Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Isshinryu Front-Kick: Varieties, Chambering and Distance

The front-kick is the most basic kick taught in karate, tae kwon do, or just about any striking style in martial arts. To execute, the knee is pulled up to waist-level (chambered) while the shin hangs down. The leg is then straightened to strike the intended target. Novices are taught to kick the midsection, but other targets include the shin, thigh, groin, or even head. In tournaments, Chuck Norris would fake a front kick to the gut, retract, then snap it to up the head for an easy point. Most practitioners either aren't that quick (or flexible), or prefer other kicks that are less detectable such as roundhouse, hook, crescent, and spin-around-back.

Sensei Victor Smith has a nice article on the front-kicking techniques of Tatsuo Shimabuku (the founder of Isshinryu karate). Some old video clips of the master (c. 1960) are posted featuring the mae geri (front kick) from the Isshinryu kata canon. As Smith-san notes:

If we have been observing his [Shimabuku's] technique,

1. First he raises his thigh parallel to the floor.
2. Once the leg is chambered parallel to the floor, the leg kicks out and returns in a hinging motion, front front kick or rear front kick.

This kicking method means the foot strikes out from the chamber and not slingshoting out as the leg/knee rises.

It gives less time for the opponent to recognize the kick is coming. That also means there is less time to try and catch the leg.

His remark "less time to recognize the kick is coming" raised my eyebrow at first. If I see my opponent has his leg chambered of course he is going to kick me, was my initial thinking. But from a chambered leg (with the shin held at 90-degrees) I have no idea which kick is coming. A chambered leg could be the prelude to one of the following:

  • Front kick
  • Roundhouse kick
  • Hook kick
  • Side kick

A "slingshot" style kick could be a telegraph if you're really sharp. Don Nagle, who trained under Shimabuku in the late 50s, supposedly could block a kick as it was rising from the floor with his forward foot! Now that's a neat trick. Personally, I'm too reflex challenged to pull this kind of move off. I've never seen anyone even attempt this. Attempts at catching kicks I've seen plenty, usually among beginners. In some dojo I've trained in catching an incoming kick is seen as taboo, even though (or maybe because) MMA players do it all the time. The time-honored way is to slip the kick (ideal) or block it with your arm. (The latter is widely taught in karate. Disclaimer: bad idea.) At any rate, I believe that chambering most kicks is good practice. As a last resort the raising knee could be delivered as a hiza-tsui (knee-strike) if your attacker manages to close the distance.


The last video in the blog shows a very brief clip of the master performing what appears to be an application from the kata Sunsu, his creation and a form particular to Isshinryu karate. It is a front thrust kick (as opposed to the snapping variety) in defense of a double-arm grab. (The image above illustrates present-day exponents demonstrating this.)* In this scenario ma'ai or striking distance is minimal between you and the attacker. In this manner, the thrust "kick" is performed more like a push-off.

Generally, the front thrust kick is a very different animal from the more widely taught front snap kick in traditional karate. A front snap kick utilizes mostly the vastus medialis portion of the quadriceps muscle and requires a quick recoil, striking with the ball of the foot (If you're wearing footwear as most folks do when out and about, the ball-of-the-foot application becomes moot, but I digress.). A front thrust kick is akin to kicking down a door; you're really driving more with your hips and striking with your heel. Thrust kicks have more knockdown power than snap kicks. A staple in Muay Thai kickboxing, the front thrust kick has been favored among the Japanese military for use in combative self-defense.


The front kick, a basic technique that is relatively easy to execute, has viable self-defense applications and variations that shouldn't be given short shrift in lieu of so-called flashier kicks.



* This particular bunkai of Sunsu is how it was originally taught to me by a high ranking instructor who trained in Okinawa. I believe it's the correct way. Since then I've visited a number of schools through the years seeing other things applied. It seems everyone has their own version of Isshinryu.

Donn Draeger 1974. Modern Bujutsu and Budo. [p. 75-76] Wheatherhill, Inc.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

The Family Tree of Fighting

(Click on image to expand)


This is interesting.

I've never heard of Muslim Kung-Fu, Glima, Indian Kickboxing, Gatka or Wheelchair Fencing until I stumbled upon this chart.

  • Glima is a style of Nordic combat devised by the Vikings about 1200 years ago. It is sometimes referred to as Icelandic Jiu-Jitsu. Here are a pair of Glima grapplers:
  • Gatka is a weapons system practiced by Sikhs that was created in the 15th century in northern India. Modern exponents use sticks in lieu of a live blade to simulate swordfighting. Here are a duo of Gatka fighters:
  • I had no idea there was such a thing as Wheelchair fencing. Here is a bout featuring duelists in wheelchairs:


I'm still discovering.


(h/t: Shapeless Randomness)

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Friday, July 25, 2014

Looks That Kill: The Alpha-Male Face

A friend sent over the image above that made me think of somebody I used to train with. (The meme is titled Becoming A Black Belt: Expectation vs. Reality.) "Alan" was an intellectual type with an advanced degree and a facial symmetry that made him appear like a milquetoast. He was a decent karateka, a good fighter, but he looked like a pushover. Depending on one's perspective this could be either good or bad. At any rate, Alan was a self-described geek that could kick ass.

Judging a book by its cover is something we all do, but research has revealed that face symmetry in males can reveal how effective they are as fighters. In one study,

The researchers first analysed the facial structure of 241 competitors in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Why choose this competition? "[T]he 'no‐holds‐ barred' nature of the fights and the process of 'cutting' serially defeated combatants from the championship makes for a somewhat Darwinian environment, well‐suited to the investigation of fighting ability," they explained.

The paper reveals that "the width of a man's face [determines] with accuracy his likely fighting ability." Survival of the fittest apparently correlates with having a relatively wide mug, or in scientific lingo 'facial Width-to-Height Ratio' (fWHR). The paper also suggests that a wider face may have evolved as a structural mechanism to be more resistant to punches.



So I did a little more digging on this facial-width indicator, and another study claims that traits such as racism are prevalent among males with broad faces, adding that "fWHR may be a physical manifestation of dominance motives in males and may be best described as an inclination toward interpersonal social dominance and related behaviors."

Both studies cite the presence of high levels of testosterone in males as the culprit. I've posted about the male hormone previously.

As far as facial configurations go as a predictor for fighting prowess or social (or anti-social) dominance, I'm a tad skeptical. I'm reminded of the old wives tale of "criminals have shifty eyes" from my parent's generation. Perhaps more research needs to be done before fighting ability is potentially conflated with negative stereotypes due to face broadness.

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Blast From The Past


Those guys could use a little more room. (I gotta get me some barbells like that!)

Now go check out this fine article on Okinawa's history of karate and kobudo.


(photo h/t: Isshin - Concentration the Art)

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Self-Defense We'd Like To See

Master Ken's quick tutorial on how to counter a two-handed wrist grab.

Wait for it...



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Friday, April 11, 2014

Too Extreme For The UFC


Years ago I went to an Eskrima workshop that was offered at the karate school that I was attending at the time. Eskrima is a Filipino martial art that employs the use of rattan sticks (among other weapons) of various length, similar to the Japanese jo. Eskrima calls for a pair of sticks to be used in unison (at least as what I had been shown on this day). The strikes, parries, blocks and counters of the style knows no bounds. For sure, any type of weapons training will end things quickly in the real world. For the uninitiated, one hard whack on the knuckles from these things and it's game over.

In the late 80s, students of Dan Inosanto (a master Eskrimador and former disciple of Bruce Lee) developed the Dog Brothers style of full-contact weapons fighting. Practitioners use little or next-to-no protective gear for single and double-stick sparring, but also mock knifework and even chain whipping that combines standup hand-to-hand fighting and ground game similar to MMA complete with tapouts. Matches are often brutal and bloody preceded by the caveat that "there isn’t any suing each other...no one spends the night in the hospital" and at the end of the day "we’re friends."

The credo of the Dog Brothers system, "The greater the dichotomy, the profounder the transformation. Higher Consciousness through Harder Contact," refers to the centering of awareness despite the intense adrenaline rush and pain experienced during a real fight. It is with the hope that the practitioner's lessons "carries over to the rest of one’s life; and should one ever need to use one’s skills that it will be done with a calmness that allows for good judgement as well as good skill."

When the UFC began building steam in the mid 90s, they considered using Dog Brothers stickfighting for airtime. But after viewing a demo tape of DB in action, the UFC decided against it as it was deemed too violent, even for the type of viewership they were catering to. A letter dated 1995 to DB's headquaters reads:


[T]he UFC tournament has pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable in TV sports entertainment. The political foes that this event has attracted, because of the tournament, has made us acutely sensitive to what the limits are on North American television. So it is with great reluctance that I must tell you that stickfighting, such as your group has pioneered in the USA, is just too extreme for the UFC format at this time. We have the utmost respect for your group's skills and fighting spirit. Perhaps like the UFC, your type of fighting is just ahead of its time.


In addition to the stick (30") a DB stylist should be able to handle himself proficiently with clubs, knives, staff (54"), improvised weapons and empty-handed techniques in all ranges and against multiple assailants. Like Filipino arts, empty-handed skills are learned after weapons training.

The Dog Brothers martial arts are not for everyone says the group's guiding force, Marc 'Crafty Dog' Denny. Players could fortify themselves with heavy protective gear, a la kendo, but that would be counterproductive. "The danger and risk are necessary to the transformitive nature of the experience."


(h/t: reddit/martialarts -- link includes mildly graphic video)

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Translations of Chinese Martial Arts Manuals


For those into Chinese boxing and weapons systems here's a site written by Paul Brennan that translates into English an impressive collection of original Chinese works by various authors dated from 1875 to 1963 on Taiji, Shaolin, Xingyiquan, among other arts.

Texts include sections on self-defense, saber training, pushing-hands techniques, fitness, diet and philosophy.

Esoteric topics such as breathwork ("energy" or chi) and intent (xing) are discussed in Li Jianqiu's treatise on The Art of Xingyi Boxing (1920):


If you gather energy into your chest, you will gasp and it will not stay for long. If you gather energy into your lower abdomen, it will stay long and not hinder your breathing. It will accumulate gradually until it is abundant. This kind of energy is vast, and is more readily led by the intent.


Explanations and illustrations appear throughout on form and function as well as the differences between internal and external theory. Many of these works emphasize the unity of mind, body and spirit along with encouraging the would-be aspirant to cultivate a proper attitude and moral integrity in relation to the martial arts.

[Note to readers: Chinese martial arts are not my forte; for those schooled in this area I'll leave it to you to decide the value of these texts in today's world.]

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