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Aargh! 'Tis better to miss

At the nationals Gerald Evans kicked with such beautiful precision that he did not kill a soul—which is the real point of the game

In TV land sweet old ladies with tough hands are chopping up gangs of muggers. In England unwanted buildings are being dispatched the same way, and all over the Western World defenseless bricks and boards haven't stood a chance in years. Soon, at this rate, they'll be making bumper stickers that read: REGISTER HANDS AND FEET, NOT FIREARMS, and every crook and nanny will want to learn karate, or what will be left of it after the flacks get through transforming it into show biz.

The gentlest of the violent arts has received a very good press in recent years, which is to say a very bad one. But the more that was told about karate the less anybody really knew about it. The sport was fragmented into schools—Japanese, Okinawan, Korean—fought by different rules, but a fortnight ago in Philadelphia came the All America Karate Championship Tournament, the first truly national one, run by the All America Karate Federation. In April the AAKF was named by the AAU the official voice of U.S. karate and now, it was said, the sport had a leg in the Olympics. In Philadelphia there was one set of rules, sanctioned by the AAU, and no disputes once competition began. Nothing was broken, not a brick or a board or even a bone. As one karate man said, "All these guys are on the fringe of spirituality." The losers were as serenely calm as the winners. No athlete is capable of more human destruction than the karateka, and many times each of the 150 contestants came within half an inch or closer of death or maiming, but no hand or foot was lifted in anger. Only a few accidental cuts and bruises were recorded.

Still, a whole afternoon of karate turned out to be an overdose for those who had nothing to relate the pastime to but boxing or Lee Marvin movies. A certain little rule made it a frustrating experience. That is the one that says no punches or kicks will come in full contact with an opponent. While it was a national karate tournament all right, and exciting at times, more often it was about as much of a spectacle as Joe Frazier taking on Muhammad Ali in the World Heavyweight Sparring Championship.

In All America karate, kicks and punches are judged by appearance, so they must be delivered at maximum velocity, yet stopped when foot or fist grazes the opponent's face or throat or other vital point. Considering the fate of innumerable boards and bricks, one begins to understand something about a karate man's self-control and his faith, which knows bounds. One entrant said, "I've never gone in there unafraid of being hit." Others nodded.

In competitive karate a full point, which wins a match, is awarded for kicks or punches that would have maimed or killed, half a point for less lethal ones; judging karate obviously requires a colorful imagination. Another quality that would have been appreciated at Philadelphia is a fluency in English. There are dozens of different kicks and punches, each with its own name, and the judges, nearly all Oriental, made their calls aloud, but only one was consistently decipherable: "rrroundhouse," for the kick of that name and with the accent on the rrround.

"How long has he been in this country?" a judge was asked.

"Ten years."

"And that's how he speaks English?"

"Well, he belongs to a cousin's club."

All the judges, it appeared, belonged to a cousin's club.

Often the judges' calls were drowned out by the disconcerting groans and screams of contestants psyching themselves. One of the less inhibited gave out with a startling "Aargh," "Aargh," with every punch or kick, but the most common sound was a guttural "Eeesa," "Eeesa," meaningless, really, but with such a feminine ring to it that one newcomer to karate nominated Eeesa queen of the tournament.

Stranger than any sound, though, or than any other sight, was that of lightweights competing against heavies. This is the way it is done in the All America Karate Federation. As an official explained, "People think a 125-pounder will be destroyed if he fights a 250-pounder, but if that big guy looks like a monster, then the little one is quicker, and an awfully tough target. That is the beauty of karate. It teaches you pride and confidence in what you are, no matter what your, limitations. We feel that this carries over into other areas of life. Try to tell people that, though, that there is more to karate than fighting and physical perfection, and they say, 'I go to church on Sunday. I don't need more of that.' "

But the old spirituality kept popping up. "Winning doesn't mean much," said Gerald Evans, 34, ultimately the tournament champion, and he seemed to mean it. Following his final match Evans was asked, "What did you win it with?" Turning to a friend, he replied, "I don't know. Was it a kick or a punch?"

"What really matters," said Evans, a Philadelphian who wants to become a karate instructor, "is that karate teaches you calmness and control of your emotions. You learn to function through anything and not to dwell on pain, which is a temporary thing." In a semifinal match Evans, only 170 pounds, was accidentally kicked in the chest by a 190-pounder, a half-point kick, but though in pain he remained impassive and moved to attack. He said, "I've seen guys win with broken ribs. If I'd hesitated, if he'd read pain in my face, he'd have been on me."

"Did you enjoy it?" the karate people were asking at the tourney's close, and if the reply was lukewarm they would dip into their bags of familiar arguments. One said that in 1968 Joey Giardello's punch was measured against that of Teruyuki Okazaki, currently director of the East Coast Karate Association and a seventh-degree black belt at the time. Giardello's punch measured 430 pounds per square inch, Okazaki's 2,240. The comparison was not made out of pride or because it revealed the essence of karate, which of course it didn't, but rather out of desperation. The karateka are looking for greater acceptance in this country. Unfortunately, in relating their art to American sport, they help unwittingly to delay the arrival of the day when karate is accepted for what it truly is, something subtle and private and, yes, on the fringe of spirituality.

On the wall of the Philadelphia Karate Club is this motto: "The Ultimate Aim of the Art of Karate Lies Not in Victory or Defeat, but in the Character of its Participants." Says Fred Borda, a club member, "Karate can help people avoid a life spent fearing what lies in the shadows. By helping them to be aware of what they really are, and of what they can be, it can free them from their fears."

Last week a new student came to the club, a tough kid. "How do I break a brick?" he asked Teruyuki Okazaki.

"Get yourself a hammer, son," Okazaki told him.