When I was around 16-17 years old I received my Shodan in Okinawa Kenpo. It was a great experience and had me riding pretty high. Around the same time, I was actively participating in tournaments. Unfortunately, my youth and ‘confidence’ stopped me from thinking twice about the inevitable shift I would have to make from brown belt divisions to black belt. It doesn’t matter, I figured, I’ll just do my thing.
The transition for kata, weapons, and even self defense demonstrations went fairly smoothly. In each of those, it was a matter of personal skill and showmanship. I lost some, I won some…no big deal. Unfortunately, the transition for kumite (sparring) wasn’t quite as gentle.
For tournament sparring at that time, the general rules for green/brown belt divisions stated that there was light contact allowed to the body and no head contact. Punches could be thrown toward the head, but actual contact would result in a warning/penalty point deduction. Needless to say I had grown pretty accustom to those rules.
The black belt divisions, on the other hand, tolerated moderate body contact and light head contact. A subtle but important shift. Furthermore, the rules were only vaguely enforced in the black belt division with a lot of flexibility on what was considered ‘light’ (as I would find out later).
As a fresh shodan, I arrived at one particular tournament raring to go. It was very exciting walking around in my black belt, feeling a whole different perspective as I was privy to judging and other privileges . Everything was going smoothly until my division was called up for sparring: adult black belt men (no weight or age differentiation).
I lined up next to a very serious looking individual. As I gazed up at his face, he cast a downward glare on me like so:
Feeling his intensity and aggression, I joked around: “hey, if I get paired up against you, don’t kill me ok? hahaha.”
He didn’t response – only glared.
I allowed my awkward laugh to trail off as the judges collected name slips and announced the match.
“Apsokardu (me) against Death Giant (I can’t remember his name)”
I swallowed hard and lined up across from him. We bowed, got into a ready stance, and waited. As soon as the center judge shouted “Hajime!” my opponent leapt forward and punched me full force in the throat.
Gasping, I staggered back as the judge stopped the round. The throat is not a legal point target, so no points were awarded. I shuffled back up to my line and acquired my fighting stance. At this point, my fragile confidence was beginning to crumble and I felt like one of the little kids fighting Kramer in Seinfeld:
The next round began and we threw a few techniques back and forth. Just as I was beginning to feel comfortable again my opponent launched in and struck me in the throat once again. The judge stopped the round and one of the side judges came over and massaged my neck to promote breathing and make sure my esophagus had not buckled.
We began again and I desparately threw out weak, high kicks to the head. One managed to graze his headgear and I received a point for it.
Since he was now losing 0-1, my opponent became visibly irritated. When the next round began he threw a punch so hard that it busted through my defenses and crashed straight into my nose. The blood slowly began to trickle.
After that I don’t remember too much, but I do know that the match quickly finished 3-1, him. The next two points must have come very easily.
After the match I hobbled away into the bathroom to find tissue for my nose. While washing myself off I quickly noticed that I could only take half breaths. No matter what I did I could not deeply inhale – this was my first and only real experience with hyperventilation.
While in the bathroom a spectator walked in and while washing his hands casually looked over at me and said “tough fight out there – you got pretty lucky with that high kick.” Trying to stabilize my voice and keep it from quivering I said “yea…that was lucky…”
While I wouldn’t wish this kind of experience on anyone, it did help me learn some very valuable lessons.
First – There are underhanded strategies for winning a tournament match. My opponent realized that if he incapacitated me by punching me right away in the throat, he would have a much easier time beating me. Furthermore, he must have known through his experience as a black belt combatant that the judges would not penalize him too quickly. Other strategies like this include punching someone after a round is over or leaning into a punch to draw a penalty point on your opponent.
Second – Tournament or no, martial arts are serious. In my youth I assumed that everyone ‘played’ martial arts the same way I did. I was wrong. This individual, although perhaps TOO aggressive, took his art seriously. It would have been wise for me to be just as serious.
Third – You have to learn to flip the switch. on and off. One thing that neither me nor my opponent knew how to do was turn our intensity on and off when appropriate. Focused on raw winning as his only goal, my opponent was willing to beat me and beat me until the match was over. On the other hand, my confidence quickly turned to fear when I was injured for real. This incident helped me turn a corner and develop a deadly seriousness to be used and controlled with extraordinary care.
Fourth – Even bad lessons can be good lessons. Whenever I find myself ‘playing’ a kata or karate in general, I have this experience to reflect upon. I ask myself – what happens the next time I come up against a big, mean, angry a-hole? What if it isn’t a tournament? It would be very easy for me to hold a grudge against the competitor I faced that day, but instead I want to use that energy to push me forward and make me better.
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“Soon, Sooner, Soonest” is a concept I first heard about from Bill Hayes Sensei. I would like to elaborate upon it here, using a specific example.
In the kata Pinan Shodan, there is an opening technique wherein the practitioner does a high block and a mid-level block simultaneously. It looks like this:
I’ve included a few different styles here because, when analyzing bunkai, it’s good to get a broad spectrum of how the technique is executed. Plus, I find subtle stylistic quirks really fascinating – so indulge me ; – )
You’ll notice that there are small differences in each picture above when it comes to hand position, weight distribution, and levels of blocking. Despite that, each practitioner could go through the same mental steps to analyze their bunkai. When contemplating application for techniques in kata, one needs to consider speed, timing, and intent – in other words, how soon they want to control or damage their opponent.
Let’s start with the most basic level of interpretation:
When blocking an attack, you want to do it as soon as possible. At a base level, this means waiting until the strike has been launched, and blocking it as it comes in. Like so:
In Pinan Shodan, after the initial block (shown above), the hands generally drop down, strike the attacker’s arm, and then punch to the face. This is a very accepted bunkai for beginners as it takes the core principals of stance shifting and blocking and applies them to a live target.
Even though the blue defender successfully avoided getting hit, he did it in a relatively slow way. He waited until the attack was already at full strength and on its intended trajectory. By waiting this long, the defender ran the risk of being out done in strength, speed, and skill. Furthermore, his right hand was floating up in the air for no apparent reason. Why not put it to use?
To use this Pinan Shodan technique in a “sooner” fashion, we are going to change the kind of attack being presented. Instead of a single punch, we are now going to use a choke or push that involves both of the attacker’s hands. Furthermore, instead of waiting until the attacker has built up a head of steam, the defender is going to intercept the technique early, when it is still weak. Like so:
In this instance, as soon as the aggressive push begins, the blue defender shoots his hands up and gains control of centerline. Then, as the attacker begins to gain momentum, the defender casts his hands outward and gains control of the attacker’s arms while unbalancing him by shifting into a back/cat stance. After that, the defender would proceed to force the attacker’s arms downward and follow up with a punch to the face.
This is superior to the first bunkai in the sense that the timing has been improved. Rather than waiting for the attack, the defender is meeting it before it gains strength, and dissipating it as it extends.
As useful as this bunkai is, we can do even better.
One problem that the first two bunkai share is a lack of immediacy in counter-attack. In both cases, it takes 3-4 steps before a strike is actually thrown that might stop the attacker. Instead of dawdling, the “soonest” bunkai shows us how we can quickly end a combative engagement using the Pinan Shodan technique. For the sake of this demonstration, let’s revert back to the original straight punch:
You’ll notice here that the counterattack happens immediately. In order to make this work, the block has to meet the attacking hand as it begins its trajectory and the counterattack needs to be made as the original attack nears completion. This will prevent the attacker from having a chance to formulate a second attack.
For kata purposes, after the initial counterattack shown here, the hands dropping down would be used to unbalance the opponent and the final punch would be used as a strike leading into a takedown.
I have two important conclusions I would like to make.
First – it’s important for beginners to learn ‘soon’ before ‘sooner’ and ‘soonest’. Some people may wonder why we don’t just skip to the end – the reason is because situations will not always be optimal and you might not always get the perfect ‘soonest’ technique in real life. By learning ‘soon’ first, you have a solid, simple technique to fall back on.
Furthermore, training in karate (and most other martial arts for that matter) is a progressive challenge. Instead of diving right into the deep end, it’s wise to slowly build up reaction time and confidence in technique. As time goes on, bunkai can be whittled down and technique refined until it achieves its core intended effectiveness.
Second – You might be thinking to yourself, “The bunkai I learned from my Sensei is different than what you described above.” That is quite all right! Bunkai is an extremely vast sea of possibilities and what you learned can coexist with what I’ve shown here. What really matters is how we go about analyzing our kata and how we can make ourselves more effective.
All too often we wait for someone to come with magical instructions on how to be as good as the old masters, but the truth is we need to dig for ourselves just as much as we rely on our teachers.
All the best in your kata exploration!
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The Travel Channel recently released a new show called “Dhani Tackles the Globe“. In the show, Dhani Jones (NFL Star) travels around the world and experiences exotic culture and sports.
After seeing the teaser commercials, I realized pretty quickly that some of the sports Jones was going to try were martial in nature, and the premier episode was slated to be Muay Thai Kickboxing in Thailand. I figured what the heck – let’s give it a shot.
For those readers who aren’t football fans, Dhani Jones is a well known linebacker who has played for teams like the Philadelphia Eagles and Cincinatti Bengals. Jones is known for his off-the-field personality as well, often used for football commentary. Jones is a bit of a fashion fan, sporting his trademark bowtie wherever he goes.
Dhani’s mix of physicality and personality make him an intriguing choice for host. Certainly this first episode in Thailand would test his mettle because Muay Thai kickboxing is one of the most explosive sports on the planet. At the very least, I figured, I would get a chance to see some cool Thailand scenery. Since the show was slated to film in Bangkok, it seemed like a can’t miss for wild and unusual Thai culture.
It turns out that “Dhani Tackles the Globe” is set up similarly to Human Weapon or Fight Quest. Dhani hooks up with a local guide that helps him navigate the intricacies of the city and helps him train for a week. At the end of the week, Dhani fights a local Muay Thai kickboxer.
Here is a little peek:
The training was pretty standard and kept in line with what we’ve come to expect from shows like this. Dhani worked the knees, elbows, punches, and kicks trademarked by Muay Thai fighters.
Every day after kickboxing Dhani ventured out and sampled the city. You could tell quickly that Thailand was an unusual scene for Jones, who was clearly not accustom to eating bugs and riding around on motorscooters so small that they could barely support his weight. In fact, one of the most memorable scenes of the whole show is when Jones tells a Tuk Tuk driver to take him to a ‘happening’ night spot in town. The driver proceeds to take him to a red light district.
You haven’t seen red light until you’ve seen Bangkok red light.
Jones is latched onto by a myriad of “escorts” trying to pull him into street-side brothels. One escort seemed suspiciously strong and bulky to be a woman…
Besides that, Jones visited the amazing Ayutthaya Kingdom in order to absorb some of the ancient culture and get his fortune read by a Thai numerologist. All in all, his crazy findings cast a pretty entertaining light on the diversity of Bangkok.
Back to the Muay Thai Fighting
In order to step into the ring, Jones had to learn the basics of Muay Thai kickboxing. In addition to traditional techniques, he also had to master the Wai Kru Dance performed at the beginning of each match and the cultural importance of the movements.
By the time his final fight roled around, Dhani was competent enough to step into the ring and make a good show.
SPOILER ALERT – DON’T READ IF YOU DON’T WANT THE ENDING RUINED
This poor fellow didn’t know what he was in for. And I’m not referring to Jones.
What we had with this match was a couple of bad assumptions. The Muay Thai people assumed that Dhani would need to be eased into his fight. As an unskilled foreigner, they thought that putting Jones up against a real gunner would be ‘impolite’.
On the other side of things, Jones’s handlers most likely wanted to keep Jones out of the E.R. They therefore pushed for someone who wasn’t a real gunner.
The result was this slightly pudgy, slightly afraid fighter who had to take a beating from a large and extremely powerful Dhani Jones. Ouch.
“Dhani Tackles the Globe” is an interesting show. For martial artists, it doesn’t compete with Human Weapon or Fight Quest. In those series, the hosts were put through some hellish, rigorous training experiences. Dhani doesn’t seem to be slated for that kind of punishment. However, it’s useful to see what a guy of his size, strength, and natural talent can do. Anyone with the impression that size and strength don’t matter could benefit from watching Dhani in action.
On the production side of things, Jones needs to work out the kinks in his voiceovers. It still feels a little forced. I would advise him to watch Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations because Bourdain is a master of interesting and quick-witted commentary.
As I understand it, there will be more wrestling and combat in Dhani’s future. From what I saw of this first episode, I would probably tune back in.
Click here if you want to check out more. If you saw the show too, let me know what you thought!
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