Wednesday, August 1, 2012


     I was often regarded as a kind of hard-nosed judge when I served as an official at martial arts tournaments, especially insofar as forms competition was concerned.  I recall one occasion when a competitor in the Black Belt Division approached our panel of judges and announced his name, the style of karate he practiced, and the name of the form (kata) he would demonstrate.  This was the accepted procedure in the USKA (United States Karate Assn.) tournaments of that time.

     The competitor has announced that he practiced Kyokushin karate (a style with which I was very familiar, being a 2nd grade black belt in it at the time) and the kata he intended to perform would be Bassai Dai.


     As he began his performance, I noticed some minor discrepencies and after a while I realized that he was performing the Shotokan version of Bassai Dai; not the Kyokushin version.  The differences between the two are not great but they're there and the protocol of the day required that if you were going to perform a kata from the system or style which was different from your own, you were required to advise the panel of judges.

     What to do?

     He was actually performing the Shotokan version of Bassai Dai very skilfully.  Kyokushin and Shotokan have very different styles of body shifting and posture.  The "flavor" of their techniques is also quite different.  Although they may appear identical to the untrained observer, a person who is familiar with both of the styles of karate will notice it immediately.  Shotokan techniques are very sharp; almost piercing, very snappy, with a lot of emphasis on the movement of the hips.  Kyokushin, on the other hand, is heavier (they emphasize the development and application of great muscular strength) and the chambering of the fists is very different; Kyokushin chambers the fist on a level even with the nipple, and Shotokan prefers to chamber the fist just above the hip bone (actually, insofar as kinesiology is concerned, Shotokan is more correct).

     When the competitor finished his performance and the Scorekeeper requested our scores, I gave the fellow a 2.  The other judges gave him scores in the "eights," but not me.  One judge came over and asked why my score was so low.  I replied that the competitor had performed the Shotokan version of Bassai instead of the Kyokushin version.  My fellow official regarded that as a minor point which should probably be disregarded, but I held fast to my score.


     It was a question of being politically incorrect (although at that time, nobody had ever heard of political correctness...we were just honest and that was good enough).  That is, if we let this guy slip through the cracks, then where do you draw the line?  At what point would his performance be totally out of whack?  I mean, he could come up and do something none of us had ever seen before and claim that that was what he'd learned from his teacher (so there.  It isn't his fault)...and that it was Elmer Fudd's interpretation of Bassai (or whatever)...after all, Elmer has as much right to interpret kata as Mas Oyama or anybody else, doesn't he?  No?  Why not?  Who says so?  And by whose authority do you say so?  Who made you "king sh*t" of kata, anyway..."

     I think you get my point.

     The line had to be drawn before things got too far out of hand.  Unfortunately, my fellow officials didn't see it that way ("Well, that's how he was taught to do it by his teacher, so it's not his fault").  Before too many years had passed, kata judges had to judge competitors on the basis of "level of difficulty" (as would gymnastic officials) rather than correctness and precision of the traditional kata. 

     With the passing of a few more years, people were making up their own homegrown versions of kata and performing them in competition.  Since the judges had allowed every variation of every kata to pass as acceptable for competition (some variations were so far afield that there was absolutely no resemblance to the original kata), they couldn't very well complain and they had to judge performances based on "level of difficulty."  Since it's pretty tough to beat some bozo who's mixed gymnastics and modern dance - performing flying cartwheels, full splits, and other bizarre "martial arts" postures with something like Sanchin, Seisan, or Kanku, birth was given to the "eclectic" martial arts..."Open Tournament" came to refer to an event that accepted any and all performances.  It used to refer to a competition that allowed all styles to compete, but those days were long gone.    

     A nationally-famous competitor who I shall call Karen (a beautiful blonde who often performed her forms in a form-fitting top with a low neckline :-) and custom-fit kung-fu pants) once competed in my ring.  Bad call.  I appreciate a lovely lady as much or more than the next guy but when it comes to martial arts, I don't care what form you're  performing, if you come out in a G-string and spiked'd better be done correctly!

     Karen's kung-fu form (which she'd learned from Al Dacascos) was well done...for a while.  Then as she neared the end, she went through a series of strange movements and eventually ended up sitting on the floor with her legs crossed and her head bowed so that her long blonde hair covered her face.  Her arms were extended out to the sides.  The audience went absolutely wild.  Karen smiled and stood up (I was suddenly shocked into the reality that that wierd floor-sitting movement was actually the end of her form-) and I called Karen forward.  "What was that series of ending movements?" I asked.  She smiled and thrust her chest (?) out at me and proudly told me that it was a series of jazz dancing movements she had installed into the form.  I thanked her very politely and when the scorekeeper asked for our scores, I gave her a 1.  The other officials were stunned.  This was, after all, THE Karen of national fame, who had been in all the magazines, who had even been in a couple of movies...and I was giving her a ONE???!!

     She was furious and asked me why I had scored her so low.  I told her that jazz dancing is nice but it certainly isn't a martial art and it has no place in a martial arts event.  I gave her a 1.0 for having the guts to step out on the floor and try to convince me otherwise.  That really ticked her off...

     As an aside, I competed later in the senior men's division and took first place.  Karen was given out the awards and gave each winner a kiss on the cheek.  Except me.  She wouldn't even shake my hand.  Well, hell hath no fury... 

     I was equally touchy when I acted as an official in the kumite (freestyle sparring) ring.  I remember watching two black belt contestants slugging it out and I stopped the match.  "Gentlemen," I said, "Do you see any ropes around this ring?" 

    They looked at each other and then at me.  "," they replied.

     "That's right," I assured them.  "Because this is not a boxing ring."  Please use correct martial art technique from now on or I'll disqualify both of you."

     And that was that.  Unfortunately, my hard-nosed attitude was tossed by the wayside as more and more officials allowed virtually anything in the ring and competitors started wearing boxing gloves and hopping around on one leg like a one-legged chicken and flicking out half a dozen kicks...and "Open Competition" came into its own.  In one tournament, the black belt champion...and this is really true...announced that he'd never studied karate at all; he was a golden gloves boxer who just wanted to give it a try!  For real.  And he won! 

     Well, like the song says, you've got to stand for something or you'll fall for anything.  And the martial arts judges had fallen on their butts...they all felt like absolute fools.  And they were. 

     I'm not even going to go into what weapons competition was like.  Let me say simply that I'd thought I'd seen it all until then.  From using Japanese katanas like a cheerleader's baton to forms with (and this is true, I assure you) meat hooks, butcher knives (well, some of 'em are made in Japan...), baling hooks, sheleighlis (Irish martial arts, I guess), walking sticks made from old branches (this guy claimed he practiced an American Indian style of martial arts) least nobody walked into the ring with a rolled-up, wet towel.  I'm sure they would have if they'd thought of it. 

     How did this come about?  At what point did things go so far south?  Well - remember the guy who did the wrong version of Bassai Dai?  Letting something like that slip by - THAT'S where it started.  Being politically correct; not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings by telling them that regardless of what their teacher had told them, THAT wasn't the Isshin-ryu version of Seisan...that's where it started.  Not insisting on real martial arts technique in the fighting ring - THAT''S where it started.  After all, it's a whole lot easier to teach slop than sharp technique, too. 

     Certainly there are myriad versions of the same form(s) nowadays - and there's nothing wrong with that.  But each system has its own unique flavor which should be consistent throughout the form and which should also be clearly identifiable in the way in which the competitor fights.  I remember way back when you could watch a competitor fight and easily identify exactly what style he'd studied (if you were familiar with enough styles).  Isshin-ryu people fought like Isshin-ryu people.  Shotokan fighters could be easily identified.  Goju stylists fought just like they did their forms.

     But when the tournament directors and officials began to become "politically correct" and developed a kind of "anything goes" attitude, everything got mixed up. 

     Before long, we saw the advent of "full contact karate" which was neither full-contact, nor karate.  It was, on its best day, a sort of sloppy kickboxing.  I used to insist that a decent muay-thai boxer would beat the crap out've those guys, and eventually that's just what happened.  Some pro boxers even jumped in, learned a couple of kicks (you were required to throw a given number of kicks per round)...then when they competed, they'd shoot off all the required kicks (into the air; they didn't even try to hit their opponents with 'em) and then beat the stuffing out've the "karate guy" with their superior boxing technique (which is, after all, what the alleged "karate black belt" was also trying to use).  And the audience was told that this was "REAL full-contact karate."


     It was half-contact kickboxing. 

    Then there came the UFC and you all know how fond I am of that. 

    And the Olympics.  Taekwondo managed to squeeze in and whereas their alleged art had been in a tailspin for a couple of generations, it went into a first-class nosedive.  I saw the competition this year.  I wouldn't have known what it was if the announcer hadn't told me.  Not a single punch was thrown.  Not one.  And not a single front kick, side kick, or back kick was thrown either...the roundhouse kicks were so sloppy that if these guys had been in my beginner's class, they'd have permanent scars on their butts (from me chewing on it) for kicking like that.  The announcer kept saying how lethal these guys were; how they could kill an ordinary man with a single blow...

     Bullshit.  Twice.

     My old friend Chris Smaby (a real 6th dan with the Japan Karate Assn.; Shotokan) once told me that there were some people who didn't have a clue, and then there were those who didn't even suspect.

     These bozos didn't even suspect.

     But the audience was assured that this was the real, lethal art of Taekwondo.

     I remember my old friend Mike Biggs, who served three tours in Vietnam as a green beret.  Mike said that the only nights he ever slept soundly was when he was in an ROK firebase; especially the Whitehorse Division.  Even the VC didn't mess with these guys.

     You see, the uniform of the day for the Korean's Whitehorse Division was a karategi.  For real.  At oh-early thirty, they'd line up for inspection in karate uniforms!  And instead of some bitching about early morning PT (physical training), they'd practice Taekwondo.  REAL Taekwondo - not the stuff we saw in the Olympics.  These guys were dangerous and if they managed to close in with an NVA or VC unit, they'd go hand-to-hand.  Because they ENJOYED it.  They killed a LOT of enemy troops - many with their bare hands (!!) and feet.  The enemy was so terrified of these guys that NO KOREAN FIREBASE WAS EVER ATTACKED DURING THE ENTIRE WAR!


     Wonder what happened to THAT kind of Taekwondo?  It sure isn't the same thing I saw in the '04 Olympics! 

     As for Karen’s sitting, hair-over face with low-cut top posture...I know she never heard of the Dadaodui (Big Broadsword Unit) of the Chinese Army in WWII.  Their unit motto was:

"When our bullets are gone, we use our rifles,

When our rifles break, we use our broadsword,

When our swords are broken, we use our fists,

When our fists are broken, we bite."

     These were some tough mothers and the Japanese troops were absolutely terrified of them.  They were all martial arts practitioners of various styles and they all carried a broadsword on their backs.  Really.  They especially liked night operations; they'd sneak up and jump into Japanese foxholes and kill everyone with their swords or bare hands.  They did not leave many enemy survivors.

     Wonder what happened to THAT kind of kung-fu?  Wonder what they'd think of Karen's form?

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