A Revolutionary Way to Hold a Tournament

Let's have a tournament. Karate, MMA, jiu-jitsu — whatever you wish to bring to the party.

by Dave Lowry


The winner will be decided by submission or incapacitation. Weight classes? If you wish. You want gloves? OK. Padded surface? Some kind of boundaries or ropes or netting? Fine. Here's the only stipulation: The round — there will be only one — lasts a single minute.
Preposterous, you say. First, how exciting would it be to watch? It would be like reducing the length of the Kentucky Derby to 50 feet, like condensing the World Series not to just one game but to a single inning. Where would we find the drama, the buildup, the intensity of a longer match?
Second, how much of the strategy used by fighters in various martial arts would need to be radically altered? Boxing, fencing, wrestling — our competitions for combat sports have a long tradition of giving contestants comparatively lengthy periods in which they can try to win. Abandoning that would mean fundamental changes in the way one trains and prepares.
For those two reasons alone, it's unlikely any tournament promoter would take my suggestion. For those who are seriously engaged in a fighting art, however, the idea of a contest that lasts just a little longer than most real-life violent encounters is worth thinking about.
Very often, practitioners of various fighting arts that contain at least some element of sport or competition will acknowledge that changes and adaptations have been introduced to make things safer or to promote the implementation of techniques thought to be more exciting or attractive.
Sport is not entirely unrelated to drama. Were it so, contests would be decided, all of them, by sudden death. First basket, goal or run scored, and that would determine the winner. By adding the element of time, we extend the action and the potential for drama.
There is nothing wrong with this. Fans who are perched on the edge of their seats, watching the plays and the efforts that unfold as the clock ticks away, derive a lot of enjoyment from these dramas. It's even more fun because, unlike with a script, we really don't know how the contests will end.

From the perspective of the karateka or other martial artist, however, we must clearly understand that these dramas are not at all a reflection of real life — at least, not in the case of violent, combative encounters. The last thing a person might remember about a fight, a real fight, is starting to say, “Are you talking to …" before getting knocked out. When the violence is predatory, as with a robbery or assault, there is probably even less dramatic narrative.
The buildup, the ritual preparations for a sporting fight, are an important part of things, from the staring contests of sumo wrestlers and boxers to the bowing and squatting of kendoka. Even arts that may advertise themselves as “realistic" — like MMA — have these as an integral part of their performance.
Once the contest begins, there is a period of adjusting, of feeling each other out. Today's competitive judoka can spend as much as one-fourth of a match grabbing and evading in kumi-kata, or taking the art's prescribed holds.
(Interestingly, sumo, which retains many of its original martial roots, comes closest to the one-minute bouts I'm suggesting. Even there, though, much ritual takes place, setting a comparatively leisurely narrative.)

Stripping out these rituals and the initial period of “warming up" by drastically reducing the time of a contest is just one factor that would change the nature of a sporting combat art. When you have only a minute to win, you are not apt to spend many seconds bouncing around or faking attacks to see how your opponent reacts. It's go-for-broke time.
You would take chances, be willing to absorb a minor strike in order to deliver a decisive attack. There would be no stalling, no searching for an opening. There would be no concept of gaining a small point and then sitting back and behaving defensively for the remainder of the bout, protecting your lead. Doesn't this sound a lot like a real, serious fight?
This should lead you to more questions. How would your strategy change if you knew you had only a single minute in which to score at your next tournament? Would those changes enhance the self-defense aspects of your training or compromise them?
It's interesting: Usually, when people choose to fight, the time spent in that activity is extended. When people are forced to fight, time becomes of the essence and the conflict is reduced in most instances to seconds.
When we read of duels during Japan's feudal period, we often find a pair of combatants who squared off and, in some cases, faced each other nearly motionless. A tiny step forward, a mere sliding of a foot in retreat. The tension would rise. Even an eye blink seemed monumental in the telling of those tales.
Battles, on the other hand, especially when they were reduced to one-on-one contests, were decided almost instantly. If you stood on a battlefield, sword raised, waiting for your opponent to expose a tiny opening, his comrade would simply come up from behind and whack you. Time was a luxury the classical warrior did not have.
A one-minute contest would not be very exciting for participants or audiences. If you think about the notion, however, it can offer much insight into the way you view your art.

Dave Lowry has written Karate Way since 1986. For more information about his articles and books, visit blackbeltmag.com and type his name into the search box.

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