Saturday, May 19, 2018

Strike First!


The title of this post comes from part of the motto of the Cobra Kai school from The Karate Kid movie. Cobra Kai is now a series on YouTube.* Yes, after 34 years, Daniel-san and bad guy Johnny ("Sweep The Leg") are back! These guys are in their fifties now, and they're still at it. Fifty is the new thirty-five. I'm pretty sure Johnny is still hawking "Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy" at his new Cobra Kai school. This idea is diametrically opposed, deliberately I assume, to one of the most fundamental tenets found in karate, among other styles. But the Cobra Kai "Strike First" stance takes no prisoners. "Strike Hard" is a no-brainer, I suppose. "Mercy is for the weak" is dysfunctional; roles can be reversed. What goes around, comes around.

In 1938, Gichin Funakoshi put forth 20 precepts for karate students to train and live by. His Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate contains the famous excerpt karate ni sente nashi, or "There is no first strike in karate." This basically implies that you don't provoke a fight; it does not mean that in the midst of what looks like a potential altercation — after all other options have failed — you wait to get laid out on the sidewalk. Deescalation isn't always available. Unprovoked attacks and sucker punches happen. If you're lucky enough to factor in time and distance, then reading intent or energy (shin or ki) is possible.

In traditional karate, there are two basic strategies in dealing with an aggressor:

  • Go no sen. This means "after the attack." A basic example would be an aggressor steps in with a punch, you block and counter with a strike.
  • Sen no sen. This is "before the attack." An aggressor announces he wants to kill you, and without hesitation you strike. This is like the old military aphorism "The best defense is a good offense."

It's easy to see how both of these concepts can be misconstrued. Waiting for an attack with the sole purpose for a counter and strike is a recipe for disaster. And the legal ramifications of kicking someone in the head because he flips you off should be obvious.

These concepts are not exclusive to karate, and there are more no sen principles in other arts, such as Kendo and Aikido. These strategies go into much greater depth than I describe. For a deeper study into these principles dealing with situational assessment in actual combat, check out The Book of Five Rings by the Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (c. 1645).


* This is only on YouTube's new "premium" channel. So yes, that means it ain't free. It's either a monthly rate, or pay-per-view.

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Sunday, May 06, 2018

The Role of the Instructor: Learning by Teaching


One day many years ago my sensei was giving a lesson when he got an emergency call to leave. Being the senior at the time, he asked me to finish leading the class, and off he went. I winged it, and I liked being in charge more than I could've imagined. Afterwards I came to the realization that doing and teaching something are worlds apart. I've never owned a school, but through the years I've taught and help prepare dozens of students for advancement that has equally benefited me. Give, and you will receive, goes the verse.

Learning is enhanced through teaching others; it sheds light on the subject matter from a different perspective. In one study, researchers tested the theory that learning by instructing others is viable because

...it compels the teacher to retrieve what they’ve previously studied. In other words, they believe the learning benefit of teaching is simply another manifestation of the well-known “testing effect” – the way that bringing to mind what we’ve previously studied leads to deeper and longer-lasting acquisition of that information than more time spent passively re-studying.

In the martial arts, teachers and seniors are expected to be role models for ethical behavior. The behavior of both the instructor and higher ranking students in a school can be very revealing. Newbies tend to be diffident, but they notice things. In an article for Black Belt magazine (August 1995), Dave Lowry writes,

The senior must also remember that, just as he evaluates the juniors in class, they are watching him. They will notice whether a male senior rushes to help an attractive female junior while ignoring male beginners. They will be observant of the senior's attendance habits and will notice whether he is frequently absent. They will notice whether the senior shows respect for his instructor and his dojo. And they will notice whether the senior lives the precept of his art, and whether its values are translated into his actions, both in and out of the training hall.

In addition to altruism and self-realization, it has been said that teaching in the martial arts is also a way of fulfilling one's giri, or obligation to the previous teacher(s), and to the art itself.

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Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Return of Bare-Knuckle Fighting


A sanctioned and regulated bare-knuckle boxing event will take place June 2nd in Cheyenne, Wyoming, USA. The last time a championship boxing match sans gloves took place is when John L. Sullivan defended his world heavyweight title against Jake Kilrain in 1889.* In those days London Prize Rules governed boxing, whereby sweeps, takedowns and throws were permitted. In the updated version of fisticuffs, weight classes will be similar to those found in MMA, and standup-style grappling that allows for the fighters to hit with a free hand will be permitted.

Getting the rights to make bare-knuckle boxing a legal reality was no easy task for promoter Dave Feldman:

Feldman said he went to 28 different athletic commissions and was rejected by all of them until Wyoming played ball. His argument is that gloves were adopted for boxing and MMA to protect the hands of fighters — not their heads. Bare knuckle, Feldman argues, is actually safer when it comes to concussions and brain injuries than boxing.

The card will feature a number of seasoned fighters from boxing, MMA, kickboxing, and Muay Thai. Punches are the only strikes that will be allowed. Fighters will only have hand wraps that end one inch from the knuckles. No doubt it will be a bloody affair like MMA, but hey, that's what sells tickets. Time will tell if this newfangled aberration in combat sports catches on.


* Sullivan would wait more than four years before defending his title again, this time donning gloves under Marquess of Queensberry Rules against a smaller and less experienced fighter, James J. Corbett. Nonetheless, Corbett took Sullivan's title, utilizing a savvy, technical approach that would become a staple of modern prizefighting. Sullivan retired after his loss, and the barns that he trained in for the Kilrain fight was made into the Bare Knuckle Boxing Hall of Fame. Yes, there is such a thing.

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Know Yourself

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. — Sun Tzu

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Sunday, April 01, 2018

Extreme Training For Advanced Students

I'm not a big believer in warm-up routines in the dojo. On the street, you won't have time to stretch or do jumping jacks when some thug is trying to boost your wallet. Performing basics are another waste of time, and won't put you outside of your comfort zone. Here's a short list of reality-based practices you can try out to test your mettle. They won't enhance your technical fighting skill, but you may permanently lose certain bodily functions or your life. I must warn you, these are specifically designed for practitioners with at least three years of dedicated, hardcore training, so proceed with caution.


Fire Walking


This will develop your ability to deal with fear. And extremely high temperatures. Drink plenty of water before attempting this one.



Iron Crotch Kung Fu


Muay Thai fighters wear steel groin guards in their matches. The cheap ones start at 20 USD. But with the Iron Crotch regimen, you can save your money for better things, like pain killers.



Sub-Zero Workouts


Becoming one with nature is essential for any aspiring martial artist. This is a great way to cool down after your fire walking routine.


Good luck and have fun!

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Monday, January 08, 2018

Old School Karate Point-Fighting

Traditional karate bouts are scored with points. After a strike such as a punch or kick is scored, a point is awarded, whereupon the fighting is stopped by the referee. The combatants return to their marks, square off, and — hajime! — the action resumes. So, it's a stop-and-go-affair, it lacks flow, say like a boxing match, or most combative fighting sports that have more-or-less continuous action. The idea of the point-match in karate is that all strikes are considered the equivalent of atemi — lethal strikes. I go into more depth about point-fighting in this post.


In a karate match, every strike delivered should be with the intent to annihilate your opponent, especially if you regard your techniques as "lethal." But karate point matches get some flack for looking like a game of tag, with players maintaining a bizarre fighting range so as to not get scored on. Long range strikes and tactics are favored as there is virtually no in-fighting. The emphasis on distance management, and de-emphasis on launching an attack lacks combative realism. Obviously, training this way is counterproductive for preparing you for the real thing.

A few years ago I posted an article about point-fighters who were reluctant to commit to executing anything for fear of getting countered and losing. It can make for a spectacle. A kenpo practitioner emailed me recently about that post, and asked me if I knew of any famous karate competitors that didn't engage in what he called larping.*

Check out this sample of a bout between Jim Harrison and Fred Wren from 1968:


Supposedly both guys were taken to the hospital after this match. Obviously, neither guy had any reservations about going all out. Harrison and Wren were legends in their day, and both guys should've been carried out on their shields. It's worth noting that this fight, far from the train wreck it may appear to be, is a technical montage of sweeps, take-downs and brutal hand and foot combinations — all without any discernible protective gear. Bear in mind that this match happened 50 years ago; sport karate has come a long way since. But along the way, maybe the old school spirit of things have been lost. It all depends what you're training for. Remember, how you train is how it happens.


* Larp; acronym for "live action role-playing." Think American Civil War or medieval knight reenactments with costumes to duplicate historic events for appreciation of an era and/or culture. Enough said.
I realize there are a plethora of brutal matches to be found online, and that certain styles, such as Kyokushin karate, emphasize heavy knockdown fighting, sans low kicks and head shots. The Harrison-Wren bout just really stood out for me because of its unique intensity, and its place in American karate history. For anyone interested in the source video here it is.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Bushido: A Graphic Novel

The seminal work, Bushido: The Soul of Japan, first published in 1900 in English, introduced Americans to the history and culture of the samurai and paved the way for similar works on feudal Japanese warrior ethos to be released to the West. The author, Inazo Nitobe, was a Japanese academic1 who traveled widely, spoke English, and wrote extensively on a number of subjects for both scholars and laypeople. Bushido2 was actually written in the States where it was well received, though in Japan it did not receive praise until 1985 when Nitobe's likeness was put on Japanese currency. Though coming from a samurai lineage, I could not find any sources to indicate Nitobe himself was a practitioner of martial arts.


I recently picked up an updated version of this work, Bushido: The Soul of The Samurai, written as a graphic novel, i.e., a comic-strip format,3 but don't let that dissuade you, this is a creative tour de force. Published in 2016, this new illustrated softcover begins with a brief bio of Nitobe, then delves into the Seven Virtues of Bushido, each getting treatment in their own section:

  1. Rectitude
  2. Courage
  3. Benevolence
  4. Politeness
  5. Veracity
  6. Honor
  7. Loyalty

Subsequent parts of the book deal with aspects of the sword, training, and self-control, each accompanied by tasteful artwork. Mind you, this is an adaptation of the original. At any rate, this graphic novel format is well done and worth checking out.



1. Nitobe's accomplishments are dizzying. He held doctorate degrees in economics and law, and positions in numerous world organizations such as The League of Nations, just to scratch the surface. Little wonder he had no time for martial arts training. Despite his academic achievements, he felt insight and wisdom were more important to develop than intellect.
2. "The way of warriors."
3. The new author, Sean Michael Wilson, has done graphic novel adaptations on other Japanese classics, such as Hagakure, The Book of Five Rings, and The 47 Ronin.

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Friday, December 22, 2017

Olympic Karate and The Okinawan Karate Kaikan

Earlier this year, a multi-purpose training hall and exhibition center — The Okinawan Karate Kaikan — opened in Tomigusuku City, Okinawa. A multi-purpose venue, it's a training facility for karateka that includes a museum, classrooms for teaching seminars, a general dojo and a "Special Dojo" featuring red tiled ceilings and traditional adornments used exclusively for testing high ranking black belt candidates. The creation of The Okinawan Karate Kaikan coincides nicely with even bigger news: For the first time, Karate will be an event for the Summer Games in the 2020 Olympics to be held in Tokyo.* This is both timely and appropriate, as the art of Judo made its Olympic debut in the same city in 1964.

In advance of the upcoming Olympics to be held on the mainland, Okinawan businesses are anticipating an economic ripple event from the expected rise in tourism. There are a number of attractions on the island to attract martial arts enthusiasts from abroad, including some 400 karate schools. For nightlife, there's even a Dojo Bar in Naha City that features old style karate memorabilia and decor. As an enticement to come to the island, The Dojo Bar, in collaboration with KARATEbyJesse, is running a Okinawan Karate Nerd Programme that's a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for two young Karate Nerds between the ages of 18-35 to fly to Okinawa and live there for 6-12 months and experience the Way of Karate at its source."


As for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, there's no doubt there are purists who will deride the idea of karate in the Games. Indeed, when Gichin Funakoshi introduced Okinawan karate to the Japanese mainland in 1922, he was diametrically opposed to the idea of karate tournaments; in his view, competition was antithetical to the true spirit of karate. Compare this notion to that of the founder of Judo, Jigaro Kano, who set out to promote his martial art specifically with the Olympics in mind. In Kano's vision, the Olympics would be the perfect vehicle to spread judo to the world. For him, judo-the-sport and judo-the-martial way were both compatible and complimentary to each other.

So far Olympic Karate will feature two events for individual competition: Kumite (fighting) and Kata (forms). Scoring will be based on World Karate Federation (WKF) rules. Therefore, for senior men and women (over 21) there will be five weight classes each. Kata will be the empty-handed variety, no weapons. Although this is sport, the WKF is still intent to preserve the tradition in karate. Nothing gaudy like camouflage belts; the gi (uniform) must be white. Vital area shots are prohibited, as are low kicks and strikes delivered with excessive contact. So much for tradition. Strikes to the head, face, and neck are allowed but must be delivered like a "touch" (or as one instructor I had wryly put it, 'touch one side of the face to the other'). Hand guards, mouth-pieces, shin and foot protectors are mandatory, but curiously, groin protectors are optional.


Through the years sport karate has had to endure its share of problems and politics. I'm not certain karate can avoid the scandals and controversies that have been pervasive in Olympic competition for so long. Perhaps Funakoshi was right.


* This was actually announced last year.
That's a joke. Heavy sparring usually provides a good metrics for handling pressure, among other things. An astute ref can determine when "excessive contact" can be regarded as what Mike Tyson used to call "bad intentions." Not very sportive.

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