Saturday, March 28, 2015

Risky Business

How you train is how it happens. That's an old martial arts maxim. You want to train as realistically as possible. But this is fraught with problems. Your dojo is not a back alley and uke (your training partner/attacker) is not on a wanted poster (hopefully). In other words when you're paired up with somebody, be mindful of how you handle yourself. This goes for sparring, self-defense drills, or 2-person exercises such as kotekitai (forearm conditioning).

Some techniques are inherently difficult to control, even among experts. High-target chamberless kicks such as crescent and axe kicks are nearly impossible to pull. Crescent kicks are okay if you can clear your opponents head, showing that you could have made contact. Not so with the gravity-charged axe kick, which implicitly targets the face or collarbone. Bear in mind that it only takes roughly 12 lbs. of pressure to break the clavicle. Also, overreaching with the axe kick means you'll end up striking with your Achilles tendon, not the sole or heel of the foot.

Set-up for Axe Kick

Anything that involves a full-body rotation to launch your move, such as a spinning backfist or any variant of a spin-around kick are specifically designed to increase power via centrifugal force. Think of a shot-putter torquing his body before he explodes that 16 lb. steel ball off his shoulder. If you see someone KO'd at a tournament it is quite often from a spin-around back kick, the most powerful kick in karate. And those things tend to come in hard, fast and wild, capable of breaking ribs, teeth, or anything that gets in its way. A few years back two BBs were sparring at our school and one of them got nailed south of the border with a spin-around back kick. Because this genius left his groin protector home that day he was rewarded with a trip to the hospital and emergency surgery. Some lessons are learned the hard way. Protective gear has its place, but too much of a good thing can be a problem.

When you're working self-defense with a partner remember that you're employing time-honored methods such as joint-locks and pressure-point applications designed to impart extreme pain. Play nice. And this goes both ways. If you're a student looking to one-up a senior or instructor you may be in for a really bad time.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Some Thoughts About Kata

"Mike" is a green belt with about two years of training. He'll be graduating from law school soon; smart kid. He has good questions, always, among them this time-honored one:

"Is it possible to learn karate without kata (solo practice forms)"

Before I answer that let's go over some features of karate forms.

The kata...

  • contains the essence of short range self-defense techniques that cannot be gleaned from sportive play.
  • is arranged in sequential moves which are conducive for memorization.
  • each provides a link to the past and may represent what was at one time a distinct fighting system unto itself.*

This list is hardly exhaustive. The last item, the kata as a "distinct style", really has no advantage in training, but could provide a technical glimpse into the modern style of karate one is currently involved in.

I do believe it is possible to learn the techniques of karate sans kata. But to present a traditional karate-style course without kata is artistically and culturally untenable. As a colleague of mine also pointed out, doing so would be an affront to the style's founder (or current sōke) if your still citing said style as your base.

Kata training is good if you don't have a live partner to work with. Pairing up and testing the kata's self-defense applications brings a refreshing sense of realism into practice. But you can work any self-defense move in this way without it having its roots in an ancient form.

With the growing popularity of arts that don't teach forms such as Krav Maga and Muay Thai how have kata survived this long?

I believe the usefulness of karate forms have evolved for the benefit of instructors and students — not the art.


  • takes up class time and possibly staves off the boredom of partaking in otherwise monotonous drills.
  • provides an alternative to sparring, especially for tournaments.
  • is used as a requisite for belt promotion.

Mike's question is an old one, but a good one. And I don't hesitate to admit I have mixed feelings about kata, especially when practiced as a solo form without a live partner. If Mike wants his purple belt he's going to have to dissect Chinto and (try to) explain how a double jump kick devised two centuries ago within this form can still work today.

*Actually, I'm not too sure about this. This odd legend of singular kata as an entire fighting art may have come from the story of Chinto, a 19th century kung-fu master and the namesake for the kata I mentioned towards the end of my post.

Isshinryu's founder, Shimabuku, had black belts that didn't spar. Needless to say they had their kata down cold. Free-style sparring is not for everyone. Movie buffs take note, Jet Li and Cynthia Rothrock were champion forms competitors prior to acting.

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Got Racism?

This is a flyer from the first professional kickboxing card held in the US. I first chanced upon this image from the book Al Weiss' the Official History of Karate in America. The organizer for this event, one Lee Faulkner, apparently took some well-deserved heat* for the inclusion of this little gem:


Lewis did go on to defeat Baines (misspelled as Banies), but that's besides the point. One wonders if either man realized they were being used for race-baiting in an attempt to drum up ticket sales.


When Bruce Lee began teaching martial arts in California in the early 60s there was outrage in the Chinese community because of Lee's open door policy of instructing non-Chinese students. A match was arranged between Lee and Wong Jack Man, another kung-fu sifu from the area, with the understanding that if Lee lost he would have to close his school down. A victory by Lee would ensure that he could teach Caucasians or anyone else he wanted to. Lee prevailed, the bout taking either 3 or 25 minutes, depending on who was asked. Within a few years, Lee would begin to instruct Hollywood's elite, charging up to $300 per hour.

Speaking of kung-fu here's a clip from the popular 70s TV show of the same name depicting how a skilled but ethical warrior deals with some barroom racism. Ironically the lead role of Caine, the orphaned son of a Chinese mother and American father, was originally supposed to go to Bruce Lee (who reputedly contributed to the storyline) but was turned down. Instead, the part was given to David Carradine, an actor with hitherto no background in the martial arts. The reason: Lee was considered "too Chinese" to play the mixed-race character.

The method of nonviolence seeks not to humiliate and not to defeat the oppressor, but it seeks to win his friendship and his understanding. And thereby and therefore the aftermath of this method is reconciliation.

— Martin Luther King, Jr., 1956

*Mitch Stom 1970. Black Belt (Magazine). Vol. 8, No. 3, p.55.

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Saturday, January 03, 2015


Look at this poster. The guy on the left is depicted as a musclebound thug covered in tattoos with cauliflower ears engaging in a blood sport. Maybe we should be grateful there is such a thing as MMA or this character would be in prison or the nuthouse, right?

Now observe the gentleman on the right. He's bowing in respect, an obvious by-product of self-mastery developed from a long time of training in an honored fighting tradition that ultimately has lofty, even peaceful aims. He is a disciple (and perhaps a teacher) of Budo — the martial arts.

Basically what this image is saying is that Traditional Martial Arts (TMA) are civilized and cultivate good qualities in its adherents while MMA is legalized headbashing that provides little more than a buglight for violent whackjobs. This just reinforces some unfair stereotypes, especially to laypeople. There are good and bad people in all walks of life. Don't be so fast to judge a book by its cover.

It's true that MMA has no official philosophy or written tenets of life principles like those found in TMA. But MMA doesn't automatically produce a crop of bad guys anymore than TMA can unconditionally change otherwise unsavory types into good citizens. As karate master Yasuhiro Konishi once said, "Karate aims to build character, improve human behavior, and cultivate modesty; it does not, however, guarantee it."

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Friday, January 02, 2015

The Reluctant Point-Fighter

The attitude of destroying the enemy with one cut is based on the attitude of "going in" to the attack. If not, your spirit is lacking and your resolve is less than complete. You must always close in on the enemy regardless of the indications of the enemy's strength.

— Miyamoto Musashi

In karate and tae kwon do sparring, scoring is kept by counting hand and foot strikes that make contact as points. The point system came about from the idea that atemi (vital strikes) are indeed lethal. Obviously real atemi are prohibited in sportive matches, and as such point-matches morph into a game of glorified tag. What happens is that players tend to fight from exaggerated fighting ranges (ma-ai) with hands held low (especially in TKD), and at times not fully committing to techniques, especially kicks. Combatants are trying to score, but are especially leery of getting countered or "tagged." For these reasons, a point-match is nothing like a realistic fight.

This is clearly a problem if you fancy your art as a viable means of self-defense. In sportive arts like boxing, wrestling and judo, players are fully committed to hitting, getting hit, throwing and getting taken down, even in practice drills. Realize that how you train on the mat is how it happens in real life.

Somebody once told me that the difference between black belts and those at the lower echelon was really a degree of self-interest. "Black belts don't care," he said. What he meant was the BBs aren't concerned with the outcome of committing to a combination of techniques against the opponent. They're more centered in the here-and-now. That means visualizing the attack and following through without being hindered with the mental baggage of a counter. Still, judges don't want to see matches that look like a train wreck or game of chicken.

The bane of the point-match isn't whether or not a technique is so devastating that it can maim or kill, but the aversion to being hit in return. That doesn't mean to disregard defensive techniques completely during a match. Just don't be so mindful of your opponent's strategy that it impinges your game plan. The Japanese concept of kobo-ichi is just another way of saying the old adage "the best defense is a good offense."

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Saturday, December 27, 2014


A schoolboy was playing truant in the street when he saw an old woman grinding an iron pestle on a stone. Being curious, the boy asked the old woman what she was doing.

"I am going to grind this pestle into a needle to sew cloth with," answered the old woman. The child laughed. "But this is such a big pestle, how can you hope to grind it down to a needle?"

"It doesn't matter," replied the old woman. "Today I grind it, tomorrow I'll grind it again, and the day after tomorrow again. The pestle will get smaller every day, and one day it will be a needle."

The child saw the point and went to school.

— Ch'en Len-shi

SOURCE: Tri Thong Dang 1993. Beyond The Known: The Ultimate Goal of the Martial Arts. Charles E. Tuttle Publishing Co., Inc.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Profile of a Martial Arts Cult Leader

Here's a story about a guy from my neck of the woods that exemplifies what a martial arts cult leader is all about. For years he's adorned lampposts and telephone poles with his hand-written signs that beckons all to "Fight Back" that includes his phone number and lists aiki-jiu-jitsu, aikido, and kung-fu as part of the package, along with a drawing of a singular sai (tri-pronged truncheon).

I've never met "Sensei Jerry" but I know of two people who briefly trained with him, one of them a former instructor. The stories that have come back include students having to defend against (or threatened with) a myriad of weapons, such as bats, live blades, 2x4s, and spears.

Another account:

Hell, there was even an annual outing called, “The Hunt”, where the students would be let loose to survive and scavenge in an open area while Sensei Jerry, and assigned “hunters”, would hunt the hiding students. And the hunt didn’t start in the woods, no, it started that week and you could be attacked at any time, even while at work, at home, or even in your bed. The website’s last noted hunt was from 2012 where Jerry described a team leader who was kidnapped in his sleep the night before the hunt was to begin…

An anonymous source from the same site corroborates with his experience at the school:

Enter Sensei Jerry. “Class” began with a recap of the most recent “hunt” that took place in Connecticut. Those who had somehow performed in an unsatisfactory manner were punished…with swirlies. I kid you not. Four other members of the group picked them up, carried them to the bathroom, and did the deed. The Sensei then congratulated everyone on a job well done, and began espousing the benefits that come with training – being able to disguise oneself in any situation, stretching out one’s “meridian system” (according to Sensei Jerry, computers and TV were a government plot to lower life expectancy and the only way to combat this was with the “good fear”). Then, it was time for class to begin. What followed can only be described as: absolutely f*#!ing insane.

Martial arts cults are nothing new, of course. A while back a reader recommended a book called Herding The Moo that describes the experience of training at a cultish school, from white to black belt. I never got around to reading it, but I've read other accounts about how cults actually develop from the psychological perspective of an adept in Eastern philosophy who has researched phony spiritual leaders or gurus.* "Characteristics of Pathological Spiritual Groups" could be readily applied to sociopathic martial arts instructors and their credulous students, to wit:

  • The leader assumes total power to validate or negate the self-worth of the devotees, and uses this power extensively.
  • The leader keeps his followers in line by manipulating emotions of hope and fear.
  • There is a strict, rigid boundary drawn between the group and the world outside.

In addition, many of these "sensei" either claim some high rank in a made-up style (or styles), or have a rather tenuous one in a legit system they no longer are really affiliated with. For example, certain exponents of Ryu-te kempo such as George Dillman and Jack Hogan claim to be able to KO anyone without having to touch them! But Ryu-te founder Seiyu Oyata (d. 2012) has never advocated, much less demonstrated, a "no-touch knockout.". Needless to say the no-touch KO has since been debunked. Only duped students have been brainwashed into complying with the herd mentality. More people need to say the emperor has no clothes.

*John Welwood 2000. Toward a Psychology of Awakening. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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