I greatly enjoyed and benefited from Zach Zinn’s “advice for boxing” thread. About six weeks ago I began taking Muay Thai lessons, and I thought I would start a similar thread. So this will be some reflections on karate and martial arts more generally, stimulated by my experience practicing Muay Thai.
About myself: I currently hold 2nd dan in Tang Soo Do, a Korean form of karate. After my first dan test, I decided I wanted to understand my forms better, and that led me into the wonderful world of bunkai and onto this forum. My martial arts understanding grew leaps and bounds. Meanwhile, shortly after my 2nd dan test, my dojang closed. It was a pretty 3K place, I wanted more sparring experience and more sparring partners, and so after COVID restrictions lifted, I took up Muay Thai.
The gym I joined also teaches jiu jitsu and originally I thought I would learn both. But my first inter-disciplinary martial arts discovery (haha!) was that serious rolling and serious impact work is way harder on your body than 3K karate, and my 49-year-old body can only take so many hours a week of punishment. So I decided to specialize in the discipline closest to my karate roots. The students at my gym range from rank beginners to amateur fighters, but I am old enough to be parent to nearly all of them. Because I have a martial arts background, I am better than the beginners but not nearly as good as the fighters, so I’m somewhere in the respectable middle skills-wise.
I thought I would start the thread with the only thing I’ve learned that approaches a bunkai insight. In the second central pass of Pyongan Edan / Heian Nidan / Pinan Shodan, there is a sequence that goes reverse inside-to-outside block, front kick, reverse punch. In the flavor of TSD I was taught, the block is delivered with a body twist in the opposite direction. (This traditional Shotokan form is about the same as what I was taught. What I have discovered in looking at different versions of this form, is that across karate styles and even within the same style there is a wide variety in how much twist is used.) The resulting stance—a front stance but with your hips and shoulders over-rotated--is pretty awkward.
A high-ranking member of my organization once told me that the stance was used to block a groin kick by pressing the thighs together. Some, um, cautious pressure testing convinced me that even if this technique would work for meatier thighs than mine, I was going to remain vulnerable in this stance. But my Muay Thai training has convinced me there is a better explanation.
The twisted-stance block is, or would be better interpreted as, a slip. That is, you are deflecting an incoming punch but mainly twisting your body so as to avoid it. The move doesn’t look like a familiar slip because in boxing, a slip usually involves more up-and-down vertical motion (often followed by a roll, with even more vertical motion). In Muay Thai, however, lowering your head will get you a knee in the face. So a Muay Thai slip is much more upright: it basically involves a pivot around a vertical axis, which points your near shoulder towards the incoming punch and moves your head offline. If you are not delivering a counter shot with your near-side hand, the hand stays glued to your head for protection. That is approximately where the karate block winds up too. (I’ll have more to say later on covers vs. forearm blocks for defense.) The stance is not nearly so awkward, if you hunch your shoulders forward a bit, and let your rear heel come up, as you would in a fighting stance as opposed to a traditional karate stance. So my Muay-Thai-inflected interpretation of this sequence is: slip his right cross to the outside, counter with a groin kick, followed by a liver shot.
For what it’s worth, I was never taught slipping in karate class. However, if there's anything to my suggestion, it’s there in the very first form Itosu gave his students.