Under: karate
15 Mar 2015


Back in the mid-1970’s, my instructor, Dick Willett, urged me to go to open karate tournaments to supplement my fighting skill set. You see at open tourneys, they allowed full contact to the body and kiss contact to the head (in Brown and Black Belt levels). It was more realistic back then since groin shots were also open. That meant that a karateka could not stand in a open boxing stance that would be unrealistic in a real fight – but rather had to be aware that they were vulnerable to attacks low, mid-level and high.


I started sparring in the school in the white belt divisions (orange, purple, blue, and green) as a blue belt. The cool thing was there were no head shots – so one had to become good at body strikes (a valuable learning tool). I then went to tourneys in white, brown and eventually black belt levels. I was also bouncing at a local bar when I turned 21 (brown belt level for me). This was way before I learned boxing, kick boxing, or dabbled in BJJ – but I had wrestled in jr. high school.


So meandering to the premise of this article, I thought that the school sparring, and later tournament sparring put me in a good position for the many real fights I encountered working two years as a bouncer. At that time tournament point sparring (continuous sparring was only done at schools – not at open tournaments yet) put me in a perfect position to transition to a real fight for reasons that I will go into in this article, but alas I fear that karate tournaments of today, this is no longer the case.


I am not picking on any one organization but here are the rules for the World Karate Federation Tournaments.



And here is one match I found.




First off you will notice that the rules award more points for kicking than for punching and. Head kicks and sweep-grab-punches of a grounded opponents both are awarded three points. Also I noted that groin shots are out completely.


In the match I found – the guy in blue does more head kicks and pulled off a good sweep-grab punch so I assume that is why he won. I did not see a running tally so I don’t really know why he won as I saw the guy with the reg gloves throwing plenty of good punches.


But here is the thing – sparring and tournaments were originally created so fighters could test their skills in a controlled environment. Back in the 1970’s this was still kept as close a possible to a real fight. For instance you can knock out a guy with a punch or kick to the head. Awarding more points to the kicker means the attack that is less likely to work in the street – is the attack most fighters will train and thereby favor. You have just made fighters think punching is a weak technique. :(


Fighters only got one point for a controlled kick or punch. I don’t care if the guy could leap 20 feet into the air, do three twists and land on the other guys head with a controlled stomp kick… you could only get one point for a kick to the head. Why? I know the acrobatic kicker had to put more into his kick than the counter puncher – but you can knock out a guy with either move.


Did you notice any groin kicks? Sure they are almost painful to watch and no one wants to kick high if the other guy is going to kick the family jewels but I would argue it is good to fight realistically – even if fans don’t find it very exciting. So I have gotten to the elephant in the room. Karate rules did not change because it turn out better fighters but rather it was an appeasement of the promoters so they could draw a bigger crowd with exciting high kickers!


The tournaments of my day were not perfect. Bill Wallace makes good points in his 1988 Black Belt mag. articles (Article 1 & Article 2) about point sparring was not a good spectator sport and suggested some ways to “fix” that. But I would argue the spectators should not have a say in how to develop a good karate fighter by introducing fantasy bouts as anything close to realistic fighting! How do I really feel? I don’t see any benefit anymore to participating in karate tournaments unless they score one point for any controlled kick, punch or take down as well as point up groin shots.


One thing to consider although I don’t see the benefit anymore, is playing the Devil’s Advocate, it is really difficult to make something so ugly as fighting for your life – realistic. So one has to adopt rules that keep the spirit of fighting but safely allow young karataka to test their skills against other opponents.


So let me ask you – do you think karate tournaments a good tool to reinforce fighting skills anymore?

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4 Responses to “Are Karate Tournaments a Good Tool to Reinforce Fighting Skills Anymore?”

  1. Dr. J Says:

    Probably not for this type of fighting which seems more like fencing.

    I think our local open tournaments are more old school. The TKD ones are more like your example. We have a lot of people in this area who learned martial arts like you did, John, and the quality shows.

    I find that using an MMA like style with your personal strengths the best way. Just close the stance a little more to the side and use leg checks, movement, and hands (arms) to protect against leg and groin strikes. I terms of attacks, I like to grab my opponent when I can which I don’t think is done as much now because of the protective equipment, or lack of clothing. Neither situation is likely in a real fight.

  2. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Well stated Dr. J! I worry the modern fighters will not know how to close up there stance to avoid groin kicks and be easy prey.

    I was impressed that those fighters in the video did well based on their rules – I just did not like pretending it was fighting. :)

  3. SenseiMattKlein Says:

    Hi John. Had to admit I fast forwarded the vid as it was boring, just two guys dancing around. I think the open tournaments like the ones you see Raymond Daniels and those guys are much more action-filled than the one shown. Daniels proved that the footwork, timing, distance, etc. were transferable to full contact matches as he also excelled in the world combat league. Also, Lyoto Machida and Chuck Liddell showed what a good karate practitioner could do in the cage. But like you say John, groin kicks are not allowed nowadays and even full contact shots to the midsection get called for excessive contact. Back in our day we could get punched hard enough in the face to cause a black eye, but the contact has been watered down. Nevertheless, the footwork and timing is very valuable for self defence, and competition helps you overcome nerves and perform under pressure. Great post John!

  4. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hey Matt!

    Thanks for weighing in. The thing I loved about tournaments were the unknown factor. I mean you could train like crazy but if you were a nervous person – you had to learn to come to terms with that to excel.

    So very true one can gain some benefit from today’s tourneys. While I would not got that route if a was a young man – it is no different than boxing – winning some fights but leaving out the kicks I guess. :)

    I remember when Chuck Norris tried to come up with a competition that was advertised as a no-holds barred – full contact – no retreating type of even… basically a slug fest… that did not really catch on but it did have some fun stuff to watch… just without strategy – nothing you could point to that said if you want this – you could with a street fight (other than most street fighters cannot fight their way out of a paper bag). :)

    I know tournaments are a important part of youth confidence and development Matt… I think it is working good for you.

    So all that being said – I still miss the good old days… where you could train in the school and fight the same way out on the street with little to no adjustment! :)