhouse kick using the shin is the most telegraphed of all kicks, giving you enough time to summon your own legs into action against it. Even there, the ashibo kake uke (shin hooking block block) as demonstrated against the roundhouse shin kick is not something I've effected in sparring all that often; I've almost as often headed off those kicks by closing the gap and jamming the attacker's thigh with my hand.

Which dovetails neatly into the point about range that I alluded to at the start of the article. Let's examine the demonstration where the presenter blocks a roundhouse shin kick with his forearm. One thing should be immediately obvious: the kicker was clearly out of range and his kick would have missed. As you can see from the adjacent enlargement, the toes would have barely scraped the thigh of the presenter.

What does this mean? Well first, I see it as indicative of a common malaise in modern karate practice: in most kihon and ippon kumite (basic standing or one-step applications), the attacker and defender stand completely out of range. This is the single biggest reason that forearm blocks aren't being applied today. They were designed to be used at a range where they intercept the attack - ie. in a range where the attack could actually land. I discuss this in my article "Why block with the forearm (rather than the palm)?". This is part of the bigger issues of "tag" competition, faux boxing and a failure to learn to fight in the melee range.

Second it means that if the kick had been in range, the presenter would never have been confronted with the forearm vs. shin conundrum. Rather, his forearm would have connected more or less on the attacker's knee. A small shift forward would guarantee the block contacting with the relatively slow, soft and meaty thigh just above the knee. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is not at all ineffective. As straight "blocks" go, this one actually does work.

So the presenter's entire premises are built on the most flawed foundations. It's no wonder that his conclusions and mine don't match.

So what of the perennial "problem" of dropping your guard? Well here's the thing: every time you throw any kind of technique, defensive or offensive, you create an opening. Learning when you can do so safely has a name: it's called timing. Just because you might not have the timing to use your arms against kicks doesn't mean that others are in the same pickle. I can't profess to any mastery of timing, but I've never found it all that problematic when it comes to blocking kicks.

I note in passing that each of the kicks posted in my article "Enter the front snap kick" featured a technical "no-no"; in each case the kicker dropped his guard. Did it affect the outcome? Of course not! Had the kick been evaded/blocked would it have affected the outcome? I really doubt it; the distancing and timing were such as to negate any possible exploitation of the "opening" caused by the dropping of the guard. So it is with blocks against kicks. You can drop your guard stupidly, or you can do so with relative safety.

Conclusion

The presenter of the video at the start is honest and sincere - of that I have no doubt. But his position shows all the hallmarks of dilution of traditional knowledge.

And as to his purported explanation of what the low block "really is", I'm afraid I have to disagree again. He demonstrates it as a pull of the head to the side and down. While I can see that this is technically possible, it raises (once again) many issues.

First, I am highly skeptical of any application that relies on a series of "softening" techniques that essentially render your opponent into a lifeless, non-resistant dummy. As I argue in my article "String theory: combinations and their effectiveness" your predictive ability decreases exponentially after your first counter. The odds of you correctly ascertaining your opponent's position, never mind his or her response, after your second and third counters is infinitesimally small and gets smaller and smaller the further your "string" or "chain" of counters goes.

Second, assuming your opponent were in such a stupor that you could pull his head at that angle and injure his neck vertebra, you'd be executing a highly complex move for no real benefit. Why not hit him again? Why not push/pull him straight down or otherwise trip or unbalance him?

And it really is a big "if" to assume that you could effect this "neck throw" as demonstrated. I've tried to manhandle many a head in grappling - your opponent never comes easily/willingly and his head slips away very fast (even if you take skin off the ears etc.).

Furthermore, if your opponent is in such a stupor as to allow you to pull his neck/head at that angle, is that further action really warranted? The law looks very dimly on "unreasonable force" of any kind.

Last, Occam's razor suggests that the simplest explanation is really the most likely one. Is a complex, ungainly grapple, relying on extensive "softening up" at the end of a string of techniques, really the most likely explanation of the low block? To paraphrase Freud, "sometimes a block is just a block".

I think it is possible to use gedan uke and gedan barai for uses other than blocks/deflections. But then again, it is possible to use scissors to cut a steak. It doesn't mean that the scissors were designed for this purpose. And you don't get any mileage out of an argument that says: "I tried to cut a piece of wood with these scissors. That didn't work, so the scissors must have been designed as a steak knife."

Now that's ridiculous.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Dan on Twitter

Okay everyone - I've bitten the bullet. I'm not sure why, but I've created a Twitter account. Now I suppose folks can follow my mundane thoughts throughout the day ("Wow, that pasta was just marvelous" or "Phew, got to the toilet just in time" etc.).

Alternatively, you can use it to get notified of my newest blog posts.

My twitter account is http://twitter.com/#!/dandjurdjevic.

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