Under: martial arts
25 Oct 2009


One issue more than any other separate the various martial arts training. How much contact does your martial art (read karate, boxing, MMA, Muay Thai) train with and compete? Some might view this as a measure of machismo! I mean if you spar all the time with non-contact and then get into a real fight – how prepared will you be?


I am going to review three types of commonly used contact rules and some of the types of competitions you will find these contests. Before we start I would like to make my frame of reference clear. I have come from a semi-traditional point of view in my training. I have taken some Goju Ru and Chito Ru karate as a kid in Jr. high school and then some Lima Lama karate in high school but settled on Tracy’s karate teaching Kenpo karate in high school.


The style of kenpo I studied came from Japan (the Yoshida clan) through, James Mitose, William Chow, Ed Parker, Al Tracy/Ray Klingenburg,  and Richard Willett my instructor. I was taught some formalities as well as kata, self-defense techniques, and basics as part of my curriculum. To get us into the mood for this discussion, I found this video of the Village People with their hit, Macho Man.



How about you? Are you “macho” to the point of no pain, no gain? I mean do you feel silly if you get a point but did not smack anyone around? :)

The reason I keep asking these questions is perception is everything here. A little more about my background is I enjoyed semi-contact point karate in my day and got into plenty of self-defense fights as a bouncer and keeping bikers in line at my karate school (was two doors down from a biker bar). Now that I have hopefully piqued your interest… here goes.

Non-contact sparring would mostly be practiced in some formal styles of karate and in shadow boxing. The formal styles of karate that practice non-contact sparring sometimes do allow their upper-belts to use more contact but the idea is the kicks and punches are so dangerous that it is better to practice your power on a punching bag/board or break boards and bricks and use a lot of control in actual sparring.

What do you think of this approach? Is the idea that karate in inherently dangerous and not to be taken lightly really such a good idea while learning how to fight? Watch this video of some non-contact matches.


The thing I did not like here was the contestants obviously knew they were not going to get hurt so they edged right up to their opponent. In a semi or full contact match, some ribs would have been broken.

The thing I liked is the opponents were using some good form while trying to stay somewhat covered and delivering some good punches and kicks. Another thing I really liked is no one got hurt. Now some of you might be thinking how can someone learn to fight without feeling what it is like to actually hit someone or get hit back?

One way to look at this might be one already has to practice hitting the bag and spar without any contact… the only difference in a self-defense situation would be to actually hit someone. If you can break a board – you can break a jaw so whats the big deal?

Taking a punch is a little harder to simulate because if you get the fight punched out of  you taking your first punch… you would not be prepared for that. I don’t have an answer for that… anyone have a good answer?

Now for the contact rules I learned initially, semi-contact or kiss-contact to the head (full contact to the body). In the lower belt divisions in kenpo I learned how to fight with full contact body shots. Sweeps, groin and body shots were open except for the kidneys and spine. No head shots either.

I definitely learned how to give and take body shots while not worrying about head shots. I soon became a body shot specialist even after getting my black belt. The cool thing with kiss contact, you can learn how to fight without getting your block knocked off so later in black belt division, head shots are just extra gravy! Here is a video I posted of me fighting Neil from Bob Whites school during a team fight. I think I may have lost on points in this match but you can see how a semi-contact match goes.

It is kind of hard to bridge the gap and convince two out of three judges that your strike was first and decisive. The poor judges in point karate matches have a tough job… kind of like some baseball umpires as of late but to be a good point fighter, one has to consider everything and decisively get your points!

The cool think about semi-contact fighting is it is real fighting (full contact) to the body! This means if the guy does not cover or step away from the power of your shot – he is going down. Often times a fighter will step inside or away and clash with his own moves. In those instances the judges will not call a point.

The bad thing about point fighting is all of the rules. You can kick the groin but not the knee cap! In a street fight where you are fighting for your life (the only good reason to be in a street fight), you kind of get used to fighting that way and might not transition to “real” rules if it came to a street fight!

It is true point or sport karate has less rules than boxing, kick boxing or MMA but a sport karate guy could no more transition (without a  lot of training) to a street fight than he could a boxing, kick boxing or MMA match. The rules are too different. I always ended up using a variation of my sport karate in the street. It worked fine because I did not fight any true fighters but rather just a bunch of guys that were full of themselves. I even got away with kicks to the face in street fights (that should not be able to happen if a figher knows how how to do a groin or leg kick).

What about full contact karate, boxing, MMA, Muay Thai, or other full contact contests? Are these the ideal? I mean if one is worried about not knowing how to take a shot, why not just practice with full contact to the head too?

While to be fair, most full contact type of sports practice at 50% to 80% intensity so one does not run out of sparring partners but yes, it is possible to get knocked out in a practice session in one of these matches. Boxing compititions for years have practiced the puglistics methods to a fine art. Other contests employing full contact to the head are coming into their own now too.

What do you think of the concept of no pain – no gain? When I was in jr. high school I remember practicing with a kid on my block that subscribed to practicing full contact. He wanted me to hit him (and of course he wanted to hit me) full-contact! I was the only “macho” karate kid on the block that would go toe to toe with him because his logic kind of made sense to me.

We worked out for a couple of months and would come out of the the practices in his garage bruised up some each time. I remember he broke my ribs at one point and I re-arranged his face some. We finally stopped doing that because I did not see the point to practice if I was going to get as banged up as much as getting into to real fight? What I wanted to learn was how to fight before I went toe to toe with an attacker (only in self-defense)!

Here are some old PKA full contact karate snippets from the 70’s I think. PKA karate was basically karate kicks with boxing hands.

Wow that brings back some memories. I did not ever compete in PKA karate but at one time – that was one of my goals… well life got in the way and six months into my training I changed gears. But what do you think of the full contact strikes to the head in any of the striking matches? Boxing, Kick boxing, Muay Thai, and MMA all allow knockouts in their matches.

Before I talk about my preference in martial arts contact rules, I want to highlight an issue 60 minutes reported on recently and consider it while you figure out what rules you want to train under. Watch this video.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Wow, I remember reading about this on Nathans blog – TDA Training, a post entitled, “Brain Injuries in MMA and Boxing” where he opined that the head gear did not prevent the brain from injury and head gear obstructs vision. I commented about some links I found that repeated hard head shots seem to lead to dementia later in life. In boxers this is called Dementia Pugilistica  (DP) but nowadays this seems to go by the name Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

Well this 60 minutes piece has reinforced my view full contact shots to the head is not good in the long run. Are there acceptable contact rules that allow one to train hard but still target the head as an acceptable shot? Yes – semi contact rules seem to mostly fit the bill.

Before I launch into my opinion I want to say that if your goal is to compete in full contact boxing, kick boxing, Muay Thai or MMA fights – you will have to train the way you plan on fighting. There is no was around it. No game of touch football translates well in the NFL. Having said that, what if your goal (like me) is to excel at self-defense?

For my situation, practicing full contact karate or MMA would be crazy! I am 52 years old and have fought my battles in life. I have done semi and full contact karate and I have defended myself in countless street fights. There is nothing about practicing full contact to the head that would better prepare me for the limited (hopefully) battles I will face to the end of my life.

Having said that my preference is to do semi-contact karate sparring or bag work a little harder. I still approve of full contact to the body because it is relatively simple to teach someone how to protect their body. If they mess up they deserve to get the wind knocked out of them.

I am not one of these guys that think the only way I will learn something is to pay dearly (in recovery time for my injury) but rather smacking my nose and making my eyes water will let me know I messed the move up. :)

I also do not go for non-contact sparring but do practice shadow boxing to get the mechanics of a move down. While I see the logic of practicing moves with good control, I think it can tend to lead practitioners to a false sense of security that would not exist in real life. I mean if you just threw kicks and punches from the inside – you are totally open for anything and you would not have time to even cover! Perhaps one could have some good sparring partners that would point this out and practice bridging the gap but this is what I see as the obvious shortcomings of non-contact sparring.

Do you need full contact to learn self defense? NO. It does not take much to break a knee cap, kick the groin and follow up with a half-fist to the throat!

The other thing I would be remiss if I did not mention this (but I alluded to this earlier) is machismo. Young guys have an over load of testosterone to deal with and one good outlet is learning how to fight in a controlled environment.

Well some guys will practice what my mom used to call one upmanship! Meaning they will start out fighting with the agreed rules but then start upping the ante! I used to have a rule that it did not matter what rules we agreed on but rather what they did! So if a sparring partner agreed on kiss contact to the head and then tried to take my head off… I started trying to take his head off!!!

The point I am trying to make is you do not have any obligation to spar with anyone that does not go by the rules. I’ve never been hurt as much as I have been by sparring partners that were going by semi-contact rules that all of a sudden would end up taking my head out. I have been knocked out in semi-contact as well as have my jaw broken.

So keep your good sparring partners and blow off the rest. Your own best interest should be your primary concern… not being a macho man!

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8 Responses to “Martial Arts Contact Rules; Are you a Macho Man?”

  1. TheMartialArtsReporter Says:

    Contact or no contact? That’s the question.
    Years ago, I trained in Shotokan Karate.
    Contact to midsection, absolutely. KO’s to
    solar plexus, sure. Of course no contact to
    the head. To mix it up and to get a “feel”
    for contact, we would slip on the Safe-T
    Years later, Muay Thai training, now that’s
    a totally different ball game if you know what
    I mean. (very much ouch at times).
    And I agree, after how many blows to the head
    does it start getting healthy?
    We’re pretty on the same page (again).
    Thanks for sharing your insights.

  2. mike ferruggia Says:

    Nice in depth article. When I was first learning tai chi push hands, I teamed up with a guy who wanted me to let him keep getting the upper hand on me, but he didn’t explain this. He lost his temper, and turned a soft cooperative exercise into slapping my hands down and giving me a very hard push/strike to the chest, whipping my neck. Very unfair. I walked away, and never worked with him again. In tai chi, full sparring is rare. The most people get to is push hands. While push hands does take you to another level of efficiency, it’s still not enough. You need to spar, try things out, see if they really work. I think this can be done with light contact, and in snippets, especially since a lot of tai chi is in close and resembles grappling. But, while we all mentally train to strike the throat, behind the ear, the temples, the eyes, we don’t do that, obviously. Will we be ready to gouge out someone’s eyes in a real fight? I don’t know. We try to repeat certain movements so that we won’t think, just do. But how many of us will “pull” a strike in a real situation like we do in sparring? One video I saw years ago suggested hanging pieces of paper and mentally saying, “go,” and then jabbing the paper with a hand or finger strike. If you do this enough times, penetrate the paper, you just might penetrate your opponent in a real fight.
    Finally, I will say, my lack of experience is a serious obstacle–I haven’t been in a real fight since being 4 or 5 years old! There’s no substitute for experience–when I was playing music, I learned by leaps and bounds by playing in front of a live audience–it was the real deal. I venture to say the same is true in fighting. I’ll add, I kinda hope I never have to get this kind of experience!


  3. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi The Martial Arts Reporter, Yep there is nothing like starting out in sparring with only body shots. It gives you the confidence to learn that well before adding in the head shots.

    Hi Mike Ferruggia, working with partners can be tough but it is good to work through the issues in the dojo. I see the benifit of alternate ways of validating one had the power or speed to make a technique work. I know for me after getting my green belt, I found out the stuff I learned really worked.

    The interesting thing I see reading the blogs is many martial artists are questioning their ability (since many have not had to defend themselves). Not sure how to overcome that other than taking up some type of contact sparring…

  4. Neal Martin Says:

    It’s as you say, John, your own best interest should be your primary concern. I spar all the time and I like to go a little hard occassionally because I think it helps to be abl to take a hit (and also give it). It’s practice though, so I don’t see the point of injuring someone. There is no need for that and if you do it’s usually because your ego got in the way (i.e. you were showing off).

    In terms of self defense, I have found real fighting to be much different from sparring in the dojo. I have used the odd move from sparring in the past but usually you don’t get a chance to react like that because real fights are so fast and furious. I also don’t think sparring really prepares you very well for real fighting. The two are just so different. You closest you will get to such practice is something like Animal Day, were you just go all out, no holds barred, but that’s more about creating pressure and seeing how you react under it.

    Dojo sparring is mainly about technique and I think the contact should be light to moderate. If you are fully geared up then you can go that bit harder. I just don’t see the point in needless injury through heavy contact. Anyone I’ve sparred who has hit hard have been arrogant assholes out to prove something. Good post and I enjoyed watching your fight. Good technique on display. Not my style of fighting though, never been keen on semi-contact. I prefer continuous fighting. I have a recent video of myself fighting but I don’t know whether to post it or not because I got disqualified for using a knee strike. It was pretty dirty, I have to admit. I might post it anyway.

  5. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Neil, I think it is a matter of perspective. The reason real fights equated to regular sparring or point matches for me was I am an outside fighter (unless I am on the blitz).

    All I do is watch my distance and attack at (hopefully) an opportune minute. The pace is different as you say in a real fight but that does not change my strategy – just speeds it up a bit. I’ve ended most of my fights with a well timed counter punch.

    Continuous sparring was not around in my time but it was how one sparred in the school. The only time we practiced point fighting was right before a tournament. Perhaps you can clarify a question I have about continuous fighting.

    The matches I’ve seen on youtube – the judges stopped the action to score points. If that is the case – how is it different than point fighting? I would have though the action would not stop and the judges would just score points like a full contact match or boxing (10 point must).

    Anyway in the school one has to fight their way out of a situation much like one would have to on the street (but not at the same pace).

    For me posting the video was kind of like looking at a time warp… I’m 52 and that was when I was in my late teens to early 20’s.

    I used to want the win or I also had not problem with disqualification if I lost. Not sure about the knee strike but one of my favorite “tricks” was to miss with my side kick to the body and “accidentally” hit the thigh! I would usually employ that if nothing else was working for me that day. I reasoned if the guy could not lift his leg – I’d have a chance. :)

  6. Neal Martin Says:

    Continuous fighting is different in that the fight isn’t stopped every time a point is scored. The judges have counters in hand and just clock up the points as they go along. It’s basically like full contact, only you also have light contact, which is virtually no contact but it never works out that way. You always end up going hard anyway, though not as all out as full contact. Sound confusing? It usually is. The rules in these things change all the time.

  7. pat Says:

    I have fought hard and soft. You do have to play both ways to get a feel of reality.
    The problem comes when you start smacking so hard that you teach someone not to come in on you. Hit them and they will learn.

    Will they learn to hit back better?

    Sometimes and sometimes they become more passive. So, we create a problem by hitting too hard or too soft,students don’t learn the real feel of contact. Tough choices.
    .-= pat´s last blog ..Karate Belt Display updated Sun Mar 7 2010 6:29 pm CST =-.

  8. Joe Mack Says:

    Sparring is a good practice technique. I just don’t think that will help in a real scenario. Sparring is planned a real attack is not. Check out http://selfdefensefacts.com great way to learn self defense
    Joe Mack recently posted..Rich Franklin Knocks Liddell Out – UFC 115 ResultsMy Profile