How Isshin-ryu Karate Leader Gary Alexander Updated an Old Art for a New Millennium

Gary Alexander

Isshin-ryu karate legend and Black Belt Hall of Fame member Gary Alexander has always been a get-on-the-mat-and-see-what-you-can-do kind of guy. Rugged and tough, this decorated Marine Corps veteran is the John Wayne of the martial arts world. In the late 1950s, he began making a name for himself by beating the top karate stylists in bare-knuckle sparring matches.

By taking on all comers, Gary Alexander helped his art become a respected form of unarmed combat; and by beating them to a pulp, he earned a reputation as the “hammer of isshin-ryu."

These days, the New Jersey-based Alexander is busier than ever teaching a modified version of isshin-ryu, which he simply refers to as “isshin-ryu plus." It is a hybrid system that just makes good sense: a solid foundation of original isshin-ryu upon which stands a unique blend of Alexander's own techniques and principles.

Those improvements make the system fit the practitioner, rather than forcing the practitioner to fit the system, he claims. The following are some of the major modernizations.

Potent Punch

Isshin-ryu plus teaches two essentials for maximizing the effectiveness of your punches: in-line chambering and piston-like delivery and recoil. To derive the greatest benefit from these improvements, you must bring your fist as far back and as high as you can — near the upper part of your rib cage — and you must align your elbow directly behind it. When you launch the punch, send it out and yank it back in the same way a piston moves inside a cylinder. Do not pause between the delivery and the retraction.

This isshin-ryu plus method differs from the more popular punching techniques that involve beginning the blow with your fist positioned near your face or hip. It is also different from those that allow you to hold your elbow low and out of alignment with your fist. Executing the strike with a misaligned elbow can lead to a loss of power and control because the punch will often skip off the target the same way the tip of a pool stick skips off the cue ball when the shooter has misaligned it.

The combination of in-line chambering and piston action allows you to attain pinpoint accuracy and maximum shock and penetration with your punch. You can fire the same technique over and over like a jackhammer while you maneuver for the best position, Alexander says.

Better Backfist

“When it comes to performing the backfist, a lot of people make the mistake of throwing it and executing the follow-through with their entire arm extended," Alexander says. “This will not only get your arm broken, but it will also make it easy for your adversary to block the technique. I've had my own arm broken at the elbow while doing the backfist the old-fashioned way — that's why I changed it."

To perform the backfist the isshin-ryu plus way, first aim the elbow of your striking arm at the target and move that fist to the opposite side of your head. Next, using a circular motion with your elbow at the center, unleash the technique and let your fist travel until it makes an impact, then retract it like a whip. Remember to move only your forearm. Although the backfist travels along an arc, the quick retraction will ensure that it is safe as well as effective.

To conceptualize how the whipping action can turn a ho-hum technique designed for tournaments into a devastating heavy hitter for the street, Alexander says, think about snapping someone with a towel. It's not the outward motion that plants a welt on the receiving end; rather, it's the snap that takes place once the tip of the towel reaches maximum extension.

Gnarly Knifehand

The knifehand Alexander incorporated into isshin-ryu plus is the vertical (or very slightly angled) version of the strike. To understand its mechanics, begin by swinging your open right hand up to the right side of your head. Then let the knifehand fly into the target using an arcing trajectory and the same piston-like delivery and retraction.

The related hammerfist strike of isshin-ryu plus is performed in the same manner, except with your hand closed. “In the old-fashioned method, centrifugal force is not emphasized and the techniques are much shorter and choppier," Alexander says. “That renders the strikes less effective than the way we do them."

Effective Elbow

The isshin-ryu plus elbow strike also employs centrifugal force and piston-like action, and the impact is made with the tip of the bone for maximum penetration.

To execute it, chamber the weapon by positioning your right fist near your right shoulder and leaving your elbow pointed downward. (Think of holding an ice cream cone in your hand and jamming it, ice cream first, into your shoulder.)

Your limb does not pause in this position; rather, the elbow immediately blasts upward or horizontally and is retracted. That keeps you from exposing yourself to a counterattack executed the moment you lock out the strike.

Combat Kicks

“In standard isshin-ryu and isshin-ryu plus, the kicks all chamber up and piston out and back," Alexander says. “But when you kick, you've got to be able to sneak your foot into the target. The average fighter's radar zone is about 45 degrees up, down and to the side. Since most kicks come at him inside his radar zone, he can easily block or grab your leg and take you to the ground.

“So you have to build a better mousetrap," Alexander continues. “Isshin-ryu plus uses different angles of attack — ones that most people don't see or use—and it teaches you to whip the kicks in at angles your opponent does not expect them to come from."

When doing the front snap kick and roundhouse kick, Alexander says, you should raise your knee high enough to use it as a kind of sighting device. That action should culminate with your calf muscle “bouncing off" your hamstring muscle, after which you let the kick fly. Do not attempt to kick to a level that is higher than the level at which you can point and hold your knee, he advises.

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When doing the isshin-ryu plus back kick, raise your knee and keep your lower leg parallel to the ground. Cock your foot high and hold it tight against your buttocks, then blast the kick out and back like a piston, Alexander says.

Corrected Kata

Naturally, isshin-ryu plus has a different take on kata (forms). “Many martial artists, especially those with little or no real combat time, practice their kata in a way that is diametrically opposed to the way they fight," Alexander says. “This amounts to a loss of precious training time.

“That's why isshin-ryu plus uses the 10 kata of standard isshin-ryu with slight modifications to the choreography," Alexander continues. “An example of one of those modifications is when a traditional movement puts the practitioner down on his knee; we stay up and just take a wider, lower-profile stance to maintain mobility."

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Alexander's formulas for improved striking have also been incorporated into the kata of isshin-ryu plus. “By doing them the same way we fight, our movements stay fluid and relaxed," he says. “Our kata have a lot of fight in them, and they are done with the objective of enhancing the student's maneuverability and striking skills, and for learning effective strategies."

Inescapable Conclusion

After prevailing in numerous fistfights and a myriad of sparring matches, Gary Alexander created isshin-ryu plus as a combat-effective hybrid art for the 20th century. Drawing from his 40-plus years of training men, women and children from all walks of life — including numerous police officers and military personnel — he then honed it into the finely tuned system it is today.

As the world charges into the 21st century, Alexander remains confident that his art will continue to meet the needs of martial artists around the world who prefer to stay on the cutting edge of self-defense without abandoning their traditional karate roots.

Story by Floyd Burk

Isshin-ryu Karate as Gary Alexander Sees It

Like other popular karate systems that originated from the te jutsu (hand skills) of Okinawa, isshin-ryu employs hard-style kicks, punches and blocks, as well as extensive kata practice. In addition, there are some fundamentally unique qualities that set the style apart from others.

“One of the major differences is that we do our punches with a vertical fist instead of with the twisting-corkscrew punch used in styles such as goju-ryu and shotokan," Gary Alexander says. “And we snap the punch out and back, rather than lock it out like most other styles. We also add the snapping action to our blocks and kicks."

But the traditional version of the art has some drawbacks, Alexander claims. “The first that comes to mind is in the kicking. In isshin-ryu, kicks never go above the rib cage. This compounds a major weakness in the style, which is the idea that people with different body types — tall and lean, or short and stocky — should all fight the same way. This just doesn't make sense.

“My philosophy has always been that if you are forced to fight, you should attack your adversary by land, sea and air — use everything. Using a kick to the throat or head, you can knock a man clean out with one swift blow, so why not use it if you can? If you have the body structure to out-leverage your opponent and you like to get in close and execute, say, a powerful head butt to his nose, why not let it be part of your arsenal?"

If Alexander could change just one thing about traditional karate, it would be the closed-mindedness. “It's the old school of thinking, which goes something like, 'Nothing needs to be changed or improved upon,' and 'Each system of traditional karate has all the answers.' As ridiculous as those words are, they are still prevalent within the circle of martial artists who call themselves authentic isshin-ryu stylists."

5 Combat Tips from the Master

Defense is offense: Seek to inflict damage on your opponent with your blocking techniques and use them to create openings so you can launch effective counterattacks.

Never underestimate your opponent: Do not take your opponent too lightly; it could get you hurt or killed. Fight every opponent as though he were a highly trained master.

Don't stop at one: When you attack, use a sequence of at least five hits. The bad guy may block the first or second shot, but sooner or later one will get in.

Use typhooning: If you must fight multiple attackers or find yourself in a situation in which things get crazy, “typhooning" can save your life: Keep your hands and feet moving, shift your body, execute sweeps and trips, try to throw your opponent, and blast away with as many strikes as possible. The key is to overwhelm him.

Be true to your training: You must believe in what you are doing. No workout should be done in a sloppy fashion or like a weekend hobby. Stay true to your art by training as though your life depended on it.

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