Modern training, mixed martial arts, traditional karate and Gakusei Karate

As far as we know all martial arts started off as self-defence or battlefield training. Karate was no different, you can see through the study of traditional kata this included a wide range of techniques and fighting strategies- including grappling, throws, takedowns, hooks, uppercuts and a myriad of other techniques which aren’t practiced in karate sparring in the majority of karate styles. The point is that over the years karate evolved into a more specialised and narrow, less versatile art. This happens to a lot of traditional arts, in karate’s case it became very stylised when it was introduced from Okinawa to Japan, to make the art more uniform and easier to teach. Then as it developed sport fighting/competition rules for safety and to make it easier to judge, the range of techniques narrowed again.

Of course, this varies from club to club, to the point where some styles can no longer really even call themselves self-defence, instead, they are a highly stylised sport. Others still claim they are self-defence but in reality, they lack credibility in this department. I personally used to train in a “traditional” style that in spite of having 9 fundamental blocking techniques none of them could reliably be used to block the most common attack in self-defence; a swinging punch, without massive modification to how they are practiced and drilled. They also heavily promoted themselves as self-defence in spite of glaring failings in the most basic self-defence skills. This is not uncommon in the karate world. In contrast; Gakusei karate has 6 fundamental blocks 2 of which are specifically designed to block swinging punches + many other techniques we practice frequently to deal with the most common attack in self-defence.

Unrealistic hyper-stylisd traditional training

This narrowing of technique and stylisation of martial arts results in a lack of practicality that flies in the face of true origins and purpose of martial arts: self-defence. This is why people say things like karate won’t work in reality. Karate was not the only victim of this process- kung-fu is often criticised for it’s fighting style evolving to only working against other people who do kung-fu. Taekwondo has also developed into a highly stylised sport that looks fanciful to outsiders. Judo and some styles of jujitsu have also evolved into sports so much that they have dropped striking and defending striking altogether.
The good news is that there has been a distinctive movement against this trend in the modern martial arts world. Finally, the martial arts world is moving back to its origins of practical purpose and a pragmatic broader philosophy.

Ironically it is often the “traditionalists” who criticise this movement back towards karate’s origins of an art that borrowed techniques from other styles and was not afraid of using whatever works rather than trying to stick to a narrow doctrine of what they consider to be traditional (but in reality is relatively new)

“Strive not to follow in the footstep of masters but rather seek what they sought”

Before his untimely death in 1973 Bruce Lee championed this broader martial arts philosophy, he called it “the style of no style”.

In 1993 the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) started as a one-off spectacle to see if a boxer could beat a wrestler or a karate-ka could beat a sumo. What evolved out of this was not expected. It became very clear from even early events that if a martial artist wanted to compete in an event with few rules and no constraints on how you can fight then they had to learn how to fight both on their feet (stand up) and on the floor (ground fight) and know how to transition between the two. Very quickly this evolved into the mixed martial arts movement.

While the UFC and mixed martial arts still has rules for the safety of fighters which make it a sport rather than a self-defence system, the broad rules allow fighters to fight almost, however, they want to, this has really exposed the whole martial community to what is actually effective and what works.

For example, Karate based fighters like former world champions Georges St Pierre and Lyoto Machida punch more like boxers at medium and close range, but at long range, their direct karate punches serve them very well. They chose to adapt their punching style to become more effective rather than stick exactly to how their original style performs them.

In this arena martial art styles who only do stand up or only do grappling are now exposed for simply not being complete. Even self-defence based styles have to acknowledge the fact that a lot of self-defence situations end up on the ground and may even start on the ground. 

Now throw into the mix the rise of combatives, which are self-defence systems – they are devoid of sport rules and have no art form side to them. Combatives are not sports nor are they about personal improvement they are about personal protection. The most famous of which is krav maga, which is a combative system developed by the Israeli military. Krav maga is famous for it’s whatever works philosophy, and was developed by adopting techniques from other martial arts. 10-20 years ago you would be hard pressed to find clubs like this, but these days this movement has become increasingly popular, because of mixed martial arts movement exposing most traditional arts as actually not that good at self-defence and Hollywood blockbusters like the Bourne films which showcased this gritty, no rules kind of fighting.

This movement has also influenced the world of karate too, sure there are many clubs who still blindly follow traditional doctrine, but many clubs out there are broadening their teaching. Definitely there is a lot more emphasis on the study of kata bunkai these days as karate-ka are looking to understand and claim back the wide range of techniques and strategies demonstrated in kata. There is also a growing movement of clubs choosing to call themselves karate-jutsu instead of karate-do. This term implies that they are focused on the practicality of karate rather than the form and philosophy.

There are also clubs, of which Gakusei is one, who take this a step further and openly adopt the mixed martial art movement by blatantly using techniques from other styles. This is not to say we have abandoned our traditional roots, not at all. We still do some traditional drills and kata; which teach principles of movement, help develop form and most importantly develop self-mastery. A lot of traditional training methods help break down specific skills which makes them a lot easier to learn, especially for kids. After all, this is one of the reasons why karate is still the most popular martial art on the planet. But we don’t subscribe to tradition methods for the sake of tradition or doing traditional drills when there are alternative modern drills that are more realistic or get better results. When it comes to self-defence and sparring we are not limited to a narrow range of techniques or a stylised way of fighting.

We don’t just borrow techniques from other styles but also modern training methods too, including the use of focus pads, kick shields, striking melons, training in scenario driven self-defence drills.