“If you use Nikyo in a contemporary self-defence situation, your enemy
may simply stand there, and possibly hit you with their free hand.”
When I first started doing martial arts I trained in a Hapkido dojo (dojang) where the sparring was reasonably intense. We had a lot of injuries. I don’t agree with this sort of training and nowadays my students very rarely injure themselves. But in training like that I learned a few valuable lessons, and these have got me thinking about Kote Gaeshi and Nikyo.
Way back then, I was sparring and my left little finger got caught in the sleeve of my opponents gi. We both heard a crack, but I formed a fist with my left hand, and carried on favouring my right hand until the instructor called break. There was no serious pain (until later), and I was young and tough (and perhaps stupid as well). An X ray later revealed that one side of the second metacarpal bone had been shattered. Lesson: Firstly, it’s surprising how much damage a fluke accident can cause, and secondly – having a finger bone shattered is not enough to stop a fit young man.
Another time I was doing a demonstration, and my partner and I got our timing wrong on a gyaku hiji technique. We both heard my ulnar collateral ligament tear. I knew something was wrong – but hey – it was a demo so I was hyped. Of course I finished the demo (I was young and tough (and stupid). Did it hurt? Not that I remember – I was too hyped up with doing the demo to let it stop me, although I was aware that I no longer had full control over my right arm.
Yet another time I got up from a session of groundwork sparring to find that I had a ‘mallet finger’ injury (the tendon is torn off the bone meaning the finger goes into a mallet shape. I don’t precisely know how I did it because I was completely unaware of it until we stopped.
And one more example: I received a powerful kick to the back of my knee, breaking my anterior cruciate ligament. I felt a popping sound and fell down, but I was soon able to get up, and I was able to walk. Had it been a real fight I might have needed to stay on the ground, but I would certainly not have given up the fight. Did it hurt? No. Although I’ve worked on it, and have regained almost all of its normal function, the joint has in the past been loose, but not especially painful.
Note the common thread running through here – a series of reasonably serious injuries, none of which has caused a great deal of pain at the time of injury (the shattered little finger was very painful by the time I got to hospital). One reason for this is that there are not too many pain receptors in ligaments, but I think the main reason is that being hyped up and adrenaline fuelled tends to mask any pain, at least temporarily. This is all the more the case if someone who has taken a few knocks in the past – once you’ve had a few knocks your body gets used to the idea that something that hurts is not the end of you.
Now, this relates to Nikyo and Kote Gaeshi very directly. Here I am extrapolating from my own experience: I have never applied Nikyo or Kote Gaeshi in a real fight against someone who was doing their best to hurt me, but I do have a lot of experience in applying those techniques, and from my experience with my own injuries I think that these techniques are at least a little problematic if used without caution.
Firstly, neither technique can be used as a restraining technique. As I have shown, a torn ligament does not necessarily cause incapacitating pain – at least not in the heat of the moment. I would not deny that Nikyo can be extremely painful when applied in the dojo – but the dojo is a completely different situation.
Anyone who has done any full contact fighting will attest that, when your opponent is trying really to hurt you, your body will rise to the occasion. You don’t worry about minor inconveniences. Your mental state changes your body chemistry, and your body goes into overdrive.
In a dojo, one works with one’s partner, you are not (or should not be) angry or running high on adrenaline. The lock should be applied gently so that your partner can either yield to it or tap. In a real self-defence situation you are likely to be faced with someone in a hysterical rage possibly fueled by alcohol or other drugs – a person in this state is unlikely to feel much pain. Moreover many belligerent people have been in a few fights before – they have had a few knocks in the past. (If you are facing someone who is calmly trying to hurt you, you are in real trouble.)
Also, in a dojo you will apply the techniques a number of times in succession – as you do this your wrist will become sensitised, the technique will hurt more, and seem to be more effective than it really is.
It’s very easy to create a myth in the dojo that these techniques are viable for self-defence and that they work in the way they do in the dojo. With Nikyo your opponent goes to their knees in pain, and with Kote Gaeshi they somersault into a beautiful fall.
What I think will happen if you use Nikyo in a contemporary self-defence situation is that your enemy will simply stand there, and possibly hit you with their free hand. If you are skilled in applying the technique, you may well tear the ligaments holding their wrist together, and at this point the lock will not work at all, since their wrist has a new-found flexibility. They are unlikely to hit you with that hand for the next few months, but remember that they are now probably running on adrenaline, and have three other limbs to attack with. If you are not skilled in applying the technique, it just won’t work at all, and you may be in a worse position than you were before, because your opponent is now really angry.
With Kote Gaeshi it’s a very similar situation. Unless you have completely unbalanced your opponent in the entry to the technique I don’t think it is likely to work at all. If your opponent has six months of kickboxing or some similar rough-and-tumble style behind them they may well not give their balance away so easily.
If you are highly skilled, and you do get Kote Gaeshi to work as a throw, you are likely to cause serious injury to your opponent since they may not be skilled in falling, and they will not be landing on mats. Think about this for a moment: if you are defending your family against a lunatic this might be appropriate – but if your opponent is a drunk brother-in-law who you need to restrain, or if you are a security guard, or a psych nurse – well, this should not be your technique of choice.
I think many people underestimate how much skill is required to get either Nikyo or Kote Gaeshi to work in a real combat situation. Both of these techniques require very precise application – if the angle is slightly wrong the technique will not work at all. If the entry to the technique is not impeccable you will never arrive at that precise alignment. If your mind is not calm you will never achieve the correct entry. I think it would require at least ten years training to get to a point where the techniques are burned in to the point that they are viable in the heat of the moment.
A real fight is a lightning fast affair that will usually only last a few seconds. People don’t obediently stick their hands out to be grabbed – a skilled person will deliver fast, powerful punches from a mobile, balanced stance; an unskilled person may well flail away with both hands as fast as they can – three or four punches per second. What is more likely to happen is that, in the desire to get the technique to work quickly, someone with only a few years experience will try and get the entry to the technique over too quickly – they want to get the technique on before they get hit – and this means that they botch the entry and end up trying to muscle the technique on. Once again – if these techniques are not applied perfectly, they don’t work at all.
As far as I’m concerned there is a lot more to martial arts practice than self-defence – if I wanted only self-defence and fitness I could have brought a large dog and saved myself the injuries described at the start of this article. I don’t have any problem with a technique that takes ten years or longer to learn if the process of the learning is itself valuable. I’m not planning on getting into any fights – I’m a nice family guy with grey hair and glasses. Who would want to fight me? For me martial arts are about the process, and if I could learn it all in a couple of years I would have stopped long ago.
However, I do think it is important to recognise the limitations of some techniques. Self-defence for me is a possibility that gives my practice meaning, even though I don’t think it will ever be likely that I will need my skills. I think it is important to recognise that these techniques can be very problematic in a real situation and to recognise how different dojo training is to the real world.