How rules affect fighting styles

Front Kick

Image courtesy and copyright of Duncan Grisby 2013

Have you ever heard a sentence like: “this guy fights like a karateka or like a Thai Boxer”? There are indeed typical techniques that characterise various fighting styles.  However, while different martial arts styles or even individual schools promote or enhance the use of certain techniques it is more often the case that rules will have the strongest influence on fighting styles; this post analyse how and why this is happening.

Fighting rules affect two key aspect of a fight: what punches, kicks or other strikes are allowed and what area of the body can be hit with these strikes. A typical and very obvious example comes from American Kickboxing that I have been practicing for over 30 years and teaching for more than 20. When fighting full contact or light continuous style, assuming no kicks to the legs are allowed, fighters tend to adopt a front stance with their weight on the front leg that allows easy use of punches from both arms in a very similar fashion to boxing. Adopting a front stance enables kicks with the rear leg to be delivered quite naturally, usually as the natural final part of powerful combinations of punches.  Kicks with the front leg can be delivered by quickly switching into cat or side stance.  On the other side of the spectrum when fighting according to semi contact rules (also called point fighting) the importance of delivering super fast kicks is paramount, together with a reduced need of complicated punching combinations; single punches often rule.  Equally important in semi contact is the need of offering the smallest possible scoring area to the opponent because every touch scores; for this reason most of the semi contact fights see fighters adopting a side stance and same apply to Tae Kwon Do as they hardly ever punch.  Shotokan or Wado Ryu Karate fighters will usually fight in front stance with low guard in front of their chest because they don’t use many punches in combination; Kyokushin Kaikan Karate relies on the fact that no strikes will hit face or head.

Thai Boxers face a completely different reality due rules allowing strikes to any part of their body including to kicks to the legs.  If Thai Boxers relied on the same front stance that we use for American Kickboxing they would find themselves in lots of troubles as their front legs would become easy targets for strong kicks. That’s why they adopt a stance that keeps their weight heavily shifted backward.  Boxers naturally know that nothing but punches will come their way while fighting therefore they can swing and bob their head quite low and wide around their opponent’s punches.  Some of these positions would attract troubles if performed while kicks or knee strikes are allowed.  Final example is how MMA rules, allowing grabs and grappling, condition their stand up fight.  Most MMA fighters are great boxers and kickboxers but they simply cannot exploit their full potential as strikers because of the strong risk of their limbs to be grabbed and them being thrown on the floor for the grappling that will follow.

I have been experiencing for years how rules affect one’s fighting style when I welcome new members to my kickboxing club and some of them join after years of experience in various other styles like Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Thai Boxing and Kung Fu.  At the beginning they all try to keep their style and use techniques and stances they were used to; as their experience evolves their whole style also mutates and they become more and more like the other members of the club.  Although we teach our techniques and combinations according to our style there is no implicit or explicit suggestions that people should give up what they learnt, as long as they are fighting respecting our rules; however fighting according to our rules progressively inspires them to adopt the techniques and combinations we teach because they fit very well with such rules.

Disambiguation about 5 styles called Kickboxing

For somebody who has been practicing kickboxing since before it was given this name I find somehow irritating when people confuse it or, worse, deliberately misuse its name for commercial reasons.  Most martial arts, despite attracting some time interesting numbers of keen followers, failed to attract the real interest of the masses in terms the education systems, TV coverage and commercial sponsorships.  The only exception, over the last decade or so is the growing popularity of MMA.

If we can thank Bruce Lee for creating a huge awareness and interest for martial arts thanks to his movies in the 60ies and 70ies we could thank Jean Claude Van Damme for helping Kickboxing becoming a main stream martial art and sport thanks to his movies of from the late 80ies and early 90ies.  So while if you are practicing Tang So Do or Wing Chun you still have to explain to people what you do when you tell people to be training Kickboxing most of them will have at least a clue of what you do.

For this reason many organizations are promoting their martial arts as Kickboxing even when they are practicing something else and they should really keep its original name.  I will list below the 5 martial arts to me known that are all confusingly called Kickboxing while just one of them should be it.

American Kickboxing

Original called Karate Contact to differentiate from the no-contact karate competitions that still take place nowadays.  This martial art was initially practiced as a form of freestyle karate that allowed contact during sparring and competitions; it then developed into adding more appropriate boxing punches and combinations of kicks and punches.  Targets for all punches and kicks are the front part of the body and face, no low kicks are allowed.  American Kickboxing is practiced with full protection kit, boxing gloves, mouth guard, groin guard, sheen pads and foot pads. The uniform usually includes a t-shirt or jacket and long trousers.

Muay Thai

Muay Thai, also called Thai Boxing or Thai Kickboxing is a form of sport fight originated in Thailand and it allows one of the most complete and harsh fighting scenario for a sport bout.  Muay Thai allows punches, kicks, elbow and knee strikes to all parts of the body.  While training is usually performed while wearing a reasonable level of kit such as gloves, mouth guard, groin guard and sheen pads, fights are performed without any leg protection.

Japanese Kickboxing

The origins of Japanese Kickboxing are rooted in Muay Thai. It all started in th 60ies when a Japanese Karate master, after seeing a Muay Thai fight decided, to adopt a similar style fight full contact sparring.  Japanese Kickboxing has now evolved into K1 a world popular fighting sport that looks similar to Thai boxing, excluding elbow strikes; that means it allows punches, kicks and knee strikes to all parts of the body, excluding groin.   K1 has regular followers and practitioners in Japan, Europe and USA with TV coverage and large sponsorships. Typical uniform for Japanese Kickboxing is just shorts and perhaps a vest.

Savate

Also called French Boxing (or Boxe Française) is a French version of fighting sport with a number of differences compared to the rest of similar martial arts. In Savate both punches and kicks are allowed but they limit the target for the formers to the front of body, above the belt and face, e.g. similar to IBA boxing; quite confusingly kicks are instead allowed to hit the whole body, including back and legs.  The uniform used for Savate is also very typical as it’s a Lycra fabric full body suit and they wear boots instead of foot pads.

Sanda or Sanshou

Sanda, also called Chinese Kickboxing, was originally developed by the Chinese military based upon the intense study and practices of traditional Kung Fu and modern combat fighting techniques; it is a full contact form or Kickboxing usually practiced as a fighting application of various kung fu styles like Shaolin or Wu Shu.  Its freestyle philosophy embraces a sport fight with little rules, where kicks and punches to any area of the body (excluding groin) are allowed; throws are also possible but the fight gets stopped as soon as the fighters hit the ground (e.g. no grappling and submission).

So in my opinion just American and Japanese Kickboxing have the legitimate right to be called Kickboxing while the remaining three are getting free publicity by the big popularity that the name Kickboxing has gained over the last 20 years or so.  This list is the most accurate to the best of my knowledge; it relies on my over 30 years experience in martial arts and research I did online, both on Wikipedia and other sources.  If you have any suggestions for amendments please leave a comment.

Powerful strikes: my top 5 martial arts punches

Martial artists and sport fighters with some level of experience are aware that some punches or kicks are stronger than others; some people just accept that as a fact, some of us try to understand the reasons behind by studying the human anatomy, how the body works and how biomechanics actually apply to these techniques.

If the first step in this process will help you understanding why things work in a certain way the natural evolution from there will be to better train the muscles involved in the movement and improve your performance.

Although different people will achieve different results when striking with various punches I will list below my 5 top favourite martial arts punches (e.g. not limiting ourselves to IBA boxing strikes):

The Jab

I think of the jab as an amazing technique; when well trained it can be super fast, ideal to strike the opponent at both medium (abdomen, chest) and high level (face).  In boxing (as much as in kickboxing) the Jab is very much the bread and butter of the fight, mostly used to strike often the opponent in order to check and maintain the distance and as a preparation for other more powerful, but often slower and more energy demanding, techniques.  The Jab should always travel on a straight line, directly from your guard toward its target and then being withdrawn immediately to go back ready for the next strike.  The total number of muscles involved in the jab is relatively small: mostly the triceps, with small contribution from deltoid, pectoral and trapezium.  Extra power can be added with a well timed little step forward while some people add an extra torsion on their core to involve a few more muscles; I generally don’t as I find it time consuming and less easy to follow up.

The Hook

It’s the most powerful punch I can throw, with either hand or from either stance, reason being the high number of strong muscle groups involved in the motion: the bicep, the deltoid, pectoral, some of the abdominals, good part of the core and, if well performed, the calf, quadriceps and the hip area. Although all hooks hits the target sideways in a circular motion, from a mechanical and geometrical point of view the hook performed with the leading (front) hand is totally different from the hook performed with the rear (back) hand.  In the first case the only way of delivering power is to perform a counter turn that while shifting weight on the rear leg builds up momentum to be transferred to the arm and the fist.  When striking with the rear leg it’s important to push from the rear leg, starting from the ball of the rear foot, twisting the hips forward in synch with the arm moving forward in the strike.

The Cross

The Cross shares the simplicity offered by a straight trajectory similarly to the jab, but it develops more power for two main reasons: it travels for a long distance therefore it builds up more momentum, delivering more damage; it involves, on top of all muscles involved in the jab, the hip torsion (core, gluteus) and the push from the rear leg as previously described in the hook from the rear hand. Adding a little step even if moving just a few millimetres it can help to add a substantial amount of extra power.

The Back Fist

The Back Fist punch (as in the picture above) is a typical martial arts punch that derives from traditional styles like karate and kung fu; it was never part of the IBA boxing repertoire but, funny enough in the UK it is being progressively removed from various light and full contact kickboxing rules.  The Back Fist is not a particularly powerful punch as it involves just triceps and the shoulder muscles; at the same it is very fast and annoying because it hits people on the side of the face or some times on the nose.  Very popular in semi contact kickboxing it’s an ideal technique to be used while fighting in side stance and combined with side, round and hook kicks with the front leg.

The Spinning Back Fist

The Back Fist is the only punch that makes sense when performed while spinning back; while maintaining the limitations of being by its own nature a weak punch the spinning movement, if well performed and timed, can deliver an unexpected amount of power.  The spinning should always being performed in a way that the eyes (e.g. your vision) hit the target before the punch, in short, look at what you are striking.  The Spinning Back Fist was acceptable within kickboxing rules until a few years ago but it’s now been abolished in every style for its apparent lack of control and the amount of damage it can deliver when properly performed.

The dilemma between technique and toughness in fighting sports

We define combat sport a sport application or expression of a martial art where we set and impose rules to limit and control the amount of damage that can be inflicted to the opponent.

Ranging from contactless Karate tournament, via Boxing and all the way to MMA fighting sports usually assign points to each technique that scores and in many cases contemplate the eventuality of one of the opponent being knocked out (KO) or giving up the fight before the end and accepting defeat.

I am a strong fan of good technique and properly applied guard at all times: high quality technique will be more efficient in terms of using your energy as well as minimising your chance of running out of it.  The guard, as I previously wrote about, will ensure you won’t be hit as often or as hard, reducing the chances for a KO from your opponent as well as minimising the points scored on you.  Most people I am teaching to are buying into this concept and accept that good technique must be there as a foundation to build on the remaining attributes of a winner.  A minority of others, being naturally aggressive and perhaps with a higher pain threshold, they assume they can just get in the ring let the opponent coming forward and aiming at knocking them down before the end of the fight.

From my point of view this is a strategy that is meant to be short lived and not guaranteeing a long career for a winner.  Here are my reasons for it:

  • Knocking somebody down, in a fight where both opponent are well trained and fit sports fighter is a small chance of hitting the right spot at the right time: it doesn’t happen often, particularly if your opponent has proper technique and guard;
  • Regardless how tough you are is just going to be time before you meet somebody tougher, somebody who has higher pain threshold, more adrenaline in their body and don’t go down as you expect;
  • If you are just aiming at the KO strike without a point based strategy two things can happen: you don’t succeed at your KO and the opponent wins because scoring more points or you become victim of your own strategy and get hit hard where it really hurts and get knocked down yourself;
  • Repeated hard strikes in the head cause long term disabilities and injuries so even if it doesn’t hurt now it will cause problems later.

Muhammad Ali was the first boxer that demonstrated that a fight could be won by playing by the rules, not looking for a fast KO but keep scoring on the opponent throughout the fight.  That doesn’t mean being a lower quality fighter but simply someone who is there to win, repeatedly, aiming at the top title.  Another demonstration of what I am stating here was the recent boxing fight of David Haye v Nikolai Valuev: the quality of the show was somehow not there as it can be seen in these videos.  Haye kept moving backward and away from his massive opponent Valuev but as he kept scoring with many, many points at the body, he won the world title.  That was a very well managed fight played strategically from beginning to end with the victory in mind.

I would like to conclude with a simple clarification: good technique is not just meant to look good, it’s meant to be very powerful, fast efficient and effective for the person using it.  At the same time when training for sport fighting you should always bear in mind what the rules are and understanding how you can win by scoring more points.  If the KO is allowed in your discipline and you can finish the fight before it may be a bonus but a good fighter is more likely to win more often than a tough one.

The role of forms in martial arts

I have just read this great post on Ikigaiway and started writing a comment: when it became too long I though it was a good idea to write my own post.

Most striking martial arts, being them bare handed like Karate, Wing Chun or Tae Kwon Do or weapon based like Iai Jitsu, Iai Do and Kobudo, use forms (Kata in Japanese) as a way or classifying various groups of techniques.  Forms are usually increasingly difficult and they can be part of grading.

Forms, in any martial art, is meant to be a way of collecting a number of techniques, arranged in logical sequences, with to 4 main purposes in mind:

  1. solo practice, to allow the practitioner to keep training without an opponent;
  2. having a kind of comparable scale among different practitioner at similar level;
  3. practicing and rehearsing logical sequences of techniques that eventually should be applied to real right
  4. collecting techniques that otherwise might be lost in teaching over various generations of students: let’s not forget that until a few decades ago video recording or filming was not as practical and affordable as it is today and a book has lots of limitation is showing dynamic 3D actions.

In the first video shown in Ikigaiway post the young lady moves a lot, she is very acrobatic but most of what she does is not useful, if not dangerous,  in a fight.  The second video is more realistic: question here is: “if you push somebody away with a powerful yoko geri (side kick) what it the probability that his face will be there to be hit with an elbow?”

I am convinced that a form is (supposed to be) a fight against imaginary opponents that the practitioner attacks or defends against.  Somebody practicing a form should always ask herself:

  • “what is this (particular technique) for?”
  • “would it really work?”
  • “what about if a real opponent appeared now in that position?”

If the answer to any of these question doesn’t make too much sense than what you are practicing is not a practical form and, while it can help working out fitness, balance and flexibility, it will not ultimately help your fighting skills.