Stepping on Toes

Recently, there was a UFC event here in Phoenix, which was headlined by a very competitive fight between Junior dos Santos and Stipe Miocic. In one of the earlier fights during that event, a minor thing happened that caused some interesting discussion on some MMA forums. One of the fighters stepped on the foot of his opponent. Normally, this would not have even been noticed–it wasn’t a foot stomp, and probably wasn’t even intentional. The only reason it was noticed was because it had a very obvious effect, and the commentators even mentioned it.

Early in the first round, Gabriel Gonzaga managed to step on Matt Mitrione’s lead foot as he (Gonzaga) pressed forward with lead right punch, causing Mitrione to stumble. The stumble was rather dramatic, with Mitrione dropping his hands to try to catch his balance and ending up 2/3s of the way across the Octagon. While it did not change the outcome of the fight, it showed people that such a trick could be useful, and led some people to wonder why more people don’t step on their opponent’s lead foot, particularly when the fighters are in open-faced stances (Orthodox vs. Southpaw). When faced with an opponent in the opposite stance, your lead feet are close to each other, making them easy to step on, but it isn’t too hard to do against someone in the same stance, either.

As is often the case with MMA, many people seem to be oblivious to techniques–no matter how useful they are in other fighting arts–until someone uses them successfully in MMA competition. Stepping on your opponent’s lead foot is nothing new–in karate, it would be classified as ashi-waza (leg/foot techniques)–and is used fairly frequently in other combat sports and martial arts. Consider its use by Iranian Olympic wrestler Reza Yazdani in the animated GIF, above. His highlight videos are filled with clips of him stepping on his opponent’s lead foot to pin it to the floor long enough for him to grab onto their leg. He is far from the only wrestler–or even the only grappler–to do this, but he does it more frequently than most. There are throws in jujutsu and judo that do something very similar to stepping on the foot, and some competitors will even step on their opponent’s feet to set up a throw, much as Reza does with his single-leg takedowns.

This concept of trapping the foot is very popular in grappling arts, but also shows up in striking arts. Boxers, kickboxers, and sport karate fighters all do it. In the video, above, you can see Juan Marquez stepping on Manny Pacquiao’s lead foot as he steps in with a lead right, followed by a left uppercut, then another right. During that flurry, Pacquiao can do nothing but cover up and try to move his upper body, because he can’t step away. When I first started sparring, I was actually taught to step on my opponent’s lead foot if they kept backing away from me when I would shoot in to attack. I have found that, while it is not officially taught, it is quite commonly advocated in Kyokushin (and it’s off-shoots), where close-quarters striking is a major component to their competition format. It isn’t something that is used all the time, and it may not win you the fight, but it is a helpful trick to have in your arsenal. It can also be dangerous, if you use it right.

Funakoshi Gichin (founder of Shotokan) demonstrating a technique that includes stepping on the foot

In some of the applications we work for our kata in Shorin-Ryu, we step on the opponent’s foot–especially when we have an arm or leg in our grasp. This helps prevent them from escaping our hold, and disrupts their balance, making them easier to throw. Of course, if you throw someone to the ground while pinning their foot to the floor, you can cause some serious damage to the ankle. We aren’t alone, either. In his article, “The Why of Bunkai,” Charles Goodin Sensei wrote; “Don’t forget to step on the attacker’s feet, twist his legs, strike his knees, etc.” You can see in the photo, above, that even Funakoshi Gichin applied this concept in his techniques. In training with Ulf Karlsson Sensei in KishimotoDi, I saw it even more. A great many of the techniques in KishimotoDi utilize foot trapping, and they often do so quite naturally with the stepping required to use the technique. Clearly, this approach is one that is built into karate.

From Mario McKenna’s translation of Itoman Morinobu’s “The Study of China Hand Techniques”

Going back in time, a bit, we have this example from Itoman Morinobu’s 1934 book, The Study of China Hand Techniques, which was recently translated into English by Mario McKenna Sensei. The book is a treasure trove of toudi (China/Tang hand) information, and is a must-have for any karateka interested in the roots of their art. In Figure 105, pictured above, Itoman shows that stepping on a retreating opponent’s foot is a perfectly valid and old-school approach to self defense. In the caption, he simply says that you can run your opponent into the ground, but that does not necessarily mean he is saying this must be done with punches. Throwing your opponent could certainly be called “running an opponent into the ground,” as well.

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About Noah

I began training in karate (Shuri-Ryu) in the Summer of 2006. Subsequently, I started training in judo, kobudo, and iaijutsu within the next 6 months. During my training there, I earned the rank of Sankyu (3rd Degree Brown Belt) in Shuri-Ryu, Gokyu (Green Belt) in judo, a certification in the use of the bo, and passed proficiency tests for the four tachigata of Shinkage-Ryu iaijutsu. I moved to Arizona in the Summer of 2008, and continued training and researching karate at home. I continued regular training in judo at a local club until 2010, when I was able to start training in Shorin-Ryu with Sensei Richard Poage. I have been training with him ever since, and currently hold the rank of Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) in Shorin-Ryu under him. In addition, I began studying KishimotoDi under Sensei Ulf Karlsson in 2014.