Is Karate Effective for Real Fights? A Martial Arts Comparison

The picture shows two tigers fighting. They represent Shotokan and in the article T.D. McKinnon is discussing whether Karate is effective in real fights.

Is Karate Effective in Real Fights? Many karate practitioners and non-practitioners ask this question. Our columnist T.D. McKinnon tries to give an answer reflecting on his 50 years of experience in multiple martial arts which he compares and juxtaposes. He also illuminates what distinguishes a real fight from sports competition. Read another exciting part of Shotokan Essence.

I focused on the sport side of karate for about seven or eight years: competing, refereeing and coaching competition karate, representing at State and National level in my native Scotland, and my adopted home, Australia. In my wider martial arts experience, I was a boxer for four years, and spent a further four years training/coaching and promoting Muay
Thai and kickboxing fighters.

Combat Sports are not Real Fights

Training with the proper attitude for any of these combative sports demands a certain positive mindset and has many benefits, both physically and mentally. While competing, my timing, distance, core strength and confidence was probably at an all-time high. Your psyche doesn’t ever really forget that kind of intensity.

Timing, distance, core strength and confidence are some of the positive aspects of combat sports. However, in respect to transferring the experience to real fights, there is some negative baggage. In sport karate, for instance, the repetitious use of limited, non-lethal and sometimes downright impractical techniques, repetitively targeting to do no damage. “One simply needs to focus for more depth when the occasion demands,” is a comeback I’ve heard to that point. However, under extreme pressure, you react the way you repetitively train. Period! There is little time for thought and re-adjustment.

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Real Fights and Fudoshin

I do believe that sporting competition can be invaluable to your over-all martial experience. However, I further believe that any experience of real fights – practical involvement with physical conflict – is priceless. In terms of your Fudoshin surpasses the sport experience one-hundred-fold.

There are also physical, mental and spiritual downsides to all combative sports, and far too many to properly scrutinize here. However, I will briefly address a few points.

The Limits of Martial Arts in Real Fights

For instance, while involved with one specific discipline, you narrow your focus to the particular techniques that are acceptable and practical in that particular arena. Also, one of those initial pros, ‘distance’, tends to get dropped from the advantages. The distance in sport karate, for instance, is rarely the same as in real physical conflict situations. Another of those pluses, confidence, tends to desert some people when the threat of real violence proves to be all too imminent.

Boxing

Violent real fights was part of my experience before sport karate and so, when switching from one to the other, I inherently understood the difference. I had also been involved in boxing prior to sport karate; although, boxers can also fall into the sport versus reality conflict. Remember… you react the way you train; and boxers train repetitively for clean, non-lethal targeting. Some boxers may have been scrappers all their lives, using whatever is necessary to survive. However, in adverse situations (when things get real) one rule remains constant: you react the way you repetitively train.

Kyokushinkai Karate

I’ve seen it time and again with full contact Kyokushin fighters. I would be the first to agree that they are tough fighters, but their repetitive training is mostly punch, kick and knee to non-lethal targets, as well as not punching to the head while under pressure in their particular type of competition. Under duress, you naturally react the way you train repetitively.

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Muay Thai

Muay Thai training is probably one of the quickest ways to get street ready. Learning to impact on moving targets with fist, shin, elbow and knee; and the standing grapple can be used to devastating effect. In Muay Thai, the difference between the ring and the street is probably minimal. However, it is an art that is almost exclusively a sport these days and non-lethal striking is practiced repetitively. I do love those Muay Thai elbows though.

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)

Even the newest kid on the block, the Mixed Martial Arts fighter, is used to training repetitively to fight, with rules, in an enclosed area. They may have, comparatively, fewer rules, but rules they certainly have; in regard to illegal striking areas: throat, groin, eyes, joints et cetera. The MMA fighter’s repetitive training completely avoids those targets (as they should: it is still a sport after all) and so in a real situation, with their life on the line, the chances are that repetitively trained techniques will come to the fore.

Karate is Effective, because it Comprises Everything

Prior to Karate, I trained in several fight disciplines, and even after my Shotokan involvement began, I believed that I needed to round out my martial arsenal by training in several disciplines. I eventually realised, however, never ceasing my Shotokan training, that just about everything I needed was right there in my Shotokan. You just have to really study kata, with Shoshin (beginners mind), and you will find everything you need.

Happo Kumite: Martials Arts and Multiple Attackers in Real Fights

There is something that all these combat sports have in common: they are all fighting, and training to fight, a single advisory. Let me tell you something about adverse situations: in my experience they rarely involve just one adversary.

So – whether you are a sport karate fighter, a boxer, a Muay Thai fighter, a judo player, a Brazilian Jujitsu competitor or an MMA fighter – taking on more than one adversary is very different. As a sports combatant you may have the edge over a single adversary with no fight experience, and who doesn’t train to fight. However, in a real life adverse situation, possibly with multiple opponents, the picture is changed unimaginably. Therefore, a realistic karate training also comprises happo kumite.

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Avoid Going to the Ground in Real Fights

In some of the above mentioned combat sports the main aim, or at least a major part of the game, is to force or take your opponent to the ground; sacrificing your stand-up position. In the adverse situation I keep referring to – the one with multiple opponents – for obvious reasons the very last thing you want to do is sacrifice your standing mobility.

Training Karate for Effectiveness

I have trained and fought in most fight disciplines, and I have defended myself in many adverse situations, even fighting for my very life. Believe me… you react the way you train; so train for real situations.

I’m not saying that you should never focus on a martial sport. I am saying that you should not fool yourself into thinking that the sport is the art. Regardless of the ferocity of the sport… never forget that the sport is a game made up from non-lethal portions of the art, as a sport should be.

Effective Karate and Sport are not the Same Thing

I have been a student of the martial arts for at least fifty seven years, and I have been a karateka and a teacher of Karate-do for close to fifty of those years. I have had a great deal of experience as a fighter and trainer/coach of fighters. In the real world, I was a British Parachute Regiment soldier: trained in all aspects of fighting, armed and unarmed. As a ‘Close Personal Protection Operative’ (CPPO) and a trainer of CPPOs at the highest professional level, I practiced my art for real. I’ve been a Budoka for most of my life.

I’ve said quite a lot here about the sport versus the Budo. I feel completely qualified to have strong opinions and to make general, sweeping statements on the subject of combat in any of its forms… The sport can be part of Budo, and you can have Budo in the sport; however, and I say this, emphatically, “The sport and the art are not the same thing!”

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2 Comments

  1. An excellent combat analysis can only come form a well experienced Budoka such as mr McKinnon, thanks for sharing your experience with us.

  2. Shihan Mckinmon. Thank you for writing the most accurate account of the differences between sport and real combat situations I have come across.
    Very much appreciated.
    Prof Lez Henry kyokushinkai and Hung Kuen Kung Fu practioner.

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