Photo via Flickr user Stéfan
Karate is recognizable in the modern era as trumping up and down of a dojo, performing basic techniques in sequence.
There is little scientific or strategic knowledge to be gleaned from the basics and combinations which many karateka practice endlessly. It's good exercise, as it is in any traditional martial art—but it doesn't prepare the student to understand the actual fighting bit of martial arts any better. Where the real gems in traditional karate are hidden is in the kata—the forms.
Some of you will know my affinity for studying classical forms from my previous piece—A Study in Saifa. They perhaps shouldn't be a huge part of anyone's training repertoire, but for study and brainstorming—there's nothing better.
A form is simply a ritualized performance of techniques. But more and more often you will notice that the sequences in kata are more intricate than those practised in the repetition of basics. There are plenty of modern kata with little sense behind the movements at all—Gichin Funakoshi's mercilessly boring Taikyoku series, for instance. But the longer history a kata has, the more variations one can find of it, and the more ideas can be seen in action. Kusanku and Seisan, for instance, are two of the oldest kata out there—there are a handful of major versions of each, and hundreds of sub-variations.
While many see forms as a spiritual exercise or a practice fight, I see them as a historical record of “neat tricks” that someone else wanted to share, albeit in a fairly opaque manner, even once he was gone.
Anyone who has been in the martial arts a while knows that there's nothing new under the sun—but the beauty of combat sports and martial arts is that old ideas keep getting rediscovered or rehashed in new ways.
Today we're going to look at a couple of old fashioned applications from the (allegedly) Chinese form, Seipai, and talk about reinventing them for the modern era.
The traditional Goju-ryu version of the kata, from which we will be working.
Broken Karate and the Seipai Dump
The single facet which has most damaged karate—and many other traditional martial arts—is working every defensive or counter offensive application against the utterly useless stepping straight punch or something equally wooden and unintuitive. Anyone smart enough to know that straight punches are superior to swings is not going to be dumb enough to step with his punch. The ven diagram meeting of people who are trained enough, and stupid enough, to use a stepping straight punch in the heat of the moment is pretty small.
This kind of silliness.
The problem is, and always has been, that karateka don't take the good ideas from ancient forms and then contextualize them. There are good ideas being wasted because they're being trained in unrealistic scenarios, and that is a terrible shame. One of the finest example of this is the dumping technique found in Seipai. This is an application which most instructors seem to agree on.
Stepping in behind the opponent's kicking (or sometimes lead) leg, the lead arm is thrust across the body, the rear arm is cupped underneath the opponent's lead thigh. The hips are thrust forward to lift the opponent's weight from the floor, the standing leg is then swept out and the opponent is slammed to the floor.
In some variations—particularly in Shito-ryu—the arms are thrown out to the sides like wings during the lift and sweep, an effort to straighten the opponent's body in the air and ensure he lands on the back of his head or at least fails to breakfall.
Now this all sounds very wushu... but if you take it out of its stiff, ritualized form you'll realize you've seen it before. If you're into Muay Thai, you'll have seen this step in behind the kicking leg, lift, sweep and dump demonstrated hundreds of times by the great Saenchai. I would go so far as to say that it is one of the most important techniques he utilizes. Not only can it cause some damage as he attempts to drop the opponent on the back of their head, it makes the opponent look very bad every time he kicks and soon their kicking output drops off sharply.
The exact same technique, minus the deep stances and formal hand gestures. Get behind the leg, straighten out the kicker's body, lift and sweep.
But here's the vital difference—the context. Many karateka practice this technique as above—scooping a front kick from inside the body to outside in a manner which I don't think I've seen anyone pull off in live sparring, let alone a fight.
To get your hand in the back of the opponent's leg you have to drop it, so if he's faking and kicks high, or steps in and punches instead, you've got nothing to stop him. I highly recommend trying this with an sparring partner who actually wants to kick you, but won't kick you hard when you inevitably find that parrying across your own body in the wrong direction is near impossible against a strong kick.
Compare it with the way that Saenchai takes the roundhouse kick and redirects it straight into the position to do the dump. At no point is he unguarded.
Saenchai takes a roundhouse kick on his same side forearm—exactly as you would do anyway—then scoops his other hand under, trapping the leg. He steps back, drags the leg across in front of himself, then steps in behind it. He took the powerful dumping technique, andmanufactured a way to get there against the techniques that a live, resisting opponent will actually use against him.
Another variation, which beats trying to parry a front kick the wrong way, is to use it in a similar style to the wedge throw—stepping inside of an opponent as he moves in and picking him up from there. This appears numerous times in Mas Oyama's Advanced Karate and is demonstrated as part of a sticky hands sequence by Taira Masaji below. It is essentially an application of judo's traditional Sukui-nage.
One of the focal points of the Seipai kata is kansetsu-waza or joint locking techniques. The most significant is the figure-four straight arm lock. This is something you will see in every Ju-jitsu and Chin Na manual from the turn of the 20th century. For a long time it was considered a great arresting hold. Nowadays, not so much. There's just too much room for people to squirm and resist—and getting the arm straight in the first place is a fairly large task.
The idea of the turn back on oneself, while whipping the trapping arm overhead, is to counter an opponent who is too strong to have his arm locked out. It's a nice thought (though notice, again, it all starts at the end posture of a stepping straight punch).
But here's an interesting application of a similar idea. Figure four arm attack—yet again—but this time the kimura from guard. As the opponent straightens his arm, Nogueira swings his arm over head and moves to the back. The application of the straight figure four armlock as a self defence technique is horribly outdated, but Nogueira's updated attack from guard works on exactly the same principles—in a familiar, modern context.
And that is the way to treat traditional martial arts forms. Recognize that they have some interesting ideas in, but don't pretend that the answers are all laid out within the forms themselves. Kata alone never taught anyone to fight well—but there's nothing to say that the ideas of a traditional martial arts form are all bunk.
The ninjitsu wall run became the Showtime Kick. Old ju-jitsu standing armlocks became limb destructions in the hands of Jon Jones and Shinya Aoki. Look to the old to reinvent the new.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.