Today we'll look at the most exciting man in competitive karate and how he turned the glorified game of tag back into a fight.
Instead of a Finish of the Week for the start of this week I wanted to try something new for the MMA fans who read my pieces but aren't familiar with the stars of other competitive striking sports. In this segment - the regularity of which I haven't decided on yet - I will throw out some examples of top level strikers who don't compete in MMA and I shall try to keep them pretty obscure to avoid covering men like Peter Aerts and Jerome Le Banner who most of my readers will already know. This is by no means one for the hardcore fans alone and I think everyone could benefit from seeing where other combative sports place their emphasis.
To begin I wanted to examine one of my favourite karateka and a man who has single-handedly made the tedious and unrealistic striking style of World Karate Federation competitions into a spectacle; Rafael Aghayev.
Competition karate (the non-contact type) has always been at most levels wild exchanges of straight punches with the chin held high, and at the highest levels exactly the same but with oversized gis, more bouncing in between the action and flicky high kicks that carry no weight but are still scored higher than any other attack in the game. A great deal of the game is also spent posing and posturing to convince the judges on the corners of the mat that you have scored a point.
A great example of everything that is wrong with competitive karate kumite is Alexandre Biamonti.
Biamonti has nice timing and the ability to move across the mat quickly - but it was his slapping Ura-Mawashigeri; a kick that makes contact with the sole of the foot with no possible way to get weight behind it - which allowed Biamonti to stay in the elite of the competitive karate world for a number of years.
Biamonti also had a number of throws which he utilized due to WKF karate's high valuing of takedowns or trips immediately followed by a punch. Such has been the way that karate competition developed - scoring slapping high kicks and throws above everything else - that it seemed an easy way to carve out a career for Taekwondo and Judo players who weren't good enough to make the upper echelons their own sports.
The ura-mawashigeri kick at 0:44 is a perfect example of what is wrong with point sparring competitions. High kicks, as we know, are traditionally hugely powerful techniques that can knock a man out. Unfortunately Taekwondo and karate reward almost ANY contact made between the head and the foot - meaning useless kicks like the reverse roundhouse kick and the inverted roundhouse kick are now commonplace in point sparring competitions. In any other sport or in a fight Biamonti would not only have failed to do any damage, but he would be slammed on his head for his trouble (something the hero of our story did to him later).
Enter Rafael Aghayev.
Karateka have gotten taller and taller over the years - as is the tendency in any point sparring sport due to reach being the single most important factor of a fighter's success. Yet the classes of competition are still divided by weight rather than height - despite the game being almost entirely fought from distance. When Rafael Aghayev burst onto the competitive karate scene he appeared to be the single counter to the height based trend. Far from a big man, Aghayev's entire game relies on sound basic boxing (or Tsuki-waza if you'd prefer) combinations which lead him into clinching range, from which he immediately pushes out and lands a hard kick or executes a throw or foot sweep.
Notice how simple Aghayev's game is - entering with a 1 - 2 or a hand trap to rear straight - but how well practised he is in applying it. Aghayev uses his movement to make taller men walk into him before he enters with punches and in this way is able to hit them with a full punch while they are flailing with crumpled half-punches. Obviously Aghayev's most impressive work comes in the clinch - or what karate competition allows of it - and this is where his strength from not cutting weight to be the tallest in his weightclass really shows.
If you hadn't noticed by now I strongly dislike WKF karate competition because it is firstly so tedious to watch and secondly such a misrepresentation of what good karate should be. In 2020 WKF style point sparring will be appearing in the olympics for the first time and it will likely destroy the positive press that Lyoto Machida, Andy Hug and others restored to the art of karate through their combat sports performances. Aghayev will likely be retired by then and karate will probably turn into the type laughing stock that Taekwondo has become since it's olympic inclusion.
Now of course Aghayev is not a complete break with all the nonsense of WKF kumite - he still occasionally poses and turns his back after punching his opponent to convince judges, he still throws the combatively useless uramawashigeri, and he still holds his chin up high when he punches - but he also actively works to punish his opponents for doing each of these things. Aghayev has developed head movement, something no-one else in karate has - and punishes his opponents for running at him with their head up in the air - furthermore he specifically practices to hit opponents in the back when they try to sell their attempt at scoring a point by turning away. Finally, his throws discourage anyone from attempting to kick him, let alone with such a dangerous and pointless kick as uramawashigeri. Skip to 4:55 of the video below to see what happened when Biamonti attempted his favourite technique.
He may not be perfect, but Rafael Aghayev is a competitive karateka who actually fights and doesn't simply rely on the length of his limbs in what is essentially a glorified game of tag - and for that Aghayev should be greatly respected.
Stay tuned for more Top Strikers, and feel free to offer suggestions! Make them obscure - I love watching new fighters.