Staying in the "melee"

My article “The melee: karate’s fighting range” has elicited many responses since I posted it on the net – many favourable and encouraging, others not so. I have had cause to address some of the points raised in forums and on the net, so I thought I’d summarise those comments here:

But your approach is too risky!

One of the principal arguments I’ve encountered is that “giving opponent an opportunity to hit you doesn't make much sense”. Another way this has been put is: “standing toe to toe and attacking will leave you open to attack.”

Superficially this argument might seem persuasive. However it relies on several flawed assumptions as to what I meant in my article about fighting in the “melee range” and about self-defence in general.

As a starting point, it is worth noting my opinion that the melee is the fight. Everything else is “sport”. Fights aren't about squaring off in stances, donning pads and bouncing etc. The fight will begin and end in the melee.

With that in mind our approach is to train (including sparring) in the melee. So while it "doesn't make much sense to be where your opponent can hit you" we're simply reflecting reality. When you're attacked in a bar etc. that is precisely where you'll be - where your opponent can hit you. Ergo, this is where you should train/spar etc.

Yes, it is probably a foolish tactic to stand there just slugging it out “toe to toe”. But that's not what I'm talking about. Assuming you’ve just been attacked, you're in the melee deflecting/evading and countering. You wouldn’t stay in the melee "leaving yourself open". You would “stay” in the melee not so much out of choice but because you're fighting - and in real combat I don't see why your attacker would let you go "out of combat" that easily.

I’ve been taught to enter the melee only to elicit your opponent's committed attack or to "meet" an attack he has already launched...

What is unwritten is that, presumably, you either counter successfully or you step out of the melee. This works fine with an opponent who is “playing the game”. But what if he/she doesn’t?

In my view you should deflect and counter in the melee. If your counter succeeds, good. If it doesn't you deflect/evade still in the melee. If your counter is still thwarted, you deflect and try once more...

This is as opposed to realising that your attack has been thwarted and simply backpedalling out of the melee - which even if you are successful in evasion etc. leaves you having to close the gap again...

Of course, if you can disengage and run away then this is always an option. For training purposes we assume that you can't get away.

Put another way, I'm talking about dominating the melee - learning tactics that will deflect attacks and set you up, just as I’ve suggested in my article “Is karate a striking art”. I'm not talking standing there exchanging blows "toe-to-toe" as one might occasionally see in boxing. The latter is not karate. Karate uses deflections/taisabaki as a set-up. The difference between the “dart in and out” style kumite commonly (and regrettably) seen in many karate dojos today and our “randori” approach is that the former trains you for a "one-off" while the latter trains you for a continuum. I see training in a continuum as vital - particularly since you don't (or shouldn’t!) actually land "finishing blows" in training, so you can’t rely on an “ikken hitsatsu” (one blow, certain defeat) methodology. You have no idea if your “single blow” will work – no feedback to ground realistic expectation of success and nothing in the way of a back-up plan. Training for a continuum is vital preparation for the chaotic environment that is the melee.

I only stay in the melee to obtain a favourable position – then I’m out of there

You don't stay there if you have executed a determinative counter! The reality is that the fight will be won or lost in the melee, so for what it's worth you will "stay there in a fight" until you have landed a sufficient blow to disable your opponent or allow you to escape.

And there is a difference between "staying there in a fight" and "staying there in sparring". In sparring you stay there because you and your opponent want the experience. You mightn’t even be able to complete a take-down or other “melee breaker” if you and your sparring partner are evenly matched (and neither of you can manoeuvre the other into a "checkmate"). Furthermore, even if I'm sparring with a junior I won’t (as a rule) press my advantage. I try to stay in the melee for training reasons. There I'll use the opportunity to try less-used/more advanced techniques. That way we both learn.

That crucial point of "deciding who will obtain a favourable position" is what it's all about, so one should train for it. What happens next (eg. your finishing blow) is not as important (makiwara, bagwork and less “chaotic” drills will teach you that).

I'm not talking about darting in and out. I'm talking about receiving your opponent's attack in the "melee" range and countering – then getting out!

Fair enough. But even if your "move in" involves receiving the attack, deflecting it, moving to the inside, countering etc. I would still call that "darting in and out". Why? As I said earlier, if your counter fails you can’t assume you’ll be able to get out of the melee just because you want to... And you might be coming in for than just one punch, but that doesn't change my perspective. You're still talking about “moving in and out” of the melee...

How is randori in the "melee" range any different from “faux boxing”? Both are nothing like real fighting

I've been at pains to point out that our randori isn't meant to be real fighting; it is a drill. It lets you become accustomed to that range and gives you the chance to learn the strategies of controlling the melee – deflecting/evading and countering. It is artificial in the sense that in sparring you can't land real, committed finishing blows. In a real fight if you are successful with your first counter the fight might well be over. On the other hand, if your opponent is good, you might be equally deflecting/countering each other for at least some time (unlikely, but possible). In any event, sparring this way gives you greater experience in the melee.

Of course, you can't rely on randori as your sole training. It does not replace other simpler sparring drills where you perform finishing moves. However randori does allow permutations such as "try to evade the grappler" because anything goes - grappling, trapping, striking, small joint locks, you name it. I've thwarted would-be grapplers in sparring with a few controlled contacts (that hurt just enough). The attacker could take advantage of my kindness in not hitting for real, but then again he or she could speed up to full speed. It's a drill that relies on cooperation. That is precisely why we call it "randori" (which in judo and elsewhere relies on some cooperation) and not "jiyu kumite" or just "kumite" (as some others do). It isn't fighting, nor is any so-called "free" sparring.

Why is it better training for a karateka than faux boxing / "bouncing" kumite? Very simply, the latter doesn't use karate techniques. Randori, by contrast, uses karate deflections and taisabaki which only work in the melee. Most karateka would agree with this, it's just that their sparring only takes them into the melee sporadically. Why?

Nowhere in my book is there a reason to disengage unless you have to. Backing out of the melee because your counter fails is very common, but, as I said earlier, I haven't seen this work very well with a person who isn't "playing the game" – he or she will follow you and try to hit you some more. Backing away often delays the inevitable. So you've got to learn to deflect attacks and stay in range. You have to get used to the melee and its dynamics. Spending only short bursts there is not good training given that, as I've said fights begin and end in the melee.

On the subject of "sport" sparring, is it really surprising that karateka should train both free and restricted sparring in the melee, and not all the attendant preparation (assuming stances, circling each other, etc.)? Isn't that precisely the difference between combat and sport?

But to stay there just seems to break too many principles of the karate that I was taught...

That's the inertia I'm arguing against. Just because distance fighting (darting in and out) has been the norm in karate since the popularisation of ippon shobu sport doesn't mean that it is optimal. I believe it isn't. If it doesn't work against a boxer, muay thai practitioner, grappler etc. you have to ask why. I haven't seen anyone use this kind of distance sparring in anything other than dojo/competition. Nor does it train the "melee" except for very brief periods.

When I say that "karate is a civilian defence system" I do not (as many others) use this as an excuse for "why it doesn't work against boxing, muay thai etc.". Rather I use it as a reason for not adopting their sport-based methodology but instead preferring karate techniques such as deflections/blocks and taisabaki/tenshin...

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic


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  2. I somehow doubt there is any easy answer to this Justin.

    I am inclined to "do as the sensei says" whenever I am in another's dojo. If I were your teacher's student I would not raise such an issue unless he asked my opinion (which as you know is unlikely in any traditional school).

    Nor does the mere presence of what I call "faux boxing" in itself serve to derogate from your teacher's school. I have trained with many an effective martial artist who practised "faux boxing". I think they were effective despite this, not because of it, but no matter.

    You could try to play your "own game" in sparring; in other words move into the melee range and stay there. For example, if my opponent retreats to the safe confines of the "bouncing" range I follow. Eventually (as I have found) your opponent will be forced to stand and fight in a more realistic way.

    That said, this is a risky proposition if you are not schooled in melee fighting. I don't want you to follow this advice and walk into a fist or front kick. People who are schooled in faux boxing panic and send uncontrolled techniques flying madly when they are caught in the melee. This is dangerous and unpredictable.

    What you really need is to practise in the melee first by using "soft and slow" but flowing "randori". Find a training partner who will try this with you. Gradually work up to hard and fast - so that you can do so safely and with control.

    In your teacher's dojo I advise that you do what he/she tells you. If you can influence others by the strength of your sparring, then let this be your legacy. Your teacher has, I'm sure, too much to offer to be disrespected by a student questioning his/her teaching. We must all respect our teachers; they have the right to run their schools as they please. If their methods don't suit us we have the right to walk, but not much more, I'm afraid.

    Good luck.

  3. If they think your style of range fighting is risky, I wonder what they would think about my own.

    For I was trained to close the distance between me and the enemy to as little as .5 feet, because that's the range at where I can do the most damage and have the least chance of missing, while at the same time preventing the other guy from utilizing external martial arts or strength to overpower me. For he does not have the range to extend his fist or foot, and if he doesn't have that, his muscles are of little use in applying force.

    The quickness of the step in and attack, should be trained and done just as the enemy is attacking and has fully committed to the attack, such that mentally he would turn himself into a pretzel if he stopped to react to your attack. This is an attack that does the most damage because you will be .5 feet away from the foe, while the foe has little to zero defenses up. The other kinds of attacks, where you are countering, parrying, or defending simultaneously with his attack, will keep things in your favor, by a little, but it isn't as game ending as the tai no sen.

    "The Three Methods to Forestall the Enemy

    The first is to forestall him by attacking. This is called Ken No Sen (to set him up).

    Another method is to forestall him as he attacks. This is called Tai No Sen (to wait for the initiative).

    The other method is when you and the enemy attack together. This is called Tai Tai No Sen (to accompany him and forestall him).

    There are no methods of taking the lead other than these three. Because you can win quickly by taking the lead, it is one of the most important things in strategy. There are several things involved in taking the lead. You must make the best of the situation, see through the enemy's spirit so that you grasp his strategy and defeat him. It is impossible to write about this in detail."-Book of Five Rings

    It is impossible to write about such in detail, for every situation is its own unique strategy manual.

    This is also why the Japanese say that Heaven is under the blade of a katana and Hell is at the tip. That's because if you try to avoid a katana, then it's often going to hit you with the tip which is traveling at the maximum cutting speed and slice you apart. But if you close the distance, then you can even use your hands to trap the blade itself or destroy the enemy's body before he cuts you. Heaven is under the blade, while hell is at the tip.

    All the other things people worry about that close a range (is he going to choke me, is he going to trip me, is he going to kick me, is he going to wrestle me down) are what is called "stuff people really need to stop thinking about". Focus, as Miyamoto Musashi said, on the void, and not on stuff that just confuses you more. Focus on the now. Sublimate fear of death and advance calmly with clear intent to destroy the enemy.

    People cannot destroy anything if they are so afraid of what happens if they get "too close" to the foe.

    When I strike a person that is .5 meters from my chest, I don't want him to fly away from me. I want to keep him trapped right there, and keep delivering strikes until he's non-functional. I don't want him to fly away and have to waste time chasing him down. I don't want him at a distance where he can think up some neat trick to try on me with his superior skills. So long as he is trapped within my most damaging range, he will have little time to think about offense. He may even become flustered and worried, as most people are when fighting at very close range.

  4. Warriors have called this focus different things. Adrenaline fugue. Dissociative identity disorder. The Machine. The Lizard. The cold blooded murderer. The sociopath. The serial killer. The hero and the warrior. The void even. Regardless of the naming, it's a state of mind, like thinking without thoughts.

    Coincidentally, when someone is close enough to grapple with, and they are already injured, I can use them as a shield against enemy firearms, spears, knives, and swords. If they want to stab me so bad, how about they try to do it when their buddy's body is in the way. It's not like their buddy is going to live for much longer anyways. Closing in and grabbing a human shield, sounds strategically important to me.

    If people think it's too dangerous to stay within range of an opponent's arms, they are not mentally prepared to kill multiple serial killers and sociopaths in a deathmatch. They just aren't. Not even one, not even up against one of them. They don't want it enough. They aren't willing to sacrifice what it would take to get it. And so they won't get it. They'll just be attacked and destroyed instead, once their defense breaks down or they receive an injury that renders their defense Zero.

  5. Correction: .5 feet, not .5 meters.

    .5 meters would be about 1.5 feet (1.64 in calculation). Half a foot to a full foot is more or less an optimum place to be to deliver the maximum potential for injury using hand strikes standing upright.

    Things get a little bit more complicated when people's body postures are in different positions, however. While optimum, chaotic situations often place people farther away or closer in range, but the ideal is what one is striving for in pursuit of excellence. The visualization of the goal is important in taking steps towards the goal.


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