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Practical Karate and the Limits of Modern Shotokan

Gichin Funakoshi doing some Shotokan techniques during kumite

So much of modern Karate is far from practical like the traditional masters taught, especially the Karate of Gichin Funakoshi. Self-defense skills are of minor importance in many schools, and rank codes have become too important. That endangers karate students and leads to delusions. By Jeff M. Christian (Instagram: @jeffshotokan)

“A path is made by walking on it.”

Zhuang Zhou

I believe in Karate. Real karate. Practical Karate. Traditional Karate. I want to practice the Karate that Funakoshi Sensei practiced in Okinawa for practical self-defense.

The picture shows Jeff Christian the author of practical karate article.
Jeff M. Christian analyzes the limits of modern Shotokan Karate

For the most part, I love my training. I am in the dojo four-to-five times a week. I train hard, and take Karate seriously as a discipline of mind, body, and spirit. But the way many dojos operate set people up for disappointment, and even danger. Therefore, I will make four observations, and offer four solutions.

1. Practical Karate Requires Full Contact

Too much of our training in contemporary Karate lacks one key ingredient: Full contact. We punch at the air. We kick at imaginary opponents in front of us, beside us, and sometimes behind us. In kumite drills, we make some contact, but we have to be careful. We are instructed to exercise “control.” Unfortunately, “control” often means, “pull your punches.”

I had this realization recently when my son and I decided to take an introductory Krav Maga class. Krav Maga is a combatives based fighting system. Not so much a martial art as it is a way of defending by attacking. I told my son when we were finished that I would describe the experience as “Full Contact Crossfit.” Trust me when I say that I mean no disrespect in that statement; actually, I mean quite the opposite.

It was a great workout, involving full force punches into a thick pad held firmly by your partner. Knees to the pad. Punches to the pad. Full contact. Hard as you can hit. 

The Lack of Pad Training in Modern Shotokan

Now keep in mind that I have practiced some form of Karate or martial art since I was nine years old. I have grown children now, so let’s just say that I have been at this a while. But because many of my punches and kicks have been directed at my imaginary friend instead of an opponent with a thick pad, my wrists and arms were incredibly sore the next day. Despite some training with a Makiwara and a heavy bag, nothing prepared me for punching a pad a hundred times at full force.

I mentioned my sore arms and wrists to a Karate friend of mine. He suggested, “Well, you were punching the bag wrong.” I suppose that is possible, but I do not think so. I am usually careful to punch with good form the majority of the time. I think instead that I am not training enough with full contact. My suspicion is that I am not alone in this. 

Practical Karate Requires Full Force

Furthermore, we need opportunities in training with opponents attacking at full force and full speed. Obviously we cannot train at such intensity, or people are going to get injured. We have to be realistic. With gloves and pads, along with using handheld bags and pads, we can simulate the need punch with greater force. Still, the occasional bruise is to be expected. 

What if we train a couple of times a week outside the dojo to punch a Makiwara? We need to practice our kicks and punches on a heavy bag. Otherwise, we may believe that we will be able to use Karate in a self-defense situation if the need arises.

2. The Super Hero Delusion

We imagine street fights in the dojo. Our senseis show us techniques to counter punches to the face, kicks to the groin, and multiple opponents. It looks great. But in a real world situation, will these training sessions actually work?

Practical Karate is not Choreography

Rory Miller in his book, Meditations on Violence, offers the most realistic answer to that question. Unless we understand the way the mind and body freezes under stress, a thousand kumite drills will be of no use to us whatsoever. You know the drill. A training partner comes at you at medium speed, and you know exactly what he is going to do. Step forward, punch to the chin. You, in your carefully choreographed kumite technique, step back with the correctly corresponding foot. Cross your arm in front of your body while you raise it just over your head. Open your torso forty-five degrees. If you open it fifty-five degrees, that will probably work, but you should strive for forty-five.

Granted. If you practice this technique for twenty years with multiple opponents at least three times a week, it will probably work in an emergency. I want to make clear that I make this observation as someone who practices such techniques multiple times a week. My criticism is not from the outside, but from deep inside the dojo. But my concern is simple: Will it work?

The picture shows three books which were highlighted in this article. The foster a practical karate approach.
The three books highlighted in this article.

Shotokan Karateka are not Invincible

Our delusions of invincibility complicate this. We are led to believe that if you just practice enough, that you will be able to disable your opponent and walk away unscathed. We fantasize about being Bruce Lee or Yip Man, when in reality, even on our best days, we are more like Jackie Chan’s outtakes. People bump their heads, get hit by opening doors, and slip in the rain. Have you ever been in a street fight? No one walks away without getting hurt.

Even in a controlled dojo setting you are going to get bruised, perhaps cut. You may get a broken toe from time-to-time, even when you know what is coming. No one is invincible 100% of the time. I was doing sparring drills with one of my senseis recently. This sensei emphasized to me just a few months earlier the importance of deepening and extending my front kicks. While we sparred, I landed a few kicks to his midsection, even though he was supposed to be blocking me. We were not applying full force, but we were moving at pretty decent speed. He said, “Man, you are kicking deep today.” I replied, “It’s what you taught me.”

Practical Karate Knows No Delusions

I hope this illustration makes the point that even a fantastic Karate teacher has his limits. We all have off days, and we cannot possibly think that we will block every punch or kick that comes our way. Thus, the solution to the super hero delusion is to forget about it. Give it up. No amount of training is ever going to make you totally invincible. In fact, by not giving into such a delusion you are protecting yourself from future harm, and hopefully avoiding a fight that probably should have never happened in the first place. 

If, however, you find yourself in a fight, your training is going to serve you better if you have been hit, if you have been kicked, and if you have trained under stressful conditions. Unfortunately, most of us do not engage in this kind of training until we are adults. Just because you are a brown belt or a black belt does not mean you can handle every situation.

3. The Rank Delusion

A green belt has finally gained a decent understanding of kata and kihon. She is getting fairly good at the choreography of introductory kumite drills. Practices are becoming more natural for her, which is a big motivation. She keeps training for a couple more years, and finally gets her brown belt. She is on the way to her goal of becoming a black belt. But she is twelve years old, and some of the kids at school hear her talking about her karate skills. They start picking on her in the locker room after gym class. A few minutes later she walks to the nurse’s office while pinching her bloody nose after taking a solid punch from one of the other girls. “What happened to all of those drills that were supposed to keep me from getting hit? I am a brown belt, after all,” she thinks to herself. 

Rank According to Self-Defense Skills

Part of this is our fault in our dojos. Rank used to be a sign of years of dedication and training, strength and agility, athleticism and artistry. It still is in some circles. In my own dojo, you will devote five-to-ten years to get to the point where you are ready to test for black belt. But even so, many dojos no longer emphasize the self-defense side of Karate. And unfortunately, many dojos give rank according to the number of years a student has been coming to class, but not always according to true skill level. This is especially true when it comes to self-defense. We may allude to such things as street fighting techniques at times, but it is not the main focus in many dojos.

Students Want Practical Karate

Which is odd. Ask most Karate students across the levels of experience and they will usually answer the same way when asked why they take Karate: fitness and self-defense.

When I trained in Kyokushin back in the early 1990s, we had four belts: white, green, brown, black. If you wanted a green belt, you had to commit about two or three years to serious training. A green belt was a sign that you had put in your time to learn the fundamentals. You knew your basic kata, and could free spar without getting beaten to death. I think about my green belt in Kyokushin back then when I see many black belts today. Some of them do not have to go through what we went through in the 90s to get a green belt.

If you were a brown belt in Kyokushin in the early 1990s, at least in my dojo in West Texas, you were solid. Only a few brown belts populated our training sessions, most of whom you did not want to spar with because they still had something to prove. And black belts? We had three, and all three were our senseis.

Ranks vs. Traditional Karate?

I am not necessarily suggesting that we go back to such a rigorous ranking code. But I will suggest that we need to be stricter than current norms about our guidelines for rank if we expect rank to mean anything. After all, rank and belt colors are a new phenomenon when it comes to the traditional way of Karate. 

Although probably not the best business model, in order to preserve the true way of Karate-do, we should not give brown and black belts to children and young teens. That is not going to be a popular belief among many dojos, especially with so many small businesses struggling to stay in business these days. But since this is a martial art and not a mere sport, we need to take seriously the implications of Karate for the future by respecting the past. We will enhance Karate as we hold to a more challenging set of standards so that a black belt is not something guaranteed, whether by a two year contract or by the promise of merely showing up to class for a set number of years. 

The picture shows Jeff Christian during Karate class doing a Mae Geri. Jeff promotes a practical Karate approach.
Jeff Christian doing a Mae Geri.

Practical Karate Means Self-Defense

Furthermore, we need to teach more self-defense applications. Our students should be accustomed to fighting under stressful situations, no matter the rank. For children, we need to teach these things, but also the character necessary to be able to avoid fights completely. Anything we can do to stop the kind of bullying described in the opening story of this section will be a good thing. And again, that has nothing to do with rank.

In what is often called “The Master Text” in the evolution of Karate from hidden path to the way available to everyone, Gichin Funakoshi’s work, Karate-Do Kyohan, is a good place to start in order to understand the importance of the full way of Karate that includes athleticism, artistry, and a path of the spirit. And it is just that: A path, a way. “Karate-do” means, “The Way of the Empty Hand.” 

4. Karate As More Than Exercise

Along with self-defense, fitness is often named as one of the primary reasons individuals practice Karate. I am among those who give that reason. Out of all the athletic endeavors I have done, including marathon running, triathlons, hiking, and open water swimming, nothing gives me a better workout than Karate.

That said, Karate is more than exercise, more than sport. It is a way. It is a path of mind, body, and spirit.

Practical Karate Requires Understanding

Can you execute a perfect Yoko Geri? Good. 

Do you understand the Yoko Geri? Is it clear why it is not important that you can kick much higher than your torso, and why you should not lean back during the kick, regardless of how great you may look in the picture? Understanding is more than physical practice. 

Have you spent years disciplining your spirit, clearing your soul, cultivating the virtues of bushido like courage, honor, and respect? This is another matter altogether. As children in the dojo, we bow at the threshold because our senseis tell us to bow. As more seasoned karateka, we bow at the threshold because we hold in our hearts all those before us who have walked the path of Karate-do.

The True meaning of a Black Belt

A black belt is not a sign of mere physical ability after an allotted number of training sessions. A black belt is a symbol of years of dedication an individual devotes to shaping their whole person, the whole karateka. If you ever meet a black belt who is pompous, arrogant, and rude, then you have not met a true karateka. Instead, you met a person whose training derailed somewhere along the way. Status overtook the most important factor in his or her journey: Character. They forgot the first principle of Karate-do as stated by Funakoshi Sensei: “Karate begins and ends with character.” They learned to ignore the truth of the first thing we say in the Dojo Kun: “Seek perfection of character.”

In Joe Hyams’ book, Zen in the Martial Arts, he explores many topics related to Karate as more than mere exercise. His chapter “Anger without Action” makes the point far better than I can. Training in the martial arts is a process of learning self-control, of not acting out of frustration or anger. This progression takes years, even decades of practice simply to understand. Even those of us who have basic understanding of self-control admit to ourselves daily that it is an ongoing struggle. 

Practical Karate and Traditional Karate

As much as I appreciate contemporary approaches to self-defense, this devotion to the virtues and “Spirit of Karate” is a key missing ingredient in many combatives systems that are so popular. We karatekas can learn from their emphasis on practical applications. However, we must let that motivate us to preserve our roots. And while contemporary Karate has more to offer than self-defense, we admittedly may need a reawakening in a area of virtues starting with character formation.

Most of us will never be in a real street fight. That is a good thing. If we never have to “use” Karate, then what is the point of all the training? The point is the process. We enter the long journey of the whole person, and the ways we are shaped as people of Karate-do. We train our physical bodies. Our minds expand as we memorize and focus. We practice virtues in and out of the dojo. The karateka is a karateka whether he or she is in the dojo or not, whether he or she is with a sensei or not, wherever one happens to be on this ongoing path, the authentic way of Karate-do.

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WUKF Professional: A New Karate League to Counter the Olympics

The WUKF has started its new professional karate league called WUKF Professional. While the focus lies on making points, fighters are allowed to knock out their opponent. Hence, the fighters go full contact. The WUKF, therefore, offers a third way between the WKF-based Olympic Sports karate and Karate Combat.

According to its president, Pawel Bombolewski, WUKF Pro seeks to make karate respectable again as an efficient martial art. Thus, the league also includes Kata as a discipline. We wanted to know more about WUKF Professional. Therefore, our distinguished author, Jonas Correia, interviewed Pawel Bombolewski about his career as a competitor, why he created WUKF Professional and what we can expect from the format in the future.

1 – Oss, Sensei Pawel Bombolewski! It is a great pleasure to interview you about your karate career and WUKF Professional Karate. Sensei, why and when did you start practicing Karate?

Pawel Bombolewski (PB) – Oss, it is a pleasure for me, too. I started Karate when I was 7. I was very inspired – like many people at that time – by martial art movies. Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Jean Claude Van Damme were my idols and first heroes. However the biggest influence on the beginning of my Karate-Do was my first Sensei Paweł Golema 7th Dan. He was and still is a big businessman in Szczecin. I always admired his remarkable way of applying Karate principles in life, especially in business. You need to wok hard, not giving up, being reliable, not afraid to taking risks etc. I think he had a big impact on me. I am very grateful to him for bringing my mind to the state where it is today. 

Pawel Bombolewski´s best Shobu Ippon fights

2- How has your training routine been lately?

PB – I use to conduct classes almost every day, from Monday to Saturday. The last class of the day was usually a advance group or squad training, where I train with my students. From training 6 days a week, half was orientated on traditional, budo Karate training and other half on Sports Karate. However, even in the sports classes we still started with mokuso and finished it with the Dojo Kun. I think we all need to remember what is most important in Karate. For me it is self development. In my opinion following budo principles is like using great tools to develop yourself. 

3 – You have been Shobu ippon WUKF World Champion several times. You teach Karate. You organize tournaments regularly, including the 2020 WUKF World Championship, which you organize for the 2nd time. And you are also responsible for WUKF Professional Karate events. How do you reconcile your competitive career with all these activities?

PB – It is actually very hard, especially that I divide my time between 5 governing bodies. I am lucky enough to lead the EUKF as Vice-President, WUKF Professional as President as well as UWK Poland, BKA Poland and BKA Sri Lanka. To be an athlete in addition to this becomes very difficult and requires a wise plan of training. The biggest issue is having no time for recovering. As a result that means a high chance to get injured. So I have to train physical strong only when I know I will be able to recover afterwards.

Pawel competing in Shobu Ippon Division on WUKF World Karate Championships
Pawel competing in Shobu Ippon Division on WUKF World Karate Championships

This was one of the reasons why I decided to finish my career as a competitor. I focus on working for international and national Karate organizations. Now I will have more time for my students. Competing and coaching at the same time had always been very hard to manage. My participation at the WUKF European Championships in Odense, Denmark was my last performance as a competitor. 

4 – And now you also organize WUKF Professional. How did you come up with the idea of creating this league and what is it about?

Pawel Bamboleski competing in Kata division
Pawel Bamboleski competing in Kata division

PB – I remember this day clearly. It was January 1, 2017, first day of New Year. The idea came during a flight from Qatar to Sri Lanka, where I traveled to conduct seminars. For some time, I had been thinking about some common patterns in all sports. One question, which bothered me the most, was, what can we do to beat the Olympic version of Sport (Karate)? I couldn’t find an answer until I watched the “Steve Jobs” movie on the airplane. I don’t know why and how, but after watching this movie, all the pieces fell into the place.

When I started to explore the topic, I found out that in the majority of sports in the Olympic version, even if it is highly respected, is still called “amateur”. Therefore, it holds not importance for many big sport stars in the world. They put much more effort in their professional performances and careers.

WUKF Professional promotional video

Then I asked myself another question. How should a professional Karate look like to make it respectable like in the old good times again? I decided that it must be a point system with full contact. The events have to be quite short and focused on delivering a remarkable show. A point system guarantees a style of fight approximately similar to sports Karate.

This is what we got used to in the last 30-40 years. Allowing athletes to make techniques with full contact, creates the possibility of winning by knockout. As a result it becomes much simpler and more understandable for spectators. Saying that, after 2 editions of WUKF Professional I see that we still didn’t fully achieve my aim. After every event we make changes in the rules, making it simpler and simpler. Learning is never an ending process and I’m happy that we improve every time.

See the full fight of WUKF Professional between Daniele Spremberg and Tamer Mourssy.

5 – Do you think WUKF Professional will change the history of Karate? How is to be part of this important moment?

PB – I strongly believe WUKF Professional is a turning point in the world of Karate. I feel honored and proud to be part of it. Especially that this platform really counterbalances Olympic Karate. WUKF Professional is something totally new and creates opportunity to go to another direction in sports Karate. What really amazed me in WUKF Professional is that we connected modern formula of presenting and conducting matches with the rules that were based on the old, great times. Back then Karate was truly respected by all martial art fans, because of it’s effectiveness. 

WUKF Professional 1 in February 2019 - Poland
WUKF 1 in February 2019 – Poland

6- Do you intend to fight in WUKF Professional?

PB – No! (laughs) Too many people say I would always win because I organized the rules most suitable for myself. I also think it is better if I focus on managing it, because it is a very responsible task. 

WUKF Professional 2 in November 2019, Poland
WUKF 2 in November 2019, Poland

7 – How has been the public reception regarding WUKF Professional?

PB – It was fantastic! We had over 30 000 viwers of WUKF 1 in social media channels and a majority of positive feedback. People praised the high quality of streaming (7 cameras, video review system) and the quality of our promotional videos. In WUKF Professional we are using 2 Polish companies: See TV and MA Vision. They are absolute amazing in what they do. The level of streaming is so good.

Soon we will start cooperating with a big TV channel, fully dedicated to martial arts. I’m sure that will also have great impact on WUKF Professional development. Every day, we have a lot of new people, who visit our websites and In addition, our social media channels have more and more followers every day. This is making me happy to see the fruits of our hard work.

The figthers at the WUKF professional aim for the KO.
The figthers at the WUKF professional aim for the KO.

8- I attended the first WUKF Professional event in Szczecin, Poland. I was impressed with the organization. Are you responsible for all the details, or is there a team in charge of that? What is your role within WUKF Professional today?

PB – Our team takes the responsibility for organizing events. I am the head of this group. That means to make plans and motivate them to work hard for the success of the event. In 2014 we organized WUKF World Championships in Poland. At that time, it was the biggest and the best WUKF event. On the Opening Ceremony we had opportunity to host the living legend, former President of Poland, and Nobel laureate Mr. Lech Wałęsa.

That event was such a success that after 6 years the WUKF Executive Committee decided to grand us the right to organize the WUKF World Championships 2020. Szczecin is therefore the only City in the WUKF history, which will host this event for the second time. This is a big honor for us, but also a big responsibility.

The entrance of  fighters at WUKF Professional - Athlete: Danielle Spremberg from Italy
The entrance of fighters. Athlete: Danielle Spremberg from Italy

We know that people expect only the highest level of competition, including accommodation, transport and catering. We will do our best to make the best Karate in the world.

Within WUKF Professional I am responsible for the Professional Karate formula. Our Professional Karate Commission includes me as a Chairman, Sean O’Brien from Ireland, Noel Mantock from England, Rajat Chakraborty from India and Valeriy Kusiy from Ukraine. We create the rules basied on feedback from the WUKF Professional Referee Commission. We also set the policy and media direction of WUKF Professional.

While WUKF Professional also wants to deliver a good show it does it with more humility than Karate Combat.
While WUKF Professional also wants to deliver a good show it does it with more humility than Karate Combat.

9- You strive to make Karate more professional like football, basketball, and mma. You also included Kata at this level. Do Kata competitions work under the same rules as regular competition?

PB – I believe that the Kata rules we created are as simple as possible. It is a one flag system. Free choice of kata, tokui, any style you like. There are some proposals to make 2 rounds, random choice of katas etc. We consider all options, as I believe we have to be open for the feedback of people.

Kata at WUKF Professional

10 – Could you simply clarify the rules of WUKF Professional in Kumite for us?

PB – In the shortest possible way: it is a point system in a shobu ippon spirit with full contact. The duration of a match is 3 rounds with 3 minutes each. There are 3 type of points: 

  • Yuko: 1 point normal type of action, which we are used to at a amateur competitions
  • Wazaari: 5 points awarded for a knockdown
  • Ippon: 10 points awarded for knockout
  • Awasete Ippon: awarded by referee for having 10 points lead on the opponent
  • Senmonteki Ippon, which is a technical knockout, awarded for creating situations where you opponent is clearly unable to fight
WUKF Professional: The fighters know what is expecting them.
WUKF Professional: The fighters know what is expecting them.

11 – In most karate competitions, there are weight divisions. Does WUKF PRO also have weight divisions?

PB – Yes, we have weight divisions. They are divided every 5 kg: from – 60 kg to +90 kg in male category and from – 50 to +65 kg in female category.

12 – How are the athletes selected to compete and what should they do if they are interested in competing?

PB – At first, athletes need to register on our website and pay the annual license fee for the WUKF account. During registration they fill out all the information about their amateur career, add contact data about their manager if they have one, etc. When competitors have registered they must wait until selection. They can also be active and try to persuade organizers to organize a contest for them. If a competitor is famous this will be easy, proposals are coming all the time. For not so famous fighters it is important to stay active and to have a skilled manager, who can arrange fights.

13- In the first event, despite the rules allowing the knockout, I had the impression that there were still remnants of traditional arbitration in the manner in which the points were scored. Already in the second event, I realized that the referees were stricter regarding the scores. The result was more intense fights. Breaks were not as frequent as in the previous event, increasing the possibility of knockouts in the fights. Will there be any changes to the rules for the next event worth sharing with us?

PB – Yes, after WUKF 2 we worked to change the points system. We will most probably remove the Wazaari for a knockdown. So, there will be no middle way between simple point and knockout. Another proposal is to make 2 types of points: 1 point and 2 points. We also consider awarding more points for using advanced techniques or for perfectly good actions.
Coming back to WUKF 2 and WUKF 1: During the first event the referees too easily awarded fighters with Yuko. On the WUKF 2 it went the other way: the points were not given when they should, in my opinion it was too strict.

Pawel Bombolewski in action during a Shobu Ippon match.
Pawel Bombolewski in action during a Shobu Ippon match.

It is important to find a balance and to understand what we are looking for in WUKF Professional Karate. But it is a process and we all learn. Rome wasn’t build in a day. For me it is obvious that the development will take some time.

But people in WUKF know very well that I am always looking for improvement and that I’m not afraid to test new technological solutions. I just want to mention some ideas for devices I invented this year like remote controls for rotation kumite used on the WUKF World Championships in Bratislava, Slovakia. I also invented a Video Review System used for the first time at the WUKF 1 in Poland.

14- We are all curious to know where and when the next event will be. Is there a date and place already established?

PB – WUKF 3 will be most probably held in Dublin on May 24, 2020. Mr. Sean O’Brien will be in charge for the event. He proved that he is a great organizer, managing a very succesfull WUKF World Championships in 2016. Now, he is looking for sponsors. After he has found them we will officially publish the poster of WUKF 3. Great news is also that we plan to conduct the first fights for a Professional World Champion title in Dublin. We are all excited to see great professional bouts in Ireland. And we are curious who will win a Champion’s belt!

WUKF PRO 1: Barry McAnulty vs David Carter

15 – Many Karate practitioners especially in Okinawa training Kata without the jacket. Does the fact that WUKF professional competitors do not wear the top of the uniform in Kumite have any special reason?

PB – It is obviously to show how muscles work. Of course we are not the pioneers here, being influenced by other sports, mostly by professional boxing.

16- What are your expectations for the future of Professional Karate?

PB – I expect that this modern formula will keep delivering to spectators a big show. It will be entertaining to watch the bouts. All kind of martial arts enthusiasts will enjoy it. I also predict that soon we will be able to pay even higher rewards to our best competitors. Also, I don’t out rule a Pay Per View option for WUKF Professional events in the future.

Full contact and knockouts are allowed at WUKF Professional.
Full contact and knockouts are allowed at WUKF Professional.

17- Sensei, thank you so much for sharing some of your time. If there is something you would like to share with us that is the right moment.

PB – I would like to invite all of you to watch the upcoming WUKF Professional gala and the biggest event in WUKF history: the 9th World Championships in Poland, July 1-5, 2020. I have to admit: organizing World Championships one month before the Olympic Games is quite a challenge. But I can assure you, you will not be disappointing. WUKF currently delivers the highest organizational level of competition and our competitors are not only great athletes. For the majority of them Karate is a way of life. This makes WUKF special. We are one big family!

Take downs are awarded with 5 points at WUKF Professional.
Take downs are awarded with 5 points at WUKF Professional.

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Is Shotokan Karate Effective? About The Effectiveness Paranoia

The picture shows children fighting is sport karate gloves. Thus, we ask the question:Is Shotokan effective?

The effectiveness of Shotokan karate as self-defense has caused plenty of discussions in the last decade. But is effectiveness even important? Are we paranoid when it come to effectiveness? By Jonas Correia

A few weeks ago arriving from Brazil, I had to go through the USA immigration. The immigration agent asked me what I was doing in Brazil. I replied that I went to compete and see my family. Asking me what I practice, I promptly answered: Karate. He asked me if I taught my students how to defend themselves from grappling and submission techniques. I said no, since most of them are children and barely learn the basics of karate. I didn’t find it necessary to teach techniques like the ones he mentioned.

He Questioned My Effectiveness

The truth is that he seemed to be a jiu-jitsu sympathizer and even questioned the effectiveness of my teaching method. Believe me, this conversation happened during my reentry in the US! I looked at his gun at the waist and said, if we are going to think about effectiveness obsessively, I should teach them how to fire too. He smiled. I mentioned that most jiu-jitsu schools only focus on competitions these days. But they also do not prepare you to face two opponents at once.

What does Effectiveness mean?

The point of this text is not to discuss the effectiveness of Jiu-jitsu or Karate. Because we can be the strongest of fighters and a simple microscopic virus can knock you down. So what is your perspective on effectiveness? How many martial arts masters have ever been shot? And how many martial arts masters have died from drug or alcohol use? How can someone who can’t beat himself get into a discussion about effectiveness? Wouldn’t being effective mean everything that makes you survive longer?

The Effectiveness Paranoia of Shotokan Karate

Whenever people ask me about the most effective martial art, I answer: the most effective is the one that makes you happy to be training. The rest is brainwashing and repetitive marketing.

Is Shotokan Karate effective?
Our authors, Jonas Correia, in Berlin. Jonas has an incredible fighting record. Fighting in shobu ippon, 8-point fights, and Karate Combat.

But the paranoia about the effectiveness of certain martial arts has grown so incalculably. As a result, even great masters get carried away with it. It is disappointing to come to a dojo and encounter the abundant collective narcissism that has become a kind of sect. We see this thinking within Karate organizations as well. Due to different founders’ perspectives, the arts constantly change and their style may be totally different in the future.

Train, Whatever Makes You Happy

The best thing to do is to humble down, and recognize the qualities and defects of the martial arts you practice. That makes it possible to turn yourself in an effective fighter. But if you do not care much about it, train whatever makes you happy.

I believe we should think less about issues like this. However, we should train to improve ourselves to become better practitioners. Nothing is perfect and totally effective. Better to learn it this way, to than become disappointed later.

The more we talk the less we train.


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Does Shotokan Karate Work in Full Contact Fights?

Does Shotokan karate work in full contact fights? As an experienced fighter, who also fought in Karate Combat, I will point out and enumerate the advantages and disadvantages of Shotokan karate when venturing into full contact. I begin with a list of do´s and dont´s as well as disadvantages of Shotokan for full contact fights. In the second half of the article I present its advantages and show what it distinguishes from other martial arts. By Jonas Correia

1 – In Karate the hands are always low

The explanation for this is quite obvious: karate fighters keep their hands apart because they fight at a long distance. But when a full contact martial arts fighter gets punched one time, he will not have the slightest intention of stopping advancing towards you, and that will become a big problem. He will throw not only one punch, but two, three, four and as many as it takes to knock you down. It is at this time that the hand on the face is sorely missed. The transition of a karate fighter to always protect the face is not so easy and takes time to become natural, as the lack of freedom of the arms affect our movement as karateka.

2 – To not drop and raise body level during fights

I constantly hear from my full-contact coach that my technique is very “plastered”. The truth is that karate fighters do not have the habit of constantly lowering and raising the body level as boxers do, and this becomes a problem. The importance of this skill is of utmost importance so that in addition to making it difficult for the opponent to reach the head and it also has an excellent function of confusing the opponent in relation to the attacks.

Convince yourself about Jonas Correia´s Shotokan skills.

3 – Not knowing how to get out of a clinch

The clinch is an excellent opportunity to take a breath when the fighter is already tired. But it is also often used on purpose to make use of elbow and knee techniques, or even throwing. Karate fighters turn out to be an easy victim of the clinch as the opponent continues to advance to the point where he is “clenched”. Knowing how to protect your face and getting out of a clinch is of utmost importance. However, for that you need to know how to defend and take the control of the opponents arms to take the advantageous position. The technique used for this is not so difficult, but it must be practiced constantly.

4 – Not knowing how to avoid a throw

Many old karate masters from JKA were already judo black belts before joining karate. But due to competitive rules (and other purposes of the art), there was no need (or willingness) to teach karate fighters how to fend off throwing techniques. A take-down becomes a thorn in the side of most karate fighters. ‘Sprawl’ is the most important technique for learning to defend yourself in this regard. However, there are several others that deserve attention.

5 – Not knowing how to fall

Anyone, who has been thrown awkwardly, knows exactly how possible it is to lose a fight due to the impact on the ground. Knowing how to fall is very important.

6 – Not knowing how to get up off the floor safely

You avoided the fall. It didn’t work. You managed to dampen the fall. But you couldn’t get off the ground. Here’s a defeated fighter.

There are two phases, which Karateka must learn, to get up. The first, is while your opponent is still standing. The second, takes place when your opponent is already on top of you. They are two totally different situations. But for a karate fighter the pose a single problem. Because no karate fighter wants to stay on the floor.

7 – Breath & Endurance

Forget everything you have learned in terms of technique if your breath and endurance is not good enough. Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? But the truth is that most fights (when the fighters are on same level) are defined by who has the strongest lung. Karate fighters can be challenged by that issue, because the breath and endurance can overcome your strategies. While we karate fighters have been too worried about a millimeter-accurate position of a particular muscle to apply a technique, the full contact fighter is training exhaustively to knock you out. Any Karate fighters wishing to enter the world of full contact fights must eliminate these excesses  and focus on breath and endurance.

Jonas Correia in his first full contact fight in the Karate Combat League.

8 – Not knowing how to move in different angles

Moving in different angles are a deficiency in Karate. Even knowing that few practitioners still practice it, we know that move in and out in straight lines for a karate fighter is much more comfortable, right? By the time a karateka enters a ring, cage or pit, he will not avoid the opponent’s attack by going always backwards. Strong angled movement training is required, especially looking for the opponent’s back.

9 – Always wanting to block opponents punches from a long distance

Do not take me wrong: I do not mean it is always a bad thing. But always blocking the punches at a distance sometimes exposes the face for a second or third attack specially after your opponent is close enough. Sometimes it is better to close a shield with the arms on the head. Then you go out looking for the opponent’s hand.

10 – Chin up

We train kihon constantly and are always reminded to maintain a straight posture, or also to keep our heads up. This becomes a big problem for karate fighters who, after taking the first punch to the chin, become bewildered and no longer know what to do. A high chin for your opponent and it will be a satisfaction for him like a toy inside a Kinder egg.

11 – Avoid to be touched at all costs

Karate fighters don’t like to be touched, because our training is aimed at not being touched at all costs, or it will result in defeat. The rules of karate were based on kendo, where anyone, who was struck by a sword, would be defeated. Although karate masters have interpreted karateka as weapons, we know that our weapons are not as lethal as the steel swords. Strong actions are needed much more than a good punch to win most of fights (specially using mma or boxing gloves).

This caprice of wanting to avoid being touched at all costs turns out to be a bigger problem. Karate fighters find it difficult to be blunt when attacking. Plus the fact that full contact fight arenas do not allow you to always run away from an attack. The best thing is to learn that you are there to fight. Sooner or later you will have take some punches!

12 – Not be able to use and defend short and circular techniques

“Where did this punch come from?” Is the first sentence that comes to mind when you took an uppercut for the first time. If we are going to count on knocking out someone with a circular punch or a straight punch, we will realize that the circular punch is the “king of knockouts”. Also, straight punches require much more technique than a circular punch.

In a street fight, how many straight punches and how many circulars are thrown? Have you ever thought about that? Why doesn’t karate emphasize circular punches if they are so effective? This topic does not lend itself to seeking this answer. But to elucidate the importance of defending and applying circular punches.

Ok, ok … I know that in Nakayama’s book there are kagi zuki, mawashi zuki etc. However, the point here is the karate fighters deficiency and not about techniques archived in a book. Besides that: mawashi zuki is very different from a hook punch.

Lyoto Machida is the most prominent Shotokan karateka in the field of full contact. In this video you can find some of his Shotokan highlights.

13 – Continuous attack

Karate athletes, when applying a well-done technique, have a habit of stopping the attack pending the judge’s decision to stop the fight and give the point. When it is different, karate fighters follow with a small combination. But in the contact fight it is quite different. Karate fighters will be frustrated after the opponent blocks the first three techniques. Then they will stop and think of a plan. But then is too late. The opponent will deliver a devastating combination of punches of different heights and shapes and will only stop when the round is over.

Now what? Is Shotokan karate useless for full contact fights?

Now, the reader must be thinking that the purpose of this article is to belittle karate. But no. On the contrary. I have explained where the frustrations of karate fighters in full contact sports come from. From here, I will continue to explain why karate is an art that promotes a major difference in full contact fights.

The first day of sparring is frustrating. In addition to the breath not letting you do your job, the battle between the conscious (what we know by the goal of full contact fights) and the unconscious (the way we have been training during the traditional karate years) is one of the big problems. Some people even think they have spent years of their lives training the wrong art. Or that karate does not give them what they need.

But after going through the frustrations mentioned above and starting to become familiar with the contact fight system, I began to use karate as my greatest advantage, and below I list the reasons:

1 – Sen-no-sen

Is there anything more frustrating for a fighter than taking an unexpected hit? Sen-No-Sen is a thorn in the side of every fighter facing a karate fighter. Sen-no-sen adapted for contact fights is a strong ally, which for non-karate practitioner turns out to be an incomprehensible and unexpected tactic.

This video analysis nicely how Lyoto Machida applies Shotokan tactics and techniques in MMA.

2- Excellence in distance & foot work

The footsteps of a contact fighter are obvious and predictable, while karateka have trained a lifelong how to confuse and hide intentions with their movements. In addition to fast and precise movement, karatekas have long-distance control, which makes the opponent have to be more active to find his space.

3 – Excellence in reading intentions

Karatekas are trained to conceal any unnecessary movement. Through this habit they give opponents no chance to read of your intentions. This training teaches karatekas also to read attack intentions or positioning. Thus, they are much more sensitive than an ordinary fighter towards this task.

4 – Excellence in feints

Rotating the hip to fake a gyaku-zuki and throwing a kizami-zuki. Raising the knee like mae geri and switching to mawashi geri. Among many other tactics, these are karate specialties.

5 – Excellence in eliminating unnecessary movements

Those, who have had the least contact with Japanese culture, can understand a little about Japanese minimalism. This applies to many of the Japanese arts and would be no different in karate.

Minimalism in techniques makes a lot of difference.

6 – Technical excellence

Although in the previous topics I have mentioned eliminating technical excesses in order to emphasize exhaustive training, I would like to clarify that there is an advantage in this regard in terms of long term technical development. The karateka, who has managed to synchronize various muscles and joints to perform a technique perfectly and is now working on exhaustive training for contact fights, has the natural advantage of leveraging a technique far more successful than a regular fighter can do. An ordinary example of this is our concern to keep the heel on the floor while kicking. Oother arts care little about it.

7 – Better balance and coordination due to Kata training

By avoiding getting into the controversy about kata’s applicability to Kumite, I can assure you that there is at least something we cannot deny. Kata offers us a great possibility of understanding certain movements that only kumite practice would not offer us. Kata arouses not only technical correction, but lower and upper limb synchronization in an absurd amount of combinations. In addition to giving a unique notion of stability and balance.

Lyoto Machida practices kata during the preparations for his next MMA fight.

8 – Higher impact concentration by technique

The concept of Ikken Hissatsu, though many people find it utopian, has given us the advantage of considering every technique as the ultimate technique. While ordinary fighters often practice techniques around exhausting repetitions, a karateka has the ability to concentrate a lot of force on one definitive technique. This becomes a big advantage when there is an opportunity.

Makiwara training enhances this.

9 – Ambidextrous Training

The first thing a common full contact fighter notices when studying his opponent is whether he is left handed or right handed. Karateka train both sides with equal intensity. Fighting comfortably on both sides becomes a big problem for ordinary fighters, and that’s a big advantage for karate fighters.


The truth is, karate is a very complex, long-term, lifelong art, while full contact fighting is more direct and immediate. Most MMA fighters and kickboxers, and so on retire early due to injuries. If a karate man/women uses karate intelligently, coupled with the hard and exhaustive training of full contact fighting, he will become a fighter with great potential.

Remember that Lyoto Machida had a record of sixteen unbeaten fights for using many of the advantages of karate. He only came to know his first defeat after facing Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, who had to train a little karate to better understand the Machida game.