Justin Ortiz will tell you his whole martial arts career has been based on “kicking with a purpose.”
Justin Ortiz says his whole martial arts career has been based on "kicking with a purpose.” The worldchampion karateka — although known for his flashy kicks — likes to think of himself first and foremost as a purposeful, thinking man’s fighter.
T he operative word there is “purpose.” The Boston-bred world-champion karateka — although known for his flashy kicking skills — likes to think of himself first and foremost as a purposeful, thinking man’s fighter who outsmarts his opponents.
“They like to say fighting is 90-percent mental, but you don’t see many people really practicing that,” says Ortiz, 24. “You go to most schools, and they follow the old method of training faster and harder. My slogan is ‘train harder but train smarter.’”
ORTIZ EXPLAINS that his statement refers to employing a strategic outlook that has you adapt how you fight to your opponent’s style. If, for example, you’re going against an aggressive, offensive-minded fighter, you should try to attack and put him on the defensive — a condition that’s likely to make him uncomfortable. If you’re facing a defensive fighter, you should stay on the move and remain patient because such an adversary tends to become impatient.
It’s all about adjusting to whomever you’re fighting to force that person to adjust to you, he adds before launching into an example.
“Say I’m fighting [fellow Team Paul Mitchell Karate member] Zsolt Mórádi,” he says. “We’re both kickers, but he’s taller. Knowing he has a European style, which is very linear, I’ll try to use angles to bait him into coming in. I’ll make him enter, and it’s harder for him to adjust his kicks. Meanwhile, even though I’m primarily a kicker, I’ll use more hand techniques against him because I know he’s a kicker.”
WITH A BACKGROUND in traditional shotokan karate taught to him by his father, Ortiz considers himself an all-around fighter rather than someone who can throw only kicks. He’s proved he has those all-around skills by succeeding in several forms of competition. The first of his three WAKO world titles came not in point fighting, which he’s best-known for, but in continuous fighting. Ortiz recently made a successful debut in kickboxing, and he said that with karate now an Olympic sport, he’s working on traditional-style sparring to compete in that venue.
“It doesn’t matter what style you do — everything comes down to timing and distance,” Ortiz says. “In point fighting, you have to be a real master of that. You’ve seen karateka like Lyoto Machida and Stephen Thompson even succeed in MMA because they’ve mastered those things, and it makes them so hard to gauge.”
ORTIZ SAYS movement, a key component of modern point fighting, is crucial for being able to control timing and distance. Staying on the balls of your feet — so you can instantly change direction or push off and quickly launch an attack — is vital for this.
“Timing and distance are different, but they’re the same,” he says. “If you want to get there faster, what you have to do is get closer. If you’re farther away, you have to get there faster. The important thing is spatial timing. You have to master the opponent’s space and how much space you need to cover.”
One exercise he recommends for developing spatial mastery is what he refers to as the “red light/ green light drill.” To do it, you should have a partner. If none is available, a heavy bag will suffice. Assuming you have a human partner, start the drill by just leaning in to touch him on the shoulder while staying on the balls of your feet. Make sure you don’t lift your rear foot off the ground. Your goal is to find the distance at which you can just barely touch the person. This represents what Ortiz has dubbed the “red zone.”
He calls it that because it’s the danger zone, meaning if you can touch your opponent, he can probably touch you. Take a small step back from there, to a point at which you can no longer touch the person, and you’re in the “green zone,” with green denoting safety. That’s the zone in which you generally want to be bouncing and moving. Ortiz says playing around with your partner at the border of the red zone and the green zone will develop a sense of distance that allows you to distinguish where you need to be to hit or avoid being hit.
“It’s really just a centimeter or an inch of difference that determines if you can hit, but that’s what makes it so masterful,” he says. “It makes it difficult for your opponents to read you, and they don’t recognize that with just a little bounce, you’re in range to hit them.”
ORTIZ CLAIMS you can apply the skills you learn from this drill in any kind of martial arts combat, from point fighting to kickboxing and MMA. “It’s just about adjusting to the type of techniques needed for that style of fighting,” he says. “But what’s always important are the timing and the distance. And of course, you need clean technique. You’ll need that to succeed no matter what style you’re doing.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Jacobs’ most recent book is The Principles of Unarmed Combat. His website is writingfighting.wordpress.com.
Justin Ortiz (left) says the “red zone” is the distance at which you can touch your opponent. It’s red to represent danger because your opponent also can reach you. He recommends spending time at the border of the red zone and the more distant — and safer — “green zone” to get a better feel for the functional range of your techniques.