Every Karateka, I am sure, has heard the familiar chorus of “does Karate really work?” and “have you ever used Karate in a real fight?”
Well, after 20 years I feel ready to share my story. Yes I have used Karate in a real situation, and for me, yes it worked.
It all started with my two closest friends one warm late summer’s evening. I was 18 and at that time a 2nd Dan. My friends were both 1st Dan. We trained hard, 4-5 days a week, we didn't smoke or drink, we lived purely to train Karatedo.
Like most mischievous teenagers we wanted adventure and fun. This we found in abundance at the local outdoor pool where all of our friends would gather for illicit midnight swims, scaling the seven-foot walls and stifling our laughter. In the dark the water glowed an enticing faint orange from the street light above.
On this particular night the three of us peered over the walls into the pool and saw a massive gang of people already there. They weren’t the usual crowd, these guys seemed much older. Beer bottles and rubbish lay everywhere and we all got an uneasy vibe of aggression and violence.
I told my friends I had a bad feeling about the gang and they agreed, but suggested that maybe one of our friends could be amongst them. Convinced that trouble was ahead I again voiced my concerns but full of confidence my friends said it would be OK. We dropped down over the wall and made our way to the group. There seemed to be so many, in fact the police would question 28 people with what was about to happen.
As we approached the gang the sound of chatting and rumbling voices fell silent. I could feel their gaze on us and one of them shouted “What the f*** are you doing here?” Before we could respond they immediately surrounded us – violence broke out instantly. Instinctively we charged at the group, forcing it to break into three groups around us.
I was grabbed by perhaps eight people. I held my guard, shielded my head and tried to keep mobile. At only 5ft 3 and at age 18 I weighed about 8 stone. They picked me up so easily I felt like a soap bubble with no traction, no grounding, it was as though I was completely weightless. They threw my body repeatedly at one of the brick walls that caged us in but somehow I kept my guard up, my forearms taking the hits until they finally tossed me into the pool.
Catching my breath, I looked around desperately for my two friends. I could see one of them was totally surrounded by a huge group of people all pulling and punching at him. Suddenly he unleashed a massive front kick directly into the lower abdomen of one of the gang, who flew backwards with the force. My friend looked strong, his long legs and arms maintaining what looked like a steady, composed fighting posture.
My other friend, who was more athletic and nimble, was luring people away by scramble the walls, dropping back in and constantly moving. The group couldn’t get hold of him. He covered their blows and positioned himself well and took so much pressure off of us by doing this.
I was still in the pool, a small group of guys trying to keep me in there. By now the fight or flight response had worn away. The initial panic, adrenalin fuelled shaking and fear had been replaced by the strangest sense of calm. Some guy was trying to push me back in as I clambered up the pool steps, but in my defense I grabbed my chunky mobile from my back pocket and smashed it into his face. The phone dropped to the ground and my guard was up. I screamed my biggest ever Kiai and my gaze pierced through my opponent’s eyes. Something had changed inside of me, I felt strangely peaceful yet ready to fight with absolute intention to destroy. The guy my focus was locked onto immediately hesitated; I inched forwards, he inched backwards and we just stayed like that, neither of us attacking, until he moved away. It seemed like minutes but was probably only seconds.
I turned and saw my first friend, who had been attacked by the gang, thrown into the pool. He looked so weak paddling on his back using only one arm, the other dangling uselessly by his side. I rushed towards him but my other friend suddenly shouted at me to move and in that instant I felt someone behind me. I lurched forwards but it was too late, a massive blow to the back of my head knocked me to the floor. I was out for a second then something kicked in – instinct, shock or my Karate training – and I leapt to my feet and fought back. The guy had run half the length of the pool and struck me with a motorcycle helmet but thanks to my friend’s warning I moved with the force, undoubtedly limiting the damage to my head.
The atmosphere in the enclosure turned to panic. The gang were dispersing, climbing the walls and getting away in all directions, and finally the focus had moved away from us. The two of us were left to drag our friend out of the pool. He had turned grey and breathless.
We knew we had to get help so we somehow lifted him over the wall, but after a few steps on the other side he started complaining of sever back pain and was insisting they had broken his ribs. “Get me to hospital,” he moaned and my other friend ran to the phone box to call for an ambulance while I stayed with him. He asked me to look at his back. Between his shoulder blades I saw a rip in his shirt and a trail of blood. I lifted his shirt and knew immediately he had been stabbed. The gash was about 2inches wide, the blood seemed so deep in colour and was pooling out.
“Please don’t panic,” I told him. “There is a cut but it doesn’t look bad, it’s just small. The ambulance will be here. Just sit down.”
He didn’t believe me and made me put his hand to the stab wound. His thumb sunk in and he went into shock, vomited and collapsed. He was shaking, weak and cold and quickly loosing consciousness. I got him in the recovery position and we tried to keep him talking until help arrived.
I watched the ambulance drive away then I got into the police car and helped them search for anyone who had been involved in the fight. They interviewed me and took my clothes for forensics, then finally dropped me at the hospital where my friend had gone into the operating theatre for emergency life saving procedures. The group had pinned him in a neck hold while the guy he had kicked walked up behind him and plunged a 5inch butterfly knife straight into his rib cage, puncturing his lung. Other than that he only had a split lip. The only damage I received was cuts to my forearms and knees and my other friend was completely unhurt. The police commented on how ‘good’ we looked considering the level of violence.
Police forensic teams managed to recover the knife; they found it in a tree next to a path. They also found someone’s jacket in a hedge with my friend’s blood splattered up the sleeve. The police questioned well over 20 people involved in the fight and three of them, including the guy who struck me with the helmet, gave evidence naming the guy with the knife. Combined with the forensic evidence that secured the trial and conviction of the stabber.
So how did Karate help us that night? The short answer is that it kept at least one of us alive. These are the key elements we used from our practice that night.
With Karate training we develop heightened intuition and awareness. I should have stuck to my intuition and convinced my friends to walk away from the pool, but unfortunately that night I ignored it.
We kept up our guards and charged at the group, splitting it up and reducing the pressure on us. Karate training made us react in this way as natural instinct would have been to group together or try to run.
Training teaches us to keep moving and if we fall down, to get up again. Vitally, it also teaches us to cover with a strong guard at all times.
Movement and Energy
Karate training gives you a unique awareness of your body, your points of balance and how to receive force. As I was being tossed around I was able to let go and not resist. I went with the pushing, the lifting, the pulling, and when thrown at the wall allowed my arms to absorb the force and rotate my body away.
Karate’s most powerful weapon. I used the Kiai like never before that night. Something shifted inside of me that I cannot explain; I felt internal power and focus, fear disappeared from my mind and body. I stopped shaking. My opponent was literally frozen by my Kiai. It is the most powerful moment I have ever experienced and on reflection I would call it spiritual. In that short moment between my opponent and me I have honestly never felt more alive.
Martial artists like to ‘talk’ of the Seven Virtues of Bushido: Justice (gi), Bravery (yuu), Benevolence (jin), Veracity (makoto), Politeness (rei)), Honor (meyio) and Loyalty (chuugi). We experienced all 7 virtues that night. We all changed that night.
Some people thrive on violence and aggression, Karateka however are not fighters. We don’t enjoy aggression and as I experienced during those initial moments, the mental state can seriously impact on your ability to function. Temporarily I couldn’t even recall how to kick even though I had been training for a decade! I resorted to very basic instinct but when it became intense the training kicked in and I was even able to transfer my skills to what I had at hand – a mobile phone – which I used in the most effective ‘Karate’ way, with speed, wrist rotation and muscle memory. Training gives us a window of opportunity to act and react with an intense level of focus and force, even if it is something basic like shouting.
Based on my experiences I now teach dedicated self-defense courses as well as traditional Karate. As a qualified Psychotherapist and Hypnotherapist, I have developed an honest training programme that prepares individuals mentally as well as physically for confrontation. I even use Hypnosis and NLP in the Dojo and the benefits are huge.
Karate is naturally very Hypnotic; it dips into unconscious states repeatedly during training. I hope to write another article soon on the power of Hypnosis and how Karate teachers can incorporate it into their practice to develop themselves and their students… watch this space!
Tim Houghton Sensei
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Teaching traditional Karate classes in Brighton & Mid Sussex.