Sunday, May 26, 2013

The science of "blocking" roundhouse kicks: Part 1

Here are a couple of questions that were recently posed on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums by "Kframe".  I thought it would be useful to post them here along with my answers:
"Ok, now here is a great question with regards to the round kick and movement.  We all know that moving up the circle past the apex will cause the round kick to lose a lot of power. How far does that movement have to be fore it starts losing power? How much power does it lose in the first few inches past the apex?"
A roundhouse kick loses force exponentially the moment it passes the apex.  How much is lost in a few inches?  It isn't easy to say definitively, but I'll give it a go in a minute (I'd need my brother to do some more precise calculations).

Let's just say that even a few inches and I think you'll have lost more than the kick was worth.  That's exactly why the Muay Thai defences below involve body shifting sideways (ie. "taisabaki" or "tenshin" in karate): while the movement sideways only takes a few inches off, it is enough to make it possible to absorb the kick without injury.

So the short answer to: "How much force is lost in a few inches?" is this:

The long answer is this:

I realise that in this picture the "50 cm" distance is
probably inaccurate - but you get the idea!
I'll assume for a moment that the kick loses 100% of its force after 50 cm (which is, I think, not an unreasonable assumption - based on my own experience).

Note that I'm talking here about useful force.  I know that your leg would still contact, but at 50 cm or so after the apex where you meant to hit with full force, I think it is a safe bet that your kick has become functionally useless.

This means that for each centimetre after the apex, it loses about 2% of its force.

One inch = 2.54 cm.  So 3 inches = 7.62 cm.

Which means that:
3 inches after your apex, the kick has lost approximately 15% of its force.
The body movement in the Muay Thai block equates to approximately 30 cm.  Which means that by the time you've moved into position to absorb the kick, the kick has lost as much as 60% of its force (on my rough calculation anyway).  No wonder the "block" works!

And no wonder that arts like karate stress so heavily taisabaki/tenshin (body movement/evasion) of this "upright" kind (cf. bobbing, weaving, ducking etc.).  Civilian defence arts try to take the "sting" out of circular attacks - which are the most common civilian attacks used by humans in any era and any culture.
"Same question in reverse, say we step in to the kick, how much power does the kick NOT have at a given distance before the apex?  I watched my friend do his round kick defense again, and he stepped left, into a front stance. That movement alone covered nearly a foot of distance from his starting position. That distance was covered going into the arc of the kick. Which means he would have intercepted the kick with his "universal block"(what its called in kenpo, I have no idea what that gator mouth block is called in karate) nearly a foot before the kick reaches the apex. (a credit to his great execution of the front stance, imho.)    So basically how much power does the kick lose if I move in to it a given distance?"
How much "power" does the kick lose when you move in?  Not nearly as much as it loses when you move away.  This is a fairly simple equation:

As an example, if your kick travels 1 m, and you move in to the kick by about 20 cm before the apex, the kick will lose only 20% of its force.

On the other hand, at 20 cm after the apex the kick would have lost approximately 40% of its force, based on my previous calculations - ie. twice as much.

It's a question of how much room the kick has to accelerate.  Moving in reduces that acceleration room, reducing the impact speed - but all via a rather linear equation.

So, by way of direct comparision, this means that:
3 inches before your apex, the kick has lost only about 7.62% of its force.
So if you move into a roundhouse, you face a kick that is potentially twice as powerful as the one you would face moving away.

On the other hand, if you move in early, you might jam the thigh and negate as much as 95-100% of the useful force - where if you move away early, your attacker might have time to alter their target point (the apex) making you face 95% of the force after all!

It's all in the tactics and what is best at a given time!  In Part 2, I will address some of these tactics from traditional martial arts - tactics that rely upon the science to which I refer above.

In the meantime, I note that Chuck Norris would always impact his roundhouse at the apex!

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, May 20, 2013

The roundhouse kick and traditional martial arts

Chuck Norris' roundhouse
The roundhouse kick - made infamous by Chuck Norris - is a martial arts staple.  You see it in practically every movie.  It occurs in every round in every MMA, Muay Thai, kickboxing, Chinese san shou and kyokushinkai "knockdown" karate fight, just as it occurs in non-contact sport karate.

And it is also seen being practised in countless dojos/guans/kwoons/studios/gyms across the world.

Yet some will be surprised to note that it isn't exactly a "traditional" technique at all.  For one thing:
It does not occur in any traditional kata/xing/pattern/form predating the 60s.
Now I don't believe it was because folks back then "lacked the technology".  I'm sure the roundhouse kick probably existed in all ancient fighting systems. After all, its most basic incarnation is the simple kick to the thigh with the instep - the "soccer kick". It is easy to learn and easy to land. It is arguably the most natural kick we have.

But there is, I think, a reason that it is not really a feature of traditional civilian defence arts in terms of the kata. Yes, it might be hinted at in "stem cell moves" and it might have been used in sparring and other kumite. But it is not in kata. Why?

Machida using standard karate
tactics to evade a roundhouse
I believe the answer is this: the roundhouse kick is not a conservative civilian defence movement. It is actually quite risky.

The risks relate principally to telegraphing and the big, swinging, longer travelling, movement.

These are real issues with the roundhouse kick - whoever you are and whoever you are fighting:

Arts like karate are certainly geared at anticipating and exploiting those issues.  For example, if someone tried to kick me in the thigh, I'd like to think there was a good chance that, using my traditional civilian defence training, I might evade the kick.  And my attacker would be left very vulnerable when he missed (see the adjacent photos of a fighter missing Machida and note his lack of balance and poor positioning).

Either that, or I might close the gap and hit him as he was kicking.  I manage such tactics routinely in sparring against people who are throwing far more disciplined and less telegraphed roundhouse kicks, so why not against some untrained hoodlum?

Machida uses another standard karate
tactic of closing to negate a roundhouse
It is unsurprising to me that Lyoto Machida routinely demonstrates both these standard karate tactics in his MMA bouts as illustrated in the pictures above and below: he is a highly skilled traditional karateka who is well versed in applying these methods.

However I want to underscore that none of my preceding discussion should be read to suggest that karate's conservative approach is attributable to its intended use against another karateka (or similar traditional martial artist) who might anticipate and exploit any "big" techniques of our own.  Karate is, like all civilian defence arts, aimed at thwarting street attacks.
Any street attacks.
In fact, karate is easiest to apply against big, swinging attacks because it is a civilian defence (not offence) art: ie. it is, necessarilyreactive: you get attacked and you respond. And it is easier to respond (ie. intercept/evade and counter) to a big, telegraphed swing than it is to do so against a more direct one.

My friend and colleague Colin Wee has excellent round
kicks - but I'm not expecting to be attacked by someone
like him!
Conversely, the fact that a karateka is happier to face someone untrained also doesn't mean that this affects the nature of his or her own tactics - including attack methods.

The latter are kept to conservative movement not because the karateka anticipates a particular opponent (trained or untrained) - but because he/she just want to be as minimalist as possible generally - ie. take as little time, and as few risks, as as he/she can.

I personally don't use conservative attacks because I "fear a karateka intercepting/evading my big attacks". Rather, I fear the unknown element:  I fear the hidden accomplice waiting in the shadows with the block of wood; I fear treacherous terrain where a big move causes me to slip and break my ankle; I fear the hidden pocket knife in my opponent's hand.  All of these happened to my brother when he faced (and subdued) a burglar not too long ago.  There are many more such possible variables.

Another point about roundhouse kick is this: when applied to the thigh, it doesn't really have enough potential to incapacitate. Yes, if I were kicked tomorrow in the thigh by Jon Jones, I might well go down.  But let's be real here: if some average guy in the street kicked me the thigh, I would probably still be quite able to fight back with little impediment - even if he were "MMA trained".

The ubiquitous roundhouse kick to the
thigh popularised by Muay Thai
Were I to kick an attacker in the thigh, I fear there would be a similar "lack of impediment"; disabling through  sheer force and shin conditioning is not exactly my forte - nor that of most civilian martial artists.

So how does an art like karate treat the mawashi geri? What does it do to make the movement less "risky" and more "applicable" in civilian defence?  It makes the movement less of a "power" movement and more a conservative one. It throws the kick as a snap.

And it minimises the surface area to increase pressure by using the ball of the foot rather than the instep.

This is why the karate mawashi geri cannot compete "power wise" with a Muay Thai or MMA roundhouse kick. It isn't intended to be as forceful.  But that is deliberate: the the latter is simply too risky to be part of a conservative civilian defence arsenal except on the rarest occasions.  On the other hand, the "short, sharp, snap" variety is a whole lot more conservative (requiring less "wind up"), while still delivering results (through using smaller surface area, correct targeting of vital regions and using a percussive snap that causes a "shock" rather than a "pushing" blow).

As I've noted, the roundhouse kick is not found in traditional Okinawan karate kata (some have been modified to include it, but this is a fairly recent innovation).

I've always been told that the introduction of the ball of foot, snapping mawashi geri to karate kihon (basics) and kumite (sparring - both restricted and free) only occurred in the 1950s - and that this is attributable to Gichin Funakoshi's son, Yoshitaka.

Yoshitaka Funakoshi
Nevertheless, I'll admit that even Yoshitaka's conservative version of the roundhouse kick is not one I use all that much.  As I get older, I throw fewer and fewer roundhouse kicks. They are hard to do - especially in their karate form.

They are also risky. I'm slower now and and have less "power" in my techniques as a result. Accordingly I think I've instinctively backed off using roundhouse kicks. Yes, I threw a couple while sparring the other night, but this is because they were low (I caught my partner in the groin - albeit in a controlled way!) and because I saw a neat opening. And we were sparring after all - not fighting.

So for me, while the roundhouse kick is a legitimate civilian defence weapon, it is only of marginal use. It will have uses here and there, but not often. And when it is useful, it will usually be in its low, short, sharp, snapping, ball of foot guise.

Going back to the ball of the foot: I've discussed previously how it isn't a problem with front kicks,  But is it harder to do this with mawashi geri?  Actually it is: I'll admit I sometimes sprain a toe on the heavy bag when trying to kick hard.
But, importantly, this usually happens only when I'm trying to turn this snap kick into a "power kick".
What about shoes? Well in that case, it even harder to pull the toes back.  But this is where it is important to remember what the karate mawashi geri is all about: it is a short, sharp snap - not a power "driving" technique. For this purpose, I've found that the tip of the shoe is quite adequate to the task. Yes, you can't hit a tree or heavy bag so well. But a human body (eg. groin, bladder or even face)? You bet. My hiking boots will do plenty of damage without my toes suffering a jot.

And you don't have to kick as hard as Jon Jones to achieve this. I've been kicked in the eye with mawashi geri and had it close over as a consequence. This was from a snap with no "push through": the kind of kick you wouldn't even bother trying on a makiwara or bag etc. It would look insipid. Not only was my eye injured, but I momentarily blacked out from the impact.

Jon Jones throws a roundhouse kick
So for me, the question of mawashi geri is a complex one. Is it a technique I still teach and use? Yes, even though it isn't really a "traditional" civilian defence technique. Which version do I prefer? The ball of foot / toes in shoes snap. Do I also teach the "power version" using the instep? Yes: it is good as a "stem cell" concept to understand how to drive power into a target using your hip and leg in staged activation.

I don't want this essay to suggest a relative disdain on my part for the roundhouse kick.  In fact, I probably tend to use it more than most goju karateka - more than most karateka generally.  I'm simply acknowledging a personal trend towards using it less and less as the years go by.

Compare, for example, my sparring in 1993 and 1996 below: you'll see more mawashi geri by your's truly than you can poke a stick at!  Okay, I don't use quite so many nowadays - but I still do one for every 3 or so minutes of sparring.  So much for "not using roundhouse kicks"!

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Persistent myths #2: You can't kick with the ball of the foot in shoes

A standard karate ball of foot kick.  When it comes to
shoes, people fixate on the difficulty of  toes curling
back  the toes to this extent.  But this fixation is
misconceived.  This sort of toe "curl back" is only
necessary in the first place because you don't
have shoes on!
Here's another myth that I keep seeing around the traps:
"Ball of the foot kicking was invented for barefoot training in the dojo.  It doesn't work anywhere else."
It's one of those myths that is particularly popular among younger, less-experienced martial artists, possibly because it seems so plausible.

After all, if I'm having trouble learning the ball of foot kick, there must be a reason, mustn't there?  It can't be because I'm just a beginner and I'm still "unco".  It must be because they're asking me to do something that is:
  • unnatural; and
  • only useful in some artificial, formal Okinawan/Japanese setting.
It can't be any use to me in typical street shoes.  It must be impossible, just like they say.  Right?
Years and years of training on gashuku (outdoor training camps, where we typically wear the stiffest hiking boots and kick hard things like trees, never mind shields and bags) have never suggested to me that there was even the slightest problem with kicking ball of the foot in shoes.  It is absolute, unmitigated nonsense.  A myth.  A false assumption of the most basic kind.  It has no support in either evidence or logic  - whatsoever.

The video below illustrates my point very simply.

"You're cheating!  This was edited cleverly!"
No. I'm an ordinary bloke giving a reasonably decent kick to a couple of very hard, albeit slim, eucalyptus trees (one dead).
"But... you're not kicking full power...!"
Don't be fooled: despite their smaller size, these trees "give" almost as little as a brick wall, so forgive me for not kicking even harder than I do.  You'll note however that I still kick hard enough that were my toes the contact point, it would have been potentially injurious (never mind painful for unconditioned toes like mine).  In other words: I'm kicking hard enough for the purposes of this demonstration, thank you very much.

The standard taiji "toe" kick: notice how the ankle,
when extended naturally, doesn't make the top of the
instep parallel with the shin.  What this means is that
the natural contact point (assuming a correct chamber)
will be the ball of the foot.
It should be obvious that I am not contacting with the toes.  Nor am I kicking the flat of the foot "teep" style.  I'm kicking with the ball of the foot.  And my "shoes" are stiff hiking boots.
Shock horror!  "How can this be?"
Well the first thing to notice is that the ball of the foot kick actually arises from a natural foot shape.  Most folks can learn it very quickly (the important thing to learn is the proper chamber!).

Yes, the "toe curl back" is very pronounced in barefoot karate and yes, in the Chinese arts there are a lot of heel kicking techniques.  But there are also a lot of "toe" kicks as well.
"Aha - those toe kicks are the originals.  People used to kick with their toes!  They had to condition them, of course, like some Okinawan karateka still do."
Erm... no.  Not every martial artist of ancient times had toes so conditioned they could kick through bamboo.  Yes, some toe kick techniques were exactly that: designed to be executed with the toes as the contact point.  But this is far from the truth with other kicks.

Taking just one example, the "toe" kick in taijiquan isn't really intended to contact with the toes.  Rather, it is intended to contact with... you guessed it:
The ball of the foot!
Why do I say that?

Take your average shoe (whether from today or yesteryear) - even one you think wouldn't accommodate "ball of the foot" kicking.  Take the average human ankle.  Extend said ankle in said shoe.  What is your likely contact point?

A good ballet dancer prides her/himself on an ability to
extend the ankle so that it is absolutely straight -
parallel with the shin.
Well, unless:
  • you have a ballet dancer's flexiblity to point your ankle and you go all out to point your toes in a straight line like a ballet dancer and you have shoes that permit extension of this sort; or 
  • you chamber your kick stupidly (rather than in the way karate and gongfu are traditionally taught and should be taught today), 
your naturally extended foot will cause a first contact with the ball of the foot.  I discuss this the video below at 0:20:

Please note: whether you can "curl your toes back" in shoes as much as a barefoot karateka is irrelevant.  Your toes will be away from the action anyway.  The only reason toes are pulled back so firmly in karate is simply this: without shoes you need to be especially careful that your toes aren't snagged as you kick!

In other words, shoes actually protect your toes - and facilitate the ball of the foot kick!  The exaggerated toe curl-back (which may, or may not, be possible in some shoes):
  • isn't required for shoe kicking; and 
  • is only present in barefoot kicking because the shoes are absent.  
An inability to "curl back" your toes is certainly not going to prevent you from kicking with your ball of foot.

A geta at about the angle of impact
For crying out loud, even kicking in Japanese geta (traditional sandals) can be done "ball of foot" - with a resulting contact point as shown approximately in the adjacent photo (ie. the underside corner of the geta "feet") - not your toes!

(Plus the sandal loops allow you to pull your toes back as if fighting bare feet anyway!)

By way of comparison  a heel kick with the geta will very likely result in the sandal flying off your foot up into the sky.  Perhaps your attacker will die of laughter!

Accordingly I hope that another martial myth is well and truly buried.

[Note that I have concerned myself here with the front kick; while some traditional Japanese and Korean arts practice a ball of foot roundhouse kick, this is a separate issue - one I will discuss another time.]

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Sound bite - or resource?

Evening discussions after a long day of training -
I see this blog as analogous in its function.
Okay, so in recent times I've written some pretty long articles.  As a matter of fact, I'm going to start splitting some of them up (at least, where they deal with discreet issues permitting such a split). [For example, you'll notice I just split up the very long "There are no blocks" article, creating the new article "There are no blocks in MMA?".]

This brings me to the whole issue of "length".  What length should a blog post be?

I suppose the answer to that depends on what you think a blog should be about.

I incline to the general view that people read blogs (of the technical sort mine is!) principally for two reasons:
  • to gain information they do not already have; or
  • because it puts into words that which they already think but haven't fully analysed or been able to rationalise or explain to others.
One thing is for sure: people don't generally read blogs to change their minds - and bloggers shouldn't realistically entertain the notion that they will be "converting" people to their way of thinking.  Sure, I've read blog articles that have changed my mind on a particular topic.  But mostly I read stuff that intrigues and informs me ("I haven't considered / heard of this before") or that already matches my ideas ("I have been thinking generally along those lines, but I have never been able to express it so well").

I suspect the second  of these is really the one that has the greatest impact on us as readers.  Let's be frank.  If it expands our knowledge to some extent, so much the better.  But our primary motivator in reading something is simply this:
I know this is going to make some readers uncomfortable, but it is still the truth.  We repost memes on social media because they confirm our existing mindsets - not because they have persuaded us of a position to which we were formerly opposed.  Memes don't get created or reposted to "argue", but rather to confirm.

So, with that in mind, what is my goal in this blog?  Well, I have already had plenty of feedback that it confirms.  I get this often, and I won't deny that it is gratifying.  Who doesn't like the idea of hearing from others who share your thoughts?

But I never set out to write a blog of this scope and detail for such feedback.  If I had, the blog would comprise short posts of one or two paragraphs, memes and other "soundbites".  Obviously, mine is not a "soundbite blog".

No, the primary goal of my blog was, is and will remain, the first of the reasons previously mentioned: to inform, not confirm.

Initially, I started writing articles entirely for the students of our Academy.  Then my brother and I decided to make almost all our information publicly available.  Then I realised that the "articles on a website" format just didn't fit.  For one thing, updating the website was a lot more complex than posting on a dedicated blog interface.

So  I created this blog back in 2008 as a resource.  This means I purposely set out to be exhaustive in my treatment of different subject matters.  I wanted something our students could come back to and review at their leisure.  I wanted something that answered all the inevitable follow-up questions.  I wanted it to be the resource I never had as a younger student, hungry for technical, historical and philosophical detail.  I wanted it to be objective, well-researched, thorough and consistent.  And I wanted it to be about the subject that I love most: traditional civilian defence arts.

In a dialogue, issues can addressed as they arise.
On the net, you need to address them in advance!
Whether I have achieved this goal is for you to judge.  What I can say is that in attempting to do so, I have discovered the capacity of the internet to throw up every possible challenge to every single point one could possibly make.  That is okay if the challenges are logical; this is something for which I was prepared.  But it is a different story when you factor in every possible irrational challenge that can be made.  These are as unpredictable as they are flawed.  Yet often they can seem to be persuasive.  So you can't ignore them.  You have to address them - if for no other reason than to give your students a more complete understanding of the issues (and the flawed questions).

The challenges of which I speak are the internet equivalent of the lawyer's question: "When did you stop beating your wife?"  They assume so many variables so quickly that you scarcely know where to begin.  And just as you do, you get bombarded with another unexpected - indeed random - challenge of the same ilk: "And why is your penchant for fraud restricted to ebay sales?"

We can laugh, but this is really the calibre of argument.  Except that I have to deal with arguments like: "If "blocks" really existed, why don't you see them in MMA?  Ha - checkmate dude!"

The problems with this challenge should be obvious.  Like the fictitious lawyer, the question assumes many variables - from simple things like "blocks don't occur in MMA" and "MMA is the sort of fighting for which blocks were invented", through to an assumption that we are even talking about the same thing when we refer to "blocks". For example, do you mean the literal basics, and if so, aren't you forgetting that they are formal training methods for beginners?  And so on.

So forgive me if my essays get quite long.  They have to be to address all the arguments - from the plausible to the simplistic and spurious (yet seemingly plausible and highly attractive).

[There is also the small issue of Blaise Pascal's quote:
"I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter." 
as I discussed in my article "A sense of perspective: why (and how) I write this blog".]

Will my articles address the concerns of the "MMA generation"?  Probably not.  I'm not attempting to "convert" anyone to traditional martial arts.  But if someone interested in such arts wants to know the answers to the common, simplistic criticisms levelled at them, then I hope my articles are of interest.  And even if someone doesn't give a hoot about MMA but just wants to know more about the science behind traditional martial technique, I want them to give them the benefit of whatever I know on the subject.

If, along the way, these folks have their own thoughts/suspicions/theories confirmed, then so much the better.  But this will never be a "meme site".  It is intended as a resource.  The articles are intended to fit together like a giant jigsaw to create one, hopefully informative, picture.  Will the picture ever be complete?  Of course not.  Will it ever be entirely correct?  How can it?  But that won't stop me trying to achieve these things.

All this means is that the articles aren't going to be "soundbites".  They aren't "light reading".  They aren't going to be short "tweets" or "memes".  They are meant as a resource for traditional martial artists to come back to from time to time for detailed analysis.  Whether or not they meet this objective is not for me to say.

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

There are no blocks in MMA?

[This article is split from my earlier one "There are no blocks".]

 The knockout punch

"I don't care about your stupid articles.  You don't see blocks in MMA, so that proves they don't work.  Checkmate!"

If I only had a dollar for every time I heard that statement...

For many, this is the "knockout punch" in the "blocks don't work" argument. But there are many false assumptions inherent in this statement, which I will now proceed to analyse:

No blocks in MMA?  So what?

Okay, let's assume there are no "blocks" in MMA.  Why would this be conclusive evidence that they "don't work" in civilian defence?

I'll take it point by point:
Fighters in MMA have a very different goal
to civilians who are being attacked.
  • Fighters in an MMA cage are in there with the express aim of beating an opponent.  It is their only goal to land blows or submit - ie. to "hurt".  They don't get points for walking (or running!) away.  They're going to "take it to their opponents" even if they are not being threatened at a given time.  In other words, they're not going to back away "because they can".  They aren't going to be "conservative" or "minimalist" in the sense of fighting "only if necessary" (or, conversely, abandoning the attack "because it is too much bother").  Sport fighters have a job to do, and that job means they have to take risks.  They're going to keep going back in until they've done the job.
  • Civilian defence fighters have a very different aim.  They "win" so long as they don't get hurt.  This means that a civilian will often adopt very different tactics.  Such tactics include such things as talking a situation down and "walking away" (even after the opponent has actually landed a humiliating blow!).  And, of course, these tactics include the very "reactive" block.
  • I know that as you block, you aren't "hitting your opponent" or otherwise "ending things".  But we've already talked about how what you might prefer isn't necessarily what you'll get.  Furthermore, there are many cases in civilian defence where "blocking" is not only the most available first option, but also the most prudent one.  Examples I've both come across (and experienced directly) are where a responsible adult has to manage a troubled teenager, or perhaps person with disabilities, who is upset and becoming increasingly violent. In such cases, "hitting the person" is often the last thing you should do (legally, pragmatically or otherwise).  In some cases it isn't even appropriate to try to grapple the person (eg. people with autism often don't respond well to being restrained - it simply inflames the situation).  So the notion that "blocking just delays the inevitable" buys into the false assumption that every civilian attack is followed by an inexorable "descent into full one-on-one battle to the end".  This is far from true (however much it applies in the cage/ring).
  • Yes, there are some cases where the civilian's best hope lies in going after an attacker aggressively (with the intention of striking or disabling him/her through grappling).  But to go from this to "street fights really become just like cage/ring fights after a second or two" buys into the false assumption to which I've just referred.  Let's be real here: I worked as a prosecutor for the better part of a decade yet I can't even recall even one case of assault that looked anything like a cage/ring fight.  
  • In any event, if you need to use an aggressive, "proactive" response to an attack, traditional martial arts are full of them.  Every single punch, kick and strike can be used to enter, pre-empt, cut off, stifle, neutralise etc. before the attack lands.  However that just as it is true that "every time you block, you aren't hitting your opponent", it is worth noting that "every time you throw an attack, you create an opening".  Traditional martial arts have the goal of "minimising openings".  This is very different to a goal of "maximising hits".
Guy Mezger
So observing that an MMA fighter is going to be less focused on defensive tactics like blocking is hardly surprising.  MMA isn't a game of "let's see who doesn't get hurt".  It's about "let's see who gets hurt".  Goals/objectives fundamentally effect tactics, which effect your skill set (or at least the "balance" of technique use within that skill set).  "Beating your opponent" and "not being beaten" are actually two very different things with a substantial effect on the dynamics of fighting.

It really doesn't get any simpler than this.  Looking at an MMA match and judging that as the "gold standard" of what is useful for civilians is totally misconceived.  It buys into the myth that "MMA and civilian defence are the same."  Yes, MMA is real, hard-core contact fighting.  Yes, MMA fighters are the real deal when it comes to fighting - probably in any situation.  But looking to their skill set as the "be all and end all" for civilian defence needs is just as absurd as assuming that the military has all the solutions for ordinary civilians in society.

Anyway, I've previously noted that even MMA fighters have been known to default to blocking in civilian defence situations outside the ring.  Consider Guy Mezger's own words:
    " He was throwing a really kind of wild punch, which I thought was a punch — I didn’t know he had a knife in his hand — and I kind of blocked it with my left and hit him with the right and knocked him out again."
 And you're sure there aren't blocks in MMA?

But in any event, who said that "there no blocks in MMA"?  Sorry, but this is a bit like saying "there are no 'stances' in MMA".  Yes, you don't see people pausing in formal traditional stances.  But this doesn't mean there aren't any.

Forearm blocks abound in MMA, even if they are frequently
used as true "blocks" rather than deflections.
As I've previously discussed, stances are dynamic; they are snapshots of movement, not "postures" to be adopted.  If you take a still from practically any round of any MMA fight, you'll see literally dozens of stances being performed.

Similarly, if you take a still from a MMA melee exchange, there is a good chance you'll see a parry, deflection or simple "block" of at least some description.

Don't believe me?  Here are a just a few I've found.  There occur wherever you see "hands/forearms/limbs just getting in the way".  For that matter, a good guard is a kind of "block" in the sense that it can intercept, deflect or simply deter your opponent's attacks.  Why else would your coach yell: "Keep your guard up!"  It wouldn't be to intercept or block your opponent's attacks, now would it?  Oh, no!  It couldn't possibly mean that!  It must be to "hit the other guy with your guard!"

MMA blocks are often unscientific and "last ditch" - like
this "palm block to a roundhouse head kick" (ouch).

"Okay, but they don't look like karate-style blocks!"

Well in that case you're looking at things too literally, aren't you?  You're looking at karate, taekwondo or gong fu basics and comparing them to applied movement.  In other words, you're looking at formal exercises designed for learning angles and planes of movement, and for developing kinaesthesia and generally for motor learning - then failing to match these to what you see in the cage.  You might as well look at speedball practice and skipping and note that you don't see either in the ring (even though they have both served boxers as effective training methods for generations).

Yes, a traditional martial artist would say that many MMA "blocks" aren't really very "good" from a technical perspective.

Now if he'd angled that rising deflection a little better, it
might have looked a bit more like a traditional
age or jodan uke!
But where's the surprise in that?  We've already established that MMA fighters don't really place a great deal of emphasis on purely defensive tactics.  We know that they don't spend much (if any) time on "blocks".  Why would we expect them to have optimal blocking technique?

"Blocking" is a refined skill: a true art and science.  It takes many years of diligent training to understand and apply optimally.

As with many traditional techniques, the block is, I believe, yet to be "introduced properly" into MMA (ie. in a way that is noteworthy enough for folks to sit up and notice).  I know that many people doubt me, but then again people used to scoff at my suggestion that the front snap kick was awaiting discovery.  And I was proved right.

Anyway, Lyoto Machida is already doing a fairly good job at using this defensive skill, as you can see from the gifs below.  Note however that his approach is strictly "long range" (favouring the inward depressing palm block).  This is hardly a surprise given Machida's shotokan style and general sport karate background and tactical preference.
How about that?  One of the only MMA fighters
to use "blocks" properly is actually a highly skilled
karateka - Lyoto Machida.  Who would have
Machida once again.  His use of an inward palm block
is hardly surprising.  This is the favourite of most competiton
kumite (ie. distance karate) fighters - Machida's
pre-MMA bread and butter.
Personally, I'm waiting to see better use of slightly closer range forearm deflections (note that the first gif shows him intercepting the attack with his forearm and not his palm due to the closer range anyway).  I'm waiting to see chudan uke (ie. of the general type I demonstrate in the formal gif above) or age/jodan uke and many others.  I suspect I'll be in for a long wait as I am not aware of anyone of, say, Naha te lineage karate who is using traditional technique at a level as high as Machida's.

Indeed, I hardly ever see anyone using forearm blocks - even in other karate dojos (mostly I just see faux boxing)!  By contrast, in my my school (and those of my instructors') such blocks have been used regularly, effectively and comprehensively in hard and fast sparring for many decades.


It is no wonder that the "average" MMA fighter is likely to "beat" the "average" traditional martial artist (whatever those things mean).  The two train for different purposes in very different disciplines.  The are so different that it is misleading to group them as doing the same activity.

That MMA fighters might prefer not to use defensive techniques like "blocks" is hardly surprising.  That they actually use them anyway (albeit to a lesser extent) is, I think, obvious.

While "blocking" us not really tailor made for the cage/ring, I believe we will see its use increasing as fighters start to invest more than cursory effort in understanding this skill.

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Giving away the big secrets

Using body momentum should feel like you're falling
into the punch
I find it odd that so many martial artists I speak to will say to me that they can't reveal "x" or "y" because they are "sworn to secrecy" by their master(s) concerning the information in question.

As far as I can tell, my teacher Chen Yun Ching has always shown me everything he could in the time available.  He has held nothing back.  And he has issued no caveats on me passing on his knowledge either.1

The same applies to my first primary teacher, Bob Davies.

For the most part none of my teachers have kept "secrets" - even if certain (profound) information known to them is hardly known to some others.  They have given me their knowledge without restriction and without fettering my own capacity to pass it on.

It is in this spirit that I wish to share details of what I regard as very important knowledge.

It is knowledge to which I've alluded in the past, namely the internal (specifically xingyiquan) method of timing a hand technique to land with a step.

Okay, I know: this might sound boring: something theoretical and clinical; something of little use in the "real world".  But the truth is, when it is done correctly the method I'm about to show you feels like you're literally falling into the punch.  Done optimally, it has the capacity to increase your "punching power" dramatically by the "simple" measure of adding the momentum of your step to the staged activation of your hip and arm.

I demonstrate this in the video below:

It feels like "falling" because you're throwing your whole body weight into the blow.  You're not just standing there, using your hip as the main "power plant".  You're also adding the momentum gained from stepping.

This means that you don't step first, and punch second.  Your punch actually uses your step.  How about that for a change!  The physics of it are simple enough:
When your foot touches the ground, the falling has started to be broken. If you want to use the falling to its maximum, you must do so before your fall is broken.  
Conversely, if your hand hits too much before the foot lands, you risk not having reached (and hence utilised) maximum falling momentum. 
The top MMA fighters already know this, particularly ones that rely on skill in technique like Lyoto Machida - see the stills below.  

I've had many responses to this over the years from karateka.

Machida in action - note how he times
his step and punch so that they land
at exactly the same time - quite unlike
the karate "basics" one so often sees.
The first is: "I already use my stepping momentum in my techniques."

And my answer is (all too often): "Er... no, I'm afraid you don't.  Certainly not from my observation of how you do your basics and kata anyway."

Many karateka have looked at my first video above and said to me: "We do those drills already!" 

In fact, they've seized upon the "intermediate" lunging drills I've deliberately chosen because they will be familiar to karateka and can serve as a kind of springboard to understand the broader concept.  But these "intermediate drills" are not the end goal: they don't deal completely with the momentum transfer concept to which I'm referring.  Rather, I'm referring to other movement, such as full stepping (where the legs pass - see Machida on the left).  And, sadly, the Machida example is not how many (most?) karateka tend to practise these sorts of stepping punches.

Let's be honest here: such steps are always taught in karate kihon/kata as "step first, then punch".  Why?  I believe it was initially to break things down for beginners.  Beginners don't want or need a multitude of things to think about when they are still trying to sort out gross motor learning.  They want to focus on one thing at a time.  That is how it should be.  For beginners anyway.

Unfortunately, karate as an art seems to have suffered greatly from attempts to popularise it from the 1930s onwards.  The most obvious consequence of this has been that the method of teaching karate appears to be stuck in the "beginner phase".

I know many karateka who don't seem to be aware of this issue at all.  Others might know this in general terms, but haven't really grasped it on a detailed technical level; they can't actually point to a distinct example other than something general like: "We don't do enough bunkai (applications)".

Divorcing stepping momentum from a punch is a classic example if this "popularisation simplification" (what is really dilution).  Yet many (even senior) karateka I know haven't even given this a moment's thought.  Sadly, many won't give it a second thought even after reading this essay.

Note how the karateka executes a standard step, then punch.  When his foot lands (middle frame) his punch is
only halfway to its target (see the video).  The foot/hand disparity is typically even greater when executing
a reverse punch.
The second response to timing your punch to land with your step is this: "It isn't that important.  I could do it if I wanted to.  I can choose when I land my punch."

But this is actually not my experience in teaching step timing - even when teaching highly experienced karateka.

It is worth noting that I was once part of a xingyi class comprising 3rd-6th dan karateka, each with decades of experience. Despite endless drilling by Master Chen, none of us (except, of course, our senior, James) could time the punch to land with the step on demand.  For years our dear teacher would simply put his head in his hands despondently while watching us perform.

I felt I  finally started getting somewhere with
xingyi stepping in 2007. Here I'm half-way through
a step, about to time my right fist with my left foot.
I finally managed to get it more or less right in 2007 (enough to stop being slapped on the arm and admonished with "Bu hao!" anyway!).

I know that some in that original class still haven't got to this level.  I say this without any implied criticism.  It's hard to do.  Especially for karateka.  They default to step, then punch, especially under pressure.  The sequence is too deeply ingrained.  It helped me that I had years of internal training under my former teacher, Bob Davies.

All this has made me examine, very closely, the whole issue of how to teach the vital skill of correct step/punch timing.  I have concluded that, before anything else, it is critical that you understand the following:
  • the importance of optimal timing of hand techniques with stepping - specifically so that they land at exactly the same moment; and
  • the importance of understanding that you, as a karateka, taekwondo practitioner or practitioner of most other "external" arts (and even internal arts) probably can't do it - at least properly; its hard!
The first point is exactly why I've bothered to write about how the internal arts work.  The second part is exactly why I've bothered to design "hybrid internal/external forms" (understanding that the momentum transfer discussed in this article is just one small part of the larger picture of the science underpinning the efficiency of the internal arts of China - and the lessons my hybrid forms try to teach).

But the problem with my approach so far is that, even with the hybrid internal/external forms, I have assumed a base level of ability: I've assumed that you can do things like time your hand and foot to land at the same time.  I've found that this is too great an assumption.  There needs to be an intermediate phase between such "hybrid forms" and what most of us know as "basic karate".

What is this "intermediate phase"?  Well the previous video gives some clue.  It is my attempt on our recent gashuku (training camp) to give a graduated approach to learning exactly how to develop the timing of which I speak - starting with drills that are intuitive to karateka, then building on these in a progressive, systematic way.

It is my ultimate intention that these drills should culminate in the constituent elements of the hybrid forms I have designed.  In that way, practitioners have a neat, comprehensive "packaged" summary to practice these "stem cell" concepts.  In my view that is, after all, the function all kata were intended to serve: a kind of mnemonic of necessary motor learning in a solo format.

So in the above video I start with some rather basic drills. I won't elaborate on this here in text.  I'll let you watch the video (which you should do: truth be told, the text of this essay is largely dispensible - the videos are what really count!).

I then build on these drills, creating more advanced ones like those shown in the video below:

Of course, most karateka (indeed most martial artists!) are often focused almost entirely on "striking power".2  That is understandable.  But you need at least some force underpinning your other techniques too - including defensive/setup ones.  

So my third video below goes into more sophisticated timing drills involving "blocks" and counters in combination with both evasion and entry.  It is only here that we start to get into the territory of the "building blocks" of the "hybrid forms". 

This whole area of analysis was the major theme of our recent gashuku.  As always, only a fraction was videoed.  I'll almost certainly be expanding on this theme in future videos and articles, but for now, this will have to suffice.  

In the meantime, I hope you accept on the basis of my preceding videos and argument that it is entirely possible for a karateka to "liberate" his or her art from the shackles of "fragmentation"; to maximise momentum transfer gained from flow; to go beyond the basic "one-two" paradigm that is appropriate for beginners but is manifestly inappropriate for anyone beyond the beginner phase.  I hope you accept that it is possible for the karateka to do so without having to learn an entirely new, alien, paradigm of basic techniques (eg. the internal arts).  The basics in one's chosen art should suffice, leaving you to learn an art like taiji, bagua or xingyi only if they interest you particularly.

But does all this "punching and stepping" matter?  Really?

I say it does!  What I'm talking about isn't just an illusion.  If you want real "power", you must use your body weight, and you must do so optimally.  And this isn't just for full stepping with a reverse punch (like Machida): it is for a whole host of other techniques.

Consider the throw in the following video as just one example. There are many other techniques from the internal arts that rely on this sort of control over how you transfer your momentum. An inability to do a reverse punch timed with a full step just reveals a "hole" in vital motor learning relevant to advanced martial arts techniques.

So no, you can't just rely your hip (or the dreaded "double hip", which is really the antithesis of whole body momentum use) to "power" your techniques.You have to recognise that fighting of any kind is a dynamic activity: it happens in the context of constant movement, including lunging and stepping.  It might well feature a "standing start" - but it hardly ever stays that way (unless it is a "one punch" affair).  If it progresses beyond "standing start" you need "power" - and you need to have it in movement.

Don't believe me?  Well take a look at this video of makiwara punching.  It utilises exactly this concept of timing.  Watch it and tell me it isn't powerful:

Still don't believe me?  Well take a look at this next video of Machida in MMA.  Heck, look at any top fighter in MMA and tell me they aren't landing their punches as they step (see my earlier sequence of photos above).  Contrast this with the basic karate triple punching you see at the start of the video below (which punching approximates the techniques applied in the ring, but without any of the stepping momentum).

"Ah," you might say, "but surely the people in the above two videos don't do your type of training?" 

They might not.  They might well have worked this out on their own.  They might just "do" it naturally.  But that doesn't mean there isn't a science behind it - and that it is useful to have a system of training built on understanding that science.  

There's a good reason why there are so few people who, despite having a rather unremarkable body weight, can hit that hard. They have a certain knowledge: knowledge that levels the playing field; knowledge that gives them an edge.

Yes, you can take your chances by trying to "just do it".  You can just try to hit the makiwara "real hard".  You can climb into the cage and just start punching like crazy. You can try to "reinvent the wheel", disregarding development over countless generations; development that occurred in eras when these techniques were used, indeed relied upon, far more regularly than in today's alternately "high tech" and comparatively peaceful Western world.  But you'll be no better than the hack golfer or tennis player who refuses to take coaching lessons in proper technique.  You'll be wasting a whole lot of time.

On the other hand you can look to an immense and rich body of traditional knowledge - a time-tested, scientifically solid, hand-to-hand fighting technology based on at least a millennium of uninterrupted evolution in China and the rest of the Far East.  

With Master Chen at the bai shi ceremony in 2009
This is knowledge of the kind passed, without restriction, to me by my teachers.  The most recent of these has been my beloved Master Chen Yun Ching.  He has given me the gift of just some of the encyclopedic knowledge of his (Western science-trained and impressively gifted and knowledgeable) father, the late, great Chen Pan Ling: a man who compiled (in a highly systematic and scientific way), and preserved from annihilation, this knowledge in the advance of the Japanese and later Communists.

In the same spirit, I will pass on what knowledge I have acquired from these sources - not just to my students, but freely here, on this public blog.  I will continue to do so even though most of my readers are not students of mine in any direct or even indirect sense; even though I have no obligation whatsoever to do so.  Even though I don't "profit" in any monetary sense from doing so.  Why?  

The better question is: "Why not?"  Useful, scientific knowledge built on the efforts of past generations is not something to be guarded jealously.  It is not something that should die and have to be reinvented.  This would simply be a tragic waste.  As Spock would say: it would be illogical.  

Wang Shujin: note his
momentum flow is
visible even in a
still photograph.
Knowledge, particularly knowledge built on the combined efforts of generations, is to be preserved and shared

If  I needed a reason to share such knowledge, I could refer to the oath gave at my bai shi ceremony: a solemn oath to preserve and disseminate the knowledge collated by Chen Pan Ling so it would not be wasted.  Of course, I don't need that moral imperative.  For me, logic alone suffices.

So you can take what I offer, or you can leave it.  

Perhaps what I've said here today is something you already know.  If so, that's good.  Perhaps you might disregard it while clinging instead to some other "arcane detail" that I regard as either wrong, obvious, banal or simply of no real import in the broader scheme of things. Perhaps you might disregard it as "some theoretical claptrap from a traditional martial artist".  If so, then that is your prerogative.3

However my hope is that what I've freely given here is of some real use to you - as much use as it has been to me in understanding, and improving, my own martial arts performance.  In other words, I hope that my sincere and diligent efforts in sharing have not been wasted.  That is as much as anyone can hope for.

  1. I say this knowing that there are a few small exceptions: some applications that my teachers don't show except to select people because the applications are particularly nasty and my teachers don't feel comfortable showing them to just anyone.  My students will know what I mean when I mention, for example, particular details of eye gouging that I won't share online.
  2. I find it ironic that people like one former regular troll would write rambling, incoherent novellas on this blog, urging me to consider the "superior" methods of attack contained in some modern "target focused" systems that are based principally on drills that depend on little more than "slick marketing of someone submitting to being a punching bag while someone else pretends to hit them" (see Footnotes 5 and 6 in this article). I have yet to see in these "systems" any scientific approach to momentum maximisaiton of the kind I discuss in this article.  How ironic that I should be continually directed to such persons so that they can teach me "how to attack properly/better" (ie. how to suck eggs).
  3. My suggestion is that before you make up your mind, give my "punching as you land" an honest go - using the drills I've demonstrated.  Once you feel some "power", try it on a makiwara.  Don't take my word for it and don't just assume that I'm "wrong" because it's not how you were taught or not what you've believed for "x years".  And don't give up just because, like most folks I have taught, you don't get the timing just right initially. 
Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Persistent myths #1: Blocks are isolated movements

I'm going to start a series of short pieces dealing with what I consider to be "persistent myths" in the martial arts: myths that won't go away despite contrary logic and a plethora of available information.

Since I've been talking about blocks a lot lately, I'm going to start with this one:
Traditional blocks are designed to be executed in isolation.
Erm... No, they're not.  Why would anyone think so?

People might not say this so clearly, but it is often necessarily implicit in their argument.  As Rashaud noted in the comments to my last article:
"What's interesting, I think, is that most people look at "blocking" as a static thing.  That all of you've done is "parry" or "deflect" an incoming strike. From that line of thinking, most would therefore consider the formal block overkill, or unworkable."
Presumably the impression among these people is that all you do is "block" (ie. stop or redirect) an attack and do nothing else.  This is total nonsense of course.  With the exception of forms designed to teach very basic, fundamental "stem cell" movement, "blocks" are always followed by counters or other moves designed to "turn the tables".

Now I know that many people practise a "block and counter" sequence as a kind of "1-2" where the block and counter are divorced from each other.  But all my research indicates that this isn't how the techniques were designed to be used.  They were designed to flow into one another - to form one coordinated response.  The "1-2" was only ever meant as a device for teaching beginners - ie. as a way of isolating the components so that beginners could concentrate on perfecting one of these at a time.

[I've already noted that the "block component" of that response is itself one move - not two!]

In other words, traditional "blocks" are meant to thwart an attack as well as negate further attacks.  They do so by setting you up for either an effective counter or some means of achieving a position of control/escape/safety.  "Blocks" certainly aren't static movements designed to work in isolation.  Traditional kata/xing/forms make this abundantly clear - as does simple logic.

I'll let my video above speak for me, rather than put it all into text!

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic