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Knife Defence: Is Karate Training Useful?

The picture shows a knife and this article we are going to shows you whether karate works in knife defence.

Knife Defence is a very controversial topic and Karateka seldom train it. However, it is important to know what it means and how Karate can be utilised to defend against a knife, if one has no other chance to remove oneself from a situation. By T.D. McKinnon in his column Karate Essence

This is a topic that is always controversial. Everyone has an opinion on the subject, some through the mirror of their own experiences.  However, many seem to have an inflexible opinion on the subject, with little or no real experience and with a very rudimentary education on the topic.

I think that one point should be made here before we go any further. If you are confronted by anyone with a stabbing or bladed weapon, if at all possible, you should remove yourself from the situation immediately.  Do not make it an ego thing! Even if you master knife defence; having to disarming someone with a blade, regardless of the antagonist’s skill, or lack thereof, is extremely dangerous. However, if you are unable to remove yourself – you may be cornered or protecting someone – you owe it to yourself to be as prepared as you possibly can be.

My own Experience with Knife Defence

Growing up in the coal-mining communities of Scotland and England, in the 1950s and 60s, blades were an ongoing reality.  I escaped most confrontations by running away, very fast. However on one occasion, when I was 14 years old, I was cornered by two 17 year- old youths who wanted my leather jacket. I had been delivering papers, morning and night, for an entire year to pay for it; they would have to take it from my dead body. One of them produced a flick-knife to cut it from my body if necessary. I was terrified. Pure luck got me out of that situation, when the sudden appearance of a bunch of motorcyclists caused my assailants to run away.  

A couple of years later, while serving in the British Parachute Regiment, a soldier in the neighboring bed had a psychotic episode one day. I found myself (whilst lying flat on my back on my bed) with the point of his bayonet pressed firmly against my jugular vein. 

I had trained in close quarter combat but I was not prepared for that. If you have never been in that situation – when you feel you might die at any moment and there’s nothing you can do about it – it is a chilling experience!

I somehow managed to reason with him; remaining calm (at least I made a fair approximation of sounding calm) I talked him out of a bloodletting. As he stood up, the tension left his body, and the hand holding the bayonet went limp. Springing off the bed, I slapped it out of his hand. Adrenaline pumping, I slammed him against a metal locker; one hand around his throat, I was ready to smash my fist into his face. Long story short, I didn’t hit him; the poor guy was mentally very ill.

When I left the Paras I started working the nightclub scene in the Glasgow area (once reputed to be the knife attack capital of the world) where I encountered several situations where a knife or an open-blade razor was presented threateningly. We were of course prepared for these predictable displays. Funny how the site of a baseball bat changes the mind of a knife wielding lunatic. Suffice to say that the sight of someone wielding a knife is not strange to me.

Kase Taiji and Knife Defence

I attended a Kase Taiji Sensei seminar in the 1970s. Sometime during the course, while we were doing a lot of basic blocking techniques, he was trying to stress the importance of good, strong basics. Some of us were obviously not getting it to his satisfaction. 

Kase Sensei began to tell us about a time when he first went to Paris and he was confronted by a knife wielding thug, who demanded that he hand over his wallet.

Kase Sensei did not have good English; he had been living in France for many years and I don’t know how good his French was but he had a strange way of speaking, a heavy mixture of Japanese/French accented Pidgin English. However, with the aid of mimicry and simulation he certainly got the story over.

It happened one evening as he was going for a stroll, taking in the Paris sites. For those who don’t know, I would describe him as a 4X4 (very short, he was as wide as he was tall) and I can imagine that a would-be mugger might not see the potential danger in him. Kase Sensei wasn’t sure what his assailant was saying but he understood the drift of the situation and decided not to hand over his wallet.

When he made no reply and no move to comply with his attacker’s demands; frustrated, the man tried to stab him in his ample belly. With a classic soto uke, Kase Sensei smashed the mugger’s arm at the elbow and then, while delivering a devastating yoko empi to the jaw, he wrenched the smashed arm across his ample chest.

“Cut…” he said, showing us a scar on his forearm, and shaking his head as if it was nothing. “I break ‘is arm…” he continued, indicating with gestures that told us he had snapped the elbow in the opposite direction. “And ‘is…” and grabbing his own jaw, shaking it, he added, “Shatter!”

Knife Defence requires Strong Basics

Twenty years later, while working at a night club in Sydney’s Kings Cross, I stepped between a patron and a woman he was in the process of beating-up. I actually suspected that she was one of his working girls. Without the slightest compunction, he pulled out a knife and stabbed me in the stomach. Well, he tried.

I smashed his elbow the wrong way and shattered his jaw into a dozen pieces. The circumstances were completely different to Kase Sensei’s incident, but the knife attack and the results were exactly the same. And I too sport a scar from the incident on my right wrist.  I agree wholeheartedly with Kase Sensei: strong basics are indeed essential.

As well as being a martial artist for the past 57 years; learning to defend against weapons, knifes in particular, has been a lifelong objective.   However, It wasn’t until I worked in close protection (real bodyguard work, not there just for show), protecting someone who was afraid for their life, that I had real close encounters with knife wielding individuals intent on doing me serious bodily harm. 

I have defended myself against four serious knife attacks, I was cut in three of them, minor injuries, only one of which needed fairly immediate attention. However, after all four attacks, I was back on the job straight away, while all of the attackers spent considerable time (1-6 weeks) in hospital; before doing serious jail time.

Teaching Knife Defence is a Serious Affair

Teaching knife defence to Close Personal Protection (CPP) operatives who just might find themselves up against someone with a knife is a serious affair. It needs to be practical, and they need to believe that it will work; because doubt is the back stabber (pardon the pun).

I think we should differentiate between the categories of knife or bladed threats. There are some dramatic differences in threat levels; consequently, there is a difference in the defence strategies used.  There are three main threat levels but with a myriad of intensities:

1. The knife presented to intimidate or as an overt threatening device.

Generally, in this case, the intention is not to kill or do serious damage. However, there can be many and varied mitigating factors and this kind of threat can still progress to a real and sometimes life threatening danger. If you are presented with a knife threat situation, remember that an action is quicker than a reaction: initiate the action (Deai).  Examples: 

Thomas D. McKinnon teaching knife defence.
Thomas D. McKinnon teaching knife defence.

2. The knife used in an aggravated assault. Perhaps to intimidate during an attempted robbery/mugging/rape et cetera, where injury is not the main intention, but where it all too often escalates to the next level.

I am not talking about the legal definitions here; what I am talking about is the intentions of the knife wielding assailant. This, by degree only, is a more serious situation for the victim of threat level 1. 

Thomas D. McKinnon teaching knife defence.
Thomas D. McKinnon teaching knife defence.

3. The knife deliberately used in an attempt to murder or seriously injure.

Again, I am not talking about the legal definitions; I am talking about the intent of the assailant. There can be a hairs breadth between attempting to seriously injure someone and killing them.

Mushin

In answer to number 1 and 2, your responses need to be instinctive and immediate.  There will be a variance in the degree of danger and the method of intimidation; however, providing you train your responses until they are instinctive (Mushin), you will minimise injury to yourself by remembering these rules:

  • An action is always quicker than a reaction: implement the action.
  • Act without doubt and without hesitation and don’t stop until your assailant is disarmed and nullified.

In answer to number 3, if you get the opportunity to initiate the action the same rules apply.  However, considering the nature of number 3, you may not get the chance to initiate the action.  There are far too many variables to generalise; however, when I was putting together my knife defence seminars, apart from utilising my own personal experience, I studied hours of CCTV footage of brutal knife attacks, from all around the world.  The situations were many and varied but the outcomes were all pretty grim; mostly ending in a fatality. 

How defend against a Knife Attacker intent on Murder?

However, after studying the different ways that people are attacked on that footage, I determined the best ways in which to combat each different kind of attack. There is one defence I teach for a very distinctive type of recurring attack that is used when an assailant is determined to kill his victim. This attack is a rapid stabbing motion; not unlike a rapid, repeating gyaku-zuki type motion, while controlling (pulling/pushing/grabbing) the recipient with the free hand. 

I watched CCTV footage of an attack on a police officer. The recipient of the attack was a big policeman; when he stopped a small, suspicious looking, man to questioning him. Attacking suddenly, viciously, without provocation, a knife appearing in his right hand, the small man used his free hand to clamp the policeman’s gun hand against the gun as he was frantically attempting to draw, while stabbing him repeatedly, to death right there on camera.

Here is a step by step sequence of still photographs, and a slow motion video of the defence for just such an attack.  Perhaps you can recognise the entry from Sochin Kata.

9 Steps

  1. You must meet the attacker head on; do not wait until he has got the first stab in. This is a repeated stabbing action, meant to kill you.
  2. Do not let his free hand control you.
  3. You must strike, simultaneously ramming your forearms, a/into the forearm of his knife hand, and b/ into the attacker’s face: jamming his first stab and smashing his face (Sen no sen).  This action will halt his forward momentum.
  4. You can see the first technique from three different angles.
  5. It is then important to move quickly, smoothly into the next action, taking advantage of the first shock to his system. 
  6. Vigorously, simultaneously, push his head down and lift the knife hand up in the manner shown.
  7. Keeping your back straight for best results and least chance of losing your balance, bend your knees and drop your centre of gravity, to pile-drive the attackers head into the ground.
  8. To finish, using a wrist/arm lock, wrench hard to take control and or break the arm. 
  9. It is doubtful that the knife will still be in his hand, but if it is it will have been nullified all the way through and can be taken easily at this point.

Repetition with Full speed is important

Let me be quite clear about this; I know from practical experience that this technique works, and I taught it to the high risk section of the security industry for 25 years with nothing but positive feedback.   

It is not practical (from the point of view of the damage you can cause) to practice this technique, repetitively, with a partner at full speed with power. However here is a demonstration of a method of practicing a modified version of the technique, along with 3 other possible knife defence techniques with a partner, with a little speed.  Some training tools if you will:

Thomas D. McKinnon teaching knife defence.

Ultima Ratio

At the risk of repeating myself, I must reiterate: If you are confronted by anyone with a stabbing or bladed weapon, if at all possible, you should remove yourself from the situation immediately. Do not let your ego get you seriously injured or killed! Even if you master knife defence, disarming anyone who has a blade is extremely dangerous and should be a last resort.

When there is no other option: ultima ratio; if you have no choice, do it boldly, with Mushin and Zanshin

The Unmentionables of Knife Defence

There are still a couple of areas not yet mentioned.  To talk about knife defence and not mention the most difficult types of bladed weapons to defend against would be grossly duplicitous. I could do what most people do when covering knife defence: put these weapons in the too hard basket and just ignore them!

Obviously, anything involving knives is more than a little dangerous. If you are thinking of employment in the close protection industry you should consider training in one of the knife fighting systems. You might also familiarise yourself with as many others as possible. My initial knife fighting training, in the military, consisted of a mishmash of the most useful, deadly techniques from a variety of origins. My additional knife fighting education comes care of Tantojutsu from Bushido, and the Filipino knife fighting of Kali. I also acquired some of the practicality of stick fighting from Kali; which applies very nicely to an extendable baton; and is extremely useful against a knife.

Slashing

I grew up on stories of the Glasgow razor gangs. There was still the occasional incident, but on the whole the open-blade razor had gone the way of the dinosaur. Quite obviously, they were not used for stabbing but for slashing. They could be used with devastating effect: blinding, opening up or slashing pieces off face and hands et cetera. In an experienced hand they could kill quite easily but, for the most part, they were meant to menace and intimidate. Designed to cause extensive damage without the risk of accidentally killing someone; they were quite a terrifying weapon!

The box-knife is fairly commonplace in Glasgow nowadays: with a capacity to do massif amounts of damage, but without the depth of blade to accidentally kill someone in the process. Another terrifying weapon!

Defence against the two aforementioned weapons, mostly because exponents of said weapons usually train in their use, I would put firmly in the realm of ‘the knife fighting cultures. I would therefor advise that defence against them should follow the same lines as any of the knife fighting martial arts.    

Knife Fighting Martial Arts

Lastly, I’ll touch briefly on knife fighting martial arts, which are numerous.  Here are just a few of the most prominent:

Pencak Silat (Indonesian)

Silat practitioners use a curved blade called a Karambit. In trained hands, this is a deadly weapon.

Kali Escrima (Filipino)

Kali practitioners use a relatively short, single bladed, stabbing and slashing knife. This is another devastatingly dangerous weapon.

Paranza Corta (Italy)

Practitioners of this deadly art use a stiletto bladed knife; primarily, a deadly stabbing weapon.

Tantojutsu (Japan)

Using a Tanto; this is a devastating, stabbing and slashing knife fighting art.

Military Special Forces (various countries)

This is usually an amalgamation of the deadliest techniques from various classical knife fighting arts. The weapons vary, my experience was with a bayonet; however, it is adaptable to most knives.

Distance and Weapons

If you are cornered and you have no weapons, distance is your only ally; long range striking is most advisable. Utilise, as a weapon, anything that you can get your hands on. If you are protecting someone, professionally, then you should be carrying some kind of weapon, an extendable baton at the very least.

Will Karate help you in knife defence?

So, will Karate help you in knife defence?  Certainly there are tools within your Karate training that will assist you. However, you really need to train, specifically, for knife defence to stand a decent chance against someone with a knife. And the more skilled your adversary, the more skilled you need to be.

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Karate as Self-defense: Andre Bertel’s Shotokan

The pictures shows Andre Bertel doing a mae geri.

Andre Bertel has a very elegant style of karate. However, for him his karate focus not on aesthetics but on his self-defense. By Dr. Christian Tribowski

We admit: We like Andre Bertel´s style of Karate. His refreshing understanding of Shotokan Karate as self-defense and its application to real fighting situations deserve more attention.

Real Fights are Different than Shobu Ippon

While ShōbuIppon (勝負一本) is the first step in order to check once own fighting ability. The rules of this type of competition differ extremely from a street fight, a bar brawl, or if somebody becomes molested. Therefore, the modus operandi must be different in self-defense. Andre is a great example how to alter your training to become more realistic in training Karate as self-defense.

In the following Interview with Andre Bertel conducted by Oliver Schömburg, you can find a detailed description of Andres approach.

Interview with Andre Bertel about his Karate

Andre Bertel was Educated by Tetsuhiko Asai

Under the guidance of the late Shihan Tetsuhiko Asai Andre Bertel developed a versatile and very dynamic way of fighting. Above all, his Shotokan style comes close to the origins of Karate. In Okinawa, the developers of Karate understood it as a martial art for the defense in real-life fighting situations. Choki Motobu, an Okinawa Karate Master and contemporary of Gichin Funakoshi, said:

“Nothing is more harmful to the world than a martial art that is not effective in actual self-defense.”

Such an attitude led to a training regime that always focused on the defensive value of Karate. Until today, Okinawa Karate distinguishes itself through a variety of short-range techniques, low kicks, and an emphasis on kote kitae (toughening of hands and bones). Morio Higaonna, who carries on the Goju-Ryu tradition, depicts this qualities of Okinawa Karate.

Sensei Tatsuya Naka visited an trained together with Morio Higaonna Sensei. The difference of the styles become immediately visible.

Karate as Self-Defense instead of Bunkai

From our point of view, Andres Karate follows this tradition. So, he utilizes the full variety of techniques that one can find in the 26 Shotokan Kata. One should not confuse this approach with Bunkai, which is a very formal application of Kata. Instead of training them within Kata, he learnt from Shihan Asai how to train them in a free and conflict-like way. Hence, the Kata is executed in a more realistic situation and less formalized.

If you have the chance to visit a seminar with Andre Bertel, don´t miss it. Oss!

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Tekki Shodan for Self-Defense: Okinawa Strikes Back

Tekki Shodan belongs to the foundation of Karate katas. Its purpose was to prepare Karateka for real-life conflicts.

Tekki Shodan belongs to the Shotokan katas with the most commonalities with Okinawa katas. First of all, this does not come as a surprise. Because Karate was developed in Okinawa. Therefore, all Shotokan katas share a certain amount of commonalities with Okinawa katas.

However, the Tekki katas are by far the closest to the Okinawa originals. One can grasp this relatedness by considering the Bunkai of Tekki Shodan. It is a close-range Kata. Above all, no high kicks take place during the kata. On the other hand, the focus lies on a very complex hip rotation. Such an refined application of the hips is needed in close combat situations with limited space for maneuver. This relationship becomes more obvious, if one stands a little bit higher than in a regular Shotokan kiba dachi. Then the hip can rotate even more freely. As a result, the whip-lash effect, which is fundamental for Okinawa Karate, becomes emphasized.

Tekki Shodan in Okinawa Karate

The Okinawa Karatekas call Tekki Shodan Naihanchi. The name means “internal divided conflict”. Gichin Funakoshi, however, changed the name to Tekki, which means “iron horse”. The name refers to the “horse stand” (kiba dachi). The kiba dachi builds the foundation of Tekki. While some authors claim the use of the stance focuses on leg training, this argument seems unplausible. Its advantage in close-combat situations might has justified its use more than considerations of physical fitness.

Choki Motobus Favorite Kata

This fact also made Tekki Shodan/Naihanchi the most favorite kata of grand master Choki Motobu, who was a specialist in self-defense. Many Karateka know Choki Motobu because of his famous quote:

Nothing is more harmful to the world than a martial art that is not effective in actual self-defense.

For him, Karate aimed at self-defense in the first place. He considered the other aspects as minor important. The legend says, that his strong focus on self-defense derived from his career as a “bar brawler”. According to rumors, he used to had regularly fights in the streets Naha the capital of Okinawa. Therefore, his sense for self-defense emerged during real-life conflicts.

From his point of view, Naihanchi was a perfect routine to prepare Karateka for such situations. Another quote of him says, for instance:

“Twisting to the left or right from the Naifuanchin stance will give you the stance used in a real confrontation. Twisting one’s way of thinking about Naifuanchin left and right, the various meanings in each movement of the kata will also become clear.”

To make this thinking process a little easier and inspiring for you, we have selected several excellent application videos for you. You can find them at the end of the article.

Tekki as Foundation of Karate

Choki Motobu also argued that the heart of traditional karate lies in kata, especially Tekki (Naihanchi). Above all, Tekki served as the main and only original training forms. Many different versions of the Kata exist in other Karate styles. Shotokan also distinguishes between Tekki Shodan, Nidan, and Sandan. Thus, no other Shotokan kata has three variations. Hence, Karateka must study Tekki in oder to get a feeling for the physical foundation of Karate. In short, to focus on hip rotation to generate speed and power.

Selected Tekki Shodan Bunkai Videos

1. Don Came – Origins seminar ep 1 – Naihanchi/Tekki-Shodan part 1

2. Iain Abernathy – Practical Kata Bunkai: Three Bunkai Drills for Naihanchi/Tekki Shodan

3. David Gimberline – Tekki Shodan Orientation Intro

4. Drobyshevsky Karate System – Tekki Shodan-Combat Bunkai-First Six Combinations-Kuro Obi Fight

5. Iain Abernathy – Practical Kata Bunkai: Naihanchi / Tekki Basic Clinch Bunkai & Drills

6. David Gimberline -Tekki Shodan

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We Fight the Way We Practice! Shotokan Karate as a Fighting Art

Is Shotokan karate a fighting art? It depends. Because the way we fight depends on our training routines. Therefore, Shotokan karateka must choose the right way to practice fighting. By Michael Ehrenreich

You can only fight the way you practice

Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy

If we travel through the Shotokan world we will observe a very common picture. All over the globe, Shotokan Karatekas commit to a very high level of technical skills. This commitment reflects the emphasis of the early (Japanese) instructors. Teaching proper techniques was at the center of their agenda. Over the course of the decades, it has been increasing. The reason for this development is the standardized set-up and structure of Shotokan classes. A strict regime like the trias of Kihon, Kata, and Kumite leads to technically highly skilled Karatekas eventually.

Our ability to fight, on the other hand, has been declining for decades. This is not a mystery. It is the direct outcome of the focus of Karate Training. Because we fight the way we practice!

What does fighting mean?

Fighting in Competitions

What do I mean by “fighting”? Firstly, there are different types of fighting in competitions. Different associations apply different fighting rules. I competed in the JKA-Shobu-Ippon system for over twenty years and I still like that way of competing the most. But there are many other forms and they all have their advantages and disadvantages. As a competitor, you need to practice depending on the requirements of the rule-system of our associations. While all systems share similarities, an athlete needs to focus on the distinct arrangements of his competition model or he will face disadvantages. Just as there are commonalities between football and rugby, the corresponding athletes will focus their practice towards the requirements of their discipline.

At the 1994 World Cup: Michael Ehrenreich in the 3rd round of the individual Kumite competition.
At the 1994 World Cup: Michael Ehrenreich in the 3rd round of the individual Kumite competition.

Fighting for Belt Tests

Secondly, we have “fighting” requirements for belt tests. The whole procedure is predetermined. Both partners know exactly what to do and what the other will do. Distance, timing, and often the techniques become defined up front. Distance in traditional competitions, means that the opponents are about one leg-length apart. The roles of the attacker and the defender determine the timing. The announcement of the attacker takes place in advance. We are usually required to apply a single attack, maintaining our position after the action and also keeping the distance. More often than not, the defender needs to move back a whole step, while blocking with one arm and countering with the other. This basic pattern is the same for all belt levels.

Michael Ehrenreich fighting against JKA Instructor Katsutoshi Shiina at the JKA World Championship
Michael Ehrenreich fighting against JKA Instructor Katsutoshi Shiina

Fighting for Self-Defense

Michael Ehrenreichs book "Selbstverteidigung" at Amazon
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Lastly, we have street fighting or self-defense. The situation here is unlike the ones previously described. It is dynamic and we do not know much in advance. The variables are always different; scenarios are constantly changing, and there are no rules.

In general, self-defense comprises four aspects. First, the distance in a self-defense situation includes the close-quarter (arms-length) distance. Second, hitting power is essential. Third, decisive action is an important asset. Fourth and foremost, there are risks for us of getting seriously injured or worse. Hence, the requirements of real fighting situations must have consequences for our karate practice.

For instance, the training distance must change. Physical action usually happens at very close striking distance, which would consequently require a certain set of techniques, such as close-quarter-strikes with the palm heel, elbow strikes, and strikes with our fingers, to name a few. When was the last time you practiced those with impact or in Randori?

Randori stands at the center of Michael Ehrenreichs Shotokan Karate. Only through Randori Karatekas learn to fight.
Randori stands at the center of Michael Ehrenreichs Shotokan Karate. Only through Randori Karatekas learn to fight.

When people come to Karate, they are only interested in the third form of Kumite. Very few are thinking about a career as a competitor. And even fewer will find it appealing to become an expert in Gohon Ippon Kumite.

Impact Training and Ikken Hissatsu in Shotokan Karate

Speaking of impact training, I’m very happy to see that regular training with Makiwara and pads is becoming common in practice once again in many Dojos. But there is more to Karate than just punches. Shotokan Karate gives us a variety of different techniques. For instance: Shoto Uchi. But a technique like this requires forging and strengthening by hitting the makiwara and pads.

Michael Ehrenreich on the right: Self-Defense must have a higher importance in Shotokan Karate or it will not be a fighting art.
Michael Ehrenreich on the right: Self-Defense must have a higher importance in Shotokan Karate or it will not be a fighting art.

Most experts agree that those who strike first in a real-life encounter have a higher chance of walking away as winners. If we accept this (and there will always be exceptions), then we need to take this into consideration for our Kumite practice. Fortunately, we already have the relevant guiding principle at hand in Shotokan Karate: Ikken Hissatsu – one strike, certain kill.

What is Ikken Hissatsu? The Foundation of a Fighting art

The idea behind this principle (which derives from the art of Japanese sword fighting and was adjusted to Karate by changing the character from “sword” to “fist” without changing the pronunciation) is that we need decisive action to be successful. That means attacking fast and furiously, surprising an attacker by attacking first and powerfully, and by putting all of our physical and mental strength into one attack. Of course, we cannot be sure that we finish off an opponent with one strike. But that is our ideal and guiding principle when establishing a Kumite program. Only then, Karate becomes again a fighting art.

All that has to happen in front of an uncertain situation. The German military strategist Carl von Clausewitz wrote in his book “On War” that war (or a fight in general) is a field of uncertainty. Things always change and we must prepare to adjust to these ever changing situations. This is also something we need to include in our Karate curriculum.

At the Shoto World Cup: Michael Ehrenreich fighting against Junior Lefevre
At the Shoto World Cup: Michael Ehrenreich fighting against Junior Lefevre

Fighting Spirit in Shotokan Karate

The most important aspect in a fighting situation is our fighting spirit, i.e. our mental fortitude. All experts and instructors agree on that. But is fostering up a fighting spirit really part of our Karate practice? Do we purposely create programs to build-up something as essential as fighting spirit? Do our students possess the self-confidence required in a real-world encounter? Are they able to deal with a situation in which their heart-beat rises to 180 or above? Are they able to handle the stress of the situation, while keeping their ability to act?

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Self-confidence is just that: being able to act when under stress. It grows out of the assurance that you have gone through adequate training and figured out for ourselves how to handle a challenge or an opponent. Self-confidence emerges through realty-based scenarios practiced in Karate classes and a step-by-step program in learning how to deal with a threat. As closer a training resembles reality, as more likely we will succeed in building self-confidence and ultimately our fighting spirit. We fight the way we practice! So, as instructors we need to analyze the situation we have been training for and create a progressive Kumite program.

Michael Ehrenreich explains impact training
Michael Ehrenreich explains impact training

Not a Fighting Art: Gohon and Kihon Ippon Kumite

Karate classes and self-defense classes are two different things. That does not mean, however, that our Kumite practice should be totally removed from the reality of a fight. Why do we stick to Kumite drills that not only have nothing to do with reality, but form habits that put us in danger? For instance, stepping backwards, freezing after one step, maintaining the same distance, sticking to techniques we would not apply in a real fight, practicing always in the same, prearranged way. The idea that Kumite drills like Gohon Kumite or Kihon Ippon Kumite will eventually lead us to develop real fighting skills collides with reality.

How many advanced Karateka do you know that are proficient in those drills, but unable to deal with an opponent in real fights or even in free sparring? That even black belts are forced to go through these drills, just proves a serious loss of reality in parts of the Karate community. The areas in our brains, which become triggered by those basic drills versus those required for real fighting skills, occupy different places. It is not possible to transfer one set of skills, where drills have no connection to reality, to another that is reality based. That is impossible.

Efficiency is a sign of quality for a Karate teacher. Teaching drills that do not lead us to the results needed is inefficient. So, we need to get rid of certain drills and focus on those that get us further towards our main goal in Karate as a fighting art: being able to fight under real conditions.

Randori got Eliminated from Training

When I started with Shotokan Karate in the 1970s, Karate classes were still rather simple in structure. No matter what Dojo I practiced with or what seminar I visited, Randori was always part of the class. We did usually for the first thirty minutes of the class. Then in the mid-1980s, things became more sophisticated. Karate Teachers eliminated Randori from most practice sessions. Why? Because they deemed it as too raw, primitive, and unsophisticated (and of course some instructors were concerned about losing students). They looked for more refined ways. For short-cuts, maybe? As it turned out, there are no short-cuts when it comes to build up real-world fighting skills. It is still based on blood, pain, and sweat and necessary for a fighting art.

While it is important for a martial artist to develop further and to seek for ways to get better and stronger. We should not forget the nature of combat and the core of a martial art. “Karate derives from the battle fields of Japan” said my late Karate teacher, Horst Handel. The core of Shotokan Karate Kumite is to finish an opponent, an opponent who wants to hurt you, in a situation, where you have very little control over. Everything we do in our Kumite practice needs to be based on these requirements.

Michael Ehrenreich leading a class and guides through randori
Michael Ehrenreich leading a class. For him, randori must be part of the Shotokan Karate curriculum

The Necessity of Randori for Shotokan Karate as a Fighting Art

Randori used to be a big part of our karate tradition. I recommend that we reconsider it as a main tool for Karate classes and to strengthen our fighting skills. Karate practice and self-defense classes are not the same. But with Randori we possess one training tool to strengthen our fighting skills and work on certain virtues as fighters: toughness, resilience, reflexes, adaptability, for instance.

There are different levels and ways to conduct Randori. But think about the requirements of real-world encounters and you will find ways of making Randori a meaningful tool for Kumite practice. Add the close-quarter distance and do not limit yourself to competition rules. Consider a variety of techniques (different strikes, low kicks), practice with responsible contact to the body. Practice without protective gear, and use the principle of Ikken Hissatsu in Randori. It is a proven mean to make Shotokan Karate a fighting art again.