37 posts / 0 new
Last post
Heath White
Heath White's picture

This thread is raising an issue for me that I have thought of before, but I wonder what others think about it.  My idea is that ring sports are considerably different from the kind of criminal-defense encounters that karate was originally designed for, and this shows up in techniques and training practices.  Consider this a hypothesis for discussion, not a fixed position.  And let me say up front that this is by no means a criticism of Zach’s boxing traing; I am very much enjoying this thread.

First, the differences.  There are some obvious ones: in ring sports there are rules, you know what you’re getting into and when, the criteria for success are different.  The difference I want to explore is time: boxing matches, MMA bouts, Muay Thai matches, etc. are frequently 10-15 minutes or longer.  Street encounters are never 10-15 minutes; they are often over in seconds.  I think this makes a big difference.

  1. The importance of cardio.  For ring sports it is crucial; for self-defense purposes, not so much.
  2. Conversely, the emphasis on “one punch kill” power.  Crucial for self-defense.  But it probably makes you overcommitted, or a one-trick pony, in a ring sport.
  3. Ring sports have a lot more “wear him down” techniques.  For example, jabs in boxing, leg kicks in Muay Thai.  Neither of these show up in karate and neither of them are very effective the first time.  It’s the tenth jab or leg kick that really takes it out of you.  But this only matters in a long match.
  4. Related: jabs or flicking backfists that are intended to cut the opponent’s eye and blind him in a future round.  These don’t show up in traditional karate because there isn’t going to be a future round.  Thai elbows are intended to slice; karate elbows are intended to smash, for the same reason.
  5. In ring sports, there is a lot of emphasis on getting in, doing a little damage, and getting out safely.  In karate, the emphasis is on getting in and not stopping until the enemy is out of commission.  So karate is going to lack the evasive exit footwork that Zach talks about.


Those are the points I can think of.  So, I’m curious what others think: is time an important difference when thinking about self-defense karate vs. ring sports?

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Yeah, I have plenty say on this. I have spent the last 20 years in more self-protection oriented Karate, and I also teach it... so this is an interesting point of discussion to me.

I'll try to address some of these individually:

1) Yes, cardio is not very important in terms of self protection, physiologicall speaking. It IS important for training efficacy though, and if you are (for instance) engaging in intense scenario training, even just drilling of basic technique with repetition you will begin to degrade at some point in a way that better cardio can help with. So (like many of the other things in combat sport) the benefit here is not so much about direct application to self protection as it is more effective holistic training. Producing effective self-defense oriented Karate requires also developing some of the individual, perhaps the "martial arts" aspect to Iain's martial map. After all, if we wanted to straight self protection there is no real reason to be Karateka, we can do Reality Based self defense and it is a more efficiacious route. So I would argue that here we consider the development of the individual more than simply saying "eh it doesn't directly apply to self protection so out it goes".

2) Yes, this seems to be 100% accurate in my experience so far.

3) Yes, and that is relatively new, you can even read Jack Dempsey in Championship Fighting complaing about the "flick jab", not only is it something particular to combat sport, it is particular to modern combat sport due largely to heavily padded gloves.

4) Yes, agreed 100%

5) Here I think you are actually selling short one of the biggest things that can be enhanced in one's Karate from boxing in particular. While certainly "plan #1" in Karate is to move in and not stop until we have incapacitated someone, that is not always an option. In kata for instance, you can "freeze frame" a position and then figure out where the opponent will move if you fail, it will not be the light-footed, precision movement of combat sport, but if our initial attack fails, being able to move to a position of advantage immediately is absolutely crucial - I would argue this is shown in kata, in addition to how to simply take someone out when everything works as planned. In addition, knowing how to move to cut off someone else's evasion (for instance make it so that they must move into your reverse hand and have no other movement option - again a common Kata theme by my reading) and limit the option in which they can move is also crucial in the "support system" Karate attempts to build should our initial onslaught fail - a distinct possiblity. In short, my take is that it's not a good idea to train application as if we will never be hit, never need to shift our position, or as if we will always have the advantage of successful inititiative - though certainly we should train in a way that we are always looking for it as the best option.

The thing is, we have to look at the -right part- of combat sports engagements to understand how we can relate them to self protection. For instance, watch a boxing match and pay attention when the commentator says "it looks like a fight has broken out", this is the aspect of boxing that is closest to self protection - often actually called "fighting". All the circling around, responding to cues, complex slipping etc. that happens prior to this is of course nor particularly relevant. Pay attention to how people cut off angles against their opponents, and how they position themselves while attacking and you can find stuff related to self-protection in terms of physical technique.

Beyond that, one place where frankly I think self-defense oriented Karateka sometimes have a huge deficit in our skillset is in the area of using flinch  motions to simultanously cover and attack/imbalance. This is very well developed in boxing with some caveats. If we are building a support system for self protection, we have to understand how to deal with a barrage of punches. Sure, it is not ideal, but again..we have to have a support system that goes beyond the assumptions that 1) our blitz or onslaught is going to work as we planned 2) That we will get a jump on the person, or acheive a pre-emptive strike every time. Not doing so, or not including such scenarios in our bunkai drilling/training/sparring is the equivalent of the guy who says he doesn't need basic ground grappling because he doesn't want to be there.

Caveats: First is that (near as I can tell) different groups and trainers are somewhat conservative in their approach to what they use defensively. In some cases boxers seem to take the most difficult option, such as slipping and rolling when they could more easily simply cover - that's certainly a sport thing. In boxing you must use your vision (due to the prolonged nature of the engagements) a lot more than self defense where tactile information is primary, and some decisions are made based on this.

Watch the right people though and you'll get what I'm saying. Watch some old George Foreman fights where he makes heavy use of the long guard and cross arm guard. Pay particular attention to the "fight" - i.e. once people are actually hitting hard and attempting to hurt one another. What you will see is use of covers, sometimes shoves and imbalancing combined with striking. Sure the timing is much more truncated  and the seperation of attack and defense differs from what we would see in self protection, but other than that it is quite relevant physically. Of course we have to factor in that no grappling is allowed in boxing. However, in a sense this can produce some relevant results for Karate, because we should not be seeking to immediately throw someone upon vertical grappling (though people do this in bunkai sometimes, I personally think it's a  huge strategic mistake) when we could just as easily manipulate their head a little with our forearm and hit them again, etc.

Again, pay attention to the part of matches where people are actually starting to speed up, often just prior to them clinching, and you will see the part of boxing that is most relevant to a self-protection oriented Karateka, in my opinion.

The other major thing that is different is this:

Hitting with your fists only is severely limiting your weapons. If you take the "fighting" range of boxing and add in the possiblity of things like forearm or elbow strikes, knees, hammerfists, palms, slaps, stomps etc. (not to mention entering into throws and knockdowns) and you have a different animal in that "fighting" zone. I've done this sort of thing in my class some, the disadvantage, you really have to go pretty slow to keep it safe, unless you wanted to truly pad up in protective gear.

Rhthym: There is no such thing in self-protection, but it's huge in boxing/combat sport; the timing of combat sport is largely irrelevant to physical self protection skills.That is, until it actually gets to the "fight" part, where people dispense with rhythm and timing, and often just go as fast as they can to achieve their goal.

We could get really granular with this analysis, but that covers some of the basics in my experience.


For an interesting reference, here is a highlight video of the cross arm gaurd - notably the same position that shuto-uchi begins with essentially. Of course in boxing you cannot do a shuto, a grab and hammerfist, or simply ram someone's face with your elbows from this position, which greatly changes the timing and usage. However many boxers utilize a shuto-like method with this sort of guard, where they use the forearm as tactile information for the next hit, or to control the opponents movement. Is this exactly like self protection? No, but if you watch the videos, you can see that in places there is definitely stuff that is pretty close to Karate, being done under a ruleset, in very different circumstances than self protection of course.

This position has actually fallen out of favor generally in boxing - my understanding is that is because it leaves one open to body shots. It is an older technique inherited from earlier pugilistic styles, I've seen it in manuals from the 1700's and such. Of course body shots are negligible in self protection (compared to protecting one's buttons at least), and that is the reason you see the stacked elbows so often as a "flinch" technique in Kata in my opinion - it is a great way to not get knocked out and also have some offensive weaponry at the very least pointed at the opponent.

A related drill that's fun to try (once we can access a partner safely that is) is to have the opponent (preferably with big boxing gloves) attack you while you have your hands crossed at your chest, you can use your elbows and movement to defend the punches, and of course open the drill up into more offensive movements partner permitting. Like most self defense drills, it's close range. It really shows the importance of body movement and protecting ones buttons, you end up moving in a manner similar to boxing. I learned this drill from Rory Millers Drills for Sudden Violence book. It's a fantastic drill for the sort of evasion and agressive use of "defense" that I think shines in boxing - even if it's in a manner that differs from self protection.

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Figured i'd share this since it's relevant to some of what we've talked about:


This is just the "acceptable to good" outtakes from self-critique videos I made of boxing and Karate on my reflex bag. I am still getting the hang of using the reflex bag, it's kind of an odd piece of equipment because it's somewhat slow, and you are forced to follow it's rhythm, you also cannot hit it hard. I don't like it as much as a double ended bag at all, but it is good for slipping - especially on a chair like this, where you get a little speed out of it. When it's on the floor and at full height it's very slow, and I'm not sure it's that useful at that length.

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Figured i'd share an update on my boxing adventure:

I'm continuing to hit the Boxing gym 2 to 3 times a week. The times where I only make it two, I do an additional day of shadowboxing, bagwork, and footwork drills on my own.

Biggest things I notice so far:

1) My hand techniques are sharper all around, including Karate-specific ones. One thing Boxing has done is push me to really put forth the appropriate amount of effort when doing impact training, and I'm definitely getting the benefits. The Boxing work ethic alone makes the training worth doing, in terms of a perspective on how to improve one's Karate.

2) My footwork and mobility has improved a HUGE amount. If you ever decide to take up Boxing as a Karateka, do it based solely on this if nothing else interests you. Karateka just don't move enough, it's understandable and I think related to training method, but really, the way you learn to move in Boxing literally takes something like a week, and provides huge benefits over time. I have shifted my two man work with my Karate training partner to a much more mobile format, not in a long range sense of boxing, but in the sense that even pre-arranged or semi-arranged bunkai should be practiced with continual movement, not just starts and stops. It's also a huge advantage to be able to adjust your angle -as- you attack, something you get from boxing footwork, that I do not see so often with Karate.

3) Slipping, bobbing, weaving. My wife held pads for me the other day, even without any real practice against another person in the boxing gym (due to Covid), I was able to slip and evade her attacks in a way I have not been able to do in the past. Another thing Boxing training does is force you to "build in" evasive and defensive measures in your attacks, you could call it "prophylactic defense". While boxing evasion is too specialized to be directly relevant in karate, it is helping me see how Kata application also has "built in" precautions for avoiding getting hit.

4) Three dimensional punching and taking advantage of openings. So many boxing combinations are about creating openings and then exploiting them, I can see better how (on a simpler non "chess game" level, given the needs of self defense) Karate also creates and exploits openings and natural defensive body movement in application.

The other huge thing is just that Boxing will increase your fitness massively. it was hard for about three weeks, after that my body got used to the extreme cardio, and now I seem to be able to hang in there with the young guys pretty well cardio wise, which comes as a huge shock to me. I still look like a fat middle aged guy though, no getting away from that I guess.

So, if you are up for a challenge, I would definitely recommend checking out the Boxing gym to inform and integrate relevant skills into your Karate, I'm finding it hugely beneficial, and just generally enjoying seeing my improvement with the skillset as well. Boxing is a very simple but effective skillset, you can obtain the basics in a few weeks, the rest is simply honing skills and going deeper. I got a couple of compliments from the coach this week, he does - not- just hand those out. After so many years of being a teacher (in Karate) and not as often a student, it's really nice to just put that down and learn, and it feels good to improve a skillset which could be daunting at the age of 44. I can't iamgine attempting this at my age without so many years of Karate under the belt.

My only concern for the future is sparring, only because I am not willing to take hard head shots much at my age, and sparring a bunch of 20 year olds I'm expecting that's exactly what I'd get. hopefully I'm wrong, and even if I decide to back off the sparring once it begins, I will certainly learn the drills.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Zach,

Zach Zinn wrote:
Figured i'd share an update on my boxing adventure:

Thanks for posting these. Together they make a great resource and guide for karateka looking to boxing. Thank you!

Zach Zinn wrote:
My footwork and mobility has improved a HUGE amount. If you ever decide to take up Boxing as a Karateka, do it based solely on this if nothing else interests you

I’d totally agree with this. The associated default distance may not be directly relevant to the self-defence focussed karateka, but ability to cut angles and move quickly while striking can be highly beneficial. Particularly when facing multiples. The one-on-one application within a consensual context can’t be understated either.  

There are times to be stable and there are times to be mobile. Boxing (kickboxing too) can be a massive help with the later. I find footwork drills fun too!

All the best,


Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Yes, I imagine that once I actually do boxing sparring, one of the most awkward parts will be willingly hanging out at that "medium" distance, danger-zone sort of area.

Anyway, the other part of Boxing training that is getting me thinking about different approaches to Karate is just simply the emphasis on individual skill development. I find that sometimes it is easy to pay this too little mind in Karate due to the sheer breadth of technique available to us, and to the fact that it is easy to get lost in collecting technique and strategy without focusing on developing simple skills, and honing attributes.

Now of course Boxing being a fully athletic endeavor, it focused on this in a way that is excessive for Karate, but I think injecting a bit more of this focus on individual development would be good for my Karate class.