Joe Lewis: The Mark Of Great Kicking

Joe Lewis

The Mark Of Great Kicking
How To Kick With All Your Might

“The secret to great kicking,” says the legendary Joe Lewis, one of the greatest kickers of our time, “is based on the same concept of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do. It is called ‘effective explosiveness.’ Explosiveness is the ability to put substance into your techniques. Substance means two things: 1) Physical effort — knowing how to put your body weight behind your kicks; and 2) Conviction — your techniques must communicate an emotional intention.” In this exclusive cover story, one of the martial arts’ most brilliant strategists teaches you how to kick with all your might.

By Joe Lewis
Photos by Carey Frame

How dangerous would being on the receiving end of an explosive kick be? We can get a sense of how it might feel by observing survival behavior in the animal kingdom. Animals bite, they butt, and often use bone-crushing kicks. Therefore, for animals or martial artists, this is not a large arsenal, but indeed deadly.
The kick is a premier weapon for martial artists. Kicking skills have always been the attraction which draws more participants and spectators to karate and Tae Kwon Do than perhaps all the other martial arts combined. There are fast kickers, flashy kickers, and powerful kickers. Confidence-proof, effective kicking is the barometer we use to measure someone’s greatness. To be considered a great kicker, one must effectively kick unlike anyone else before him. Therefore, he is difficult to emulate.
Great kicking, like great fighting, is not a matter of your battlefield track record, it’s a matter of what is in your heart. When we see a fast kicker kick, our response is: “Wow!” Immediately upon witnessing a power kicker we exclaim, “Whoa!” But upon seeing awesome kicking, the reaction is usually “Whoa” followed by “Wow.” When you hear this last reaction, then you know you are witnessing great kicking.

Kicks Can Be Deadly
Are kicks deadly? Yes, they can be. During the 1960’s, I fought all the top heavyweights in karate competition. I never tried to hurt anybody with my side kick. However, a number of my opponents ended up in the hospital. They claimed I hit too hard; I claimed they were out of shape. I never kicked opponents any harder than my sparing partners, and I never hurt the sparring partners with my kicks. I knew the side kick was not only effective, but also deadly. My instructor from Okinawa, Kinjo Chinsaku, as a young black belt, was jumped by five men. He was able to strike three of them with a side kick before the other two managed to run away. Two of the three he hit with the side kick went to the hospital, the third one died.
Regardless of the fact my instructor could kill with it, I also recognized years ago that the side kick was an awesome weapon. During sparring sessions, my sparring partners wore a fiberglass kendo chest protector. Not only could I level them with my side kick, but I could also level the heavy bag with one single kick.
When I came to this country from Okinawa during the mid-60’s, as a young black belt, I could not only score and win tournaments with the side kick, but I could also crush ribs, bruise livers, rupture spleens, and knock people out with a single shot to the midsection. On occasion, instead of breaking ribs, I could even break someone’s arm, if it got in the way of their feeble attempt to block my kick. I was not overdoing it or forcing the power in the kick. This was simply the way I was taught in Okinawa to execute it.

The Best Defense
The best defense is a strong offense. Therefore, what is your defensive purpose? It is to reduce the potential odds that one’s offense has any threat. What better way to do that than hitting your opponent with a basic kick. My secret to great kicking is simple, it is called hard work. The secret to being a great kicker contains a number of elements on different levels. Before we discuss the step-by-step preparation of great kicking, I want you to keep in mind these tenets about fighting. This overview will help prevent you from being too trigger happy, focusing only on your attacks instead of watching your opponent.
Offensively, fighting is about hitting and not getting hit. Defensively, it is about making the opponent miss and then aggressively making him pay. You do not trade kicks or punches. You do not take a hit to get one in, nor do you equate winning with the one who takes the best or most shots. Otherwise, you are defeating yourself and your purpose. In the fight game we have a saying, “If you can box, you can fight. But just because you can fight does not mean you can box.”
This means if you are a good executer of technique, you can also muster the courage to become a fighter. You can get down in the trenches, lock horns and bang with the best. But just because you have the appetite to lock horns with someone, or have that trigger-happy, street-fighter nature about you, it does not necessarily mean that you are a good technician, a good strategist, or a smart fighter. Being smart, not only with excellence in your execution, is also knowing how to turn on that inner motor. At this level, fighting is always a statement of how one views oneself. It is not about the fight or about the opponent.

The Preparation Method
The key element to great kicking is based on the same concept of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do. It is called “effective explosiveness.” If you cannot explode off that firing line, then you cannot make Jeet Kune Do work. Likewise, it is difficult to be a great kicker. The real backbone of explosiveness is to be able to put substance into your executions. Substance means two things: 1) Physical effort. To achieve it you have got to know how to put your body weight behind your kicks. 2) Your kicks need conviction. This means your techniques must communicate an emotional intention. They must have some teeth in them when you make contact.
A good teacher must not only teach the mechanical movements of kicking skills, but he must also teach what explosiveness is, and how to integrate it into the kicks, especially when you squeeze the trigger to fire. Often, when we look at teachers and their students, or at a photo of them in action, we don’t see the energy in their eyes as they move to kick. We do not see the confidence in their body language, nor do we hear it in their voices. There is just a basic lack of energy; no fighting spirit. Your kicks will not work without this. You need that emotional backbone. Explosiveness is impossible without it.
If you lack explosiveness, you will also have great difficulty with your target practice, especially sparring. It does not matter how hard you hit or even how fast you can kick; if you cannot hit the target, then, in anyone’s opinion, you cannot kick worth a flip.

How to Build Your Kicking Confidence
To teach you how to properly mentally focus and to build confidence in your kicking, we begin with a step-by-step process. First, work on your mechanical skills. Then work to develop your speed and your power, finding your range, your footwork, creating timing, and working on what is known as rhythm. These technical principles are a must. A good first step would be to begin by perfecting the mechanical motion of your favorite kick, such as, let’s say, a lead-leg side kick. Learn how to explode on a physical level. When you squeeze the trigger to fire, make sure you are not doing one of two things. First, do not lean or tilt your upper body forward, thus telegraphing your initial move. Second, do not tense up your body and make it possible for your opponent to read your initial move.
By not telegraphing your initial move, you greatly enhance your deceptiveness. You want the whole body to move at once. Your shoulder explodes forward at the same time your foot begins to move, attempting to penetrate your opponent’s defensive perimeter. This explosive approach towards your opponent is called “bridging the gap.” Without explosive footwork it is not going to work.
Learning to explode is properly experiencing how to release your energy and the kick simultaneously. Kicking is like punching. We often see two common mistakes. With a punch we see a person tensing up, folding his shoulder slightly forward as he pushes off the punch. Here, he is not only telegraphing his initial move, but he is losing power because he’s punching with his shoulder rather than with his legs.
A second common mistake is when the puncher pulls his shoulder back and sort of flings or throws the punch. Again, he is cocking his shoulder to create momentum in an attempt to throw the punch. He is losing power and, again, he is telegraphing his initial move.
People perform this exact phenomenon with their kicks. We must learn, when kicking, how to relax the body, enabling us to feel an inner energy welling up inside. Then, by using the stronger muscles, like those in our ankles, create a springing action whereby we release the kicks — not throw the kicks, or push them. The feeling is like a bullet being shot from a gun.
The sense of releasing kicks makes us quicker. We hit harder, we have better accuracy, and we use less energy in producing a stronger result, which is difficult for your opponent to read. Another part of this releasing effect is what we refer to as “effort,” putting your body weight into the initial move of the kick. Sometimes we can take a quick initial step, four to six inches, with the lead leg. Sometimes it is called a preparatory step. At the same time, we throw a lead shoulder with this lead step, which creates an instant weight shift, building initial momentum behind the kick. The faster you shift this weight, the more explosive you are going to be, and the more power you are going to have on the end of the kick.
Remember this formula: Less weight, more speed. More weight, more power. You do not always need all your body weight to do the damage you seek.

Shadow Kicking exercise
Shadow kicking exercise.

Emotional Intention
With all your movement executions, whether you are shadow kicking or working with targets, learn to communicate a message within each. This message always has an emotional intention, and you must learn to express it. And when I say express it, you have to make contact. Remember these three things. There is such a thing as just punching or kicking at the target. Secondly, some martial artists only kick to the target. You want to learn to kick through the target.
To get the teeth in your kicks with emotional fuel you must communicate messages such as, “I want you to know that I can make contact,” as you strike your opponent. You want him to know that you are faster than he is, so, as you fire, you hit him so fast he does not see it coming. The next time, you convince him you can also make it sting or burn. After that exchange, you can let him know that not only can you make it sting but you can back him up. Maybe the next time you pop him you let him know you can sit him down. And then, of course, there is such a thing as letting your opponent know that you can bury him. We call these messages “conviction.” In order to learn to move with conviction, when you squeeze the trigger to fire a kick in practice, always fire as if you truly mean it.

Kicking wth Substance
These important elements within one’s execution are what we call substance. The strength of your substance is predetermined by your effective explosiveness. Your opponent experiences this as authority in your movements. Great kickers always move with authority. All kickers are developed primarily on three levels. The first level is what we call the “mechanical level.” All drills at this stage teach only basic movements. Chiefly, what we are discussing here is the second level of development. This is what we call the “technical level,” working on coordination drills. These drills teach you how to use the different principles behind the physical techniques.
The first principle to begin with is called “range,” finding the correct distance between you and your opponent. That is always predetermined by the type of opponent in front of you. A taller person will be fought at a greater range than a shorter or slower opponent. Of course, against a good kicker, you always want to try to play him just beyond his extended foot or just inside his extended knee. Stay out of what we call the “trap.” The trap is always the striking area of his kicking leg between the knee and the foot.
The second thing we work on after range is what we call “timing.” Timing, according to the dictionary, is defined as “the regulating of occurrence, pace, or coordination to achieve the most desirable effects.” All timing in fighting is simply broken down into “long beats” and “short beats.” A fake or a feint — sometimes used with a half step — would be what you would call a half beat or a short beat. A kick or a punch would be characterized as a long beat.
The range between you and your opponent always predetermines the type of timing that you will use to set up the kick. For example, against a taller opponent you might use a lead shoulder feint as you take a slight half step forward. This half beat is followed by the kick, which is one long beat. Against the opponent who runs from you a great deal, you may perhaps go in with two or three long beats, which would be two or three kicks in succession.
Your next element, after timing, is “footwork.” The type of footwork you use will always be predetermined by your timing. Against a good counterkicker, I may use a quick “draw step” to draw his fire, followed by my kick. The strategy here is simple. Against a counterkicker, I always force him to lead off. Against a good lead-off kicker, I always force him into a counterfighting role. If the fighter is inexperienced and unaware, I will just run him over and not waste time setting him up. For smart, experienced fighters, you have to set them up.
Watch your footwork when you attack. If your knees are too straight, you cannot move fast. If your stance is too wide — and most karate and Tae Kwon Do fighter’s stances are — you will have a tendency to drag your rear leg when you penetrate on your attack. For power and speed in your footwork learn how to quickly shift weight from one foot to the other. You can begin with the majority of your weight on your rear heel, shifting weight through the ball of your rear foot to the heel of the forward foot and back again. Sometimes when you are being forced back during an attack, you may want to lean slightly forward with most of your weight on the front foot. As you hit the edge of the rope or the edge of the ring with your rear foot, you can quickly make a pivot to your right or left and slide out of danger.
Since your body is still just slightly forward, if your opponent fires a kick at you, you can rock back to make him miss and then make him pay. If you are leaning backwards as you are attacked, footwork is impossible and your counterfighting is almost negligible. Next on the hierarchy of developing principles is “rhythm.” You learn to create an inner rhythm from your inner motor, your fighting spirit, and an outer rhythm with body movement. You learn to read your opponent’s rhythm and figure out how to best break it. Broken rhythm has to be the ultimate tactic in all strategic fighting. I discuss this phenomenon at length in my series of twenty-one videotapes on fighting, as well as in my upcoming book.
Utilizing these principles with your favorite coordination drills, and integrating them into your particular style of sparring, will enable you to focus, and to discover an inner confidence you have never had before. This enables you to tap into the phenomenon called “fighting spirit.” Fighting spirit is like an intrinsic energy which fuses all of these elements together into an integrated force.

Heavy Bag Multi-Purpose Drill

heavybag kicking
Position at the correct distance for a double side kick (1). Note the proper bag height.
Side Kick
Explode forward, bridging the gap and chambering the kick quickly (2).
extended yoko geri
Contact should be made with the lead kick extended for maximum power and range (3).
As the bag returns, prepare for a counterkick without moving your feet (4).
back kick execution
Catch the bag on its return swing at short range (5). Note that the knee is folded at contact.


The Ultimate Level — Application
At this point you can begin integrating your coordination drills together with the third level of development, called “application drills.” These drills take place when you are working with targets or actively sparring an opponent. Everything here takes place in a relationship.
The type of targets I recommend most are the heavy bag, the double end bag, and the Thai-type focus pads. These are the pads which cover not only the palm of your hands, but also your forearms for punching or kicking. Try shadow kicking before you jump into these target skills. Shadow kicking is an excellent way to warm up before you do a full stretch. When shadow kicking, as you lift the lead leg to kick, make sure you always double kick.
You can always tell when an expert is working with targets. He can easily make the pad sing and he can make those heavy bags swing. It is like music when done correctly. Target practice can teach you a number of things besides developing speed and power, and conditioning your body. Target practice can help you learn how to win by pressure and effective aggressiveness. It can show you how to win by backing an opponent up, or by confusing him. It shows you how to create little openings, when to go upstairs or downstairs. It can teach you how to set up an opponent. Targets are especially good for lead-in or penetration moves such as a kick to collapse your opponent’s defense. You can learn how to fight different types of opponents, and even educate yourself about the things to do when you need to recover.
While working with pads in conjunction with a partner, there are three sets of combinations you can work on — attacking combinations, countering combinations, and inside combinations. With the attacking combinations, your partner holding the pads will always be sliding back as you fire each punch or kick. Your countering combos will have your opponent holding pads while he fires a kick at you. You slide back, roll with the kick on the shoulder or arm, and fire your counterkick behind it, striking the targets. Inside combinations are those where your partner holds onto the pads and swings three or four shots at your head while you duck, block, or lean back. Then you come up with a couple of short punches and follow through with a power kick.

Make sure when you target practice that you develop all three types of combinations.
When I was training in Okinawa during the early ’60s, I would get to class two hours before anyone else. I would spend one hour a day striking the makiwara board to develop my forearms and my knuckles. Then I would spend another solid hour throwing side kicks against the heavy bag. Against the heavy bag the chief thing I worked on was exploding. Every time I fired a side kick against that heavy bag I was always focused on one of the principles above, and was always cognizant of the conviction of my trigger squeeze. This, to me, was the perfect blueprint for developing a great kick.
If you follow these guidelines, you will not become one of these “no energy,” apologetic kickers — those who are always kicking with the expectation of failing or being judged. It is encouraging to know that in becoming a champion or a great kicker, it is all about a long string of failed attempts to get it right. It is normal to be afraid of failing, but it is not healthy to let it paralyze you.
Always encourage substance development in your kicking drills. It is not only the strength of the language within the kick, but also the conviction of its intent. When you fire it, you mean business. If someone were attacking you and you yelled at them, “Stop,” it is not how loud you yell or how long you yell, but the conviction in your voice that gets the job done. Make sure you become not only one who fits the profile of a great kicker, but one who can also fight. Ask yourself, “To what level can I rise?” I can only interpret what great kicking is. Karate’s next great kicker will be one who comes along and changes this. I am not talking about champions or who is the best. I am talking about one who sets the standard for kicking, like Bill Wallace.
I am reminded of a once great golfer named Ben Hogan. He said, “Golf is a game of luck. The more I play, the luckier I get.” The same is true of becoming a great kicker. A great kicker’s motto is, “Losers complain, winners train.”

Stamina And Power Drill

pad work
Position for a combination kick (1) .
Be sure to keep your hands up. Turn your hip into the kick for power (2).
Switch your stance quickly to fire an opposite leg kick (3).
Finish the combination by striking with your ankle bone (4). Be sure to protect your head.


How Joe Lewis Side Kicked His Way Into History

By John Corcoran

US Karate Nationals
Joe Lewis (left) fires a hard kick at Mitchell Bobrow at the 1967 National Championships in Washington, D.C.

Fame is fleeting, stars just twinkle, but legends never die! We, the public, keep legendary people alive forever because we need them. They prove that mere mortals can achieve greatness. They give us hope and inspiration. In the martial arts, legends, like the late Bruce Lee, for example, give us a standard of excellence to which we can aspire. Joe Lewis has been called a “living legend” perhaps more than any other martial artist of our time, but readers in the younger generation might have never learned why. Since he is teaching you how to kick ??Ëwith heart in the main story, I thought I’d share with you a part of his amazing career. Take it from me, when this legend tells you how to kick with authority you better believe him, because it’s based on real experience.

Limelight Vs. Legend
Ever wonder how legends become legends? Some wise man, now often quoted, once said that “Legends are made, not born.” I wonder. As an editor, I could launch a long and carefully-orchestrated publicity campaign around a martial artist to create a star — and I’ve done so over the past 22 years with a select handful of special martial artists who warranted such treatment.
But the truth is, limelight does not make a legend. In fact, it doesn’t even guarantee the lesser status of star or celebrity. You can’t make a mountain out of a molehill and expect the public to swallow it for any length of time. The subject of any star-building effort must have some genuine special quality — tangible or intangible — that captures the public’s imagination or fascination. If not, he or she usually fades back into oblivion.
O.J. Simpson trial witness Kato Kaelin, for instance, is currently part of a media frenzy and widespread public curiosity. But inside Hollywood he’s looked upon as a member of the notorious “Z Team” — that is, people who achieve fame for having done absolutely nothing. Kato’s career decisions at this crucial time will make or break him. He’ll either be an overnight sensation or become a bona fide future celebrity. But I would bet the bank that he never becomes a legend. He just doesn’t have what it takes.
In the martial arts, we are blessed with an unusually large number of genuine legends. Let’s face it, we’re in a business that breeds them. A business that holds in high esteem a person’s self-defense acumen and fighting prowess. His or her expertise in self-preservation, one of humankind’s strongest basic instincts, is the object of admiration and respect by those outside of our black belt fraternity. Thus, even a lot of local-community, hard-working but low-visibility instructors are considered legends, if only by their own students. No other physical culture or sport, I believe, offers the kind of respectable status in the eyes of the general public as does the martial arts. Sure, golf might be great for millions of people — but can its expertise save your life?
Because actions speak louder than words in our field, the martial arts also boasts two other star-building arenas — martial arts competition and motion pictures. From these activities emerge stars and legends, and the former are far fewer in rank than the latter. And because we’re in a physical culture, many of our legends stem from our prolific martial arts competitions more than from movies. Legends like Bill “Superfoot” Wallace and Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. And, of course, Joe Lewis.
In Joe Lewis’ case, he became an instant legend the first time he performed in public. Contrary to the old saying, I think Joe was born to be great and simply lived up to his inevitable destiny. Few people are born with Lewis’ God-given gifts: a brilliant intellect, movie-star charisma, and an extraordinary fighting spirit. All the rest of his skills were picked up along the way.
But if someone asked me to sumarize the reason behind the Lewis Legend I’d have to say it was his inimitable side kick. Lewis possessed a blazing side kick that struck with the force of a battering-ram. So hard it was virtually unstoppable. It broke bones. It demolished heavyweight opponents. It launched into air-space more hapless human missiles than NASA did rockets.Once, after crushing a ring opponent with his trademark weapon, a famous martial artist told Lewis, “If you kicked me that hard, I’d go get a gun and shoot you!” Smart man. Shooting him was probably the only way to stop that kick. To this day, Lewis is recognized around the world for having the greatest side kick of anybody in the martial arts.

From Zero to Hero — Overnight!
How Joe Lewis first rocketed to prominence with the side kick is an extraordinary story that’s now part of the Lewis Legend. It is akin to someone like Michael Jordan, as an unknown amateur, stepping on the pro basketball court for the first time and blowing away the opposing team. The so-called “blood ‘n’ guts” era of open American karate tournaments, in the mid- to late 1960s, was a time of bloodshed and brutality. During this time tournaments were an arena for only the most intrepid fighters. Those imbued with courage and a high pain tolerance.
The type of sparring then popular was called “non-contact” or “light contact.” Rules stipulated closely pulled blows to the face and only light contact to the body. Excessive contact was supposed to be grounds for disqualification. Despite these general rules, heavy contact to both the face and body was the earmark — and not the exception — in competition. A fighter might break an opponent’s bones or knock him into the grandstand and not be disqualified. If he was a true fighter, the opponent was expected to come back and dish out the same — or more — than he got.
Fighters did not wear hand and foot pads for the good reason that they were not created yet. Some — not all — male fighters wore a groin cup. There were just two black belt weight division — heavy and light. The techniques, for the most part were crude and calamitous by today’s standards, as unrefined as the rules governing the then infant sport. However, there were no displays of feigned injury, complaints over bad calls by the judges, temper tantrums by losers, and no prize money for winners. Nor — most astonishingly — were there any lawsuits filed by injured fighters!
It was under these wild and decidedly dangerous conditions that in 1966 an unknown rookie named Joe Lewis entered his first tournament, the prestigious U.S. Nationals promoted by Master Jhoon Rhee in Washington, D.C. Gathered there were many of the nation’s best and most formidable fighters of the era.
In the dojo, Lewis had distinguished himself quickly, earning his shorin-ryu karate black belt in Okinawa in a mere seven months. He had just 22 months of training when he made his competitive debut that memorable day in Washington.
Besides competitive inexperience, Lewis faced a host of other preposterous disadvantages. Even Michael Jordan, in the example cited earlier, would falter under these setbacks. For one, Lewis had never even seen a karate tournament before that day. Second, he was totally unfamiliar with sport karate rules. And third, he had never seen any of his opponents compete; nor did he know any of them by reputation. Therefore, he had no analysis upon which to draw suitable strategies.
But obstacles aside, Lewis rose to the occasion. He had a date with destiny. When the smoke cleared, he proved to be a consummate warrior, a rugged “legslinger,” and an opponent’s worst nightmare. He won every match, and, ultimately, won the black belt championship using just one technique — the side kick! And not one opponent scored a single point against him! For his amazing performance, Lewis was dubbed an “overnight sensation.” Today, almost 30 years later, Joe Lewis remains a martial arts sensation. “Overnight,” for legends, apparently lasts forever. Surely, then, such people are born and not made.


The Lewis Lexicon

Application Drills — Training with the use of targets, or actively sparring an opponent.

Defensive Fighting — Making the opponent miss and then aggressively making him pay.

Defensive Purpose — The intent to reduce the potential odds that an opponent’s offense has any threat.

Effective Explosiveness — The ability to explode off the firing line.

Effort — Putting your body weight into the initial move of a kick.

Mechanical Level — The stage of practice focusing on only basic physical movements.

Offensive Fighting — Hitting and not getting hit.

Range — The correct distance between you and yo and your opponent. It is always predetermined by the type of opponent in front of you.

Substance (behind a technique) — Execution achieved by two things: 1) Physical effort. To achieve it you have got to know how to put your body weight behind your kicks. 2) Conviction. This means your techniques must communicate an emotional intention.

Technical Level — The stage of practice focusing on how to use the different principles behind the physical techniques.

Timing — The regulating of occurrence, pace, or coordination to achieve the most desirable effects. All timing in fighting is simply broken down into “long beats” and “short beats.” A fake or a feint — sometimes used with a half step — would be what you would call a “half beat” or a “short beat.” A kick or a punch would be characterized as a “long beat.”

Trap — The striking area of the opponent’s kicking leg between the knee and the foot.

This article was published inside KICK magazine in December 1995 as its cover story.