Back to the basics. From time to time, I hanker after a dose of quality combat striking, and trawl YouTube for exciting Karate matches. It feels good to see punches that don't loop wildly, and kicks that don't whirl like drunken soccer shots. And now, with UFC action in a lull before the storm, I thought I'd use one randomly-selected Karate bout to share some pointers on Karate as a sport, clear up some popular misconceptions, and throw in a gratuitous MMA reference or two.
First, enjoy this Bronze medal fight between two female warriors at the WKF 2010 World Championships. I shall then point out some moments of note from the fight. Sit back, and let me be your Joe Rogan. But first, a brief primer on the rules:
What's all this about? For those unfamiliar with Karate competitions, the simple explanation is that the competitors are trying to score points without hurting each other. Punches and kicks are supposed to be thrown with power and precision, but be controlled to stop just short of contact, or to only make light 'skin' contact. Clean, powerful strikes that would have done damage if they were not controlled score points. Voila:
Scoring: In WKF rules, punches score one point ('ippon'), body kicks, combos and strikes to the back score two points ('nihon'); and head kicks and takedowns combined with finishing blows earn three points ('sanbon'). Yes, comrades, blows to the back of the head are actively encouraged. After all, if you turn your back on a bloodthirsty adversary, you deserve whatever ensues. However, uncontrolled contact that causes injury results in a penalty. The combatant with the most points at the end of the match wins. If there is a draw at the end of the match, a sudden-death period is instituted.
Takedowns: One popular misconception about Karate is that it is a pure striking art, with little by way of takedowns. In fact, due to Karate's historical close ties with Judo, and the evolution of the art over the decades, takedowns have become not just core to the curriculum, but encouraged in competition as well. As I mentioned, the highest scoring potential comes from sweeping your opponent off their feet like a ruthless Romeo, and smiting them while they are down.
When executing takedowns, grabbing your opponent for more than a moment is illegal, so the idea is to seize them with the swiftness of a handbag-snatcher, take them down quickly and follow up with a finishing blow. Skilled Karateka will immediately take down their opponent when the fight falls into a clinch. Fortunately the Blue girl in this match has good takedowns, and has showcased three of them for us:
- At 3:34, Red girl throws a high hook kick that misses. Blue girl punishes her for it by sweeping her other leg with an ashi barai, and following up with a finishing punch.
- At 3:56, the fight goes to the clinch. Blue girl swiftly grabs Red girl and executes a beautiful tai-otoshi takedown (you may Judogasm here, there is no shame in it). Note that the referee gives her time to throw a finishing blow before standing them up, but she doesn't recover herself in time and wastes the opportunity to score an ippon.
- At 6:53 the fight again goes to the clinch, and Blue girl again seizes Red girl and executes a perfect kosoto gake trip. She follows up with a finishing blow, but unfortunately this happens after the final buzzer, and so doesn't score.
Ground fighting: Karate of course has little in the way of fighting on the ground. However, the rules do allow a rudimentary form of Ground and Pound. As explained above, after taking your opponent down, you are allowed twos seconds to execute a finishing blow that symbolically end their lives and cements your flawless victory. Note how at 5:01, Blue girl falls to the ground. Red girl quickly closes the distance, but her two second finishing window expires before she can execute her fallen foe.
Power punching: One common misconception about Karate is that points-fighting is antithetical to power punching. In fact, the reason full contact is discouraged is that Karateka are trained to to throw every punch with 100% power and extreme prejudice (a philosophical principle called Ikken Hissatsu). At 5:12, we see what happens when a Karate reverse punch is thrown with too little control. Generally, blood occurs and doctors get involved. Note that this particular punch was pulled before full extension, limiting its power. If it hadn't been, a bloody knockout would have ensued. Spectacular yes, but alas illegal.
This principle of putting everything behind each punch is a fundamental difference between Karate and boxing. It is also why some Karate matches can seem boring: fighters cautiously and defensively wait for an opening (often when the opponent attacks first), before exploding with a nuclear punch. This of course, explains Lyoto Machida's fighting approach of patiently inveigling his opponent into attacking, and then passing ruthless judgment upon their open guard. In fact, if you go to 6:08 of the video and watch the slow motion replay of the offending punch, it is exactly the same as this recent MMA highlight from a certain notable Karate master:
Sucky rules: Yes, sucky rules are a pestilence upon all combat sports, and Karate is no exception. If your blows are too weak, they don't score. If they are too strong, you get penalised. Referees err, meaning valid points are ignored, and penalties dispensed as freely as TUE exemptions by a shady MMA doctor. This often results in some judging fiascos, and a result like the one in our video, in which the better fighter lost because she was penalised for punching a little too hard.
Well, enough of the boring academic talk. Now that you are familiar with what's what, let's go straight to the meat and potatoes of all combat sports: the almighty highlight reel. Sit back and enjoy the bullet punches, high kicks, and violent sweeps in this stirring ode to artistic brutality (a particularly nice sequence of takedowns starts at around 4:10):