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In Japanese martial arts competition, a full point scored during free sparring matches is called ippon. Though ippon simply means “one point, “ in karate this score is given to a technique that in real combat would have been a debilitating or killing blow. The same conventions are followed in other Japanese martial arts such as judo and kendo. Although modern matches can go up to three points, a great deal of weight is placed upon each point because, had the conflict been real, the person scored against could have forfeited his or her life. Each ippon is a very serious warning and lesson.

For this reason, it was traditionally considered bad practice to hold back against opponents who seemed they could be defeated easily. Things can happen very fast in sparring matches, and even the most inept competitor will score a point from time to time. The ippon scoring system served to remind competitors who held back because they underestimated their opponents that the consequence of such arrogance could have been, under different circumstances, much more dire.

Today, when judo is an Olympic sport and amateur and professional karate competitions draw large audiences, more and more martial artists regard sparring matches as sport rather than as a simulation of real combat. This has given ride to such strategies as sacrificing power for speed in non-contact matches, or adopting evasive tactics when ahead in points (though of course there is no such thing as waiting out a round in a real fight). The more dangerous techniques, the ones which are the most effective in real situations, have also understandably, been made illegal in sport sparring.

The karate competition is gaining such wide appeal is no doubt a positive trend, and, when you are given a set of parameters in which to compete, you should use every acceptable strategy to win, even if it is not always realistic. As a martial artist, however, you should remember that the parameters of sport are different from those of real combat, and that ultimately karate is preparing you for the latter. Competition is an opportunity to test your techniques and your mettle in a controlled and relatively safe environment.

In other words, while it is all very fine to focus on competition, you should not forget the core meaning of ippon: a dangerous or fatal blow.  



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