Karate punches vs. boxing punches

Introduction

In my article “Kime: the soul of the karate punch” I described the essential feature of the karate punch as being “focus” – ie. a combination of minimal deceleration before impact and optimum distancing – usually performed in karate with a straight thrust.

Many have, and will continue to, argue that this straight thrust is less powerful than a boxer’s follow-through punches. This is true. But to understand why this does not necessarily mean that the former is less effective we’ll have to examine punching methods – what someone I know calls “delivery systems” – in greater detail. To the extent that karate punching is “less powerful”, I will then go on to examine why this is a tactical choice rather than a necessary failing.

Categorising punches

In a very general sense karate punches can be divided into 2 kinds: straight line and curved. In boxing, punches can be divided into 2 different categories that overlap with the karate ones, namely:
    1. jabs (ie. punches which retract); and

    2. follow-through punches (which don’t – I’ll broadly use the latter to include hooks and uppercuts).
Is it possible to analyse karate punches in the context of the boxing paradigm? I’m going to try.

Jabs

Jabs are principally straight line techniques; their only real distinction from a basic karate punch is the point of origin (in karate this is at the hip, while in boxing this is from a guard position). However as any senior karateka will tell you, the karate hip chamber is just a basic or “ideal” posture that allows a punch to be “fully loaded” for practise. It is not how the technique will necessarily look in combat. Karate basics serve quite a different function for their practitioners than the boxing equivalents. They are basics as well as isolation drills.

In fact, karate punches can (and should) be performed from any position (for more on this topic see my article “Chambering punches”). They are not limited to the basic “drill” posture that we all see in line practise or kata etc.

For example, when karate punches are performed from a guard they are called “kizami zuki” – a term often meaning “leading punch” but often translated as “jab”. What people seem to regard as the main distinction between the boxing jab and the kizami zuki is that the former is usually performed with a retraction or snap-back, where the latter is not.

As I discuss in the article “Retracting punches vs. leaving the hand in”, this distinction is in fact a red herring: For a start, the retraction of your arm is largely irrelevant to the nature and effect of a punch. A snap-back in no way boosts outward speed.

In any event, non-retracting thrusts are principally used in karate as a training tool for developing and perfecting focus. In higher kata there are many snap punches. Consider for example the video below of me doing snap punches in seisan kata in 1993.


Me doing snap punches in seisan in 1993

Accordingly there is no reason for karateka not to practise and use snapping punches (ie. jabs) other than a rigid adherence to basic form. Far more importantly, combination techniques render the whole "snap back" issue irrelevant: just as in boxing, karate uses a kizami zuki as a "set up" to other techniques, meaning that as soon as it is "thrown" the punch is being retratcted so as to give momentum to a technique with the other arm (eg. a reverse punch or "gyaku zuki"). In this respect karate and boxing "jabs" are really indistinguishable, even though karate basics are often isolated for (kime) practice.

Now while jabs have been known to produce the occasional knockout they are not generally regarded as “power” blows. The reason is simple; they don’t have much space within which to accelerate, resulting in a lower velocity at the point of impact. Using the simple equation p = m x v this means the amount of momentum generated will be less, hence the amount of momentum transferred (the impulse) is going to be smaller and so is the amount of force applied to the target. (For more on the physics, see my article: “Hitting harder: physics made easy”.)

Given that the principal karate punch is a straight thrust and that it corresponds with the boxer’s jab, it is little wonder then that karate punches are seen as “less powerful” than the rest of the boxer’s arsenal – the “follow-through punches”.

Follow-through punches

With the exception of jabs, boxers don’t attempt to stop their punches at a predetermined point. Instead they adopt a “follow-through” to their punches. This is less evident with uppercuts (“ura zuki” and “tate zuki”) than, say, hooks or crosses. However the karate variants all involve a distinct “stop” executed by the performer. The boxing versions either swing past or, in the case of the uppercut, continue until they have exhausted their velocity at the end of their vertical flight path.

The powerhouse of follow-through punches is, of course the right cross (or just “cross”). Those who have read my article “Chambering punches” will be aware that there is an equivalent in karate which I have called the “kosa zuki”. In both cases it involves a punch loaded just above waist level with the elbow away from the body. Then the fist is raised and the punch is executed so that it passes through the hypotenuse of the triangle formed by you, your opponent and your (right) hand. In other words it “crosses” your (and your opponent’s) centreline.

This hypotenuse provides a longer path, hence more time to accelerate, hence a better chance of reaching a higher maximum velocity. If the full range of movement is used, and the body parts act in a staged way to transfer momentum in a whip-like sequence from larger to smaller body parts, then the fist will be accelerated to the fastest possible speed. A reverse punch is biomechanically better suited to transfer momentum in this way than a leading arm punch. And the cross / kosa zuki is, of course, a reverse punch.




An analysis of the kosa zuki or cross punch

As you can tell from the description and the picture above, the punch ideally follows a straight line in order to prevent interception or evasion; after all, the shortest distance between 2 points is a straight line. It is for this reason that even in boxing the cross is sometimes called a “straight cross”.

However in most boxing contests the cross invariably follows a curve to some extent as you will note from the video below. This is partly because, unlike karateka, boxers don’t attempt to stop their own punches at a predetermined point except, as noted above, when they are jabbing. In the absence of a deliberate “stop” by the performer, a punch executed on a horizontal plane will always tend towards a curving follow-through given the biomechanical structure of the human body (ie. in particular the positioning of the elbow to the side when an arm is naturally extended outwards).


A boxing knockout showing a distinct “curve” to the path of the punch

When a cross / kosa zuki follows a curve it obviously travels an even longer distance than a “pure” straight cross. The further the punch travels from the chambered position to the target, the more time it has to accelerate and the faster its maximum velocity will be (at 80% extension – see my article “Kime: the soul of the karate punch”). This is why the cross carries more momentum than any other punch.

How gloves affect dynamics

Now it is important to note that fighting with gloves creates its own unique requirements: The padding of the gloves spreads the pressure over a wider area, diffusing the force. By contrast, a bare knuckle punch exerts pressure to a smaller area and causes more localised damage with the same force. This can be understood by comparing a flick with a towel to a strike with a pillow: assuming the same mass and velocity at impact, the towel flick will cause more damage.

Accordingly a boxer in a ring must prioritise force at all costs: where a simple jab might be determinative in an ungloved situation (eg. a finger in the eye), a gloved jab of the same force might be no more than a minor inconvenience. In other words, in order to be effective, a gloved punch must transfer more force than its bare knuckle equivalent.

Maximum force: the need to increase both speed and contact time

As I discuss in my article "Hitting harder: physics made easy" maximising transferred force can be undertood by reference to the following equation:

Force = impulse (transferred momentum) / time.

Using this equation, you can see that a boxer first needs to maximise the velocity of the punch. As I have just noted, the boxer can do this by adopting throwing a cross punch from a higher chamber (to line the arm up with the hypoteneus of the triangle) and very likely with some element of curve (because of the natural follow-through).

Second, the boxer needs to maximise the time during which the punch is in contact with the opponent (in order to transfer as much of that momentum as possible). Happily for the boxer, this is another direct consequence of using a follow-through punch: in much the same way as a golf drive uses a follow-through to drive the ball as far as possible, the follow-through punch ensures both maximum velocity and maximum contact time with the target.

Follow-through vs. "kime"

The need to maximise force at all costs in a gloved contest has a profound effect on tactics and training methods for boxers vs. karateka. For example, a large part of a boxer’s training is necessarily devoted to “power” training; heavy bags are hit with deep penetration or with blows that are seen to displace1.

By contrast, a large part of a karateka’s training is, just like a sword practitioner’s, necessarily devoted to honing maximally efficient “kime” or focus via an endless repetition of “cut-like” blows that should minimise displacement while causing sharp, localised damage with straight bare knuckle thrusts.2

“Kime” or focus is designed to make such thrusts more efficient. On the other hand, such punches are of limited effect in a gloved context.2 Moreover, focused thrusts are inherently conservative (for example, see my article "Stopping techniques at a pre-determined point"), making them less useful in a contest where your goal is to defeat your opponent (as opposed to a civilian defence goal of "not being defeated"). Last, it takes a long time to develop good “kime” or focus to a point where it is likely to be applicable under stress.

For these reasons, karate is not readily adopted as a “delivery system” for sports combat. It is profoundly unsuited to glove dynamics2 and developing it is, in any event, a long-term proposition.

So why bother with karate punches?

All of this poses the inevitable question, why don’t karateka simply adopt boxer’s tactics? As I have foreshadowed, this is largely answered by examining goals/motivations.

As I stated in my article “Civilian defence systems”, arts like karate aren’t designed to "beat" an opponent or score a point. Your principal goal isn't to "land a knockout blow". Rather, you are trying to defend yourself. Yes, this might involve a "knockout blow" - but it might not. In the course of this defence, your counters will tend to be conservative precisely because you aren't focused on "winning" – you are focused on not being hurt. Yes, the former and latter might end up being the same thing, but to suggest that they always will is a gross oversimplification of civilian defence needs and responsibilities under the law.

Since any attack/counterattack leaves an opening, civilian defence counters have to be conservative – they aim to minimise that opening. As I noted above, in order to make boxing blows more forceful you have to have some follow-through, meaning some element of curve. This increases momentum, and contact time, significantly. But it also increases the overall “flight time” of your blow, hence making it easier to intercept or evade. It also leaves a larger opening.

Hitting someone with a less than optimally powerful blow in boxing is problematic; you’ve wasted an opportunity to land a knockout and your gloved fists will ensure that its effect is reduced even more.

On the flip side, hitting someone with a less than optimally powerful blow in self-defence might be all that is needed. A poke in the eye does not require a great deal of force. Nor does a stop to the shoulder. In the end you might daze your attacker or do something else that is sufficient to enable escape or thwart further attacks. The latter is something that Marc “Animal” MacYoung calls “cutting the supply lines” (see his article "Generating Power"). As he puts it, you don’t necessarily have to “crush your enemy” in order to defend yourself. It can be sufficient if his “army” is unable to fight.

In other words, your goals have a fundamental impact on your tactics – and hence on your chosen “delivery system”.

Which is "better"?

In my view if you were to compare the results between identical twins, one training in boxing punches and one training in karate punches, then after one or 2 years the boxer would probably generate both more visible force and more applied force. However this is not to say that the karateka would be willing to swap “delivery systems”.

Certainly if I were scheduled to climb into a boxing ring in a month’s time, I’d be hurriedly brushing up on my boxing punching – not attempting to apply the karate “delivery system”.

But on the other hand, I believe karate is much better suited to my own goals of civilian defence.

Conclusion

Many people are inclined to dispute my assertion that combat sports are different from civilian defence arts. They maintain that “fighting is just fighting”. While it is true that boxers are phenomenally good fighters all round (ditto MMA, Muay Thai, etc.) their disciplines are intended first and foremost for competition in a ring. This doesn’t mean that they are inapplicable in a street confrontation. Far from it. However by the same token, just because civilian defence systems like karate are not suitable for use in a combat sports ring does not mean they are not fit for their purpose.

I’ve written this article largely to address the misunderstanding in the broader community as to why arts like karate have such different “delivery systems” from systems like boxing. Because Eastern civilian defence systems are much harder to understand intuitively (given that they take many more years to perfect) they have become an easy target for dismissive assertions that they “don’t work”. In my personal experience, they work very well for the purpose for which they were designed.

Footnotes

1. The more follow-through / contact time, the more you will “shift” or “displace” your opponent and the more forceful your punch will be - and be seen to be (see my article “Visible force vs. applied force”)! Having said all this, the displacement from a very forceful gloved punch (as opposed to a mere push) is still going to be relatively small; you’ll notice that while the knockout blow in the above video did move the opponent a little, it was still not so great as to knock him across the ring.

2. It is important to note that the padding of a glove makes it very difficult indeed to focus any punch in the karate sense of that word. Clearly all effective punches are focussed; if a boxer’s punches weren’t focussed they would be aimless and ineffective. All effective blows are, to some extent, focussed on a target. And just as with the differences in displacement generated by the different “delivery systems” can be slight, the differences in levels of focus are actually quite slight too. However it is those last few increments that are the hardest to achieve. The karate concept of “kime” is modelled on a bare-knuckle delivery system that focuses destructive force on a small area. The very purpose of a boxing glove is to distribute force over a wider area. And this runs directly counter to the concept of "kime".

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Comments

  1. As always, it was a well written and thought-provoking article.

    Might another reason for the difference be that boxers can throw punches with massive follow-through, because if they miss or fall into their opponent, they can just grab on and be safe - a luxury not available to people actually fighting? I'm not sure, just a thought.

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  2. I scanned your article in between seeing clients. Overall it makes some sense. I particularly have to agree with your differentiation between the context in which both types of punches are used, i.e. defense versus sport. I am going under the assumption that what you describe as hydrostatic shock is similar to what some Chinese styles call internal punches...at least your explanation of hydrostatic shock sounds very much the same as internal punches were described to me. That being said, gloves and protective equipment take that away certainly.

    I always looked at the two (karate/boxing) as having some overlap, as you described the boxing punches in general can be loosely equated to those in karate. The difference between karate basics versus karate application I feel was important to note as to me it seems many who criticize karate punching are criticizing the basic punching form...arm left out, tight pulled back chamber etc. I follow the line that this is necessary to build the essential feel and structure for the beginning student while the advanced student can engage the proper biomechanical functions within shorter space. Boxing/Muy Thai/extreme fighting etc. need immediate application for the contest. In my view, in the amatuer circles anyway you tend to see sloppier punches because they have not yet grooved proper body mechanics; not so with elite professionals. The example given of the curved rear cross I view as a sloppy shot, meaning I feel the rear cross can and should be used in a more linear fashion. Maybe its just me adding karate principles to my own rendition of the rear cross, but thats my personal view.

    To me the big difference is in the context. In contests you are continually slugging at someone with protective gear, where you have time to weaken the body with body shots, or try and work in the ko, you have multiple rounds, and your not trying to escape to survive...well maybe survive if your fighting the likes of Mike Tyson...but in the traditional martial arts sense your looking to distract and escape, maim/incapacitate, or if extremely necessary (and hopefully not) kill. So I think I agree with your explanation on the convservative approach to the civilian defense aspect, you need each shot to count for a more immediate concern.

    I would add that certainly conversely with a survival and civilian defense state of mind the punching of say boxing etc. could be used very effectively once the context of the situation is changed and with a slight variation of training method and execution.

    Kumaken (Ryan)

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  3. A very enlightening article, thank you.

    You say: '[jabs] don’t have much space within which to accelerate, resulting in a lower velocity at the point of impact'.

    It seems that you are saying that the choku-zuki accelerates along the path to the target (at least the first 80% before kime is applied).

    My understanding of (and how I attempt to execute) choku-zuki is that the initial acceleration is given by pushing against the floor, turning the hips and pulling back the opposite shoulder, but then the arm and fist are allowed to 'fly' freely.

    When the fist is close to the target, kime is applied: The muscles of the arm and hand are tightened, the fist is rotated, the torso is compressed - and again force is applied from the floor and by a second movement of the hips.

    I am not sure if this is different from what you describe, but if it is, I think this makes choku-zuki, as least as I know it, even more different from the boxing jab.

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  4. It is true that boxers often raise the back foot with follow through punches - however with jabs they generally don't.

    The best "jabbers" in boxing (eg. John Famechon - who used "The Method" where you rely on the lead jab and hardly ever use the reverse punch) use dynamics very similar to the kizami zuki of karate. 'Choku zuki' as a term refers to any straight punch (and could mean a reverse punch - which is a different beast).

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  5. Well written article. I still believe the sweet science has the strongest and most effective movement as far as striking with your hands. Snapping back punches in boxing is to provide your guard, but more importantly the punch acts like a whip. Bruce Lee described his JKD punch as "an iron ball on a chain." His punch is directly based on western boxing. While he describes a karate punch as an "iron bar hitting you." + there was a university study that concluded a JKD punch stronger...

    I've tried many different martial arts. From JKD, Judo, muay thai, kempo ju jitsu, BJJ, scholastic wrestling, mma and boxing. As far as street fighting, I found boxing, wrestling, and judo were the most effective for a beginner. Everything else takes more time and practice to transfer to a street situation.

    And again as far as the punch, the boxing punch begins at the foot, goes up through your hip, to your wrist and ends at with your fist. All except the jab. The jab basically snaps at people with no body movement. Also consider that boxers only weapon is their hands, therefore they optimize their stance and balance for striking. They are definitely the punching experts. + their balance is amazing. Gloves or no gloves, as seen in MMA, Freddie Roach with Anderson Silva/Arlovski... Diego Sanchez and De La Hoya...

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  6. You are correct that the speed of retraction does not affect the speed of the initial thrust of a punch. However, I believe that boxing jabs definitely rely on that quick reaction because the best jabs are to be both heavy AND snappy. They are supposed to be snappy so that after a few jabs to the face, the glove should cause the recipient's face to start swelling. You cannot do that with bare hands. That is the biggest difference between a boxing jab and a karate "jab", I think. What do you say?

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  7. It is true that a good jab is both heavy and snappy. Another way of putting that is that the punch has a fast outward speed and that none of the punches force is pulled back during the retraction.

    Accordingly I maintain that the retraction is a red herring. In terms of physics it is just a complicating factor: the best jabs are done with a fast retraction, but without compromising the force of the punch.

    As to the glove - yes, it does affect the outcome of the punch. But a good jab with a bare knuckle will do the same if not more damage. It can be "snappy" and "heavy" too. The only difference is that the knuckles will reduce the surface area of the blow, concentrating the force and causing more localised damage (eg. cutting or breaking).

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  8. What an insightful post. I also approve of the use of physics to explain what people tend to think of as superiority/inferiority in similar techniques between styles.

    You said it much more eloquently but I've said to many friends that boxers punch with more Force because the rules of boxing have optimized using such Force. Conversely, karate rules are, by and large, still adhering to the rationale under which the techniques were created: defend yourself and dont get hit.

    Or as you put it, the techniques in karate are more "conservative" because the mindset of karate states that they have more to loose in a fight.

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  9. That's right Brett. Thanks for reading and for your comment.

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  10. Very good Article. I have applyed both of the punching methods, buti have to work more on the Kime. In short words would you say that the karate punch stops on a point and the boxing punch is following true ?

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  11. Thanks Hans. In terms of power punches, that summary is correct. Boxing jabs however don't follow through.

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  12. Hey Dan, not sure if my previous comments have gotten through. I've been having some trouble with the internet today, so feel free to ignore repeated questions.

    Essentially I've been meaning to ask why we keep the heel down when doing reverse punches. I've seen many schools teach students to pivot on the ball of the foot to add an additional level to the "whip" and therefore create a higher level of velocity. I can think of a few reasons why we might avoid this in our school, but could you outline your reasons for punching with the heel down? Thanks!

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  13. Hi Xin

    I cover this issue in my article Why are my karate punches more like boxing punches when I hit shields and bags?".

    Pivoting on the ball of the foot ironically does not add "whip" or any other force. Usually it pulls force away. Consider this video (and try the exercise I describe at around 0:39). Usually pivoting on the heel is what adds power (but robs you stability).

    Essentially, lifting the heel at the point of impact can (but not always) throw more of your bodyweight into a punch, which is fine, but you don't want to have to rely on it. For one thing, it is at odds with a more conservative civilian defence methodology to over-extend yourself.

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  14. Impressive article.

    I currently train in Kyokushin Karate and I have strongly considered taking up boxing to shore up my hand work (and defending my head!)

    You make a very interesting argument - definitive, nearly - which explains why boxing punches seem stronger. It is like the difference between a hammer and a drill. Sure they both can put a piece of metal into wood, but varying circumstances nearly always make one more advantageous than the other.

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  15. Hello everyone,

    I wanted to put in my two cents, just because I thought that perhaps the boxing methodology was a little misunderstood. I don't claim to be an expert in the martial arts or boxing, but I've practiced both, and the guy who coached me in boxing told me to follow through for different reasons than what the article and commenters cited.

    First of all, he told me to follow through on all punches, including the jab. This was not for reasons of power, but for energy conservation; it's less difficult to allow your hand to return to guard by following a trajectory that it is somewhat already on rather than halting its momentum and changing the direction. You can take this for what you will. Personally, I do think his advice had some merit, as I get less winded throwing boxing punches than an equivalent number of karate punches.

    Also, as far as raising the back foot while punching, my understanding is that boxers do it to facilitate the weight transfer from back to front leg, and side to side. Again, from personal experience, I've found I can throw a harder punch with the greater weight transfer, but at the expense of stability. Martial artists often have to worry about getting thrown or kicked in the lead leg, so choosing a punch with a less exaggerated weight transfer but that leaves you in a more stable stance can be a wise tactical choice.

    Again, I don't claim to be an expert, and respectfully defer to those who are. I only wanted to relate some of my own experiences in hopes that it might add another perspective to your conversation.

    Best Wishes.

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  16. What you say is true. However there are costs with the follow through and these principally relate to openings. A civilian defence art like karate uses retracting punches even though they require more energy and deliver less force; they do so for a very good reason: they are more conservative.

    The objective of a karate punch is to "not get hit". The objective of a sport punch is "to hit". The difference is subtle, but significant. Nothing stops a karateka following through if need be and most karateka (even in the old days) used follow through techniques. The basics focus on thrusts for the reason that they function like jabs; keeping an attacker at bay, not "demolishing" him or her.

    Thanks for your comment.

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  17. Great article most definitely something to think about. I actually ended up here because i have a back ground in Shotokan but am currently training in Seidokaikan. I spent the entirety of last nights lessons redefining my strikes.

    When I started Seidokan, only a few weeks ago, I was really surprised at how they performed Kata. In Shotokan we usually want the foot and fist to land almost at the same time where as Seidokan actually stops the foot makes sure it is firm and then strikes. At first this was cumbersome but I am starting to feel how this can allow for more penetration.

    How ever that penetration is usually focused to the body or using heavy gloves like boxers in K-1 fights. Which I think does make a world of difference. The comment that stated a good boxing jab is "supposed to be snappy so that after a few jabs to the face, the glove should cause the recipient's face to start swelling." is a very important one.

    Bare knuckle fighting is very different than fighting with heavy gloves. When I trained with a MMA club one of my main partners always used boxing gloves. The way you are able to hit is very different as you risk little to no injury to your hands where as bare knuckle fighting does not allow such curtsies. teeth are especially nasty and perhaps this is where the more focused dynamic and eloquent Karate punch has developed from.

    If you watch videos from the 1970s there is absolutely no question as to whether or not a such a punch when well delivered can result in a KO.

    So in the end of my comment I would simply like to say that I believe both punching styles are worth acknowledged and questioning when and where they should be best be used is an important part of training.

    Perhaps more traditional karate-ka could benefit from learning to punch like a boxer and vis versa so that they may ad more depth to their fighting vocabulary. Perhaps some days a deep penetrating body bunch is all you would need to end a confrontation where as on another day a well focused strike the the chin maybe the answer.

    any ways I have ranted a little to much here but as i think the main article tried to state the question is not which is better but rather when and where is it applicable.

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  18. Your article is well written & quite informative. I would just add that much of the focus on Karate is on redirecting your opponent's energy. I practice traditional Okinawan Karate. Many of our punches are thrown after throwing our opponents off balance. An accurate punch to an opponent who is falling down as a result of leg/hip rotation can be devastating.

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  19. Dan said:
    Power = work / time.

    Right

    But than: work=power x time
    so:

    if you increase the time [...]you will need more power to do the same work.

    WRONG! The biger the time, the smalest the power needed!

    This:
    the greater the contact time, the more work you’ll need to do to generate the same power

    is true.

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  20. Thanks for that Anonymous. I can't imagine what I was thinking. I'll fix that.

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