Karate Boxing

What boxing experience can teach a karate-ka

By Christopher Caile

Author’s Note: The author’s own concepts and observations about the differences between boxing, karate and techniques within traditional Okinawan kata are added to the article within the photo captions, Author’s Notes at the end of the article, and occasionally within the text. They are not necessarily shared by Phoenix Carnevale or Mike Smith.

Phoenix Carnevale angles off the center line and hooks a punch into the floating ribs of the author, Chris Caile. By angling and using an outside hook punch a boxer can get inside the reach of a bigger opponent to strike from an angle that can penetrate the defender’s arms if they are not well positioned.

It was already 90 degrees outside by 9:00 in the morning when I walked upstairs to Gleason’s Gym. Gleason’s, the world famous boxing gym, is on the second floor of a commercial building sitting virtually under the end of the Brooklyn Bridge in Brooklyn, NY.

As I entered I could see about 30 people training in a large unobstructed room scattered with boxing rings.

There was the pop, pop of gloves hitting into bags, and the steady tick of jump ropes hitting the floor in regular cadence. Others were shadow boxing, and in several rings trainers were holding up target mitts for fighters to hit.

In a karate fighting stance (left) Phoenix's body is angled almost sideways (about 80 degrees), one leg behind the other, with the body more open and her hands lower, the left hand extended forward. The stance, while stable, is best positioned for forward and back movement, but not so for movement to the side. Likewise her hands and arms are not positioned to effectively block head strikes, but can easily be used to counter a variety of kicks. Many point fighters turn there body even further to the side to protect their target area, but if they are participating in semi contact sparing their stance is more like a boxer. In a boxing stance (right), Phoenix's body angle is more like 45-55 degrees, allowing for movement in any direction. During boxing the stance is also very flexible and is adjusted to need. Her hands are also held higher protecting her head, while the forearms protect the ribs on both sides.

I was there to talk to Phoenix Carnevale, a Seido Karate student, and a kick boxing and fitness teacher, who is training for the New York City Golden Gloves championship. I found her in a back corner of the gym with her trainer, Mike Smith. Mike is the gym’s mixed martial arts stand-up coach. He is a former Oyama Karate student, who in addition to boxing also regularly trains in Machaddo Brazilian Jujutsu. At the gym he has worked with such notables as the Gracies and members of the International Fight League.

Mike and Phoenix jockeying for position in the ring. Each constantly moves, circles, angles and adjusts against the other, trying to get positional advantage, create an opening or elude the techniques of the other. Developing this type of fluid body movement can be very helpful to any karate-ka to help them avoid attacks instead of just relying on blocking. Success and failure depend upon who achieves the better positioning and wins the fight to control the space between them. Most modern day karate fighters in free fighting and competition use the same tactics, but old style Okinawan kata taught a different principle: Using blocks, grabs, strikes to nerve points, off balancing and other techniques to take control of the opponent’s body and thus his actions in order to counter. (1)

Boxers live in a close-in tumble world of arms length punches, hard blows and counters. It can be brutal. Modern day Karate-ka most often spar at a greater distance where arms don’t reach the opponent unless there is movement, but kicks do. Taekwondo practitioners fight at even a farther distance relying primarily on leg techniques. Both are usually very uncomfortable with close-in fighting. They are not used to it and feel uncomfortable. In addition they are not used to really getting hit, unless they are from a semi contact style or are involved in mixed martial arts. Interestingly, however, old style Okinawan karate kata includes close in self-defense and combat techniques.

I asked them to comment on the difference between karate free fighting and boxing, especially in the use of the hands. Mike commented that all martial arts have core principles, “but in boxing the fighter is doing it for a living. The fighter gets to test what he is doing, then make adjustments. They do this all in real time against a partner who is trying to hit them. “Thus the real difference, ” Mike said, “is that boxers have real time experience and constant training. They also get feedback when they do things wrong.”

As her trainer Mike Smith moves around the ring, Phoenix Carnevale moves to follow, hitting a hand held target mitt with a left punch and right cross, constantly adjusting to Mike’s movement. This allows her to develop her techniques within a dynamic, moving environment. While traditional karate kata always included movement with striking, modern karate classes often drill punches from static positions. This tendency tends to slow the karate-ka’s development and coordination of movement (and adjustment) with punches (or kicks), something which is critical to effective sparring. (2)

“What this means in my training, ” said Phoenix, “is fluidity.” She noted that when she started boxing, she was really tight and not relaxed and fluid. “In karate, especially in kata, we assume rather ridged positions and when we punch, the punch is often held out extended. Against a boxer, if I kept my arm extended, it would be quickly picked up and would invite a counter to my face. Not good.” (3)

Phoenix positions her body and slightly moves her head to slip right and left punches from Mike. Moving the head to avoid a punch is faster than intercepting a punch with an arm block in karate. This is because once a defender sees an attack coming (visual perception), the muscles of the neck can be moved more quickly than the arm (they are closer to the brain, movement is smaller and reflexive), rather than being dependent on spatial judgment as to range and interception angle (used with arm blocks). But there is a disadvantage too – the attack is avoided but not interrupted. A second attack can follow.

“My dad always told me to take up karate, ” Phoenix added, “but he also said box too.” Boxing, especially sparring, builds up an expertise in timing and distancing, and teaches you to move your body and head. You can get some of this too in karate free fighting, but it is very different when you are getting hit and the opponent isn’t kicking from a distance but is instead hitting for your head. (4)

In karate practice, Mike noted, you punch, kick and block in groups, usually lined up, and practice these moves from a static position. You don’t get the movement and footwork of movement from which to do these techniques.

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