Sparring vs. Fighting

Posted by: John W. Zimmer
Under: karate
16 Oct 2007

I started with Tracy’s Karate Studios after the “Kung Fu” TV shows featured the Tracy’s Karate commercials. I still remember those checkered uniforms with the participants running through self-defense techniques. I wanted to do what those modern-day warriors (Tracy’s) were doing!


As I recall, I was a blue belt (white, orange, purple, blue, green, brown, black) before I was introduced to sparring. Sparring is the method a karate school uses to teach students how to fight. There are many rules to keep students safe while they are learning. I wore hand pads, foot pads, shin pads, and knee pads. We were taught how to cover up, move around, and how to strike to the body. Head shots were initially out because we did not have any control (the ability to pull kicks and punches) at that point. 


I was allowed to throw head shots with kiss contact (just touch the head but pull the punches) in green belt. The rule at green belt allowed for full contact body shots with kiss contact to the head. The lower belt students got good at throwing body punches and scoring points to the head by learning to fight with these rules.


My instructor, Dick Willitt, told me when street fighting (in self-defense), I should not kick above the waist. Sparring and fighting are different, in that when fighting, you cannot start over. You have another chance in sparring so you can experiment to find the best tactic for a given situation. 


In sport karate, a student learns valuable lessons like being first (to connect). If a person did not practice sparring, the lessons would be very painful. Real fighting always has a winner (although sometimes it is hard to tell) and a looser. The winner gets whatever the fight was about and the looser must give it up.


In sport karate, the winner gets the trophy and the looser gets more experience that may lead to future victories. The sport karate practitioner can transition his or her sport karate talents to fighting (self-defense) easily if basic rules are followed. One basic rule is to adjust the goals of the fight, from getting points to hurting your opponent with the ultimate goal of stopping the attack! 


I think the person is more important than the style of karate (or other form of fighting). So long as the fighter can make the transition, the fighter can win in fighting. I’ll give an example of this transition.


We were at a mixed athletic event featuring body building, boxing, and karate at the San Diego Sports Arena in early 1980. The promoters did not realize that each group did not really respect the other groups. The boxers and karate practitioners did not think much of muscle bound weight lifters. The karate folks did not think the boxers were all that and the boxers thought the karate folks kicked like little girls. You get the idea? 


The body builders had their show and stepped off stage. The boxers were having their exhibition bouts and the promoter brought the current middle-weight full contact champion between rounds. The boxers started making comments so the champion motioned the boxers to come on. Boxers one at a time came at the champion and got knocked out with left-hooks. By the time the third boxer was knocked out, the stadium erupted into a melee!


I was sitting with my karate buddies half-way up in the stands. We started running down to assist the fellow karate practitioners against the boxers. In the minute it took to get down to the floor – I did not see any boxers or body builders! I just saw a sea of bikers against the karate folks. We joined in to protect our friends. 


I missed my first few punches as I was wearing flip-flops. The floor was slick with spilt beer so I had to rapidly throw my sandals off and after throwing one kick (and landing on my butt) I had to stop kicking. I had to adjust my fighting strategy to one of watching critical distance and punching while fully balanced!


We (my friends and I) were out numbered about 5 to 1 but we tried different strategies. I started moving around sideways in half circles and then turned and did another half circle. I took out whoever was in front of me and kept moving. I helped out my friends if they got bogged down and after a couple of minutes, with sirens getting louder… the bikers dispersed. 


The fight was nothing like sparring. Sparring would not have worked. But after learning hands and distance in the studio – being at a numerical disadvantage made no difference. We transitioned. Eight black-belts took about 40 t0 50 bikers without any major injuries on our part.


Sparring (non-contact, semi-contact, and full-contact) all have their place but they should not be used in the same form when defending your self. But having said that – sparring gives you insight into your ability to make the transitions needed to win in a self-defense street fighting situation!

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