Under: karate
19 Feb 2011

You have entered into a local martial arts contest, one that advertises it is an “Open” tournament and you are trying to discern the rules. As a former salty old dog that has fought a few tourneys in the 70’s and early 80’s, you are shocked to discover that the rules have really changed!

In the early days of tournaments, Open tourneys meant that as well as being open to all styles – the rules were the same for hands and feet. One could do a jump-spinning-hook-kick to the head or reverse-punch the body for one point. Groin kicks as well as leg sweeps were legal (the three second rule to score on a downed opponents was in place).

Well this is NOT the old days anymore. The Closed tournaments still have inflated point values for kicks to the head and body but now even the open tournaments award more points for kicks!

In this article I am going to talk about the logic of a point system and what it is supposed to say about a fighter. Yes I will talk about sport karate in general and why this trend of flashier karate fighting may have happened. I will as usual give my opinion of where this went wrong (assuming you agree with me). I welcome the opportunity to hear you opinions in this regard. Here is a video about one organization’s rules.




Did you notice how many kicks were attempted to the head? Back when I used to fight tournaments, kicks to the head happened sometimes but not that common in open tournaments because one did not get any more points for throwing them. Also with groin shots wide open – one did not dare to just throw a high kick without a distraction or such (any good competitor would gladly smack your family jewels as the offending front leg went up!).


I pulled a few samples of karate rules from a couple of open tournaments and one closed tourney for your perusal.


The interesting thing to me is on both the open and closed tourneys – the emphasis is on getting the contestants to throw the flashy high kicks and do some jumping and spinning kicks to boot!




The other interesting thing is there are no groin kicks! :(


The only real difference I see between the closed and open tourneys other than a few more points for kicks – is one cannot even punch to the head in the Taekwondo tourney I listed (however you can in the youtube video I found – huh, must be different organizations).


Ok before we go any further – why do I care if the rules changed? My understanding of sport karate is sparring helps the students get some “real” fighting experience under their belt. Meaning after one fights their peers in the school – he or she is better prepared to use karate in a self defense scenario!


So there was no emphasis on kicks over punches or not kicking the groin. Back in the late 70’s specially developed “banana cups” were developed that protected one far better than the old baseball (front protecting only) cups. That technology has improved and the after sparring a few times recently I’ve got nailed with some hard shots without incident.


Back when I was sparring in the studio and later in open karate tourneys, I was learning how to fight! When as a green or brown belt I started to work as a bouncer – what I did in the school worked very well in real fights!


What if the rules favored high kicks without groin shots? My guess is I would have been a paper tiger. I mean where is the common sense of standing inside of ones critical distance (the distance one cannot reach you with a kick or punch) and trying to throw a high kick? That’s not fighting – if you come up against someone how knows how to fight – that is suicide!!!


Now I know some of you are screaming at your screen – sport karate does NOT approximate a real fight! True because you cannot allow eye gouges, spine, or throat strikes, but my point is that in a real fight, the groin is a great target that would be used in a real fight! No more Marcus of Queensbury rules are in effect on the street. You are in a better position by asking yourself what would matter in a real fight and then setting up your practice  as realistic as possible.


To this end (adding realism), MMA is flourishing! I think that is mostly a good trend because short of having some wrestling experience, most fighters did not know what to do when the fight went to the ground. My main critique of MMA is there are no groin shots. I don’t really want to cap on the unrealistic tendencies of various competitions but rather on how sport karate has missed the mark by awarding more points for kicks than hands.


I think the open tournament rules changed to make the fighting more flashy. While I don’t like the change I think it was thought that the great fighters like Steve “Nasty” Anderson who had great counter/lunge punches were somehow making other competitors kick less – leading to less exciting matches? I think that maybe there was some jealously there but the rules change did not break Steve’s 10 year winning streak!


Here is the thing – you fight the way you train. If how you train does not work in a real fight – what good it it. Now I am not saying the fighters in the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s were any better than the fighters today. Who knows about that but what I am saying is the rules were better. If you won a point fighting match you knew reasonably well that you could hang in a real self defense situation!  


Let me ask you a question, are you any more knocked out by a foot than a hand? I remember telling a police board in my youth (while applying for a job as a policeman) when asked about what I knocked people out with – I replied either a hand or foot. It depended on what the guys was open for. I had no preference.


You see in my capacity as a bouncer at a rough bar – I did get into a lot of fights. I finished my fights with either hand or foot. I just used whatever opening that presented itself and was done with it.


So let me ask you, Do you think sport karate ought to approximate real fighting like I do?


If so, do you favor hand and feet being scored equally? Do you favor groin shots?


If not, do you think sport karate CAN approximate a real fighting experience? Or why not?


I’ll close with this video I found of Steve “Nasty” Anderson match in South Africa. Steve has the starts and stripes gi on.


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11 Responses to “Karate Tournament Rules; How Many Points for a Kick?!”

  1. Nathan Says:

    As one cranky old-timer to another, I think I agree with everything you’ve written! My thoughts:
    1) Points given (and scored) show the values of the tourney promoter, governing body, or officials involved, not what actually works. I read something years ago in Black Belt that mentioned barely tapping someone who was already going backwards, resulting in a knock-down. It wasn’t scored that way, ostensibly because the shot wasn’t hard – but it was hard enough, right? A fall is a fall.

    2) MMA has been corrupted in the same way – there are (or were) knockout bonuses, because they were easier to understand, and “more exciting” to the general public who didn’t understand the ground game, and could not always see or understand what caused a submission.

    3) Tournament promoters are there to make money – as are the sanctioning bodies – they will do whatever works for them to bring in the most entries and spectators. They could care less about practical technique.

    4) Tournament promoters also don’t want to get sued, and could if their perceived rules allow “dangerous” techniques like groin kicks and other effective techniques.

    5) The quality of judging, in my opinion, was becoming horrible even in our heyday (I stopped taking students to tournaments in the early 90s, and rarely competed in those types of tournaments, preferring to box and fight muay Thai) because of politics. There was so much favoritism and shaky standards for scoring fighting that fighters adapted by using showy or flashing techniques that are harder to dispute. In other words, make it so obvious, raise your hand after scoring, walk away confidently, etc.

    6) The chain studios that catered primarily to kids (some may call them McDojos), lead to a watering down of techniques that work (groin kicking, etc.), with an emphasis on safe sport techniques – less suits there, too.

    7) Agree that MMA is a good thing – it’s a sport adaptation to the mixing of styles and practical application that was trending anyway, along with the decline of boxing in esteem and viewership among the general public.

    8) Some of the techniques that really worked during the Nasty Anderson era were also junk in a real fight – jumping backfists, fadeaway anything.

    OK – I’d better end here, or post about it!

    Thanks for another though-provoking post!
    Nathan recently posted..Solo training–key to progressMy Profile

  2. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hey Nathan!

    There is no substitute school sparring. At our school we had to spar points for a few weeks before any tourney to avoid disqualification. You make a number of good points about how things have changed. Back when I was a brown belt, I really felt like I earned any trophies but as you say the flashier techniques have taken over.

    Back in the day that one point was awarded for one strike (demonstrating good power and focus), I think any good point fighter could really fight. I was suspicious of kata champions because many of them did not fight.

    There were some flaky strikes like the back-knuckle and ridge-hands (that could be thrown as a jab or hook) that had no power. Many of the top fighters got good at the game as Nasty had to do in the mid-eighty’s to stay competitive.

    I did not realize the MMA knockout bonuses were shaping the contests – thanks for pointing that out. Perhaps we need some professional boxing like organizations with world-wide membership so some of the promoters cannot water down the sport.

    I have always hated to see an evenly matched fight where others in the room were mad because “nothing was happening!”

    Thanks for adding your wisdom Nathan. :)

  3. Matt Klein Says:

    Yes John, the rules have changed. I believe the driving influence as you and Nathan refer to, is money. Promoters want to fill the seats, so giving two points for a body kick and now three points for a head kick (last I heard in the US) means a lot of flashy kicks. And like you say, John, groin kicks effectively neutralize high kicks. Darn, I used to love that scoop kick. Does it fill the seats? I don’t know.

    In continuous sparring (ISKA rules), which is basically full contact, you are allowed to kick to the head with full power, but are not allowed to even touch the face lightly with a punch! Why? Because punches are too accurate and more knockouts would be likely. As you can guess, these rules favor Tae Kwon Do stylists as this is how they fight. We have had to adjust by borrowing a lot of their kicks and training our people to go to the head.

    Is all this practical for the street? Most definitely not. Groin kicks and face punches are likely scenarios you will face there. Still think point fighting and continuous are valuable because you learn timing, distance, and technique against a resisting opponent.
    Matt Klein recently posted..Martial Arts Training- How Much Do You RememberMy Profile

  4. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hey Matt!

    Thanks for the insight. I am on the outside (through a time portal) looking in here.

    I guess no matter what you do – getting more realistic is boring for the spectators. Too bad though because while I did use some head kicks in real fights – I knew there was a trade off (especially if anyone knew how to scoop kick!).

    I’ve watched some of the Olympic matches and noticed how they were hip to hip – trying to throw a spinning hook kick to the head. As soon as I looked up the rules – I saw why that happened.

    From an old-timers view like me – why not just give them waffle bats and go at it. Ok – maybe a bit of a stretch. :)

    Do you think there is a reasonable solution or just the nature of the beast nowadays?

    So have you guys bought TKD gis and are training for the Olympics? :)

    Thanks for your insights Matt!

  5. Matt Klein Says:

    John, I hate to say it, but the reasonable solution for most people is MMA. People are becoming hardened and jaded to the violence and blood, they expect and want to see it. They want a resolution to the battle, like a knockout or a submission, not a referees subjective judgement on who would have won the fight, if it was an actual fight. Why else would MMA so popular? I don’t honestly think tournaments can compete with it. The best athletes will go where the money is, and it is definitely not in tournaments.

    I will not make many friends with this statement, but I believe Olympic TKD should be open to all styles. If you allow all styles in, you will get guys like Raymond Daniels and Nasty Anderson(back in his day) that will make it much better. The top talent is not always in TKD, especially when it is only a small part of TKD. Think they should change the rules to make it more like NASKA or ISKA circuit. I really wish my guys and girls could compete in the Olympics.
    Matt Klein recently posted..Martial Arts Training- How Much Do You RememberMy Profile

  6. Dr. J Says:

    From what I’ve seen of karate tourney fighting I completely agree with you, John!

    When we fought in the studio, we were careful not to hurt each other, certainly where it would be seen by prospective new students, but between the instructors, it was still serious fighting that would translate to the street.

    I’ve seen those tournament matches where the face was off limit and they just would keep punching each other in the chest. What’s up with that?
    I think all scores should be one point, and light contact to the groin is OK. One of my few criticisms of MMA is no groin kicks. Because of this the fighters do not defend the groin and are often kicked there. If I was facing an MMA fighter, fake high and attack groin would be a primary plan for me.

  7. Nathan Says:

    Great discussion!
    I think Matt is right on, as to the attraction to MMA, not just from a competitor’s standpoint, but spectators – it’s more realistic.
    As a former TKD instructor, I HATE watching Olympic TKD for the reasons to which you guys allude (felt like saying youz guyz, but resisted): it’s ridiculous to see to competitors standing a foot in front of one another and not punching! Hate it! Did I make it clear that I hate it?
    Now, our MMA fans feel the same way about boxing- What? Take him down! Why clinch without knees?
    Those of us who embraced muay Thai in the early 80s and then the eclectic movement (JKD) should be pleased, as we’ve got something now which embraces all ranges and most techniques (MMA).

    If you care about the “purity” of your art, you might be upset, but if you like to see effective answers to problems in unarmed combat, you may rejoice.

    And Matt, I haven’t seen or competed in an open tournament for many years, and had no idea about 3 points. Why not 10? LOL.
    Nathan recently posted..Competitive Distortion in Martial Arts CompetitionMy Profile

  8. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Dr. J – we are of like minds.

  9. Ted Says:

    I always found continuous sparring a lot more entertaining and worth while. Point sparring always seemed like a game of tag….
    Ted recently posted..Which Is The Best Type Of Martial ArtsMy Profile

  10. Self-defence for women Says:

    Hey really nice blog!
    I think it is ok that you cannot punch to the head and the points are the same, no matter what you are doing.
    Self-defence for women recently posted..First-date safety tips what every women should know!My Profile

  11. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Ted, I agree with the tag comparison. The cool think that point karate does teach you is how to be first. In most real fights you probably will not face a seasoned MMA or Boxer fighter that can take your best shot. So what I’m saying is if you are first – you have probably won the fight.

    Having said that one also has to train without stopping because in a real fight the other guy/gal will not stop after you score.

    Hello Self-defense for women. Thanks for commenting! I do thing a punch is a punch and should be worth the same as a kick… who cares what knocks you out? :)