More Thoughts On “Real Fighting”

 In traditional karate, we are always aiming our training at martial art techniques and strategies that are effective in fighting, although we never do any “real fighting” at any time in the dojo.  So, we attempt to teach a fighting art to our students without ever letting them experience any “real fighting”.  This is unavoidable, for fighting with bare hands and feet leads to inevitable maiming of the body, and no one wants this kind of experience when they take up martial art.  For the purposes of understanding the object and the method of traditional karate, we need to distinguish between kumite, “real fighting”, and self-defense fighting.


Let’s start with “real fighting”.  A real fight is not necessarily a fight with no rules, but rather, a contest in which the object is to render an opponent either unable or unwilling to continue the contest.  That is, an opponent can be defeated by physical injury or fear.  Thus, within the rules of the ring, boxing is certainly real fighting.  Parenthetically, I agree with author Joyce Carol Oates that boxing is not properly called a sport, since the essence of any sport is playfulness, and there is nothing playful about boxing.  Hockey, football, soccer, baseball, tennis; these are playful and therefore, properly called sports.  Some of these sports can be rough, but the object of the game is never to render the opponent unwilling or unable to play on.  As the old boxer, George Foreman once said, “boxing is the sport that all others aspire to be”, and by this he meant that boxing is the essential man-to-man conflict, given some of the rule-bound trappings of sport.  Boxing is extremely serious business, and not to taken lightly by anyone who wants to learn how to box.


What about kickboxing? For purposes of this discussion, kickboxing is no different than boxing.  In the Seventies, when I was a young karateka, kickboxing became very popular in North America, and many martial artists who were looking for more “realism” in their training took it up.  This was man-to-man real fighting for sure, and one had to train very seriously indeed to compete in such a dangerous “sport”.  But this was not martial art. Boxing gloves render karate techniques and strategies completely ineffective, and one must learn to box.  Power replaces snap, round techniques become more important than straight ones, blows must be struck repeatedly and in combination to have any effect on the opponent.  Physical strength and stamina replace self-control and strategy to a considerable extent.  One may put up one’s gloves and walk up close to one’s opponent, confident that he cannot down you with one punch or kick, and is not allowed to grapple with you if you get too close.  This is a game for young, strong men who are willing to tolerate constant blows to the head and body in pursuit of victory.  A sixty-year old karate expert might defeat a powerful young man with karate techniques, but he cannot expect to win such a contest wearing boxing gloves, and subject to the rules of kickboxing.


My experience with kickboxing in the Seventies was of immeasurable benefit to both my training and teaching of traditional karate.  Most importantly, I experienced “real fighting”, that is, of having to stand up to someone who was out to hurt me if he could, with no referee to yell “yame”   when things got hot.  And there were technical benefits.  Boxing teaches effective use of the lead hand to a much greater extent than traditional karate. Much greater emphasis is placed on actual hitting practice with bags, pads, and air shields.   Theoretical concepts are tested in the ring, and modified or dropped entirely if they are found wanting according to actual experience.  Kickboxing and boxing blocking methods are simpler and easier to learn than traditional karate methods, and one takes blocking very seriously when the object of the game is to prevent constant, painful blows to the head and body.  And one learns a calm acceptance of being hit, and the ability to bear up under physical punishment.  This mindset is nearly extinct in modern traditional karate, although it is of paramount importance in self-defense encounters.  In sum, I try to bring to bear on my traditional karate instruction the lessons that I learned in the kickboxing ring as a young man.


Turning to karate kumite, I would like to begin by reiterating my belief that free-sparring is essential to the development of effective karate.  It is the most advanced and technically challenging part of our training, since it involves elements of timing and distance, offensive and defensive strategy, reacting to an opponent’s unplanned attacks and defenses, and so on.  It is the only part of our traditional training in which we may pit our “best stuff” against someone else’s “best stuff” in a competitive situation.  This being said, kumite is by no means “real fighting”.  No one is being physically hurt to the point of incapacitation, and no one is being put in fear of defeat in the way that they would be in a kickboxing match.  Kumite is a theoretical fight, in which blows are controlled short of contact, and judgments are made on the split second regarding the actual effectiveness of those blows on an opponent.  Kumite is a training device with some elements of “real fighting” in it, and we are at great pains to maintain these elements in our Shotokan practice of kumite.


Finally, I see self-defense fighting as a subset of “real fighting”, since it is a desperate contest with an attacker in which there are no rules or any referee to put limits on what it is possible for either contestant to do.  Self-defense is war.   Rational people ought to avoid situations in which they may have to fight in this way if at all possible.  A self-defense encounter is the ultimate test of traditional karate training, and all of our practice needs to be done in a way that is mindful of the possibility of such a test.


Copyright 2009 Fudoshin Karate Club. All rights reserved.


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