Competition karate – Is this really the way it’s going?

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Looking at the latest manifestation of karate as a competitive entity I honestly wonder where the current trends are taking us?

This is a genuine question; I’m not saying I have answers, but I am going to try and unpack my own thoughts through the process of writing.

First; examine my image at the top of this post. Is there any truth in this view? Is competition karate turning into an empty-handed version of Olympic fencing?

For me this came out of a conversation I had while teaching in Europe. An instructor, who is much more engaged with the modern competition scene than I am, proposed this comparison to me, and I was quite shocked really. Since then, my Instagram feed of seemingly endless competition karate training drills, contest clips etc, have all taken on a different guise – once the thought hit me I couldn’t un-see it, this looked like fencing!

Maybe others have come to the same conclusions?

In the process of writing this post I discovered that ‘Karate Nerd’ Jesse Enkamp had also dipped into this area, and, in part, came up with a similar comparison [1]. In this mini-documentary, as an interviewee, he presented an interesting comparison between competition karate from the 1980’s and 90’s and the most modern version. At one point he said that the 1980’s/90’s example featured competitors who were ‘determined to win’, while modern competitors are ‘determined not to lose’. The point he seemed to be making acted as a reinforcement of an observation that modern day karate competitors are so wired that they seem to be perpetually on a knife edge; with the suggestion that perhaps those historical competitors, in their crudity and aggression, could somehow disregard this necessity? I have my doubts.

Perhaps it’s more complex than that?

Maybe it is the pressure of the modern competitor to ‘not lose’ by points alone; whereas his historical counterpart would perhaps ‘lose’ in more than just one way? For example, he might experience loss by, sheer domination or aggression, or just being purely physically overpowered by strength or prolonged staying power AND lose on points? [2]

Mindgames.

The modern competitor surely must be developing a mindset similar to that of a top seed tennis player? I would refer anyone interested in this to Timothy Gallwey’s ground-breaking 1974 book ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’. This book launched a whole industry of peak performance sports psychology, focussing on cultivating a mental state which enabled the highest level of sporting achievement. Interestingly Gallwey ‘discovered’ these techniques through exposure to meditation back in the 1970’s; now where does that sound familiar?

Specialisms.

The modern karate competitor is a specialist; the concept of the ‘all-rounder’ (the person who wins both the kata and the kumite) probably died in the 1980’s, and in those days, they had to prove themselves through huge, continual rounds of eliminations, not in some minor domestic contest.

You can’t take it away from them, as a specialist the modern karate contestant has developed superb athleticism, clearly the domain of the very young.  Remember, what the Olympic fencer does with one hand (albeit with a 110cm extension) the karate athlete has to do with all four limbs; that is a heck of a lot to have to look out for!

Karate Combat’.

A final word on ‘Karate Combat’, a new franchise/business/media phenomena developed in 2018. An unashamed crossover between sport and showbiz, whose founders credit the emergence of ‘Cobra Kai’ as contributing to their ‘timely’ success.

My view is that if you stick around long enough the same ideas roll round time after time. This same idea was happening in the 1970’s; the American version at that time made stars of Benny ‘the Jet’ Urquidez and Bill ‘Superfoot’ Wallace. This is almost the same, only packaged for the ‘Mortal Kombat’ generation, with all the modern digital glitz.

It is interesting what COO/President of Karate Combat Adam Kovacs has to say about his product: “This is something that karate itself has been kind of crying out for in a way, because anyone with a background in karate beforehand would have only had the option to switch to mixed martial arts, whereas now if they want to fight full contact they can put their years of training to the test at the highest level….We think we are not only doing a favour to karate but also to the entire martial arts community who have grown tired of the copycats because pretty much every single one of these other promotions are trying to copy what the UFC is doing”. [3]

Bear in mind that Kovacs was a successful Hungarian sport karate competitor from 1998 to 2010. I have watched a little of the Karate Combat output, but always come away with the same nagging doubts; particularly, why is it that the fighters have to compromise their technical karate base (if we assume that’s where they came from) to be successful? Even the great modern karate competitor Rafael Aghayev has to depend on the wildest haymaker punches to make it work, to generate the power? [4]. To my mind Aghayev is a full-on class act, but my guess is that in this particular arena he has to resort to the common mode. Maybe it’s not so much a reflection of Karate Combat or Aghayev and the other competitors; perhaps it’s a reflection on the current mode of sports karate?

Like I said at the beginning, I am still working this out, all I can come up with is observations and questions, but no conclusions. But, just where are we going with this? After all, the Olympic karate pony never really got to the starting gate – good thing or bad thing? You can make your own mind up.

Tim Shaw

[1] ‘Martial Arts Journey’. Old school karate link
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYp3BLXYBsk

[2] What is interesting about the examples of ‘old school karate competition’ is that they seem to be mainly from the UK. Look out for Alfie ‘the animal’ Lewis in that very interesting foray where, then karate England manager, Ticky Donovan decided to field a freestyle ‘star’ of his age, as a karate competitor. It didn’t work because Alfie operated in a very different format – I think you can see that in the footage (those of you who can recognise Alfie Lewis).
Also watch, Elwyn Hall, Shotokan KUGB supremo.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7KYvluiN-k

Fencing photo credit: https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/fencing-france-roc-face-off-mens-team-foil-gold-2021-08-01/

Karate photo credit: https://www.ispo.com/en/markets/everything-about-karate-premiere-olympic-games-tokyo-2021

[3] Karate Combat Interview Adam Kovacs quote: https://www.givemesport.com/1719277-karate-combat-is-carving-out-its-own-path-in-the-crowded-space-of-combat-sports

[4] Watch Aghayev’s Karate Combat bouts on YouTube slowed down and you will see what I mean.

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