Martial Arts through the Ages – a comparative look at Goju-ryu & MMA

By: Sensei Eric Higaonna – IOGKF International

Experienced Goju-ryu, wrestling and MMA practitioner, Sensei Eric Higaonna, provides and insight in the relationship between Goju-ryu Karate and mixed martial arts. With the knowledge he has in these fields, he is an authority to draw some extremely interest theories and give some detailed explanations. An intriguing article for all Goju-ryu and MMA enthusiasts…

Martial arts as we know it dates back to the very beginnings of human history as found in references mentioned in the bible and found through images adorning the walls of ancient Egyptian temples.  Human beings have always strived to reach perfection spiritually, mentally, and of course physically.  Our ancestors developed wisdom over thousands of years and applied that knowledge towards betterment in both mental and physical realms.  It is apparent that martial arts is not just an art meant for war or self defense but an art form that was created to help human beings maximize their potential on many different levels in order to live life to the fullest.  Anyone who has trained in the martial arts for some time can attest that the experience can be multi-faceted, but there is also a deeper sense of fulfillment that words cannot describe.  When we take a look at all the different martial arts that have sprang up all over the world we can see the many different reflections of the human character, but one thing remains the same, and that is the soul of the art itself.  The soul of martial arts is universal, and, I believe that if used properly, can be a vehicle for uniting like-minded people in a quest for perfection of the mind, body, and spirit.  I feel that perfection in essence for a human is impossible, but it is the idea of perfection that drives us and gives us purpose in life, whether that be the strengthening of mind and body or the search for truth or both.

Many martial arts today seem much different in their techniques and applications, but all martial arts share a common goal in attaining physical and mental fulfillment as long as the teacher has the right intentions.  Many of the ancient martial arts like Greek Pankration and ancient Persian martial arts stressed an equal amount of Grappling and striking that would help mold the perfect fighting machine.  It was not until the time of bodhidharma that we see a recorded figure that stressed the importance of spiritual and mental training in conjunction with their physical training, however, would it be such an outlandish stance to suggest that spiritual training in the martial arts existed much longer before that.  In the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans, famous Pankration practitioners would perform Pyrric dances for mass amounts of people in order to show the techniques of their style in one single display.  These dances were taught from teacher to student in order to pass on the techniques and understanding of their style of Pankration much like how modern day Kata is taught.  Performers of Pyrric dances almost resemble traditional religious dances and almost seem as if they have a spiritual significance in addition to their function for physical self defense.  This deeper meaning to the dances would have a strong resemblance to Kata’s performed in Goju Ryu that have developed from Buddhist prayers.

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Ancient Greek Pankration painting

Due to the strong emphasis on both striking and grappling, the competitive form of Pankration is much likened to modern day mixed martial arts in that mixed martial arts usually incorporates both striking and grappling into it’s ideal training regiment.  This raises the question of could modern day mixed martial arts competition come from a long lost and forgotten competitive martial art from long ago?  Could the true and traditional form of Pankration and ‘MMA’ have survived these thousands of years through Pyrric dances and devoted teachers that passed down their art through time and geography?  It is also interesting to ponder the question of did each separate peoples of the earth develop their own style of Pankration with dances, or did Alexander the Great or other influential men of culture spread it around the world?  Regardless of the answer there are many similarities between the ancient art of Pankration, mixed martial arts, and traditional arts such as Goju Ryu.

Many Goju practitioners are aware that their art comes from China with a large influence coming from the Southern Shaolin Temple.  Long ago Bodhidharma’s teachings forever changed the Southern Shaolin Temple by introducing Indian martial arts and spirituality into their regiment.  Even longer before that, Alexander the Great brought much Greek culture to India including the military arts like Pankration.  It is my theory that every society has always had their own indigenous martial arts and they incorporate outside influences when the need arises just like many Okinawan martial arts have done with their own indigenous styles when brought over from China.  Perhaps when Alexander the Great brought Pankration and Pyrric dances from Greece they were incorporated into an already established martial arts system which also practiced meditation and Yogi breathing.  It is completely plausible that this could have been the melting pot which lead to the creation of such a Kata as Sanchin

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There are many similarities between traditional martial arts and mixed martial arts, but there are also many differences. One being, the mixed martial arts of today on the whole does not practice at any time breathing exercises like Sanchin.  This is because mixed martial arts are practiced almost exclusively for competition and does not delve into the spiritual and healthy mind and body implications that exercises such as Sanchin stresses on.  To use the example of Sanchin, even though it is an exercise that would help improve the mental and physical conditioning of mixed martial artists, the results are not immediately and not noticeably apparent, so that type of exercise is not necessary for MMA training.  On the contrary to this idea, breathing exercises like Sanchin could potentially be very beneficial to mixed martial arts practitioners just like they are to traditional martial arts practitioners all over the globe.  There are other differences between the concept of today’s mixed martial arts and traditional arts, but allow me now to explore the many similarities that the two fields present.

The mixed martial arts of today can be considered to be fully in the realm of combat sport oriented activity due to the many rules of regulations that prevent the practitioner from killing their opponent.  Traditional martial arts usually will teach the practitioner to how to defend one’s self without any rules with the possibility of inflicting permanent damage.  Since mixed martial arts are dedicated towards rules like any other sport, a great deal of care is invested into the training to not worry about getting attacked in your vital points and vice versa.  On the flipside of that statement is that the techniques that are allowed in mixed martial arts are strikingly similar to techniques found in traditional Karate such as Goju Ryu.

Goju Ryu throughout its existence has been shaped and evolved by the many teachers that have taught its curriculum.  Some teachers have taught just a portion while some have taught a lot, and many teachers focused just on one aspect like striking, while others have completely ignored the grappling aspect.  For hundreds of years, Goju Ryu has survived and we can only imagine how many influences and changes it has undergone in its teaching process, but one thing will remain the same despite the teacher.  Of course I am referring to the Kata, and in the Kata is where the true bible of Goju Ryu lies, and within its contents is where each respective preacher can put together their sermon. In other words the Kata and bunkai is where the heart of the Goju Ryu style lies.  The Kata and bunkai is what holds the art together, but each teacher can interpret the Kata in their own way to create their own variations to the bunkai to fit their body and mental understanding of the material.  As long as the original kata and bunkai are passed on to the next generation intact, the art form will survive despite the changes each practitioner makes to fit their own body type.  The Kata bunkai of Goju Ryu includes many standing joint locks and grappling aspects that can be traced back to the founding of our style and beyond.  Variations to standing joint locks in our Kata bunkai easily turn into reclined joint locks if needed torque and positioning was required.  There are times when the mention of Traditional martial arts like Goju Ryu is copying the success of techniques in mixed martial arts like the ‘armbar’, but in actuality the ‘armbar’ is just one variation to the arm locks that have always been present in Goju Ryu.  Tracing the roots of the’ armbar’ in mixed martial arts will lead one to Brazilian Jujutsu.  In turn, the techniques of Brazilian Jujutsu like the ‘armbar’ comes from Japanese Judo, which in turn comes from Japanese Jujutsu, which in turn was brought over from mainland China many hundreds of years ago.  By following this history we can see that both Goju Ryu and Brazilian Jujutsu/MMA have a common ancestor for the history of their arm lock techniques.

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Sensei Eric Higaonna demonstrating the ‘armbar’ teachnique

Through my training in mixed martial arts around the world many teachers of their Dojo’s would stress equal focus on both striking and grappling.  Sometimes a combination of punches and kicks would lead straight to a takedown or a clinch followed by a throw with ground work.  By examining the bunkai of Goju Ryu Kata one can find that many bunkai applications lead to grappling or some sort of grip on your opponent.  The same can be said of the ‘complete’ or ‘evolved’ mixed martial artist that can perfectly blend grappling in with striking at any point of the combat situation.  The ideal martial artist has control not only over themselves but also their opponents and can control where a potential fight might lead to, whether that be on the ground or standing.  This phrase can be equally applied to both Goju Ryu and mixed martial arts.  After undergoing an extensive wrestling career here in the United States, I am able to look back and have even greater appreciation for traditional martial arts like Goju Ryu because of how grappling conscious it truly is and Goju uses wrestling to tie all the loose ends of striking and joint locks together.  The Kata are a cryptic code however, so it can be very difficult to examine the grappling potential of some bunkai and unlock the deeper meaning behind some otherwise simple looking applications.

The traditional art of Goju Ryu has survived many years and Ryu Ryu Ko himself survived many civil wars in China to pass on his style, so this particular martial art is tried and tested.  Otherwise if this art was useless on the battlefield, practitioners like Ryu Ryu Ko would have been killed in war and never had the opportunity to pass it on to the succeeding generation.  This martial art has survived though, and lives on today inside of every one of its students.  Goju Ryu is tried and tested on the battlefield just like MMA is tried and tested in the octagon and the squared circle.  Both forms have their strengths and weaknesses, but it is important that a focus on the rules of competition and less emphasis on traditional training methods do not change future teaching of the art because it could lead to a metamorphosis from a martial art to a purely combat sport oriented practice.  With that being said I feel that competition can be a very helpful tool in not only preparing a person for a one on one confrontation, but it could also prepare an individual for tackling tough problems in life in general.  Competition could also be the motivating drive to help unite people from all walks of life through the spirit of a collective goal like no other campaign can.

The UFC here in the United States has a motto of “As real as it gets”, and this is a pretty accurate description of the product they are marketing to the mass public.  Mixed martial arts competition is as close to real martial arts fighting as one can get without killing or impairing your opponent.  The more cautionary rules that are added in would only make the competition more restricted and less like “real” combat.  In this sense MMA could face a similar dilemma that Traditional martial arts have been facing in the past 50 years in that many Dojo’s could change their teaching curriculum just to make it more tournament geared.  A good example of this is Kyokushin Kai Karate.  There was a time when every Kyokushin Dojo practiced Kata, but today it is very difficult to find one that still does because of the emphasis on Kumite and tournaments.  With the passage of time, this scenario can happen to any martial art and a great deal of accumulated knowledge and technique can be lost to adapt to what’s popular at that certain point in time.  It’s this very fact that leads me to believe that Pyrric dances were abandoned by Pankration practitioners in order to only train for fighting in the Olympics, which in turn lead to the lost knowledge of all of their techniques in the west over time.  Mixed martial arts today is not a complete art form because it lacks the spiritual training that leads to a healthy mind and body in addition with an absence of Kata which is the lifeblood of ideas in a martial art.  If a Kata were made at any particular MMA dojo however, I believe that it would look a lot like a Goju Ryu Kata with no open handed strikes.

While training MMA in Japan, I had the unique opportunity to train at a Dojo known as ‘Gutsman’ which was the home of several MMA champions in Japan.  The dojo itself was a member of the very first modern day mixed martial arts organization known as Shooto developed back in the early 1980s.  The training there was very similar to how training would be like a Goju Ryu Dojo but without the Kata and bunkai.  The begging of the class consisted of everyone lining up in order of rank with the Sensei at the center of the dojo facing all the students.  Sensei would then yell out mokusou and everyone would close their eyes for around a minute or so to focus our minds on training much like in a Traditional Dojo.  After Mokusou yame, everyone would then bow and rise in order of rank to undergo the stretches of the class to get us warmed up for the training ahead.  Training consisted of punching and kicking basics moving across the dojo, then lots of pad work, sparring, and conditioning to round up the night’s training.  This is an example of a night of training focused on striking, which was usually separated from all grappling classes.  There are special nights in the week where both grappling and striking arts are practiced, and usually these nights are where the student would put all of his knowledge and training together to become proficient in combining his striking and grappling skills to match the needs to react accordingly to any situation that might present itself.  The training was incredible and exhilarating and was really a combat oriented awaking for me in that it would make me realize techniques for attack and defense in ways that |I would have never have thought of before.  Much of these epiphanies would come from both a love fighting but also from a need to survive in that one wrong move could open the door for receiving a concussion.  In this lies one of the drawbacks of MMA training in that much head and brain trauma can be accumulated in serious training much like in boxing, but it is this very training that forces the practitioner to defend themselves better than they ever have before.

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‘Ground and Pound’ being used in competition

One area of training I would now like to focus on is the ground and pound that mixed martial arts is famous for.  The concept of ground and pound is to attack your opponent with strikes from the top position on the ground in hopes that one can produce a knockout, TKO, or verbal submission.  In MMA training ground and pound drills are used on a heavy bag that lies horizontally on the ground, or with a live partner with just a portion of one’s punching power.  This aspect of MMA comes directly from traditional martial arts and the teachings to always finish your opponent in all areas of the battle.  This concept is absent in boxing which gives fighters the ten count once knocked down.  In all the Goju Ryu Kata bunkai there is always a finishing move to incapacitate one’s opponent as soon as they are toppled to the ground.  It is this very concept that has transferred over to MMA.  In mixed martial arts the fighter can get much closer to his opponent, because there is no risk of flesh tearing or vital point attacks, so at times the best position to finish your opponent with ground and pound is from the mounted position on top of your opponent.  Since Goju Ryu is more suited for martial combat it could be very dangerous to mount an opponent due to vital attacks, so the Goju Ryu student practices finishing the grounded opponent from the standing position.  Besides this difference the concept is the same, and finishing the conflict even if it goes to the ground is very uniquely traditional martial arts derived.  Some mixed martial arts organizations in Japan even allow stomping the head a grounded opponent, which also can be seen directly in Goju Ryu Bunkai.

See a demonstration from Sensei Eric Higaonna & Nakamura Sensei, showing various joint locks from Kakie below:

Style versus style match ups have existed for over a hundred years in the forms of wrestling vs. Boxing, Karate vs. Boxing, and so but it hasn’t been until just recent times that true modern day mixed martial arts has organized itself into an art form that is practiced all around the globe, and taught uniquely by each teacher much like how different styles of Goju is taught and interpreted by the many different Goju teachers today.  It is for certain that the correlation between MMA and Goju Ryu can also be applied to other martial arts like Japanese Jujutsu or Muay Thai kickboxing and many intriguing similarities can be drawn between their respective styles to MMA of today.  It is important to remember however that many of today’s martial arts can be traced to the grappling and striking techniques of Southern Shaolin boxing, and Jujutsu, Muay Thai, and Goju Ryu can all be traced to southern China if one were to investigate back far enough.  Goju Ryu is unique in the sense that is has been able to hold on to its legacy of equally distributed grappling and striking techniques in a perfect balance with the harmony of the person and his/her surroundings just like Miyagi Chojun Sensei had envisioned when he named the style many years ago. 

Many teachers of mixed martial arts today stress an equal blend of striking and grappling which in a sense can be directly translated into Go and Ju.  I am of the opinion that this is not just a mere coincidence but this is life’s way of showing that seemingly much different martial arts and combat oriented sports are much similar than we first perceived them to be.  Who knows, modern day MMA could be just a recently uncovered relic of how ancient Goju Ryu sparring might have looked like.  If Goju Ryu is one of the surviving schools of a form of Pankration, then the martial art of Goju and the combat sport of MMA could be like lost brothers separated at birth to finally find each other after trekking through the sands of time.  In the end, whether they are connected or not, as practitioners of martial arts we have been blessed with a new form of combat artistry in our lifetime which only adds more color to the palette.  Now keep painting, because the world is waiting for your masterpiece.