The side kick is a staple of karate, taekwando, kick boxing, and many types of kung fu, but is rarely seen in either Muay Thai or MMA. It has occasionally been criticized as old fashioned and ineffective for the street.
However one thing that Bruce Lee, Joe Lewis and Mas Oyama all had in in common is that they favored the side kick over all other kicks. Oyama made the side kick the main kick in Kyokushini karate. When I trained in Kyokoushin, I was told that this was the kick that could “clean a man out”.
Joe Lewis, former great Karate point fighting and full contact champion, won some of his point fighting tournaments using only 2 techniques, the side kick and the ridge hand. When he dominated the heavyweight ranks of full contact karate fighters he continued to favor the side kick, but substituted the cross for the ridge hand.
Bruce Lee included practically every variation of every type of kick in his Jeet Kune Do, but when he was fighting for real he tended to concentrate on his lead side kick and his lead hand power punch.
Karate, Taekwondo, and many Kung fu styles all have slightly different ways of throwing the kick, with variations on chambering, pivoting, etc. but that is not what this post is about. Instead, this post is about how the side kick can be used in real world self defense situations.
First of all, this kick, if it is trained and developed, can become one of the most powerful kicks of all, and because it comes directly at the opponent in a straight line, can keep him from getting close to you It has also been known to break ribs. In fact I saw a video of an old time point fight tournament between many of the most famous Karate and taekwondo fighters of the era, including Joe Lewis who I believe won (as he practically always did before his first retirement). Because this was a point fighting tournament there were no weight classes. In one match, the Korean stylist weighed 130 pounds while his Karate opponent weighed in at 200. The match was pretty even until the Korean stylist landed a flying side kick that knocked his opponent to the ground by accidental contact. The karate man was unable to get up off the floor and had to be carried out because he had suffered multiple broken ribs.
Wing Chun really has only 2 kicks, the front kick and the side kick, although there are variations of each. Most lineages use the front kick whenever the opponent is in front of you, and the side kick only when the opponent is on your side. And because wing chun fighters always face their opponents square, the only times he will have an opponent on your side is if there are multiple opponents or if the opponent has been successful in turning him. I have seen one wing chun application where the wing chun fighter steps forward to chase a retreating opponent and then throws a side kick off the back leg to be able to reach the opponent.
Jeet Kune do, on the other hand, has different fighting concepts and strategies, and the JKD fighter may prefer to remain on the outside and use the side kick as a long range attack. Bruce Lee believed that using your longest weapon, the side kick, against the opponent’s closes target, often his knee, was effective a way similar to the boxing jab, but he believed that the kick was “more damaging”. Recently a few MMA fighters, most prominently Jon Jones, have used the side kick landing just above the knee, to good effect, even though they were barefoot and not able to kick directly into the knee joint due to the rules. Although the side kick did appear to “work” by frustrating the opponent and keeping him out of range, I have never seen a this kick stopping a fight or causing great damage in any MMA bout. I believe with heavy boots kicking directly into the kneecap or the side of the knee, it would be devastating. Bruce also liked to combine the side kick with a pendulum step, as in the video above. The pendulum kick allows the Jkd fighter to get in and out so quickly that the opponent does not have time to react. Notice that the JKD fighter leans his upper body away, making it impossible for even an opponent with a substantial reach advantage to reach his head with a counter punch. Also notice how blindingly fast the movement is, which is the only way that the pendulum step will actually work on the street. However I believe that it would be really hard for a street fighter to deal with this kind of attack.
The side kick does have 2 disadvantages. First of all, it is one of the harder kicks to master. It requires a certain amount of hip flexibility, and requires the student to really get his hips and body into the kick to get that tremendous power out of it. Likewise it takes a lot of practice and a lot of repetitions to get the speed of the technique up to where it has to be to work on the street. Second, the kick is somewhat telegraphic. It requires an obvious chamber, as well as a lot of hip motion. In fact, Bruce would often demonstrate and even teach the kick with a big telegraphic preliminary step, and sometimes even with two or more preliminary steps. The pendulum kick shown above is so fast that there is almost no time for the opponent to react, and it is very practical because it is thrown to the knee, and very few people on the street have any idea how to defend leg kicks.
Bruce liked the side kick because it is the only kick that has real power when delivered with the front leg. His Jeet Kune Do was built around the concept of using the closest weapons to the opponent, either the lead leg or the lead hand, because being closer they were faster and easier to land. Therefore, if the side kick was delivered from the lead leg, the shorter distance could make up for the telegraph. If you were as fast as Bruce, or at least really fast, the kick could work. I have also seen a video where the head guy from one of the Kyokushinkai spin off groups threw a high round kick and then without putting the foot down followed up with an immediate mid level side kick that knocked his opponent down.
The best way of making the side kick non telegraphic is to use the lead leg and either wait until you are in range without having to take a preliminary step, or else use either a small hop, of no more than six inches, which is done at the same exact time as you start the kick or by using a very small quick step forward right before the kick.
Finally, there is the spinning side kick, demonstrated above by Joe Rogan who effortlessly knocks a guy out in a tournament who was wearing full body armor! Although I had done Karate and Taekwondo for almost 4 years, I never saw or even heard of a spinning back kick until I was shown one by one of my seniors in my Wing Chun class. The spinning side kick is similar to a spinning back kick, except that you keep spinning another quarter turn before you kick. The spinning back kick is a staple of karate and Taekwondo , and is sometimes seen in MMA. It is probably the most powerful kick of all.
Benny Urquidez used a spinning back kick in Thailand against a Muay Thai fighter to take him out with several broken ribs. The problem with the spinning back kick , aside from the fact that you turn your back on your opponent, always a dangerous idea, is that it is hard to recover from the kick. If you knock your opponent out, you don’t have to worry about recovering, but if he blocks the kick or takes the kick without being seriously injured, your spin has been stopped and you are momentarily stopped while your back is turned to your opponent. When you use a spinning side kick, you don’t throw the kick until you are in the side facing position, which is a legitimate fighting stance, often used in karate.
Also because the kick is so unusual, even a fighter is familiar with the spinning back kick could be taken by surprise Obviously an ordinary mugger or street fighter will be taken completely by surprise.