Fighting Motives: A Study in Saifa – Part 1

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Photo by Anadolu Agency

There are a hundred stories just like this one.

An elderly cat once took in a young tiger as his student. He taught the tiger the ways of martial arts and the tiger grew stronger and faster than the cat had ever been. One day the tiger turned on his master. The cat ran up a tree to escape his student, and the tiger was unable to follow. It was the one technique which the cat had never taught him.

Some early sparring footage.

In martial arts there is a grand tradition of holding back knowledge. Whether it is because you are worried about your student turning on you, or whether you just don't have much real knowledge to share but need to keep the students coming to class (“today we will do a thousand stepping punches to teach you humility”).

Because of the desire to hide knowledge, forms became instrumental in the growth of traditional martial arts. Quan as they are known in Chinese, Kata as they became in Okinawa and Japan, Poomsae in Korean—forms were the constant. Forms are codified methods of combat or self defense from a bygone age.

Classical forms are fascinating as a historical record because no-one will ever definitively know the applications of a form except the creator. The author could say they passed on all of their knowledge, but if the difference between waving your hands in the air pointlessly and shadow fighting is understanding the intention, there's nothing to say that a student couldn't train for a decade under a martial arts teacher and never actually be let in one the best ideas of his master. This was all in the days before we could shop around for a better teacher, of course. It would be easy for an accomplished fighter to lie about the intentions of the forms he was teaching.

Over the course of this study I want to take a look at a specific form and use it as a framework to talk classical technique, modern technique, and the interpretation of forms in general. The form I have chosen is Saifa, a karate kata in the Naha-te lineage. So suspend your modern MMA mindset, and lets treat the forms as what they are—not a replacement for sparring and drilling, but a historical document.

History of Saifa

The history of Saifa, like all karate kata, is muddled. The kata is most associated with Chojun Miyagi, the founder of Goju-ryu and one of Okinawa's great heroes. Saifa's name is reported to mean “to crush and break into pieces” or “to smash and tear”. Miyagi learned the form from Kanryo Higaonna who studied White Crane kung fu in Fuzhou, China for a decade of his life under Ryo Ryo Ko. The kata could have come from Ryo Ryo Ko, been created by Higaonna based on the techniques he learned.

From left to right: Ryo Ryo Ko, Kanryo Higaonna, Chojun Miyagi.

What we do know is that, while many of the techniques appear in White Crane forms, there is no form in modern White Crane kung fu which is recognizably Saifa.

Saifa is an excellent form for this analysis, however, for a number of reasons. It is short, containing 5 recognizable sequences, and each technique contained can be interpreted numerous ways. It exists in a number of schools of karate—Goju-ryu, Shito-ryu and Kyokushin being the most prominent—and is almost identical in each, a real rarity! Finally, because of its brevity and it's interesting movements, Saifa is simply a joy to perform.

I am required by tradition to rehash the “you can't learn a kata without a teacher” line, but if—like me—you don't believe in the performance of kata adding anything to your martial arts game, but rather in the kata as a historical document of ideas, you might as well have a go. It is attempting to penetrate to the meaning of the kata that provides the joy and stimulates ideas.

I once had an English teacher who was convinced that Robert Frost's Birches was all about phallic imagery and youthful masturbation. I thought it was about trees. She thought I was shallow, I thought she was frustrated. Who was right? Only Frost could tell us, and he's dead. It is exactly the same with kata.

So here's the kata—try it out if you'd like—then let's have a look at the possible meanings.

There are 5 recognizable sequences:

The backfists
The kicks
The double punches
The sweeps, hammerfist and uppercuts
The final turn and circular block
Today we will examine the first three.
Movement One

The opening sequence of Saifa is almost universally interpreted as a grip break against the standard same side wrist grab. The traditional bunkai has you grab your own hand to augment your pull away from the opponent. The more you look in depth at kata applications (bunkai in Japanese), the more you realize that when a hand is “augmenting” or “acting as a guard”, the teacher is usually just ignoring what that hand could actually doing.

The problem is that if you use both hands to free yourself, you are in no position to follow up with the strike which is clearly part of the whole technique as it appears in the kata. So you get the kind of awkward bunkai above—where the defender frees himself, and the attacker comes in with a straight punch to the body. The problem with applications like that is that you are assigning a set series of attacks to the aggressor. Good bunkai deals with one attack and likely responses from the opponent—it doesn't pretend that you can predict attacking combinations.

Billy Robinson, the great catch wrestler, taught a nice wrist grip reversing drill—each time grasping the opponent's gripping hand with his free hand. This allowed him to maintain control once he had cut the thinnest portion of his trapped wrist between the opponent's fingers and freed his hand. Robinson followed with an old fashioned arm drag, but a backfist to the nose would work just as well.

Freeing the hand while keeping control.

Most forms contain repetition, but Taira Masaji, a master of Goju-ryu who trained at the Jundokan, has an interesting interpretation of the repetition in the opening sequence. After freeing his grip (and maintaining control on the opponent's hand) Masaji executes his backfist but the opponent's free hand jams it. From here Taira traps the blocking hand, steps in, clips them with the elbow,  and attempts the exact same technique on the opposite side. Mas Oyama's version of the kata, in the Kyokushin lineage, is almost identical, but emphasizes an elbow when performing what most call the grip breaking move.

Taira's chained backfists.

Now the hand trap and backfist is nothing new, and neither is chaining them like this. In fact, there is a surprising similarity between Taira's interpretation of the various Goju-ryu kata, and Wing Chun.

In fact, any youtube video of Taira Masaji's bunkai is full of disapproving comments about how it looks like a bad imitation of Wing Chun.

Goju-ryu comes from the Naha-te branch of karate, which was simply what Kanryo Higaonna learned from the Fujian White Crane kung fu master Ryo Ryo Ko on the Chinese mainland. Wing Chun, meanwhile, was reportedly the kung fu knowledge of the Shaolin nun Ng Mui stripped back to its basics so that it was easiest to learn and most to-the-point.

Even though the styles are very different on the surface, sticky hands has been a training practice for a long time in China. Even if it is not so integral on Okinawa (though it is practised in Goju ryu), it stands to reason that the Goju-ryu forms would contain techniques for sticky hands style practice and engagements.

The modern martial arts meta, where the boxing guard and covering up are commonplace, does not favour the development of counter trapping and extended hand trapping sequences. The value of the initial trap is still devastating though—look at the success of Jon Jones, Fedor Emelianenko or Lyoto Machida's hand trapping games. Indeed, Bruce Lee loved boxing and kicking, but he remained profoundly influenced by Wing Chun principles throughout his life.

Get a load of this bad-ass.

Movement Two

The next section of the kata is significant because it can be seen in traditional Fukian White Crane forms.  It is also the posture of the Busaganashi (a statue of a deity which Goju-ryu founder, Chojun Miyagi brought back from his travels in China). The Busaganashi stands in the Jundokan, Miyagi's own dojo, to this day. Busaganashi,

What is also significant about this posture is that—as Gogen Yamaguchi notes—it is the only occurrence of “Sagiashi-dachi” or “stance of an egret” in the Goju-ryu canon of kata.  Despite their White Crane origins, there isn't a lot of standing on one leg in Goju-ryu.

There exist two photographs of Chojun Miyagi in which this posture is visible. The first shows Miyagi as a young man parrying a kick, stepping to the back side of it, parrying a punch / trapping the rear hand, and delivering a kick to the groin underneath the kicker's thigh.

The second is of Miyagi teaching the technique as an older man.

Note the classical drop to double thumbed eye gouge being practiced by the other students. Classic Goju-ryu.

Obviously the idea of being able to predict which hand an opponent will punch which while holding his leg is a little far fetched. But if you substituted that parry and placed an elbow in the way (a la Archie Moore), then took control of the limb after having taken the punch on this guard, there could be a reasonable application for this type of technique. Certainly excellent Muay Thai fighters like Saenchai have done similar things to evade strikes en route to dumping their opponents.

Of course, kata being the codification of another person's method, this could simply be communicating the idea of stepping off line before delivering a linear kick (something which you can readily attempt in sparring with good success). The hands could very well be there as a distraction just as Capoeira and so many other dancing type martial arts were made deliberately flamboyant to hide their actual purpose.

What is Taira Masaji's take on it? He treats the technique as an alternate follow up to a blocked backfist. Having had his back fist checked, Masaji releases his grip on the opponent, chops down one hand and opens the other up with his wrist, and steps in with a knee to the groin.

Here is another offensive interpretation in The Way of Kata:

Though in this instance the hands are reversed. This is more like the Ryuei Ryu kata, Anan (also of the White Crane lineage). Also the left hand seems somewhat redundant.

Movement 3

The final part of the first half of the kata is the double punch and then striking into one's own hand. The traditional bunkai for this are fairly terrible. Double punching is, for the most part, really not useful. You cannot move the hips into both punches so you either end up throwing a double punch with no hip motion, or rotating the hips into one and having another, superfluous punch thrusting out there too.

Unfortunately much of the bunkai out there does focus on the thrusting of the hands, rather than the complete motion they perform. Gogen Yamaguchi's interpretation is one which I like, because of my affinity for head butts. Yamaguchi taught Mas Oyama for a time, who in turn adored the head butt.

Gripping the lapels, the attacker is pulled forward onto the forehead. He is then pushed away.

After this practical sequence, the attacker then ducks for a leg and is stopped with a simple hammerfist to the temple. We, in this day and age, know this doesn't work—maybe people were more naïve back then? But getting tackled to the floor is a pretty universal problem, anyone who had been in a couple of scraps would know that wouldn't work.

BAD bunkai.

An interesting though is that when similar movements occur in other forms from other styles—both hands circling down to hip height as one drops into a lower stance—it has historically been translated as morote-gari, the two handed reap. Ducking in on the opponent's hips, the hands catch behind the knee and the opponent is pushed forward as his legs are pulled out. Ideally he lands on the back of his head and you end up standing over him in guard.

For instance, here is a similar hand movement and low stance in Shotokan's Bassai-Dai kata:

And here is Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan, demonstrating the application as a tackle:


Applications of a kata are an open book. We don't even know if Kanryo Higaonna or Ryo Ryo Ko knew the original intentions of every move in the forms they taught. In fact, there's nothing to say the guy who created the form didn't have ridiculous ideas of practical techniques to begin with!

To me, the best bunkai is that which it is offensive. It is a continuation of an attempt to overwhelm an opponent in a self-defense encounter. It all feeds into a system of attempting to suppress the opponent's ability to attack, then batter him, not respond to his attempts. In Saifa we can see a grip strip to hand fighting, to a smothering knee to the groin, a head butt and a tackle. All sensible stuff, if you look past the idea of double punches and blocking straight punches. To me, these fit the name “to tear and smash into pieces” far better.

The problem in karate is that there is a great overvaluing of the phrase karate ni sente nashi. This phrase, made popular by Gichin Funakoshi, means “there is no first hand in karate”. Or rather, there is no first attack in karate. It is a philosophical and moral guideline, not a technical rule.

Taking that literally, people have looked at kata with a defensive mindset for years. Problem is, the classical forms in martial arts were created by dozens of different people, in different eras, with different mindsets. I'm sure most of them believed that starting trouble was a bad idea, but there was no understood agreement across the board that kata / quan / poomsae were to be defensive sequences. To pretend that there is an overarching theme in the intentions of every form is not sensible when they have so many different origins.

To my mind, Choki Motobu said it best when he asserted, “Karate is the first hand”.

Keep your eyes on Fightland for Part 2.


Pick up Jack Slack's new ebook, Fighting Karate at his blog Fights Gone By.Jack can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.


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