When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong – Ground Fighting in Karate
I remember being at this great seminar once, covering all kinds of nifty kata application principles, when, suddenly, it all turned into something none of us expected:
Not that I have anything against Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (sic) or other ground based grappling arts, but last time I checked Karate was a stand-up art, where the aim is to get the opponent down, not yourself. And if you should happen to fall to the ground for some reason, you never stay there intentionally to grapple it out!
But here I was, in this international training camp, being taught a rolling omoplata armlock by a world renowed Karate expert and historian at a kata bunkai seminar. And I was not the only one who found this a bit strange. When I secretly looked around, as the instructor was eagerly rolling around in front of us, I saw that many other participants gave each other weird looks.
Clearly, this world renowed instructor had been a victim of “when keeping it real goes wrong”.
In his quest for going out of the box, he ended up going (rolling!) too far out.
“But”, somebody might say, “what’s wrong with that, huh? HUH?! I’ve heard that 95% of all fights end up on the GROUND anyway, so if original Karate has NO ground fighting at all, then – OH MY GOSH – surely it must be seen as an incomplete art! BJJ rules, dude, wrestling too!!!”
W-w-whoah. Slow down now. Chill. The heck. Out.
First things first.
Despite being one of the oldest (since the early 90′s) and most cited (check any martial arts forum…) facts in history of modern martial arts, quoted by every major grappling guru and their loyal disciples, 95% of all street fights don’t end up on the ground. Not even 90%. The truth is that that percentage is taken entirely out of context, since it was originally made public by some Los Angeles Police Department study (concerning their arrests) and hey – guess what – their job is to take the assailant down (or pin them to their car). And in 90-95% of their arrests, they actually succeded.
Or something like that.
It has nothing to do with fighting mano a mano.
Not that Karate is actually intended for fighting mano a mano to begin with, but…
Oh, and in case you’re interested, a study was once made from 300 streetfights (on YouTube!), and the result was that in 42% of the fights filmed, both participants ended up on the ground. And in 59% of the time, the person who fell first lost the fight. This indicates that in an average street fight it is a big mistake to hit the ground first, no matter how you do it. Actually, the findings were so one sided that it is highly likely that this is a major factor in determining who wins fights.
So, instead of training for defense on the ground, perhaps we should be training for how to remain standing up instead?
And dawg, even if 95% of every fight did go to the ground, 99,999% of all fights start standing.
Now I’m actually lying a little.
(just a little!)
Because fighting doesn’t start standing in cultures that don’t stand all the time. Or, cultures that have a hard time standing up quickly from their seated position. In other words, cultures where you sit on the floor.
Hmm… don’t we know one such culture?
Yeah, that’s right.
And in the vicinity of the land of no chairs, we find Okinawa – the birthplace of Karate.
Because, even though rolling omoplatas might not be traditional Karate (even though, as noted, at least one very famous Karate historian suggests this), there is ground fighting in Karate. Or, at least, fighting from the ground.
However, it is not your traditional Judo/BJJ/JJJ/Wrestling moves.
It is various kicking, grabbing, striking, and joint locking defenses from sitting on the ground (kneeling positions are found in many major kata), and/or lying on the ground (see kata like Unsu, Kusanku).
I’m not saying it’s common.
I’m just saying it’s there.
In fact, I have even learned old-style Karate ground fighting in Okinawa myself (“chi-jutsu”, lit. “practical ground art”) from a certain hanshi 10th dan, whose name will remain anonymous, who, during his research found out that such techniques were once being trained in the court of old Shuri castle (Shuri-jo) in Okinawa, from where much of our modern day Karate comes. So, this sensei took it upon himself to go to southern China and learn these techniques (“Dishu-quan” or “Góu-quán”) and simply re-introduced them to Okinawa again!
To tell the truth, he has assured me many early Sunday mornings (that’s when he has these “special” classes…) that he alone is the only Karate sensei in Okinawa that knows these old-style Karate ground fighting techniques, but I’m not sure I believe him, as I’ve seen other teachers practise very similar techniques when they though I wasn’t looking (sneaking up on old masters is one of my specialities).
So, to the uninitiated, what do these techniques look like?
(hint: don’t search YouTube, there’s just that new flashy Wushu stuff on there)
Well… for starters, it’s all about you being on the ground, with your opponent kicking, punching or grabbing you from a standing position. You are actually in the exact same position that you lie in in kata Unsu. A position we might find a bit weird in the West, but which makes perfect sense for your average Okinawan.
They use it all the time.
Let me briefly tell you about a man I used to see back in Okinawa when I rode my old ass bicycle pimped out Harley Davidson to university each morning. Every day, when I crossed the road at a certain place, (just outside a dental clinic, in case you’re interested) there was a chubby guy sleeping on top of a small stone wall. It was really crazy, I seriously thought he was chronically drunk or something, but no, he was just taking a nap. And this is not something just bums do.
This is the way everyone does in Okinawa.
It is a part of their culture.
They just find a place, basically anywhere, and sleep on the side for a while.
I drew a picture for you – so you can see what I’m talking about:
When people speak about “cultural differences” and/or “hidden meaning” behind this and that move in a kata, they’re often referring to things like this.
We Westerners don’t spend several hours in this position on a normal day.
But Okinawans do (okay not every day, but…). And therefore, they had to developed highly sophisticated ways of defending oneself from whoever dares to wake them up from their siesta. They even lie like this in parks when they have picnics too (which seems to be, like, every day).
This is their chill mode.
And I honestly understand if you don’t believe me now, but once, walking in my old ass flip-flops pimped out all-blue Chucks down the street in Okinawa’s old Kume Village, when I was turning a corner, I saw a sweaty construction worker actually sleeping on top of his minivan in this exact position! C-h-rr-ay-zyy!
He was just lying there. It must have been hot as hell!
But that’s not all.
To convince you even more of how the cultural landscape from where Karate originated differs from ours, consider this picture:
This is how Okinawans rest when they’re not sleepy enough. Like, when they’re speaking on their mobile phones, standing in line or looking at a map. Or drinking water.
All day, every day.
And this is sooo funny, because hardly any normal Western person can effortlessly squat down like this – without popping their backs, breaking their ankles or crushing their knee joints in the process. And if they can, they have to stand up every five minutes or so, to stretch their legs.
That’s why Japanese toilets look like this:
To make Westerners poop their pants.
(Okay, that was a joke, but you get the point.)
(And Japanese toilets do actually look like this.)
(It’s really annoying.)
So what am I trying to say?
Well, contrary to what some contemporary money hungry Karate experts, or historians, wants us to believe (that Karate is an all-round modern “mixed martial art” which comprises both the stand-up game as well as advanced ground fighting grappling skills, counters and tactics), Karate is an Okinawan martial art that advocates subduing an opponent by the combined use of strikes, punches, sweeps, kicks, blocks, locks, throws, chokes and other stuff, without going to the ground yourself.
There is no sensible reason to why you would want to do such a thing.
However, if the fight should start with you on the ground (which it practically never does for us Westerners, since we generally sit on chairs today), then there are old “lost” ground fighting tactics inherited (mainly through kata) in Karate today, practised by some masters still in Okinawa, which we can – and should – employ when needed, since these techniques take into account the fact that self-defense (Karate) could quickly become a matter of life and death.
A matter which should never be decided by “if you manage to interlock you feet correctly in a rolling bana-split leg lock reversal” (there is actually a lock like that) or not.
Because that’s not Karate.
Sure, BJJ, Judo, Submission Wrestling and other kinds of ground based combat sports are both fun to do, entertaining to watch, and highly functional (in the right context), but they’re not Karate. Let’s not fool ourselves.
And if somebody says otherwise…
…then they’re either grossly misinformed, or it’s a cheap PR trick.
When keeping it real goes wrong.