If you’re a traditional martial arts point fighter, you could go your whole life without experiencing a good hook punch.
If you’re a street fighter, you could see it on any given day.
There’s something about the hook punch that is naturally ingrained in the human combative complex. When tensions raise and the body experiences a dump of adrenaline, some instinct in the primordial part of our brain knows how to throw a hook punch.
Of course, a lot of the panicked and sloppy “bombs” we see are hardly efficient, but that doesn’t mean they’re ineffective. Sure, a drunk street punk may sprain his wrist while swinging his fists wildly, but all that body weight and tension can hurt or kill if it connects.
What is a Hook Punch?
Let’s step back for a moment and define what a hook punch is. I think this video featuring Anderson Silva lays it out nicely in just over 1 minute:
You’ll notice the crucial element is that the strike engages the target from a side angle rather than straight on. The punching arc can range dramatically from ultra wide, to just slightly bent.
The modern day understanding of a good hook punch derives mostly from American Boxing. The footwork (pivoting the front foot, settling on the rear, creating a snapping action) is a hallmark of good boxers and fighters like Silva.
The major difference between good boxers and street attacks is the execution of the technique. Boxers keep the hands tight in and use the hook punch when in mid-close range. The punch snaps out and back in order to maintain proper coverage of the body. Street attacks are often deep, committed swings with lots of body weight behind them.
Why Are We Assuming Hooks Are So Prevalent?
As any good geometry student will tell you, the shortest distance between any two points is a straight line. Wouldn’t it stand to reason then that most attacks occur in a linear path, like a lot of TMA striking?
The reality is…no. The arc of the hook punch feels strong to novices and therefore comes out more naturally. Furthermore, American Boxing is still a very deep part of western culture and most youths grow up with a dad/uncle/friend who is willing to show them a few moves. Therefore, in times of stress, people go back to the experience they have.
Don’t take my word for it though, just observe a handful of untrained attacks (sucker punch and street fight). I think you’ll notice a distinct trend (warning: real violence in the following videos. Nothing deadly, but caution advised).
I didn’t have to dig deep into Youtube to find these videos. If you type in “street fight” or “sucker punch fight” you’re going to see plenty of examples.
Why Is The Hook So Neglected In TMA Training?
The reality of the hook punch in real engagements, especially when sucker punching, is evident. Just as evident is the lack of proportional focus in traditional martial arts.
In a lot of TMA, we are taught the efficiency of linear striking. It stands to reason that when we work partner drills, we use those same linear strikes as a means to continue our training and development. The attacker strikes linear so as to practice his/her punch, and we defend in one manner or another.
Even TMA that are much more circular can fall victim to this because they maintain good technique when attacking. A powerful circular ridge hand or quick mawashi geri is not the same as a huge haymaker from a tense and lunging opponent.
The study of bunkai for demonstration has increased the problem as well. In order for bunkai to look orderly and organized, the attacks must be laser accurate and in time with the defender. Slapping and windmill punching from the attacker would be troublesome for the demonstrator, and disrespectful to boot.
Traditional training can be beautiful, but it can also distract from reality at times.
How Can We Avoid the Neglect?
If we conclude that the hook punch is an oft used weapon in real violence, then we should make an effort to improve our ability to handle it. Doing so is fairly easy if we take the time. To integrate more hook punch practice into your martial arts life, follow these steps:
1. Assess the amount of time you spend dealing with the hook and determine if you could benefit from more practice.
2. Learn how to throw a hook punch well…and poorly. Use the videos above and elsewhere online if you don’t have an expert in your dojo.
3. Communicate your desire to focus on the hook punch with your partner, show them the proper& improper ways to throw it, and have them attack you with it.
4. Attack slow at first so you can begin to analyze which of your techniques work and which are dangerously ineffective against the new arcs of attack.
5. Increase the speed and impact of the attack so as to feel the body weight and momentum.
6. Receive the attack from unspecified hands and at unspecified times. Remember, a sucker punch is tough to see coming so you want to practice natural response defense, not just thoughtful defense.
Most people have some sort of cat stance in their style. In karate, it is often referred to as neko ashi dachi (or neko dachi, niko dachi). It tends to look like this -
Now that’s a neko dachi you can set your watch to! Back foot at a perfect 45 degree angle, front foot with the heel raised in a high pointed fashion. Both knees unlocked. Most of the body’s weight being supported by the back foot, allowing the front foot to kick quickly.
This is a great stance…but a little obvious, don’t you think?
One of the most important parts of traditional martial arts is hiding intent and technique. An opponent who is given no clues as to your next action has little chance to defend against it. This is true in both sparring and street self-defense.
If you drop into a perfect neko dachi, what does this tell your opponent?
Why telegraph both aggression and intention like that? Instead, it’s much wiser to drop the heel back down to earth and make a more subtle shift of body weight onto the rear foot.
This guy is just hanging out…or is he? Now granted hands-in-pocket is a bad idea, but our focus is more on the stance. This gentleman is just as prepared to kick as his karate counterpart, but could easily fit into any public scene without sending signals.
Q: So why train in the photographic, heel pointed fashion?
A: Good habit development!
If white belts were trained to be casual right off the bat, they might not grasp the proper weight distribution and heel alignment. The instinct to balance themselves evenly or improperly would be very strong. By keeping the heel up and the knees flexed, instructors can analyze from across the room how good a stance is.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to get stuck in that mindset and never play around with adapting neko dachi into your day-to-day life.
Here’s something fun – in normal conversations with people throughout your day, try setting prime kicking distance, and settling into the natural neko dachi that I’ve shown above. Hypothetically, if the person you’re talking to suddenly made a move (secret ninja attack!), you should be able to stick them right in the floating ribs or knees with a solid front kick. If you’re getting weird looks from the people you’re talking to, you know you aren’t casual enough yet. Keep tweaking it.
final thought – what we’ve got here is karate training everyday, outside the dojo, that improves technique, distancing, timing, and mindset. What a beautiful thing!
One of the great things about bunkai (kata application) is how variable it can be. A single series of movements can be transformed a hundred times depending on scenario, opponents, tactics, and strategy. Unfortunately, despite all of this creative fruit for the picking, it is extremely easy to get stuck in a rut.
Base level bunkai is very useful and shouldn’t be over looked. By base level I mean: a block is a block and a punch is a punch. If kata tells you to block down three times in a row, that’s exactly what you do. You block a left kick, a right kick, then a left kick. After that you finish up with a punch, or whatever else kata tells you to do.
Deciphering base level bunkai for kata can take a very long time as many of the moves will seem cryptic and unwieldy. There’s no reason to be concerned by that, and no reason to rush it (as I explained in a previous post).
But sooner or later, you’ll probably find yourself scratching your chin and saying ‘yea…but what else can I do!?’
This is the rut I speak of, and just like with writer’s block, it can be tough to pull yourself out without an external nudge. I figured I might present a nudge here that tends to help me think outside the box when I need to.
Opponents: One or One Hundred
How many opponents are you fighting when you practice your kata? One? Two? A handful? More than you can count? This is a very important question as it will change the entire dynamic of how you perform your kata.
Imagine that you are facing just a single opponent. While keeping alert for other dangers around you, you are free to orient yourself entirely on that opponent. That means you can afford to be a little more stationary, and make small moves with your body to adjust for the maai (distance from your opponent). You can then use your techniques to slip slight angles as your aggressor attacks and counterattack with ease.
For example, let’s say you have a kata that blocks on the left 45 degree angle, then the right 45 degree angle, like so:
(Yea the guy in the picture has a giant head. so what.)
With a single opponent, you can use those techniques to intercept and retaliate:
You’ll notice our brave combatant in the black intercepts the red attack and cuts the angle inward, reorienting himself/herself for a vital point strike to the temple, eyes, throat, or anything else he pleases. This small shift in angle clears him from the oncoming second punch of his opponent.
With a single opponent, this “block, block” becomes an invasive disruption. Since it’s just one attacker, the next step in your kata, whatever that may be, should be used to take this opponent out, or at least to the ground.
One opponent was nice, but now you’ve started trouble with two guys. What did you do??
Well, whatever you did…they are looking for trouble. Let’s look at the same technique with two individuals coming at you in quick succession (or even at the same time)…
This time our hero in black has to move his body around a bit quicker. The subtle angles he used with one opponent aren’t as applicable because he can’t afford to get tied up with in-close fighting while the other opponent rushes in toward him. Instead, he uses a simultaneous block-strike motion as he shifts into each fighter. Many times in kata we find ourselves blocking or striking. Really, why have one hand in motion while the other remains stagnant? Many movements in kata have inherent counterstrikes built in; we just have to allow ourselves to use them in quick time.
The last situation is that of multiple opponents. The exact number of opponents isn’t really important, but it’s obvious that there are a whole bunch. Let’s say they are pretty smart too, and manage to partially surround their target (our hero). Using this same technique, it would look something like this…
Our fighter is using a very wise strategy – get out of Dodge. The first thing he does is analyze as quickly as possible the largest hole in the encirclement. He recognizes that the right side, where the brown attacker is, is very cluttered. Instead, he breaks for the red opponent. Using the same kind of technique as before, he blocks and strikes to the face violently at the same moment. This time, he uses his angling to shift to the outside of his opponent and pushes the red attacker into the blue attacker. Bundling up the two closest individuals, he escapes as quickly as possible.
Final Thoughts on Opponents
When doing bunkai, it’s important to think about your opponents, especially regarding how many there could be. If you train in-tight against single opponents all the time, you might leave yourself tangled up with them too long for multiple opponent use. However, if you are constantly floating around to different attackers, you might miss the more intricate uses of technique and how they can result in takedowns and groundfighting.
Be wary of leaving opponents too soon. If you’ve successfully blocked an opponent, but haven’t dealt them a severe strike or takedown, it is probably unwise to move on to a new attacker.
Be careful not to get stuck in the habit of using 8,9,10 attackers in a kata. You may be moving around and facing different directions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean every technique is intended for a new person.
I hope this was helpful. It’s just a method I use to expand the parameters of bunkai, but it can be a great way to add realism to your kata.