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The Edge Of Experience

By Christopher Caile

Stories abound in the martial arts of the aging master of their art defeating younger, stronger opponents. But is this true for karate?

Many of these stories come from the Japanese sword arts. Richard Kim (the great Karate teacher, historian and writer now deceased) had a favorite story of a seasoned teacher of Japanese sword arts (kenjitsu practiced by kata) who quickly defeated several younger, stronger competitive kendo players in a challenge match. His advantage was long practice and honed skills in timing, distance, subtle technique and a mind hardened by long practice and discipline.

I have also seen an old black and white film of Kyuzo Mifune, 10th dan (1883-1965), the famous Japanese judo pioneer and once head of the Kodokan’s instructors (headquarter of Kodokan judo) practice fighting with a fellow black belt judo player that could easily have been his grandson. Whenever the younger man attempted a throw, the elder Mifune would counter with some subtle technique and in the process of the practice the younger seemed almost powerless to stop Mafuni’s technique.

But these were not karate Coffee Dan (1), those who get their black belt and then largely give up competition, practice fighting and substitute talk for rigorous training. Many become senior students, others are teachers or those who just don’t like competition. In short, they never develop their skills much beyond the basics, which got them to black belt. Whatever skills they had are then often eroded by excess weight, loss of skill and lack of practice.

That’s why the younger, more athletic practiced karate-ka often dominate in fighting matches.

Some karate practitioners, however, keep working and developing. They keep practice fighting to hone superior skills of timing, movement and strategy. They know what to do when faced with different types of fighters and can quickly size up an opponent’s weakness. They also work on makawara or on practice punching/kicking bags to develop strength and speed of technique. But these experienced practitioners are unfortunately in the minority. (2)

Not too long ago I visited Jamaica for our Seido Karate’s celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the Jamaican headquarters in Kingston. Part of the celebration was an island-wide open karate tournament. Several students from Seido New York’s Honbu (world headquarters) and elsewhere attended to compete.

One man who attended from New York was Seido’s Paul Williams (5th dan, Kyoshi). While attention was focused on the younger competition, Paul easily won the “Over 40 Black Belt Kumite” (free fighting) section. The Grand Champion was then decided in a round robin competition between the light weight category champion, heavy weight category champion, last year’s Grand Champion and that older guy, Paul something, from New York.

Paul faced two competitors, the light and heavy weight champions in the round robin match. Both were tall and lanky fighters who had exhibited lightening fast kicking combinations to dominate their weight classes. They were also young, 17 or 18 years old.

When the first faced Paul in the Championship round, you could almost see his mind thinking, “I won’t embarrass this old guy too much.” He was in for a surprise. So was his next opponent. And I must admit, I had thoughts too, like “I hope Paul isn’t out of his class here.” I was a little afraid for him.

What I, and the others forgot or didn’t know was that Paul Williams was really experienced and had fought regularly. He had won Grand Championships in various tournaments for decades (equally good in point, semi-contact and full contact). He has honed his skills and weapons and is equally good with his hands and feet. And, I might add, no one actually knows how old he is since he won’t tell, but he is no youngster.

The final matches turned into a seminar on how to dominate an opponent with superior skills. The younger contestants had superior reach, speed and probably better kicking skills. But Paul Williams dominated through his use of timing, distance, movement and fighting strategy. In both of his final two matches Paul scored almost at will-- point…point...point…point ---using timing and positioning to avoid kicks and then countering with either his hands or legs. The final score in his last match was 10 points to 2 points.

This proved to be a great shock to Paul’s competitors. They started out so confident and ended with only questions as to how they could be so vulnerable. The outcome was a great lesson for all.

This example shows that even in karate, an experienced karate practitioner with honed skills can beat a younger, stronger and faster, but less experienced, competitor. It also shows how skills in timing, positioning, strategy can be honed through practice and experience, and that being more advanced in age does not mean being less skilled --quite the opposite is true.


(1) A term graciously borrowed from George Donahue.

(2) I’m not talking about pure technicians here. Some students of karate execute their techniques with amazing power, speed and grace, but when faced with an opponent they just are not good fighters. This is because they lack practice fighting experience and all the skills that go with it.

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About The Author:

Christopher Caile is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of He has been a student of the martial arts for over 50 years and a teacher of karate since 1962. He is the author of over 300 articles and columns on the martial arts and editor of several martial arts books. Over the last 20 years he has conducts seminars on street self-defense to community and student groups in both the United States and Canada. His seminars topics also include his specialty areas of kata applications and joint locks and other jujutsu-like techniques found within karate. Caile started his martial arts career in judo. Then he added karate as a student of Phil Koeppel in 1959. Caile introduced karate to Finland in 1960 and then hitch-hiked eastward. In Japan (1961) he studied under Mas Oyama and later in the US became a Kyokushinkai Branch Chief. In 1976 he followed Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura when he formed Seido karate and is now a 6th degree black belt (Sei Shihan) in that organization's honbu dojo (NYC). He is also Sensei in Wadokai Aikido under Roy Suenaka Sensei. Other experience includes diato-ryu aikijujutsu, Hakuho-Ryu Aiki-jujutsu, kenjutsu, kobudo, Shinto Muso-ryu jodo, kobudo, boxing and several Chinese fighting arts including Praying Mantis, Pak Mei (White Eyebrow), Wing Chun, Chin Na and Shuai Chiao. He is also a student of Zen. A long-term student of one branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qigong, he is a personal disciple of the qi gong master and teacher of acupuncture Dr. Zaiwen Shen (M.D., Ph.D.). He holds an M.A. in International Relations from American University in Washington D.C. and has traveled extensively through South and Southeast Asia. He frequently returns to Japan and Okinawa to continue his studies in the martial arts, their history and tradition. In his professional life he has been a businessman, newspaper journalist, inventor and entrepreneur.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

karate,karate fighting, kumite,karate skills,fighting skills

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