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”.

Very 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 The truth is that that percentage is taken entirely out of context, since it was originally made public by some Los Angeles Police Department study (concerning their arrests) and hey – guess what – their job is to take the assailant down (or pin them to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.

But no.

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!

Like, here:

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.

They squat.

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.


  • I was beyond happy to see someone actually cite where that "90%" number comes from. Loved the rest of the post too.
    • Dojorat
      All those BJJ people who use the `90% of fights go to the ground` are always failing to realize where that pseudo-factoid comes from. They base it on what that stat from police department and results of UFC, Pride and all the other glorified ring sports. Both of those contexts are far removed from the reality of an actual confrontation scenario. The problem with the first context is that it is an arrest where the struggle is rarely fair. Officers usually work in pairs and their goal is to take down the offender to CUFF him and take him away. The second context might have be seem real with an actual struggle but it is a CONTROLLED environment with RULES to follow however loose or few. It takes place in a cage on a nice smooth floor, often with thick mats. Going to the ground and attempting to grapple to defend yourself is one of the most foolish things to do. The ground will most likely not be smooth or free of dangerous debris and it is impossible to know if another assailant will suddenly intervene to stab you or kick your skull in while you are on the ground trying to choke or lock your attacker. With weapons including guns easily available and concealable grappling is foolhardy. You never know what your attacker might be hiding in his pockets or under his clothes. Nobody is going to ever attack you wearing a bloody speedo! That is the difference. Even the Gracies that the UFC meat-heads can`t get enough of realize this. Just look at the self-defense books they wrote. No surprise, nearly every technique intended for out-of-the ring shown is done standing. So much for ground-fighting is superior rubbish we all keep hearing from the MMA crowd. In a defense situation there are no rounds and it rarely lasts more than a few seconds. No real confrontation ever lasts as long an MMA match. Karate`s defense style is meant to be hard, fast and nasty. The goal is to cause the maximum pain necessary to end the aggression and/or be able to escape. That is what so many seem to forget and too many so-called martial artists and armchair warriors have no idea how to distinguish a ring sport from what would actually work against a person intent on felonious assault.
      • Is there an echo in here? :)
      • Tommy
        "Nobody is going to ever attack you wearing a bloody speedo!" I bloody love this quote :D
        • "Well, there WAS that one time when I was at the beach..."
      • Francis
        I agree with your point.The same goes with karatekas as well But I think that you are greatly underestimating the UFC meat-heads as you call them. Those sportmen's martial arts are not based on dogmas, they're based on science. Most karatekas have no idea how to distinguish what ''would actually work against a person intent on felonious assault'' and what would not.
  • Fraser
    Do this and this and they will tap out. Apply a narcotic and then the people you are dealing with no longer seem to precieve pain and you have a big problem if you are lucky enough to survive you could ask for your money back. Many of the techniques demonstrated do not work. Adapt quick as you have seconds to abandon the pseudo techniques and figure out what works. Best never to put them to the test as ignorance is bliss....
  • Dojorat
    Simple is always best and most effective. That`s is what the best bunkai and the one that springs to mind without barely thinking about it consciously. Unfortunately there are no bells and attackers do not always `tap-out` in real life outside the ring. Getting lost in bunkai is too easy. The best and most knowledgeable sensei always teach bunkai with 4 common points: Simple to do with minimal action Target is a weak point The techniques require minimal practise to be perfected and useable when needed. That is the combat principle of traditional Okinawan karate as taught by the older generations of sensei(the few 10 dans and their direct students. Jesse you know who I mean) in Okinawa where I live and train. Dirty tricks are the very essence of kata bunkai. I also agree with Fraser. When somebody out there attacks you, there is no way to know who you are dealing with. The person might be mentally unstable or under the influence of something. That is why it is always best to end it quickly. Putting bunaki to the test is what the dojo is meant for.Trying to do it while actually attacked is too late.
  • Mark Flynn
    Very interesting! I love it when I meet people who STILL believe that they will never need any type of groundfighting skills...and that their stand-up is sooo amazing that they will ALWAYS knock their asailant out from their feet. I have long since given up on trying to convince those people otherwise...but I personally know at least one fellow "advanced" practitioner, in my core stand-up style, who got burned something fierce on this in a real situation. That story is too long and hilarious to go into now, but I have personally been taken down (trying to stay up) in REAL situations. I have also connected well with strikes only to have the person latch onto me ON THE WAY DOWN to bring me with them AND executed a sweep or throw and had the person reverse the move and wound up on the ground. REALLY....what fantasy land are these guys living in! More is more. Learn groundfighting if you're a striker and vice versa.
    • Brian
      Your point is well taken, though it does lead to yet another question on the minds of a lot of potential martial arts students. If you can only take classes at one martial arts school, what should you choose? I'm actually at that point right now. I stopped taking classes a couple of years ago, but martial arts are still an interest of mine. However, I only have the time and money for one school. I like traditional martial arts (this blog has piqued my interest in karate), but they typically don't have much of a strong ground game (I previously took kung fu classes; in four years I never saw any ground fighting). I understand the practicality of Brazilian Jujutsu (a million videos of them choking out traditional martial artists don't lie), but I find the idea of endless classes rolling around on the floor a little... boring. Unfortunately, I really haven't found any traditional martial arts schools where the head teacher can swallow his/her pride enough to let a BJJ instructor come by to supplement their striking system with some live-resistance grappling. So I'm back at my old problem: do something fun that leaves a bit gaping gap in my martial arts skills, or take something "practical" that doesn't seem to thrill me much? I think a lot of people are left with that question in an era when any old Joe on the street may know some ground fighting from watching MMA on TV.
      • Leo
        Better than a million videos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=00g5a416rdU
        • chris
          not really. neither of those guys had the slightest clue how to grapple so that really proves nothing.
          • Brian
            Yeah, I have to agree with chris. All that video really proves is that: (a). Facing multiple opponents at once is almost always a losing situation. (b). The (fairly sloppy) mount isn't as good of a position to be in when some second random person is kicking you in the head. Of course, there really isn't a good 'stance' in any art that makes getting sucker punched (or sucker kicked?) any better.
      • Sydfrey
        Jesse's martial arts center offer stand up and ground techniques in their karate training. You should try it. I think you won't be disappointed.
  • John
    Mark, reading the article rather than just trying to force your opinion of everyone helps.
  • Wonderful ..thanks a lot for posting a good informitive blog
  • Szilard
    I find the references in martial arts about how things work "on the street" phony. My friend, while he was subduing his opponent on the ground, was knocked out by 2 other guys appearing "out of nowhere". At least according to him, he didn't see them coming, there was a crowd all right since this happened in a public place, but they just looked like innocent bystanders... In 1993 a shotokan black belt was back stabbed and died in the city Szeged, Hungary, while kneeling on his quickly subdued opponent. There always seems to be a second and third guy. If there wasn't the first dude wouldn't have attacked to start with. No sane bad guy attacks without plenty of backup. Going down will diminish your chances of saving your ass. Ask any experienced body guard.
    • Dojorat
      that again is just what I was getting at. Unless you are in a controlled environment there is always the risk of `others` coming in or the attacker having a concealed weapon. And you will not be able to see it in time while you are rolling on the ground or getting a lock on. The goal is to end it quick and get away from the area a fast as possible before the attacker has time to recover. Initiating grappling or a ground fight is about the worst thing to do. Learn to break free from holds but the goal should be to stay standing or getting back up as soon as possible.
  • Mark Flynn
    John? I read the article.
  • John
    Sorry Mark, I may have misread what you meant, it's not that clear who you are referring to. One thing about criminals is that they'll do anything they can to cheat. Practicing rule based fighting and expecting it to work on the street is a bad idea.
  • Found a nice article on a similar subject if anyone is interested: http://www.thearma.org/essays/WheresAlltheGroundFighting.html I quote: "End Note: I think ground-work as a whole is just overrated—a result of the pendulum of modern popular martial arts having excluded grappling in favor of “kick-boxing” styles for so long that when the Brazilians came along and wiped out fighters in the mid-1990s everyone soon realized their deficiencies. Nowadays, things are back where they should be for modern unarmed self-defense: people acknowledge that you need to be able to fight standing up, to throw or block blows when necessary, to face multiple attackers, and more importantly to effect take downs and throws (or prevent them being used on you). When you over emphasize ground-work because it’s popular you are a less well-rounded fighter—whether modern or historical, armed or unarmed. I think that historical lesson has been relearned out of our recent military conflicts. In historical fencing studies, the immediate lethality of weapons in close-combat encounters teaches you right away to avoid purposely going to the ground with your opponent. I think our ancestors knew this. And it’s even more so when modern firearms are involved."
    • Chris
      Hi, I found this article linked through facebook. First of all, it's good to see the record set straight about the 90% of fights statistic. It's too often taken out of context. One thing that should be pointed out is that (generally speaking), BJJ guys will concede that their art is not fit for defending against multiple attackers or guys holding firearms. With that in mind, multiple attackers is dicey no matter what your training background, and I've never trusted anyone who says they can reliably handle a gun-wielding assailant whilst empty-handed. That being said, I've been practicing karate for 15 years and Brazilian jiu-jitsu for two, and if I found myself in an inescapable confrontation and I was sure that a.) it would be a one-on-one fight and b.) it would be unarmed on both sides, I am beyond the shadow of a doubt going to try and drag them to the ground. The reason is this: while I am confident in my abilities standing and feel that I generally won't be outstruck by a random attacker, it's entirely possible to get caught by the proverbial 'lucky punch.' I've been caught in training and confrontations by people far less experienced than I. On the ground, it is extremely unlikely that I'll be caught off-guard by an untrained opponent. Most people don't know how to grapple, and are exponentially more out of their depth. Additionally, there are some positions (mount, side control, back control, and kesa-gatame) where I can pin the assailant and it is next to impossible for them to inflict any damage. I think the main thing is that there really is no silver bullet in terms of martial arts and everyone has something they can teach and something they can learn. Also, the rolling omoplata is really, really fun.
  • The core concern of karate is learning how to handle violence. That means that all domains of physical violence need to be familiar to a student, not just striking. I don't advocate attempting to go to the floor with people, since it places you in tremendous danger of becoming the center of a "boot party" (which I've seen happen- people not even involved in the fight just start kicking away). But that's no excuse for not being familiar with the tactics of someone who wants to take you down, being able to take someone down when needed, being able to return from the floor to your feet quickly if you end up there. Just saying "that's not karate" is a cop-out that ignores the main concern: teaching people how to handle violence. Whether it's "karate" or not, if it's part of physical violence than it needs to be considered.
  • Jim
    I happened to be watching an old TV program Fight Quest the other day and the two blokes went to Israel to train Krav Maga during one of the introductory 'sparring' sessions one of the hosts tried to take one of his opponents down and failed, the end result was a brutal lesson on why staying up is a lot safer than going down he was kicked and pumelled in the head repeatedly whilst trying to get into a ground dominant position. Quite frankly being good on the ground is nice, but its far safer to be on your feet.
  • Joe
    All asian people do the squat and sleep in random places. Interesting article though. I stopped arguing and just walk away now from people who talk about BJJ and ground fighting.
  • brianb
    Hi Jesse and all Oh boy thought i would add to this let me say i do not think there is anything wrong with learning something of a ground game(depending what you want to learn and need) I would encourage it but i would still focus on geting out and up on your feet. One thing is if i am ever taken to gound by some one that intends bodily harm i will not do a submissin(only if i have a good choke hold and can do it fast) especially if i have a limb or fingers i will do what the techqniues were ment for(breaking)laws be damned That being said i remeber when i first really heard about the ufc a school janitor friend had made a comment about bjj kicking butt( i thought ok what ever) to me it was no big deal as what i knew of talking with the few other ma's i knew and when i first trained was you either new how to do stuff or didn't and dealt with it.also alot of people i studied shotokan with had judo/wrestling experiance off and on in there lives(they were no MMA pros or gracies but they understood it enough to use it if needed and if they didn't thay found ways to deal with it) I think the ufc and media have grossly over stated the impact of the ufc and the gracies there were many people who were teaching some of the same things(gene label,wally jay and all the danzen ryu guys uptin judo and jujustsu guys like pasqueale sr and jr) and that is just in america(know granted there wasn't as big of an exposer in the mainstream tournment seen but it was there) .in japan you had a number of guys and some of the teachers who came here also new stuff( good example was shigeru oyama founder of world oyama karate he had to fight a bunch of well round judoka in the eraly sixties when he came over to prove he could do what he said he could)) Also you have to remmeber in karate and chinese martial arts if you were going to throw or take down someone you did it and made sure they stayed down( if you read about kimura fighting heilo this what he tried to do but could not because the stage had been prep by the gracies before hand) and if needed you did the old style version of ground and pound. Again nothing wrong with learning alittle but as i have told so many before the ufc showed not that you needed a ground game(as many new this all readyI.e people who used there stuff not tournment fighter,point fights and such) But that people no long train the way they use to (blood sweat and tears,cross traing and yes lots of fighting) and not for the same reason(to defend yourself) that my two cents for what ever it is worth.keep posting guys thankyou brian
  • Paul
    So your saying that you shouldn't learn joint locks on the ground? That's just bullshit! Dude, if you can finish the guy quickly with a joint lock you should do it. So you actually think that Karate didn't have any joint locks on the ground maybe you should do more research. Ever heard of Tegumi or Muto, Okinawa's submission wrestling style? It definitely influenced Karate. Japan had an influence on Karate and so did China. In fact many joint locks (even when both are on the ground) are common in both Chinese martial arts and Jiujitsu. Well, you think that by "keeping it real" it went wrong. Reality is that it went right and you're wrong. You overreacted with this because that guy showed you a few techniques on the ground? Considering that BJJ is learned everywhere in the US and Judo is quite well known in Europe and the rest of the world it's a good thing. You don't know what can happen and having these techniques can actually help. IN this seminar the ground fighting techniques were added because many of the participants probably didn't know them.
  • Erik
    I know this is an old thread, but as a student of Bjj and Goju Ryu, here's my humble 2 cents. Given the statistics in the article, there is a roughly 1 in 2 chance of the fight going to the ground, and a roughly 1 in 2 chance the first fall-ee will lose. This obviously proves the importance of having some grappling knowledge. Not necessarily offensive grappling, but certainly at least takedown defense, submission defense, and escapes. Also the fact that this article (I didn't read the study) doesn't break down how people got to the ground (knockdown, takedown, tripping/off-balancing one's self) means it can't help illustrate the effectiveness of takedowns. If you think you are training for realistic self defense, your training should address realistic statistics. Another study of YouTube posted fights published in Black Belt magazine found that a right hand punch was the first technique in over 80% of the fights. Makes sense, since most people will instinctively punch, and most people are right-handed. Therefore Self Defense 101 for me is subtitled: "Defense against..." So for all those people who say "But multiple attackers...but weapons..." I say: 1. If you can prove to me I am more likely to be attacked by a group, a person with weapons, or criminal intent, I will shift my training accordingly. 2. I think the only training that would prepare you for that would be something along the lines of hardcore IDF Krav Maga. And 3. As someone who has had a gun pulled on them ( I recently finished 2 years in debt collection), a steady calm voice is what helped me talk the man down. All my karate, wrestling, and bjj out the window in favor of talking.
  • 1
    you are right about not going to the ground if it is not needed!i started in the 1950 s with judo/jiujitsu also did greco roman later. apart from the fact that there was nothing else in those days i often wished i had never learnt it! i have some bad examples i was good at tomo nage (sacrifice throw) but ever tried it with a wall or a car behind you ? it does not work! in the late 60s i was working on a norwegian ship there was a drunken argument. the old bosun went away and comes back a minute later with his hand in his pocket i knew right away he had a knife! when he pulled it out i blocked it and did a hip throw then instead of kicking the shit out of him, like a good jiu jitsu man i went after him on the ground to do a control and dis arm and i got another drunken viking on my back the control and disarm went out the window and i got slashed on the leg!
  • Hannu
    http://www.karateobsession.com/2016/03/is-karate-a-grappling-art.html Here is one opinion about grappling and karate. I remember my sensei showing a little grappling in late 70's. but I was not interested. I did not want to hugg opponents at that time - more into punches and kicks. Now I am more about using any tool to win - in theory. My practise in reality is mostly for fun and physical conditioning. Grappling is a very good add-on and I like to think it's karate - or jujutsu.
  • Paris Bower
    Hahahahaha I found that “study” on YouTube and your right out of the 300 less then half got to the ground, but another thing I noticed is more than half of those people fighting are not trained in any form of BJJ DJJ or Wrestling. While Karate will absolutely help you beat the ass out of any average joe you happen to fight, anyone trained in grappling is probably winning the fight.
  • Sydfrey
    Jesse-Sensei, would this karate expert and historian you're referring here be Sensei Patrick McCarthy or is it some other karate expert and historian?
  • If you hit somebody and they fall over, does that count as a fight going to the ground? :) Joking aside, it's interesting to hear where this 95% thing came from. To be honest, I just thought that it was something that they made up and nobody bothered checking!

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