Thursday, October 31, 2013

Enter the snap roundhouse kick

In my recent article "The roundhouse kick and traditional martial arts" I wrote the following:
"So how does an art like karate treat the mawashi geri? What does it do to make the movement less "risky" and more "applicable" in civilian defence?  It makes the movement less of a "power" movement and more a conservative one. It throws the kick as a snap."
In the early days of debating with combat sports fans I lost count of the number of times that I heard this argument:
"If it worked so well, why don't we see it in MMA?"
Well, as with the front snap kick, I knew it was only ever going to be a matter of time.  And now, in the space of one week, we've had two separate knockouts, both with the trademark karate mawashi geri keage (roundhouse kick using a snap).  The only difference between these and the kick usually taught in karate dojos is that the instep was used instead of the ball of foot (but then again, that has always been an option in traditional karate).

Of course, to many non-traditionalists these kicks seemed "crazy": as one fight fan put it: "That kick came at him like a short hook, but with leg power... Wow!"

To a traditional martial artist, particularly a karateka, there is nothing new here at all.  It's not "crazy".  It isn't some strange "short hook with 'leg power'".  It's just a snapping roundhouse kick.  It is easy to understand.  Not everything has to look good on the heavy bag in order to be effective.

The first fight in which the snap roundhouse made its appearance recently was Lyoto Machida's fight against Mark Munoz.  To watch the video go here, but the above gif should suffice.

[One thing to note is Machida's sportsmanship in not punching the blazes out of his downed opponent.  Okay, Munoz was a previous training partner of Machida's, but the latter's concern and respect are still exemplary.]

The second fight was that of Enrike Gogohia of Ukraine vs. Hicham Boubkari of Morocco.  Again the fight was over in seconds.  You can see the fight here, but once again, you can simply watch the adjacent animated gif and see all the relevant details.

In both instances you see just how effective the technique actually is; how little power it takes (relative to the swinging roundhouse to the thigh/body etc.); how safe it is relative to your telegraphing, time taken and, above all, recovery (you don't follow through and so, if you miss, you don't have to turn back - or turn around showing your back to your opponent); and finally how darn fast it is.  

You'll also note that, despite the snap and retraction, the kick was powerful enough to sweep Boubkari pretty much off his feet. 

And in both cases, the fighter who copped the kick was emphatically knocked out.

To be effective against the head, a technique simply doesn't require the masses of force you need to bend a heavy bag. In fact, it doesn't require much force even against the abdomen - particularly when effected with the ball of foot to the bladder, kidneys, liver, solar plexus, spleen etc. All you need is the right level of focus and shock.  By contrast, with a swinging roundhouse you're likely to throw too much force and over-commit, thereby losing your control of the situation.  In the ring, this can be a mistake.  In the street this can be fatal.

Civilian defence is about conservative tactics.  It is not about "winning", but about "not losing", as I've said many, many times before.

One more thing of note is that Munoz manages to get his guard up to "block" the kick.  But the guard is held simply too close to Munoz' head.  As I've said previously, with the right blow this sort of "block" is scarcely better than being hit directly.

It is particularly so with a snap technique, where the "shock" of the blow is the issue.  So long as the block is sufficiently near the face, the shock will be transmitted just the same as if it hit the face proper.  This is why there really shouldn't be any surprise as to the effectiveness of the blow and the ineffectiveness of the "block" (contrary to the commentator's surprise!).

By way of comparison, one of my own students fought in a tournament the other week and faced a snapping roundhouse kick to his head - yet intercepted (ie. "blocked") it most effectively.  The key is not to keep your hands so close to the head - it's that simple; you don't want the shock transmitted through your hand into your face.

So in the end, I'm happy to report that another much maligned, traditional technique is starting to surface in competition, just as I'd argued it would (once people developed the proper technique).  So much for all the keyboard ninjas and MMA watchers who engaged me in endless debates based on their own (very limited) exposure to fighting methods.

I'm certainly not above saying: "I told you so."  And certainly not when I had to put up with so much sneering and scoffing, along with "show me proof".  Here it is fellows - proof: the snap roundhouse works pretty darn well, don't you agree?  Yes, it might be news to you, but it's something we karateka have known for a long time (you only need to cop one in contact karate to understand).

If they didn't already, I am certain Munoz and Boubkari understand only too well what many of us karateka have, through direct experience, known to be true: a kick needn't bend a heavy bag in half in order to be effective for its purpose.

The mawashi geri keage might be the "weakest" kick in the karate arsenal - but this doesn't mean it isn't effective.  Far from it.

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The role of free sparring

Here is a post by reknowned internal martial artist and researcher, and BJJ practitioner and practitioner, Tim Cartmell on his discussion board from a decade ago.  It concerns the role of free sparring in the development of martial skill. I think it deserves reposting, so I'm setting it out here (and hope Tim doesn't mind me doing so!):
This is a very interesting topic, the sparring vs. too deadly to spar dichotomy. My students also get into this discussion with practitioners of other arts that believe they are too lethal to spar.
I suppose their is no 'answer' short of no holds barred death matches, but it is important to look at the evidence we do have so that students can make an informed decision, especially students that want to prepare themselves for a real and violent confrontation. 
I'll preface my comments by saying I have trained all different ways. I've studied traditional styles of martial arts in which all techniques were supposed to be potentially lethal, and which forbade sparring, as well as traditional arts which allowed contact sparring. I've also practiced several combat 'sports.' 
One of the most, if not the most important aspect of success in a fight is mindset, next is experience, then physicality, finally specific technique. Without the will to fight, the greatest fighter in the world will lose to the most mediocre fighter. This is a common sense observation. It is extremely difficult (although probably not impossible) to develop a fighting mindset without some experience approximating a real fight. Like the boxers say, everyone has a plan until they get hit. If you have never been hit hard, crushed under someone's weight or been on the receiving end of a painful and unrelenting attack, how do you know how you will react? You may imagine you will respond appropriately and fight back, but you will never know for sure. Sparring will never be as intense as a real fight, but it is the closest approximation you will find within the bounds of relative safety (although you will be injured on occasion, it's an inevitability of learning to fight).  
Getting hit, strangled and thrown hard by a determined and resisting opponent will condition your mind and body for the realities of a fight. Taking out your opponent with the initial attack is obviously the ultimate goal of a fight (and learning how to sucker punch is something I believe should be practiced often), but the reality is one punch knockouts almost never occur. When they do, the fighter doing the knocking out is usually always much bigger and stronger than his opponent. Despite the popular 'deadly martial arts' idea that a fight will be over in seconds with the opponent lying unconscious and broken on the floor, fights often go on for minutes, with both fighters injured as third parties pull the fighters apart.  
Contact sparring and grappling are also a 'laboratory' for you to experiment with which techniques YOU can actually apply against a resisting opponent. Just because your teacher or classmates can smash bones with a blow doesn't mean you necessarily can. You will never know what you can really do unless you have really done it. You must also practice sparring in all ranges and situations (striking and wrestling both standing and on the ground).  
It is not that the techniques in most martial arts won't work, all legitimate styles have potentially useful techniques. The problem is the method of training. Anyone can make a technique work against a non-resisting partner, and, of course, that is how techniques are learned. The actual execution of a technique is the easy part. The hard part is the set up and entry. The method of learning how to successfully set up and enter a technique for real cannot be learned without a non-cooperative, fully resisting partner. Because that is the situation you will be in in a real fight. In a real fight, your opponent will be doing everything he can to stop you from applying your techniques. If your method doesn't take this into account, it is not realistic. The best fighters in the world use relatively simple techniques, most often the same techniques they learned during their first few months of training. The reason they can actually apply these techniques is that they have learned to set them up against trained, resisting opponents. They have confidence because they have been successful for real.  
Physicality is also extremely important in a fight. Size and strength do matter, and, especially if you are smaller than your opponent, superior endurance could save your life. Besides regular conditioning exercises for power and endurance, sparring practice will teach you how to conserve your energy and expend it when it will have the greatest effect. When the adrenaline is pumping, it is very important not to use up all your energy to no effect. Anyone who has ever been in a combat sporting event can tell you that whoever gasses first loses, no matter his or her level of skill.  
Another place to look for answers is with men who have a great amount of experience in real fights (street fights). If you read the literature, men like Peyton Quinn and Geoff Thompson (who worked as bouncers in rough places, and who had the 'benefit' of hundreds of real fights) assert that contact sparring and grappling are absolutely essential to preparing martial artists for real fights. Geoff Thompson is especially interesting in that he has liscences to teach over a dozen Asian martial arts. But what he advocates practicing for real fighting ability is Western boxing (combat sport), wrestling (combat sport) and Judo (combat sport). The main focus of training in all three is non-cooperative free sparring.  
In my own experience, I feel I developed more practical fighting ability from a year of Xing Yi Quan training in Taiwan (we sparred full contact on a regular basis) than years of training in other styles without non-cooperative sparring. Do I believe Xing Yi Quan is technically so superior to the other styles I studied? No, what made the difference was the method (we sparred).  
Finally. I'll leave you with a real world example. Meynard is passionate about this subject because of his background in the martial arts. He spent years studying a 'traditional' martial art (with an excellent teacher) that did not allow sparring practice because of the 'deadly' nature of their techniques. When he first came to study with me we could basically strike, throw and submit him at will (sorry Meynard, the truth hurts sometimes). He has practiced very hard the last few years, and is now one of the best fighters in my school. He's done well in combat sporting events (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and submissions grappling) as well as a street fight he got into with a gang member a few months ago (two leg kicks and a Pi Quan knocked the guy down. He had had enough and Meynard let him get up and limp away. Like Water Dragon said above [in the forum thread], this is how most real fights end up, no reason to kill anybody).  
I want to make it clear to my friends that posted above [in the forum thread] that I respect different methods of training. There is something to be learned from all drills, ancient and modern. What's important is to be honest about why you practice martial arts in the first place (for example, people who practice for health or recreationally don't need to spar) stay open minded and look at all different methods of training to see what works for you.
Copyright © 2002 Tim Cartmell

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Tensho partner drills

While I'm on the topic of tensho, I thought it might be useful to create a video list of partner drills relating to tensho.

Here is one from Taira Masaji Sensei:

Taira sensei's tensho drill

Here are some videos from Patrick McCarthy Hanshi which he has called "Rokkishu Futari Geiko":

And here's a drill from Paul Baumann in Switzerland:

Paul Baumann and his wife demonstrating a two person tensho drill

Here's my video of kakie from tensho again:

Tensho kakie

Finally, here's Nathan Johnson applying some tensho ("rokushu") movements in push hands:

Nathan Johnson's push hands drills, based partly on "rokushu"

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The origins of tensho

Tensho is a kata that is steeped in mystique.  In particular, there is a lingering "cultural memory" that it stems from an "older" Chinese form known as "rokkishu".  But what is the likely truth about the origins of tensho?  What do we really know about this enigmatic form?

We know that Chojun Miyagi openly took credit for developing the kata, just as he did for his version of sanchin (known as "Miyagi sanchin" - where there is no turn), and as he did for the two beginner kata gekisai dai ichi (also known as "fukyugata ni") and geki sai dai ni.

It seems Miyagi developed tensho after his trip to China in 19151 where, according to orthodox history2, he had been researching the origins of Okinawan martial arts, and that he developed this form as an advanced "breathing form" to complement or extend sanchin kata.

So what does "tensho" mean?

The kanji of are sometimes said to be 手 ("tenshu" meaning "heavenly palms" or something similar).   I have found very little to corroborate this speculation.  Rather, tensho is often described as meaning "rotating palms" or "turning palms" (see this the Wikipedia entry on tensho, for example) and this is consistent with the oral history passed down to me and many other goju ryu karateka.

Accordingly it seems more likely to me that the correct kanji are  (literally "revolving/rotating palms").  (Note that the second character is the character normally used in "bagua" or "8 palm changes".)

So what of the supposed "older" Chinese form known as "rokkishu"? What might that have meant?

Some say "rokkishu" translates as "6 breath/wind/spirit hands" () which is apparently the kanji used in the famous martial text, the Bubishi.  That text describes 6 hand forms used in striking, as illustrated to the left.

The problem is, none of these hand forms appear to have any connection to tensho.  Were tensho (or its rumoured "rokkishu" predecessor) to have any nexus to these hand forms, one would expect it to be primarily about poking, gouging, thrusting, chopping, pecking and clawing.  I think it is self-evident that this is not what tensho concerns - even if there are a few palm strikes (and potentially opening finger thrusts, if you open the fists) in tensho.

It also seems that this is not what any predecessor to tensho is likely to have concerned: had it done so, one might have expected to see some remaining "poking/gouging etc." emphasis in tensho.  Yet there really is no such emphasis (unless you maintain that it is "hidden").

Accordingly I think it is most likely that the "rokkishu" of the Bubishi is something altogether different from any rokkishu that might have had a nexus to Miyagi's tensho - even if the forms/exercises shared the same name.

I perform tensho kata in 2007 or thereabouts

So "rokkishu" written as  might describe some "tensho predecessor": the reference to "breathing" implicit in "ki" is at least suggestive of this hypothesis.

I've also heard rokkishu translated as "6 machine palms" () although I am at a loss as to where this (fairly common) construction originates.  It was certainly part of the oral history passed down to me from my instructors who studied in Okinawa and Japan (specifically IOGKF) in the 60s and 70s, and it crops up on many a TaiwaneseHong Kongmainland Chinese and Japanese site.  (I suspect that the reference to "machine" implies "generated power" or perhaps "internal power".)

Which brings me back to the question: was there ever a Chinese form called "rokkishu"?  In answering this it is noteworthy that despite my best efforts at research, and in the face of all the legends surrounding a supposed "rokkishu", I have never found a single form of this name in Chinese martial arts - nor even any historical mention of such a form.

The closest one gets are myriad forms that refer to "6 hands" (eg. this one from taijiquan).  Sometimes you'll find exercises that have a passing resemblance to tensho - usually comprising "qi gong" (breath/spirit exercises) of the internal arts - as the video below illustrates:

A series of qigong that might (arguably) resemble tensho in part

Perhaps this is where we start getting just a little closer to the truth: because the Chinese martial arts activity that tensho kata most resembles, at least in general pedagogic terms, is not a full form, but rather a series of exercises; ie. a drill comprising fundamental or foundational breathing/spirit/conditioning movements.

It is in this context that I now note that some Okinawan karate schools have traditionally practised an exercise (falling well short of a "kata") which they call "rokkishu".  Most notable of these schools is tou'on ryu - the "sister school" to goju ryu.

Mario McKenna, who first brought tou'on ryu to the West, informs me that his school's "rokkishu" drill essentially involves repeating 4 basic movements, namely:

1. a rising ko uke/uchi (back of wrist "crane beak" block/strike); and
2. a falling shotei uke (heel of palm block/strike); and
3. a sideways ko uke/uchi; and
4. a sideways shotei (also known as chudan teisho) uke/uchi.

(Exactly why a series of 4 movements would be called "rokkishu" is a mystery to me.  Perhaps the "roku" didn't refer to "6" but to some other Japanese word - eg. "good" or "worthy"... In any event, this sequence appears to have had the name - regardless of how you count the techniques.)

Importantly, each of the movements comprising the rokkishu sequence is capable of being practised, and is often taught in various karate schools, as an isolated basic:

Usually the age (rising) ko uke/uchi is combined with the shotei uke/uchi in a circular motion.  The sideways chudan teisho  is usually done on its own with a standard fist pullback - or sometimes with an age nukite (rising finger thrust).

It seems that when you combine all the 4 movements you get a sequence that is/was known in tou'on ryu (and elsewhere perhaps) as "rokkishu".

Of course, this sequence occurs in tensho - 3 times to be exact.  It occurs once on each hand separately, then once again using both hands.

Where could this sequence have come from?

I have heard via a number of separate sources, including Mario McKenna, that it is possible that this series of movements was practised in the Kojo expatriate dojo in Fuzhou, China (ostensibly not as part of any traditional, surviving Kojo kata, but perhaps in the form of a borrowed drill or set of basics).  I am not sure if this is true, however Miyagi is thought by some to have trained there during either or even both of his visits to China in 1915 and 1917.3  Regardless, his teacher Kanryo Higaonna is known to have trained there as did Kanbun Uechi, among others.  The schools of these teachers seem to contain "stray techniques" matching the "rokkishu" movements, even though they do not appear in the kata of those systems.4

(It seems that most Okinawan karateka who visited Fuzhou trained at this dojo.  One wonders whether this didn't make up most, if not all, of their "training in China" experience...)

Age nukite: one of many miscellaneous basics taught to
me - perhaps passed down from the Kojo tradition
Accordingly, I speculate that the "rokkishu" drill, or perhaps components of it (including such miscellaneous techniques as the ko uke, chudan nukite and age nukite basics), were taught in the Kojo expatriate dojo.

But if this is true, this raises a further question: where did the Kojo family get these techniques?

I think it is at this point that we might be getting closer to finding some answers.  Because there are indeed Fujian-based martial arts forms that feature the 4 movements seen above (albeit with some subtle, but significant, differences).

The most relevant of these forms is the Yong Chun baihe (white crane of the Yong Chun village) form known as "baihe bafen" (白鶴八分) or "white crane eight components":

White crane's bafen (8 components) form

It might be that the Kojo expatriate school in Fuzhou borrowed (or were inspired by) a few white crane techniques they saw around them, and that the "rokkishu" sequence was one - subsequently passed on to both Higaonna and Miyagi respectively, as well as any other karateka who visited their dojo.

Interestingly, I was taught this as a basic exercise in my early goju years (even though it does not appear in this form in any kata other than tensho, which I wouldn't go on to study for many years) and its more basic components in the isolated sequences to which I've previously referred (I am sure I have some old footage of me doing some of these).

You only need watch "paint the fence" in the Karate Kid to see how deeply embedded the sequence and its components are in Naha te -despite their relative absence from other kata.  It is possible that this was via the influence of the Kojo expatriate dojo in Fuzhou.

Nor do I think the Kojo school might somehow have affected Yong Chun baihe in this regard (though I suspect, without evidence, that it might have influenced ngo cho kun / wu zu quan - that is another issue!): for a start, I am not aware that any Kojo kata actually contains this sequence, so if it was practised in the Kojo expatriate dojo in Fuzhou, it would have been as an "add-on".

Furthermore, the hand positions at the end of the bafen "rokkishu" sequence qualities are subtly, but significantly, different from that found in tensho and karate generally.

The rising movement finishes with keito uke/uchi (chicken head block/strike), not ko uke/uchi (ie. your palm is vertical, not horizontal).

The falling movement is more angled forward than a standard shotei uke/uchi.

Finally, the inward and outward movement has the palms horizontal, not vertical.

I have found that these differences are typical of southern Chinese forms that have no connection to Okinawan karate. The Okinawan version of this sequence is really quite unique to Okinawa.

So when it comes to bafen, I doubt it was influenced by karate - whether via Kojo or any other school. Rather, I suspect that the hand position changes in Okinawa reflect a marriage of the bafen-type movement (however acquired by Miyagi, Higaonna, Uechi et al) with movement of a kind already taught in Okinawa by Chinese immigrants (in particular, Miyagi's Chinese friend and associate, Wu Xianhui (or "Gokenki" in Japanese).

Interestingly, my Chinese martial arts teacher Chen Yun Ching once saw me practising tensho and admonished me for having my hands wrongly oriented. He said it looked like white crane (which, he admitted, was not his speciality), but that the way I was doing it was incorrect (for white crane, anyway). He then showed me some applications that relied on the hand being vertical in the rising movement and horizontal in the sideways movement etc. which shed some light on the difference in approach.

"Paint the fence" - done by Daniel-san both as an "up and down" and "side to side" - exactly as per the "rokkishu" drill and somewhat like the ba fen form of white crane

It is important to remember that the "bafen" or "rokkishu" sequence isn't the sum total of tensho anyway.  A series of 4 hand movements does not Miyagi's kata make.  Besides - these are only 4 movements in the "rokkishu" drill: what of the other 2 that might make up the legendary "6 machine hands"?

My answer to that is that there are really only two more fundamental hand movements in tensho kata, both involving a kind of hooking interception with the back of the hand (ura te kake uke):

5. one that moves from the inside out; and
6. one that moves from the outside in.

I demonstrate the application of these two hand movements in the drills depicted below:

I demonstrate kakie that use the "ura te kake uke" movements from tensho

Accordingly, my best guess is that tensho as a kata sequence is entirely Miyagi's creation, expanding sanchin to include the "bafen/rokkishu" hand movements as well as the two variants of back of hand depression controls (ura te kake uke).

Together, these 6 movements comprise what I consider to be the modern "6 breathing/power hands" of tensho.

[See my update here.]


1. Bishop, M. (1989). Okinawan Karate - Teachers, styles and secret techniques. London. A & C Black Ltd, p. 28.

2. On some accounts Miyagi's trips to Fuzhou were brief and related to the business of tea trading.  See for example these translated memories of Saburo Higa and this translated extract of martial historian Akio Kinjo's "Karate Denshinroku".  Accordingly it is arguable that he did not train anywhere while in Fuzhou during his visits.  However even if this is correct, he might still have met with martial artists and witnessed some demonstrations.

3. I have no information on Kojo visits by Chojun Miyagi, however like most Okinawan expatriates, he would probably have stayed in the Ryukyukan, an Okinawan enclave, while visiting Fuzhou. Given that the Kojo dojo was located next to the Ryukyukan, it seems highly likely that he would have gone to that dojo - if he had had the opportunity to train in martial arts during his visit - see footnote 2).

4. I note the "rokkishu" exercise exists in Uechi ryu where I believe it is called the "koi no shippo uchi yoko uchi" (the "fish-tail wrist blocks"): see this page.  For a brief account of Kanbun Uechi's Kojo experience see this article.  Kanryo Higaonna's training with the Kojo expatriate school is well documented (see the Wikipedia entry).

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic