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 on 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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