Yesterday I posted this quote from Jack Dempsy on Facebook after a friend shared it with me:
“Too many amateur instructors have forgotten entirely that the purpose of boxing lessons is to teach a fellow to defend himself with his fists; not to point him toward amateur or professional competition with boxing gloves. To a menacing extent the major purpose of fistic instruction has been by-passed by amateur tutors who try to benefit themselves financially, indirectly or directly, by producing punchless performers who can only win amateur or professional bouts on points.” – Jack Dempsy, Championship Fighting, 1950.
What struck me, him, and no doubt you too, are the parallels with modern karate. From the off, we should be clear that Dempsy is not criticising the sport of boxing in and of itself. As a champion boxer himself, that should be obvious. It is also very clear when your read the quote in the context of his wider observations. He is simply stating that the increased popularity of the sport, and the resulting boom in boxing gyms, has caused some problems in boxing as a whole. So, I don’t see this as a “anti-sport” quotation, and that’s certainly not why I posted it, but it does raise two key issues we karateka can relate to:
1 – Karate has also forgotten that its purpose is self-defence.
That is why karate was originally created. It was, to quote Anko Itosu, “a way of avoiding injury by using the hands and feet should one by any chance be confronted by a villain or ruffian.”
As societies became less violent, the need for martial arts as self-defence diminished. To keep them relevant to the times, the potential benefits in physical health and character development were then emphasised (the “do” movement i.e. kendo, judo, aikido, etc get things rolling and then “karate-do” hops on the bandwagon). Later on, sporting versions the art were also developed. And while all of this is very valuable, it does tend to obscure the original nature of the art.
You can see this “obscuring” most clearly when it comes to kata applications. We have the widespread misunderstand that kata is a choreographed and impractical “fight” against fellow karateka. We also have kata done for its own sake and not as one element of a holistic combative methodology.
It’s only when we understand the true nature of kata, and how that applies to the true nature of criminal violence, that the physical side of karate makes any sense. Rory Miler wrote the following in a blog post in 2013:
“When people don't have a reality check they have this really stupid tendency to make up a reality check. 'Make up' and 'reality' rarely belong in the same thought. I almost always pick on karate for this. When I look at their kata and kihon, they have possibly the best body mechanics for infighting that I've seen... then they choose to test it at sparring range, where it sucks.”
It's an observation, from a non-karateka, that squarely hits the nail on the head. Kata is for infighting (specifically close-range civilian altercations), but that has become obscured and karateka try to apply it at “sparring range”, where it does indeed “suck”. We then have people saying kata does not work; whereas, in truth, what they should be saying is, “my misunderstanding of how kata is supposed to work does not work”.
We need to return to being clear about karate’s original purpose; and the kata that encapsulate that purpose.
2 – Karate has lots of “punchless performers” too.
Traditionally, karate is supposed to adhere to the dictate of “Ikken Hissatsu” or "to annihilate with one blow". This is widely misunderstood to mean we only hit once! However, the truth is that the concept refers to the ever-present intent of ending the fight NOW! Not with the next punch, not in a few seconds, but NOW with the technique we are doing NOW.
If the technique fails, then we are immediately in a new NOW (that’s how time works) and we should still be seeking to end things there and then. Marc MacYoung has his own version of “Ikken Hissatsu” when he states that physical self-defence can be summarised in three words, “Him, Down, Now!”.
One key thing we need, to be able to fulfil the Ikken Hissatsu dictate, is true punching power. My experience is that most martial artists don’t punch as well or as hard as they think. I often remark that there is a whole new level of hard that most martial artists are oblivious too. Many define “hard” as the power generated by the “least worst” striker they have personally experienced.
Peter Consterdine 9th dan is certainly a practitioner of “true hard”. I have been a student of Peter’s for a long time (Peter awarded me my 6th dan) and I’ve enjoyed seeing the revelation of true hard that many martial artists experience the first time they hold a pad for Peter. In one moment of true impact they redefine what “hard” is and realise their previous definition was very wrong. That needs to spread. We should all be seeking true hard, and not what passes for “hard” in most of today’s dojo and gyms.
It amazes me how many karateka don’t use impact equipment. In those cases, “power” becomes synonymous with “crispness”. People punch the air in a crisp way and they are told their technique “looks powerful”. However, power can only be truly tested and experienced when strikes actually collide with something.
Line work has its place in karate. It’s good for developing body awareness and refining motion. However, we should be spending much more time hitting things and working with actual partners. I would suggest that the ratio of the ingredients is off in many dojo.
What we should be seeking is technique that is objectively good (it works), not technique that is subjectively “good” (fits with the arbitrary dictates of the group or teacher).
When I’ve said this in the past, many think I am endorsing crude, muscular power over their “sharp” technique. That’s hugely telling in and off itself! On some level, they must know that their arbitrary defined “good” is inferior to brute force when it comes to power generation … and that’s about a poor as karate can get.
Power is not a muscular thing, or a size thing, it’s a technique thing. Objectively good technique will generate huge amounts of power in an efficient way. Indeed, we should not label a technique as being “good” if it does not do that.
Objectively good technique will be powerful, and by default it will also be aesthetically pleasing. Efficient, coordinated motion is always pleasing to the human eye. However, it does not follow that aesthetically pleasing motion is always powerful. Dancers move in an aesthetically pleasing way, but it does not follow their motions will generate lots of impact.
We should all be seeking true impact.
If karate is to continue the trend of returning to being the effective system that it was originally intended to be – which is necessary for its continued growth – then we too need to avoid the same pitfalls that Jack Dempsy observed in 1950s boxing.
While the sport, physical health and personal growth aspects of karate are all extremely valuable, we need to be clear that teaching those aspects alone will obscure karate’s true nature. We need to remember that self-defence is at the core of karate. In doing so, that brings the need to be able to hit truly hard front and centre. While it is possible to pass through the ranks (of groups that don’t test striking power as they should) and it is also possible to have competitive successes without ever being able to hit hard, self-protection demands that skill. It’s therefore a travesty that developing true power is not as emphasised as it should be today; and as it was in the past.
Jack Dempsy’s quote is very relevant to karate today.
All the best,