Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Hiki te" - what is it really about?

Pull backs in basic punches are ubiquitous in Asian traditional martial arts. You'll find the same concept - usually chambered at the hip - in arts are diverse as karate, taekwondo, silat, hung gar gong fu and taijiquan... the list goes on.

I've previously dealt with the subject of "chambers" quite exhaustively, as I have the traditional "corkscrew" punch, and I encourage readers to check out those essays to understand my position better. I won't be going into the subject of those topics (at least, not in any deep sense). It suffices for me to reiterate the central tenet of those articles: that basic form explores a full range movement. In reality, only a portion of that range might be used. Another way of thinking about it is that basics tend to get applied in an abbreviated form.

Why bother with a "fuller" form just to end up abbreviating it? Well apart from teaching you basic planes and angles of movement in an amplified way that enables you to magnify and study those basic planes and angles (as I describe in the article linked directly above but also here), a fuller form also serves a very important function: preparing for the fact that your techniques will face resistance.

Okay, so what do I mean by that? Why are larger (or rather "fuller") movements in any way related to preparing you for "resistance"? Surely the latter is all about just working with a partner? Well yes. But I'm talking solo form here - whether in a kata/shadow boxing or striking a bag/shield/dummy etc. That movement must prepare you for resistance even though at the moment of that solo practice there is none.

Let's say you're doing a movement from a kata - eg. a throw. If you then apply it against an individual, and, via the "magic" of modern computing, remove your partner who was being thrown (your uke) you'll notice that your actual hand movement is smaller in the applied technique than it was in the kata. The applied technique explores a smaller range of the movement that you made in the kata. Sometimes it is almost as large - though not quite. In other times, it is only half the movement of the kata technique you were interpreting. On average, I've found you end up somewhere in-between these two situations: the applied movement is approximately 75% of the kata movement.

Courtesy of
For example, if you want to pull on an arm, you might imagine you're pulling it all the way to your hip (see the silat basic at the start of the article). But you're very unlikely to get quite that far. As you can see from the adjacent image, you're probably going to pull back as far as your belly - not your hip - because of resistance.

So why not practice pulling just to the belly? For this simple reason: you're going to end up pulling even shorter than that if you modify your practice to reduce the movement in the solo form.

Put another way: larger movements condition you to expect larger movement against resistance. While that larger movement might be thwarted, you are still going to be pulling towards that "goal" - which means you'll be pulling harder and expecting more. Shorten the movement in a solo form and you'll apply it an even shorter form against resistance.

I call this the "75% rule": whatever your solo form movement, when applied against resistance it will be, on average, a maximum of 75% of your solo movement.

In other words, if, in solo forms, your motion corresponded exactly with the level/extent of your applied movement (be it a punch - which usually connects before full extension) or a pull (where you generally don't have a rag doll who will get thrown without a bit of effort), you'd find yourself moving 75% less than you needed to - ie. you'd fall short.

That is my direct experience in teaching over the last 30 years: when you abbreviate solo form in class, the applied movement stops working as it should. The full movement makes up for the resistance you don't have - all while teaching you such things as correct plane/angle etc. by magnifying the movement.

Courtesy of
Which brings me back to pull backs - hiki te - in karate.

You can see from the adjacent image how karate might well apply every single pull back: as a grab and pull while you strike. This is a great reason for hiki te and it certainly matches my thesis above. Many of my good friends in karate will teach any number of applications of kata where this aspect of hiki te is essential to making the application work (see my good friend Noah Legel's post here). Indeed, a substantial portion of my own interpretations involve using the hiki te to pull or otherwise control one limb (or the body) while striking with the other.

But is this the sole/main reason for hiki te?

I have already indicated that I do not think this is the case. I would argue that its function in basics is far more fundamental than that. Individual applications might be totally dependent on the hiki te as a pull or control. But in basic form, my sense is that it has more to do with what I started talking about: exploring a full range of motion.

As I've discussed, this teaches you essential angles and planes of movement.

But most crucially of all, it balances the body: your arms need to move in equal and opposite directions in order to remain balanced - never mind achieve optimal force.

If you doubt me, try punching the makiwara while your "pull back arm" is tucked into your belt. Then let it move into a natural pull back (however you want to do it). Compare the results.

Courtesy of
Here's another test: try running a race with one hand tucked into your belt. You'll find that your arm swing really is crucial to your time (see this article if you don't feel like a run).

It comes down to basic physics in the end. I'm tempted here to go to Newton's Third Law of motion - for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction - but that isn't really what's at work here. In basic terms, you need to have your body moving in a way that is efficient having regard to biology and physics. Your arms need to counterbalance each other for this to happen. The way we are built, one arm can't swing out with any force unless the other is counterbalancing it by going the other way. That is because you have to power your arms from your hips through your shoulders and into your arms via staged activation of body parts. If you try to move one of your arms without a corresponding action in the other, your entire body will feel the "brake" of this artificial idea. You are, after all, one connected organism with parts that necessarily work in concert (and react to each other's movements whether you like it or not).

I think that in many respects, the hiki te in basic form is nothing more than this.

But just the other night, my good friend, training partner and student Armando did point out to me that there is another very good reason for the hiki te: increasing your options.

The above video discusses punching from a trapping, or other slightly extended guard, position - and the desirability of actually pulling back a little even though it seems to take a "longer" route. It might well do the latter, but it avoids an easy dismissal by your opponent if they are trained in sensitivity drills.

You'll notice that Armando is able to "break" the connection to his partner Xin so that Xin can't "read" his next movement from physical contact. In our school (the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts in Bayswater, Perth) we spend a lot of time learning to "listen" with our hands - so it's hardly surprising that both Armando and Xin are aware that their next movement can be predicted through continuous contact. Sometimes that contact needs to be "broken" so as to break the "predictability".

And the extra room means Armando can find enough momentum to throw punches at different angles - where otherwise he'd have insufficient space/time to accelerate his punch and create enough force.

All of this feeds into the more general observation that punches naturally get pulled back as they recoil. As a friend pointed out recently, people certainly don't leave their hand extended after punching. Where do their hands go? To some form of pull back - to go back to a guard or to generate force, if nothing else.

Okay, that "pull back" might not be to a "full" position as adopted in traditional basics. But so what? Basics isolate full movements for practice. Against a resistant opponent, you might not get a chance to punch "full power": you might have to throw some stunted, abbreviated version, simply because of their resistance to you and the context in which you find yourself as a consequence. That doesn't mean you never explore your full range of motion - your full power. It doesn't mean you should practise little stunted movements "because that's all you'll ever apply". That sort of mentality sells you short - and manifests as even more stunted movement under pressure.

So don't worry about your katas "full" pull backs. Know that they show an idealised "full" movement for solo practice. Know that this "full movement" will be limited quite naturally in application. It doesn't need to be limited by you artificially. You will face enough limitations in life without imposing added ones yourself.

Nothing stops you from practising short-range punches, strikes and kicks. These are deliberate variations that should form part of your pantheon of training methods. Just don't fall into the trap of some sort of absolutist idea that your solo form "needs to match reality" in every case. Solo form isn't reality. And, paradoxically, a fuller movement in solo form is more likely to lead to the successful application of your technique than some stunted variation that "physically matches resistant reality".

As my instructor Bob Davies used to say: "Pull back to elbow someone behind you as hard as you're punching someone in front." It's all about counter balancing the body. The rest - hiki te as a pull or control in interpreting kata movement - is all a bonus once you have good, solid body mechanics.

Copyright © 2017 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Winner - Best Martial Arts Blog 2017!

I'm very proud to announce that The Way of Least Resistance has received a "Best Martial Blog"award from the security site CreditDonkey!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Rousey v Nunes - a tutorial on how NOT to receive strikes

It's more than a year since I wrote my analysis of Ronda Rousey's loss to Holly Holm.  My conclusion back then was as follows:
"If there's a lesson in there for Rousey it is this: in a stand up fight, simple aggression is often enough to win against an unskilled opponent.  And if you're a good grappler, it will certainly give you some good chances to close the gap and use your real skills.  But if you want to fight a good stand up fighter, you need to know enough about stand up defence." 
It would seem that in the intervening year, Rousey has done nothing - and I mean absolutely nothing - to improve this skill, as was clearly evident in Rousey's fight last night against Amanda Nunes.

Many think that the cornerstone of stand-up fighting is attacking: striking, in the form of punching and kicking. Indeed, this is very much the philosophy of some schools who tout themselves as "target focused".

But, as I have stressed over many years and in many articles, your ability to overpower an opponent who is even remotely skilled has less to do with your capacity to hit harder than it does to not be hit.

There's a good reason karate has techniques we call "uke". Although "uke" is commonly translated as "block", this is a complete misnomer. The true translation is "receipt" (coming from the Japanese verb "ukeru" which means "to receive").

I have argued over the years that uke - the techniques for receiving blows - are really the cornerstone of Eastern civilian defence arts like karate, in much the same way as body evasion/movement (particularly slipping, dodging, weaving etc.) form the cornerstone of Western stand-up arts like boxing.

In other words, martial arts mastery comes down to more than just hitting bags or breaking boards - inert objects that neither "strike back" nor try to thwart your own strikes. Whether you're talking civilian defence or sport, martial arts mastery comes down to how effectively you are able to receive your opponent's strikes. If it came down to how hard you hit things, you'd never need to move beyond hitting bags.

And by "receive" I don't mean "absorb" or "take them on the chin": I mean "receive" them in a way that ensures they never land - whether it's by pre-empting them, slipping/dodging them, deflecting them, wedging and jamming them and, yes, even blocking them. In other words, you need to be able to deal with an opponent who is resistant. Yes, you should be able to hit hard. But that is not sufficient. Nor is it the main skill. When it comes to facing an opponent, what will set you apart from a beginner is the way you cope with an opponent - not how hard you can hit something that is non-resistant.

In her fight with Amanda Nunes, Ronda Rousey showed that she had still not learned to "receive" strikes in any way other than to "block them with her face". Just watch the video below.

It's interesting to me to hear Rousey's coach, Edmond Tarverdyan, shouting "head movement!" through most of the fight. He shouts it when she's not even engaged - as if he's asking her to bob and weave for no reason - to do a little dance. Presumably he didn't mean this: he was warning her to use defensive skill against Nunes' attacks. Sadly for Edmond - and even more for Ronda - it seems he was telling her this far too late in the day: she didn't move her head at all. She didn't have any situational reflex to do so.

Before that, he can be heard urging Rousey to "make her miss". Which is exactly what the art of "defence" or "receiving" is all about: making your opponent miss. "Boards don't hit back" is, as I've said before, better restated as "Boards don't make you miss". Different fighting systems have different ways of achieving this. But again, Rousey didn't seem to have a clue as to how to make Nunes "miss". Instead, Nunes hit her mark almost every time. I'm not the first person to note that this is almost certainly because of Rousey's poor coaching at the hands of Tarverdyan.

It's important to note that "uke" is, at its most basic level, present in every art in terms of the kamae or guard. In karate it focuses on using the arms to intercept blows. In gloved fighting sports it involves keeping your arms a little higher, closer to the face and, most importantly, keeping your chin down. Rousey did none of these things. Yet this is all a fundamental of "uke" in boxing (which she was attempting to simulate). Her guard was wide open at critical points - particularly whenever she kicked. Her chin was up. She looked like a rank amateur.

By contrast, Nunes clearly showed that she knew exactly what she was doing when it came to making Rousey miss. You can see all this from the adjacent snapshots: Where Rousey threw a totally predictable jab, Nunes "received" it with skill, slipping it on the inside. She did that while simultaneously throwing an overhand right cross. If Rousey had had any plans of throwing her own right cross, this was cut off before it could even begin. This "cutting off" is another example of "uke": pre-empting or negating a blow before it even begins through clever setup.

Last of all, Tarverdyan urges the hapless Rousey to "Move, move, move!" Then he says something that reveals his and Rousey's entire (rather transparent) gameplan:
"Clinch, clinch, clinch!" 
And Rousey tries to do so - on at least three or four occasions.

Unfortunately, Nunes knows what early UFC stand-up fighters (used to competitions that did not permit grappling) had forgotten: that a large function of "uke" is to avoid the clinch.

Consider the following random application from taijiquan which is the first one to come to my mind (I've filmed dozens over the years, so please don't take these as an "authoritative" description of how to avoiding a clinch - it's just an interpretation of one traditional technique against a clinch):

Indeed, Nunes does something not too dissimilar in her defence against Rousey's clinch by pulling back and punching over the top.

By contrast, my defence above uses a straight push and raises a leg to the centreline to negate any knee attack after the clinch. Of course, knee kicks were never Rousey's intention: her whole game plan was to get her opponent into a clinch and then throw from there.

Nunes planned for that. So she (rightly) assumed that the clinch was a setup to a throw, not a striking counter and simply pulled away (her bum back, as per my application) and punched over the top. Good uke.

Either way, she didn't let herself get tied down. She didn't fall into the trap many boxers and competition stand-up fighters used to do (and often still do) of thinking that the clinch is a relatively safe space: where you are in too close for punches (particularly gloved ones) to have effect.

Modern sports fighter strategy teaches us that the clinch is potentially disastrous for the stand-up fighter - especially one who is reluctant to go down to the ground. It may surprise you, but none of this is "news" in traditional civilian defence arts. In my research I've noted that the "knowledge of the ancients" has long taught that being tied down in a defence environment (as opposed to a one-on-one sporting contest) is disastrous: you face the possibility of weapons, multiple attackers, rocky uneven terrain... Let's just say that there's a reason why civilian defence arts gravitate towards stand-up fighting rather than grappling as a base art: you don't want to be tied up with one opponent on the ground. Where traditional civilian defence arts engage in grappling, they do so with a view to minimising any prolonged engagement with one opponent and maximising opportunities for escape.

And none of this negates the concept of having good grappling skills. In a sport like MMA, they are essential. In civilian defence, they are still highly pertinent. After all, knowing what to do if you get taken down to the ground (and knowing how to fall before that) are really important because there's a good chance this will happen to you.

The corollary to this is that if you want to fight in MMA - or defend yourself in a civilian context - and expect to do so against an opponent who is remotely skilled in striking, you need to learn stand-up skills.

In particular, you need to learn the art of defence - specifically "uke" or how to "receive" attacks.

Depending on the focus of your art, this could be ducking, slipping or weaving, or it could be parrying, deflecting or wedging/trapping. Or, Heaven forbid, actually blocking or checking.

Which is why I have railed so heavily over the years about the trend in arts like karate to interpret all uke as "strikes, throws, locks, holds... anything but uke". Sometimes an uke is just an uke. Indeed, I'd say this is true most of the time.

Because what we can see from the Rousey vs. Nunes fight is just how badly a fighter fares when they have no real stand-up defence skills: they become the proverbial punching bag/board that many "target focused" martial artists hope for. They become the totally unskilled stand-up fighter of the kind Rousey could formerly overpower using little more than sheer athleticism and naked aggression.

On the latter point, we need to be clear: Rousey was defeated in under a minute, but there is a world of difference between her loss and, say, McGregor vs. Aldo, where Aldo was knocked out in 13 seconds. That wasn't a systematic annihilation of a human punching bag, but rather one fighter timing a blow to land against a highly skilled opponent.

By contrast, Rousey was just a target. She had no way of thwarting Nune's attacks. She had no way of "receiving" them intelligently. Where Aldo took a gamble and opened up a gap that McGregor exploited, Rousey was all gaps, all the time. Her destruction was inevitable.

Rousey didn't lose to Nunes because the latter was faster, stronger, younger, had better reaction time, was taller or had longer reach. She lost because her stand-up fighting skill was, as I pointed out in my previous article, not very good.

She didn't have the basics in 2015...

And she didn't have them at the end of 2016. 

She could throw "funny punches" - and that's about it. I know these are attacks only, but they speak volumes about her general stand-up fighting skill set - offensive as well as defensive. She moved - and still moves - like a rank beginner in stand-up fighting. 

I've heard Nunes has a black belt in BJJ, but I really don't know how she moves on the floor. Even if she isn't exactly in her element there, she's certainly not ignored grappling to the extent Rousey has has ignored stand-up. 

But it wouldn't have mattered anyway: they never got close to the floor. MMA is increasingly showing that while you might get away with a poor ground game (I'm not recommending this by any stretch!), a professional stand-up game is a pre-requisite for the octagon. Rousey didn't have this prerequisite for all these years - a fact obfuscated by the relatively poor quality of her opponents.

Ronda Rousey is arguably one of the greatest grappling/throwing fighters the world has ever seen. But her refusal - or rather her coach's refusal - to accept that the stand-up game requires significant skill (not just a bit of "head movement" and a few "jabs" leading to a clinch) was her undoing. 

Rousey assumed that while her judo required years of dedicated basic training, stand-up skills came down to nothing more than athleticism and aggression: a lot of gym work, bag punching and wonky shadow boxing. This was a massive miscalculation of the kind you expect from a lay person - not a professional fighter. It certainly isn't a mindset shared by either MMA stand-up fighters or serious practitioners of the traditional stand-up martial arts - never mind those who are both (as the video below shows). As to her coach... the less said, the better. If Rousey is to be critiqued for anything, let it not be her loyalty to him, which is, at the very least, admirable in that it shows her loyalty to friends (even if it also shows a significant degree of cognitive dissonance).

In the end, mine might be a brutal assessment. But it matches its brutal finish of the Rousey vs. Nunes fight and, I assume, Rousey's career in MMA. I have to call it as I see it. I wish Ronda Rousey all the best in the future. I think she is a star performer. She was let down in this performance.

Copyright © 2017 Dejan Djurdjevic