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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Saturday, October 14, 2017

My Black Belt Beats Your Black Belt


A friend of a friend (both guys are longtime Isshinryu karate practitioners) is a part-owner of a successful Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) school in the Hamptons of Long Island, NY. I went to his dojo years ago when he was still doing karate; he was fairly new to BJJ and showed some impressive on-the-ground techniques (his uke [attacker] was 6'8, 300 + pounds). At the time I was dabbling in aikido and tai chi, so the rough and tumble techniques of BJJ were refreshing, so to speak. I had no interest in regular BJJ training, but I respected its apparent effectiveness. My friend's friend has since developed some early onset arthritic joints (he's in his early 30s) from the habitual grabbing of other players' gi (judo jacket), armbars, and the like. His fingers in particular are messed up and will likely worsen, but no cauliflower ears so far.


His new school is a gold mine given that he's in a ritzy area and that he's teaching BJJ. His classes ain't cheap. Because BJJ has more "street cred" (his term) than most traditional martial-art styles, he can charge more — a lot more than the average karate school. I've discussed the efficacy of striking vs. grappling styles in this post, but one thing that really separates BJJ from the rest of the traditional pack of styles is this: for a typical student it takes about 12 years to get to black belt. This is roughly twice as long as it takes to acquire a black belt in karate or many other styles. While BJJ is still regarded as a "traditional" martial art — in that players practice in a gi, go bare feet, and adhere to colored belts for rank — its derision of other traditional arts has become a marketing ploy. From the website of one BJJ school in Texas:


Karate: the vast majority of what is called Karate today is about as effective as interpretive dance. Wide stances, complete lack of takedown defense or awareness of submissions and a general watering down of its belt systems have made Karate kind of hilarious. There are some styles that have proven to be effective, so never assume that someone who does Karate is ineffective, but generalizations can be made.


Taekwondo: perhaps the most popular and most derided Asian martial art, TKD has become a sort of a joke in that it is, on a fundamental level, simply tag played with ones feet. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is superior to Taekwondo because, simply put there is no distance management taught in most standard Taekwondo curriculums making it, on a fundamental level, ineffective…especially when someone that know what they are doing grabs you.


Taekwondo may have surpassed judo as the most popular style on the planet, thanks in part to its inclusion in the Olympics (like judo), but also (unlike judo) for its reputation for quick promotion and prepubescent black belts, resulting in its new moniker "take-one's-dough." In fairness, we have karate "McDojos" doing similar things for the almighty buck. To reiterate, the BJJ guy is raking it in. It's all in the marketing.

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Saturday, September 09, 2017

3D Martial Arts (And An Old Tale)

Here's a visually dazzling site that includes a catalog of some Japanese budo (martial ways), ceremonies, calligraphy and stage performance arts. While the computer graphics and 3D renderings are impressive, the descriptions, interviews and demos provided are comprehensive and well done. Of the non-martial-art themes featured it was the art of the Tea Ceremony — Sado (also called Chadō) — that caught my attention. Tea Ceremony has a long history in Japan which was influenced in part by Zen; Zen also influenced the development of Japanese martial arts. This inspired the fable of The Samurai and The Tea Master:


A tea master came into the service of a nobleman named Lord Yamagouchi. He poured and prepared tea for his master gracefully and with perfection. Lord Yamagouchi was so pleased he presented his esteemed tea master with the robes and rank of a samurai, which was quite an honor. Occasionally, the lord took his tea master with him on trips.

On one excursion, the tea master found himself in a precarious situation while out and about by himself. After turning a corner, he was confronted by a samurai. Appalled, the samurai questioned why the tea master wore the robes of a bushi (warrior). The tea master explained that his lord presented him with the outfit and rank.

Outraged, the samurai then challenged the tea master to a duel to test if he was worthy of this accolade. The tea master, being who he was, could not reject such a challenge. He agreed to the duel, which was to take place the next day. Terrified, the tea master quickly enlisted the help of a local swordsman to teach him the art of combat. But the tea master was no warrior and a crash course in swordfighting proved to be futile. Having an idea, the sword teacher simply asked his charge to do what he knew best — to prepare him some tea. The tea master kneeled in seiza and cleared his mind. With the dignity, grace and calm required of any master he prepared the tea.

"That's it!" exclaimed the sword sensei. "What do you mean?" replied the tea master.

"You don't need to learn anything from me. When you meet your adversary tomorrow just pretend you're preparing tea. Your state of mind when you perform the tea ceremony is all that is required. Just hold your sword like you hold your chashaku (tea scoop)." The tea master could not comprehend how his respectful ceremony would prepare him for a fight to the death, but with no other recourse he took his teacher's advice and prepared for the showdown.

The following morning when he met his opponent, the tea master performed exactly as his sword teacher had instructed. The samurai had expected to see a quivering wreck of nerves, but instead his eyes fell upon a quietly confident, unshaken opponent. In fact, he thought that this was an entirely different person than the one he encountered the day before! So awed was he by the man before him that he bowed respectfully, asked for forgiveness, and retreated from battle without once raising his sword.

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Sunday, May 21, 2017

Little Trouble In Big China

There was a famous bodybuilder from the 40s (I believe it was John Grimek) who as a teenager decided to enter a swim meet to be held at an Olympic style pool in a nearby town. He didn't have access to a pool or beach, so he decided to train for this event by swinging around a pair of dumbbells to mimic the motions of a swimmer. He did this for several weeks, and when the big day came and he jumped into the water for the first time, he nearly drowned before somebody rescued him. It's really reminiscent of the Bruce Lee aphorism, “If you want to learn to swim, jump into the water. On dry land no frame of mind is ever going to help you.”

Lee was speaking of what he saw as unrealistic training that doesn't prepare you for an actual fight. Of course there are styles that don't emphasize combativeness as much as others. It is also contingent upon how the syllabus for said style is presented, and this can vary greatly from school to school. Some clubs train for heavy sparring while others pair up students to work pre-set self-defense drills exclusively. Others still, more closely resemble the atmosphere of a gym. Be careful with that one, as gym is used as a term to describe some MMA and boxing clubs.

Over the past couple of decades, MMA has been held as a crucible for testing the efficacy (or lack thereof) of certain fighting systems. Again, not all styles prioritize fighting, but rather other ideals such as character, fitness, and tradition. A fat, brutish thug can still whip ass, and all the good intentions and knowledge of etiquette won't stop him in his tracks. A point match is not like getting mugged. How you train is how it happens.

Recently there was a match that pitted a retired MMA competitor against a proponent of taijiquan after the former issued a challenge to the traditional martial arts community in China in an online tirade. Taiji (tai chi) with the added quan suffix translates as "Grand Ultimate Fist" but for most people tai chi is not a martial art, but a regimen of slow moving exercises that supposedly enhances longevity and health. Clearly, the tai chi representative who responded to this challenge was not doing this for his health. For the record, the combatants are Xu Xiaodong, a Beijing-based MMA coach and promoter, and Wei Lei, the founder of his "Thunder style" of tai chi. Let the lightning strike:



While not particularly graphic, this was still painful to watch. Most of the spectators were clearly less than enthusiastic with the outcome. I'm glad Wei, the tai chi man, wasn't as seriously hurt as he could've been. But Wei said after fight that the only reason he lost to Xu was because he was showing mercy, fearful that his "internal strength" would prove to be fatal against Xu, the MMA guy. Not to be outdone, Xu remarked that tai chi is a "sham", followed by reiterating his challenge to the Chinese martial arts community.

Apparently this is causing a big uproar in China, including complaints issued by the Chinese Wushu Association, as they see this kind of a no-holds-barred match as an affront to Chinese culture and that it violates the morals and principles of martial arts. For this, Mr. Xu has gone into hiding. "I've lost everything, my career and everything," he said. "I think people misunderstand me. I'm fighting fraudulence, but now I've become a target."

I really thought the debate on this was long settled. I could entertain hard-style kung fu stylists taking up this guy's challenge, but to what end? Tai chi and other neijia (internal) arts were simply not designed for a ground-and-pound affair. Maybe if Xu comes out of hiding we'll see more of this kind of spectacle. I hope not.

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