The roundhouse kick and traditional martial arts

Chuck Norris' roundhouse
The roundhouse kick - made infamous by Chuck Norris - is a martial arts staple.  You see it in practically every movie.  It occurs in every round in every MMA, Muay Thai, kickboxing, Chinese san shou and kyokushinkai "knockdown" karate fight, just as it occurs in non-contact sport karate.

And it is also seen being practised in countless dojos/guans/kwoons/studios/gyms across the world.

Yet some will be surprised to note that it isn't exactly a "traditional" technique at all.  For one thing:
It does not occur in any traditional kata/xing/pattern/form predating the 60s.
Now I don't believe it was because folks back then "lacked the technology".  I'm sure the roundhouse kick probably existed in all ancient fighting systems. After all, its most basic incarnation is the simple kick to the thigh with the instep - the "soccer kick". It is easy to learn and easy to land. It is arguably the most natural kick we have.

But there is, I think, a reason that it is not really a feature of traditional civilian defence arts in terms of the kata. Yes, it might be hinted at in "stem cell moves" and it might have been used in sparring and other kumite. But it is not in kata. Why?

Machida using standard karate
tactics to evade a roundhouse
I believe the answer is this: the roundhouse kick is not a conservative civilian defence movement. It is actually quite risky.

The risks relate principally to telegraphing and the big, swinging, longer travelling, movement.

These are real issues with the roundhouse kick - whoever you are and whoever you are fighting:

Arts like karate are certainly geared at anticipating and exploiting those issues.  For example, if someone tried to kick me in the thigh, I'd like to think there was a good chance that, using my traditional civilian defence training, I might evade the kick.  And my attacker would be left very vulnerable when he missed (see the adjacent photos of a fighter missing Machida and note his lack of balance and poor positioning).

Either that, or I might close the gap and hit him as he was kicking.  I manage such tactics routinely in sparring against people who are throwing far more disciplined and less telegraphed roundhouse kicks, so why not against some untrained hoodlum?

Machida uses another standard karate
tactic of closing to negate a roundhouse
It is unsurprising to me that Lyoto Machida routinely demonstrates both these standard karate tactics in his MMA bouts as illustrated in the pictures above and below: he is a highly skilled traditional karateka who is well versed in applying these methods.

However I want to underscore that none of my preceding discussion should be read to suggest that karate's conservative approach is attributable to its intended use against another karateka (or similar traditional martial artist) who might anticipate and exploit any "big" techniques of our own.  Karate is, like all civilian defence arts, aimed at thwarting street attacks.
Any street attacks.
In fact, karate is easiest to apply against big, swinging attacks because it is a civilian defence (not offence) art: ie. it is, necessarilyreactive: you get attacked and you respond. And it is easier to respond (ie. intercept/evade and counter) to a big, telegraphed swing than it is to do so against a more direct one.

My friend and colleague Colin Wee has excellent round
kicks - but I'm not expecting to be attacked by someone
like him!
Conversely, the fact that a karateka is happier to face someone untrained also doesn't mean that this affects the nature of his or her own tactics - including attack methods.

The latter are kept to conservative movement not because the karateka anticipates a particular opponent (trained or untrained) - but because he/she just want to be as minimalist as possible generally - ie. take as little time, and as few risks, as as he/she can.

I personally don't use conservative attacks because I "fear a karateka intercepting/evading my big attacks". Rather, I fear the unknown element:  I fear the hidden accomplice waiting in the shadows with the block of wood; I fear treacherous terrain where a big move causes me to slip and break my ankle; I fear the hidden pocket knife in my opponent's hand.  All of these happened to my brother when he faced (and subdued) a burglar not too long ago.  There are many more such possible variables.

Another point about roundhouse kick is this: when applied to the thigh, it doesn't really have enough potential to incapacitate. Yes, if I were kicked tomorrow in the thigh by Jon Jones, I might well go down.  But let's be real here: if some average guy in the street kicked me the thigh, I would probably still be quite able to fight back with little impediment - even if he were "MMA trained".

The ubiquitous roundhouse kick to the
thigh popularised by Muay Thai
Were I to kick an attacker in the thigh, I fear there would be a similar "lack of impediment"; disabling through  sheer force and shin conditioning is not exactly my forte - nor that of most civilian martial artists.

So how does an art like karate treat the mawashi geri? What does it do to make the movement less "risky" and more "applicable" in civilian defence?  It makes the movement less of a "power" movement and more a conservative one. It throws the kick as a snap.

And it minimises the surface area to increase pressure by using the ball of the foot rather than the instep.

This is why the karate mawashi geri cannot compete "power wise" with a Muay Thai or MMA roundhouse kick. It isn't intended to be as forceful.  But that is deliberate: the the latter is simply too risky to be part of a conservative civilian defence arsenal except on the rarest occasions.  On the other hand, the "short, sharp, snap" variety is a whole lot more conservative (requiring less "wind up"), while still delivering results (through using smaller surface area, correct targeting of vital regions and using a percussive snap that causes a "shock" rather than a "pushing" blow).

As I've noted, the roundhouse kick is not found in traditional Okinawan karate kata (some have been modified to include it, but this is a fairly recent innovation).

I've always been told that the introduction of the ball of foot, snapping mawashi geri to karate kihon (basics) and kumite (sparring - both restricted and free) only occurred in the 1950s - and that this is attributable to Gichin Funakoshi's son, Yoshitaka.

Yoshitaka Funakoshi
Nevertheless, I'll admit that even Yoshitaka's conservative version of the roundhouse kick is not one I use all that much.  As I get older, I throw fewer and fewer roundhouse kicks. They are hard to do - especially in their karate form.

They are also risky. I'm slower now and and have less "power" in my techniques as a result. Accordingly I think I've instinctively backed off using roundhouse kicks. Yes, I threw a couple while sparring the other night, but this is because they were low (I caught my partner in the groin - albeit in a controlled way!) and because I saw a neat opening. And we were sparring after all - not fighting.

So for me, while the roundhouse kick is a legitimate civilian defence weapon, it is only of marginal use. It will have uses here and there, but not often. And when it is useful, it will usually be in its low, short, sharp, snapping, ball of foot guise.

Going back to the ball of the foot: I've discussed previously how it isn't a problem with front kicks,  But is it harder to do this with mawashi geri?  Actually it is: I'll admit I sometimes sprain a toe on the heavy bag when trying to kick hard.
But, importantly, this usually happens only when I'm trying to turn this snap kick into a "power kick".
What about shoes? Well in that case, it even harder to pull the toes back.  But this is where it is important to remember what the karate mawashi geri is all about: it is a short, sharp snap - not a power "driving" technique. For this purpose, I've found that the tip of the shoe is quite adequate to the task. Yes, you can't hit a tree or heavy bag so well. But a human body (eg. groin, bladder or even face)? You bet. My hiking boots will do plenty of damage without my toes suffering a jot.

And you don't have to kick as hard as Jon Jones to achieve this. I've been kicked in the eye with mawashi geri and had it close over as a consequence. This was from a snap with no "push through": the kind of kick you wouldn't even bother trying on a makiwara or bag etc. It would look insipid. Not only was my eye injured, but I momentarily blacked out from the impact.

Jon Jones throws a roundhouse kick
So for me, the question of mawashi geri is a complex one. Is it a technique I still teach and use? Yes, even though it isn't really a "traditional" civilian defence technique. Which version do I prefer? The ball of foot / toes in shoes snap. Do I also teach the "power version" using the instep? Yes: it is good as a "stem cell" concept to understand how to drive power into a target using your hip and leg in staged activation.

I don't want this essay to suggest a relative disdain on my part for the roundhouse kick.  In fact, I probably tend to use it more than most goju karateka - more than most karateka generally.  I'm simply acknowledging a personal trend towards using it less and less as the years go by.

Compare, for example, my sparring in 1993 and 1996 below: you'll see more mawashi geri by your's truly than you can poke a stick at!  Okay, I don't use quite so many nowadays - but I still do one for every 3 or so minutes of sparring.  So much for "not using roundhouse kicks"!

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic


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