Jack Slack's Five Rings: Touching the Corner

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Photo via Flickr user Lorianne DiSabato

The Book of Five Rings is considered one of the master works on combative strategy and is a must read for all martial artists, fighters and military historians. Its advice and musings extend far beyond the realms of swordsmanship and martial arts, however, and I struggle to think of more than a handful of books which have influenced my life as profoundly as Miyamoto Musashi's 17th century text. If you haven't picked this book up for a few cents used on Amazon or Ebay, you really should consider it! 

In the previous instalment of our book club, we spoke about several of Musashi's ideas which can be readily seen in action in combat sports of the modern era. We briefly touched on the idea of the Autumn Leaf Strike—attacking the opponent's sword hand—and how it tied in with other principles such as the Filipino concept of the gunting which attacks the opponent's striking arm, and with the idea of limb destructions.

We examined more extensively the idea of Knowing Collapse. The ability to pick up on a momentary lull in the opponent when he has had his bell rung, or when he takes a moment to reconsider his strategy, and we talked about Crushing—the overwhelming of an opponent when this weakness is perceived. Finally we talked about Pressing Down the Pillow—the jamming of the opponent's intentions and keeping their head down as they flounder under fire. Striking on the 'a' of an opponent's attack.

This week, we will be examining a few more of Musashi's technical, philosophical and psychological musings. Beginning with one which literally changed the face of the mixed martial arts game when fighters began to wake up to it—Touching the Corner.

Touching the Corner

Touching the Corner appears in the Fire chapter / scroll of the Go Rin No Sho, a chapter in which Musashi discusses his principles not only in duels, but in battles involving large numbers. His strategies are discussed on the small scale, and the large scale, and contrasted. In battle, Touching the Corner is the idea of obviously attacking one area of a line or formation in order to draw troops and attention to that point—thinning the line elsewhere for an actual attack.

“Touching the Corner refers to the difficulty of forcing your way directly when pressing against anything strong... inflict a wound on a corner of the opponent's body and, as his body grows a little weaker and begins to slump, victory will be an easy matter.”

In the one-on-one engagement, Touching the Corner is the attacking of an extremity to draw an opponent's attention there. In Musashi's swordsmanship, that could have been slashing at the lead leg to draw attention downward. In the world of combat sports and barehanded combat, attrition tactics are far more viable.

You've seen it in action a thousand times. We all know that if you start smacking the body, the opponent's arms droop and his shoulders begin to sag, and you can start cracking him with head shots. The most famous example of this which I'm sure most readers can readily think of is the late, great, Joe Frazier. Frazier would get in close, whack away with a dozen good left hooks to the body, then throw one upstairs. Even the toughest fighters had to start doing something about him battering their ribcage, and ended up getting cracked upside the head.

Joe Frazier gets on the inside with Jimmy Ellis. Batters him to the body, and as Ellis steps out with his hands low, Frazier finds the left hook to the head.

That is the beauty of Touching the Corner. You are not going to get to the good stuff straight off the bat—no matter what combative discipline you're taking part in. By focusing on the extremities, you draw the opponent's mind away. And if they give you the stiff upper lip, you are still damaging them. Sure, you can take a good low kick. You can probably take four or five. But that's it. 

If you don't do something about them, you've saved your head and body from damage, at least for a while, but now you can't move out of the way of punches. Forrest Griffin was on shaky ground in the first round against Quinton Jackson, but the more he hacked away at the leg, the easier Jackson got to hit. And by the time Jackson was attempting to check kicks, the damage had already been done.

If you can't put all your weight on your leg while standing, you can't throw your weight into your punches, and you can't move out of the way.

It started with Pedro Rizzo versus Dan Severn, and it hasn't changed much since. There have been world champions who are champions because, ten or twelve kicks down the line, they can an get the better of their opponent everywhere. Boxing against a guy with a limp is considerably easier!

A terrific example of Touching the Corner and playing off of the defense is striking or throwing an opponent as they check a low kick. Perfect example of this would be Renan Barao's nailing of Urijah Faber when the latter was on one leg, or Joe Schilling performing the same against Samuel Marcus at Glory: Last Man Standing.

Kick the leg, force the check, strike them while they're on one leg.

And of course, the great Thai boxer, Saenchai is a master of forcing the opponent to check, then switching to a throw.

Stepping on the Opponent's Sword 

Stepping on the opponent's sword, as Musashi describes it, is a philosophy and strategy, rather than one technique wherein a swordsman literally stands on the opponent's sword.  Of course, physically suppressing the opponent's ability to attack is a phenomenal strategy, and incredibly applicable to combat sports. Any time you watch George Foreman, Sandy Saddler or Henry Armstrong smothering their opponent's hands to get into punching range, they are suppressing their opponent's weapons. Any time someone circled away from Mirko Cro Cop's left straight and left high kick, they were metaphorically stepping on his sword. 

And of course, you all know Jon Jones and Matt Brown love to check both their opponent's hands and then turn over elbows.

The principles can even be applied to Brazilian jiu jitsu. Shrimp onto one hip from guard and you make it much harder to pass your guard on one side than it is on the other. You are dictating the opponent's weapons by making one path much more difficult. Returning to the UFC, Frank Shamrock stated that in his preparation for Tito Ortiz, he noticed that Ortiz only ever passed guard on one side, and consequently focused far more on shutting down that side.

But what Musashi was talking about when wrote his section on Stepping on the Sword, was the act of getting in the mix. Not getting into the rhythm of “you attack, then I attack, then you attack”. 

“In the martial arts of one-on-one combat, if you strike only after your opponent has struck with his sword, the fight will become that of one beat after another, and you will make no progress. The idea of stepping on your opponent's striking sword... is to defeat him the moment he strikes, preventing him from striking a second time.”

How many fights have you seen in boxing, kickboxing and MMA, where it is a case of one man fires off a combo against his covering opponent, then the other man throws a combo. Neither man makes much headway—a cover works pretty well with big gloves on!  It is one of the basic truths of fighting that hitting an opponent as he opens up his guard to strike is considerably more effective than hitting him when he is ready for it. Stepping on the sword can therefore be seen as very closely linked to the idea of Sen-no-Sen, which Musashi also discussed in his Three Initiatives.

Additionally, against a very savvy opponent who takes the care to get out of the way after his strikes, you cannot simply cover and fire back, because he will be gone. Just look at Juan Manuel Marquez versus Floyd Mayweather. Marquez is a master of deflecting a blow and coming back with counter combinations, but each time Mayweather attacked, he was immediately gone.

I would hazard a guess that the majority of the best knockouts you have seen have been overhand rights or right straights, timed as the opponent came in to make them a counter punch. I would also hazard a guess that the best punches that you have missed have been jabs which landed as one man was stepping in to power punch.

Rashad Evans versus Chuck Liddell is a famous example.

Ken Norton famously bested Muhammad Ali by stepping in and meeting him jab for jab.

Fighting is about initiative and momentum—and the best fighters, rather than getting into tit-for-tat exchanges, focus their attention on hurting their opponent when it is the opponent's turn to attack, so that they can steal that initiative. 

“...whether doing so with your body, mind or, of course, your sword, you should be intent on not giving your opponent a second chance. This is, therefore the mind of taking the initiative in everything... Stepping on the Sword is taking your action immediately upon your opponent's action. You should investigate this thoroughly.”


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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