That Bloody Karate…

All through the martial arts world we always keep hearing about how training has “changed” or has become “watered down” by the older generation. Having trained across 4 decades (1978-2017) myself I can say the way I teach today is much different than the way I was taught BUT I will also say we are smarter, more educated and understand the martial arts better today than they did back in the 1940, 50, 60 and even 70’s.

In the Karate world there exists an era where it was referred to as the “blood and guts” time. This spanned from the 1950’s through the early 1970’s and earned its moniker very well because they didn’t have safety gear, very few rules in tournaments and the majority of the time injuries were abound in both training and at competitions. Many of the greats in martial arts came out of this era and I have been honored to have met many of them and trained with a few of them.

It is not uncommon for us Karate Sensei (teachers) to hear about how “watered” down training is today compared to how “they” trained but I am here to say that I disagree with that comment because we are better teachers, advanced teaching the arts with science and trips back to Okinawa to understand what we are teaching as well as became more aware of a very important character trait of a good martial artist…compassion. When I began training classes were often two-three hours long. We would drill and drill until we puked, passed out or got injured…then we would be forced to get back up, get back on the floor and keep going. There existed a lot of ego in the dojo back in those days and I am the first to admit that, when I opened my own dojo, I was mean, condescending and drill instructor like on my students. I probably scared more people away from training during Kumite than I ever helped back then too.

I am the first to admit that not all martial arts schools out there are what should be considered as such. Many have replaced good, solid training with the love of money above all and award black belts like candy if you got the cash to buy them. They all make us look foolish and stupid but they don’t care. There are even a couple of very large organizations that have franchise schools all across the USA that mass produce low quality black belts because that is where the cash is at. Even Youtube is full of videos condemning them for their lack of understanding that earning a black belt should be tough, hard and not something just anyone can get…regardless of their bank account levels. Have they watered down the martial arts they teach? Yes they have and most of them are just “activities” instead of actual martial arts training. Personally I think they are the reason why the general public doesn’t even know what good, authentic, quality Karate actually is.

Ok, so back to that “Bloody Karate”. Many years ago I had an awakening as a Karate Sensei. I was actually speaking to the man who became my Sensei and he mentioned that “no one wants to go to work or school with a busted lip, black eye or broken nose”. It was a great conversation because it enlightened me to the fact that, while Karate is for everyone not everyone wants to train that way. My Sensei also stated “many of our students have jobs and if they can’t go to work because they are injured then they can’t pay for lessons. If they work in sales and are coming in with a busted up face they can’t make a living. We, as their Sensei, should be wise to this and train them properly.” That was a revelation that changed the way I ran my dojo for the betterment of my students. I began to understand that, while I see Karate as a combat method, not everyone who comes to me to train will and I should not expect them to be soldiers.

I honestly believe that had I not had this conversation I would not be teaching Karate today because we always had blood on the mats at every class and people getting “smacked around”. It was no wonder that I could never break past 25 students back then. So I began adjusting my methods of teaching to make sure they were built up to the level where they would enjoy the harder contact instead of just throwing them into the pit with the lions. I devised training drills, levels of contact that is permitted and worked on building them into a comfort zone where they would enjoy the hard contact instead of just “expecting” them to like it. The result was a very strong class of black belts who loved the training and could handle it with a much larger student base that enjoyed coming to the dojo and improving each class. This revelation for me has also been life changing.

Today people watch sport martial arts tournaments and there is an immediate “that won’t work” or “that’ll get you killed in the street” from various martial artists. The thing that they are missing is the fact that those people know this…how they compete is not actually how they will fight when it comes time for self defense. I am not sure who ever came up with that idiotic ideology but it isn’t factual at all. Many point (light contact) fighters have successfully moved into full contact with ease and many people who do light contact sparring in their dojo can adjust and change for self defense just as easy. So to think that a person, because they compete in slap and tap tournaments, cannot defend in real life is kind of a blanketed statement that has no factual proof…it is, like many things in today’s social media world of martial arts, hearsay.

While it is true that when all a school teaches is sport martial arts that their students won’t be very good at self defense that is a very small majority of the schools out there. Most good schools teach sparring and then they teach self defense, understanding there is a huge difference between the two…yet they compliment each other very well. There really is no need for the training to be bloody and full of injuries…and, as I see it, that is the sign of a poor instructor to be honest. When ego drives a dojo students will be full of ego. I hear it all the time…comments like “that isn’t self defense” after certain people see a division for that at a tournament; or like “that guy is great at winning trophies but he can’t fight in the street” and so forth. These comments just roll off my shoulders because I could care less when someone makes an ego based biased opinion.

In the 40 years I have been training I have broken all my fingers, all my toes, my nose quite a few times, several ribs, dislocated both shoulders and elbows as well as a hip. I have scars on my knuckles, cheeks and eyebrows where they were split open. The inside of my mouth looks like hamburger on the cheeks from biting through them many times. I have probably swallowed enough of my own blood to set up a small bank for the Red Cross too. All these things made me tough but, as I age, have caused me to lose ability to do some things I truly enjoy in life, as well as my Karate. These are things I never wish on my students. Even though I want to produce tough black belts I don’t want to produce psycho ones that can’t see past the pain and guts style of training.

While I wasn’t alive, nor in a dojo, in the 1950 to early 70’s I have heard many stories from those that were and I, for one, am glad we have progressed into much wiser, capable teachers for our students. We understand the science behind the arts we teach much deeper than they did back in those days as well as the Bunkai to the Kata (most had no idea what that was back then). We are also more well rounded and educated on what constitutes as self defense versus what will send our students to jail than they were in those days too. We have also grasped and gained the concept that, In Okinawa and Japan, the martial arts are more than just as study of combat…there is moral and ethical code to them that produces GOOD people. I would rather produce some tough black belts that are also compassionate, understanding and successful in life than ever produce a bunch of people that only know how to fight…but that’s just me.

The blood and guts era of Karate forged the way for the future, made Karate popular through the tournaments and movies. It laid a foundation and created some incredible competitors. It was a needed time in the development of martial arts in our country but that time has passed. In our day an age of UFC and combat sports filling the internet and Youtube, not to mention living rooms via TV, it is important to understand that aspect is a very small portion of what real martial arts has to offer. It goes beyond just being tough and into the realm of being a good person. The goal is to seek the balance of mind, body and spirit. Toughen the body to withstand everything to be ready for combat, strengthen the mind to be smart, agile and knowledgeable and build the spirit to understand how to charge ahead and get through what many others cower from in life. Seeking that balance is a life long endeavor worth training for and is why there are no overnight miracles in the martial arts…hard work, perseverance, training, discipline and focus are tools that will take you much further in life than being able to beat someone to bloody pulp. Train hard, work hard, improve daily and quit worrying about who is the toughest, who has the best art and all that other stuff. If you are training in a school that focuses on belts above ability then find a better one. If you are training in a school that just beats the snot out of you find a better one. If you find a good dojo, a good Sensei and a good, authentic art that goes beyond the ego, beyond the tough-man facade then you are truly blessed…as I am because that is both what I have found and what I own. Train hard my friends and always improve…

Steven Franz, Rokudan
Shorin Ryu Shorinkan



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