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Drew Loto
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The history of sparring?

How did karateka of old incorporate sparring into their daily training?

Lately, I've given some thought to certain styles of martial arts in which practices such as sparring are virtually unheard of.  I ascribe to the belief that sparring and live training, while not a complete training method in themselves, are very important for the development of men and women who are prepared to apply their skills on the street.  Practitioners of these nonsparring arts tend to use two major arguments.  The first is that the techniques of their art are too deadly to be practiced in live situations with people they don't wish to harm.  The second is that the rules of sparring, which are in place because of the potentially dangerous nature of techniques, dilute the experience to the point where it may become possibly harmful to the development of the student.  From this point, the issue seems to develop further, polarizing the martial arts world between forward looking combat oriented martial artists, and spiritually oriented traditional martial artists.  Indeed, full contact sparring seems to be associated most readily with MMA, and even one of the driving forces of this forum is the critique that most traditional karate schools do not insist their students engage in sparring type exercises with fully resisting opponents.  According to my own observations, from this, we seem to associate sparring and similar exercises with progress, so my question is this: are there records of how the karateka of old incorporated sparring and live training into their daily practices?  For those from other arts, do you know of any such records from your own arts?  Is it possible that sparring was, in fact, an unnecessary exercise on account of how violent ancient Okinawa actually was?  (Karateka received enough actual combat experience that they didn't need to manufacture it during training?)

Black Tiger
Black Tiger's picture

I like this analogy, do you have more research into this question?

Drew Loto
Drew Loto's picture

No, I don't.  My research efforts are proving fruitless.  That is one of the reasons I made the post in the first place.  Despite a variety of allusions to various conditioning methods, philosophies, and even kata applications, historical accounts, as far as I've seen, seem not to mention the use of sparring whatsoever, even though it is a steadfast practice in just about every martial arts school with an interest in self-defense in the modern day.

I wrote the post in the hope that other members of the forum could help shed some light on this issue.

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

There were a number of Okinawan Karate pioneers who experimented with and adopted bogu kumite, and a few who still do it today. Okinawan Kempo I know utilizes it, as does Oyata and Ryukyu Kempo. THere are old photos (I think) of even Mabuni wearing old Bogu gear.

Now, what they considered  "sparring" I imagine would be a whole other question.

Oerjan Nilsen
Oerjan Nilsen's picture

The evidence of live sparring in "the old days" are very limited. According to Funakoshi most Okinawan boys would participate in wrestling (Tegumi) and the wrestling "fights" were rough enough for people being chocked out or get broken bones. Maybe this was the foundation of the "sparring" done in those days with complimentary striking training on the makiwara? The methods that are recorded in Kata seem to be grappling and striking incorporated toghether so maybe they practised the grappling part freely and did partner drills were they incorporated the striking with the grappling?

Then you have Choki Motobu. Here is one quote from a "lost interview". http://www.motobu-ryu.org/motobu-kenpo/lost-interviews

e wrote:
  I started to get real ability and competence by practicing kumite with him, and thus began to treat my friends like small children <in regards to their skill level>.  

Choki Motobu on the old school training of his teachers:

e wrote:
They trained and studied kata and kumite at the same time.

Choki Motobu comparing training today (in his days) with training of old.

e wrote:
Today's kumite is just imitating karate kata. That does not work at all when it come to jissen.

The interview is great and it contains a lot of good stuff that I have not seen anywere else. Other than the Tegumi reference of Funakoshi and the interview with Choki Motobu I am not aware of concrete evidence of live sparring and how it was done pre 1900s.

michael rosenbaum
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Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

One note:

This is purely my own understanding, but from what I know when you see someone like Motobu talk about "kumite" with his teacher and similar, he is not neccessarily talking about what we would today consider free sparring.

Mind, i'm not saying that whatever he did was better or worse than modern practices, just pointing out that in terms of historiical stuff, to the best of my (admittedly limited) knowledge the single word "kumite" does not always neccessarily connote what we would think of as "free sparring" these days.

e wrote:
even though it is a steadfast practice in just about every martial arts school with an interest in self-defense in the modern day.

This statement strikes me as a bit too broad,  There are people that do something called sparring that don't even carry a primary goal of self defense (Judo or Ippon Shobu Karate tournaments for example), and clubs that don't do what many would consider free sparring (RBSD style secnario training for example) but are aiming for actual combative effectiveness.

We don't need to take a definite position on which on approaches we consider most effective, but it does seem to me that  maybe we need to define just what "sparring" for self defense effectiveness means to us before can evaluate whether the old guys did anything like it. After all, there is (and I assume always was) alot more grey area to training than categories of "sparring" and "not sparring".