Under: karate
26 Jul 2009


Now that you have achieved your brown or black belt and have fought a few open tournaments, you have overcome the pre-fight jitters but want to start winning some matches. Yes you know all of the kicks and punches as well as the next guy or gal but you have not won a trophy yet? What can you do?


In this post I will go over what a tournament is and what knowledge you are expected to gain from fighting at these matches. I will speak to specific strategies that will help you improve you point fighting and I will note how to transition point fighting to self-defense.


You have heard me mention ways to improve you sparring from time to time but to date have not seen me in any of my tournament matches. Well today I have a blast from the past to share with you. Bob Whites Karate Studios has kindly furnished us with a tape of some old team competitions from Parker’s International Karate Tournaments! I’m not sure of the year but my best guess is about 1979 or 1980. Please have a look and then I will go over some strategies. I am wearing a black top and red gi bottoms.


Looking at this short video you can see my style of fighting is fairly aggressive. I tried to make my openings by keeping my opponent off of his game. You will notice that one time I slowed down a bit and he was able to counter effectively. By the way, that was Ed Parker in a blue shirt at the beginning of the video.

Did you notice my favorite moves? I used a side kick with initial movement as well as a lunge punch on either side. Other moves I used were a flip wheel kick and a back knuckle. So that is four moves on either side that I did well (eight moves!). The reason I point this out is because it is important to have an arsenal to mix things up.

There have been some great fighters that have only used one or two moves but many times if you have a few more moves and can mix things up – you can make them put their plan on hold and fight your fight!

Karate tournaments were designed to allow students to test their skills with other karate practitioners. There are lots of rules but I would argue this is closer to real self defense than most other competitions because the groin shots are open. The rules allow for sweeps and even the quick ground attack (following a sweep – 3 seconds). Generally open tournament allow for full-contact body contact and light contact to the face.

What is learned by fighting tournaments? Well firstly you will be under great pressure to perform. When I was fighting tournaments I would be given an estimate of when I was fighting. I would start warming up and chewing the antacid tablets (for the nerves). Then the time slots would change and I would cool down and start warming up hours later… the worst for the large tournaments – I’ve experienced three cool-downs before my matches several times!

So after you finally get to fight, you have to perform up to your expectations and if you are on a team – up to the team expectations! This is more than a little bit of pressure and assuming you can do it – this is great training in of itself for real-life stressful situations! You will be proving to yourself that you can take and perform well under pressure!

Once you are actually fighting in your match, you will have to fall back on your training. Remember truer words were never spoken, “you fight the way you train.” If you want to perform well – put yourself under pressure in the weeks leading up to the tournament! Practice the moves the way you want to execute them. As I suggested in my post about angular attacks, figure out and practice some advanced sparring specific moves to supplement your match!

 Now here is the funny part, I don’t care if you win a trophy or not! Sparring at a tournament is more about preparing yourself physically and mentally for fighting! If you can surmount all of the obstacles to a good showing at a tournament of your peers, a real life self-defense situation will be easy in comparison!

Now here is where many do not agree with me but a good tournament competitor can do well at whatever type of contest they have to burning desire to compete! If you can get to the top of the heap at one  contest and are willing to learn the skill set required to make it to the next type of martial art (read fighting arts of any kind) – proving it in one arena in my book means you can make it elsewhere too!

The transition from point fighting to self-defense will be the easiest because it is already a kind of watered down street fight. The groin is open! The advantage of self-defense is there are no rules and if you are already used to fighting full-contact to the body (like most semi-contact schools should practice), opening some more targets will only make fighting for real – easier!

 Now I would like to make one more point that will help you win tournaments if that is what you want to do. For some reason when I made the transition to brown/black belt and the head opened up as a legitimate target – I noticed that almost everyone stopped trying to use the lunging counter punches and started throwing all of their punches and many of the kicks to the head!

This might sound like a sound strategy because the head is relatively an easy target to hurt but when you consider everyone is also expecting an attack to the head – what sense does this make? In my tournament days I got most of my point from body shots because that is what was open. Hell I even knocked the wind out of people with body shots and won some matches after they were too apprehensive to attack me after that. Take a word of advice and develop a strong body shot if you want to be a successful! :)

There you have my take on tournament matches, a proving ground for real-life self defense scenarios in my book. I’ve been in lots of fights in my capacity as a doorman at a club for two years in the same era as my tournament competition. I was easily able to transition from sparring to self-defense. I hope you find some of this perspective useful in your martial arts training.


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8 Responses to “The Karate Tournament Match; Make Your Strategy Work!”

  1. Bob Patterson Says:


    Nice post! I’ve been saying for years that even a sport boxer can defend himself or herself. You might be interested in the first news item, here:



  2. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hey Bob,

    I remember that story! She was a prison guard or something like that – that competed in sport karate right? I’ve always said you never know when you’ll have to defend yourself… could be sick, injured, drunk or whatever – you’ll just have to depend on yourself.


  3. SueC Says:

    Hi John, thanks for your insights into sparring, its really interesting to understand someone elses mindset when sparring. I was particularly interested in the way you use kicks – this seemed to be your preferred opening. We’re generally trained to use round house or hook kicks but i find these hard to execute quickly. The side kick looks much easier and just as effective – I think I’ll give that one ago next time I’m training. Thanks

  4. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Sue,
    I was fast on my left side and powerful on my right side. My favorite move was a left inverted lunge punch (inverted to hit the ribs under the elbow).
    Side kicks are excellent to keep someone off of you or to attack. I liked them and flip kicks (kind of a lunging roundhouse off of the front foot).
    Whatever your favorite moves – just learn to mix them up and employ them offensively as well as defensively. Then you just have to play with the timing to get your opponent to think you are doing one thing and then whamo! Get them with another.
    You’ll do fine – just have fun experimenting and asking your instructor for guidance if something is not working right.

  5. Kim Says:

    Your side kick is a great weapon, whether you chose to use it offensively OR defensively. Hate those. Even if your side kick is blocked, it still hurts! I think I still have the marks to prove it. Loved watching that match John. Makes ya want to start it up again.

  6. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hey Kim,

    I hope you will be ready to work out soon buddy! I’d love to get you to the next level :)

  7. Matt Klein Says:

    John Zimmer, man you have a good California Blitz. Never realized you were that fast. Watching the video wanted me to get back in the ring again. Love the blitz, to this day it is nearly impossible to stop. We use the traditional blitz and also the blitz with the trailing leg (driving off the front leg). Its all good! If a good blitzer has excellent kicks (like your slip or drag kick) nobody can beat them. Excellent video.

  8. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Matt, thanks – we had some good examples to learn from… Larry McCraw, Victor Hervias, John West to name a few… I always used to get impatient playing the waiting game and favored making my own oppertunity for an opening.