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Ippon Kumite: But First Fix Your Hair!

Updated: Mar 10, 2022

If you were to research Ippon Kumite online you’d find about as many variations as there are flavors of hot wings. Some of these are solid – some are flimsy and unrealistic.

This formal set of attack and defend techniques - often used for training basics and for gradings has devolved, in many instances, from a basic set of techniques into a flashy display of McKarate: penetrating reverse punches have turned into a ‘pop’ in the gut; upper-rising blocks to a ‘dart’ with the arm in the direction of the attacking fist – form is sacrificed for speed; and stances have worked their way from strong and solid to high and wobbly.

This sounds pessimistic, but the reality is there is a reason Karate was developed a certain way, and if you take tradition out of the equation, the effectiveness of the Art diminishes.

Once tradition is lost, it is difficult to regain.

I’ve been accused of trying to sound like the expert (not to my face, interestingly), but that’s not my intention. My intention is to get people thinking.

So, I could write this article trying to justify what techniques should be used in Ippon Kumite, but I’d rather highlight some thoughts on the fundamentals: there are some things that apply, no matter what technique you’re executing.


Begin with a bow, end with a bow – not a quick and meaningless nod toward your opponent. The bow is a sign of a respect, greeting, apology or gratitude. If the Martial Arts is to promote humility, the bow should be the beginning and end.

Where’s the Set?

For Ippon Kumite, one side breaks down into a zenkutsu dachi executing a downward sweeping block, in preparation for the next technique. It looks great when this happens quickly and sharply, but in my opinion, it’s more about form than speed: initiate the movement (breaking down), 'set' for the technique (perhaps gedan barai), and execute the technique. Stressing the ‘set,’ especially for beginners and middle-level ranks is critical for proper progress. The set is the groundwork for compression and expansion.

This also goes for the defender. Doing a proper set in order to block the incoming attack is a basic, vital component of Ippon Kumite. As we age, our speed will wane – proper technique is the antidote.

Stop Fixing Your Pants:

How often do we see Karateka break down into a stance in Ippon Kumite with authority and good form, only to then use their hands to tug up the legs of their Gi bottoms! This is Kyu – dead time. If you dropped your hands in a street fight to fix your pants (or fix your hair) you’d get your lights knocked out. All kumite is about focus, one-step kumite included.

Your Karate is only as Good as Your Stance:

The success of whatever technique you fire depends on your stance. Most hockey fights end with minor cuts or abrasions because both fighters are standing upright – oftentimes with little solid footing. Teaching good stance width and depth is critical for the power one can generate as well as the ability to move properly.

Posture in Motion:

Sensei Power reminds his students to have an elongated spine and a floating head. Sensei Owens reminds me to keep my eyes up – eyes on the opponent. Poor posture means yu are off balance and you’ve lost efficiency for movement even before you move. Good Ippon means striking at you opponent as a body unit, not as a fist. Good posture also means you are less vulnerable ‘between’ techniques, allowing you to defend against an attack mid-technique, or to change course if desired.

Less Elephant, more Cheetah:

I remember doing Ippon with every muscle in my body tensed for the duration. What did it get me? Sore muscles and slower reaction time. After watching Sensei Toru Shimoji doing kata I realized that fluidity and the timing of muscle contractions are vital. Locked-up muscles mean abrupt movements and chunky techniques.

I believe that whether doing a mae geri or oi zuki in Ippon Kumite, you have to understand and adhere to the fundamentals.

Tossing out the basics takes the legs out from under your karate…literally!

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