There can be broadly categorised four styles of karate kumite styles. In the tradition of eastern philosophy, they are named after the four elements Wind, Fire, Water and Stone.
Whilst these are stereotypes and not every karate-ka will fit the mould of just one, they do help us understand how we can play to our strengths and also develop our style of kumite to best fit our body type.
Wind – FAST AND DIRECT
Typically Lightweight sometimes Medium weight.
Move like the wind. Wind fighters attack in strong gusts and as fast as they hit you they have gone again. And like the wind, you may sometimes anticipate a storm coming but you cannot detect the exact moment a gust will engulf you.
- Works on fitness.
- Light on feet and agile.
- Must learn to get the whole body behind technique to increase strength and power.
- Works on speed and masters charging.
- Develops fast combinations minimising the time between techniques.
- Minimises telegraphing.
- Masters covering ground quickly.
- Overwhelms opponents with numbers of techniques or practices in and out.
- Never slugs it out.
- Attacks when they want to attack.
- Is always moving to making themselves a hard target to focus on.
- Defence relies on evasion and not giving them a chance to strike more than blocking.
- Dances, faints and keeps opponents a considerable distance away.
- Favourite techniques: Straight punches (usually to the head in order to keep opponents on the back foot); side back fists for speed and front kicks for speed and directness.
- Weaknesses: vulnerable to front kicks while attacking and poor at holding ground. Impatient.
Fire – FIERCE AND FLICKERY
Usually Middle or sometimes light weight, usually tall.
Like the volatile and unpredictable flames of fire, this is the most spectacular of all styles.
- Masters long range techniques especially round kicks.
- Harasses opponents from a distance.
- Uses peripheral, round techniques to open up a opponents guard before coming in.
- Develops unpredictable movements and/or devastating combinations.
- Works on fitness and flexibility.
- Disengages if opponents get too close.
- Keeps opponents at a distance with defensive kicks.
- Develops extreme reach with lunging forward reverse punch.
- Primarily an attacking Karate-ka and is more likely to evade an attack than to hold ground.
- Masters coming at the opponent from different angles IE will use side stepping and Peripheral techniques to attack sides then suddenly change direction Or Will go high using reach then suddenly attack low.
- Uses in and out combinations.
- Favourite techniques kicking and multiple kicks.
- Weaknesses: poor defensive strength in close.; vulnerable if they can’t pull back out quickly as they are often off balance and high on their feet.
Water – FLOWING AND ADAPTABLE
In the immortal words of Bruce Lee “Be like water; water has form and yet it has no form. It is the softest element on earth yet it can penetrate the hardest rock. It has no shape, if you pour it into a cup it becomes the cup. It flows but then it can crash. Observe the nature of water my friend.”
- Must be most decisive, thinking and tactical of all karate-ka.
- Reactionary, defensive style relies on opponents coming in, exploits openings when opponent attacks.
- Has lots of patience.
- Masters reading the opponent.
- Develops flowing loose blocking style, with “spinning ball” technique.
- Expert at shifting body weight, side stepping, slipping and head movement.
- Stays extremely calm under fire and never turns head away.
- Masters counter attacking with combinations.
- Punishes opponents who overextend to attack.
- Develops an expert sense of timing.
- Moves and works around an opponent.
- Draws attackers in for the sweep.
- Works best at short to medium range.
- Favourite technique- defensive “Tai-Subaki” side stepping.
- Weaknesses: not threatening enough on the offensive; hardest style to master; requires great confidence.
Stone – STRONG AND IMMOVABLE
Almost always heavy weight and if not they must have a strong body and powerful technique.
Like a stone, these fighters try to develop to be impervious to wind, fire or water and also have the power to roll over and crush them.
- The most powerful of all the styles.
- Develops water tight blocking system.
- Holds ground in defence to facilitate powerful counter attacks.
- Not reliant on being manoeuvrable.
- Is patient to wait until opponent moves close enough, as they are vulnerable and not very manoeuvrable if they overextend too soon.
- Develops massive kiai.
- Works tirelessly on power and strength.
- Aims to finish off an opponent with one technique.
- Often spars with weight mainly on the back leg.
- Uses weight and strength drive forward with a lunge once an opponent is close enough.
- Will charge like a rhino to any opponent who cannot evade.
- Their goal is to get into short to medium range where they are harder to block and where they do the most damage.
- Is most likely to grab and grapple.
- Uses intimidation to their advantage.
- Works on conditioning and toughness.
- Favourite techniques stop or push punches and front kicks for countering.
- Weaknesses: easy to evade; not good at initiating attacks.
What’s your style?
Developing a style to your kumite to help you play towards your strengths is an invaluable lesson. Let me explain this concept using some examples of contrast: I often see a small person of slight build and low strength trying to hold their ground against some one much bigger and stronger who easily drives them back. While the smaller person may be testing their skills if they are in the dojo, if they were “playing for keeps” they are pushing a bad position, they would be far better to evade and escape the encounter, rather than fight a battle that is all in the favour of the bigger opponent. Likewise I have seen a big but relatively slow opponent repeatedly try to lunge forward to attack a much lighter and agile opponent only to be picked off on the way in and the lighter defender then escapes away anyway. The bigger opponent should wait for the smaller opponent to get closer, even waiting for them to attack before lunging in.
The reason why someone would opt to push a bad position or use tactics which really don’t play to their strengths is that they haven’t really thought about what their strengths are or what kind of skills best suit them.
Being aware of the style that best suits you also allows you to develop your skills to complement your style. For example, if you are a slow mover you have to work on becoming excellent at defending and in particular counter attacking, (either that or work heavily on fitness until you become fast on your feet).
This may even lead you to conclusions you may not want to hear. I was talking to a student and they were saying “I don’t have the speed to be wind, I don’t have the reach to be fire, I don’t have the size or strength to be stone, does that mean I am water?” I answered “probably yes” they replied, “But I am not very tactical either.” To me their choices at this point are clear, if you don’t have abilities or “natural advantages” that lend themselves to being good at kumite, becoming tactical is a clear way you can develop an advantage. Or train harder to develop skills, speed, flexibility or strength to give you an advantage.
The last thing that understanding these styles helps you with is seeing the weakness in all of them. Use this to firstly exploit the weaknesses of your opponents style and secondly to be aware of and try to eliminate the weaknesses in your style.
Again these styles are not absolutes, although I constantly observe karate-ka who fit these stereotypes I also see those who don’t but are still very successful and confident.
When I was a coloured belt I worked very hard to master my style “wind” and these skills and abilities still serve me very well but as a black belt, your goal should be to become a more rounded fighter incorporating if not mastering elements of all the different styles. After all what if two stone karate-ka come up against each other? There are two answers: you will either see who is best at being stone OR you will see who is the most adaptable karate-ka.