“I can’t sing and I can’t dance, but I can lick any SOB in the house.”

-Jack Dempsey

Note: this essay grew out of notes for an as yet unfinished review of Jack Dempsey’s 1950 book “Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching and Aggressive Defense” and personal notes that developed over the course of a year of intensive work on punching

What does a black belt know about punching?

I first read about Jack Dempsey in an article written by Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo for Classical Fighting Arts in 2006. The article, entitled “Jack Dempsey, Master of Xingyiquan” focused on a boxing manual written by the 1919 heavy weight world boxing champion. As I began reading the article, I wondered what an old-school Western boxer had to do with an Asian martial art, or karate training in general. I was still in the “karate is superior to boxing because it uses the whole body” phase of thinking that some people go through early on in their training (and some never leave, to their detriment). The book in question, “Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching and Aggressive Defense” (1950) seemed quaint and outdated, right down to the rolled up sleeves and pompadours in the accompanying illustrations. By the end of the article however, my interest was piqued, and suddenly my dichotomous conceptions of boxing and karate began to mutate some. The utter clarity of Dempsey’s cited examples set off a new train of thinking: regardless of styles or arts, punching is punching. Using the fists to damage or knock another person out is a skill that is governed by the same principles, regardless of the art that develops it. To borrow a phrase from Harry Cook, we all practice the “two hands, two feet, one head” style of fighting.

We all practice this style, but the training methods that one chooses to pursue can either develop or detract from making it practical and usable. After reading this article, I began to look objectively at the differences between the way that a boxer trains a punch and the way that karate people- both in general and at my particular dojo- trained punching. Before long, I reflected that boxers, on average, spend far more time than karate people hitting things: stationary targets, heavy bags, focus mitts, reflex bags/balls, and of course, other people (yes, there are exceptions, but I am addressing generalities here). Their learning environment is incredibly rich with varied stimulus (static targets, moving targets, responsive targets, non-responsive targets) and opportunities to apply their skills under varying levels of pressure. Simply put, the best way to get good at hitting things is to hit things. I had earned shodan a year earlier, but I did not feel like I was hitting any harder, faster or better. Despite the fact that the dojo I trained in spent a considerable amount of time on pad work, and a makiwara and heavy bags were present and well-used, it was clear to me that despite hard, frequent training, my own punching ability was not what it needed to be (and this is in no way a disparaging reflection on my teacher- it was a critical look at my own pursuit of the skill).

This should not have been a huge revelation, but being from a generation that got most of its ideas about karate from some truly idiotic movies, TV programs and street corner “masters,” perfecting some esoteric poses seemed to have more to do with developing fighting ability than…hitting targets. And the time that I did spend on hitting targets was often consumed with the effort to make sure my hips turned just so, my feet were flat, and a host of other technical concerns; I was more focused on whether or not a punch ‘looked’ like karate than whether or not it was a good punch (I realize that these two ideas may be one and the same for some and it’s blasphemy to imply that they can be separated, but I will address that later). The small taste that the article gave me of Dempsey’s thoughts on the subject of punching whet my appetite and spurred an intensive effort to figure out whether or not several years of karate training had done my punching any good.

During this time period, I was doing far more training on my own than in the dojo (where I was often the only student for long stretches) and much of this time was spent devising and hitting a wide variety of targets in an effort to develop confidence in my hand techniques. The more I hit, the less I found I knew about it, and the more I realized that I could (should?) be hitting harder. During my personal training time, I threw out the karate concepts I had been working at deciphering and started looking empirically at punching. Throughout that summer, I spent my early morning and evening hours moving from the makiwara to the heavy bag to a variety of bouncy, multiple target setups and back, trying to figure out what my body was doing when I connected more solidly, or hit a fluid combo with speed, accuracy and power (which was a rare occasion!). The hills around my home were literally echoing with the clack-clack-clack of the ude makiwara and the tight smacking of bone on heavy bag. I watched and re-watched the Ali v. Frazier fights to compare inside and outside punching tactics. I read and reread every karate and martial arts book I could lay hands on. I asked training partners to hit me harder and harder during stomach conditioning so I could observe and compare their body movements to how it felt. Mental notes to look up relevant anatomical information filled up my brain the way that blanks in my Spanish vocabulary used to. I did some rather dumb stuff too, like punching dried branches off of dead pine trees and abusing more than a few overgrown members of the gourd family, but I learned what the limitations of technique and sensible training were.

Before long, the skin on my hands felt like the skin on my heels, and I scrubbed at my knuckles daily with a pumice stone to avoid developing grotesque calluses from all of the punching (thanks to a few stories of such calluses ripping off when the owner hit an actual person). I wanted to develop a skill, not a trophy. Progress was often an uphill march. The “Ah hah!” moments were evenly balanced out by the “dammit!” moments. For a while I even considered my karate to be on hold until I got a few things about punching straightened out.

As that summer stretched into a year of slightly obsessive striking practice, a few basic concepts began to take shape. Some overlapped with what I had been exposed to via karate training, some did not, and some seemed to be in direct opposition. Regardless of which circle they fell under, movements that produced positive results were pursued. Sometimes results suggested that I abandon a notion from karate training. Completely throwing away certain karate mechanics sometimes led me back round to embracing them again, but with a much different underlying understanding, and much different results. This process slowly changed everything, from my supplemental training regimen to kata dynamics and free sparring performance. Shovel hooks, outside hooks, straight punches, uppercuts, jabs, backhands, palm strikes and forearm strikes replaced the gyaku-zuki as the focus of my makiwara work. My karate began to look less like the idealization of karate that I had been previously operating under, and for the first time in a while, I felt like I was making progress.

One day I was doing some research on bare knuckle boxers, and I happened upon a martial arts site that had a link to a downloadable version of “Championship Fighting.” I remembered the Kennedy and Guo article, and realized that here was the thing that had touched off my investigations, the instigator itself. I printed a copy of the book, and as I began reading it that evening I was amazed to find that a lot of what I had been painstakingly discovering on my own was waiting for me there in the pages. It made sense, and it put punching into perspective among the other tools in the arsenal of violence. Through all of the personal training efforts, I had removed the karate blinders and the results were good. This was a good time to rediscover Dempsey.

“Fistic Dynamite”

So what makes this boxing manual so special? For starters, it rests on a solid foundation of field-tested experience from a guy who learned bare-knuckle fighting before becoming a professional boxer. Other ancient and modern manuals can make the “field tested” claim, but Dempsey’s professional record of 51 knockouts in 77 fights out of speaks for itself. More telling is Dempsey’s nickname- Jack the Giant Killer. Both in and out of the ring, Dempsey was known for dropping men who substantially outweighed him. For example, Dempsey’s 1919 championship fight was not a balanced match by modern standards. Dempsey’s opponent, Jess Willard, outweighed him by 65 pounds and stood 6 inches higher (it’s also worth noting that Dempsey was 24, Willard 37). But after three rounds, Willard was so battered and stunned by Dempsey’s punches that he couldn’t leave his corner. If we are to believe the contemporary reports, Willard paid heavily for those three rounds with a caved-in cheekbone, broken jaw, several knocked out teeth, a broken nose, broken ribs, ear damage, badly swollen eyes, and multiple contusions, cuts, and abrasions. The rapidity of this victory and severity of Willard’s injuries led to a series of unfounded rumors that Dempsey’s hand wraps were coated in plaster of paris, and that a steel bolt was folded into one of his gloves! However, if you watch the footage that exists of the fight, the reality becomes clear very quickly: Dempsey was simply able to batter Willard senseless from the first punch. He knocked Willard down five times in first round. The fact that the ringside thermometer read 110 degrees when the fight began leveled the playing field even farther- no one can tolerate that kind of punishment in those conditions. In reports given to the AP hours after the fight, Willard makes no mention whatsoever about the possibility of loaded gloves, and goes on to say “It was hard to admit defeat, but Dempsey is the hardest puncher I ever faced.”

Unlike many of the ring-oriented boxers that were inspired by his 1919 victory (who he refers to as “fancy Dans”), his boxing education began in bare knuckle self-defense long before ever putting on a glove. As a youth in mining and logging camps at the turn of the 20th century, Dempsey had plenty of opportunities to hone his skills. His travels among these camps brought him into contact with many old-timers of the bare knuckle world. These stalwarts taught Dempsey some of their hard-won tricks, which he practiced and later made note of. As a young man, he’s reputed to have earned his dinners by walking into roadhouses and saloons and announcing “I can’t sing and I can’t dance, but I can lick any SOB in the house.” And he usually did, which would win him some bet money. These encounters had more to do with what we would call “gutter fighting” than simple boxing. For some examples, look at “Fight Tough”, a combatives manual produced for the US Coast Guard during WWII. Dempsey shows some very nasty techniques that would be right at home in Motobu Choki’s Naihanchi fighting drills (but that’s a matter for a different discussion), many of which feature take downs.

Dempsey didn’t retire completely from the world of boxing and fighting after his professional career ended. As he began attempting to train young fighters in his method, he realized that it was so internalized that he couldn’t articulate it in a way that a beginner could understand. He began to reflect on his own process of developing “fistic dynamite.” Dempsey began filling notebooks with every recollection that he could muster about his training from childhood on up, about his successes, and about his losses. He cross-referenced the resulting 384 pages of technical details into various categories of a “panorama of self-defense.” After delineating his methods for training, Dempsey began talking to boxing trainers, fighters and instructors and reading “every book on boxing I could buy.” The conclusions he drew from these conversations ought to be familiar to anyone who’s visited a McDojo or McMMA place: “My conversations and reading left me utterly amazed at the hazy, incomplete and distorted conceptions of self-defense possessed by men who are supposed to be experts…I came to the conclusion that self-defense is being taught wrongly nearly everywhere…” This realization, and the fact that his own stunning victory in 1919 had encouraged many of the self-proclaimed “experts” to enter into boxing to start with, motivated Dempsey to condense his panorama into “Championship Fighting.” Interestingly enough, he ends his assessment of the state of the boxing world by saying “You must know how to punch and you must have punching confidence before you can learn aggressive defense.”

What Dempsey’s instruction boils down to should be immediately familiar to karate students of any stripe: knockout power is generated by exploding the body’s weight behind a punch (see Steve’s article Exploding Body Weight for an excellent overview of this topic). However, the difference between his explanations and the entrenched karate counterparts is crucial. Whereas karate schools often emphasize poorly translated and understood concepts from the Japanese language and insist upon a standard model of movement, Dempsey uses the plainest of language with no ambiguous technical terminology (for English speakers, at least), and encourages the reader to “feel it out” against a bag instead of simply swatting at thin air.

For example, he lays out four basic methods for putting the body weight into fast motion: the falling/trigger step, leg spring, shoulder whirl, and upward surge. These methods are assisted by knowledge of the power line, which is the alignment between the knuckles making contact and the shoulder, and the utilities of different types of punch. The requisites for a knockout punch are listed as:

1. Weight-the weight of your entire body.

2. Powerful muscles in your feet, legs, and back- the means of helping to put your body weight into motion.

3. Arms and fists- the means of exploding your moving weight against an opponent.

At the core of these concepts, both Dempsey and the karate approach are saying the same things: Use both feet to set the body weight in motion, punch from the floor up, use the torso to transmit this force through the body, contract the core muscles and fist at impact and apply the force to the target with the knuckles. But the way in which the respective approaches explain this process is another matter.

Karate: Way of the Disagreeing Fist

At the outset of any discussion of karate technique, it’s important to recognize that there is no one unified Karate, but rather multiple interpretations of karate. So you’re likely to find as many differing training methodologies and “traditional” approaches as dojos that you visit. One of the biggest conflicts that emerges in such a comparison is the difference of opinion relating to punching. Some dojo insist on elbows in, while for others it’s ok if they come out. Some preach the superiority of full corkscrewing of the fist at impact, while others claim that vertical fists are stronger and faster. But the one that I simply cannot stomach goes like this: 70% of time should be spent doing kihon in empty air, and 30% actually hitting targets. I recognize the value of good form and basic movement skills, but I am totally unapologetic in saying that schools that espouse the “perfect form over actual hitting” myth are a waste of time for anyone looking to develop self-defense skills. An awful lot of time and effort has been put into selling karate, and many unfortunate myths have cropped up as a result. I regard the 70/30 split as one of the worst ones (although I would have no problem were it reversed).

Some schools take this one step further, and claim that hitting a target is not necessary at all. A college student who briefly trained with our group told me that his Kempo Karate teachers had warned him that hitting targets was unnecessary, and would damage his hands and ch’I flow- but by developing perfect “air” form, he would be ready to drop an attacker in a real fight. Despite the black belt he had earned at this school, he struggled mightily when we did pad work, and more often than not his fists simply grazed off of the pad. He was sold on the fantasy of gaining reliable knockout power without ever hitting a single target. This is nonsense. Schools that train students this way should not advertise that they teach self defense (to extend that idea further, I would have no problem with such teachers continuing to advertise karate, etc, as long as they stopped claiming to teach self defense skills; imagine a firearms instructor teaching that range practice was of minor importance, and that simply holding the unloaded gun and imagining shooting it was superior).

To clarify, there seems to be something of a paradox attached to modern karate as far as punching power goes. On the one hand we are told that “karate techniques use natural movements, use the whole body for power, everything comes from the hips.” On the other hand, a student might be bewildered with terms like hanmi, kizami, kime, ki, ma’ai and a slew out of out-of-context physics equations and dubious anatomical information. A student may be capable of hitting as hard as a mule, but sensei insists “you’re doing it all wrong.” The resulting fixes often leave the student hitting empty air and sacrificing their ability for an arbitrary form. The equation of Mass X Speed = Power seems to be repeated just as much as the dojo kun, but all of the talk about hip rotation often leads students to actually lessen the force that they might otherwise generate (via excessive hip rotation, ignoring the ballistic action of the arm, and by throwing just as much momentum away from the target as towards it). Certainly some schools avoid these ambiguities and produce very powerful hitters, but the idea that the karate punch is a) superior bar none and b) takes years of intense technical practice to master without c) feedback from hitting targets seems to be more common among traditionalist and pseudo traditionalist camps.

The result can be unfortunate- brown or black belts who tap the heavy bag like kittens with a catnip-mouse, or root their feet to the floor and throw staccato punches at a bag without about as much mobility and fluidity as a cinder block (but it is fun to watch them try to adjust when the bag gets some momentum and swings back towards them, stuffing the fully extended punches).Their hips are moving with great speed and precision, the punching arm is perfect, no flared elbows, the gi is cracking like a whip, and the intent seems to be ferocious. Yet when they actually punch a target, or are invited to lay another one into a willing stomach after an “ikken hisastsu” blow, you can almost read the reaction on their faces: “I’m moving my hips, but I can’t move the bag,” or “that was a perfect gyaku-zuki into the stomach, yet this guy is still standing there smiling; he didn’t crumple from my perfect technique.” This is where the rubber hits the road, as it were. Some of these students realize with great clarity that something isn’t working, despite the assurances of their particular school of karate. They may either fall back on the dogma of their school as a safety net, or they may break totally from karate to find something that works better for them. Other students will happily bury the uncertainty with karate jargon or the belief that even though their punch wasn’t magically effective, they are still doing THE one and true karate, and you are not, so the fact that they can’t hit is somehow moot because you aren’t developing your spirit anyway (Monty Python fans might chime in here: “She’s a witch! Burn her!”).

I know that there are many exceptions, but plenty of karate people spend their time marching around punching into the air class after class, trying to snap their gi, insisting that karate punches are too deadly to practice on a live target, and that perfect “air” form forged through 1000’s of reps will magically translate into a knockout blow if push ever comes to shove. Ikken hisatsu and all that. If this were true, boxers would have a significantly easier job. Shadow boxing would be enough to ensure knockouts in the ring- no more of that strenuous bag work and all that bashing around on sparring partners. Boxing would begin to experience the blooming of clubs in every strip mall, and the sport would be revolutionized by the emergence of average, out of shape, untrained champions who won with unstoppable technique. However, UFC style fights have made it painfully (and usually very quickly) clear that students produced by such schools are comically ineffectual against real life opponents who hit back. While this is entertaining to watch in a ring setting, it also emphasizes the sobering fact that there are an awful lot of people with black belts who think that such training will enable them to safely handle a determined attacker. Yet these practices continue to be faithfully repeated by even well-intentioned sensei.

Like Hammering Nails

I find this line of thought to be absolutely mind boggling. Why should karate be exempt from the fact that punching is a skill, and skills must be developed in context to be usable? And let me point out that understanding the concept of a skill is not the same as being experientially familiar with its usage. For example, I wouldn’t expect a hammer to drive a nail if I held it at the most perfect angle with just the right grip, stance and breathing and then placed it on the head of the nail and tensed all the muscles in my body. Some relevant ingredients might be present in my attempt, but the nail won’t budge no matter how perfect I get the form. I can even put all of my weight on the end of the hammer as I hold it on the nail, but the nail still won’t be driven into the wood. If you ever have a chance to help out on a volunteer building project, watch how people use hammers. Everyone there will be familiar with the concept of a hammer, and could demonstrate in the air the basic way that one uses the tool if you asked. But watch as the work begins: the folks who have never really used a hammer before are hitting everything but the nail; others take a dozen or so tentative whacks to get the nail even halfway in; a few folks might be using both hands or smashing their thumbs with alarming regularity, and at least one hammer will probably go sailing through the air at some point, leaving a confused and apologetic looking user empty handed.

Meanwhile the experienced hands are driving nails in with three or four blows, never missing a beat. Even though everyone may understand the idea of hammering, the hammer has to hit the nail at some point- and the harder you can bring the hammer down squarely onto the nail, the quicker and more cleanly the nail is driven. All of the other factors are useless unless solid contact can be reliably made between the tool and the target. I’m not denigrating the need for clean basics here; all of the experienced carpenters in my example had to bang up a few boards and fingers and get told by old-timers that their angle was all wrong before they got to be fast, accurate and strong with the tool. So they kept on hammering things until they got it down; they didn’t quote the Tao Te Ching and then return to holding the hammer against the nail with “samurai spirit.”

Punching someone in the face is a similarly “make it or break it” kind of thing, and training people to believe that martial aerobics will prepare them to successfully smash their knuckles into someone’s face is irresponsible. Although I advocate regular bag and makiwara work, I am not a big believer in Ikken hisatsu. Some karate schools will defend this one until they’re blue in the face, but I find it to be dangerously irresponsible to train students to think that opponents will automatically crumble simply because they train to throw a “Karate” punch. I admit that it’s a seductive idea, but there is no such thing as a karate punch. Lyoto Machida recently made karate chat rooms buzz with talk of his “winning a UFC match with a karate punch.” If you watch the highlight clip of the finishing blow in question, Machida retracts his hand slightly and then fires it into his opponent’s face. Maybe I’m missing something, but there is nothing about that which distinguishes it as a punch unique to karate. I’m certain that if one invested considerable time looking at boxing, kickboxing, MMA and street fighting videos, one could “find” examples of every karate technique that can be named; remember, two hands, two feet, one head.

If nothing else, my efforts at developing into a better puncher have taught me that ultimately, it all comes down to doing it. Advice from experienced hands can help, information found in books can help, and some time spent working on form and punching targets in the dojo can go a long way. But to make it yours, you have to be willing to look outside of karate. This is not as psychologically comforting as marching around the dojo and feeling good about the crispness of your punches as they fly into thin air, but it will produce dividends. As far as teaching karate as self defense goes, train students to hit hard, accurately and repeatedly, but remind them that your best possible punch on your best possible day might not be enough to stop, or even stun, someone who is determined to hurt you.

Relying on the idea of a “karate punch” or ikken hisatsu to motivate students is outmoded and frankly dangerous. Limiting students to punching and kicking into air 70% of the time or more does not teach them usable skills. Encouraging students to explore the skill on their own by working with a wide variety of feedback (bags, pads, people in sparring armor, etc…) can help to deconstruct some of these ideas. This may take the “sensei as god” blinders off and students may decide to do something else other than karate, but it’s an honest approach to training. And if the writings of the likes of Motobu, Mabuni, Miyagi, Funakoshi and others are any indication, it has far more to do with the “tradition” of karate than any Japanese terminology or ideation about Bushido. Perhaps Dempsey’s own observation sums it up best:

“He laughs last who hits hardest.”