Karate: School Bully’s Revenge

Everyone knows a made to measure suit is a thing of beauty. It’s fitted exactly to your frame with all the love and care the tailor chooses to give, but sometimes we don’t need bespoke, sometimes we just want to grab a suit off the rail. It’s cheaper, it’s easier and quite frankly who can really tell the difference. This is probably why I’ve never bought a tailored suit. Though some people take this philosophy further, some people look for this practicality not in their office wear, but in their martial art.

Karate is everywhere. It was the first Asian martial art to gain prominence in the West. Its export driven no doubt by Japan’s post war economic boom, Karate has gained broad acceptance in a way that most martial arts haven’t. It’s a sport, recently made an Olympic sport, it’s a self-defence system and it’s culturally iconic. Mainstream fitness role models such as Bear Grylls write of its benefits in GQ Magazine. People who don’t know anything about martial arts will know something about Karate.

I think it is because of its mainstream appeal that I’ve always resisted Karate. I would tell myself that the reason was philosophical. I had some profound reason why Karate was unsuitable, but frankly I think I just like things kept as niche as possible. The evasion had gone on long enough. The martial arts blogger who will try even the most obscure of styles, Yin Style Bagua jumps to mind, must taste that least forbidden of fruits.

I had anticipated that the Karate class would take much the same form as Wing Chun training. I had read that the art was focused upon striking, leaving the grapple and ground work to its cousin Judo. However, the Shinboku Karate club focused heavily upon throwing and wrestling. This wasn’t quite what I’d expected. They took the grappling seriously. I was to learn to my cost, a little too seriously.

One of the great benefits of Wing Chun, I’ve discovered, is that grappling doesn’t feature; in the sprawling concrete city of Hong Kong, if you hit the ground, you’re already out. Those in the know will say the overwhelming majority of fights end on the floor: I believe the figure they give is ninety per cent, although the historian in me would question the sources. I won’t dispute their figures, however, I will just say I’d rather develop my skills elsewhere.

We all circled around. It was time to test our grappling skills. I’d been given a brief introduction to the world of mat work; I’d say twenty minutes. We then took it in turns to face the black belts – it turns out the black belts have had more than twenty minutes training.

I faced my first adversary. We struggled, I moved quickly. I knew three techniques and I didn’t want to exhaust my knowledge. Remarkably, and no doubt aided by the adversary’s gentlemanly restraint, I was victorious. Victory was achieved by forcing the opponent to “tap out”, a less than gentlemanly process, but it was all good fun – except it really didn’t feel like anyone was having that much fun.

Next came adversary number two. We’d worked our way through the class and now it was back to me. This didn’t seem the sort of thing you should be doing on lesson three. Here was my problem, as we’ve established I had three techniques, I had nothing left up my sleeve. The adversary had an indulged and yet malignant Dudley Dursley look to him. The sort of chap that thinks his body fat is all muscle, clearly when it came to wrestling he held a considerable advantage.

I’d like to say that he treated the exercise with the same gentlemanly restraint as adversary number one, but sadly number two was no gentleman. His tactics were the same as mine, I was speedily placed in a headlock and over I somersaulted as he rolled his weight backwards.

It’s difficult to say what was learned from the experience, other than that the Shinboku Karate club must get through its sparring partners. Based on the slight whiplash I experienced the next day, it was certainly not an activity compatible with the lifestyle of a thirty-some office worker.

Flawed as my Shinboku experience undoubtedly was, I learned a great deal about the diversity and practicality of the form. This is a martial art with a wide pantheon of techniques and provides the opportunity to take your practice virtually anywhere. It is small wonder Bruce Lee held the art in such esteem. I found to my surprise that the suit fitted, but in future I might shop elsewhere: Nought to sixty with Dudley Dursley isn’t quite my idea of steady progression.

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