Ten reasons why karateka should try grappling.

by Ryan Gregory, July 19th, 2013

I’ve really been enjoying my experience in studying judo and BJJ, and I decided to compile a list of reasons why I think this is something that could benefit my fellow karateka. But before I get to that, here are some caveats:

* I’m not implying that all karateka ignore grappling completely. Lots of dojos incorporate relevant techniques in their sparring, bunkai, or self-defense drills. Many also include some type of formal jujutsu training in the curriculum, for example in the form of various wrist locks, arm bars, etc., albeit often from standing.

* I am fully aware that traditional karate contains take-downs, locks, and throws in the kata. However, this raises two important questions: 1) How often do you practice those take-downs, locks, and throws? Is it every single class? If not, then 2) Why not learn from people who specialize in those things and who practice them all the time, including on resisting opponents?

* I am not saying that striking arts are ineffective, and I am not saying that they are inferior to grappling arts.

* I am not saying that grapplers always beat strikers. Clearly they don’t, and no one in MMA only strikes or only grapples anymore. In fact, one could argue that these days more fights end by knockouts than by submissions.

* I am writing this based on my experiences to date, but I do not claim in any way to be an expert in either karate or grappling.

* I am not endorsing BJJ or Judo or Sambo or any particular grappling art. This is about grappling in general, not a promotion for one style or another.

* Yes, I could also write an article about why grapplers should try training in a striking art.

So, with those points in mind, here are some reasons that I think karateka would benefit greatly from some formal training in grappling arts.

1. You need a ground game. As a striker, you probably feel that staying on your feet is the best strategy, and in fact that the ground is the last place that you want to be in a real fight. Especially if you need to be able to get away, if there are multiple opponents, if the guy may have a weapon. I agree. And yes, the “99.99% of fights go to the ground!” internet statistic is complete nonsense. But, even though it makes sense to start out fighting standing up and at your comfortable striking distance, you have to be aware that sometimes it will go to a clinch and/or to the ground. You might be taken down. Or you might take your opponent down and end up on the ground with him. Either way, you could end up in a bad position and suddenly find that your punches and kicks are not going to help you. Some grappling skills will help in all of these situations. They will help you to avoid being taken down, they will make it easier for you to avoid or escape a bad position (and, preferably, to get back to your feet), and they will give you more tools to finish the fight on the ground.

Think of a beginning student in your dojo. Chances are, he doesn’t know how to punch (or even how to make a proper fist), his stances are all wrong, and he seems awkward and uncoordinated. You know he’ll get better with training, but right now he really has no idea what he’s doing. It’s the same for a striker with no grappling experience who ends up in a bad position on the ground.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

I guarantee you that even a BJJ or Judo white belt with only a few months of training will be able to tell you several of the major mistakes that the karateka makes once he gets taken down. They’ll know because they will have made many of those mistakes in sparring and will have learned quickly what gets you choked out.

Even if you train some grappling techniques in your dojo, they are unlikely to be as refined as those taught by expert grapplers. Case in point, here’s a karate dojo working on an arm bar, but unfortunately a rather sloppy version. A resisting opponent would probably escape this easily. But then look at the difference when they get some advice from someone who has grappling expertise.

Even better:

2. Training with grapplers will improve your stand-up game. Knowing what to do if you are taken down will allow you to be more confident and committed with your stand-up techniques because you won’t have to worry so much about the opponent catching your kick or trapping you in a clinch when you move in for a strike. Worrying about being taken down is one reason why strikers are often tentative with their initial attacks. These “toe dipping” sorts of techniques do zero damage and provide a prime opportunity for a grappler to move in and attempt a take-down.

That’s exactly what we see over and over in the early Gracie challenge videos involving people who have trained exclusively in striking arts:

Training with a grappler will improve your stand-up game because it will show you very quickly what kinds of attacks do and don’t work on someone who is intent on going to a clinch or on taking you down. In particular, it will show you why it is a bad idea to do a half-ass kick or single technique rather than a full-on combination attack. It will also show you what you need to do in order to counter a take-down attempt using strikes, which definitely can work if you practice it:

3. Randori is a very effective way to learn, and it provides an excellent reality check. In most striking arts, sparring is done either for points or as something resembling a game of “tag”. That is, it is generally not done at full power because you would quickly run out of partners if everyone fought for real in the dojo. Point or semi-contact sparring can have benefits, such as helping with timing and distance, but it can also give a very misleading sense of what a real fight is like. Remember, how you train is how you will fight, and if you play tag in the dojo, you may try it in the street as well. This is another reason that you see strikers throwing weak, single attacks in far too many fight videos.

It’s not just against grapplers that this bad habit can land you in trouble. Here’s an example of some taekwondo students against amateur boxers. While the TKD guys are playing tag, the boxers are throwing real punches.

It’s very different in grappling arts. Because of the nature of the techniques (throws, arm bars, chokes) and the option of “tapping out” before any major damage is done, students can engage in free sparring (“randori” in judo, “rolling” in BJJ) that involves 100% resistance. In other words, the opponent is doing everything he can to submit you and to keep you from submitting him. Any assumptions that you may have about how your techniques work on a resisting opponent are put to the test and any illusions about their effectiveness dissolve immediately. You simply cannot become deluded about your prowess in the way that many strikers do.

Obviously, there are some very serious strikers out there who put their skills to the test in full contact competition. Kyokushin karate and muay thai come to mind.

But then there are guys like this:

That’s an extreme example, but the point is that these guys can go all the way through the ranks and never realize that they have zero fighting ability. By contrast, this is a critical lesson that you will learn on day one in a grappling class.

Similar points were made recently by author Sam Harris,

[A] form of self-deception can be found in most martial artists, because almost all training occurs with some degree of partner compliance: Students tend to trade stereotyped attacks in a predictable sequence, stopping to reset before repeating the drill. This staccato pattern of practice, while inevitable when learning a technique for the first time, can become a mere pantomime of combat that does little to prepare a person for real encounters with violence.

Another problem is that many combative techniques are too dangerous to perform realistically (e.g., gouging the eyes, striking the groin). As result, students are merely left to imagine that these weapons decisively end a fight whenever deployed in earnest. Reports from the real world suggest otherwise.

These concerns make BJJ and other grappling arts unique in two ways: BJJ can be safely practiced under conditions of 100 percent resistance and, therefore, any doubts or illusions about its effectiveness can be removed. Striking-based arts can also be performed under full resistance, of course, but not safely—because getting repeatedly hit in the head is bad for your health. And, whatever the intensity of training, it is difficult to remove uncertainty from the striker’s art: Not even a professional boxer can be sure what will happen if he hits an assailant squarely on the jaw with a closed fist. The other man might fall to the ground unconscious, or he might not—and without gloves, the boxer might break his hand on the first punch. By contrast, even a novice at BJJ knows beyond any doubt what will happen if he correctly applies a triangle choke. It is a remarkable property of grappling that the distance between theory and reality can be fully bridged.

4. Striking is not always effective. One of the problems with the safety-related limitations on full-contact training in striking arts is that it means that many strikers have to assume that their punches and kicks will be effective if they ever need to use them for real.

Sometimes a powerful strike or kick is all it takes:

But you simply can’t assume that your strikes will work every time and against every opponent. Look at the damage that boxers and MMA fighters can take without going down. As one example, here is the last few minutes of the famous UFC fight between Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen:

Sonnen spent 23 minutes using Anderson Silva as a punching bag, but he still lost the match. At the last moment, Silva managed to pull out a win by catching Sonnen in a triangle. Chael Sonnen is no 90-pound weakling. He’s a strong, well-trained fighter. And yet, he landed strike after strike for more than 20 minutes, and it did nothing to stop Silva. Yes, he was wearing gloves, but lots of fighters get knocked out in UFC matches even with gloves (including Anderson Silva), so that’s not the explanation for why strikes did not end the fight. The point is that sometimes strikes end a fight quickly and sometimes they don’t, and you cannot assume that one or two strikes will be enough in every situation.

If that doesn’t convince you, consider that UFC heavyweight Roy Nelson recently set a UFC record by being hit with 437 significant strikes without being stopped by any of them. Those are strikes by trained heavyweight UFC fighters. Maybe you hit a lot harder than they do, but I wouldn’t count on it.

5. Striking is not always appropriate. One of my favorite scenes in the brilliant web comedy series Enter the Dojo comes in the very first episode, in which Master Ken instructs his students in how to deal with someone poking them in the chest (skip ahead to 1:50):

This is a parody, of course, but serious examples like this are pretty common. Consider these extreme responses to someone throwing a punch:

The truth is, you can’t unleash hell on someone for grabbing you or trying to punch you and expect there to be no legal or moral consequences. Sometimes doing damage with strikes is just not appropriate at all. Consider the “drunkle” scenario, which is a drunk uncle at some family gathering who is causing a scene. You can’t very well do a circling destruction on him in front of all your relatives. In cases such as that, you need a less violent alternative for controlling the individual. Grappling arts specialize in joint locks, hold downs, and chokes that can end a situation effectively without doing permanent damage or landing you in jail. This is why many karateka also train in at least some basic locks and take-downs, but more training means more options.

5. It will expand your ideas about bunkai. One of the most interesting aspects of karate training is learning the applications of kata. It’s amazing how much information is packed into kata, and not just obvious things like blocking and punching, but joint locks, throws, and take-downs. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that many of the early masters of karate also had experience with some form of grappling art such as judo or jujutsu.

As an excellent modern example, Iain Abernethy has various books and DVDs which emphasize the use of throws and grappling techniques derived from katas.

Of course, no one knows more about throws, locks, and take-downs than someone who has trained extensively in an art that focuses on these techniques. They may also practice using them against attacks that are different from those that are typically practiced in karate. Learning from experts in throws and locks can greatly expand your repertoire in this area, which you can then apply to your own understanding and interpretation of kata to see how they can fit within your karate training.

6. Most people don’t train in martial arts, but a lot of people watch UFC and YouTube. Self-defense oriented training in most martial arts includes defenses against grabs, haymaker punches, and other common attacks, because this is what you are much more likely to encounter in a real situation. Nonetheless, most of what is taught and practiced in karate is how to defend against karate-style attacks such as straight punches and kicks. This may or may not translate into fighting skills that work well against untrained opponents with no martial arts background.

Yet, odds are that you if you do get into a fight, it won’t be with one of these guys:

But it could very well be against a guy like this:

A person like this has no formal training, but has watched many UFC fights and YouTube videos and will be trying to use an amateur version of MMA moves. That includes imitations of take-downs and grappling techniques, which are pretty easily countered if you have real training in these areas.

7. It will expand your knowledge of body mechanics. Applied knowledge of how the body can and can’t move is what makes the martial arts effective. Striking arts like karate may emphasize strong stances, power generation, speed, and torque. Grappling arts like judo emphasize the proper use of balance (and disruption thereof), leverage, and momentum. Karate teaches how to maximize the force of impact and to attack the most vulnerable targets. Judo and BJJ focus on how to control an opponent using minimal effort and to disable an attacker using joint manipulations and chokes. Put this knowledge together, and you will have a formidable understanding of applied biomechanics.

8. It’s a new challenge. One of the goals of martial arts training in general is to constantly challenge oneself. Unfortunately, once a certain level of proficiency is reached in one art, it can be difficult to follow through on this — especially if it means leaving one’s comfort zone. Trying a martial art that is quite different can be a real challenge and very exciting, once you get over the idea of being a white belt again.

9. It’s a great workout. If you take part in multiple sports, then you’ll know that they do not all use the same muscles in the same way. You can ride a bicycle all you want, you’re still going to be sore if you go rollerblading for the first time. Likewise, the muscles and the way they are used is different in karate versus grappling arts. Combined with the sustained strenuous exercise of randori, this provides a different and highly complementary workout to your normal training.

10. It’s fun. ‘Nuff said.

So there you have it, ten good reasons for karateka to give grappling arts a try.

Comments (2)

Tim QuanceJuly 20th, 2013 at 8:17 pm

I don’t have time to read the hole article, but your points are correct to me. I use to have a friend who is a BJJ black belt watch our go-jyu katas while I taught class. And would point out various applications of throws and submissions he would see buried in there. I also would like to unlock these things buried right in our own style of karate. Good thoughts Mr. Gregory!

JesseJuly 21st, 2013 at 3:24 pm

Great article Ryan-san!

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