Is Karate a Grappling Art?

Lately, my friends over at Karate Culture have been posting videos, like the one above, that connect kata to techniques found in mixed martial arts, and various grappling arts–something I have also done, although on a smaller scale. This has brought with it some argument as to the nature of karate. As with most such arguments, this one is not a simple matter of one side versus the other, but rather a conflict of shades of gray. There are those who believe that karate is a striking art, others who believe it is a grappling art, and others who believe it is a mixed martial art. Of course, all of these perspectives can be true, depending on a person’s understanding and approach to karate, but they also vary depending on a person’s definition of “striking art,” “grappling art,” and “mixed martial art.”

The most popular view of the nature of karate is that it is a striking art, but what does that mean, exactly? Does it mean that an art uses only strikes, and never grabs? Can an art include grappling methods, and still be a striking art? Is there a certain ratio of striking methods to grappling methods that must be maintained? All of these things are highly subjective. For example, many kickboxing rulesets (like K-1, seen in the video, above), do not allow any grabbing or grappling. In fact, many of these rulesets actually evolved from Japanese and American competition karate rulesets, and many kickboxing competitions were spearheaded by karateka. On the other hand, Muay Thai is considered to be a form of kickboxing, and clinchwork is a type of grappling that is very important to the style. Even in that case, however, you can watch some Muay Thai fights and see little to no clinchwork, or almost exclusively clinchwork, depending on who is fighting. Most people would consider Muay Thai to be a striking art, but prolific Muay Thai fighter and writer, Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu, recently pointed out that Muay Thai is both a striking and grappling art. It should be noted, of course, that Sylvie’s specialty in Muay Thai is dominating her opponents with clinchwork–the grappling of Muay Thai.

When people think of grappling arts, they most often think of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which spends the majority of its time on the floor. Clearly, this is distinctly different from the grappling of Muay Thai, which is purely done from a standing position. Of course, there are also grappling arts, such as judo, sumo, and wrestling, which spend a fairly significant portion of their time standing, while also including groundwork. All of these are considered to be grappling arts, despite having significantly different approaches to grappling. Additionally, judo includes strikes in its curriculum, although they aren’t included in competition, except when driven competitors sneak in short strikes here and there. Sumo is also famous for allowing palm and forearm strikes, which have been known to knock out rikishi from time to time. Are these no longer grappling arts, because they include strikes, or because some of them spend more time standing than on the ground?

These days, when you call something a “mixed martial art,” people have a very specific idea of what you are talking about. In their mind, mixed martial arts is what happens inside a cage for promotions like the UFC, Invicta, and Bellator. While MMA isn’t technically a style, it has reached a certain level of homogeneity, with the vast majority of fighters training in the same blend of fighting arts. Primarily, these are Muay Thai, boxing, wrestling, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. While this does certainly qualify as “mixed martial arts,” it is a very specific set, and unfortunately many people seem to feel that this blend is the only legitimate type of mixed martial art. When it comes right down to it, a “mixed martial art” is any fighting system that is composed of two or more different fighting styles, and that can cover a very wide spectrum if you are willing to look beyond competitive MMA.

Me practicing a technique at a Kissaki-Kai seminar

Me practicing a technique at a Kissaki-Kai seminar

In truth, very few arts are purely striking or purely grappling, even when looking at the world of combat sports–most are actually a mixture of some percentage of the two. When we look at traditional martial arts, we see an even greater mixing of approaches. Generally, if you go far enough back into the history of an art, you can find that it generally covers striking methods, grappling methods, and weapons methods, and over time they diverged into separate systems, in varying degrees. Many traditional Chinese and Indochinese arts still incorporate all of these methods, so there is no reason that Okinawan arts should be any different. Karate includes many striking methods, and sport karate is certainly heavily focused on those methods, but it also includes methods of standing grappling, including limb controls, joint locks, throws, and chokes. There may be little to no focus on grappling on the ground, or engaging in prolonged grappling exchanges, but that was never the intention of karate. By definition, the fact that it is composed of a mixture of striking methods, grappling methods, and weapons methods (when you include kobudo training), makes it a “mixed martial art” as much as blending Muay Thai with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Funakoshi Yari-dama

Funakoshi Gichin, founder of Shotokan, demonstrating a throw traditionally taught in Okinawan martial arts

When people point this out, and say that karate is a “mixed martial art”–or even suggest that karate includes grappling components–there are generally those who point out that karateka don’t know how to grapple, and that one must learn grappling from a grappling art. This is certainly true of some karateka, particularly those who study karate systems which have had the vast majority of grappling methods removed, but it isn’t true for all. Even among karateka who practice systems that have had these techniques omitted, many do, in fact, cross-train in grappling arts. Wrestling is a very popular sport in American schools, and many martial artists have experience with it. Judo has also been a fairly popular sport, around the world, since its inclusion in the Olympics. As MMA competitions become more prevalent, more karateka are finding value in cross-training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, as well. This is all hardly new, of course, with many karate masters of old also cross-trained in sumo, judo, and Aikido, as those arts were introduced from the mainland.

Opponents of karate as a mixed martial art will also often suggest that karate does not include any native pressure testing methods for its grappling techniques. While this is often true in many modern dojo, that hasn’t always been the case. We know from the writings of people like Motobu, Funakoshi, and Nagamine, that Okinawans regularly participated in competitive submission grappling matches (tegumi/muto). To this day, Shima (Okinawan sumo) is a very popular pass-time on the island. Additionally, we know that karate techniques were pressure tested through kakedameshi, which was described in the editor’s notes of Nagamine Shoshin’s book, Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters, as “a very aggressive version of taiji pushing hands,”–the video, above, shows a taiji pushing hands competition–where opponents try to knock each other down, use “manipulation techniques,” and strike each other, including with kicks, elbows, and knee strikes. Some simple examples of this can be seen in the kakie and kakidi drills practiced in many Okinawan dojo.

This is, admittedly, something that a lot of karateka neglect, these days–largely due to the importance placed on tournaments, which utilize kendo-style point systems. That is also why the public perception of karate is that it is a purely striking art. Personally, I try to incorporate kakedameshi-style training fairly regularly, and I have discussed this idea briefly, before (click here to read the article). You can see in the video, above, some low-intensity examples I recorded in our dojo a while back. The connection to taiji pushing hands is relatively evident, but we also work in strikes and joint locks, along with throws. This is also not unlike some of the exchanges found in modern MMA competitions when fighters are engaging at close range, but aren’t clinching. This type of training is an excellent forum for pressure testing your middle- and close-range techniques, including the grappling methods of karate. If you train and spar with popular competition karate formats, then karate is certainly a striking art, but if your training includes methods like this, then the truth of it’s mixed approach becomes apparent.

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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.