What Have We Learned?

by William Durbin, Soke of Kiyojute Ryu

1905 - Yasutsune Itosu was told by the Okinawan government that he must put up one of his students as a fighter. It seems the Japanese government had begun to hear about this form of Okinawan martial arts called Te, Tode, or Karate. They wanted to know how good it was and so decided to have a competitive bout between a Judo master and a Karate fighter. The Japanese put up a young fighter, in his late twenties or early thirties, who was well known in Jujutsu circles as a great fighter. It was given to Itosu to choose someone to represent Okinawan Karate.

On the day of the event, the Japanese arrived with their fighter, and waited for Itosu to bring in his man. Eventually Itosu walked in by himself, saying, 'This kind of competition is wrong, since Karate is a lethal martial art, intended for self defense, not for show. I will not ask a student of mine, to do anything I consider wrong, since you say someone must fight, I will.'

The Japanese became indignant. Yasutsune Itosu was seventy-five years old at the time. They felt this was an insult to their art. Either the Okinawans were trying to insult them by saying an old man could beat their young Judo champion, thus belittling the art, or they purposefully put in an old man, so that when he lost, they could say the art is good, just the man was too old. They never for a moment, in their arrogance, thought that maybe Karate was simply that good. At first they insisted that a younger man be brought in, but Itosu was adamant, finally the Okinawans appeased the Japanese by saying once Itosu was beaten by the Judoka, then a younger fighter would be brought in.

Needless to say, no other fighter needed to be brought in. As the Judoka rushed Itosu to grab him and hurl him to the ground, one quick reverse punch to the solar plexus ended the fight, Ikken Hissatsu, one point certain death style. Then Itosu gave the man first aid so that he would not die. It is said that Itosu then turned to the crowd and said, 'Karate is a way of life, a severe martial art, and should be a boon to mankind. It is not, and should never be, a competition sport. It is a form of self defense that should only be used as a last resort. I hope you have learned the lesson of Karate, and that nothing like this will ever happen again.' Then he turned and left the room.


1967 - Ed Parker, and his associate Ralph Castro, was hosting the California State Karate Championships. Among the people there was none other than Chuck Norris, who would be one of the referees in the black belt division. And among those competing was a young man by the name of Danny Stewart. A handsome young man, all of eighteen years, with an excitement and an enthusiasm for life and the joy of martial arts training. Competing in the non black belt class, Danny had hopes of earning his black belt and teaching his beloved art of Kenpo Karate that he was learning from his mentor Al Tracy.

But Danny was to never have that chance. During the tournament he was struck hard in the abdominal area. Unknown to anyone, his spleen was ruptured; he was dying and did not even know it. Hours after the tournament, Danny feel ill and was rushed to the hospital, where he died on the operating table. The doctor acknowledged that the spleen was enlarged due to illness, but it was definitely the blow received during the tournament that caused the spleen to rupture and Danny to die.


1993 - A young man is in an Isshin Ryu Karate Dojo in Northern Ohio. He, like many young men, wants to learn Karate, so that he can grow physically, mentally, and spiritually. He is a very intense young man with a great deal of talent and dedication. When his instructor tells him he must learn to spar, he asks no questions, but dons the safety equipment and practices.

Unfortunately, as will happen all too often, the sparring exchange between him and his partner gets entirely too intense, as neither young man wants to lose. Finally, a quick, hard, (completely too hard), front snap kick is thrown, slamming into the young man's solar plexus. He is dropped and obviously hurt. Thank God it is obvious. He is rushed to the hospital, where due to modern surgery techniques, the spleen, which has ruptured, is repaired. The young man will live. He leaves his current Dojo in search of one, which teaches the traditional martial arts, correctly and safely.


If one looks through the martial arts magazines they will find periodic reports of deaths that have occurred during the martial arts tournaments. In the early seventies a story told of a young Judoka, whose heart gave out during a heated Shiai, competition. Late in the eighties, a young man was killed in a Tae Kwon Do tournament in Florida, when an ax kick hit him in the head, sending him crashing, head first to the floor where they were sparring, causing his death. In the nineties, a young man was killed in an open tournament, reason unknown, when he was hit, swept to the floor, and struck while he laid there. He just never got up. In the new millennium an instructor is sparring with a student, when his heart gives out due to overexertion.

When I looked at the information regarding the MMA/UFC fights I have found that three competitors have died during competitions and there has been reported a person who died just training MMA style which is too aggressive and uncontrolled to be safe. Expect to hear of more competitive deaths and training fatalities if this form of martial arts training continues.


What have we leaned? People who proclaim the need of tournaments say that competition has been a part of the martial arts since the beginning in Japan. But the truth is, if someone's spleen was ruptured in a training session in ancient Japan, they died. There was no way to save a life from that type of injury at that time. Simple breaks could cripple a person for life. Training was done with much greater emphasis on control and safety, than even today. Remember only ten percent of the Japanese were of the warrior class. To needlessly injure or kill members of the class was to weaken the military structure.

Others say that sparring is a necessary part of Karate training and has been since the beginning of the martial arts in Okinawa. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Okinawans did not believe in free sparring. They had a type of controlled, extemporaneous practice, which was called Kumite, grappling hand that was practiced with rigid self control, so that no one was injured. Recently an article was written on Choki Motobu's book Okinawan Kempo: Karatejutsu on Kumite, by a person who obviously did not do his research, in that he claimed that the photographs were done on free sparring. This was the controlled method of Kumite, also known as Renzoku Ken, which is still practiced today in many Dojo, some with a lineage that includes Choki Motobu.

In Okinawa, if two people fought, they fought. It was called a Shiai, with the Shi being the Kanji meaning death. If they trained, they trained. But there was no form of play fighting, the art was just considered too deadly to 'play' with. That is why the Okinawans simply told their students not to fight at all. Like Itosu said, Karate was the art of last resort. When all else fails, when you cannot walk away, run away, talk it over, or escape, then there is Karate. There are still some Okinawans who feel the same way today, avoiding the lime light, so that they do not have to play the 'silly' game of Karate.

Strong Voice of Criticism

One of the greatest voices raised when young Danny Stewart died, was that of Shotokan master, Hidetake Nishiyama. He criticized American Karate teachers as not teaching their students enough self control. He criticized American referees for low quality. And basically just criticized the American practice of Karate, blaming Danny's death on the 'quality' of American fighting.

But the truth is, if we had followed the advice of Yasutsune Itosu to begin with and not had Karate competition, then there would not be a problem in the first place. It is said that sparring, as we know it today began with college students testing each other 'in Japan', becoming so competitive with each other that something had to be done to curb the injuries. The Japanese Goju Ryu Karate master, Gogen Yamaguchi, had already experimented with certain rules for a type of Jiyu Kumite, free sparring, which Masatoshi Nakayama built upon to create the sport of Karate, hoping the sporting aspect would help the popularity of the art, just as it had with Judo. So the truth is, Karate tournaments were created by Japanese who wanted some method of popularizing their martial art, knowing they were creating a dangerous form of practice. Maybe the blame should not have been on the American Karate teachers, since they were just following the example created by the Japanese instructors in the first place.

So the truth is, if we had continued to practice Karate the way the Okinawans did, without any form of competition or free fighting, then Danny and many other individuals might still be alive today, enjoying the art they loved so dearly.


What have we learned? If you look at what was said in 1905, what happened to Danny in 1967, and then the young man who was sent to the hospital in 1993, it doesn't look like we have learned anything. At a recent tournament, two 'senior masters', men over the age of thirty five, were competing for a gold medallion. It became very obvious that one of the men was going to win, being ahead on points, and obviously the better competitor. So his opponent, just decided, if he was going to lose, the other man was going to pay for it. People in the audience saw it coming in the look in the man's eyes and the set in his stance; he was going to hurt his opponent. Sure enough, as the referee called begin; he jumped in and broke the other man's nose. Sure the other guy got the medallion, but he also got a trip to the hospital.

Deaths in the UFC Style Matches

Maybe it is time to stop the silliness of martial arts competition, before someone somewhere decides it is getting too dangerous and puts a stop to our training, or at the very least takes away our freedom. With all the UFC and the like, alluding to themselves as martial arts competitions, with even one representative saying that 'no one has been seriously hurt in a competition', and that 'you can go to any Dojo and see this kind of fighting all over the United States'. Already parents have refrained from putting their children into Dojo because of that ludicrous statement, for fear their children might get hurt. And 'no serious injuries', in the first UFC a competitor had a tooth knocked out and his jaw crushed, while in another UFC, a competitor was sent to the hospital with a cracked orbicular of the eye, i.e. eye socket. Some would consider these serious injuries.

It has finally been admitted that three competitors have died from UFC style matches. One man in Europe died right in the ring. How many deaths do we have to have before we decide this form of ‘entertainment’ is harmful not only to competitors but also to society? There have been many reports of kids fighting UFC style in the streets. How many kids are going to die from emulating people who are not good role models, just violent, aggressive brutes.

When we look at the skills of the great masters of the past, and realize that they did not need competition to be great martial artists, we need to realize that the danger to the individuals, particularly young students, make the idea of competition unnecessary. Most people think of Morihei Ueshiba as the greatest martial arts master of the twentieth century and yet he forbade competition.

It would be wonderful if Danny was still alive. He may have grown into one of the truly great martial arts masters of our times; maybe he would have been another Ueshiba, if he had only had the chance, if he had only lived, if he had only not been in that tournament. If people had only listened to what Yasutsune Itosu had said in 1905. Let's give others a chance. Let's look at the traditional forms of training, Kata and Embu that do not require competition, yet give the great pleasure of training in the martial arts, with an immense deal more safety. Think it over. What have we learned? Let's hope a lot.

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