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Is Karate Effective for Real Fights? A Martial Arts Comparison

The picture shows two tigers fighting. They represent Shotokan and in the article T.D. McKinnon is discussing whether Karate is effective in real fights.

Is Karate Effective in Real Fights? Many karate practitioners and non-practitioners ask this question. Our columnist T.D. McKinnon tries to give an answer reflecting on his 50 years of experience in multiple martial arts which he compares and juxtaposes. He also illuminates what distinguishes a real fight from sports competition. Read another exciting part of Shotokan Essence.

I focused on the sport side of karate for about seven or eight years: competing, refereeing and coaching competition karate, representing at State and National level in my native Scotland, and my adopted home, Australia. In my wider martial arts experience, I was a boxer for four years, and spent a further four years training/coaching and promoting Muay
Thai and kickboxing fighters.

Combat Sports are not Real Fights

Training with the proper attitude for any of these combative sports demands a certain positive mindset and has many benefits, both physically and mentally. While competing, my timing, distance, core strength and confidence was probably at an all-time high. Your psyche doesn’t ever really forget that kind of intensity.

Timing, distance, core strength and confidence are some of the positive aspects of combat sports. However, in respect to transferring the experience to real fights, there is some negative baggage. In sport karate, for instance, the repetitious use of limited, non-lethal and sometimes downright impractical techniques, repetitively targeting to do no damage. “One simply needs to focus for more depth when the occasion demands,” is a comeback I’ve heard to that point. However, under extreme pressure, you react the way you repetitively train. Period! There is little time for thought and re-adjustment.

Real Fights and Fudoshin

I do believe that sporting competition can be invaluable to your over-all martial experience. However, I further believe that any experience of real fights – practical involvement with physical conflict – is priceless. In terms of your Fudoshin surpasses the sport experience one-hundred-fold.

There are also physical, mental and spiritual downsides to all combative sports, and far too many to properly scrutinize here. However, I will briefly address a few points.

The Limits of Martial Arts in Real Fights

For instance, while involved with one specific discipline, you narrow your focus to the particular techniques that are acceptable and practical in that particular arena. Also, one of those initial pros, ‘distance’, tends to get dropped from the advantages. The distance in sport karate, for instance, is rarely the same as in real physical conflict situations. Another of those pluses, confidence, tends to desert some people when the threat of real violence proves to be all too imminent.

Boxing

Violent real fights was part of my experience before sport karate and so, when switching from one to the other, I inherently understood the difference. I had also been involved in boxing prior to sport karate; although, boxers can also fall into the sport versus reality conflict. Remember… you react the way you train; and boxers train repetitively for clean, non-lethal targeting. Some boxers may have been scrappers all their lives, using whatever is necessary to survive. However, in adverse situations (when things get real) one rule remains constant: you react the way you repetitively train.

Kyokushinkai Karate

I’ve seen it time and again with full contact Kyokushin fighters. I would be the first to agree that they are tough fighters, but their repetitive training is mostly punch, kick and knee to non-lethal targets, as well as not punching to the head while under pressure in their particular type of competition. Under duress, you naturally react the way you train repetitively.

Muay Thai

Muay Thai training is probably one of the quickest ways to get street ready. Learning to impact on moving targets with fist, shin, elbow and knee; and the standing grapple can be used to devastating effect. In Muay Thai, the difference between the ring and the street is probably minimal. However, it is an art that is almost exclusively a sport these days and non-lethal striking is practiced repetitively. I do love those Muay Thai elbows though.

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)

Even the newest kid on the block, the Mixed Martial Arts fighter, is used to training repetitively to fight, with rules, in an enclosed area. They may have, comparatively, fewer rules, but rules they certainly have; in regard to illegal striking areas: throat, groin, eyes, joints et cetera. The MMA fighter’s repetitive training completely avoids those targets (as they should: it is still a sport after all) and so in a real situation, with their life on the line, the chances are that repetitively trained techniques will come to the fore.

Karate is Effective, because it Comprises Everything

Prior to Karate, I trained in several fight disciplines, and even after my Shotokan involvement began, I believed that I needed to round out my martial arsenal by training in several disciplines. I eventually realised, however, never ceasing my Shotokan training, that just about everything I needed was right there in my Shotokan. You just have to really study kata, with Shoshin (beginners mind), and you will find everything you need.

Happo Kumite: Martials Arts and Multiple Attackers in Real Fights

There is something that all these combat sports have in common: they are all fighting, and training to fight, a single advisory. Let me tell you something about adverse situations: in my experience they rarely involve just one adversary.

So – whether you are a sport karate fighter, a boxer, a Muay Thai fighter, a judo player, a Brazilian Jujitsu competitor or an MMA fighter – taking on more than one adversary is very different. As a sports combatant you may have the edge over a single adversary with no fight experience, and who doesn’t train to fight. However, in a real life adverse situation, possibly with multiple opponents, the picture is changed unimaginably. Therefore, a realistic karate training also comprises happo kumite.

Avoid Going to the Ground in Real Fights

In some of the above mentioned combat sports the main aim, or at least a major part of the game, is to force or take your opponent to the ground; sacrificing your stand-up position. In the adverse situation I keep referring to – the one with multiple opponents – for obvious reasons the very last thing you want to do is sacrifice your standing mobility.

Training Karate for Effectiveness

I have trained and fought in most fight disciplines, and I have defended myself in many adverse situations, even fighting for my very life. Believe me… you react the way you train; so train for real situations.

I’m not saying that you should never focus on a martial sport. I am saying that you should not fool yourself into thinking that the sport is the art. Regardless of the ferocity of the sport… never forget that the sport is a game made up from non-lethal portions of the art, as a sport should be.

Effective Karate and Sport are not the Same Thing

I have been a student of the martial arts for at least fifty seven years, and I have been a karateka and a teacher of Karate-do for close to fifty of those years. I have had a great deal of experience as a fighter and trainer/coach of fighters. In the real world, I was a British Parachute Regiment soldier: trained in all aspects of fighting, armed and unarmed. As a ‘Close Personal Protection Operative’ (CPPO) and a trainer of CPPOs at the highest professional level, I practiced my art for real. I’ve been a Budoka for most of my life.

I’ve said quite a lot here about the sport versus the Budo. I feel completely qualified to have strong opinions and to make general, sweeping statements on the subject of combat in any of its forms… The sport can be part of Budo, and you can have Budo in the sport; however, and I say this, emphatically, “The sport and the art are not the same thing!”

9 thoughts on “Is Karate Effective for Real Fights? A Martial Arts Comparison

  1. An excellent combat analysis can only come form a well experienced Budoka such as mr McKinnon, thanks for sharing your experience with us.

  2. […] tone. Many of these have never even stepped on a koto in their life, or had any experience with a real fight. But they claim to have the knowledge of the most efficient way to land a punch. His followers are […]

  3. Shihan Mckinmon. Thank you for writing the most accurate account of the differences between sport and real combat situations I have come across.
    Very much appreciated.
    Prof Lez Henry kyokushinkai and Hung Kuen Kung Fu practioner.

  4. The untainted truth for the first time!!!

  5. Good article. Karate was developed as a fighting art…for real fights. It was never intended to be a sport.

    1. This is an age old debate and one that ends up always in arguments, trolling and disagreement.

      Personally I have trained in Kung Fu, Karate, Taekwondo, boxing, kickboxing and Muay Thai for over 25 years.

      I would only recommend most traditional martial arts from a technique, focus and discipline perspective.

      This artical speaks about, you fight based on your repetitive techniques. What you actually need to look at if any art works is „look at the one who is doing the attacking“ not the artist.

      I have never seen any traditional martial arts school train under real pressure. Rather they teach techniques that are impractical. The way you fight is nothing like Kata but you spend hours doing the Kata.

      Most black belts walk around with a false sense of security -You know who you are -never really being hit before. Also being taught a smaller person can overcome a larger one
      …easily. My 9 year old niece can also do a groin kick….

      In Muay Thai, MMA, boxing all you do is spar, and if you not sparing you hitting something, if you not hitting bags and pads you getting super fit. Functional martial arts, or fighting arts do work in the street. Most untrained street fighters cannot even hit as hard or take the blows Muay Thai and MMA fighter can perform or take. Speed is everything Daniel San

      These are the facts training a functional art:

      You are used to being hit, alot.
      You value weight classes (fight or flight)
      You train 4 to 5 times a week. Not twice a week like most traditional schools..yes some train more.
      All your techniques are tested under pressure
      You don’t have over 500 dance moves but maybe 30 that are sharp and perfected.
      You are always fighting fit, or you won’t get through a class.
      Never will your sparring partner leave his hand out so you can practice a move under no resistance.

      Most purists, „I was one“, will tell you their techniques are far to deadly for the ring. Well, it’s nothing special. Every art has deadly techniques. Even MMA, boxing and Muay Thai.

      The truth is and another fact, UFC thinned the herd of all these supposed undefeatable styles.

      YouTube debunked a lot of myths as well. No guys and gals… There is no master living in a cave with two students that are unbeatable. Gone are the days where we say.. „Because a master said so…. “ Bullshido and death via millions of vids showing otherwise“ LOL

      Traditional martial arts have their place in cross training, some of the best UFC Fighters have Karate or Wing Chun as one of theirs arts to name a few.

      I am in no way saying Traditional Martial Arts do not have a place in street self defence however you will be far more equipped to defend yourself or choose your fights with a functional fighting art.
      I personally started TKD with my current mindset. It helped my Muay Thai flow better.

      It’s pride at the end of the day. We all want our style to be the best. Undefeatable. The man makes the style but you fight the way you train. ( Best learned against real hardcore experience from real fighters)

      Muay Thai, MMA, BJJ, Boxing, wrestling, submission fighting and Judo are the arts to look out for. Krav Maga, now there is a good self defence real world system if it’s taught correctly.

      Been there, got the T-shirt and paid some hard lessons realising what works and what quickly does not… And that includes fitness, conditioning and going up against full contact athletes.

      If you find yourself sparring differently to the your stances and completely different to Kata and Patterns you have to ask the questions. Why is Kata different to my Fighting… Well because it is :). One works and one is to learn technique. Pity we spend hours doing Kata and a few nights or hours a month sparring not hitting each other. You know who you are 🙂

      My advise to anybody that disagrees with me is don’t take my word for it. Spar other styles as much as you can. Club Crawl. See how your fitness, speed and conditioning stacks up to a pro UFC or pro boxer, because when you get your black belt you a Pro… Yet then the journey only begins in traditional speak. Train your techniques against real fighters, guys with heart. Heavy hitters etc… Train under pressure so that your techniques are tested to the limits. Get hit and get used to hitting others.

      Only then will you really know what works and does not..and… quite frankly if you have the heart to fight or be a fighter looking at street combat specifically.

      As for the the above post, I have to humbly disagree.

      Peace and Love

      1. Excellent and insightful opinions rendered by all…Oss!

        I’ve known many skilled and technically brilliant martial artists. Many weren’t good fighters….its a very different kind of human. Blessings to all

  6. True!

  7. Interesting article Mr McKinnon however there are a few points I would like to discuss, as some of the things you have stated are either wrong or contradictory.

    1. You talked about how Sport based arts prohibit some techniques, in specific you talked about the legality of joint attacks in MMA. Joint attacks are legal per se, for instance joint lock submissions play a vital role in the ground game of MMA fights such as Armbars, Kimuras, Omoplatas, Heelhooks etc. Now I imagine when you referred joint lock attacks you meant more breaking the joint rather than just applying pressure to it. Well yes in MMA fights you never intentionally try to break the opponents joint rather apply enough pressure until they submit, however limbs do still break. Some fighters refuse to give in and lose an arm in the process. There are no arts im aware of that permit combatants to break each others limbs intentionally, that would be ridiculous. My main point is the difference between an armbar in the cage and on the street is minimal except the practicality. On the street you would just break their limb rather than apply pressure. Also there are some surprising types of joint lock attacks that are legal in MMA too. For instance a Oblique kick is where you kick the opponents knee/thigh in which hyper extends the leg. That can has the potential to break the joint quite easily. At the end of the day MMA and BJJ are the best platforms to display joint lock attacks.

    2. In your essay you exposed some of the holes in other disciplines for their lack of lethal striking in Sparring/Tournament. Thats all well and true but everything they do do is much more realistic than a Shotokan combatant. Shotokan point sparring is probably the most useless form of sparring I can think of. Jumping around like a kangaroo and punching for points is silly. Shotokan sparring probably makes you worse at defending your self on the street by building bad habits. Not to mention they dont include any vital striking points (Groin, Eyes etc) either. To be fair the fault of Shotokans fall into fantasy would be the blame mostly of the Olympics and Kendo. After Funakoshi moved to mainland Japan to market Karate, many of his students had Kendo backgrounds and started applying Kendo principles to Karate. A great example of this is the concept of Ikken Hissatsu „To annihilate at one blow“. This philosophy is very realistic when you have a lethal weapon such as a sword in your hands but its completely useless in regards to unarmed combat. Training with that mindsets dumb, if your first punch or kick doesnt finish them, then your done for. In boxing or kickboxing generally the first strike might be the jab which is used for distance but also to setup more powerful punches or kicks, this is much more realistic. The Olympics are also to blame for endorsing point sparring. The reason Kyokushin was created was Masutatsu Ōyama was appalled at the state of Shotokan.

    3. When you referred other styles you consistently repeated the phrase „You fight the way you repetitively train“, I completely agree with the phrase, I also agree with the quote „Everyone Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Face“ Mike Tyson. Boxers will primarily use their hands in a street fight I agree, its how they train. Just like how a Nak Muay will use Shin, Knee, Elbow and Fist to win a real fight. Those techniques may not include any „lethal“ attacks but you can be sure that every techniques they do use will incapacitate the regular encounter on the street. Most artists with backrounds in sport based arts have extreme conditioning and fight sense which is all they need for a real encounter. They dont need to hit the groin or eyes to win. Not only are they artists but they are athletes too. My question is what do Shotokan practitioners use to survive on the street. Do they sit in silly stances such as kokutsu dachi, trying to use knife hand blocks to defend strikes, well according to your philosophy („You fight the way you repetitively train“) im sure they do. The truth is Shotokan is one of the most useless styles for self defence unless your personally modify it. The sad thing is you shouldnt have to personally modify and filter everything your teachers show you. If a karate block such as Soto Uke has a practical version/application you should be teaching/training that rather than some useless over exaggerated version. Its not only the techniques, but the sparring too. If you think sanbon kumite is sparring then you have another thing coming. Yes you can argue that you have Jiyu kumite, but thats only reserved for black/brown belts. If shotokan teachers really insist on teaching unpractical techniques and then claim that they work, they should at the very least allow some kind of free sparring at white belt level. Whether the sparring be very light contact or with protective gear on, there needs to be some. That way Shotokan students can learn how to realistically apply what they learn in class. Not including sparring limits Shotokan practitioners so much, some things can only be devolved by sparring or actual combat, fight sense for instance. Understanding range, when to throw a kick and when not to, understanding the risk of your particular stance for example shorter stances are more prone to take downs and wider stances are more exposed to leg kicks. But most importantly how to react to getting hit. Thats not something you can learn without trial and error.

    4. My last point would be your claim in this article and various others that you can find everything you need in the kata. That you dont need to rely on other disciplines for that range of fighting. That it completely untrue, Shotokan kata has barely any standup grapple or takedowns of any kind, most of which are unpractical anyway. Another silly thing about kata and training in general is, if theres so many great techniques in the kata then those techniques should become mainstreamed with the rest of the techniques so that students can learn to apply them. For example Kagi Zuki (Hook Punch) a technique included in Tekki Shodan, most students wont realize the great uses of this technique outside of kata unless someone teaches them. The kata should really be dissected and have more techniques made mainstream rather than practicing the same oi zuki ten thousand times. I do agree with bruce lees philosophy of „I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times“, however that should be for the student to revise via sparring or practice at home rather than spending an hour in a karate class walking up and down floorboards doing oi zukis and mae geris.

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