|A random snapshot of our sparring. I'm using a classic open|
hand rising block - even though it was totally unscripted.
"They have to be, after all, because "blocks don't work" - everybody knows that!" Those of us who don't agree are just kidding ourselves.
Over the years I have attacked this assertion in a number of ways and from a number of different angles. But this is not to say that each of my arguments is somehow separate and unconnected: rather they are all mutually consistent and supportive of each other, creating what I think is a compelling, indeed undeniable, picture of how blocks are a vital part of the traditional civilian defence arsenal.
We are all familiar with techniques called "uke" in karate. We know them as basics and we know them in kata. Most of us who have been around for 30 years or so can remember a time when virtually no one thought they couldn't or shouldn't be used as blocks. Yes, we knew they were amenable to a few other uses, depending on the particular technique, but mostly we were happy to call them "blocks" because, in many cases, that was their primary use. Virtually no one thought this knowledge needed further "refinement".2
However in recent times increasing numbers of karateka are adopting the "refined view" that these "uke" aren't "blocks" at all. They are locks, they are holds, they are throws, they are strikes... anything but blocks. In other words they aren't ways of "receiving" attacks but rather they are attacks themselves. Always. (It doesn't matter if you call them "counter attacks" or just "attacks" as far as I'm concerned. An attack is an attack - something quite different to defence, so please don't flame me with those semantics!)
|Why is Danny parrying Basil's cut? Doesn't he know|
blade on blade is bad?
Why would they think this? To my mind, it's a bit like saying:
"You know sword-fighting? It's all about stabs and slashes. There are no parries, deflections or other 'blocks'. Heaven forbid! The swordsmen/women are too busy for that: being proactive, you know - attacking! There's no time for this 'blocking' nonsense! Besides, hasn't anyone ever told you that blade on blade contact is bad? It's very bad! Anyway - blocks don't work - everybody knows that!"3, 4
Blocks don't work?
I've dedicated a number of articles to discussing why and how blocks actually work, the first one being "Why blocks DO work". You should start there, but I fear that the article might be a bit "long in the tooth" now: I've written a number of articles since then that have expanded on my argument. Specifically I've noted that:
- Apart from organised fights (which are really just illegal combat sports), the closest (albeit still far from "identical") thing to "sport combat in society" comprises "chest bumping displays" between young men determining dominance (what Rory Miller calls "the monkey dance"). If you get involved in such a "dance" you generally have only yourself to blame. It is not civilian defence. Accordingly it is irrelevant to me if you base your tactics around fighting in such a scenario. I don't. I prefer not to "play according to that script". You should too. If the other guy wants to insist, then it might become a civilian defence situation. In my personal experience, it often doesn't. And even if it does, you're in a far better position practically and legally/ethically/morally than if you're an equal participant in the chest bumping display.
- If you are faced with a surprise attack, you won't have any real scope for such proactivity - for reasons of lack of time and/ opportunity as well as legal/ethical/moral considerations. This means that in civilian defence you will, to a large extent, have to rely on reactive tactics. Talking about how preferable the former is as opposed to the latter doesn't somehow mean you "get to choose". After all, it would be preferable if you managed to avoid every attack in the first place. Lots of things are preferable. We shouldn't assume we will get what we prefer. Yes, we should always be vigilant and look for signs of imminent attack in non-verbal cues etc., etc. But to assume that we will be able to be proactive in every case is just wishful thinking.
- Accepting this, it is important to note that people who react to attacks will naturally respond with a flinch reflex. This typically involves two things: the arms reach out while the body withdraws. In other words, your arms go out to ward off the attack (block) while you simultaneously use your body to avoid the blow (evade). We need to work with this, not try to "replace" it. Such autonomic, subconscious reflexes can be improved a little, but they are very hard to change entirely. Accordingly, traditional martial arts techniques work as a productive modification of the flinch reflex, converting it into two skills: blocking and evasion. These are designed to work together.
- Importantly, blocking and countering needn't involve some sort of "two count" exercise (ie. where there is a disconnection between the block and the counter). Rather, they should occur as part of one continuum, which is exactly how they were designed for use in traditional martial arts. To my mind, anyone who says differently is clearly basing their analysis on some extremely diluted examples of traditional martial arts. A block and its related counter were always meant to flow into one another, effectively creating one movement as much as possible. I keep going back to the gif below. It isn't some "strange" example. It is the very standard, basic, formal chudan uke of the Naha te school of karate. When applied in free fighting it only becomes more connected.
- It goes without saying that where circumstances allow, blocks are dispensed with entirely so that you enter directly and neutralize the threat without delay. Traditional martial arts have plenty of techniques used for just this purpose. There is absolutely no principle in traditional martial arts that requires you to use a block in every instance. Quite the reverse. The prevalence of "blocking" in kata might well reflect the physical and social reality of responsible civilian defence - but it has never been implied any sort of "rule of engagement".
|Jeff does a more or less classical chudan hiki/kake uke -|
using both arms in the way of the basic (heaven forbid)!
The video wasn't made for the purpose of discussing this topic (it related to kicking range) but it does have some impromptu sparring of the kind we tend to use in class - 3/4 speed, in the melee range.
If you want it harder (with contact) that is easily added. If you want it faster, this is easily done (both sides are moving at the same speed, so both sides speed up). In the video you'll see all sorts of blocks: age/jodan uke, chudan (hiki) uke, bong sau, gedan uke, palm blocks, inward depressing blocks, etc.)
|A video I took for very different reasons that happens to have some impromptu sparring. Okay, it won't be "proof"of anything to some folks so I am reluctant to put it up. Nonetheless it shows that blocks are used in a free form, unscripted environment. Note that comments saying things like "That isn't real fighting" will be simply deleted as moronic.|
Dilution, misapprehension and copy error
So what factors explain the emergence of the "there are no blocks" mantra? Why are so many, many people spreading this nonsense to all four corners of the globe?
|I do another chudan hiki uke - or is it Jeff? Does it matter?|
It's sad to say that many modern martial artists don't have a clue how to actually apply their traditional techniques, preferring to practise their kata/patterns/forms for one half of the class, then bounce around doing faux boxing for the other.
I suspect the traditional "don't ask questions - just train" mentality has a lot to answer for in this regard. Like some medieval monks copying the Bible, traditional martial artists over the generations have continued to faithfully replicate form without ever looking into the substance of what they are doing: without ever asking why, comparing alternate sources of the same material or cross referring with other, related, foreign styles to understand and rationalise differences in that form.
|I use both evasion and an age/jodan uke against |
Jeff's reverse punch.
All the while, copy errors have continued to multiply, like in some generational game of "Chinese whispers". At the same time, modern practitioners keep insisting on viewing what remains of this ancient movement through the prism of today's sport-oriented culture.
This brings us to fundamental misunderstandings like "Blocks comprise two movements"; misunderstandings that cause martial artists to go looking far and wide for elaborate "answers" to why they should bother doing things like "chudan uke" (just because they haven't been able to apply their diluted versions in faux boxing sparring).
Combine such misunderstanding with:
|Jeff uses some fairly common kata blocks to deal with|
multiple attacks by me.
- the parochial assumption that "people in the street are likely to attack me in more or less the same way I practice with my dojo friends"; and
- the human tendency to apophenia (ie. pattern recognition - I'm going to write an article on this soon); and
- some modern 10th dan "soke" speaking with "authority",
What about the traditional masters? Don't they also say there are no blocks?
I recently joined the KenpoTalk forum where some of my friends are members. There I noticed a thread titled "There are no blocks" (perhaps echoing the same title on my own forum, which in turn mirrors similar titles on MartialTalk etc.).
On that thread, one of my friends posted the following quotes and invited comment:
"There are no blocks in Karate,only striking and locking." --Eizo Shimabukuro
"There is no 'uke' in karate. There is 'tsuki'(thrusting). There is 'Geri' (kicking). There is 'ate' (striking). But there is no 'uke' in karate."I don't know if these quotes are verbatim. I'm going to assume that they are. Regardless, I'm pretty sure they don't mean what people think they mean.
Either that, or the masters involved are simply saying one thing and doing another. Look at their videos and you'll see what I mean: blocks/uke abound!
Yep - "no blocks" in Eizo Shimabukuro's "self defence".
Teruo Chinen shows how karate has "no uke".
"Ah - but that is because this is just basic karate, intended as a step in the process of learning. This isn't real karate as it is applied."
|Jeff uses an inside age/jodan uke.|
Look, let's not be revisionist here: we all know that most karate and other traditional martial arts masters show "blocks" in their applications and always have. This is true no matter how "realistic" or "basic" their demonstrations might be.
|Jeff uses an inside chudan hiki/kake uke.|
So perhaps the above quotes meant to reflect a sentiment similar to what Choki Motobu meant when he said:
- “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
|I use a gedan uke with evasion.|
The whole "simultaneous" issue is one I've done to death (see also this article). Accordingly, here I think it is sufficient for me to express my view that Motobu is just arguing for a more "proactive", aggressive approach - one that is tactically preferable in terms of pure fighting (although not always preferable for civilian circumstances, as I've noted). Motobu would have also known that this approach is more "advanced", requiring a higher levels of training to ensure safety in a conservative, civilian context.
Or perhaps he was coming at things more from his own "challenge match" background (which is quite likely!). Whichever way it goes, he would have known that the "proactive" approach is, for the reasons I've mentioned above, not always available. And Motobu certainly never maintained a "no blocks" position.
|I use wing chun's bong sau.|
Such cursory treatment of blocks and other defensive techniques is probably encouraged when there is a failure to practice against a realistic, resistant attacker. Rather, they have "faux attackers" who lurch forward slowly like zombies - or simply act as mere targets, waiting to be hit, then collapsing obligingly.5
It's about civilian defence - not civilian offence!
No, when it comes to quotes, I don't think you need to go past the karate masters of old. For example, let's look at what Gichin Funakoshi, founder of shotokan karate had to say:
"Karate ni sente nashi. (There is no first attack in karate.)"
|I use a gedan uke against a low punch (shock horror!).|
Most civilians aren't expecting to face a protracted one-on-one fight: they aren't training to be conditioned for three full 5-minute rounds in the cage against "Bones" Jones, Silva or GSP. Rather, they fear being assaulted in some social, domestic or other casual situation (eg. walking home after work): a situation when their "guard" (ie. awareness) is down and they quickly find themselves in a defence situation.
"If she resists for any length of period, I'll switch my game to the ground, maybe try for a submission. By the 15 minute mark I'll go for broke with a big knockout. Otherwise if it lasts to the 25th minute, I'm hoping my superior fitness and conditioning comes into play."
|I use the inside, "secondary" movement of hiki/kake uke|
which, due to the range, is turning into a palm block.
By now it should be clear that both defenders and attackers in a civilian attack are risk averse, but that this manifests in different ways. The defender is conservative in countering because he or she is aiming to protect himself or herself and not create openings. The attacker is conservative by "stacking the odds" in his or her favour. Whichever way it goes, neither side wants a protracted "fight" (cf. a combat sports match). They both want to keep any exchange as brief as possible.
The exchange does not exist to prove "who is better at fighting". It exists only in order to establish control necessary for:
- the attacker to subdue the defender (and then humiliate, rob, rape, otherwise hurt or even kill, etc. him or her); or
- the defender to repulse the attacker (whether by subduing the attacker or, simply, thwarting the attacker's attempt to subdue - the latter is often enough for the reasons I've just mentioned).
|Jeff does an open hand age/jodan uke and counters with|
a simultaneous uppercut. Note his body evasion.
Put another way, traditional martial arts are not about "what you do once you after you control" (ie. "attack, attack, attack" or the "target focused" mentality of some schools).5 They are about what happens before that point: ie. what you need to do to "turn the tables". Traditional martial arts are primarily concerned with that threshold civilian defence question: what if I find myself staring down the barrel of a punch with only 0.25 seconds before it lands? They don't assume that this threshold question is a non-issue, then fast forward to a point where "the tables have been turned" and the attacker can now be viewed as a "target".6
In other words, traditional martial arts in the Far East are about civilian defence - not civilian offence. They are also not about sport offence.
Yes, traditional civilian defence arts have many, many offensive techniques. But you'll notice that virtually every single kata/xing/pattern/form in Okinawa, Japan, Korea and China starts with... You guessed it...
A block!Forms start with moves that give you situational reflexes appropriate to surviving that first, unpredictable attack. These moves not only enable you to "receive" attacks in a way that leaves you unharmed, but also set you up in a way that enables you to establish a level of control sufficient to prevent future attacks.
These moves are called blocks.
As Choki Motobu, Funakoshi's great rival, said:
"One cannot use continuous attacks against true karate. That is because the blocks of true karate make it impossible for the opponent to launch a second attack."I don't think Motobu was talking about how blocks are actually "offensive weapons". This is a popular view today, but I believe it is clearly misconceived. When you consider the preceding analysis I think it becomes clear that he was talking about how blocks allow you to establish control in a situation where you have little or none. When you establish control, you can dictate terms. You are no longer being dictated to. Blocks enable you to "turn the tables" from a position where you are facing an attack, to one where you are not. That is because blocks deal with (ie. "receive") the attack in a way that thwarts it and any others that would follow as part of a combination. They cut off that whole line of assault while simultaneously setting you up in a safer position from which you can counter or simply escape.
A good block is the civilian's "last-second save" that does the above things. It is not some sort of quaint or basic reading of a mysterious move that is actually a "coded attack" (even if the move might be capable of being applied offensively). It is a recipe for dealing with the kinds of attacks we realistically face in society - no a recipe for counter attack.
So when it comes to traditional civilian defence arts, the statement: "There is no block" is a nonsense. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
- Some habits die hard. I've been using the term "block" for 33-odd years. And I've not been alone in this: it's not as if the use of this term isn't widespread to the point of being ubiquitous! So cut me some slack already! Sure, in the book I'm writing on civilian defence I'm thinking of defining and using some term that covers the broader meaning of "uke". But for the time being, I'm sticking with "block", trusting that you'll know what I mean. Accordingly, please don't flame me for using "block" without endless qualifications - or for forgetting to put the term in inverted commas.
- There is an old saying in Serbian: "Немој да ми солиш памет." Translated literally, it means "don't put salt on my knowledge/intellect" - in other words: "Don't try to "refine" my knowledge condescendingly by "correcting" me with your own embellishments" or, more simply "Don't tell me how to suck eggs." I feel this way with the legions of karateka (many of whom haven't got a clue how to do a decent chudan uke) who would proclaim that there are "no blocks", then proceed to show me some far-fetched striking application of chudan uke in order to teach me its "true essence".
- Alright, before you start flaming me with about "movie swordfighting not being real fighting", remember that I'm just having a bit of fun here with the Danny Kaye images. But, jokes aside, how many swordfights in history do you think were fought without significant blade contact in the form of parrying, deflection and other blocking? Do you really think swordfighting was all "dodging and weaving" - or better, yet, pre-empting an opponent's attack and thus never having to face it in the first place? I suppose this is achievable: but only if your opponent is blind, too drunk to stand or simply unaware of your very existence! Yes, I know that weapons fighting isn't the same as unarmed fighting. But is it really that different so as to remove entirely a combat skill central to almost every weapons system (excluding things like archery!)? Or maybe, just maybe, does the "amplification" in armed fighting simply make the need for blocks so much more obvious...?
- Going back to Danny Kaye, it's worth noting that his sword-fighting scenes in The Court Jester (from which the above stills are taken) are highly regarded in fencing circles. Basil Rathbone (who played his opponent) was himself a champion fencer. He wrote in his autobiography: "We had to fight a duel together with saber. I don’t care much for saber but had had instruction in this weapon during my long association with all manner of swords. . . . After a couple weeks of instruction Danny Kaye could completely outfight me! Even granted the difference in our ages, Danny’s reflexes were incredibly fast, and nothing had to be shown or explained to him a second time." Rathbone put Kaye’s aptitude down to his being a brilliant mimic (about the same period, the French mime Marcel Marceau was also an excellent fencer). Kaye got so good that Rathbone couldn't keep up (he was 64, after all) and so he had to have a stunt double for the fight scenes with Kaye. So take that, doubters! Engarde!
- The exception to the idea that most teachers will show at least some token "block" seems to be this guy. I have yet to see him show any sort of defence. Heck, I can't find even one example of an attack to be "defended": all of his "attackers" just act as "targets to be hit". To my observation he doesn't seem to be teaching a method of "defence" at all. He is teaching a method of offence (and only offence) - no doubt under the guise of "offence is the best defence". This might be appropriate for military and even law enforcement - but in my view it has little to do with the needs of the civilian. As emotionally appealing as it is, and as "useful" as it might be for quick "removal" of our human instinct "not to hurt", it is hardly a recipe for civilian defence success - in legal/moral/ethical terms as well as pragmatic ones.
- One unfortunate fellow used to keep writing to me, unable to grasp the simple point that defence requires defensive skills. He kept insisting that arts like karate have very poor "attacking" skills; that addressing this "deficiency" (in the manner of the teacher mentioned in point 5) would be a kind of panacea, curing the "ills" that affect traditional martial artists. Well I'm sorry, but we traditional martial artists don't need to be taught how to "suck eggs". We don't need "salt on our intellect". The stuff taught by the teacher mentioned in point 5 is hardly "news" to a well-trained traditional martial artist. In fact, the "attacking skills" I've seen in his videos leave much to be desired: It is clear to me they try to reinvent the wheel, ignoring far more sophisticated, effective, tried-and-tested striking methods developed over two thousand years. As with "blocks", noting some poor examples of diluted, so-called "traditional" martial arts today is hardly the benchmark for criticism of traditional attacking technique. And there is more to offering a "modern alternative" than the slick marketing of someone submitting to be a punching bag while someone else pretends to hit them.
Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic