One of the most elementary components of any combat art is the understanding of distance. It is no exaggeration to state that the understanding of distance is paramount to your success as a fighter in any given arena. If you have the knowledge of distance you can control both the time and space you and your adversary have. If you don’t pay proper attention to this element of Kumite you may as well be fighting in the dark.
Many Karateka will fight using only instinct when it comes to distancing. This may get them so far but a fighter that truly understands the ranges has the ability to conduct the fight. Knowing both what techniques you can use from any given distance and, just as importantly, what techniques you shouldn’t, can give you the ability to direct the action.
For this article I have used the simple method I have employed to train my students to see and grasp the concept of distancing. The ranges of distance I will discuss here are simplified. The deeper you delve into the subject the more you understand that even the most subtle change of range can create an opportunity. The arena of combat I will discuss here is jiyu kumite, but the principles can be applied to any combat situation. The four distances I will discuss here we will call clinch, distance 1, distance 2 and distance 3. Some experienced Karateka reading this may find some of it obvious, but in my experience sometimes we can all miss something that is staring us in the face. Putting distancing into these four categories will make it easier to teach and easier to see and understand.
Clinch (pic 1) equals completely closing the range until you are literally chest to chest with your opponent. In jiyu kumite we can use the clinch, if correctly timed, to close down an attacking fighter. You may choose to slip a punch, thus changing your angle, then close them down. Equally you may instigate a head punch which misses the target and use the momentum to continue into a clinch. As you’re making the close down you should actively be looking to get your hands on the inside. If you find your hands on the outside then bring them under and up (Kakiwake-uke). From here you are in a position where you can punch (pic 2) and push to a kick (pic 3). This inside arm position also stops your opponent doing the same things back to you (pic 4). This position also gives you a larger option of throws and takedowns to execute. It will also stop or at least make it hard for your opponent to execute a technique known as a body-lock or double under hooks. This is when your opponent looks to lock both arms around your waist under your arms and ideally clinch their hands together with a gable grip (pic 5). This will give them excellent control over your body and increase their ability to take you down.
In jiyu kumite if I know my opponent is an excellent clinch fighter and have seen them control fighters from that range, I will do my best to keep away from that distance. So something as simple as keeping my hand attacks to mainly chudan thus reducing their ability to use my momentum against me on a slipped jodan punch. This simple tactic means I am controlling the distance and negating an opponent’s strength. A strong clinch game can also be used to spoil your opponent’s ability to score, tying them up when the distance is getting close.
Although this article is primarily about jiyu kumite I will just delve briefly into the dangers of the clinch in a street scenario. I wrote an article for SKM which goes more deeply into this, (see SKM 104).
The understanding of how to fight from a clinch and what techniques you have at your disposal is imperative. As Karateka we will mostly want to be conducting the conflict from a distance that will allow us to punch and kick freely. In a clinch street situation we have many weapons at our disposal; attacks including elbows, knees, head-butt, gouging, biting, throws, takedowns and chokes, making this distance something of a specialty for many fighters.
I believe as Karateka we should teach our students what can happen from this distance and what we can do to neutralise our assailant. In a street situation if you are not skilled in this distance you’d best avoid it at all costs, but often you can’t as many martial artists spend a lot of their time learning how to close to this range. If you find yourself in conflict with someone with wrestling or judo knowledge, for example, they will be actively looking to close the range and you could soon find your head meeting the pavement.
There will be circumstances when we actively want to close down an opponent. Maybe we meet an assailant with excellent boxing skills – we can then either try and keep to kicking range or close them down to a clinch fight. Again the control of the distance will give you the opportunity to choose where the conflict takes place. The danger with the clinch is when you are there if you don’t possess the skills to back out again you could be in trouble as all your distance manipulation has gone.
Distance 1: (pic 6)
Distance 1 refers to the range where an extended punch can hit an opponent without the need for footwork. If you are wanting to stand and trade punches this is the distance for you. Guarding your head becomes your priority at this range. Your guard (Kamae) position should be raised up to head height to give you the maximum chance of dealing with a head blow. If you take a low guard, the time it takes to get your hands to your head to defend will be too slow as your opponent only has a short action to make contact. Your ability to make Deai, slipping and timing, meeting techniques have virtually gone at this range. The general rule is whoever instigates the attack, as long as it’s accurate, will be the first to make contact. Due to the fact you don’t need to use footwork to make your hit, your attacking line will not change, leaving your head vulnerable. Skills such as head movement are desirable at this distance, but even with great head movement your chance of being hit is high. I often teach this range as hit or get out. The thinking being that as soon as you find yourself or have worked yourself into this distance you must attack immediately. If you hesitate and your opponent attacks, you become the target. Alternately as soon as you make distance 1 you can then move immediately back to distance 2, causing a moment of heightened emotion for your opponent, giving them the feeling you were about to attack and then re-establish a safer distance. Many fighters will consistently enter distance 1 and then immediately go back to the safer distance 2 or 3, consistently putting the pressure on the opponent, keeping them guessing, stopping them from fighting within their favourite rhythm. They are now being controlled. Often a fighter will not spot that they are being manipulated: this is when they will do something stupid, such as throw a random attack as they feel the pressure from the opponent and thus become dominated and easily beaten. Later, when the beaten fighter analyses their performance, they will only see the silly mistakes they made by throwing the unnecessary technique and not the fact that he was drawn into making the mistakes by the opponent’s superior tactical distance control. Single techniques are ideally used from this range. Looking to score with combinations is normally unnecessary when one single action is all that is required. Kicking from this range can be troublesome; if you require a lean back to deliver your kick then against a good fighter it will be too late. A good fighter has trained enough to heighten their reactions to recognise that the only reason you’re starting to lean away is that a kick is coming – now your immediate kick attack is no longer immediate and very easily dealt with. To kick successfully from this range you must ensure that you are practising zero body movement. The first thing your opponent must know about the kick is when they are hit by it.
Distance 2: (pic 7)
This is probably the distance most associated with karate kumite. To strike with a blow from this distance requires footwork. For me to hit you with a single punch such as kizami tsuki or gyaku tsuki I must drive my leading leg in to establish the range. This drive in is what gives you, the defender, the ability to use deai/timing/meeting techniques to beat me to the punch. As I am reaching to hit the target, the target will then shift and hit me using my oncoming body as the target. Techniques that can be used correctly from this range are mainly single strikes and doubles. Because of the danger of being timed with counter techniques all telegraphs must ideally be removed before you attack from this range. A tactic that many skilled fighters can use from distance 2 is to draw the opponent into a timing punch by pulling or drawing out his counter, thus bringing them into distance 1 where a strong single attack will be used against them. From this range your guard can afford to be slightly lower at more of a Chudan level, as you have more reaction time available.
Distance 3: (pic 8)
This is the furthest fighting range that you will use during kumite. You really are fighting on the outside from this distance. From this range your guard can be even more relaxed. This range can be used as a defensive ploy, maybe using it to hold on to a lead in a match. Many high level kickers enjoy using this range knowing that they can use their long range kick attacks and kick counters against you. This range is also often used well by smaller lighter weight fighters who will skirt on the edge of this distance tempting a larger opponent to attack in and then exploit them as they over reach. This distance will give the smaller more agile fighter the time to change angles fast making them very hard to pin down. Timing punches can become a little trickier from this range as now your reflex action that you used in distance 2 will be too soon in this range. To attack successfully you must cover the distance fast and with attacks going all the time. So 2 and 3 move combinations are a must. Anybody just running to make the distance first and then making a technique towards the end of the run will easily be beaten and probably hurt in the process.
Improving our distancing:
There are of course many drills that can be used to improve our distancing. A very simple one that I use to get students thinking and aware of range is to have them moving around in fighting stance. I will then shout clinch and the numbers 1, 2 or 3. On the command the designated side will subtly change the range to the given distance (clinch would only be used from distance 1 to clinch, but other than that keep it random). As I said this drill helps keep the student aware of the range. As there is so much to think about in a kumite bout this skill can be ignored.
A good karate fighter will constantly be shifting the distance, subtly changing the ranges. Remember distance 1, 2 and 3 are only guides to help make fighters aware of their fighting range. In reality every small shift is done to create an advantage. If you edge your front foot in a couple of inches you have changed your range, even if your body remains exactly where it was (pic 9 & 10). This knowledge and understanding should be a massive advantage to a karate fighter. The understanding and control of distance is something we are taught as Karateka from day one in the dojo. As soon as we practise gohan or sanbon kumite we are training to maintain and control distance. For many Karateka this skill will become instinctive. For many years I have been a fan of the UFC. In the early years many that were billed as karate fighters were in reality kick boxers and not Karateka that had a shai kumite background. That has changed and now many accomplished karateka take part in the UFC. As soon as one of these true karate athletes start fighting you can see the manipulation of distance. This is often noted by the UFC commentator Joe Rogan who frequently remarks on the incredible use of distancing a Karateka can exploit and fight from. If used well it can give katateka a massive advantage against fighting arts that spend most of their time trading from a close range. It’s a good feeling to spar with a martial artist from a different discipline and feel that you can hit them from distances that they just don’t expect. It’s great to feel that you are leading the dance.