Karate Striking: The Kyokushin Approach. Part 1


Promoted from the FanPosts by Nate Wilcox.

Welcome, one and all, to a series dedicated of everyone's favorite full-contact Karate style, Kyokushin. Throughout the ensuing articles , I will try to cover as much as I can in the way of Kyokushin's unique approach to striking, the philosophy behind this particular style and various other related topics as they arise. Today's post is more of an introductory piece, covering Kyokushin's importance in the world of fighting as well as very briefly discussing Karate's pre-Kyokushin history and Masutatsu Oyama's views and influence. So, without further ado, have a good read!

In case you're not really familiar with Kyokushin but the name somehow rings a bell, it's probably because you went through two rather recent articles here on Bloody Elbow, namely T.P. Grant's Gods of War, Masutatsu Oyama and Sweet Scientist's Traditional Striking Arts. That, or you just saw it in my screen name, you know. But seriously, both previously mentioned pieces are well worth the read. T.P.'s work focuses on Kyokushin's founder, legendary karateka Masutatsu (or simply "Mas") Oyama, offering some lovely insight into Sosai's life and how his way of thinking shaped the style he created, and Sweet Scientist's post, while not exclusively dedicated to Kyokushin, goes into detail about the competition rule-set and also elaborates on the many Kyokushin spin-off styles out there.

Truth be told, "Karate" is a word that no longer strictly belongs in the confinement of the Japanese language. After decades of world-wide exposure, after countless peaks and falls in popularity, it has become the sort of term that transcends language barriers. What's more, in spite of the emergence of so many fighting systems in the past few decades, it is probably still the most wide-spread martial art on the globe. It is, however, divided into a breathtaking number of styles, some so different from one another, especially to the casual observer, that only the gi - the typical Japanese martial arts uniform, consisting of pants, long jacket and belt - seems to be commonplace.

More after the jump...

Kyokushin's Influence

Before going further, some of you might be wondering why I'm talking about Karate on an MMA website, especially if it doesn't involve Lyoto Machida. A simple, shallow answer is that MMA has striking and Kykoushin is striking so there's your common ground. But no, the real answer is that much like the Gracies' Jiu-Jitsu was the founding block of the UFC, so was Kyokushin responsible for the birth of K-1.

The world's best known Kickboxing organization was founded by former Kyokushin practitioner Kazuyoshi Ishii. Months after his departure from the IKO (International Kyokushin Organization), Ishii founded his own spin-off style, Seidokaikan (basically Kyokushin with slightly modified tournament rules) and would go on to create K-1 as a means of showcasing full-contact Karate's strength against other styles.

Of course it all ended up looking more like Muay Thai than Karate due to the bouts taking place in rings, the participants wearing fight shorts and boxing gloves and the legality of punches to the head (mostly outlawed in regular full-contact Karate), but then again MMA doesn't look much like it did at UFC 1 either. That being said, some of the best known full-contact Karate fighters to ever grace the K-1 ring are Andy Hug, Glaube Feitosa, Francisco Filho and, obviously, Semmy Schilt.

Since Andy is the only one of those mentioned above that is no longer among the living, I'm going to take this opportunity to post a highlight video of his career as a fighter. This is not only out of pure sentimentality, but his highly entertaining style embodies the transition from Karate to Kickboxing that K-1 is all about: not quite as much movement in the ring as you'd expect from a straight-up kickboxer, little if any head movement or slips, no jab to speak of, but a ton of heart and spectacular technique and power.

Andy Hug The Blue Eyed Samurai (via dimasinarts)

A Few Words On The Past

It has become a common myth that prior to Kyokushin, there was no such thing as full-contact fighting in the Karate world. In order to get the bottom if this, let us briefly delve into some history. Karate, while popularized by the Japanese, isn't strictly of Japanese origins. It is a form of fighting originally created in the Ryukyu Islands, south of Japan, probably as early as the 14th or 15th century, by blending the martial arts knowledge of the Chinese immigrants with the natives' own forms of fighting.

While not a centralized style by any means, canon has it that its popularity grew in the Ryukyu Islands due to a weapons ban made official in the early 17th century, after the Japanese had invaded. Due to this ban, the people of Ryukyu were left to rely either on unarmed fighting or on unconventional weapons, things that did not seem to be outright heralds of slaughter, as was the case with swords, spears or bows. They mostly turned to the tools of their trade, particularly agricultural tools, thus giving rise to new weapons such as the nunchaku, the tonfa or the sai.

As far as unarmed fighting went, this embryonic form of Karate placed heavy emphasis on fast, short, efficient, decisive strikes to vital areas. Elbows, knees, straight punches as well as various kicks and even throws were meant to win a fight as quickly as possible, or at least ensure your survival in case of being cornered by a potential armed assailant. You often hear self-defense instructors telling you that a street fight and an organized fight have little in common. In a self-defense situation you will not have the luxury of fighting a clean one-on-one battle, and there's no referee to call a stop to it when things go south. This is the exact mentality that influenced Karate's original development, making it a rough art to train in at the time.

In spite of the geographical proximity, it took centuries for this martial art to reach mainland Japan, being popularized there in the early 1900s by Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of the Shotokan style. By that time, Karate had already begun being formalized, particularly in Okinawa (part of the Ryukyu Islands), where this martial art's coherent styles came from. As it spread throughout Japan in the first half of the 20th century, Karate had to sacrifice some of its inherent brutality in order to gain followers.

This was a time that may resemble vintage Jackie Chan movies, where various schools would challenge each other for martial superiority. This gave birth to organized tournaments that became more and more restrictive in terms of rule-sets. As is often the case, tournament rules often impact a participating style's philosophy, and so many Karate practitioners started focusing on how to be more efficient within these rule-sets, rather than in self-defense situations. Of course, not all Karate styles let themselves be influenced by the need to win competitions (or even all schools within a certain style, for that matter), but the more champions a style had, the more followers it would gain - a principle that applies to this day, regardless of the martial art of fighting system.

The Master Himself

This is where Mas Oyama comes into play. A simple man with a simple idea, bringing Karate a little closer to its rough and tough roots. Born Choi Yeong Eui in Japanese-occupied Korea, he studied both Shotokan and Goju-Ryu Karate in his youth. What he saw as he matured was a martial art that had strayed from its path, producing inadequate fighters that no longer embodied the toughness and efficiency Karate claimed to stand for. Much like the Georges St. Pierre of a few years ago, he was not impressed.

The result of Oyama's disappointment was a true tough-man style, Kyokushinkai Karate. Sosai saw that other Karateka were physically weak, so he placed great emphasis on making the body as strong and durable as possible, both in dealing out punishment and absorbing it. Conditioning practitioners to be able to withstand hard blows to the body, as well as making their hands, arms, legs and feet the epitome of durability is, to this day, one of the main pillars of Kyokushin training.

Like all legends, Oyama has become a larger-than-life figure, surrounded by myth and mystery. And while it is probably impossible to determine how he was truly like as a human being, it is exactly this portrayal of him as a godly fighter that has helped inspire generations of Kyokushin practitioners and martial artists in general. For further reference into the mythos of Oyama's existence, I would like to recommend two movies loosely based on his life.

The first is Kenka Karate (though it may also appear under names such as Karate Bullfighter or Champion of Death), a 1977 Japanese production, while the second is a much more recent Korean adaptation, Fighter In The Wind (2004). To be sure, neither are impressive from a film-making perspective (some might say they are downright horrible), but they make full use of every known myth surrounding Oyama's martial prowess, toughness and determination, while also exploring his struggles prior to and following the Second World War, each in their own way.

Leaving aside the realm of fiction, it is clear that Kyokushin was heavily influenced by Oyama's views in terms of efficiency. Where other masters struggled to keep their art pure and untainted by outside influence, Sosai seems to have embraced change, as long as it lead to progress. As such, the style he taught to his pupils, while still Karate at its core, also bore the mark of other martial arts, particularly Muay Thai. These influences and what makes Kyokushin stand out technically and visually from other Karate styles will be discussed in depth in the following articles. Stay tuned.


\The FanPosts are solely the subjective opinions of Bloody Elbow readers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloody Elbow editors or staff.

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