Martial arts come in a wide array of styles and methodologies, but they are all connected by the human body and laws of nature, so even among wildly different systems, founded centuries and countries apart, there can be found many similar, related, or complimentary methods. While many martial artists prefer to segregate styles and promote the isolationist idea that each art is comprised of methods that were created only as a part of that art, I feel that it is more beneficial to embrace the similarities, and learn from the differences. For this reason, I frequently feature examples of techniques from a variety of martial arts–from MMA competition to taijichuan–and draws connections between them and karate methods. This comparison can be a bit difficult for some to grasp, and can even be offensive to those who believe karate to be “lesser” than the art being used for comparison, for a variety of reasons. Given the reputation that karate tends to have in the wider martial arts world, these days, that is hardly surprising, but it is certainly unfortunate.
Karate has a tendency to be seen one of two ways, in this day and age; either as a nearly mystical Asian cultural tradition, or as a glorified day care program for children. While many are quick to say that MMA (more specifically, the UFC) ended the era of mysticism in martial arts, a quick search of YouTube will prove that there are still plenty of people who believe that martial arts–including karate–are mystical, and steeped in ancient traditions that make them, somehow, better than other fighting methods. This occurs with people who train, particularly in so-called “traditional martial arts,” as much as people who do not train, at all. Classic martial arts films are very much to blame for this perspective, but legitimate and fraudulent instructors, alike, have perpetuated it by extolling the meditative and mental development virtues of traditional martial arts training. Very few are willing to point out that most of the traditional martial arts being practiced, today, were actually modified and systematized in the early 1900’s, and are not truly as old and mystical as they claim. Karate, for example, was a much different beast in the 1800’s than it came to be with the rise of Itosu Anko’s methods, and the influence of mainland Japan. It wasn’t even called by the same name!
The idea that karate is for children goes hand-in-hand with the previous perspective, as parents are always looking for activities that will keep their child active and build self-confidence, discipline, and mental fortitude. Since karate does, indeed, accomplish these things, it is an attractive option for parents, and that also makes it the most reliable option for karate instructors to pay their bills. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but it does lead to people seeing more children than adults in karate classes, and that is a fairly strong image. Combined with the “sportification” of karate throughout the 20th Century, and the increasingly litigious nature of modern society, we see a lot of classes suited to children–with strict instructors, formal procedures, overly-simplified techniques, and a lack of physical contact–and a lot fewer classes that really represent what karate was meant to be. The open-ended, individually driven training methods, the practical fighting techniques, and the resistant physical contact that are necessary for the development of real fighting skills is often under-represented, and so many people form the opinion that it doesn’t exist, at all.
For these reasons, some will argue that no examples of effective fighting techniques can be compared to karate, because karate does not train in a way that develops such techniques and skills. The video clip of Alan Jouban and Brendan O’Reilly, above, is one that I shared some time ago as an example of muchimidi (sticky hands) and Naihanchi-style elbow strikes used in MMA competition. This is the type of content that other karateka can look at and say, “yes, I definitely see karate methods in action, there!” On the other hand, if one were to share the same observation with someone who trains in MMA, or one of its more popular related styles (Muay Thai, for example), as I did with this clip, they will often receive vehement opposition. Part of this comes from the mentality that techniques like the one, above, or this one, come from Muay Thai, and so they cannot exist anywhere else. Additionally, the fact that the fighters involved are not karateka is often used to support this opinion. Underlying these points, however, is the underwhelming reputation that karate has in the modern martial arts community, and so unless they see solo kata, basics practiced in static stances, and light/non-contact sparring like this, it must not be karate.
The only style that gets a pass on this perspective is Kyokushin, and its off-shoots (Ashihara, Enshin, Seido, etc.), because they have a reputation for sparring and fighting full-contact. That is their bread and butter, and they have heavily promoted this aspect of their training, which has allowed them to avoid the reputation that most karate styles have garnered over the years. Notably, most dojo that I have seen that teach these styles advertise their specific style name, rather than calling it “karate,” which comes with certain connotations that they may be seeking to avoid. Additionally, a large number of practitioners who have trained in these arts and gone on to successfully compete in high levels of full-contact kickboxing and MMA, giving them even wider recognition. Other karate styles are not nearly as well represented in full-contact combat sports, of any type, and this leads many to believe that it is because other styles of karate are useless for full-contact fighting unless you are a naturally-talented phenom, like Lyoto Machida, Stephen Thompson, or Gunnar Nelson.
In truth, I believe that the lack of successful traditional martial artists in high-level combat sports is largely due to the lack of traditional martial artists interested in competing in such sports, to begin with. Since arts like karate have long been promoted as styles that foster discipline and mental fortitude, they have at tendency to attract people who are more interested in those aspects than in fighting. Additionally, many instructors actively discourage their students from participating in such combat sports, because they see them as barbaric, unnecessary violence, which is considered something that a good martial artist should avoid, since martial arts should only be used in self defense. This, combined with the fact that the majority of karate schools do, indeed, practice ineffective methods meant for children, has led to a very small number of traditional martial artists who are willing to compete in combat sports, but have not been given the proper skills, despite the fact that those skills do exist in karate.
Since there are so few traditional martial artists competing at a high level in kickboxing or MMA, we do not have much in the way of video examples of practical karate techniques, developed through karate training, being used against a resisting opponent. That is why I choose, so often, to highlight techniques being used in such arenas that have parallels to karate techniques, regardless of their supposed origin. The intent is not to suggest that those techniques come from karate, but simply that similar methods can be found in karate, if you know where to look. We certainly have photos, books, and oral traditions that illustrate the fact that such practical fighting methods have long been part of karate, as well as arts from China, Indonesia, India, etc. We also know that various formats of full-contact fighting were used, throughout history, to test and develop these arts, so although they weren’t really intended for one-on-one duels with a similarly trained opponent, we know that it did happen. Famous Okinawan karate fighter, Motobu Choki, even commented that “when fighting a boxer, it is better to go with his flow, and take up a rhythm with both of your hands,” which indicates that he was at least somewhat familiar with, and capable of, measured fighting methods used against a similarly trained opponent. Clearly, there are practical fighting methods and training methods in old-style karate, and some karateka maintain these practices, today. Unfortunately, it will take time and effort to overcome the reputation of karate as an “ineffective” martial art. It is my hope that, through the “Karate Renaissance” I believe we are currently experiencing, more and more karateka will return to the old ways and, in conjunction with modern training methods and science, return karate to its practical fighting roots.