Why Kyokushin Fighters Do Not Punch to the Face

Almost anytime I post a video of a Kyokushin bout there is one or more people who either make a comment about how it isn’t “realistic” because they don’t punch to the face, or, they ask the question of why they don’t. I decided to do some research and create a post that I could just share anytime those comments or questions come up.

That being said, I wasn’t able to find a definitive answer, although a lot of speculation and hearsay. I would love to get a clear answer, perhaps from someone in the early days, or someone who asked Sosai Oyama directly.

From what I have gathered, in the early days of Kyokushin karate training, bare knuckle strikes to the face were allowed, but this resulted in many injuries, and blood, which caused some students to withdraw from training. Also, they wanted the matches to last, be a challenge and not end due to cuts. They did for some time wrap their hands in towels, but Sosai Oyama believed that wearing protective gloves would detract from the realism that the style emphasized.

Therefore, it was decided that hand and elbow strikes to the face, head and neck would no longer be allowed in training and competition. Furthermore, Japan at that time, and today, along with many governments around the world, do not allow bare-knuckle strikes to the head in any sanctioned competitions.

As a side, google Irish bare knuckle fighting and you will see for yourself the devastation this leaves.

By the 1990′s when Sosai was still alive and Kyokushin achieved such enormous popularity, all Kyokushin tournaments, including the world tournaments held in Japan, did not allow the competitors the use of hand strikes (punches, elbows, etc.) to the head and face. This was done originally for an obvious reason, as stated above. No one wanted to see so many competitors bloodied and sent to the hospital after competitions.  I have also read that the Japanese public feared that competitors would die at the first full-contact tournaments held by Mas Oyama in the late 1960′s if face punching were allowed.

According to Kancho Hatsuo Royama, an early student of Sosai Mas Oyama and head of Kyokushin-kan, what differentiates the competitors of the earlier era of Kyokushin and Kyokushin competitors of the present is:

Those early students of Oyama Dojo (preceding the founding of the Kyokushinkaikan), and of early days at the Kyokushinkaikan, practiced full-contact kumite in the dojo in which punches to the head and groin (and grabbing and throwing) were all legal. This means that the Japanese fighters of the earliest Kyokushin tournaments fought with face/head punches in the dojo, and only limited their strikes to body blows at the tournaments. These fighters, therefore, knew how to defend their faces from punches. Those reflexes were well developed. According to Kancho Royama, however, a tragic development in the evolution of Kyokushin then ensued. A new, younger generation came along which aspired only to win Kyokushin tournaments in which it wasn’t necessary to develop face/head punch defensive techniques and reflexes, and the majority of all Kyokushin practitioners ceased to practice defenses against that would-be-critical aspect of what would be any real self-defense situation.

Amir Bahmeyeh of Contact KicksIFK Canada

When the first Kyokushin champions were sent to fight in the K-1 kickboxing rings, following Mas Oyama’s death, they were tragically defeated, leading to a critical collapse in the popularity of Kyokushin in Japan. The Japanese public no longer believed Kyokushin to be the world’s strongest karate.

Kancho Royama points out that it is critical that we, in Kyokushin-kan, “reclaim what was lost. As karateka we must develop self-defensive reflexes against hand strikes to the head.”

Kyokushin-kan have reintroduced face striking, with tournaments for both strikes to the face, and those without. For those who wish to compete with the strikes, and those who don’t. Here is a compilation of their face striking tournaments in Japan:

 

I will quote Azam Ahmed, who is found on a few martial arts forums and someone I really respect in knowledge and history:

“If you read any of Sosai Oyama’s books or watch footage of the man himself – he stresses the mental aspect of martial arts more than anything else. He has on many occasions said technique/stamina are what constitutes kumite – but technique/stamina will only take you so far. Mental toughness/martial spirit is what allows you to push through your own physical limits – in my mind at least the person with the greater will & sense of purpose will prevail, if not immediately – eventually.

People often underrate or under-value how powerful willpower/spirit can be. It’s only when you’ve reached your limit or are in a tough place that you realise how important it can be. Pain is a great way to test & develop your will/martial spirit – knockdown karate is extremely painful when you remove (head strikes/open hand strikes to the face) because you remove the easiest way to strike/take out an opponent – it’s much harder to head kick someone – the result you get is extremely gruelling matches in knockdown karate, where will/mental toughness is usually the dividing factor – i.e. who can push through? Mental toughness is what really builds character – and you get it in regularly in training, more so in an environment where your physical limit is regularly being tested – both in kihon or kumite.

Sometimes it does come at the expense of what you realistically would expect – a punch in the face and that is one of the cons – mental toughness/conditioning being a pro. It depends though on which karateka you’re watching & his/her style – there are plenty of defensive kyokushin fighters that understand angles/movement/parrying etc etc – for some though the tactic is to slug it out with volume – you get a mix of both.

At least for me – I don’t think there is anything wrong with knockdown rules – ideally though I’d prefer Kyokushin exactly as it is now, but with MMA stand up style sparring but normal knockdown rules have their place.”

I think this sums up for me as well. Though I don’t know the original reason for no punching to the face, I do believe practically speaking why there isn’t. And further, for me at least, Kyokushin is the strongest karate, not because of its great fighting ability, which I think it has, but because it has a history and reputation of indomitable spirt. The spirit of OSU! To never give up!

OSU!

Comments 22

  1. Coleman Ridge

    Soshu Shigeru Oyama told us in class that one time he was helping another black belt look for a tooth he had knocked out, and they found it stuck in his knuckle. They both thought this very funny, but the next day Soshu Oyama’s whole hand and arm were swollen, red, and hot, and it looked like he would lose the arm till someone managed to buy him some penicillin on the black market.

    Saiko-Shihan Y. Oyama told us in class that face punching was made a foul because Sosai Oyama wanted more students.

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      Author
      Scott

      Thank you for sharing that feedback Coleman! And you raised a very good point I failed to mention. Human bite infections are extremely dangerous! More than people might know. The mouth is a cesspool of germs. Again, thank you for reading and taking the time to share this. OSU! Scott

    2. Peter G.N. GRIFFIN.

      TO: Coleman RIDGE

      1. WHAT you stated by Saiko OYAMA is true – that IS what Sosai also told John TAYLOR Hanshi whom responded to my question on this back in 1991.

      2. “It WAS to draw more students” – who at the time were leaving Shotokan (SKIF) / JKA in droves either with missing teeth or broken noses. This was common.

      3. Although many within my group moved into Daido Juku, now known as KUDO. However KUDO has the headgear in order to avoid missing teeth / broken noses. A far more realistic fighting system – which is WHY its the official CQB methodology within JSOC in the United States, and NATO elite.

      P.S. As Mike TYSON was once quoted, “Everyone has a plan until they get hit”.

      Osu !

      1. Post
        Author
        Scott

        Thank you Senpai Peter for leaving this comment, and I believe you are correct on all points! Thank you for taking the time to leave your thoughts. OSU! Scott

  2. Andy

    Perhaps mouth guards might be a solution then? It shouldn’t swing from being extremely realistic to completely avoiding face strikes.

    Elbow and knee pads, as well as shin guards, could also be used if reduction of long-term harm is the intention – they wouldn’t have to be very thick or large, and can be worn under the gi.

    I’ve faced kyokushinkai fighters before in sparring and the lack of protective instinct around the hand and neck is a real issue for them.

      1. Rugge

        That’s interesting Andy – I know all dojo’s train differently, but in our dojo here we are trained to use a high, tight guard despite not allowing hand strikes to the head. Head kicks and knees might not come as easily as a punch, but if your guard isn’t up, they are devastating. Always better to be prepared.

    1. Coleman Ridge

      Daido Juku (aka Kudo) is a Kyokushin offshoot that uses light MMA gloves and advanced headgear. I think that is probably the way to go. As the headgear gets better, the gloves could get lighter.

  3. Micah

    My teacher, Shihan Seiji Kanamura (9th dan), has told me on several occasions that in dojo sparring must include face punches, but isn’t opposed to light headgear.
    He also cited aesthetics as the reason for Kyokushin dropping head punches in competition.

  4. Harris Wallmen

    As a human being and karateka you want to develop mentally and spiritually, not break your face and become a monster, which is really easy to achieve with punches to the head. More than this, your brain was not intended to be hit, but to think, to grow, to develop. So, full contact karate, Kyokushin, is the smartest and toughest method to grow spiritually and also physical, but not doing damage to your brain. Osu!

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      Author
  5. Kenneth

    I have a Black Belt on Go Khan Ryu, we always taught never to strike the face singlet level only,
    however in saying so I received many bad strikes to the head from kicks which are much stronger that hand strikes.

  6. Dipankar Bhattacharya

    Osu, I have a polite observation to make. I have been a student of kyokushin since I was a kid and I am still a student even after being father of a teenager. I was a street fighting spoilt brat in my school and college days but there is one point I learned from street fighting.,Human reflex create very critical crisis whenever any strike near to eyes is noted. And that crisis is not at all predictable. In terms of whom and what. This unprectibality can ruin a base sport, as the fighters become lottery toys. The strictness on face strikes has not only made the fight more competitive but it is also a long competition of preparation, mental and technical both. Once again with due respect to all this is my humble observation,.,OSU

  7. Chris

    I believe the reason is according to one of Sosais books, because Sosai once got into a fight in a club and killed the opponent using his bare hands. This I believe is to be the real reason.

  8. mike

    our dojo would only allow non contact to the head and face until you reached your yellow belt ,but we did punches and kicks to those areas but stopped the actual contact so learning control and how to defend against these techniques,without harm.

  9. Pål

    I’ve been a practisioner of Kyokushin for about a decade now. I would really like to try Kudo some time. But even though you reduce the impact energy with the head gear (and thereby the structural damage to the face), you still get the momentum shaking the brain around. I’ve read that it could even be more unsafe than without any head gear at all, because it feels safer for the receiver. I think it was from the book ”Fight Like a Physicist: The Incredible Science Behind Martial Arts”.

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      Author
      Scott

      Pål, you raise a great point that I should have put into the article. Even professional MMA fighters and boxers and sparring less today, with head shots, because of the risk of concussions. Its actually one the reasons I like Kyokushin over kickboxing.

    2. Carlos W Trejo

      I am 4° Dan Kudo Black Belt, KUDO competition has a lot of K.O’s, and talking about Kudo head guard let me tell you that as soon as you wear the KUDO Neohead guard and try sparring you will learn very fast that if you don´t block or not move your head out of the path of the hit you will be Knocked out.
      So no one that has Kudo experience can think that can take a head direct hit with out problems.

  10. Graeme Spinks

    Patrick Toner trained the early days of Kyokushin on the building site. He introduced Doug halloway to training there. Pat is still around in his 90s in Wellington NZ, same as Doug Halloway. Both in Wellington.

  11. Ronny

    I think it is less important to search for answers why Oyama had choosen this fight-rules. I’ve also heard that if he allowed punches to the face/head it will automatically means wearing gloves, … and than there is no real difference anymore between kick/Thai-boxing and Kyokushin, except the gi. He did not want this.

    More interesting is the discussion about how we think about it, what are the pro’s and the contra’s.

    Reading the notes of Azam Ahmed is very informational for me. It makes sense that if we are allowed to punch to the face/head than the knock-outs will surely increase in numbers, but also in decrease of the length of the fights, which in turn means that one has less opportunity to test one’s fighting spirit and the ability to take painfull tests.

    Wearing gloves means you are not able to test the real ability of your body to take punches in real fights. So, on one hand you increase the degree of reality in kumite, but at the same time you decrease it, too.

    And yes, I prefer to save my brains, eys, nose, teeth, mouth, spine, knee, groin, and clavicle than other parts of my body. This is because we can not train these. From the testing point of view it will do no good to allow the opponent ruin the things you can not develop.

    So I still prefer the “traditional” Kyokushin kumite rules.

  12. Saurabh

    i have practiced itf taekwondo and have earned a second degree black belt.there face punch is allowed.face being a very vulnerable place, while sparring we generally used to avoid close proximity due to the fear of getting hit in the face. hence during the bouts, real impact was actually missing.
    i recently shifted to kyokushin.one of the objectives being of experiencing the real impact, which i feel should be an integral part of real martial arts. physical seasoning leads to mental seasoning, and these gets one prepared to take hits, which should be an in an integral part leading to “BUDO”.
    and in uncontrolled situations, i dont feel migrating to “face punching” and dodging would be much hassle.
    OUSH

  13. Simon

    I was told by my sensei that the reason for no face punching in kyokushin was indeed for safety. The damage was immense. He said it wasn’t practical for people to have their faces smashed a few times a week because the wounds didn’t have appropriate time to heal and the cost in time off work if you needed it for broken noses, lost teeth etc, and for example, if you trained kyokushin and worked as a school teacher you couldn’t turn up for work with black eyes all the time. Gloves don’t make punches a lot softer, they just reduce damage mostly.

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