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Karate and Street Fighting

What is the connection between Karate and street fighting? This may sound like a strange question, but it is not.

I have heard it said that Karate was the systematization of Okinawan street fighting. While I agree that Karate was influenced by street fighting in Okinawa, we must not forget that Karate is a defensive art. Karate is not a fighting system -- it is a not fighting system. Karate teaches how to defend oneself, which is quite different from fighting.

But, I have often heard that zealous Karate students would test out their "self defense" techniques on the rough streets of Naha, a seaport. The same thing also happened in Honolulu, another seaport. Seaports tend to have two things: foreigners and alcohol. This presents many "opportunities" for testing martial skills. I have even heard that Karate students would walk in seedy areas of Honolulu with money showing in their shirt pockets, just to attract conflict. While I would never condone this, it does seem to have happened.

After a fight, a student would compare notes with his friends. What worked well? What did not?

Martial arts all have this in common -- that the art was tested on the battlefield, or in the bars, somewhere. A martial art was not merely theoretical. We must admit, that at least in the old days, the great Karate figures were also great "fighters". I use the word "figures" because not all great fighters would necessarily be teachers. As time went on, I think that it was possible for a martial artist to become a great teacher even if he was a poor fighter.

My point is this -- Karate is a reflection and a response to street fighting. Whether in Naha, Tokyo, Honolulu, Chicago, or London, Karate has no self defense value unless it can be used against the type of street fighting present in the student's area.

The last time I looked, street fighters do not punch and kick like Karate students. They follow a simple rule: no rules (and try not to get caught). Have you watched full contact matches either live or on television, cable, DVDs, etc.? While these events are still controlled by certain rules, they probably come closer to how people fight on the streets.

Almost every "real" fight I have seen goes like this -- punch, punch, roll around on the ground. The punches are usually wild and the groundwork is untrained. Often, the first punch is a "false crack" (a punch to the back or side of the head without warning).

This has very little similarity to "kumite." On the street, people punch like bad boxers, use weapons, and fight dirty. And they gang up. As soon as a defender goes to the ground, the attacker's friends might start kicking him in the head and body. Fighting codes vary by time and location. When my father was a teenager growing up in Florida, the fight stopped when someone fell to the ground. It was against the "code" to kick and punch someone on the ground. Today, that code seems to be ignored. As a result, we have to know how to defend against such actions.

We have to know how to defend against the unexpected (but predictable) acts that could be used against us on the street. We have to be aware of street fighting to be able to defend against it.

Is Karate a fighting art? No. Does a Karate student have to understand fighting? Yes.


Charles C. Goodin