Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Bad Schools

I received an email yesterday that's a doozy. Here's part of it:

My school's the f*&%ing sh!+. We don't play tag like a bunch of (expletive) when we fight. We're (popular style) and everyone knows our rep. If you want respect here you have to pay for it in blood.

The above is actually in response to an article I wrote in 2007 about sparring injuries. This person went on to rant about how protective gear was ruining the arts and, frankly, the rest of what he wrote was so incoherent I'm not even going to bother reproducing it here. However, what he did say about his style in particular is true: It's known for its emphasis on heavy, knockdown fighting.

I like keeping the training experience "real" as long as things don't get out of control. On the other hand we all know about McDojos that have 8-year-old black belts, binding contracts, and sparring sessions that resemble pillow fights. Still, other schools are so "traditional" they don't even spar! Yet another "sensei" from my area has to close and reopen his school periodically due to some very bad press because, well, he's a cult leader.

This is why when people ask me to critique styles, I'll decline. A style is not a living and breathing thing; it's a theoretical construct. I always advise those really interested in studying the martial arts to go visit schools in progress and observe the behavior of the instructor and students. Many schools do indeed have some kind of a "rep" — for good or bad. And you don't need to be an expert in anything to tell the difference.

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Monday, July 27, 2015


Years ago we had a young man train at our school who had lost his arm in a terrible accident when he was a child. We modified the forms and syllabus to accommodate his disability. Sometimes having a disadvantage urges one to overcompensate in other ways available; in psychology this is called sublimation. He had great spirit, I give him a lot of credit. Rising up to this kind of challenge takes courage. When this fellow had to move away from the area I gave him a copy of The Art of Peace, a collection of philosophical musings by Morihei Ueshiba.

Anyway, the following strip made me think of him. Again, sometimes so-called shortcomings are gifts in disguise:

(Click on image to expand)

(h/t: Rational Comics)

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Magazines From Yesteryear

When it comes to my martial arts reading material I like books. And blogs, of course. Magazines never really appealed to me, but I did find a collection of memorable magazine covers that I think you'll appreciate.

The guy in the middle is one Jason Lau, a Wing Chun practitioner. He's for real, apparently, but I have my doubts about this move of his.

This man needs no introduction. And no, this image was not photoshopped.

William Shatner, 1974. This issue of Fighting Stars went for a cool 75¢. Acting gigs were scarce for Bill in the 70s, so to keep himself busy he trained in Kenpo Karate. Cap't Kirk was still no match for Mr. Spock.

More proof that Tae kwon do is purely a sport!

(h/t: Miriam L. Blackburn Life)


Sunday, June 21, 2015

Faking To Win

In those days, when Japanese stylists threw a kick they never faked or feinted — the kick went straight to the target. They were not accustomed to someone faking a kick to one area and landing it elsewhere.

— Chuck Norris on sport-karate strategy, c. 1967.*

In Wansu kata, the fourth karate form taught in Isshinryu, at some point the defender executes an uppercut immediately followed by a front kick. I have been told that Shimabuku referred to this maneuver as "bullshit", i.e., the uppercut is just a fake setup for the real damage inflictor, in this case the front kick. A very similar strategy can be found in the Kusanku kata: backfist to the face while simultaneously executing a foward-leg front kick. Check out the image below of Ed McGrath attempting this very trick for his black belt test against his instructor Don Nagle in 1959:

McGrath paid for his efforts with a broken nose, but he did earn his shodan in Isshinryu. In MMA there's something called a "Superman Punch" that involves the player faking a jump kick followed by an airborne punch to the face. Although less "fake-ish", another variation of this has the attacker catapulting off the side of the cage to deliver the flying haymaker:

In karate, a faked front kick (or foot sweep) followed by a round kick to the head works well, speaking from experience. Fakes or feints should be used sparingly and look realistic enough to elicit a response; once the opponent has committed to reacting to the faux move, the live technique can then be delivered. To sell the fake technique requires speed, timing, range/distance (ma-ai), and being able to read the opponent.

* Chuck Norris 1989. The Secret of Inner Strength: My Story. Charter Books.

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Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate

In 1917 Gichin Funakoshi, an elementary school teacher and Okinawan-te master, traveled to mainland Japan in a preliminary effort to introduce his fighting art to government officials and members of the Butoku Kai martial arts ministry. Five years later he returned to begin a tour of demonstrations held at universities. He reasoned, correctly, that learned men tended to be physically unfit. His main pitch was that a regimen of karate training could produce health benefits in addition to skills in self-defense. His student base grew quickly and by the 1930s the "empty-hand way" (as it was now called) had a larger following in Japan than on Okinawa.*

Funakoshi made fundamental changes to karate in Japan that included adopting the belt-ranking system from judo and its introduction as a do form, or life art. Thus karate-do was born. More than just a method of fighting, karate skills could be actualized in many aspects of everyday living as exemplified in the following list of aphorisms that was first published in 1938:

1. Karate-do begins with courtesy and ends with rei (respect).

2. There is no first strike in karate.

3. Karate is an aid to justice.

4. First know yourself before attempting to know others.

5. Spirit first, technique second.

6. Always be ready to release your mind (or heart).

7. Accidents arise from negligence.

8. Do not think that karate training is only in the dojo.

9. It will take your entire life to learn karate, there is no limit.

10. Put your everyday living into karate and you will find myo (subtle secrets).

11. Karate is like boiling water, if you do not heat it constantly, it will cool.

12. Do not think that you have to win, think rather that you do not have to lose.

13. Victory depends on your ability to distinguish vulnerable points from invulnerable ones.

14. The out come of the battle depends on how you handle weakness and strength.

15. Think of your opponents hands and feet as swords.

16. When you leave home, think that you have numerous opponents waiting for you.

17. Beginners must master low stance and posture, natural body positions are for the advanced.

18. Practicing a kata exactly is one thing, engaging in a real fight is another.

19. Do not forget to correctly apply: the strength and weakness of power, stretching and contraction of
the body, and slowness and speed of techniques.

20. Always think and devise ways to live the precepts of karate-do every day.

* Donn Draeger 1974. Modern Bujutsu & Budo. Weatherhill, Inc.

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Martial Arts For The Blind

Devin Fernandez, right, demonstrates self-defense with a student.

A martial arts program has been established on Long Island geared specifically for the blind. In 1987 Devin Fernandez was injured in a work-related accident that eventually left him without 90 percent of his eyesight. Undeterred by his fate, he now heads the martial arts program for Third Eye Insight:

The first of its kind on Long Island, Third Eye Insight™ (TEI) provides free physical fitness classes for individuals who are blind or visually impaired. Classes include instruction in the practice of Martial Arts/Self Defense, Yoga and Meditation. By promoting physical activity and sports through health and fitness classes, TEI provides its students with the motivation, self-confidence, and self-esteem to achieve their goals and to meet life’s challenges head on.

Devin, who holds black-belt rank in Japanese jiu-jitsu and Ninpo, acknowledges there is little a blind person could do about a punch they can't see coming, but said if an attacker were to grab them, their training could make all the difference. For a person who is visually impaired, taking a standup style that incorporates joint-locks and grappling at close range makes good sense.

The long term goal for Third Eye Insight is to franchise the model that exists on Long Island and create facilities across the country. In addition to martial arts, TEI would like to offer weight training classes and access to a pool and track for the blind and visually challenged.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Ultimate Martial-Arts Book Review

I've been asked a number of times, "Is it possible to learn martial arts from a book?" Many scoff at such an idea, and until recently so did I. Then I chanced upon a literary treasure trove of martial arts so profound that it left me breathless. The Invisible Fist of the Ninja is unparalleled at imparting the secret techniques and wisdom of martial arts' ultimate system: Ninjitsu! How can ninja techniques that have been shrouded in secrecy for centuries suddenly be available for common laypeople? I have no idea. Now available online, this amazing work is destined to become a classic. Some excerpts:

Attacker attempts to grab you. Simply show him your bruised and calloused hands from years of ninja training. Game Over!

I wish I had thought up this next one. So simple it has to work:

Attacker attempts to punch you. Crouch down like a frog, and presto — you're invisible!

As the reader advances in deadly ninja skill, rank is signified not with silly colored belts but by progressively scarier masks that arrive automatically in the mail. Please look away if this frightens you.

DISCLAIMER: Invisible Fist is not for the squeamish or the undisciplined. Proceed with caution if you must. Only the most serious and dedicated of martial-art practitioners should study this work. You have been warned!


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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