The power-vs.-speed debate has raged in martial arts circles for decades. As soon as a rapid-fire striker convinces you that speed is the key to victory, along comes a powerhouse prodigy who’ll bend you back toward the other extreme.
But now there’s a newcomer from Japan who’s set up shop in the Los Angeles suburb of Culver City, and he just might settle the debate once and for all. His name is Kenji Yamaki, and he was one of the top kyokushin karate competitors in Japan. He recently started teaching his own style of knockdown karate, which he’s dubbed yamaki-ryu.
Having come from a system made famous by Masutatsu Oyama’s murderous striking techniques, Kenji Yamaki favors an arsenal laced with kicks that are frighteningly powerful and lightning fast.
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If you were to watch the 6-foot-2-inch heavyweight walk into a dojo, you probably wouldn’t believe he can move and kick as rapidly as a bantamweight. His heavily muscled frame looks more like a linebacker’s than a kicker’s, yet as soon as he stands to demonstrate a move and places his instep against my ear with blinding speed and incredible precision, I’m a believer.
When I ask about his trademark moves, he points the conversation toward the three most basic leg techniques of karate: the front kick, round kick and side kick.
It’s been said that Kenji Yamaki, who appeared with fellow kyokushin alumnus Dolph Lundgren in The Punisher (1989), has an uncanny ability to make the ordinary become extraordinary. The advice outlined below is his offering to the readers of Black Belt who are looking to make their own foot techniques extraordinary.
Kyokushin Karate Technique #1: Mae Geri (Front Kick)
The mae geri, or front kick, is Kenji Yamaki’s favorite. He insists it’s the most versatile leg technique in the martial arts, and once you see him demonstrate it, especially when he uses it as a counter, you’ll agree.
The foundation of the front kick is built on properly chambering your kicking leg. “The positioning of your knee is the key,” Kenji Yamaki says. “From a standing position, you have to be able to chamber your knee as high as possible, and that’s what gives you the luxury of options in terms of where and how you place the kick. If you bring your knee up high, you can kick at any height. But if you chamber your leg weakly and only bring your knee up slightly, your mae geri will be limited to the waist or lower."
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To illustrate his point, Kenji Yamaki asks me to walk with him to a clearing between tables in the coffee shop where we’re meeting. He proceeds to break down the movements of the technique and perform them in slow motion, maintaining perfect balance as he delineates his concepts.
With his knee held high and close to his chest, he slowly extends his foot to my chin. Re-chambering his leg tightly with his knee high, he extends his foot to my solar plexus. After bringing his leg back to the chambered position, he slowly pushes my front thigh backward. “All three kicks were the same mae geri with the same chambered position but with three completely different targets,” he says.
If you set up your front kick properly, distance is irrelevant, he claims. Now, some karateka may get their kicks “stuffed” by an opponent who knows how to close the gap and refuses to allow enough distance for the karateka to accelerate his foot.
“That’s a problem only for a fighter who has a slow and low chambering motion,” Kenji Yamaki explains. “If you chamber rapidly and bring your knee up very high and close to your body, the mae geri is very useful. A spring is only as useful as the degree to which it is compressed, and a kick is no different. That’s also part of the reason I like to use the ball of my foot when I do mae geri. It gives me greater reach and more extension through my opponent.”
The beauty of Kenji Yamaki’s front kick lies not only in its versatility but also in the way he employs that versatility. A high and tight chambering motion again comes into play because it sets up your opponent’s defensive reactions. If the other man responds to your knee lift by pulling his leg back, you can fire a knockout high front kick. If he reacts by tilting his head backward, you can plant your foot in his midsection or bury it in his thigh.
To boost the impact of your kick, Kenji Yamaki recommends weight training. “The power comes from the degree to which the leg is chambered prior to kicking and then from how suddenly you can go from that compressed position to a fully extended position,” he says. “Doing squats really helps you develop that power and extension. Just make sure to do them with a full range of motion. Simply making a little dipping bend at the knees isn’t going to give you the full power-building benefits of the exercise.”
Kyokushin Karate Technique #2: Mawashi Geri (Round Kick)
The yamaki-ryu round kick, or mawashi geri, begins the same way as the art’s front kick. Unlike the methodology that other styles advocate for their round kick, Kenji Yamaki says you must ensure that your initial phase features a high, tight knee position.
As we stand once again in the space between the tables, Kenji Yamaki launches what appears to be a front kick. He lifts his knee, and I slide to the outside to let it pass. But with a quick rotation of his hips, he transforms his attack into a round kick that whizzes over the back of my head. Grateful for his control, I ask him to extrapolate.
“Mawashi geri has more options than people think,” he begins. “Depending on how you rotate your hips, the kick can cut upward at an angle, into the target perpendicularly or downward at an angle.
“The mistake most fighters make is in how they try to achieve power in this kick. It shouldn’t be a big, looping knee lift like you’re trying to swing your knee around. The kick has to be deceptive to be effective, and using the high knee as the universal chambered position is part of that deception.”
While we stand there, Kenji Yamaki shows me how, from a single starting position, he can deliver a high round kick to my head, a standard round kick to my ribs and a downward, cutting round kick to my thigh.
I quickly learn how poorly a standard leg block works against a Kenji Yamaki round kick. He asks me to lift my limb in Thai fashion to stop his attack, and as I do it to forestall his midlevel kick, he loops his shin over my defending leg and crashes it down on my thigh. “The beauty of this way of kicking is that you can use the instep at long range and the shin at close range,” he explains. “There are no limitations.”
Kyokushin Karate Technique #3: Yoko Geri (Side Kick)
The yoko geri, or side kick, is the final entry on Kenji Yamaki’s list of preferred leg techniques. Despite the fact that it’s considered a basic move in numerous arts, witnessing it being used to score in competition is like coming across an endangered animal in the middle of Manhattan.
Kenji Yamaki admits that it’s not one of the most common techniques in competition — but it should be. “There are lots of fighters who don’t practice the yoko geri outside of doing kata because they feel that it’s a low-percentage technique for scoring,” he says. “But it’s still very important in self-defense and in the ring.
“One of the best times to use the side kick is after you set it up properly with a round kick. If you throw a fake mawashi geri and draw your opponent in a little, you can follow it with a yoko geri from the same leg and drive it up and under his guard.”
To illustrate his claim, he fires a quick round kick at my thigh. I instinctively slide backward, but he capitalizes on my retreat by running me down with a stepping side kick. “You can use this kick as a quick stopping technique to halt an opponent’s advance, but if you want to get the maximum force out of it, you have to put your hips and weight behind it,” he says. “In this way, the yoko geri can be your most powerful kick.”
Kenji Yamaki then relates an incident that took place while he was training with Oyama: “[He] was teaching us one day, and I watched him punch a tree as he was telling us how to develop power. The tree was about 1 meter (3.3 feet) in diameter, and his punches were shaking the leaves. He said: ‘This is how you punch! This is how you use your power!’ That image never left my mind.”
Kenji Yamaki’s remarkable kicking techniques reflect that same method of combining speed and power for the most devastating results. He honed those attributes during his years of grueling workouts and forged them into the legacy he now passes on to his students in America.
About the Author:
Dr. Mark Cheng, Senior RKC, is a contributing editor to Black Belt magazine and the co-author of Hwa Rang Do: Defend, Take Down, Submit with hwa rang do grandmaster Taejoon Lee. For more information about Cheng, visit Dr. Mark Cheng’s Facebook page! Special thanks to Haruo Matsuoka for translating during this interview.