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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!”

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Rei to Love: Etiquette is Healthy and Good for Fighting

Shotokan Karate

Rei has a special ceremonial meaning in Shotokan karate. It makes the transition from a casual mind into the state of budo. Most karateka, however, do not know that it is also good for ones health and for fighting. By Florian Wiessmann

Karate Dō begins and ends with rei.
Gichin Funakoshi

Every Karateka is familiar with the first precept of Gichin Funakoshi – Karate Dō begins and ends with ‘rei’. Also probably nearly every Karateka agrees about the importance of this precept, putting rei at the very centre of their Karate practice. Yet many seem to forget, that rei is not only describing a mental attitude, but also a very concrete physical practice. Paradoxically, while rei as a mental attribute is emphasized, the physical manifestation of rei is often shunned upon by the very same Karate practitioners. They see seiza and bowing as something unpleasant and antiquated, only done to fulfill some kind of Asian tradition but with no real usefulness to Karate practice, let alone fighting proficiency.

This lack of appreciation often shows in sloppy reihō. Even advanced belts are struggling while getting up from seiza, glad that the unwanted part is over and the ‘real’ Karate practice begins. But why not staying true to Funakoshis precept and starting Karate practice (yes, I mean the actual physical training) with rei and not after it? You might ask why? Seiza and bowing have no real relevance in the western world, they don’t apply to your everyday life, let alone to physical Karate practice. Guess what: you’re wrong.

Bowing in Rei

Did you ever drop something? Did you have to pick it up from the floor? Happens all the time, right? This is essentially bowing! The question is, did you pick it up correctly in a back sparing way? Or did you struggle somewhat, picking it up in an awkward position? Unfortunately many people tend to hurt their backs while picking up stuff.

We all look like really folded cashews.

Jean Couch

This is were we can learn from other cultures. Use your hips! Ever heard about using your hips in Karate training? Do it properly while bowing, too. Bending at the hips engages the hamstring muscles and takes the pressure off the back muscles, sparing your spine and possibly preventing back pain.[1]

A correct bowing will change your body!

Tatsuya Naka

Seiza in Rei

Ok, so now you might agree to the relevance of bowing. But seiza certainly doesn’t relate to your everyday life and it hurts your knees. So more modern- and practical oriented martial arts are better of without seiza practice? Sorry, you’re wrong again.

Tastsuya Naka shows how to get up from seiza correctly.

The 2012 IFA Report (Institute for Work Safety of the German Social Accident Insurance) about work-related knee-strains mentions seiza and kiza as a common posture within certain crafts while working on the knees (e.g. tilers, plumbers and painters). Laboratory screening shows, that the knee is exposed to less straining forces while sitting on the heels compared to other forms of kneeling and crouching. Seiza and hiza are identified as a recovery posture for the lumbar spine and knees, especially the knee caps. The erected upper body, a relieve of the patella exterior and the contact with soft tissue furthermore reduces the forces on thighs and knee joints.[2]

Seiza and MMA

And regarding ‘modern’ martial arts, actually most BJJ- and MMA practitioners will find themselves in seiza in nearly every training. Working from inside closed guard, a very common grappling posture, will most certainly lead to a seiza position. Therefore you often read about problems with sitting on the heels in MMA and Grappling related internet groups. So if you deem traditional seiza to be not relevant for you, think again.[3]

Seiza and bowing in MMA training

Rei: Seiza and bowing in MMA training
Rei: Seiza and bowing in MMA training

While longer periods of seiza sitting can have a negative effect on postural control after standing up because of occluding the blood flow of the lower limbs[4]and seiza at first can be very uncomfortable, especially on individuals not used to it. Seiza per se is deemed to be innocuous for the knees.[5] Of course regular training of seiza will reduce the negative effects so you can use the practice of seiza to it’s full potential.

Getting up

And there is more to seiza than to just sit on the floor. You have of course to transition from standing to the floor and get up again. While this is happening on a regular basis in every grappling- and throwing related art and is also still very present in middle east- and east asian cultures with a more floor-living lifestyle, this transitional movements are sadly very underrepresented in regular Karate practice. Transition into- and from seiza is your chance to experience this very important movement patterns.

Sitting/kneeling on the ground and transitioning to and from standing are a fundamental movement macronutrient, many are missing in their life and their natural movement training.

Ben Medder[6]

Measures

The osteopath Phillip Beach lists three common sense and clinically practical approaches to prevent musculoskeletal pain and dysfunction:

  • spending more time on the floor in archetypal positions (e.g. squatting[7], kneeling and seiza, cross legged sitting – ‘sitting on the floor in comfort is a developmental birthright’)
  • paying attention on the feet (our feet play a crucial role in our biomechanical well being and the rehabilitating of our feet is essential for reducing musculoskeletal distress)
  • revisiting the processes involved in rising from the floor to upright (‘the effort to erect oneself from the floor to standing are a way of finetuning the many muscles we use in life’) [8]

To love your reihō is to love your body! Make yourself familiar with correct bowing, squatting, seiza and corresponding transitional movements. This will improve your health, posture and after all your martial arts proficiency.

Florian Wiessmann: Practising Karate since the mid 1990s, I am currently a Nidan at the Nihon Karate-dō Shūshūkan, which is headed by Sugimori Kichinosuke (9.Dan) and its german branch is lead by Stephan Yamamoto (6.Dan). https://shushukan.com/

[1] https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/02/26/587735283/lost-art-of-bending-over-how-other-cultures-spare-their-spines

[2] https://www.dguv.de/ifa/publikationen/reports-download/reports-2012/ifa-report-2-2012/index.jsp, p.70

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGeB7oS_Qa4 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IfH9JP8GDdk

[4] http://www.humanergology.com/old/jhe2005p/p13~23-Demura2.pdf

[5] http://drbillsclinic.com/seiza_position.html

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6z1bPbLyr8I

[7] s. also https://www.shushukan.de/squatting-as-a-general-karate-skill/

[8] Beach, Phillip: Muscles and Meridians – The manipulation of shape, Elsevier Ltd. 2010, p. 3-4 and Foreword

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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.

Conclusion

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.

Oss!