Sidekick Strategy; Is it still Relevant?

Posted by: John W. Zimmer
Under: karate, kick boxing, MMA
25 Jul 2011

I remember one Sunday evening while I was a new bouncer at the bar. Eight guys powered past me before I could card them and ordered some beers. The obviously had already consumed a fair amount of beers. I was a bit nervous as there was the old bartender, a few dancers and everyone was depending on me to keep the peace.  

I calmly walked up to them and asked them to meet me outside. The six big guys followed me outside and I told them they were out for the night since they had not followed the rules. They were having none of that and they attacked me! More on this later but what could I do against six big guys?  I mean I was 155 pounds to their 200 and over?!!!

In this post I will address somewhat of a lost art – the much maligned sidekick! What? Yes once a staple of karate is not considered somewhat of a risk to use in a fight for some reason. Back in my day the sidekick was a great equalizer. I mean most people were inept at kicking and did not really understand how a little guy me could quickly gain the upper hand without a punch!

Here is a quick video showing some of the mechanics of the sidekick.

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This short video shows a good example of a basic front leg sidekick. Back in the 70’s this was staple of point and full contact sparring because of the speed and power of this kick. One could safely stay out of punching range and deliver a kick somewhat like a jab into your opponent’s side! What’s more the shuffle side kick could be more powerful than your best punch!

I have seen the sidekick break the defender’s arm in tournments even though it did not hit a “vital’ area (no point was awarded). Ideally if targeting the ribs – you can break the ribs or arms if the kick lands squarley. I have also seen plenty of guys kncked down with the front leg shuffel sidekick!

There are a bunch of ways to throw sidekicks. Offensively and defensively (moving forward, in place or moving back, jumping and/or spinning), with the front or back leg, with our without initial movement and using the side edge of the foot or just the heel.

Just doing a quick count I come up with   24 combinations and their are probably more if one includes snapping or thrusting. The point is there are a lot of ways to skin this cat (throw this kick).

What I tend to do is used initial movement along with critical distance and timing to set up this kick. I was sparring recently and found many of the newer guys that do not use this kick much anymore – do not know how to defend against it well. I was able to keep them honest (out of striking range) because they did not want their arm or ribs bruised anymore! I was taking it easy on them.

How do I use the sidekick? I generally throw my front leg defensively with a hop back (if they are coming in fast) or with initial movement offensively. I don’t do much with spinning kick or back leg. I like to move around a bit and take advantage of any positional mistakes (switching footing within my range) or if I am fighting a blocker, mistakes cuased my a shoulder, hip or body fake. Whatever mistakes I can provoke on my opponent I like to take advantage of them with a good slip-sidekick.

The target depends on if it is for keeps or not. I mean if I am just sparring with someone – I’ll push the kicks up to the ribs (or arms) and keep the power down a bit (so I can spar for a while). But if the guy has good initial movement (can blow by my distance) – I increase the power to the ribs and if I have to – aim down to the hips to knock him back. I understand the hips are not really a legal move but I can generally get away with it and it changes they way my opponent attacks once he understands the price.

Sparring in the school I generally tend to use the side-edge of the foot too because this is the softer of the kicks. If you kick a guy with the side edge of your foot – the force is spread over four or five square inches. On the street or a tournament or for keeps – no such niceness from me. I use the heel! One square inch of directed force increases whatever power I am able to generate with my slip-sidekick. It is often enough to stop an attack from all but a seasoned fighter. The opponent will often start shying away after feeling a couple of these kicks if he has not already retreated.

So there you have it – a basic kick that generates more than enough speed, power and damage to end many fights. Why then is this kick not used much today?

I think it is because fighting has changed a bit since UFC 1 and Jiu-Jitsu. Since UFC 1 and the Gracies showed the world the grappling was a force to be reckoned with fighters have had to consider how to counter the ground game. At first not many fighters knew how to do this and Muay Thai kick boxing started to be dominant in MMA – quick karate style kicks lost of favor. MMA fighters tended to not throw snap, side and rear kicks that Jiu-Jitsu practitioners could easily use against them.

I think there is still a lot of that mentality today even though the ground game is easily countered if the fighters understand grappling. The telegraphed Muay Thai power kicks are easily subverted if one understands distance, timing and initial movement too but again I think many fighters today favor power and grappling and sidekicks has become somewhat of a lost art. :(

Here is what I think. Side, front snap and rear kicks are all more powerful than hand strikes but take some skill and knowledge of fighting strategy to pull them off. If a fighter is willing to take his or her fight game to the next level – he or she can learn some old fashion fighting skills to use in their bag of tricks. I know for me in late middle age – the power moves are out. I depend on relaxed speed, torque, distance, timing and initial movement to have the same effect as brawlers who favor the power moves. I like to say I can stand toe to toe with anyone to 3 minutes. This is ok for me as most fights on the street with one opponent should not last more than 15 seconds.

The recent rash of UFC snap kicks and Cung Le using spinning rear and side kicks should demonstraite that yes – even the sidekick can still be relevent in today’s martial arts. :)

To finish my mass attack experience, I have to half flip and twist out of the attack and lost my shirt (literally). I then challenged them to fight like a man, one at a time. I knocked three of them out in a row with a defensive reverse punch and then it was a running battle. I attacked whenever I had one of them in my sights. I used lunge punches, side kicks, wheel kicks an at the end I let the last three of them surround me – I was side kicking them whenever then encroached on my distance. You see they were scared of me by that point but where half heatedly making an attempt to find my weakness.

The cops rolled up and it was kind of funny to see 6 guys saying I attacked them. They wanted to know what I knew. I did not say a thing but later when the cops asked. I told them I was a brown belt in kenpo karate. Those cops signed up at the studio.

So remember the lowly sidekick is a force to be reckoned with  – even if it falls out of style with some that do not know how to use it effectively!

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18 Responses to “Sidekick Strategy; Is it still Relevant?”

  1. Zara Says:

    While I obviously have far less experience than you John (both in sparring and actual fighting) I’m just going to throw in my two cents, for what it’s worth: I do understand the reservations against this type of kick and I mostly agree on them, however I’m of the opinion it has its uses too (like all techniques). Common reservations are that usually it’s fairly easy to see it coming, the second reservation is that it leaves your side and back open to strikes. This ensures it’s not very suitable to most people who aren’t experts in fighting and sparring (too much risk and no real advantage over other types of kicks), I’m sure experienced guys such as yourself can make it work in sparring and fighting (everything depends on the set-up), I’d only use it sparingly and in certain circumstances. To me the chief uses of the sidekick is to either break the knee or to fend off an attacker coming from the side (much faster than turning to face him). In JKD it’s also used as a stopping technique (jik tek if I’m not mistaken): basically you plant your foot (without raising the knee) right below his kneecap (while leaning back to avoid the second he advances to strike you: this both stops him and makes him bend forward slightly (provided you lean into the kick), exposing the shin for a knockout, it does require good timing though. In any case I’d keep your sidekick low since this is the safest way to execute it and will be more than adequate for stopping an attacker: I’m looking at this from a self defense standpoint, in sparring you should be careful not to damage the your partner’s kneecap and tendons. Word to the wise: knee-injuries can be pretty bad and even permanent.

  2. Zara Says:

    Seems I posted this a little too soon: obviously you lean back to avoid a punch, as with any kick.

  3. Bart from self defenser room Says:

    Nice article,
    My view on sidekicks is that they are indeed effective as you say but require more skill than a normal punch. I personally don’t like to give sidekicks to the ribs or stomach as this increases the chances of the attacker grabbing my leg by a huge amount. A quick sidekick on the knees of the attacker can save lives though so I would go for that if I had no other viable options.

    P.S Just being a bouncer weighing in a 155 lbs. is something to be respected.
    Bart from self defenser room recently posted..Self defense room updated Tue Jul 26 2011 2:26 pm CDTMy Profile

  4. Matt Klein Says:

    The vaunted side kick has gotten me out of a few jams. It is even faster if it can be combined with a slide of the back foot (drag kick). Very hard to stop since the angle is straight out as compared to a roundhouse which has to come around, giving you a much bigger target to block.

    Also, it can be used to set up punches, as you are backing up your opponent with it. Bruce Lee advocated the strong side forward, which meant knockout power off that front leg. I can see the wisdom of that.

    As you probably remember John, Terry Crook used to bounce guys off the walls with it.
    Matt Klein recently posted..Kung Fu Panda 2My Profile

  5. Dr. J Says:

    Those guys were lucky you were “only” a brown belt, John :-)

    The side kick is a valuable technique in my fighting arsenal! I’ve definitely done some damage with it as well as having to nurse some injuries from in-coming ones!

    Very much enjoyed the read!

  6. Marc G. Says:

    Now John, you shouldn’t hurt the local troublemakers too badly. They might stop coming by and then you would be out of a job. 😉 It seems everything follows trends…even street fighting. But, I guess even trendiness has to give way to effectiveness. And, the side kick has proven very effective and served me well in the past as well. The power you can generate is unmatched. The only catch is timing…in my case at least. It is not my fastest technique, but I can work around that too. Good article!
    Marc G. recently posted..Modern Kobudo…Relevant or Relic?My Profile

  7. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hey Zara,

    Agree with the caution when throwing the side kick. I was taught to throw the front leg Lewis style (Joe Lewis) using initial movement along with a slip of the back foot (for distance) so it really almost as fast as a jab… and I use it like a jab right at the waist line. For those not used to using initial movement (hand or foot first and allow the body to follow)… it would be seen easier and less effective. The thing I like about a front leg snap, wheel, heel hook or side kick is by the time you see it coming – it is too late to get out of the way… :)

    Hi Bart,

    You are right about the learning curve… and I like you would not throw them too high unless there was a clear opening… better to throw at the hip or knee and avoid the leg getting caught up (as well as having to escape). My manager used to say of Me and Tony (a UKF black belt also working the door) when talking to the cops about use of force – they are just little guys… :)

    Hey Matt,

    The Bruce – where Joe Lewis developed his initial movement and angular attack strategies – yep! I’ve not really favored the hard back leg kicks because they are so easy to see them coming. Why if they connected – sure they would be bad but I cannot remember ever getting hit my one as a youth… just the fast front leg kicks. As for power… I loved to see Bill Wallace throwing those wimpy front let kick (and knocking out his opponents). :) By the way – Terry’s side kicks are still hard – sparred with him a few months back and had the bruises to show for it!

    Hey Dr J!

    Funny you should point out “only a brown belts”… in my experience the up and coming (hungry) guys often had the best moves… they had to work harder. True they were more mechanical and not so fluid but boy most brown belts are very effective! Long live the side kick!

    Hi Marc,

    My manager used to get mad at me if I threw out a heavy tipper. :)

    I had to learn how to use initial movement by filling a jean’s leg with sand – tied it to a rope hung over my patio… and started the front foot (flip kicks/wheel kicks) (isolating the rest of my body) and when the kick was half way out – torqued my hips and let my rear foot turn heel in and drag with the kick. That is a flip front leg wheel kick. After doing that a few thousand times – I got good and fluid (thereby fast) at it.

    The side kick is much the same only it is called a slip kick… same principals. Your opponents eyes cannot see it coming until you torque you hips (half way out) and by that time it is too late to avoid it if you do it right.

    Good luck!

    Thanks all for commenting.

  8. Zara Says:

    I might also add that against the untrained pretty much anything is garanteed to work as long as it’s thrown hard, fast and with accuracy. Fighting against a trained fighter is a wholely different story though and with the MMA craze these days you never know what your opponent might be capable of: everytime you raise your leg to kick there’s a chance you might get taken down and in SD the ground really isn’t a place you’d like to be (it’s usually a tad harder than soft mats too 😉 especially as a fighter primarely trained in stand-up. That is another reason why I wouldn’t use the sidekick a lot or at least keep it low as with all kicks. Of course much depends on your level of skill with a certain technique (the number of times you practiced it and how well it suits you) and with perfect timing, accuracy and speed I’m sure it can still be a viable tool in a fighter’s arsenal. Who am I to disagree with the combined experience here? Especially from old-timers like John and dr. J… :) One should always respect ones elders.

    As to back leg kicks: if you only throw single kicks of course they’ll be countered easily but if you throw them in succession, varying the target, there’s a good chance you’ll score. I also like the thai strategy of throwing a boxing combo followed by a hard lowkick from the back leg: if it’s thrown correctly it’s pretty much a fight ender (either he’ll crumble and go down or he’ll be so hurt you can easily knock him out) and it’s not easy to spot since you’ll be dealing with a barrage of boxing punches, usually aimed at the head obscuring your vision, so unless you’re superbly trained and have the sense of pivoting away from him you’re pretty much garanteed to eat that kick. From what I’ve learned and seen it’s a good idea to start off with kicks off the front foot (I usually target the shin, groin or knee) followed by punches, resorting to back leg kicks since he’ll likely be backing away from the punches.

    I do see the value in using the front leg to keep him at bay or as an attack (stop kick and principle of the longest weapon to the nearest target in JKD): perhaps I should put more effort in developing my kicks (especially the sidekick), using the principles and training method you outlined here John. If you could post some combo’s that worked for you it’d be much appreciated.

  9. Luke R. Says:

    Great post John! If I’m not mistaken, I believe Lyoto Machida is another guy in the UFC who brings some old school karate to the new school fighting (and very effectively I might add).

  10. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Zara,

    One “old timers” opinion is I don’t like to go to the ground too much as my school wrestling and very limited jiu-jitsu would not take me far. :)

    I primarily used distance and timing in sparring, real fighting, boxing and kick boxing. I was never one of those guys who liked to go toe to toe but rather one of those who used initial movement to gain a momentary advantage and if successful – followed up.

    The jab, right cross (lunging) side and flip kick were how I kept my advantage. The back leg kicks while slower do have more power and if set up properly – can work well.

    One combo I did like to use was the jab, cross to the head (momentarily blinding) and back leg wheel kick to the face. Assuming you are working you feet (fading back is best for getting you opponent to follow)right you can plant the foot to his face without him ever seeing it.

    Also just to be clear in the street one should not kick higher than the hips or groin to be safe. My side kick is mostly thrown off center so the heel is the sole contact. There is no way to easily absorb it unless I miss… and it is quite easy to twist out of it if someone caught it… The reason MMA is more exciting today I think – we competitors that can hang with the grappling and keep it on the feet if they so choose.

    By the way all of your points are valid – just I had a work around (by not being there) that worked for me.

    The beauty of fighting is it is a living – breathing thing… we all absorb everything that makes sense and then figure how to work it into our strategies.

    Hey Luke!

    Machida is fun to watch because he has that old karate school type of distance. He fights defensively and queues off of his opponents mistakes… much like I was trained to do in sport karate.

    The wonderful think I really love about Lyoto is how he take advantage of the MMA mentality where they have dismissed karate distance and timing. True every dog has its day but Machida has a lot more to show us I think! :)

  11. Zara Says:

    Staying on my feet is a top priority for me too, that is why training to avoid the takedown is of crucial importance. In contrast to your strategy I’d rather get close to him to employ close range weapons (knees & elbows) and lock or throw, preferably finishing the fight with him on the ground and me in a standing position. To each his own and as you said fighting is dynamic and everyone has their own preferences and strengths. The more knowledge you have the more efficient you become and the more options become available to you: to me crosstraining is a process of discovering new and better solutions to problems and incorporating what is effective into my arsenal.

    Thanks for the tips! I’ll try to work them into my training and see how they work out for me.

  12. David Hays Says:

    Hey John,

    Todd and I will be doing a seminar this weekend at Al Tracy’s Gathering of Eagles in Las Vegas. The seminar will cover the basics of the Joe Lewis stuff we have used forever. I will send you a recap and get some photos for you.

    I did not know how to post a new comment on your site so just did it here.


  13. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hey Dave!

    I spoke to Todd today and he mentioned you two were giving a seminar at the Gathering of Eagles, 2011! I’d be glad to give an overview post with your recap and photos!

    I really enjoyed the Gathering of Eagles 2009 in Chicago and all of the seminars.

  14. Matt Klein Says:

    Hi Dave, Look forward to seeing the recap and photos. The Joe Lewis moves have added a lot to my game. Wish I could attend the Gathering. Long way from home.
    Matt Klein recently posted..Captain America | Why Kids Need SuperheroesMy Profile

  15. Erno Says:

    Agree with the caution when throwing the side kick. You can loose the balance very easily..

  16. Shane Gabriel Says:

    I’m still using my sidekick… and its effective… The best way to throw your sidekick is doing this combination… Job, Straight, fake run-house kick, then the foot you used your kick is the one you throw your side kick with a little push…
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  17. Theodore Kruczek Says:

    Very interesting post (the story sounded like something you would see in an 80s Karate movie, but I imagine it looked a lot less 80s like lol).

    Do you have any thoughts on the “proper” way to throw a sidekick? I have found that the front kick and roundhouse are far more practical in a brawl situation (especially if the other guys has some idea about what he is doing). The way I am currently doing them, they are both always faster than a sidekick. Is that still the case with you? Or do you have some insight on how to make the sidekick more effective (other than simple being a more powerful kick). Thanks for your thoughts and this great post.

  18. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Erno and Shane – agreed!


    It sounds kind of simplistic but the best way to throw a side kick is the way it connects.

    As far as a front leg side kick (I kind of use is like a jab) – the front snap is as fast as the side kick but both are faster than a back leg kick of any kind.

    I use the front leg “roundhouse” called a flip kick. It is a fast, timed and as the name states – gets part of its power by flipping ones hip into the groin or head. In the street the target would always be the groin.

    As far as insight… look up Joe Lewis and the slip kick (throwing the side kick with the front leg by isolating the body movement – starting with the foot and letting the body flow into the movement after the initial start.

    Anyway Joe Lewis was pretty much unmatched in his ability to connect with the side kick… he learned the initial movement from Bruce Lee… one of Master Lee’s legacies.

    Good luck Theodore… remember it is not the style but the man (or woman)…