Ippon Kumite (one step sparring) is a form of practice that is prevalent in Karate systems and related arts such as Taekwondo. Whilst the practice differs between clubs, it does share a number of similarities. Usually there is an over-ritualised starting posture taken by both participants, one of which (for the purposes of this article will be called “the Attacker”) will proceed to attack, often from a number of feet away, with a karate-like attack (i.e. a stepping punch to the head) and the other participant (“the Defender”) will step back and perform a block, counter attack and retreat. Most who are reading this will be familiar with what I am talking about, but in case you haven’t I have embedded a number of examples below: -
Shotokan Ippon Kumite -
Wado Ryu Ippon Kumite -
Shito Ryu Ippon Kumite -
Taekwondo One Step Sparring -
Just for sake of completeness, there is also Ippon Kumite’s sister practices: -
Sanbon Kumite -
Gohon Kumite -
Before continuing, I please note that the above videos are examples I found online to show a range of clubs performing this practice. I fully understand that not all Shotokan, Wado Ryu, Shito Ryu and Taekwondo clubs perform Ippon Kumite like the videos above. I also understand that whilst some clubs perform set drills others do not.
I always want to confirm that my intention is in no way to single out the participants in the videos embedded above. The videos above are purely for reference to show the kind of practices I am writing about in this article. Instead, my intention is to critique Ippon Kumite as a training practice in today’s Karate dojos.
For the purposes of this article, there is no need for an in-depth history of the Ippon Kumite practice, although I believe that it was around the time that Karate changed from a solution to non-consensual violence and to a method of physical fitness and mental discipline in the early 1900s. To me, there is little doubt that those involved with taking to mainland Japan (including Gichin Funakoshi’s son studied Kendo and Iaido under Nakayama Hakudo) as a “Do’ system, not only took the Judo uniform and belt system but they also took some of the training practices prevalent in Kendo: -
This may have occurred to give Karate more of a Japanese “feel” along with changing the names of certain Kata and changing the meaning of Karate from China-Hand to Empty-Hand. Regardless of the history of Ippon Kumite, I will now move on to critique the training method.
Ippon Kumite is purported to be a useful training method when developing martial skills & attributes. Here is a quick list of the commonly attributed attributes: -
• timing/reaction time • distance management • moving to angles • developing speed, power & flow • dealing with fear
The problem with the above argument is that it is too general. Does Ippon Kumite develop skills for Non-Consensual Violence or for sparring? Or both?
The problem for Ippon Kumite to develop skills from Non-Consensual Violence (NCV) is that the training method is set up as “Karateka vs. Karateka”. I have never seen an assault start with the criminal stepping back with a gedan barai, calling out the method of which he is about to attack in a foreign language! and then proceeding to step forward with a Karate stance and a Karate punch!!
Additionally, the distance and timing of NCV is far different from that seen in Ippon Kumite. NCV usually begins at a lot closer range, doesn’t stop after one attack and the attacks used by criminals are not karate-style punches or kicks.
Ippon Kumite is sometimes justified as attribute training for sparring. This may be for all-in type of sparring where anything goes or for more competition orientated sparring. Regardless of which, Ippon Kumite, suffers the same problems that plague it in respect of NCV.
When it comes to all-in fighting, MMA has become the proving ground for effective training methodologies. Whilst, I have certain issues with the “reality” of MMA, generally speaking, the evolution of MMA has brought about an honesty and humility in martial art training methods. It is a prima facie fact that Ippon Kumite is not practiced in MMA gyms around the world. The reason for this is that Ippon Kumite training does not replicate the kind of fighting seen 1vs1 all-in style fighting.
When it comes to Karate sparring, again Ippon Kumite is rendered ineffective. I have studied Ippon Kumite for many years and was often amazed at how it did not relate to the sparring that would happen in the same class. It is true that Karateka vs. Karateka sparring involves both sides using karate techniques, but it differs from Ippon Kumite in a number of ways.
Firstly, the starting position for most Ippon Kumite drills is the gedan barai for the attacker and the yoi/shizentai position for the defender. Besides eccentric exceptions, I have failed to meet anyone who spars from these positions. Further more I have failed to come across anyone who only attacks in straight line with only one technique at a time. It simply doesn’t happen and to spend time training against these kinds of attacks from these long distances in unnatural positions is illogical.
I do agree that the above list of attributes needs to be developed during Karate training. But Ippon Kumite does not develop these skills in respect to NCV or CC. It deals with them in respect of Ippon Kumite training only. By practicing Ippon Kumite you will get good at managing the Ippon Kumite distance, moving to angles against Ippon Kumite attacks and dealing with the fear or being attacked by these kind of attacks.
When it comes to NCV, we need to look at ways of replicating the kinds of attacks criminals will use (i.e. sucker punches, threatening hand gestures, clothing grabs) as well as the physical scenarios that will occur during the confrontation (i.e. the criminal tries to cover his head after we have struck him, the criminal grips our wrist after we have attempted an eye gouge). Once we understand the kinds of scenarios we are dealing with, we can isolate them and drill the solutions to these.
In response to Ippon Kumite developing skills for sparring, we again need to be looking at the kind of scenarios that occur in sparring contests and isolate those. I do seem to agree somewhat with the Jiyu Ippon Kumite training practices. These are where both participants start from a fighting position and defend against an attack in an isolated manner. We need to ensure that the drills include the footwork, defences and attacks used in sparring. Like any drills, these should be done slowly at first and built up once the students gain confidence.
I have also heard that Ippon Kumite can be a good place for kids/beginners to begin getting used to being “attacked” and that it can be difficult to do this without exaggerating the distance. I totally agree that exaggerating the distance and sometimes the techniques being taught is a useful way of learning something. However, it seems that many clubs don’t reduce the distance after the students have progressed past the beginner level. Secondly, even if they did then the other issues mentioned above still subsist (i.e. the incorrect attacks and incorrect defences). Furthermore, please see below video of two of my youngest students performing my club’s alternative to Ippon Kumite. This myth that kids need to learn Ippon Kumite and that they are unable to develop skills to deal with NCV is simply untrue and the evidence is within the video where my students perform a series of techniques that can be used when dealing with NCV.
I want to bring up a point that I hear sometimes in response to my critique of the effectiveness of Ippon Kumite. This is that “Master X practiced Ippon Kumite, therefore, it must work”. It may be true that Master X practices Ippon Kumite, but that does not necessarily mean that his success as a “fighter” is due to the Ippon Kumite training. If Ippon Kumite assists with developing skills for Consensual Combat then we would see MMA, Boxing, Thai Boxing, etc...training in this practice. The reality is that they do not. Instead, they practice defending against attacks that are likely to be used in the cage/ring.
Another argument that I come across is that "it is right because we've always done it this way.” Essentially this is a form of the logical fallacy known as the argument from tradition and claiming something should be done for the sake of tradition is not an argument for the effectiveness of the drill.
However, I fully understand that clubs will practice Ippon Kumite for historical purposes (i.e. to keep the practice alive). I also understand that a lot of clubs/students find them fun to do and will continue to practice them for those reasons. However, I hope that the future of Karate will progress to a point where Ippon Kumite (in its current form) is no longer practiced as training method purporting to develop fighting skills for both consensual combat and non-consensual violence.
Until next time...
Originally posted 29 December 2016