Martial Arts America, Chapter Eight

Martial Arts America, Book Cover



Capital 'S'port karate1 is very popular in the West, and especially in the United States. Not surprisingly, there are as many kinds of sport karate competition as there are misconceptions about it. My purpose in this chapter is to help you see this part of the art for what it really is. You may believe, as some do, that sparring and tournament competition are of no real benefit to the martial artist. On the other hand, you may believe that the only real martial artists are those who "put it on the floor," testing it in the ring. Knowing what sport karate really is (or should be) corrects both of these misconceptions and goes a long way toward helping everyone benefit from taking part in it – either as spectators or participants. Let's begin our examination of this most visible aspect of the art at its beginnings.

Owing to the sport's popularity (and our American passion for competition), it is easy to see how one might naturally assume that the sporting aspect of these Eastern arts is largely a Western innovation. However, such an assumption is incorrect. The modern karate tournament actually began under the auspices of Shotokan founder Gichin Funakoshi.

Open Karate Tournament

Initially, Funakoshi opposed the idea of a karate tournament. His fear was that the rules necessary to make karate safe for tournament play would also dilute the art, eventually rendering it completely ineffective. Convinced by tournament supporters that tournament play would, instead, help spread the art he loved across the globe, Funakoshi acquiesced, and in 1950 the first large-scale karate tournament was held in Japan.2 Since then, tournament competition and sport karate have taken off, and true to the promises of its proponents, karate is now practiced around the world. But have the great master's fears been assuaged or realized?


The Games Martial Artists Play

Sport karate and tournament play are games played by martial artists to display and test some of their skills. Judo has been played in organized competition for long enough that it enjoys the status of being an Olympic event. Tae kwon do is an Olympic demonstration sport, and karate is working hard to earn a spot on the Olympic roster as well.
Point Fighters

Martial artists interested in sport participation have several avenues they can pursue. There are "traditional" tournaments where only prescribed forms or kata are welcome. Fighting there is tightly controlled, with only the classical techniques being favorably received and scored. These are generally "invitational" or "closed" events that are not open to all styles. These classical or traditional arts are also the ones that are most likely to make it into the Olympics.

At the other end of the spectrum are the "full-contact" events. There the emphasis is totally on fighting (no forms or kata). Within the full-contact group there are organizations that use pads and those that do not. Although a few allow kicks below the belt, most do not. Some even allow grappling and wrestling, but for now, in the West, they are in the minority.3 In the full-contact arena, kata competition is not competitive. There it is relegated to minor demonstrations between the major events – the fights. Between these two extremes are a wide range of tournaments that allow and disallow various techniques.

Is Sport Karate Real Fighting?
How is the martial artist to know which of type of competition is for him? How is he to know which of these types of fighting is the most "real?" Actually, none of these events – the ultra-traditional, invitation-only classical tournament; the wild and woolly full-contact bouts; and everything in between – qualifies as "real." All of them are games. Games that can be bloody and brutal, true; but games nonetheless.

I should mention the latest fad in martial sport competition: "no rules" events like the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) started by the Gracies (Brazilian Jiu-jitsu aficionados). They advertize these events as having no rules; however, when pressed for accuracy, they will admit that there are some "restrictions." As good as the Gracies are (and they are very good on the ground), their "NO RULES (but some restrictions)" statement only adds the game of semantics onto their martial game. Such events, while educational for the martial artist, come as close to "real" as you can get, but, in the final analysis, they are still only games. More brutal, perhaps, but still games, with rules.

Thai Boxers
In reality, there are only degrees or shades of difference between Olympic tae kwon do; AAU karate; full-contact, no-pads karate; kickboxing; and the "no rules" events. The differences are all in the rules. For example, you cannot punch to the head in Olympic tae kwon do; the same is true in practically all full-contact bare-knuckle karate events. Olympic tae kwon do; AAU karate; full-contact, bare-knuckle karate; and kickboxing all disallow groin and leg attacks, and although the "no rules" events allow elbows and ground-fighting, they prohibit biting and eye-gouging (I mean "restrict"). The only American sanctioning body allowing leg kicks today is the World Kickboxing Association. Although the players will disagree, none of these "sports" (including the "no rules" events) can still claim to be real fighting. This is because "real" is a relative term and one delineated only by differences in the rules. All of them, for example, have at least one rule: no weapons. Again, "real" is a relative term.

That said, it is important to realize that these games are not for everyone. They are not even necessary to make one a good martial artist. For example, my current instructor has never fought in a tournament in his life (although he has fought for his life on more than one occasion). In more than half a century of training, he has never felt the need to compete. He rarely even participates in public demonstrations. Despite his lack of tournament experience he is, without a doubt, one of the most capable martial artists I have ever come across.4 One of my best friends, on the other hand, has fought in practically every type of sport-karate event there is: full-contact, point karate, good rules, bad rules; sometimes, what even looked like no rules. My friend5 has a win/loss record most of us can only wish for. His success speaks for itself. But my friend has not stopped there. He used his sporting interest as a springboard to developing a depth and breadth of skill in the art that few can claim. His sport successes aside, few will argue that he is anything less than a true martial artist possessing knowledge and skills well beyond his sporting abilities.

Looking at the divergent paths of these two men, we can rightfully conclude two things: First, that participation in martial sports is not necessary to be a successful and capable martial artist. Second, that participation in such sport can be an effective vehicle for making one a successful and capable martial artist. This seems to place the competitive aspect of martial arts in the "take it or leave it" category. But deciding to "leave it" may mean missing out on an effective training tool. As martial artists, we are unwise to pass on anything that has the power to make us better.

Water Polo Anyone?
My support for tournaments, both as a competitor and a tournament official, now spans nearly three decades. My involvement as a participant, however, has been limited to point tournaments only (as opposed to full-contact), so I will confine my observations to that arena. I am still active in supporting tournaments that benefit the competitor, but after considerable thought, I have come to the following conclusions: First, tournament play today is rarely held for the benefit of the competitor. Second, although tournament play is only a game, it is still a game that has the potential to teach because of its martial roots, emphasis, and application. Today, the push is for tournaments to become exclusively martial games, all the while claiming martial roots, but surrendering their martial emphasis and applicability. How has this happened?

Originally, tournaments were held for the martial artist, to afford him a legitimate platform to show his skills and test some of them against new opponents and differing styles. Now, however, tournaments are held for just about everyone but the competitor. A few recognized and respected martial artists, like Bill Wallace, are telling us that, "What we've got to think about is spectator appeal. We have to draw more spectators to the art . . . and the spectators do not want all that violence." (Considering the success of "no rules" events like the UFC, it seems that just the opposite is true.) Any tournament run for "spectator appeal" is obviously not being held for the sake of the competitor.

What we are told is that the public will not like what attracted us – martial artists – to the art, so we must water it down to a point where they (the spectators) will. The result is a premium paid for ineffective technique, like two-point head kicks and three-point jump kicks, while penalizing what is effective (awarding only one point for punches and eliminating attacks to the groin altogether).

This cry for entertainment for the purpose of exposing the art to the public has reduced the art's effectiveness and its respect in the public's eyes. Little wonder many martial artists see no benefit in sport competition. More than a few believe that when it comes to fighting, tournament fighting competition has little value in preparing one for survival in the street. They argue that sport karate has ruined the art by turning once-potent lifesaving skills into little more than water polo. Water polo and lifesaving have many similarities, and one  major difference. Both occur in the water.6 Both involve fetching an object. But which expert would you want around if you were drowning?

As a martial artist, I have to agree with much of what tournament detractors say. In a growing number of tournaments, the rules are skewed in favor of flashy, high-kicking techniques – high-risk techniques that, if used in the street, make the kicker extremely vulnerable to a leg kick or groin strike. This is especially true on the national circuit. Nevertheless, I still believe that, given the right environment, competitive events are beneficial for the martial artist. For the martial artist, the "right environment" is one that evaluates techniques by their effectiveness, not one that favors one art over another. It is also one that is held primarily for the competitor, not the spectator.


The Value of Games

If I stop here you might conclude that Master Funakoshi's fears have been realized. I have painted a pretty bleak picture. In light of the importance placed on tournament, trophies, and national ratings, I think the best initial perspective of sport karate is the one you have just seen. However, very little in life is all black or all white, all bad or all good. The same is true of sport karate. There is a good side, a side that benefits the martial artist. To see this, let's examine the subject from two angles. First, let's look at the benefits of free-fighting or sparring (the core of karate competition). After that, we'll look at the benefits of tournament play.

Free-fighting Benefits
There are some schools that discourage free-fighting. They refuse to pursue this form of training because they know that the rules necessary to make it safe must eliminate those really effective techniques (this is the same concern that Funakoshi had about tournaments in the first place). In this sense, they are correct. However, we should not conclude from this that free-fighting is without benefit. Properly used, free-fighting is a valuable training tool. From it, one learns concepts like distance and timing. Applied to self-defense, distance and timing are critical elements that come into play when you have already been struck, knocked down, or are facing an assailant who already has his dukes up. Typical self-defense techniques do not provide everything needed in these situations.

Normally, we avoid those things that will inflame a situation (e.g., you are not standing there in a fighting stance with your guard up at the slightest provocation). But what do you do when you have just been blind-sided? Certainly, there is little doubt then that you are in a fight. No need to worry about escalating a tense situation into a really ugly one; it's already at that stage.

Self-defense techniques are little help here because they are, by nature, reactive – you react in response to someone else's action. Most self-defense techniques are taught something like this: "You are standing here and someone does this . . ."  Or, "You are in this situation when, suddenly . . . !!" But, when it has already come to blows and you have no choice but to fight your way out. How are you going to take the fight to your assailant? What tactics will you use? Suppose your assailant is a trained tournament fighter. Most tournament fighters train hard. They are in shape, and their skills formidable. Not everything is handled from a stationary position with a simple block and counter. How you enter, move, and cover distance in attack and defense become critical in circumstances like these, and it is here that free-fighting is the most beneficial.

But the benefits do not stop there. Sparring also is a great confidence builder. Free-fighting provides the beginning student with a means of self-defense in a relatively short period of time. Normally, competency in any system of self-defense requires years of training. Sparring techniques, on the other hand, are only a small subset of an art's total complement. Being few and relatively simple, sparring techniques require much less time to achieve a minimal level of competence. This superficial level of mastery in a few techniques provides the student with a temporary method of defense until he becomes more proficient in the greater part of the art he studies.

Tournament Play
The competitive element in tournament play adds yet another benefit. Tournament competition gives one the opportunity to face opponents whose techniques and tactics to him are unfamiliar. This forces the student into situations that reveal the spontaneous responses and reactions he is developing (responses he might ultimately use in an actual combat situation). However, here too, we must be careful, for even in the best competitive environment there is the tendency to view noncompetitors as lacking either skill or courage. As one instructor put it, "Tournament fighting . . . promotes and teaches the conquest of others. Competitors often become enamored and inflated with the sense of self that comes from defeating someone else."

This attitude problem is not limited to just the competitors. Too many competitors and spectators alike tend to see tournament fighting as the end – the ultimate demonstration of an individual's martial skill. It may be the ultimate demonstration of skill for those whose arts consist only of sparring techniques tailored for tournaments, but for most martial artists, it doesn't even come close. For the martial artist, viewing fighting competition as anything other than a game and a means to an end is myopic. To believe that tournament play is an accurate reflection of an individual's martial skill is about as accurate as saying all-star professional wrestling is real.

This belief in the validity of tournament play as an indicator of one's real skill is probably the main reason many fighting competitors look down their noses at noncompetitors. Competitors often feel that noncompetitors are afraid to put their skills to the test. They believe that the intensity and stress of fighting competition bring one closer to the reality of actual combat than any other form of training. Granted, competition does raise the adrenaline, intensity, and stress levels for the fighter, but what is it about competition that does this?

Intensity – Real or Imaginary?
For some, the intensity comes from the hope for victory, fame, or momentary glory. For others it is the desire to win the prize (trophy, money, whatever). There is also the stress of performing in front of one's peers, family, and friends. This brings enormous pressure. Finally, there are those for whom the intensity comes simply from fear. However, they shouldn't be looked down on for this, because it is rightly said that "courage is not the absence of fear, but the conquest of it." Fear is both healthy and motivating. Fear keeps us from playing with electricity. It also motivates us to acts of great courage, and fighting competition does take courage. But there is a great difference between fighting in a controlled, safe environment for fame and fortune, and fighting for your life.

Fighting in the school or in the tournament ring, for all its benefits, is still only a game of tag (at least that is what it is supposed to be). As such, an individual's participation and subsequent performance in the ring is in no way a true measure of his or her skill or courage.

When it comes to competition, there are those who simply are not motivated to risk a bloody nose, sore ribs, jammed toes, or any other injury for a mere contest. It would be foolish, say, for a dentist – a man who makes his living and supports his family with his hands – to risk injury to those hands in competition. However, I have little doubt that the same individual would willingly risk all, fighting as one possessed, were the safety of his loved ones is at stake. Male grizzly bears are substantially larger than females. As cubs, the males play-fight, but, as adults none of them will take on a female who is protecting her young because she is not play-fighting any more.

There are also some schools that legitimately train for nothing but self-defense, using weapons and tactics that are illegal in sport competition – elbows, knees, leg attacks, ground-fighting, and so on.7 Jujutsu is a good example. Excluding the handful of schools that claim to train "only for combat," just so they can tell everyone else how "bad" they are, competitive events for most self-defense schools, either do not go far enough or are simply impractical. Their non-participation, then, is quite reasonable and no reflection on their student's skill or courage.


To Play or Not To Play

Free-fighting, sparring, and tournament play are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. They are, however, only useful when seen, and used, as one tool among many. Competitors and noncompetitors alike need to remember that a hammer should not be the only tool in one's tool box. (You cannot build a house with just a hammer; neither can you build a house without one.) In this respect, both sides have missed the truth.

Short of life-and-death (or at the very least, save-your-teeth) fighting, there is no way to develop real combat experience or to test one's fighting spirit. As long as tournaments can be found that offer the martial artist a chance to develop and improve his skills, sparring and competitive fighting will continue to be listed as a benefit for self-defense training, because they do come closest to actual combat – in a relatively safe and controlled environment. (At the very least, you face a moving target.)

What sport competitors must avoid is the tendency to view noncompetitors as inferior, unskilled, or lacking courage. Noncompetitors, on the other hand, must recognize that sparring and free-fighting (including competitive play) can be useful training tools. They must remember that many tools are necessary for building a house, or developing a well-rounded martial artist. With this mutual understanding and appreciation, both competitors and noncompetitors will come to respect the truth in the other's position, and sport participation will really grow.

Three Bullets
So, were Master Funakoshi's fears assuaged or realized? The numbers indicate that there definitely has been growth. According to one source, participation in the martial arts has exploded from 9 million Americans a decade ago to 15 million today. If, however, the numbers increase but the quality of martial artists produced from this growth decreases, then the numbers mean nothing.

For myself, I confess that, even after closely examining both sides of this issue, I am less than encouraged at the direction which sport karate seems headed. However, in spite of my misgivings, and despite the many problems inherent in sport karate today, I still believe that we are unwise to dismiss it outright. If nothing else, tournaments do provide the martial artist with a forum for meeting other enthusiasts and exchanging ideas. I continue to make new acquaintances at tournaments and more than a few of them are interesting and capable martial artists. If for no other reason than this, I will continue to support "good" tournaments.



Since the writing of this book, sport karate has devolved to a place where all competitors now receive awards – whether they win or not. Sport karate proponents need to recognize that giving every competitor a prize when competing does nothing to improve martial arts. Even though the prize is not deserved, after a while the competitors 'expect' it and it becomes an entitlement that has nothing to do with real accomplishment or achievement.

  1. Although not the most accurate term, "sport karate", is universally recognized as encompassing the sporting and competitive element of Asian martial arts.
    [Return to reference point]
  2. Saying that this event was the "first large-scale karate tournament" does not mean that it was the first tournament or competitive martial event; it was not. It was, however, the one that led the way for the kinds of modern sport karate competition so popular today.
    [Return to reference point]
  3. This was written before Brazillian Jiu-jitsu and Mixed Martial Arts started in this country.
    [Return to reference point]
  4. My teacher at that time was Willem deThouars.
    [Return to reference point]
  5. My friend is Stewart Lauper, who owns and operates Progressive Martial Arts in Denver, Colorado.
    [Return to reference point]
  6. I cannot recall who first used it, but the water polo/lifesaving analogy is from a quotation lamenting that "Those who scramble to frantically 'legitimatize' karate (the art) into a sporting (even Olympic) event might see water polo as the legitimate representation of lifesaving."
    [Return to reference point]
  7. Our school today (some 20+ years after this book was written) falls squarely into this group.
    [Return to reference point]

Our  emphasis  is  on  the  practical.
©Copyright Bob Orlando, 1993-2016
All rights reserved.
Last update:  Aug. 6, 2016
by Bob Orlando
Web Site of Bob Orlando: Instructor in Kuntao-Silat (Chinese kuntao and Dutch-Indonesian pukulan pentjak silat), author of two popular martial art books: "Indonesian Fighting Fundamentals" and "Martial Arts America: A Western Approach to Eastern Arts"; and producer of four martial art videos: Fighting Arts of Indonesia, Reflex Action, Fighting Footwork of Kuntao and Silat, Fighting Forms of Kuntao-Silat. Offering practical martial arts instruction to adults living in and throughout the Denver metropolitan area including, Lakewood, Littleton, Morrison, and Golden Colorado.