WKF Karate vs Full-Contact: the Sport Karate Perspective

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Sometimes, kumite specialists are told that we don’t stand a chance against our fellow karateka who practise full-contact Kyokushin karate. We believe that there is no basis to compare. Here are all the common reasons people think full-contact is ‘better’ than WKF kumite, and why we do not agree.

Additionally, we see that these statements are usually made by people from other martial arts or people without much of a background in either style of karate.

Karateman discussed sport kumite (WKF karate) and full-contact with a professional Kyokushin karate fighter. He said,

“It’ll be really annoying to fight you. You’ll jump in, punch, and bounce back out of reach”

An honest opinion with respect for the other’s sport, as expected from a real fighter. We’re about the same height, he’s physically fitter, if you want a frame of reference.

Here’s a list of all the reasons we hear:

Argument 1: Learning Kata is a Waste of Time for Kumite

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Women performing a Shotokan kata at a Team Kata event

Let’s call modern kata what they are – karate demonstrations for the purposes of winning a tournament. Our approach to kata at Empty Hand Karate is the same: impress the judges, win your match, and get your medal. Surgical efficiency at its best.
Also, Kumite specialists in WKF Karate spend a session or four a week doing or teaching regular karate (it’s their ‘day’ job), doing the full kihon, kata, kumite route. The rest of the week, six days a week, they train at Kumite.

Argument 2: WKF Karate Has Too Much Protective Equipment

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WKF ‘Approved’ equipment consists of gloves, shin and foot guards, chest guards.

Sport karate uses a lot of equipment, which decreases the impact of kicks and punches. But is taking punishment necessarily a good thing, other than a machismo thing of bragging about tolerance to physical pain? Inflamed tendons, joints wrecked beyond repair, bruised collarbones and breathing problems from broken noses. On top of that, the countless concussions that have not been studied at all in karate. Yes, full contact takes more punishment. Does that make full contact karateka stronger or more injured? You decide.

Argument 3: Full-Contact Karatekas Are Tougher

The short answer is yes, they are. Look at the top full-contact fighters. Usually broad framed, bordering on being stocky. The build of top sport karate athletes? Lean, with long reaches. One could almost call them lanky. Yes, full contact fighters have ‘better’ frames to take attacks. (See why weight classes are important).
But the sport chooses the frame, and the frame chooses the sportsman. Boxers have long arms, it allows them to punch their opponent before they get punched. Basketball players are tall, it puts them closer to the basket. Gymnasts are shorter, they have more control over their centre of gravity. Are any of these physical traits built in the gym? No, it’s just that these traits of athletes are rewarded by their chosen sport, and therefore, you see an overrepresentation of these traits, especially at the top.
Full-contact karateka have larger, wider frames, because the sport requires its athletes to have frames better suited to absorbing damage and at generating more damage per hit. So full-contact karate practitioners look ‘tough’. And they are.

Argument 4: No Makiwara and Knuckle Training

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Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan, punching a makiwara

I did a lot of knuckle pushups when I was younger. Luckily, I didn’t go overboard and my knuckles are perfectly fine. Unfortunately, many karateka go gung-ho about smashing their knuckles into a makiwara, wooden boards or worse, concrete walls.

You’re injuring yourself when you ‘strengthen’ your knuckles in excess, and you may not see the effects for years, maybe decades. The idea behind knuckle conditioning is to subject the knuckles to stress, so the body rebuilds them to be stronger and tougher. If you push your knuckles too far, you’ll have tough knuckles all right, but good luck using them for what they are supposed to be: controlling fine movements of your fingers. There will be a day when you can no longer hold onto a door knob.

Want to train your knuckles? Do it in moderation. Make them tougher, not broken.

Argument 5: Sports Karateka Pretend To Get Hit and Feign Injuries

This is my least favourite part of WKF Karate, and something I’m guilty of myself. Pretending to be injured by a punch or a kick in the middle of a match to get your opponent a Chukoku / Keikoku / Hansoku can be seen at every level of karate, and more so at the Karate 1 Premier League events when the stakes are much higher than they are at local tournaments. Feigning injuries stinks. It needs to be removed. An outright Shikkaku (tournament disqualification) would be a good start, even after the bout.

Is ‘diving’ an issue that can be fixed? It would be easier in Karate than in a sport like football / soccer. There are only two athletes, and enclosed by one referee and four judges. Our feeling is that if there’s anything that could stop karate from being a grand success in Tokyo 2020, it would be feigned injuries.

Argument 6: Sport Karate Penalizes Contact

This follows directly from the feigned injuries reason above. Yes, contact is penalized. It is why sport karate is a separate sport from full-contact karate. In fact, full-contact karate penalizes punches to the face. Speaking of toughness, in a street fight, no karateka, sport or full-contact, would hold their punch.

Argument 7: Closer to Real Life Fighting

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Street fights eventually get too messy for clean martial arts attacks.

As with all sport, both full contact and sport karate have rules. In mainstream martial arts or combat sports, most highly effective street fighting and self-defence moves are not allowed. No attacks to the eyes, to the throat, to the groin. While full-contact karate allows low kicks which are not allowed in sport karate, sport karate has jodan-zuki (punches to the face) which is not allowed in full-contact karate.

Argument 8: Full-Contact is Manlier

Full contact is manlier, because of full-contact hits. Sure, it appeals to the masculine bravado, to be able to dish out and take hits. And yes, between a sport karateka and a full-contact karateka, odds are that you won’t mess with a full contact karateka. But any decent sport karateka that is regular and in shape is capable of explosive movement.

A Fight between Full-Contact and Sport Karateka

Finally, after all this, if the two were to fight, what would happen?
We don’t know. Under what rules? Are their builds equal? Muscle mass? Hours of training? Physical advantages? A lightweight full-contact karateka will get pushed around by the 190cm (6’3”) Kagawa.

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The 190cm (6 feet 3 inches) Kagawa towering over his opponent.

On the flip side, full-contact fighters have a low kick (gedan mawashi) that if it connects, puts a stop to most movement. During inter-dojo karate sessions, the author has been on the receiving end twice, and both times, the low mawashi ended his sparring session.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, both sport and full-contact are karate. The two have different philosophies and different paths. People start karate for all sorts of reasons and goals, but the final outcome is usually becoming stronger and a better human being. Each person has their own path. The divide between sport karate, full-contact karate is the same: different paths to an overarching goal of self-improvement.

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