Love At First Strike aka How A Kick Across The Face Changed My Life, by Mahipal Lunia, Sensei

As a newly minted 7th kyu in Shotokan Karate , I was an excited teenager partaking in my first kumite (free sparring). I did not see R's (a multiple National Champion) kick coming - I heard a loud smack and dropped like a sack of potatoes. My face started to swell and hurt like crazy as I tried to move my jaw. The pain and bruised ego did not stand in the way of my walking up to R to ask him, "What was that? And how do I learn to do it?"

"That was a Mawashi Geri, or roundhouse kick" and he then proceeded to spend the rest of the evening teaching me the mechanics of his kick one-on-one. In the meantime, my Karate coach walked in and offered his own insights into the kick. He then yielded the floor to R again, who of course was in his element with this kick that won him the national titles.
R was super precise in teaching me the Mawashi Geri. He broke it down by saying (parphrazing)

  1. Lift your knee high to the side
  2. Pivot 180 degrees
  3. Use the ball of the foot to whip the motion towards the target
  4. Lean the body into the kick
  5. Land in Zenkutsudachi (front stance) in Kamae (ready postion) 

At around this time, I found some VHS tapes of Kanazawa Sensei, Enoeda Sensei and Terri O'Neill Sensei. I studied those videos at length and tried to imitate the motion. I would walk around throwing the traditional roundhouse kick over furniture and while on walks with my mother (much to her chagrin.) The European & Japanese Karatekas' played a huge part in this stage of my development. A good example of this old style kicking is found here.

I practiced this to no end against a makiwara and heavy bag. Both tools are unforgiving, and a few broken toes later one learns how to "kick correctly," as my JKA Shotokan Karate Sensei would like to scream. This was the beginning of my love of the roundkick, which soon became my signature technique during my competitive years. A few years down the line, I beat R with the SAME kick he taught me, and then went on to defeat S (another national title winner in South Asia).  I was elated.

R gave me the his highest compliment "you got me fair and square with my technique."  I bowed deeply and said, "You showed me the path. If not for you I probably would not have gotten here." He gave me a big hug in return.

Soon my version of the technique became well known among my fellow competitors, who now were keeping their distance. Now in need of an edge, I started the search for tricks and other ways to do the roundkick. Little did I know this questwould take years, and take me into unchartered territory.  

Much to my shock none of my beloved Shotokan katas, nor the eagle claw forms had any roundhouse kicks. As I looked further into the Japanese, Okinawan and Chinese arts, the kick did not seem to exist in any of the forms (the living notebooks of the system).  The first mention of this kick in the Japanese psyche was perhaps due to Gigo Funokoshi, the son of Karate Do's founder Gichin Funokoshi, in the mid 1950's! Yes 1950s'.  This perplexed me. I needed to know where my favorite technique came from.  

French Savate? Muay Thai? Burmese Bando? After all their forms not only had the roundhouse, they EMPHASIZED this kick. In conclusion, my personal research and theory leads me to believe the round kick likely originated with the French. It is an educated guess - perhaps we will never know. That does not matter though, it is here, among us for all to use. Further research led me to at least 7 distinct flavors of this kick:  

  1. The Hammer
  2. The Tight Slap
  3. The Baseball Swing
  4. The Chisel
  5. The Alligators Tail
  6. The Saw
  7. The Whip

They all follow the same "generalized motion" with very specific adaptations.  Being a little slow to learn, I had only started to appreciate the various adaptations AFTER being knocked out a few times too many. After, in the back of my mind, it was always "I've got to know this works." And they do especially when executed by an expert practitioner. It would be impossible to lay out all the methods and development techniques for all of them in one article or even a series of articles. Perhaps this is a topic worthy of an instructional video.  However, for now let us examine these 7 adaptations of that generalized motion, the weapon, the target, how power is generated and some exemplars:

Without further ado:  

1. The Hammer

The Weapon: Ball of the foot
The Targets: Organs and floating bones (ribs, jaw)
The Powerbase: Comes from concentrated speed hammering through the targets
The Motion: whipping from the knee and the hips follow
The exemplar system: The Japanese Karate Do's Mawashigeri
Expert Practitioners: Kanazawa Sensei, Terry O'Neill Sensei, Nakayama Sensei, Kagawa Sensei

2. The Tight Slap

The Weapon: The instep
The Targets: Floating ribs, face
The Powerbase: Speed ( f=ma)The Motion: Lift leg like a front kick, turn on support leg and snap the foot out
Exemplar System: Tae Kwon Do, Sport Karate,
Expert Practitioners: Grandmaster Hee Il Chow, GM Jhoon Ree,

3. Baseball Swing

The Weapon: Lower Shin
The Targets: Thighs, ribs,stomach, neck and head
The Powerbase: Throwing the whole body behind the kick and swinging past/through the target
The Motion: Arms raised, the leg swings into the target while the hands swing in the opposite direction to maintain stability
Exemplar System: Muay Thai & Bando
Expert Practitioners: Tong Po (watch the movie Kickboxer), watch any Muay Thai/Bandomatch

4: The Chisel

The Weapon: The boot tip
The Targets: Inner thigh, solar plexus, stomach, neck, temples
The Powerbase: concentrating the power of the body into the tip
The Motion: Rapid pivot and snapping of the foot/boot, while leaning the body away. The boot chips into the body like a chisel through a cinder block
Exemplar System: Savate
Expert Practitioners: Salem Assli, Nicholas Saignac

5. Brazilian Kick/Dragon Swings its Tail/ Alligators Tail

The Weapon: Base of the ankle
The Targets: Neck and head mainly
The Powerbase: Power kick aided by gravity
The Motion: A downward roundhouse kick. Lift to do a round kick and drop it like an axe kick on the softest targets around the neck
Exemplar System: Brazilian arts like Vale Tudo, Capoeria
Expert Practitioners: watch the Brazilian full contact fighters

6. The Saw

The Weapon: The edge of the foot
The Targets: Knee joint and in some cases the kwa/hip joint
The Powerbase: comes from dislodging and then stomping of your body weight into the opponent
The Motion: Best described as a combination of a roundhouse kick and side stomp. The motion comes like a round kick and the blade of the foot connects with a ball/socket joint to turn the opponents body and stamp it down
Exemplar System: Silat and some Moro based Sikaran
Expert Practitioners: look for old Moro fighters, and in some clips you can also see Maestro Sonny Umpad do this  
7. The Whip

The Weapon:the whole shin and footThe Targets: all extensions (legs, hands and neck
The Powerbase: whiplash motion of striking and wrapping to pull
The Motion: the round kick follows the WAVE motion (google it or watch an expert Systema practioneer ), after the hit connects the foot slips behind the body and pulls the opponent in the opposite direction of the hit. This one esp has to be felt to appreciate.
Exemplar System: Systema and some schools of silat
Expert Practitioners: Look at Vasilev and Starov  

It has been an amazing journey with this kick. Interestingly, my search into that roundhouse kick that took my breath away took ME away from traditional arts into finding functional motion, regardless of style and system.  One of my teachers, Master At Arms James Keating, has always emphasized that "motion is motion, focus on the generalized concept and make it yours." This is akin to what Sastri Sensei has told me through the years: "don't be my vomit. Don't be monkey see monkey do. Become human, experiment and know for yourself. In the end it is all PURE PHYSICS. And no human can defy that."  

In other words "bet on the principle. Variations/Henka are a result of specific environmental factors or preferences. Getting stuck in one variation only is like eating only one kind of bread/meal for the rest of your life. Dont limit yourself, there is so much to explore, relish and uncover."

A few weeks ago, on a cold Saturday morning, I spent a few hours drilling my own Aiki students and then my Southeast Asian Tribal Art students on these methods. The latter are a seasoned bunch coming from backgrounds as varied as decade-plus study in Aikijujutsu, Jujutsu, Karate, Taiji, Muay Thai and Wing Chun. This makes it fun, and a way to gently pressure test this stuff.  After we worked through the variations, the questions began on "how to best train for the specific variations." Again this can be a volume of tapes but I will give some pointers how to get you started on your own discovery process:

Step One:

First I recommend working the attributes of endurance, rapid contraction of your fast twitch muscle fibers, stretching with special empasis on hamstrings, hips and lowerback. I also recommend isometrics and high reps of the muscle building exercises.  One overlooked aspect of this training is doing loads of quick negative repetitions, meaning focus on rapid contraction of the hamstrings for your pull back. Do the hook kick - ura mawashigeri as a training tool to work both the kicks, but focus on the strong pull back. This will do wonders to your technique and snapping power.

Some students started video recording the whole session, while another feverishly wrote in his notebook, all giving total attention. How do I know they were paying attention? Their heads did not turn when a bunch of beautiful gals jogged past the outdoor dojo where we train. I smiled to myself and said SCORE.  

MMA James Keating also always tells me as a teacher one needs to remember the three Es' - Entertain, Educate and Enlighten.  Entertain them to own their attention, Educate them to they grow from within, Enlighten them so they unfold as themselves.  

Step Two:

Step two is learning the generalized technique. My personal favorite is to learn the hardest movement first. Start with the Japanese Mawashigeri and Muay Thai Round kick first. Next work the others based on your flexibility and genetic composition. Two of my favorite exercises to get the whole form and alignment right are 1. Standing in kamae/fighting position by a chair in front of you and kicking over the chair. Make sure your knee lifts sideways and clears the backrest before you extend the foot.2. Stand against a wall and execute the kick. Much easier to watch this video than write it up. The second drill is my favorite and makes all the difference. My karate coach would make us do hundreds of reps of this specific motion.  

Step Three

Start conceptualizing this technique for yourself to make it more effective for YOU. Concepts such as snapping in, striking through, drawing the opponent into a black hole, frame shifting etc become your way to functionalizing which round kick to use. At this stage, create your own map (like my map of 7 uses/types of round kick) so that you now can bring the right tool to fix the problem. The students wanted to know what my own concepts were. I told them, "I have been telling you all along, pay closer attention and let it unravel for you. Don't blindly repeat what I say, instead test them out."  

THEN find your own language for it. Find your own metaphors. This is a very important step to truly make this yours. Remember the worlds of the Martin Heidegger 'Language is the house of being.' One your create your language for this, your concepts and your techniques live in it. This in my opinion is the big secret on the Way.

One smartass student smirked, "Do I REALLY need all these variations? I remember Bruce Lee's words that I fear the man who has done one kick 10k times, rather than a man who has done 10k kicks once."   Oh there is always that one student. Always.  "Well it is one kick, and to make all variations truly yours you will have to do countless reps.  You cannot use just one instrument in your garage to do all the jobs. In fact you have multiple sizes of wrenches and some with weird angles too - even though they all solve kinda the same problem yea? And as far as Bruce - well you are not him are you?   

Instead of collecting and wondering what each one has said, why not try the methods that work for you. What the masters have said in the past point a certain way. They are great pointers, but don't make them your prison. Seek instead to become educated in yourself about it, for only then do we stand a chance to embark on the journey martial enlightenment. True Liberation."  The same student who went from being a smartass to being a little embarrassed became curious. He was back in the game. He said "can you say more about this please?" This student learns best from stories he can hang on a person he trusts. I had to use that very mechanism to transcend the block. I thought for a moment and was reminded of the story of Buddha:   "Its getting late," I said, "and I need to get to my duties at home. So here's a quick short story. It is the Buddha raft parable."  

A man came upon a great river. He stood there and saw no bridge or boat. The river had great currents and knew it would not be easy to swim at all. He looked around and got pieces of wood and built a make shift raft. He now got on it and with great difficulty he crossed the river to the other shore. So what does he now do with the raft? Should he now take this with him everywhere or let it go?

Buddha had explained that dharma is like the raft, and it useful for crossing but not to hold on to. The teachings and books of the great masters of the past are also just that: don't let them bind you down. Use the methods of the style and system to open you up, but you do not need to carry them all your life. They, like the dharma, are let go when the river is crossed For the real journey begins after the river. You have to stake everything to arrive at your liberation, so enjoy it. Don't drag the damn raft with you."

"So dont be stuck with which version of Roundkick, use which ever works and don't argue about it. Yea?" he asked ernestly.

I smiled and continued walking away towards the car. Best to let them discover the answers to themselves. Enough for today. If you have questions you know how to reach me.

Mahipal Lunia, Sensei