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Karate on the Ground

Karate on the Ground

As the majority of those reading this article will be aware, Karate was developed by the civilian population of Okinawa. Karate is a civil system of fighting and was never intended to be used on a battlefield or in a rule-bound sporting contest. Karate was formulated to enable the civilians of Okinawa to defend both themselves and their loved ones. It was in 1669 that the Japanese invaders issued an edict that forbade the Okinawans from bearing arms. This meant that only those who enforced the laws, and those who broke them, would be in possession of weapons. The remaining citizens, who obeyed this edict, would have no option but to learn effective empty handed fighting skills if they were to assure their safety.

As a civilian living in a country that also forbids the carrying of weapons, one would think that the karate system would be ideal for self -defence. After all, that is what karate was originally created for. However, phrases such as, "95% of real fights end up on the floor" are frequently recited throughout the martial arts community at present. And whist this statistic is very high (most people with real life experiacne will dispute that most fights end up on the floor) the importance of possessing skills at all ranges is now well understood. After all, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Fights can end up on the ground and if karate is designed for real fighting, then why do the vast majority of karate clubs totally omit ground fighting (and for that matter grappling in its entirety)? Did the past masters get it wrong?

If you study - as opposed to just practising - your katas, you will know that karate does contain a vast amount of grappling (see my book & videos "Karate's Grappling Methods"). Techniques such as Close Range Striking, Throws & Takedowns, Chokes & Strangles, Arm Locks, Leg & Ankle locks, Neck Cranks, Wrist Locks, Finger Locks etc. are all included within the karate katas. But what about Ground fighting?

There are a significant number of ground fighting techniques within the katas if you know where to look. One problem that the modern martial artist faces is the difficulties that arise from failing to appreciate the difference between sport ground fighting and real ground fighting. Remember that civilians designed the techniques recorded within the katas for use in the instance of violent and unprovoked attack. No sporting techniques will be found within the katas, nor will you find the sophisticated methods needed to out wrestle a trained grappler.

In a mixed martial arts tournament (such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship) it is quite common to see contestants opt for the fight to go to the ground. This is a sound strategy if the contestant knows that they possess superior ground fighting skills to their opponent. In today's society real fights are rarely one on one for any length of time and hence opting for a ground fight is a sure way to get 'a good kicking' from your assailant's colleagues (or anyone else who fancies a 'free shot'). In the UFC, techniques such as biting, crushing the testicles, gouging the eyes etc. are banned. And yet these are the norm (and a highly effective 'norm') in a self-defence situation.

Possibly the most significant difference between sport ground fighting and real ground fighting is the 'intent' behind the fight. In a sporting contest your aim is to win the tournament. In a real fight your aim is to assure your safety. In my dojo, the ground fighting practice revolves around the regaining of an upright position so that student can flee. In a competition match the strategy may well be: A, Take the fight to the floor. B, Keep the fight on the floor. C, Weaken and tire the opponent. D, Get the opponent to submit using the techniques allowed in the rules. In a real fight (and hence the method used in the katas) the strategy would be: A, Avoid going to the floor at all costs. B, If the fight does go to the floor, regain your feet as quickly as possible. C, If getting up is not immediately possible, then hurt the opponent using simple (probably brutal) techniques. D, Once back to your feet, escape and seek shelter or help.

The majority of ground fighting methods taught within the martial arts at present are sporting methods derived from match fights. It is often the simplest methods that are the most effective, e.g. seizing the testicles. But if these methods are banned - as in a sporting contest - then an alternative needs to be sought. An interesting example of this is the ground fighting methods found within contest Judo. The art of Judo is effective in the extreme; they are without doubt the premier grapplers of the martial arts community. But it is a little known fact that before 1900 Judo did not possess the ground fighting methods it is so renowned for today. The Kodokan (Kano's Judo School) had gained a strong reputation for itself through its numerous victories in Randori Shiai (competition) when challenging other Jujitsu schools. In 1900, the Kodokan arranged a match against the Fusen Ryu of Jujitsu. At this time Judo did not include the same ground fighting methods that it has today. Kano had based much of his Judo on the Tenshin Shinyo Ryu & Kito Ryu systems of Jujitsu. Both of these styles were well know for their excellent striking skills and effective throws.

Tenshin Shinyo Ryu & Kito Ryu were battlefield arts, designed by samurai, and as such aimed to spend as little time on the ground as possible. A samurai would, in all probability, be decapitated by the sword of a member of the opposing army if they remained on the floor for any longer than a few seconds, and hence the jujitsu of the samurai did not contain the sophisticated ground fighting associated with the art today. The representatives of the Fusen Ryu realised they stood little chance against the Kodokan and decided to adopt an unusual strategy. When the fights began, the Fusen Ryu men laid down on the floor. Confused by what would be a suicidal movement on a battlefield (or in the street), the Kodokan men joined their opponents on the floor and were promptly beaten by the locks and chokes of the Fusen Ryu practitioners. This was the first loss Kano's men had suffered in eight years.

If the Kodokan were to continue to dominate other Jujitsu schools then they needed to develop a full set of ground fighting techniques for use in match fights (which, as we now know, they did to great effect). So we can see that many of Judo's ground fighting methods stemmed from competition fighting, as opposed to the methods that would be employed by a samurai on a battlefield. This does not mean they are ineffective, far from it, just that the samurai would avoid ground fighting and would use more brutal methods (such that they would be unsuitable for a sporting contest) if a ground fight could not be avoided.

Just as ground fighting holds and locks were spurned by the ancient samurai, they were also considered to be unsuitable by modern warriors such as the great W.E. Fairbairn. In case you don't know, Captain W.E. Fairbairn developed a system of unarmed combat that was so effective it became a part of the training for the Shanghai Municipal Police, The British Commandos, The American Marine corp., The British Special Operations executive and The American Office of Strategic Services during world war two. Captain Fairbairn is a practical fighting legend. In his 1942 combat manual entitled, "Get Tough!" Captain Fairbairn wrote, "You will have noted that no holds or locks on the ground are demonstrated. The reason for this is: THIS IS WAR." Captain Fairbairn goes on to explain that an individual should aim to regain their feet as fast as possible, is very vulnerable to attack whilst on the floor, there is a vast difference between fighting on mats and on rocky ground or a road, and that the most important thing is to remain on your feet in the first instance if at all possible.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that ground fighting holds, lock, submissions etc. do not have a place. It is just that the more simple, direct and practical methods must be given priority in a real fight. In my own club we regularly drill the holds and utilise ground fighting submissions (adapted from the katas) in our training. But the emphasis firmly remains upon avoiding going to the ground in the first place and regaining our feet as quickly as possible should the worst happen.

Karate as it was originally practised was a brutal and violent system, and it is this version of karate that is recorded within the katas. Throughout the katas the majority of close range techniques begin with an attempt to seize the throat, gouge the eyes or crush the testicles (sometimes a combination thereof). Any of these techniques will end a fight almost instantly (and that is why the katas favour them). Should these techniques be thwarted, the katas contain numerous locks, strikes, throws etc. that flow on from these initial techniques. It is important to understand that the katas record the key strategies and fighting principles of their creators. These strategies and principles are far more important that the techniques used to demonstrate them. When a fight hits the ground, the same strategy as used when vertical would be adopted by the karateka - if you can't get up instantly, then seize the throat, gouge the eyes or crush the testicles (obviously, these techniques are only justified in extreme circumstances - which is what kata is all about). If that is not possible then attack the opponent using the locks, chokes, strangles contained within the katas.

The kata rarely demonstrates these techniques on the floor (although it does on occasion), as the preferred option is to remain vertical. However, the principles upon which the techniques rest are consistent whether the techniques are utilised vertically or horizontally. This is reflected in Gichin Funakoshi's eighteenth principle of karate-do, "In spite of actual fighting always being different, the principles of kata never vary." That is not to say that there are no ground techniques in the katas. Pinan / Heian Godan executes a cross-strangle to a thrown opponent who is now on the floor, Kushanku contains a takedown into a floor fighting neck crank etc., but these are exceptions rather than the rule. The kata prefers to demonstrate its grappling principles from a vertical position, as being vertical is the preferred option, and the katas always endeavour to encourage the correct strategy.

The katas tell us how the various joints, arteries etc. can be manipulated to best effect. Whether these weaknesses of the human anatomy are manipulated when in a vertical or horizontal position is not relevant. To quote Gichin Funakoshi once again, "In spite of actual fighting always being different, the principles of kata never vary." (See the KGM books & tapes for numerous examples of kata techniques being used on the floor).

I would like to make it clear that kata practice alone will not enable the karateka to develop effective fighting skills. The katas are simply the method by which the strategies and principles of the art are recorded. You must try to utilise the kata's methods (grappling and ground fighting, not just striking) in sparring. In his 1926 book, "Ryukyu Karate Kempo" Choki Motobu (who was one of Okinawa's most feared fighters) wrote, "Kumite is an actual fight using many basic styles of kata to grapple with the opponent." From Motobu's statement we can deduce that: A, the katas contain many grappling techniques. B, Kumite should be based upon the techniques recorded within the katas (as opposed to being based upon modern sporting methods.) If you wish to be able to use the kata's techniques in a live environment, you must practice using the kata's techniques in a live environment (seems obvious, so one wonders why so few do it). In my book, "Karate's Grappling Methods" I suggest a number of different ways in which you can practice kata techniques in this way and I would urge you to read it for further guidance.

Ground fighting is a part of Karate - as one would expect with the art being specifically designed for civilian self-defence. The katas contain the correct principles, techniques and strategies to enable the karateka to defend themselves during a real fight (but not a sporting contest). The reason so many karateka omit ground fighting (and grappling in general) is that the katas are often insufficiently studied and competition sparring does not allow fighting at close range or on the floor.

If we wish to practice Karate as an effective and complete art then we must study the katas (not just practice them), extract the techniques and concepts the katas contain and then utilise these methods in live sparring. We should also adapt and experiment with the katas techniques such that we are able to utilise them in numerous situations. Hironori Otsuka, in his book 'Wado-Ryu Karate' wrote, "It is obvious that these kata must be trained and practised sufficiently, but one must not be 'stuck' in them. One must withdraw from the kata to produce forms with no limits or else it becomes useless. It is important to alter the form of the trained kata without hesitation to produce countless other forms of training." Similarly, the great Choki Motobu once said, "Learn to apply the principles of the katas, such that you can bend with the winds of adversity." So when discussing ground work, in addition to the brutally simple methods contained within the katas, we are also encouraged to adapt the kata's vertical grappling methods for use on the floor. As mentioned earlier, the same weaknesses exist in the human anatomy weather the opponent is vertical or horizontal. The katas record these weaknesses and give examples of how to exploit them.

If we study "why" a technique works such that we understand the principles upon which it is based, we can then adapt the technique - in line with the principles upon which it rests - so that it can be used in may different circumstances. Techniques are very specific, but concepts and principles are essentially unlimited. It is the principles of the kata that are of most importance, not the techniques used to demonstrate them.

Karate (as contained within the katas) is a highly effective art that possess methods and strategies for use at every range. It is a complete system of fighting that was specifically developed for use by unarmed civilians. If you study the original karate (as contained within the katas) you will develop effective fighting methods regardless of distance, and that includes ground fighting.