Old Karate Kumite is boring?

Recently, while I was talking about the aspect of karate competitions, I had a person say “In the old days they always ran or backed off when someone attacked. Had it been me I would have just charged in and plowed them over”. This person has never competed without sparring gear nor in the older days when contact was much different. My response was “If you got hit back then something broke on you”.

He scoffed at this and just passed it off which is a current problem with many younger martial artists who compete or train today. You see, they never learned what it means to hit because they play tag sparring in their dojo or wear padded gear to the point that feeling a good technique doesn’t occur. While I was posting on Facebook a couple of days ago I mentioned that I sort of lost my ambition to compete in tournaments in the early 2000’s. I grew up training and going to tournaments in a much different era than what we understand them as today. Back when I first started to compete you had to hit with great technique, targeting, timing and a solid strike to score a point. It was not uncommon to hit your opponent with a technique and it would be ignored as it wasn’t considered “valid”.

This level of validity meant that the technique that hit the opponent wasn’t executed in a manner that, had it been a real fight, it would have hurt your opponent or stopped them from being to continue forward. The young black belt I was talking to comes from a school where they bounce around and call the first person to hit a point (regardless of the technique’s effectiveness). When trying to explain to him the reason why they used footwork, angling and there weren’t a lot of exchanges in the old days he just couldn’t grasp the fact that when you were hit it HURT. Even though control was emphasized back then they threw each attack with veracity and tenacity. It was stopped just short of causing severe damage but broken noses, ribs, fingers and toes were very common in those days. I remember seeing black belts walking around after their first match putting tape on their fingers, toes and even ribs so they could continue into the next round if they won. Blood was very common at tournaments too. My second tournament I was ever in I got cracked in the nose with a backfist (even though kids didn’t have face contact) and it bled like crazy. It was the first time I ever was hit like that and bled. The lesson I learned was to keep my hands up at all times LOL.

When people watch old tournament videos on Youtube of Kumite back in the 1960’s-1970’s they make stupid statements about how in effective they fought and how it would never work in a real fight. What they forget is that these are two highly trained fighters (like Joe Lewis, Chuck Norris and Allen Steen to name a few) squaring off against each other. One mistake and you got nailed and something broke. You see quite a bit of patience, strategy and skill at work in those videos unlike that rush in and score type of Kumite we have today. Sure people still get hurt today in tournaments but with the invention of sparring gear by Jhoon Rhee in the early 1970’s it made people more eager to run in regardless of the consequences. Take that padded gear off and run in and the results will be blood everywhere.

While I attempted to explain this to this young black belt, as well as many others (most of the MMA lovers who have no idea of what constitutes martial arts) it always falls on deaf ears because they think they know everything. I guess my 36 years of training and 25 years of teaching means nothing even though I fought in bare knuckle kumite matches many times over the years including knockdown Karate events. So I finally invite them to come to my dojo and workout to experience why, without the gear, it is dangerous to play the modern sparring game against another trained fighter. Sadly they never do show up so I am content in knowing that they just enjoy arguing instead of learning, which is not the trait of ANY good martial artist.

Attached is a video of Chuck Norris and Allen Steen fighting in 1966. While it isn’t nearly as “exciting” as modern tournament matches, to the trained martial artist, it is excellence in skill and ability at play. I appreciate this type of ability far more than the ability to slap your opponent quickly and score a point like we have today. I love watching Kumite, even today, but lost my ambition for it when it changed into its modern context over the old one. The reason that they didn’t rush in or they moved away in those days is to avoid getting hit because that meant it hurt and you could, in all possibility, get injured or break something. Whether you are an “old school” or “new school” fighter in the martial arts you should respect all aspects of the way it was back then. These are the men and women who pioneered a format that made it possible for your tournaments today.

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