Joe Lewis

Joe Lewis’ Top 10 Martial Arts for Self-Defense

Karate champion Joe Lewis teaches a martial arts clinic.

This list is in no particular order. I could have put krav maga, haganah and others in there, but when I got to 10, I stopped. This list will piss off many instructors, but they have to realize, for example, that with a system like kyokushinkai, which came from goju-ryu and has many descendants like asahara, enshin, yoshukai and zendokai, they were not left out. Krav maga, for example, has nothing that the Okinawan, Japanese and kickboxing systems do not. If I were to include all of them, the list would go into the hundreds.

Kyokushinkai Karate

Kyokushinkai has a great history of physical toughness and conditioning, as well as an arsenal of leg kicks, sweeps and knee strikes from the outside and from the pocket. Most K-1 champions come from this style. It’s weak on ground maneuvers, though.

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Outlaw Tai Chi

It has an effective composition of quick strikes (cutting and tissue-ripping moves) to vital areas like the eyes, ears, face, neck and groin. The emphasis in training is on pure nonclassical maneuvers, as is seen in most other Chinese systems. However, outlaw tai chi is weak on structure and ground maneuvers.


Although strictly a weapons-based style, bando lends itself to highly effective defensive techniques (without weapons) from old-school monk tactics largely developed years ago in Southeast Asia along trade routes. It contains bleeding techniques, head striking, low-level flange kicks, drop kicks and farewell kicks not taught in other kickboxing styles.


It’s a hybrid system that uses the best parts of other styles, from upright maneuvers to grappling. It was designed strictly for self-defense instead of adhering to traditional rituals or sporting competition. Its weaknesses are a lack of movements to control the horizontal relationship with assailants — like all styles — and always using the hands as the primary means of defense.

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Chinese Kenpo

Chinese kenpo has a curriculum that encompasses all areas of self-defense. Practitioners learn a range of attacking angles, realistic scenarios and methods for defending from any position with any weapon. The main weakness is a lack of emphasis on ground maneuvers, along with limited kicking and knee striking.


The original system had a complete arsenal of weapon and non-weapon skills. It had the perfect blend of old-school, pain-tolerance training with scientific skills that utilized the least amount of effort and time to produce the maximum amount of damage. Its weaknesses are the amount of time it takes to learn all the long animal forms (there are 36, with one having up to 500 moves) and a lack of “balanced” ground maneuvers.


Although it was created along the lines of a non-jutsu activity — which means it was designed mainly for exercise and sport — the best bouncers I’ve ever worked with were judo black belts. Because judoka spend most of their time doing tug-of-war-type drills with partners on the mat, they’re very successful in reality combat, even with their limited striking ability.


Its tactics for off-balancing an opponent before leveraging him — as opposed to jujutsu, which is more concerned with straight leverage — is a good system to bridge the gap between the sport/exercise aspects of the old-school (read: hard-core) jutsu forms and the free-flowing sport forms we see on TV. Beware of the “consumer” atmosphere found in some schools today and the lack of effective striking skills when practicing self-defense drills.


This style can offer the very best of realistic, upright striking skills, hands down. If you learn the old muay boran knees, the head butt, the bleeding and cutting techniques, and the old-school takedowns, this system cannot be beat. Its weakness is a lack of attention to self-defense as opposed to sport. The conditioning drills taught at most authentic schools make up for any need to practice purely self-defense scenarios.

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Few martial arts teach these two defensive skills: Use the head to protect the head and the body to protect the body. Instead, they use weapon-fighting tactics — using the hands to protect the head or the body. For self-defense from the pocket, it would be hard to defend against a good boxer. Of course, boxing’s lack of elbow strikes, groin attacks and ground defense is limiting, but for …

Joe Lewis: The Full-Contact Fighting Legend Talks Training (Part 2)

Where does the individual fit into your formula for selecting the right martial arts toolbox (described in Part 1 of this interview)?

Joe Lewis: Let me break something down that will make it easier to formulate a style that will work best for you. Style does not mean uechi-ryu, shotokan, wushu or taekwondo. Those are just names. Style refers to the individual manner expressed by a person.

It is determined by two factors. One is your physical makeup. That determines quite a bit as to how a person moves. How tall or short are you? How big or small are you? How fast are you? How slow are you?

A taller person is going to basically end up being an outside fighter. He’s going to try to use distance against his shorter adversary. He’s going to try to keep people on the outside with that long leg or arm.

A shorter, stockier person is primarily going to be an inside fighter. A man who’s really fast will tend to be very trigger-happy. He will try to get off the line first, be the first to squeeze the trigger. He will concentrate on trying to beat the other guy to the draw, whereas someone a little bit slower will think about sitting back in a foxhole, letting the other man fire first, trying to make him miss; then he can set up for a counter-technique.

Speed, size, reach — all these physical factors have a very important part to do with how you spar, with the personality of your style.

What’s the other factor?

Joe Lewis: The second factor is your psychological nature. Some people are very assertive, very self-confident. They’re right on the edge and ready to jump down your throat in a split second. They love to take risks. Then you’ve got those who are very passive by nature, very laid back. That’s going to play a very important role in the essence of the way you spar.

Your instructor may show you how to throw a round kick, punch and stand in position a certain way, but how you execute, deliver and approach your opponent is not going to be determined by what your instructor shows you but more so by your physical makeup and your psychological nature.

And the third one?

Joe Lewis: As you learn your fighting principles, you start developing your mindset. You start integrating your intellectual strategies. This will also influence your decision-making skills and quickness: When do I make the decision to move, as opposed to the decision to fire?

Those are the only two things you can do in the fight game when you’re out there trying to control an opponent. You’ve got to know when to move and when to fire. Do I fire first and then move? Do I throw a quick kick, then pull out real fast? Or should I move first and then fire? Maybe I should do a little scramble step to draw his fire and end up countering him? All that is determined by your mindset and strategy.

These are three important factors, things not necessarily taught by an instructor but which have an imperative part in determining your particular style — the personality, the essence of your fighting nature. Your style is dictated by those factors, not by the style of karate taught by your school.

Then what good are martial arts schools? What is their role?

Joe Lewis: They give you a frame of reference. When you walk in off the street, you have some idea of how to hold your hands to throw a punch from watching Clint Eastwood or Sugar Ray Leonard on TV. You have some idea of how to throw a kick like a football player kicks the football. But you’ve got no real frame of reference as to exactly how to position, exactly where those hands belong or where those kicks belong.

What do you do if someone is throwing a kick at you? What do you do if you see a punch coming about six inches from your nose? What do you do if you see a wrestler diving at your legs about three inches off the ground? For that we need a frame of reference, a beginning point.

To read Part 1 of this article, go here.

To read “Joe Lewis: Fix the 40 Most Common Kickboxing Training Mistakes,” go here.

To learn about Joe Lewis’ Okinawan karate roots, visit this link.…

Joe Lewis: The Full-Contact Fighting Legend Talks Training (Part 1)

In the 1980s, Joe Lewis was voted the best fighter of all time by Karate Illustrated magazine. In the 1990s, he was called the best fighter in the world by Chuck Norris. Before he died in 2012, Lewis was renowned as the creator of some of the most highly developed sparring strategies and training methods — which is why he was inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame twice. In this interview, he doles out some of his best advice ever.

What can advanced practitioners do to improve their sparring ability?

Joe Lewis: There are a number of things; one is preparation. When you step into the ring, three things should cross your mind. First, make sure you are physically tougher than your opponent — that you can outlast him, out-endure him. You need to get your body in incredibly good physical shape.

When I say “good shape,” I don’t mean by doing kata, lifting weights, jogging or that kind of stuff. I’m talking about hard, one-on-one sparring with a partner who is as good as or better than you. That’s how you become better — real, intense, pressure-type sparring with a tremendous amount of attention devoted to stamina training and pacing yourself. Try to spar at a much faster pace than you are going to spar in competition.

The second aspect is to make sure your opponent can’t hit you. You’ve got to work on your defensive skills — not necessarily on blocking. It could be in the area of dealing with a good kicker — being able to move in quite a bit on the outside and denying him access to the target. As a last resort, if the kick does get close enough to score, you can work some kind of blocking maneuver to make him miss.

The third aspect is the need to keep your opponent from getting set in the first place so he can’t fire first or beat you to the draw. So you figure a way to smother his speed — take the momentum out of his attack. I’m talking about the two most important factors in fighting: aggressiveness and speed. If you can figure a way to take that aggressiveness and speed away from the other man, it gives you the upper hand.

What comes next?

Joe Lewis: Now you are ready to deal with mental skills. You need to come up with a good game plan to help you figure out a way to neutralize your opponent’s advantages. If he’s fast, you’ve got to smother his speed. If he’s more aggressive, you’ve got to take the momentum out of his attack.

If he’s got a reach advantage, you’ve got to outdistance him. If he’s bigger, you’ve got to keep him off-balance so he can’t use his size against you. If he’s a good leadoff fighter, you’ve got to force him into a counterfight. If he’s a good counterfighter, you’ve got to force him to lead off. If he’s a good kicker, you’ve got to force him to punch. If he’s a good puncher, you’ve got to force him to kick. There are different ways of stripping him of his advantage.

The many fighting styles do not always agree on how things should be done. A teacher may say, “Do it that way,” but you say, “Do it this way.” Which is right?

Joe Lewis: There is no such thing as which is right. It always comes down to what works best. A good fighter is someone who can adjust quickly to any opponent in any situation — being able to use the means at your disposal to meet the adversary in front of you.

If, in a given situation, a front kick and a round kick won’t work, you must use a side kick or a spinning back kick. If no kick works, you need to be an excellent puncher. You must be able to resort to those types of skills.

It’s not how big your toolbox is; it’s the confidence you have in the one tool that does work. I believe in developing one good primary punch and one good primary kick that you definitely have confidence in rather than 100 techniques that you have absolutely no confidence in.

(To be continued.)

To read “Joe Lewis: Fix the 40 Most Common Kickboxing Training Mistakes,” go here.

To learn about Joe Lewis’ Okinawan karate roots, visit this link.…

Wing Chun Techniques: The Secret Weapon Against Leg Attacks

In 1966, karate legend Joe Lewis rocketed to stardom by winning Jhoon Rhee’s U.S. Nationals in Washington, D.C. Incredibly, it was his first tournament, and he won every single point with only one technique — the side kick.

For six years, Chuck Norris ruled the karate world with his spinning kicks. He won virtually every major title between 1965 and 1970, including six grand championships. He retired, undefeated, in 1970.

From 1974 to 1981, Bill “Superfoot” Wallace dominated the full-contact karate circuit. His lightning-fast left roundhouse and hook kicks rose to legendary status as he stunned one opponent after another. He retired 21-0, with 11 knockouts. Superfoot, indeed.

Those champions and many more have demonstrated their awesome kicking abilities in and out of the ring. In fact, the martial arts in general are best-known for their kicks. Even Bruce Lee is remembered more for his dynamic on-screen kicking than for the intricate trapping and striking techniques of jeet kune do.

If kicking is the hallmark of the martial arts, it follows logically that to become a superior fighter, you have to learn how to deal with those seemingly indefensible lower-limb assaults. How do you stop a technique that, once mastered, appears to be unstoppable? One answer can be found within William Cheung’s traditional wing chun fighting system.

Mechanics of Kicking
The laws of physics hold that a force can have only one direction at a time. The longer a movement is committed to a certain direction, the longer it will take for it to change its direction. It has to run its course before it can move on to another path. When an opponent attacks with a kick as opposed to a punch, his foot must follow a longer path to reach you. Distance equals time, so the greater distance gives you more time to react. In dealing with kicks, then, the first step is to properly train your eyes, or visual reflexes, so you can readily determine how your opponent is attacking and which part of your body he is targeting.

Traditional wing chun teaches you to watch your opponent’s elbow to identify an upper-body strike — punch, palm strike, elbow and so on — because the movement of the elbow indicates the movement of the entire arm. The arm cannot move without the elbow going with it. The knee is to the leg as the elbow is to the arm. Thus, if you train yourself to watch the knee of your opponent’s attacking leg the instant he kicks, you will have the best chance of identifying the kick’s path and target.

If the opponent attempts to bridge the gap with a kick, he must commit himself to that direction of force. As a defense, you can do anything. You have not committed; therefore, as long as you are balanced and have mobile footwork, you are free to move in any direction. Your response should put you in the best position not only to defend yourself but also to counterattack.

Contingency Case
If your opponent executes a kick and it does not make contact — and it is your job to ensure that it doesn’t — he will leave you several openings to exploit:

  • Balance: When he kicks, he must balance on one leg — if only for a moment — and that means he is presenting an opening. In general, a person in a two-legged stance should be able to knock a person in a one-legged stance off-balance. Without a good base, it is extremely difficult and sometimes impossible for him to launch an effective blow.
  • The groin: In most cases, executing a kick will leave his groin open to attack. The vulnerability may exist only for a moment, but if your eyes are well-trained, you will see the kick from its inception and you will be ready to pounce.
  • The supporting leg: Because a force can have only one direction at a time, an opponent who commits to a non-jumping kick leaves his supporting leg virtually defenseless while his other leg is completing its motion. The knee and shin are the most common targets on the supporting leg.
  • The kicking leg: Whenever a kick is in motion, several pressure points on the underside of the leg are exposed. They are small targets, but you can train yourself to attack them with a counter-kick.

Defending against a kick is all about timing. While the opponent’s leg is committed, the above-mentioned targets are most vulnerable. From a balanced and neutral position, you can time your response so you act during this fleeting but critical moment. If you move too soon, he may change course and adapt. If you move too late, you may miss the opening and get kicked.

Step by Step
The shortest distance between two points …

Joe Lewis’ Okinawan Karate Roots

For 99 percent of the martial artists out there, Joe Lewis needs no introduction. But for the 1 percent who may be new to the arts, here goes. He’s particularly famous for three accomplishments: He earned a black belt in three styles in less than one year, he practically created the sport of kickboxing and he successfully made the transition from champion noncontact fighter to champion semicontact fighter to champion full-contact fighter. Enough said?

Ever since he was a teenager, Joe Lewis knew he loved the physical side of life. By the time he turned 14, he was heavily into wrestling and pumping iron. When he joined the Marines in 1962, he started learning hand-to-hand combat as part of basic training.

Ernie Cates, a seven-time Marine Corps judo champ who taught self-defense techniques to recruits, gave Joe Lewis his first real exposure to the martial arts. He wasn’t impressed. “Wrestlers would put on a gi and beat the heck out of the judo guys on the mat,” he says.

“I had the opportunity to be exposed to karate in Cherry Point, North Carolina, when I was still in the Marine Corps,” Joe Lewis continues. “The styles were primarily Japanese and Okinawan, such as wado-ryu and isshin-ryu karate.

“At first, I wasn’t really attracted to the arts. My loves were still wrestling and weightlifting. Back then, if a person was skinny and didn’t have muscles or weigh 200 pounds, I wasn’t impressed. I came from a weightlifting world where guys could bench-press 400 pounds and squat 600 pounds. That impressed me, as did someone who could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds. I loved speed and power, and if it didn’t look like you could produce them, you didn’t get any respect from me.

“I gradually became attracted to the exotic and abstract look of karate, the visual appeal of the striking maneuvers. I finally got the bug to learn it, so I told my commander I wanted to go to Okinawa.”

Joe Lewis’ superiors were more than happy to oblige. They shipped the 19-year-old off to Okinawa, where he stayed for almost two years.

“I started training in a couple styles of shorin-ryu,” he says. “In the first year, I made black belt in kobayashi-ryu, matsubayashi-ryu and Okinawan kempo.

“The man who taught me how to spar in Okinawa was an American, a man named John Korab. He was a black belt in wado-ryu, then went to Okinawa and started over again in shorin-ryu karate.”

Joe Lewis also trained under some Okinawan instructors, including Eizo Shimabuko and Kinjo Chinsoku. But with the destruction of World War II still fresh in the mind of most locals, resentment against the Americans ran high. Were the instructors open about teaching their cultural treasures to their conquerors? “They were open about making money,” Joe Lewis says. “And they liked Americans because we were big and they enjoyed watching us pound on each other.”

He credits those pioneering American martial artists with spearheading the fighting side of the arts. “Most of the Japanese and Okinawans I met then were just into doing the kata and the traditional ceremonies,” he says. “They didn’t care that much about sparring, and I didn’t think they knew that much about tactics and strategy. The Americans were the ones who made a science of it, who really enjoyed it. They spent most of their time competing.”

Joe Lewis, on the other hand, spent most of his time practicing. “I trained about four to five hours a day,” he says. “On a bad night, I would get in only a two- or three-hour workout. On weekends, I got a chance to train two or three times. The last six months I was in Okinawa, I would go to a kempo school at noon, a judo school at 6 o’clock and a karate school at 9 o’clock.

“What I liked about training overseas was that there were no distractions. We didn’t go home every night; we went to the barracks. We weren’t distracted by hobbies, dating, football games or basketball games—there was nothing going on. We would train in the military all day, and then at night we would train in the martial arts. There were always plenty of young, tough guys around to spar with and beat on.”

Joe Lewis tried his hand at competition when the Okinawan Championships were held in 1964. He was a brown belt and wanted to see what tournament sparring was all about. His first foray into American competition came in 1966 at Jhoon Rhee’s U.S. National Championships in Washington, D.C. “I didn’t understand the rules, so I just wanted to go there and watch,” he says. “But I went to Jhoon Rhee’s school the night before, and he talked me into competing.”

Jhoon …