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The First HEROES

Karate (bare hands), the martial art of Okinawa, which was further developed by the Japanese when Masters Funakoshi, Miyagi, and Mabuni brought it to Japan at the beginning of the 20th century, has undergone a real revolution in recent years.

The sport of karate in particular has evolved greatly in recent times, so much so that its storied past now seems only a fond memory. What has caused this rapid evolution? Several factors. Let's look at them together.

The first sign of change on the international level took place when WUKO, the maximum traditional karate authority, which today is  World Karate Federation, united almost all major styles, allowed the use of light protective gear during Kumite Shiai (tournament combat). Until after the 1972 World Championships in Paris, in which I participated, the fighters were  permitted to wear neither gloves nor shin-guards unless the fighter had a doctor's certification of a recent injury.

I remember an episode that illustrates the type of spirit still permeating the air of traditional karate at the Paris WUKO Championships. The national team championships were held on the first day. Italy, with Parisi, Schiappacasse, Munda, Fassione and myself as captain, unexpectedly captured second place behind the strong French team with Valera, Gruss, Sauvin, Petitdemange and Setroux.

Fighting without any protective gear on the hands and legs always left its mark on the face, the forearms or the shins. The following day saw the beginning of the individual matches, but without the Japanese, Americans and Canadians who had withdrawn in protest of the refereeing.

This was a harbinger of the rupture between the Japan Karate Association (represented in Paris by Iida, Oishi, Tanaka, Yahara and Abe) and WUKO, a rupture which in Italy later gave a boost to FESIKA on the national level, and EAKF and IAKF on the international scene. I was about to start my first match (somewhat demoralized by the situation) against the formidable Englishman Knighton, ex-European Shotokan champion. The central referee of the match, the famous Master Hayashi (in those days  the WUKO world head of referees) gave us the preliminary inspection, checking my fingernails, if I was wearing a cup, etc. The last inch of a shinguard was barely visible under my gi pants, which were shorter than those of many others who wisely wore long pants. Hayashi told me to remove the shinguard. I protested, explaining that I was wearing it only because I had suffered a huge bruise the day before. He had me take it off anyway, and after inspecting my leg he declared it was nothing serious. Thus, I had to fight without it, with the psychological handicap of knowing how much pain I would feel as soon as the bruise was hit again.

This was in 1972! If you think about how a traditional karate athlete presents himself today, you can only laugh. In WUKO it is mandatory to wear a cup and use both light gloves with padding at the knuckles and shinguards. In my day, shinguards were short, more or less the length of an open hand, covering the lower leg only partially. Today there are shinguards that cover the entire lower leg and, for a little more money, that also protect the top of the foot and the ankle. In special cases (traumas or others) it is also possible to wear under the gi jacket a type of shield to protect the front of the torso. I remember a member of the French national team, Gauze, wearing such a thing during the UEK European championships at the De Coubertin arena in 1977. Why has there always been more acceptance of protective gear in traditional karate? Simply because there were too many injuries during matches. Split lips, cut eyebrows and cheekbones, broken teeth and noses are all too common at traditional karate bouts.

The light protection tried to minimize the risk of injury. And with what success? In traditional matches faces continue to take a beating. The protective equipment used does not prevent injuries because it is not sufficiently safe. So what is WUKO doing about it? In an attempt to reduce the damage (since all appeals for better control of punches and kicks are in vain) they are limiting the types of attack allowed by limiting the targets. The latest example is that straight punches to the face are now outlawed, which means that a gyakuzuki or kizamizuki to the face of an advancing opponent is forbidden.

The reader may think that this problem alone led to Safe-T protective gear, but I don't think so. I would say this was only a marginal factor. Between 1970 and 1975, karate was enjoying its golden age, thanks to American filmmakers who, always looking for new subjects, discovered the martial arts, first inserting action scenes and later dedicating the entire film to karate, with Bruce Lee leading the way.

For years karate had survived in humid basements or poorly equipped gyms, on linoleum or cold flooring. Suddenly, karate was becoming a relatively big business. The Japanese who came to Italy to teach the art (and not the philosophy) at first said "big gym, small spirit – small gym, big spirit". Then they changed their minds and were the first to create big beautiful and bright facilities. The movies and newspapers were full of karate. Obviously, the public felt the attraction. Karate matches, formerly held in small theaters or playgrounds, wound up being staged in grand venues. Sports arenas were filled for years, in part because the myth of the new superman, the karateka, had been perpetuated in the mass media in Italy, as in the rest of the world. But if traditional karate has held up in Italy more than elsewhere, in the U.S.A. in particular, it has had an early decline. One reason is the different mentality of Americans, who generally prefer virile, violent action, a tradition inherited from the mythical "Frontier" days and an intrinsic admiration for pioneers, who alone stood up against a rather hostile nature. Another reason is that America, at the time, also had all the major styles in world, all the kung-fu variations, not to mention every type of tae kwon do. Lastly, Americans have little propensity for abstraction, and therefore simply couldn't accept the idea that two opposing karate fighters, without ever touching each other, were actually simulating a mortal duel. We can fully understand why somebody finally decided to change things around.

In Europe, if we take a friend to see a match for the first time, he will be disoriented, though perhaps fascinated, by all those blows and the strictly martial air of some fighters, but he will hardly understand anything of what is truly going on in front of him. We all know that a karate match can be understood only by an "elite" of practitioners. If you add to this the Japanese language used by the referees, the punches and kicks with strange names, and the rules themselves - when you K.O. your rival you lose – we understand why it is intelligible only for insiders.

Can you imagine this in America? I remember in 1968 when my friends Parisi, Ottaggio and I fought in Los Angeles and San Francisco, in particular in Los Angeles at the Long Beach Arena (where the historic 1975 world championships were later held), in the first world tournament in martial arts history, an invitation only affair with Japan, USA and countries in South America and Europe. Only 1,200 spectators showed up. That is nothing if you consider that later, at the same venue, Ed Parker's international competition drew that many people as participants. Why? Because Americans found traditional karate boring, with little or only sporadic action. The matches were too brief and there was little excitement. The finals in that historic championship, between Oishi and Tabata, lasted five minutes, during which the two friends, in place, scrutinized each other's eyes, trying to read the other's intentions. When Tabata decided to attack, Oishi was waiting with an ever reliable gyakuzuki to the stomach and won the match before the yawning public. I can remember being very perplexed by the lack of spectators, but now that I better understand the situation in America, I know why. Between films and live competitions, they had consecrated karate as a spectacle sport.

However, everyone knows that when you decide to offer something to the public, you must take its demands into account. The public generally wants to enjoy itself, to get excited. It doesn't matter whether they come for the physical spectacle or the setting, as long as they get something for the price of admission.

In Italy we have showered the paying public with all available Japanese masters. In America they haven't met with success, unless they were excellent showmen.

Some states in America still have "special" rules. For example, in traditional karate (in the States the term has a different meaning – it refers to a type of mixed-style match with controlled blows) if you K.O. your opponent it is ippon, immediate victory. However, if the opponent manages to get back on his feet, you are disqualified. This explains why karate in Texas is among the roughest in the world. The habit of accepting some types of "contact" (we finally said it) became a strong selling point.

Light contact in karate competition came with the birth of professional karate in the USA. Mike Stone, Chuck Norris, Skipper Mullins, Joe Lewis, Howard Jackson, Benny Urquidez and Bill Wallace are now legendary names in American karate. It was some of them who started the latest revolution, which more or less led to the current situation. They provided the muscle, but as always in a revolution, little would have been accomplished if they hadn't had others behind them representing the brains and money.