Originally published on "The Shotokan Times" on October 24, 2019 Article by Jonas Correia and edited by Christian Tribowski
Does Shotokan karate work in full contact fights? As an experienced fighter, who also fought in Karate Combat, Sanshou and MMA, 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.
With all the professionalism of a big event, it did not take long to Karate Combat gain the visibility it deserved. You can find the previous fights an Karate Combat.
The event, divided the opinion of Karate practitioners. Some said that it was no longer Karate. Others said that this would be the watershed to rescue the name of Karate that find itself in the darkness.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
This video analysis nicely how Lyoto Machida applies Shotokan tactics and techniques in MMA.
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.
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.
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.