A criticism some practitioners of combative sports such as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), Muay Thai and Western boxing lob against “traditional” martial arts relates to forms. Forms are a core of martial arts practice in many Asian martial arts, including Karate, Kung-Fu, Tai Chi, Kuntau, Silat and Escrima. In those martial arts, forms (called kata in karate), are practiced extensively. It is also common for practitioners of those “traditional” martial arts to spend a lot of time studying the combative applications of kata moves. In Okinawan Karate this is called bunkai (分解), which literally means “analysis.”
The criticism lobbed by some practitioners of combative sports is that studying and practicing forms/katas is a waste of time. Those martial artitst believe that instead of practicing forms, it better to train and drill techniques with an actual partner. Some go as far as saying that the “muscle memory” trained by forms/kata is useless, as it is not practical in combat.
To some extent, this is true. Practice of kata in a vacuum, with no understanding of the practical application of the moves is not likely to gain the practitioner any self-defense or fighting skill. As the great karate masters said:
“Practice each of the techniques of karate repeatedly. Learn the explanations of every technique well, and decide when and in what manner to apply them when needed.”
“Once a kata has been learned, it must be practiced repeatedly until it can be applied in an emergency, for knowledge of just the sequence of a kata in karate is useless.”
“Kata are not some kind of beautiful competitive dance, but a grand martial art of self-defense, which determines life and death.”
In summary, by studying kata and its application deeply, the practice of kata becomes one of the most meaningful endeavors in karate. Each kata is like a seed, containing the information needed to grow and entire fighting system. It is up to the martial artist, though, to unpack the information contained in kata, or else its practice will not yield much utility in self-defense or in combative sport.
The video below does an excellent job of correlating classical moves from karate kata to actual techniques used in MMA and other combative sports. See how the same moves that appear in kata are used by MMA fighters in the ring to great effect. As you can see, although MMA and karate take a different path to training, the techniques trained are similar.
Do you recognize any of the kata in the video? If so, post below.
See you at the San Diego dojo!