Monday, November 30, 2015

What makes a beginner?

The title to this essay might seem like an odd question.  On one level the answer is really quite simple: the beginner is the person who just walked in through the door.

But on another level, you'll sometimes hear experienced martial arts practitioners say: “I’m still a beginner.”  This isn't just false modesty either.

There is some truth to the notion that even an experienced martial artist can be a beginner.
Because in the end, it’s all relative.  In February I will have celebrated 36 years of continuous training in the martial arts.  Am I a beginner?  Manifestly not, in the ordinary sense of the word “beginner”.  But how does my 36 years compare with Kyoshi James Sumarac’s 50+ years of training?  Or, for that matter, Master Chen Yun Ching’s 72+ years of training?  In relation to them, I am a beginner.

It also depends on what type of martial arts you’re talking about, hence my gif above of Ronda Rousey - a judo expert - boxing (more on her in a minute - note this is not a Ronda Rousey bash session!).  

I’ve done some boxing and judo.  But in both I’m obviously a beginner.  Ditto aikido and wing chun - at least, as regards doing things exactly as they are done in those arts.  Within their paradigms I am manifestly a beginner.  That’s why I never claim to do “aikido” or “wing chun” etc.  I have studied some aspects of those arts.  I have requisitioned some of their techniques.  But in each case I have converted these techniques to my own paradigm.  

Take for example our version of muk yan jong (the wooden dummy drill).  We do it our own way.  We don’t do it purporting to "do wing chun".  We might use the sequence, but the emphasis and delivery is quite different, drawn from our own combination of arts and our collective experience.  

For example, we don’t actually use techniques like the pak sao (palm block) using the palm as a literal point of deflection - so replicating wing chun pak sao (which does) would make no sense.  As a result, our "pak sao" - while delivered in a similar-looking way to the wing chun method - is subtly (but significantly) different.

As is our stance/footwork when doing the drill.

In other words, we are not "doing a bit of wing chun".  We are doing our own thing - without apologies or any “cultural cringe”. Because while we might be “beginners” within the schema of another art, we are not “beginners” as martial artists and, indeed, as fighters.  My brother and I each have 36 years of training, much of it “hard knocks”.  We have cross-trained with multiple styles over all those years and kept an open mind.  We are entitled as anyone of our experience to “do our own thing” and “reach our own conclusions”.  This includes doing a wooden dummy drill our own way.

Ditto techniques like kote gaeshi (wrist out turn) - both how to apply it and how to counter it.  So if you felt kote gaeshi was an "aikido technique" you'd be sadly mistaken.

Arts have no "copyright" over certain techniques.  No one/thing does.  On the subject of the wrist out turn throw - and how to counter it - almost every traditional martial art has something to say.  Consider my article on this subject from a taijiquan perspective.

That article also shows how karate and xingyi treat the subject.  But let me not get side-tracked.  The point is this: just because I'm a doing a kote gaeshi and defending against it does not mean I'm trying to do aikido.

It follows therefore that while I am a "beginner" in aikido, it doesn't mean that by showing a kote gaeshi I'm inviting every aikidoka on the planet to write to me and tell me "where I'm going wrong with my basic (aikido) technique".

And yet, just yesterday I had a long email of a kind I frequently get.  In this particular case it was from a chap who offered a detailed critique of my form in arm bars,  He also offered to give me some "tips" on how to "improve" my kote gaeshi but, mercifully, said he'd leave that to "another time".

What I found most interesting with this particular exchange is that, like the many others like it I've had over the years, the correspondent opened with an apparently earnest and sincere disclaimer - hoping he would not come off as a "know it all" or as "critical" of me.  And then he went and spoiled it all...

While this sort of email might be acceptable martial etiquette for a senior approaching someone who is greatly his/her junior, teachers do not, as a rule, approach students of others with corrections unless specifically invited.  

But here's the clincher: when the chap offered up his martial training experience - 6 years of aikido and iaido, and 3 years of Chen taijiquan - it was clear he wasn't my senior.  Not by a very long shot .  Even if you add his years together you get a total of 9.  On what planet does this (potential total of) 9 years equate in any meaningful sense to my 36?  I have been training at least 4 times as long (maybe even 6 times as long if there was an overlap in this chap's aikido/iaido and taiji training).  

While this person might not be a "beginner" in an objective sense, he is a beginner relative to me.  It's really that simple.

While I concede that I might well learn something from him (I learn from lots of people), why on Earth would I have any particular expectation that I will hear something from him that I haven't already seen/heard/read?  Does something in my blog or videos suggest that I haven't cross-trained extensively in various arts under multiple teachers?  Does something suggest that I am something other than obsessed with detail in technique - and constantly researching that detail?  Going by my blog, is it really likely that in my 36 years of training I haven't come across some small variation known only to this relative beginner and his immediate circle of teachers?  It's certainly possible.  But to assume it as "likely" strikes me as very odd.

I know what some people might say in response to the above: "My X years is much more meaningful than your 36 years - because I've been doing it 'right' while you've been doing it 'wrong' for all your years."  This sometimes happens to me at seminars held by other martial artists.  The more cloistered, inward-looking, stagnant, "we are the best" and/or "woo woo" the school is, the more likely this is to happen.  

Training with Debbie Clarke Sensei at the IAOMAS conference
Conversely the more pragmatic, open and respectful the system is, the less likely it is to happen.  Consider the recent Ryukyu Martial Arts Friendship Gasshuku organised by Noah Legel.  Or the IAOMAS event I attended last year organised by Colin Wee.  Both events were the paragon of mutual respect.

This sort of experience serves as the polar opposite of the time I attended a seminar of the late Erle Montaigue, and one of his local students (with whom I was unfortunately paired) kept rolling his eyes and "correcting" my every movement for the entire event.  When he offered that he'd been training a whole 9 months, I explained that (at that stage) I had trained 12 years.  He laughed.  I suppose to him, I had been learning "brutish nonsense" for all that time, so none of it counted for anything (compared to his amazing 9 months).  It takes a special kind of Dunning-Kruger stupid to think something like that in the martial arts.

Which brings me back to my opening gif.  Why did I choose an animation showing Ronda Rousey punching?  Well I did not do so to make fun of her, as many idiots are presently doing.  That is a kind of post hoc revisionism and "tall poppy cutting" I despise.

Like many, I did not pick Rousey to lose her fight against Holm.  I wouldn't have put money on it, but I was leaning towards Rousey winning (even though I started to feel nervous for her when she was clearly losing control of her emotions at the weigh-in).

I saw her punching mitts and thought she was very fast and strong.  Scarily so.

Had someone shown me the gif above I would have paused and reflected.  I would have said what I'm about to say now - and that is the gif shows Rousey is (compared to Holm) a beginner in terms of punching/stand up fighting.  Anyone experienced in any striking art can tell this.  It's in the raised shoulders, it's in the posture, its in the clunky telegraphing and lack of efficient staged activation (coordination) of the body parts. I could go on but I won't.  Because here's the thing:
I didn't think it mattered.
I thought Rousey was going to make up for any flaws in her basic technique with other skills (of which she has many - in particular her grappling, but also her phenomenal ability to summon aggression and her fighting spirit).

Is Rousey a beginner in stand up?  Of course!  Talent and drive are no substitute for experience.  To me she looks like someone who has been punching/boxing for 4 years or so - without specific/good boxing coaching (apologies to her coach Edmond Tarverdyan, but that's how it seems to me as a striker, though not a boxer).

Even if we assume 4 years of good boxing training, this is still only 4 years.  Compare that with her decades of dedicated judo training.  Compare it to Holm's decades of dedicated boxing training.  They don't come close.  Rousey can only be a beginner in boxing.  No matter how talented she is, no matter how far Joe Rogan felt she had come in so short a time (see below), she was still a beginner in stand up.  

Again, I'm not suggesting that I "knew" Ronda was going to lose.  Like Joe, I was impressed by her speed and power.  But it remains a fact that she was and is a beginner in punching - relative to Holm and indeed most professional boxers.  There is no substitute for time.  A boxing coach will tell you that 4 years or so of punching is just not enough to climb into a ring to fight a world champion - or even just a good regional fighter.

By contrast, Rousey is an exceptional master of judo and used this to dominate women's MMA - and bring both women's fighting and judo to the attention of the world.  So Rousey is no "beginner" as a fighter - not by a long shot.

So what makes a "beginner"?  It's all relative.  It depends on who you're comparing a person to and it depends on the skill on which you're focusing.

Copyright © 2015 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, November 27, 2015

Standing arm bar - issues and solutions


I've previously written about how civilian defence grappling differs from full grappling in that it maintains a kind of "buffer" that avoids clinches and other grabs that take you into a range where you can be tied down (a situation that might be quite useful in combat sport, particularly if you're good at grappling, but which is contrary to the objectives of civilian defence, as I've often discussed).

You will see from my civilian defence grappling article that I'd chosen to illustrate my point (at least partially) with the classic (and oft-seen) standing arm bar - noting the pitfalls of this technique and how easily it could take the unsuspecting traditional martial artist out of the melee range and into the grappling one.  Indeed, at one point I went out of my way to point out how traditional martial artists seemed largely unaware of this factor in demonstrating their suggested applications of traditional forms.

Unfortunately, I took a particular karateka (sorry John Titchen) to task so unfairly (amongst other grievous deeds) that I had to finish the year off with a specific apology to John (see the addendum to the article) and a universal apology for going overboard with criticism.

In relation to the whole "arm bar grappling" issue, I also feel I didn't quite explain the nature of this problem very clearly.  So I'm going to try to remedy that now.

The technique

So what is my issue with the standing arm bar?  In principle, nothing.  It is a fantastic technique that is very useful in civilian defence.  Its most common manifestation is the elbow lock.  Here is an excellent example featuring my friend Noah Legel (whose blog "Karate Obsession" you really need to read - it is fantastic).

The first thing I want you to note from the above image is that (like John Titchen, who I unfairly maligned), the karateka applying the lock to Noah has, to some extent, actually dealt with the problem I'm about to discuss (I didn't quite notice in John's case from the still photographs - my bad and my apologies again John).  The relevant "safety measure" here is unbalancing the opponent via the use of a zenkutsu dachi (forward stance) to collapse Noah's knee, taking him off balance as the arm bar is applied.  [I'm not sure if it is quite enough to deal with the issues I'm about to raise, but we'll get to that.]

Other arm bar applications (many of which I've personally used for around 3 decades!) don't have such a "knee collapse" or other "safety" measure.  For example, the image below is a fairly standard representation of how karateka like myself have been doing an application from various kata for years, using a wrap around "waki gatame" to apply the arm bar lock. [Note that I use "lock" to describe the correct angle of pressure to the joint - which would, in civilian defence, more usually be applied as a ballistic attack rather than as some sort of "tap out" hold. The bunkai below are all predicated on the basis that the joint attack can be thwarted - or, for whatever other reason (mistiming, wrong angle etc.), fail.]

Consider the application which Noah shows below (one of my favorites from naihanchi in this case, but similarly applicable using gekisai and seiunchin kata):

To give you an idea that I'm not singling Noah out here as doing anything "wrong", note our own tuide bunkai for gekisai using similar principles from the following 2005 video:

[Addendum: thankfully the horse stance in both Noah's and our application does allow some lateral movement to escape if the arm bar fails for whatever reason; the even weighting of the stance means you can quickly shift to one side or the other, as the case requires. But whether this is enough is something we have yet to see...]

The problem

Okay, so what's the issue with the standing arm bar?  Basically it is this: the technique works fine against a person who is not trained as a grappler.  But against a grappler (of almost any training) I've found to be a high risk technique - to say the very least. Why?   
Because the grappler can - and will - dive for your legs as you attack the joint.
Indeed, the downward pressure of the attack actually aids the grappler in doing this - pushing him or her in the direction he or she wants to go (which is down).  All the grappler has to do is change the angle of the downward moment slightly and - "voila!" -  you're on your backside.

Now John's and Noah's fix in the first gif above is fairly neat: collapsing the front knee does indeed impede a dive to some extent.  But, as I foreshadowed, in my experience it is just not enough against someone trained to shoot for your legs.  Why?  

You'll notice that as Noah is unbalanced he makes a small step away to relieve pressure on the knee that is being collapsed.  This is a perfect set up for a diving technique known in the internal arts as "snake creeps through grass" which my students illustrate in the gif below.  In this case, Noah's step would be a quick adjustment to the back leg before the dive and takedown (something I often do in the form itself, never mind in application!):

Of course, this is a very formal move from taijiquan that might look rather silly to some.  When it is applied however, it is actually a very simple, logical and efficient defence against an arm bar - a technique that "shoots" or dives for one or both of your opponent's legs as he or she starts to apply the lock.  We can see that below (particularly in the second example which is more literally like the form).  However the principle is really the same in both examples:
  • Armando grabs an arm and starts to punch;  
  • Jeff/Xin convert the grab into a standing arm bar; but
  • as the arm bar is applied, Armando simply dives for their legs - either behind or between; and 
  • it's all over.

The second (single leg) takedown (where the dive is between the legs) is precisely what happened to me while sparring in Kowloon in Hong Kong in 2009.  

I'd been sparring with karateka all my life, applying all sorts of standing arm bars.  I'd shied away from trying it on grapplers, but with an internal artist I felt quite certain it would work just fine.

Suddenly I was on my backside, nursing a bruised back, head and arm.

The student with whom I was sparring (Chris) saw my surprise and obligingly demonstrated the solo form of "snake creeps through grass" - as if to say: "This is what just happened."

And that got me thinking: just how safe is the stand up arm bar?  How can I use it without falling prey to this very simple, elegant takedown?  

Over the following years I've come up with various solutions, mostly by carefully noting how my traditional forms utilise any arm bar applications:

Keeping your weight back

One of the standard ways to apply an arm bar is found in the taiji movement "step back (or forward) and deflect". 

What this technique effectively allows is for you to apply the arm bar in a way that leaves the requisite "buffer" (to which I have previously referred in the context of civilian defence grappling).

I show the applications of this "back weighted" arm bar method below.  Note that if it is done correctly, it will allow you to apply the lock to your opponent's elbow.  In some cases it will negate the dive completely and secure a lock.  In others it will allow you to release and escape as your opponent starts to dive.

Compare the gif below to the previous one above.

What is interesting is that this interpretation of "step back (or forward) and deflect" makes sense of the literal form in Chen Pan Ling taijiquan - where you step both back (in the second section) and forward (in the third).  I think the form is trying to teach you that you can move forward or back - or simply swap legs on the spot - depending on what distancing is required in the particular instance.

I discuss this issue (and arm bars generally) in my video below:

Using a twisted stance

Another valuable method of keeping a buffer while being able to apply the full weight of your body to the downward moment of a standing arm bar is the use of the twisted stance (kosa dachi).

I covered this technique very specifically in my article "The secret of the sinking backfist" so I won't go over the same ground.  What I will do is upload a recent gif I've made which illustrates my point.

I will also add that in addition to multiplying force while adding a buffer, the technique drives the opponent off line in such a way that further negates the possibility of a shoot or dive for your legs.  In other words, I think it is a particularly useful method of applying a standing arm bar.

In my opinion this application can be found in most moves that utilise a cross-step.  Consider the video below, taken from my video "Bridging Hard and Soft Vol. 1" and note its similarity to the sequence of naihanchi kata...

or this sequence from the taiji form:

Using a spin

Yet another very useful (and arguably most prevalent) way of applying a standing arm bar without risk of being taken down is to spin your opponent around as you apply the lock - what is known in aikido as "tenkan".

It can either be a full spin - as show in the following gif...

or it can be a partial spin that then reverses and takes you in another direction:

The ankle hook (Shisochin) approach

The final method I'd like to analyse comes from the goju ryu kata shisochin.  (Similar approaches can be found in other Okinawan karate kata and Chinese forms (eg. baguazhang) that involve ankle hooks or trips.)

Essentially the approach seeks to keep your opponent off balance by hooking one ankle and adding an unbalancing pressure as the arm bar is applied.  In this regard it is similar to the method employed in the opening gif - except you will notice some important differences: 
  • the hook is applied with the rear leg reaching in;
  • this results in you having your weight in a forward stance (zenkutsu dachi/gong bu);
  • however you will have your weight away from your opponent.  
This latter element is crucial because it means you can quickly move away if your opponent is able to dive despite your leg hook and push.  Meanwhile you've got added insurance in that your backwards facing stance is pushing from that (rear) loaded leg, driving your opponent into the ground off-balance as you apply the arm bar.


The standing arm bar is quite a staple of karate bunkai and traditional Chinese martial application, yet it is rarely seen in MMA. When it is seen, it takes the form of one of the above - in particular the "spin" option which is often called an "elbow wrench".  

I think the reason the standing arm bar is seldom seen apart from this is really quite simple: it leaves you open to a dive from your opponent, leading to a single or double leg takedown.

It is my view that if more fighters knew the precautions I've listed (other than the spin/wrench approach above) you might see a whole lot more standing arm bars, especially from fighters who specialise in a stand up game and don't want to get involved in a clinch or ground grapple.  There are probably other methods too - this is just my summary of the major themes I've managed to identify from traditional forms.

In the meantime, I believe the technique is supremely useful in civilian defence - not because it enables you to "lock" an elbow or even smash it, but precisely because it allows you to reach joints from a relatively safe, non-grappling distance.  This can, in turn, unbalance an opponent long enough for you to counter strike or simply escape.


In any arm bar, if you are trying to grab an arm, I find it best to start the grab on the slow moving part - the forearm - and slide down.  Sometimes you can slide down to the hand where you have the most leverage - and can even apply an added wrist twist.  If you are able in the circumstances!  The pictures below show material omitted from two of the gifs (the gifs have been kept short to conserve bandwidth and maintain relevancy):

Copyright © 2015 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Using overhand inverted punch as simultaneous deflection

My recent article on the overhand inverted punch covered the surprising utility of that technique.

It's main use, as exemplified by Holly Holm in her fight against Ronda Rousey, is of course, as a punch - one that can come from an unexpected angle.

In my article on the punch, I also added an extra video showing its use as a projection/throw.

But something I neglected to discuss was actually one of the most important attributes of the punch: the fact that it can, while striking, also "simultaneously" intercept and deflect (what some people call "block") an incoming attack.  This should be apparent from the animated gif below:

The key to understanding how it works lies in understanding one of the most basic techniques of traditional martial arts - and also helps explain the function of that technique.  I'm talking about the humble "rising block" (age or jodan uke).  I've previously dealt with this technique in "Back to basics: blocking".

What you'll notice from that article is that the basic rising block is far from "sexy".  To the average combat sports practitioner it looks positively silly and even many karateka think it is "worthless".

But what I think they are missing is that this technique is, like all basics, a "compromise move": it teaches you essential angles and planes that can then be modified and adapted according to the needs of the situation and how the technique is to be applied.

In the case of the humble rising "block" it is angled directly forwards for a very simple (and, when you think about it, quite obvious) reason:
It can angled either backwards or forwards to great effect - depending on the situation.
This is clear from the animated gifs below:

In the first one above, you'll see what I think is the predominant manifestation of the rising block in karate kata, and hence in bunkai (application).  You will notice that in this version the forearm is angled so that it moves away from the attack after interception.

A classic example would be the technique from the goju ryu kata seiunchin kata, depicted in the image to the right.  Basically the upper hand in this technique is generally (and I believe correctly) interpreted as a movement that intercepts an attack and sweeps it back past the head.

And there are literally hundreds of similar movements in other kata - of both Naha and Shuri/Tomari (Shorin) tradition.

However what many tend to forget is that the rising block is also just as effective when it is angled so that the forearm is moving towards the attack - as illustrated in the animated gif below:

In my experience, this technique comes into its own when you are facing an "Oh sh*t! moment" - one where you've decided to launch a punch and noticed mid-way through that your opponent is going to beat you to it.  In that instance you can convert what was going to be a punch into a defensive deflection - swiping slightly sideways as you move to intercept the arm, and letting the attack slide over the top as you rotate your forearm to create torque (see my article "Hard blocks" where I discuss this aspect in detail).

So the basic rising block, as seen in karate classes, is really a compromise between two possibilities, ie. it is the mid point between two methods of interception - one moving away, one moving towards.  I discuss this more completely in the video below.

Which brings us back to the overhead inverted punch.  Clearly it is just a variant of the "moving towards the attack" rising block.

So why not use this in every instance instead of a rising "sideways" deflection (either away or towards)?  The answer to this question is actually very simple: it depends on your positioning and timing.

If you are caught sufficiently off-guard so that you need to be completely defensive, the "moving away" option of the rising block might well be your only option.

You must use the "moving in" version of the rising block (where you angle towards the attack but not so much as to effect a punch) if it is necessary to do so to avoid being hit.  I cannot stress the latter part enough.  Remember that if your opponent is going to beat you to the punch, then you are toast.  Your punch won't matter because he's getting to your face a millisecond before your punch does.  This will "cut your supply line" of force so that even if your punch lands, it will have most of its "sting" taken out.  Meanwhile your attacker's fist will have buried itself nicely in your face.

In the above case it make sense to make a smaller movement, angled sideways to deflect the attack (rather than try to doggedly pursue landing your own).  This is because while you might not have time to hit your opponent, you might have time to make a shorter defensive movement ("shorter" in the sense of time till your forearm intercepts your opponent's).

I've previously discussed how angles of deflection and angles of attack aren't always the same: indeed, the closer you are to being beaten to the punch, the greater the risk they will be very different.

So when can you use the overhead inverted punch as both an attack and deflection simultaneously?  The simple (unhelpful) answer is:
"When your timing permits it."  
A longer (more helpful) answer would be:
"When you feel confident that:
  • you will beat your opponent to the punch; or 
  • at the very least, your punches are timed to reach their targets at approximately the same time."
The gif below depicts an application of the sequences from Chen Pan Ling taijiquan known as "hit with reverse fist" and "step back to hit tiger".  What should be apparent is the use of the opening overhead inverted punch (option 1 in the gifs above), followed by a punch that has been converted to a deflection (option 3 in the gifs above) followed by a deflection that is angled away from the opponent while the other hand strikes (option 2 in the gifs above).

I discuss the sequence more fully in the video below:

In other words, there is a time and place for every time of interception: the notion that we can or should only use one (usually the most direct - ie. option 1) is flawed.  Don't get me wrong: using the overhead inverted punch as a simultaneous block/deflection is a fantastic thing.  Just be aware that it isn't always going to be appropriate/possible.  In such a case your traditional art will thankfully have a backup plan in the form of an analogous/related movement!

Copyright © 2015 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, November 20, 2015

"Superfluous" technique names in karate

I noticed my previous article on the overhand corkscrew punch being discussed on Sherdog.

One member there said:
For some reason it rubs me the wrong way whenever someone wants to attach a superfluous name to movements of striking arts.  
Presumably this is because in the second sentence of the article I said: "In karate I suppose it would be an otoshi ura zuki (an inverted dropping punch)."

I think it is hardly "superfluous" to mention this in relation to karate which, like judo, is remarkably codified - each technique has a name.  Generally speaking karateka of various styles agree on the names (with minor variations).  So just as a judoka knows full well the difference between "o-uchi gari" and "ko-uchi gari", a karateka understands the meaning of "jodan zuki" and "chudan uke".

Since about 70% of my readership appears to comprise karateka, I took the liberty of guessing (note my reference to "I suppose") the correct karate classification of this technique.  I'm sorry if the person thinks categorisation of this sort is "superfluous".  But it is there in the Japanese arts and it is hardly my invention.

Indeed, just as in judo, the terminology functions as an international language.  It's utility is revealed in the number of other arts that borrow karate/judo terms (how many Chinese martial artists have you seen referring to Japanese terms like "kata", "dojo", "dan", etc. and how many MMA fans are familiar with terms like "juji gatame")?  Terminology like this has a long history in all sports - try explaining to a layperson what a "straight cross" is in boxing...

Apart from all of this, I only mentioned my guessed karate categorisation once (hardly reason to be "rubbed the wrong way").

Another member wrote:
  1. In Karate that "overhand inverted punch" is called Uraken Mawashi Uchi, not that other name in the quote (otoshi ura zuki )
  2. I don't think that is punch Holly is using. I think she was corkscrewing her straight lefts. Corkscrewing a straight punch right before impact adds a lot more hot sauce to it.
Umm... no and no.

First, "uraken" is universally understood to refer to a backfist.

"Mawashi" is universally understood to refer to "roundhouse" (eg. "mawashi geri" means "roundhouse kick").

"Uchi" is universally understood to refer to strikes that are not punches/thrusts (the latter being "zuki").

I made it plain that my article concerns neither a backfist nor a roundhouse.  It also did not concern a strike but a punch.  Indeed, it concerned a corkscrewing straight left - just one that corkscrewed even more "right before impact".

So yes, he/she is right that Holm isn't using a "uraken mawashi uchi".  No one said she was.  Yes, she is using another punch.  I couldn't think of the (judo-like) karate classification for it so I had a chat with some fellow black belts and we concluded this was a kind of "ura zuki" (inverted punch).

Except "inverted" usually means twisted the other way (inward, not outward).

When it was suggested to me that "otoshi" (dropping or depressing) would simultaneously describe the downward moment which characterises the punch and remove the possibility of corkscrewing the other way (you can't "drop" a punch twisted inwards, now can you?), I guessed it was properly categorised as "otoshi ura zuki" using the terminology of karate.

If you don't do karate, or don't care about Okinawan/Japanese or other traditional martial terminology and classification, you are free to ignore the second sentence of my previous article and the entirety of this one.  But  I won't be apologising for catering to a large sector of my readership who might be interested in this subject matter.  Nor will I apologise for covering an issue that interests me personally as a teacher and researcher of karate, one who is responsible for syllabus revision and categorisation within our (traditional) school.

Oh, and I won't be apologising for doing karate in the first place - and I won't be modifying it to the point where it becomes unrecognisable - just because of some "cultural cringe" resulting from people who say things like: "Karate... that's funny."

I'm happy doing what I do - thank you very much.  I have my own reasons for training in my particular arts - reasons that might be very different to yours.

If you don't like traditional martial arts at all, that's fine.  The world is a big place and there are many options open to you.  Whichever way it goes, be aware that this is a traditional civilian defence blog and I write about traditional arts like karate that fall within this spectrum and that interest me.  If they don't interest you, very likely my perspective won't either.  You'll be in the wrong place.

Copyright © 2015 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Overhand inverted punch - underused gem

One of the techniques I noticed frequently in the Rousey vs. Holm fight was the overhand inverted punch.  In karate I suppose it would be an otoshi ura zuki (an inverted dropping punch).1

Holm used it time and time again to devastating effect - both moving to the outside of Rousey's lead (something I'll examine in a moment), and sometimes just square down the middle on the inside, as shown in the three pictures to the right.  However it lands, the technique is devastating.  It's a very useful punch precisely because it is so unexpected.

I suppose this raises the question why that would be the case.  I'll get to that soon.  But first, let us not forget what an oddity this technique really is - in both combat sports and traditional martial arts.

In an industry often obsessed with rejecting any level of "corkscrew" in punches, it seems out of place to expect one that corkscrews to its maximum possible extent - ie. so much that the thumb ends up pointing down.  It seems even odder to see it used to such a manifestly effective manner.

Consider this: I  know many martial artists who are dogmatically opposed even to turning the fist so that it lands palm down (ie. the standard karate punch).  Rather, these martial artists insist that punches should always land with the fist vertical. (thumb up).  Examples range from wing chun gong fu to the Shorinjiryu karatedo of Kori Hisataka to some schools of boxing (I've trained with several boxers who insist that they only jab with a vertical fist: that to turn the punch over further is just "bad form").2

Yet there it was in the Rousey vs. Holm fight: a punch that didn't just corkscrew a little; it corkscrewed to the very limit!  And Rousey seemed to fall into it repeatedly.

What I think this shows is that any form of dogma regarding the "corkscrew" is just that: dogma.  It is unproven theory at best, blind ideology at worst.  Such thinking ignores common sense, as I noted many years ago (see my original article here) and misses out on many useful applications.

Twisting your arm in a punch, deflection or any other movement is going to happen.  And it is often going to be useful - whether it is because it adds torque, cuts a unique angle (eg. xingyi's heng quan) or is simply the most natural movement in the context.

What makes the overhand inverted punch a particularly useful variant is that, unlike a hook or even most cross punches, it is defaults to a motion that is more or less straight.  A hook necessarily circles in from the outside.  A straight cross follows the hypotenuse of a triangle from the outside.  But the overhand inverted punch doesn't approach from the outside.  To the extent that it "circles in", it does so from above.  Otherwise, in terms of lateral movement, the punch is really coming in straight.  As a variation this can be most unexpected.  Moreover it can be thrown with considerable force, using a high chamber to allow plenty of room for acceleration.

Which brings me to the whole question of where the punch is most profitably aimed.

I can't think off-hand of any karate form in which the punch appears. [Readers, please refresh my memory here!]

But it certainly occurs in the Chen Pan Ling taijiquan form - in 3 places, no less.

All of those punches are aimed low.  Indeed, the most notable of the techniques is simply called "step forward and punch to groin" (in some schools it is known as "old woman punches to the groin" which has always amused me!).

As the name implies, the punch seems to be primarily aimed at the groin.  Or maybe the bladder/kidneys/ liver/spleen.  Or maybe the solar plexus or xyphoid process even.  Yet in the recent Rousey vs. Holm fight it was used by the latter to great effect as a punch to the face.  What gives?

As I discuss in the video below, the answer lies, I think, in the fact that punch is a dropping punch.  That natural curve we spoke about, coming in from above and raking down, is what matters (primarily).  It isn't about "punching the groin".  It is about counter punching with a falling moment.  The benefit of this moment is that it can catch a variety of targets along the centre line as it drops - depending where your opponent is.  The groin is, if you will, simply "where the bus stops" - the final possible target.

Yes, the face is an excellent target.  But as I discuss in the video, with an aggressive opponent who is entering strongly, you might not have enough room to accelerate the punch all that much if it lands on the face, as opposed to dropping lower down onto the body.  Of course, you might not need to: your opponent's incoming momentum might well be sufficient (ie. you might be able to rely on that rather than your own generated momentum).  But otherwise it is a matter of physics that if you have more room to accelerate your punch, you will reach a higher velocity on impact and generate a more forceful punch.  Compare how far Armando's arm has moved in the pictures below when comparing the face punch and the solar plexus punch.  Consider the amount of shoulder he's been able to throw in too.

And it's not as if low, overhand inverted punches of this kind are unheard of anyway.  You see them all the time.  The might not even be intended as low punches, but end there after raking past the face.

Anyway, that's my view on why the punch is aimed low in the Chen Pan Ling form - and why it is called "step forward punch to the groin": the final position is low - perhaps groin height (although even Chen Pan Ling in his textbook seems to finish at around solar plexus or tanden/dantien level - nowhere near the groin really).

In other words, the punch is named, as many taiji techniques are named, by reference to their superficial appearance (particularly at the finishing point) - not their function.

You'll note from the above video that the taijiquan application necessarily goes to the outside of a right.  This is evident from the hand deflection accompanying the movement - if one follows the simplest and most logical interpretation (in my humble opinion!).

This either means you're moving to the lead of a southpaw's lead jab or you're dealing with a right cross.  Personally, I like to train it against the latter.  In either event, you're moving to the outside of your opponent's right.

This is actually what Holly Holm did at least once to Ronda Rousey - albeit that as a southpaw, she moved to the outside of Rousey's left.  And being a boxer, she relied purely on evasion, and not on evasion and deflection.

Of course, the overhand inverted punch has many other functions too.  Regular readers will know that I'm not fond of always interpreting blocks as throws, locks, strikes etc.  That doesn't mean they can't be so used: I'm simply opposed to the ideology that interprets them primarily as something other than what appears to be their main purpose - defence.

Ditto with punches.  I believe they are primarily punches.  This doesn't mean they can't be used for a whole host of different purposes - including deflections, locks and throws.  In respect of the last of these, you'll note from the video below that I interpret one of the overhand inverted punches from the Chen Pan Ling taijiquan form (a move called "step back and hit tiger with reverse fist") in precisely this manner: as a projection/throw.

A further application in the above video shows you just how effective the technique is in "cutting the supply lines" of your opponent's punch by striking his or her chest.

Ultimately, there is actually no end to the versatility of this, rather under-used, punch variation.  Apart from shaking up the women's MMA world, I'm glad Holly Holm came along and shared her particular use of this technique and others.  It just goes to show how one fighter can make you re-examine old ground in new light.

See also my follow up article: "Overhand inverted punch as simultaneous deflection"


1. Note my next article in relation to naming conventions.

2. It's interesting to note that Rousey not only fell prey to a corkscrew punch; her punches had practically no corkscrew at all.  I'm guessing her coach is in the "corkscrewing is bad form" camp.

Copyright © 2015 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Rousey vs. Holm - lessons

Okay, so the dust is settling on Ronda Rousey's historic loss to Holly Holm.

And there are no shortage of pundits analysing the details of what went wrong with Rousey's game and what went right with Holm's.

Heck, some people managed to get the commentary right before the fight even started.  Consider this adept video that my friend Gene Burnett put me onto:

Doubtless, writers like the amazing Jack Slack will use this kind of analysis to examine the fight down to the finest technical degree. [Edit: Jack has posted an article - and I'm glad to see his conclusion is consistent with mine!]

But I'm going to be brutally frank here.  I don't think we really need to go to that level of detail to understand what went wrong for Rousey and right for Holm.  I think that in the end it's as simple as this:
All of Rousey's previous opponent have been second rate strikers (compared with Holm). Rousey simply wasn't prepared for a good stand-up game.  She mostly relied on catching her previous stand up opponents off guard in a clinch (which many fighters will foolishly allow to happen - partly because rules like those in boxing mean this is a relatively "safe" zone), moving to a neck grab and hip throw, then an arm bar.  In the case of grapplers, she either beat them at their own game (Rousey is one of the best in that business, after all) or obliterated them with sheer naked aggression (Bethe Correia anyone?). But with Holm, Rousey faced an entirely different opponent: a stand up fighter of the highest skill. 
In the end, it was the reverse of watching a stand up fighter get caught by the Gracies in the early 90s.  The Gracies were fond of talking about the floor being their "ocean" where they were "sharks".  Well the melee range is where an excellent stand up fighter like Holly Holm is the shark: this is her "ocean".

It's hardly surprising that the first video analyses after the fight have focused on exactly this: how Holm kept frustrating Rousey's attempts to use her biggest weapon - her grappling - forcing her to rely on her weakest weapon - her striking - all by maximising time in the melee range (where Holm's striking reigns supreme) and minimising time spent in the grappling range (where Rousey's biggest strengths lie). Consider the one below:

Notice in particular how Holm avoids the clinch - and when she gets into one, exits as soon as possible, keeping Rousey in the melee range where she can dominate with punishing strikes.  As I've said before, it's not about how hard you can hit inert objects - but how you can thwart the other fighter's strikes while responding successfully with your own own.

Holm avoids any kind of grappling entanglement as much as possible - and when she gets caught in such an entanglement, exits as quickly as she can (even if she seems to have a dominant position). She knows Rousey's strength in grappling isn't her attack, but rather her defence in that range: she can turn a situation from bad to good in next to no time. She can "turn the tables".

Well, that's what Holm can do in the stand up arena.

Consider the full fight below:

What you'll notice, above all else, is that Rousey has zero counter punching skill (the skill relied upon not only by civilian defence fighters who have gone to the Octagon - like Lyoto Machida - but many famous boxers and other combat sports fighters as well).
In grappling, Rousey is equally skilled in both defence and offence.  By contrast, in striking, Rousey has plenty of aggression and decent attack skill - but not much else.  It's not her "accuracy" that's the problem - she can hit a target well enough.  The problem is that, in striking, Rousey has practically zero defence skill.  
Rousey didn't miss Holm because of her own "inaccuracy" - but because Holm was able to avoid her punches.  And she didn't get hit simply because of Holm's "accuracy", but because she couldn't avoid Holm's punches; the latter's superb defence kept Rousey off-guard and off-balance almost the entire fight, making Rousey a sitting duck target.

In summary, as a striker, Rousey is skilled1 simply as an attacker. And this is perfectly fine if your opponent is unskilled at thwarting your attacks.  Holm wasn't, and this was Rousey's undoing.

Take just one example: the colossal missed cross by Rousey (which Holm weaved under, leaving Rousey swinging at air and kneeling, facing the outside of the cage).  In my opinion this showed two things:
In the end, Rousey got beaten because her stand up game is based on pure aggression - attack - and not much more.

In grappling terms, that's like imagining your opponent is a grappling dummy.  In other words, this is the grappler's version of being told "boards don't hit back".

Rousey disrespected the stand up game and paid the price. If she had applied the same logic and technique to her stand up fighting as she does to her judo, we might have seen a different result.  In judo she understands that she might be caught by an o goshi (large hip throw) and convert that using a defence into her own throw.  But in striking/stand up, Rousey has no such skill.

Holm, by contrast, showed an appreciation of civilian defence grappling - throwing Rousey at one point and frequently off-balancing her without getting trapped in a full grapple in any of the cases.  Indeed, stand up style off-balancing (without full grappling) was Holm's penultimate tactic prior to knocking out Rousey with a roundhouse to the latter's carotid sinus: Holm throws her left straight, forces a total miss with Rousey's own right cross, takes the stumbling Rousey down onto her knees with a push on the back, then kicks her in the neck when she stands up.

If there's a lesson in there for Rousey it is this: in a stand up fight, simple aggression is often enough to win against an unskilled opponent.  And if you're a good grappler, it will certainly give you some good chances to close the gap and use your real skills.  But if you want to fight a good stand up fighter, you need to know enough about stand up defence.

Attacking skills do not define martial skill - rather it's how you manage a skilled attacker that ultimately makes the difference.  This is true in civilian defence, but it is also true in combat sport - particularly when facing an elite opponent.


1. I refer to Rousey being "skilled as a stand up attacker" - but I do so in a very loose sense.  If I were to be brutally honest, I'd say she punches like a beginner.  This gif shows what I mean: anyone with striking experience will immediately understand.  She makes up for her lack of skill in boxing, as many MMA fighters do, with sheer aggression.  Her real, undisputed, skill is in grappling where she is world class.  But in striking, she is far from that.

Copyright © 2015 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, November 5, 2015

My third DVD "Internalising Karate" in production

My third DVD title "Internalising Karate" is set to be released in the next month.

It provides a detailed discourse into incorporating functional internal arts concepts directly into karate and without recourse to material from the Chinese internal arts.

From the back cover:
Many senior karate, particularly those who are noticing the effects of age, express the desire to explore its "softer" side. Karate is, after all, meant to combine both "go" (hard) and ("ju") soft techniques. 
In this video, prominent traditional martial arts researcher Dan Djurdjevic uses his 35 year background in both karate and the 3 "internal" or "soft" arts of China (taijiquan, baguazhang and xingyiquan) to explore the "softer" side to karate.
While some would prefer to imagine this "softer" side as some form of paranormal or supernatural skill, Dan reveals it to be something better: something concrete that can be learned; a tool that can be acquired and utilised.
Fighting in way that is "internal" or "soft" is really just another reference to "fighting smart": finding efficiency and economy in your own movement and learning to utilise your opponent's force against him or her.
And while the three internal arts of China do indeed contain principles that allow you to "fight smart", Dan reveals that you don't have to go beyond karate to acquire and utilise the same principles.
So in this video Dan covers such topics as:
Hand and foot timing to generate full body momentum.
Grounding/rooting and its link to kata like sanchin and naihanchi.
How to avoid over-extension in counters so as to maintain control in a melee.
In so doing, Dan uses as examples kata templates from both major traditions of karate: the Shuri/Tomari te school (Pinan Nidan and Naihanchi) and the Naha te school (Sanchin, Suparinpei and Geki sai dai ni) to construct functional exercises, drills and forms to teach these softer methods and explore their application in karate as a civilian defence method.
The DVD will also be available for download (as will all his DVDs - some small technical issues are causing a temporary delay).

Here is an overview of the DVD contents.

Addendum: the DVD is now available both in DVD format and direct download!

Copyright © 2015 Dejan Djurdjevic