Uraken: karate's greatest folly?


The backfist in karate and the southern Chinese martial systems

I recall many years ago discussing karate and its Chinese cousins with Martin Watts of Yongchun baihe (white crane) fame. Martin surprised me when he mentioned "karate and its infernal backfists". When I queried what he meant, he pointed out that white crane and related Chinese systems did not have any backfist techniques.

Presumably this is because the southern Chinese martial artists don't feel the backfist is particularly useful.

Indeed the backfist is relatively rare in the southern Chinese martial arts - a fact that had escaped my attention until that point. Yet it appears quite frequently in karate. In goju ryu alone it occurs in the kata gekisai dai ichi and ni, saifa, seiyunchin and seipai. It is used in most versions of naifanchi/naifuanchin/tekki - the "cornerstone" kata of the shorin tradition. Outside kata, the uraken is regarded as a staple kihon (basic technique).

The relative lack of "power" in the uraken

The uraken is not without its critics even in karate. Many will point out its relative lack of power and the fact that other, more powerful, techniques can often be substituted. Consider one of my correspondents, Edward, who said recently:

"I've heard a proposition that uraken as presented in katas is actually a disguised tetsui. The rationale is that uraken aimes at targets that are difficult to reach in real combat and even if you manage to make it right the effect would be very questionable. Besides that, classic uraken proposes a bone-to-bone collision which is risky in terms of inflicting injuries to oneself. With that in mind, tetsui seems to be much more logical option. Basically, karate was designed for a rough combat which requires a rough techniqes. An example of it is MMA competition where nobody uses uraken but they do effectivelly use tetsui in ground-and-pound situations."

Edward isn't the first to notice that uraken isn't favoured by combats sports practitioners. I recall reading an interview with Benny "The Jet" Urquidez - undefeated kickboxing champion - where he apparently tried a backfist on an opponent in the street. From memory, he said his backfist succeeded in doing little more than raising a welt on his opponent's forehead - and enraging him - prompting Benny to resort to other, more effective strikes.

Despite these perceived shortcomings, most karateka doggedly hold on to their urakens and will not replace them with hammer fists and other substitutes. Is this persistence a function of mere tradition, or is there some other, practical, reason for preserving this technique?

In order to answer this question I think we need to first examine how the uraken is intended to work:

The old "ball and chain"

Something Edward said resonated with me and is worth repeating here. This is how he described the uraken:

"[T]he hand resembles a whip or a chain with a ball at the end of it."

Where some will try to analogize many karate techniques along this line, I think the uraken is one of the only true "whip-like" techniques in karate (the hiraken or "leopard paw" of seipai and the front snap kick being other examples).

I have previously mentioned that, in order to work, techniques require something I call "staged activation". This is the process where the movement is initiated with the larger joints and then progressively moves through the smaller joints to the extremities. This is particularly true of "whipping" techniques like the uraken, in which case the shoulder moves first, then the elbow, then the wrist.



With any whipping action the last movement is arguably the most significant: without it the entire action is negated. An uncoiling whip comes to very little if the last yard or so doesn't uncoil. So it is with the uraken. The wrist action is pivotal.

In my article "Clenched fists and stiff arms" I discuss how keeping a clenched fist need not stiffen your wrist. I also discuss how many karateka today seem to be unaware of this and adopt myriad ways of avoiding what is really a basic and necessary kinaesthetic principle. In much the same way as they don't clench their fists for punches, they don't do their urakens properly.

To work efficiently, urakens must be performed with a tight fist, but a loose wrist.

An inability to have a loose wrist with a tight fist results in a "stiff arm uraken" which is practically useless. In those circumstances it is no small wonder that many have come to regard the uraken as a worthless fighting technique. It is my guess that many of those who say this probably lack the basic kinaesthetic skill required to effect a correct uraken. And even when they can effect a whip, it is truncated due to a restricted movement in the wrist.

But the failure to use "staged activation" is just one reason that there is less force transferred by a "truncated" uraken. The other reason is that you have less room in which to accelerate your strike. Put simply, a correct, whip-like uraken has more travel, hence more room to accelerate, hence it imparts more force.

The striking surface of the uraken

The flip side to a greater movement in the wrist in an uraken is that it presents a different striking surface to that which you might expect. In this regard the term "backfist" is a misnomer: you don't use the back of the fist at all. You can use the back of the fist - but the primary striking surface should be the knuckles used in punching - the 2 big knuckles.



The uraken - note the wrist movement at the very end, bringing the 2 big knuckles into play

This will probably surprise many readers as it is contrary to "conventional knowledge". But if you think about it, it makes perfect sense: the back of your hand is not a particularly strong or resilient striking surface. The knuckles can take a lot of pressure from the front, but from behind they are comparatively vulnerable. Furthermore the back of your hand features tendons and other connective tissue that is quite intricate and delicate.



I discuss the striking surface of the uraken

As with the "tight fist = stiff forearm" debate, many people I've trained with have noted the deficiencies of striking with the back of the knuckles and go to extraordinary lengths to develop alternative theories of what constitutes the "real uraken". Invariably these involve striking with the forearm or hammer fist - anything but the back of the knuckles.

Others substitute a rising inverted punch for the uraken - something I'll touch on in another article.

But it is my view that the answer is a lot simpler: a proper wrist flick will not only let you utlise a fuller ranger of motion - it will also bring into play your big knuckles, almost as if you were punching.

But the uraken still isn't powerful!

Even when you do the uraken as I've described, it is fair to say that it is not a "power" technique: that is to say, it does not transfer as much momentum (and accordingly does not apply as much force) as other blows, such as the hammer fist.


A more general discussion about the uraken

However, it is unwise to disregard techniques simply on the basis of "power" as this is only one basis upon which "usefulness" can be determined. The uraken might not be "powerful" but it comes into its own as a shock technique. It springs out of nowhere, generating an impressive amount of force with relatively little movement.

So why don't they use it in combat sports?

Very simply, uraken relies on a cutting action that requires a hard striking surface - the knuckles. Even the thinnest/lightest combat sports gloves neuter this cutting action. So I'm not at all surprised that it does not appear in combat sports. I also doubt many of the modern MMA players are versed in the subtleties of the "whip-like", "tight fist, loose wrist" kinaesthetics required to make it work. As with many other traditional techniques it has been severely diluted over time through misunderstanding and copy error.

Furthermore, you have to bear in mind that what is potentially useful in a civilian defence scenario might not be useful in combat sports. For example, while you might want to effect a "shock" blow to your opponent in the street so as to facilitate an escape, it is pointless to do so in the ring. Rather you want to utilise "power" blows to effect a knock-out.

Finally, it is important to note that even in karate kata, the uraken is never used as a finishing technique. It tends to be used as a set-up to "greater things".

Conclusion

The uraken is not a "poor man's hammer fist". It is not a forearm strike
in disguise. And it is not a misunderstood inverted punch. It is a whip-like weapon that utlises your front knuckles (and less frequently, the back of the knuckles) in a cutting action to shock your opponent - either to set-up another technique or to facilitate an escape.

So the uraken might not be a "power" technique, but it is still a useful addition to a civilian defence armoury. However, you have to do it "right" to make it work.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic

Comments

  1. "...the uraken is never used as a finishing technique. It tends to be used as a set-up to greater things."

    In the few years that I've been surfing the martial arts pages I've become accustomed to the fact that all that I learned in karate is "useless." And now I learn that "my dearly beloved uraken" is also put in doubt. Jesus!

    As always Dan, you've come to the rescue.

    My grain of salt: Goju is basically a very close in (in the melee)sort of martial art. Explosive and at close quarters. Uraken is sometimes the only thing you can pull out in the mess of things. It needs very little set up and buys time. If you take a still shot of it in action you can see that it is also a shield. It can also whip down to the family jewels, open to a tiger claw, etc.

    Most times it has been my opening move in the chess game of street brawls and has served me well.

    Be warned all you MMA besterds, leave my beloved uraken alone!

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  2. "Uraken is sometimes the only thing you can pull out in the mess of things. It needs very little set up and buys time."

    Well said!

    "If you take a still shot of it in action you can see that it is also a shield."

    That's a very interesting and useful observation.

    "It can also whip down to the family jewels, open to a tiger claw, etc."

    Particularly the family jewels thing is one that I was thinking of as a "post set-up". I often use this (an influence from gekisai kata, I'm sure) but I tend to whip down with a twisted tetsui (more on that another time!).

    Thanks, as always, my friend, for reading and commenting.

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  3. As to the Chinese arts and its use, it is used in many of the Northern Long Fist forms that I have experienced.

    I guess it is a matter of particular group's tastes, but I never did it in karate, but went over board in long fist.

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  4. Good long article. Whew.

    I'd like to talk about the uraken in relation to Basai vis a vis your comment about the technique's relative lack of power.

    The opening of basai can be interpreted as an escape from a wrist or forearm grab. The practitioner then does a leap either forward or upward, a telegraphed uraken, and what is a footstomp on landing.

    In a situation where other opponents can't see clearly around obstacles or people in the way, this sequence can hugely intimidate other opponents. All they see is a relatively 'low power' technique resulting in a downed and screaming opponent.

    All in karate is not useless - just hidden.

    Colin

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  5. Well said Colin.

    Thanks for your input.

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  6. I have received some truly "breathtaking" backfists from Wing Chun experts. One can argue that they are present in the solo forms.

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  7. Thank you for all this information and answers on the uraken issue. The fact that backfist practically come "out-of-the-blue" seems to make up to its lack of knock-out power. I still wonder if the techniqe itself came as a result of an actual fight or as an "intellectual" excercise in dojo but that's ok as long as you know the proper way, time and place of its execution.

    Now, withouth any whish to turn this into a never ending question and answer talk, I'd like to ask you another question.

    How does haishu relate to uraken?

    I guess it's also a distraction technique (though I've experienced some accidental but very unpleasant backhand slaps on my nose), but is there anything else to it?

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  8. Ah, haishu uke/uchi... You ask the most interesting questions Edward. I shall deal with the haishu uke/uchi another time. For the moment, you should note my use of "uke/uchi" as a clue as to what my answer will be!

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  9. Hello sensei!

    I'd like to add my two cents regarding uraken's perceived lack of power.
    One thing I've consistently seen regarding circular techniques which utilize "snap", such as the uraken uchi and mawashi geri, is that they suffer from the same problem that sometimes plagues the common tsuki: it's interpreted as hitting at the end of its range of motion, at full extension where all the force is already expended.
    What if, for example, one were to make contact with an uraken before the wrist bend that causes the whipping effect? as I see it, this would cause the whipping effect to occur "inside" the target, so to speak, not only increasing the impact force massively, but also creating a pain factor similar to that of the rotation of the tsuki.

    An excellent example of what i mean is demonstrated by sensei Ikemiyagi in this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Gn8PmVt3Yw

    Notice how he doesn't so much use a "literal" whipping motion (ie, inverting the sequential movement), but rather lets the arm go by itself along its normal range of motion (It's easier if one keeps moving the elbow during impact), and retracts it afterwards; sort of replacing the whiplash with a swing of a knotted rope, perhaps. I believe this to be just as fast as a "whipping" uraken, but it feels much stronger, in my experience.

    Cheers!

    Diego

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  10. Uraken is not a folly. Any technique is a folly if not used properly and timely. Even kicks can be devastating if not used properly. Uraken is to be used in a combination of moves to bring the opponent down.

    I will tell you how. When some one punches you (middle or upper punch) block the punch using outward block. Without stopping start the uraken where the momentum of outward block ends. Uraken should be directed at the pressure point just by the side of the head where the eyes meet. As both outside block and uraken is done simultaneously the chances of connecting the uraken is very high.

    Once the uraken is well connected it should be followed by a side kick directed either at the chest of the head. This will see the opponent falling down.

    Finish the opponent with circular punches (Wing chun) when he is down.

    I have done this successfully.

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  11. "it will also bring into play your big knuckles, almost as if you were punching."
    Anyone who doesn't understand this does not understand what uraken is, or know how to execute it. I agree with most of what you say concerning uraken; however, having worked as a venue security operative (a bouncer) for 25 years (in night clubs from Glasgow Scotland to The Cross in Sydney) I can tell you that many times uraken has finished the job. Accuracy is paramount of course, but its speed makes it almost impossible to stop or evade, and well placed it can knock out an opponent before they even know it's coming.

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