The dilemma with sparring

by Sensei Mike Pepe

Fighting, kumite, or tournament sparring, call it what you’d like it’s still two people showing their fists to each other as they begin to exchange blows.

  Why with all karate’s grabs, wristlocks, chokes, stomp kicks, and takedowns, does one still have to resort to the closed fisted clubbing of another to compare techniques? I ask you, what is left of the beautiful openhanded techniques such as the chicken beak and chicken wrist, tiger’s mouth, bear paw, or dog paw. These beautiful animal techniques have regrettably, been put on a shelf to gather dust.

   As the two combatants thrust their fists in the direction of their opponent with techniques that only faintly resemble a lunge punch and reverse punch, the vast majority of learned martial art techniques now equals only two.

  It is a shame when words like “combatant”, “opponent”, and “attack” enter into martial discussions. They set us back years when we think of how difficult it must have been for the masters trying to making the “barbaric” art of Okinawan “Te”, acceptable to Japanese back in the early 1900’s.

  A combatant might be better called a partner as you both agree to challenge each other to improve and an opponent might better be thought of as a “receiver” accepting your techniques so you can learn. Attacking is nothing more than an exchange of, techniques, and strategies…But I digress.

  Can the two opposites of “sparring” and “karate” exist side-by-side
or even in the same dojo?

  Not according to master Funakoshi. Funakoshi believed karate techniques were so powerful they could not be practiced in a free-style environment. Furthermore, he believed the full power of karate’s punches would be diluted into light contact and no contact sparring, contrary to the genuine development of a true martial art.


 The paradox begins with karate’s motto “karate is used for defense”.


When matched in kumite there is no reward for blocks; and points given for offensive techniques reward the aggressive fighter.

 Again, during sparring one is taught to “pull” punches for safety but if engaged in a real life encounter it is hoped one can then strike with full force.


Can karate and kumite then exist side-by-side?


Opposite philosophies have existed side-by-side before, when Iaido turned to sport and became Kendo and again when the then deadly art of Jujitsu morphed into Judo. 


   If we really try- if we take a real concern with this problem- we may be able to take the physical act of pummeling someone into unconsciousness, blend the philosophies of stance, focus, balance, and even distance and concentration, to come to an acceptable agreement. One in which students can freely demonstrate their martial skills in a safe and fun environment.

As acceptable as it may be, karate was not meant to be a sport and one must think, are we just humanizing the act of brawling……..or are we dehumanizing the art of karate…

You be the judge,

A warrior rambling





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