Sparring, also known as Kyeorugi, is a staple of any Taekwondo class and a regular event at Taekwondo competitions. Two practitioners engage and attempt to best each other in a controlled form of mock combat. It is not considered honourable to unleash the full power of Taekwondo strikes in a sparring scenario, as this can cause serious injury and doing so is not only detrimental to the health of one sparring partner, it carries penalties for the offender in competition.
Olympic Taekwondo is restricted to sparring only. Taekwondo patterns, breaking and defence against multiple opponents, while a major factor in grading exams and traditional competitions, are not part of the Olympic medal event. Therefore, Olympic Taekwondo can be said to be kyeorugi only and is not indicative of the complete martial art. There are two major worldwide Taekwondo organisations, both with slightly different sparring rules:
- The World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) which is recognised and operates under the same rules as the Olympic committee.
- The International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) which has different rules allowing a greater variety of more dangerous techniques to be used in sparring.
Olympic and WTF Taekwondo Rules
Sparring competitions are fought between two competitors in a square shaped, matted area measuring 10 metres squared. Every competitor must wear a standardised head guard, trunk-protector (hogu), shin guards and wrist guards.
For coloured belts (below black belt), each match comprises of three rounds and each round lasts one minute with a 30 second interval between them. Black belt rounds last two minutes with a one minute interval in between. During a round, the action is non-stop and the judges score points according to the strength of the technique, its style and the point of contact. Punches to the head are banned, as are many types of jumping spinning kicks. Attacking below the waist or while a competitor is on the ground is not permitted. Illegal moves result in the perpetrators scores being annulled and can lead to disqualification. Points are award as follows:
- Kick to the trunk (hogu): One point.
- Kick to the face: Two Points.
- Knock-down with scored technique: Additional one point is added.
- Soft contact to the head or body: Zero points
The score is calculated from all three rounds. If any one competitor achieves a lead of seven points then the match is stopped and he is declared a winner. Likewise, if one Taekwondo competitor reaches twelve points, he is declared the winner. In the event of a three round ‘tie’, a fourth ‘sudden death’ round is fought, after a one minute rest.
ITF Sparring Rules
The ITF follow largely identical rules to the WTF with a few important differences. Punches to the head are allowed but no strikes whatsoever to the back of the head, jumping punches and kicks are scored more highly than their standing variations and the competition area is slightly smaller, measuring 9 metres squared. Competitors do not wear a torso protector but they must use official feet and hand protectors. Points are awarded as follows:
- Flying attack to the head or mid-section: One Point.
- Jumping hand attack to the mid-section: One Point.
- Foot attack to the mid-section: One Point.
- Perfect block: One Point.
- Kick to the head: Two Points.
- Flying hand attack to the head: Two Points.
- Flying kick to the head: Three Points.
Much like the WTF and Olympic rules, single points are deducted for attacking with the knees, elbows or forehead, extra heavy contact, loss of temper, or attacking a downed opponent.
Have a look at this video of ITF rules Taekwondo sparring to see the speed of high level Taekwondo kicks for yourself.
Taekwondo in MMA
There is a fifth arena where Taekwondo may be found in competition – Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Tournaments. MMA matches are brutal, all-out affairs where there are few rules and no safety equipment such as body protectors or head guards. Depending on the tournament, dangerous techniques such as knee strikes, headbutts, elbow strikes and throwing are all permitted. Some tournaments even permit kicking an opponent when he is down and mounting him to deliver successive blows to the face. MMA tournaments pit top fighters from various combat disciplines, such as Muay Thai, Karate and Chinese Sanda, against each other, with each one attempting to prove the superiority of their art in real combat.
As Taekwondo is essentially competing against martial artists of other styles, MMA is not considered a necessary part of the traditional Taekwondo syllabus. Furthermore, to survive in such competitions, Taekwondo practitioners may have to adopt techniques from other fighting styles such as Muay Thai leg blocks, western boxing style punches and Jiu-jitsu ground work. In tournaments that allow grappling on the ground any martial artist that does not how to grapple effectively will usually lose. As such, a Taekwondo practitioner adopting other styles becomes himself a Mixed Martial Artist.
Nevertheless, there are a few advanced Taekwondo practitioners who savour this form of combat and their Taekwondo techniques stand them in good stead. Axe kicks, spinning back fists and spinning hook kicks alone are notorious for delivering knock-out blows in a single strike. Modern day MMA champions who hold Dan grades in Taekwondo include Lukasz Jurkowski from Poland and Serkan Yilmaz of Turkey. Serkan is renowned for his alarmingly effective use of high risk spinning Taekwondo kicks with knock out results against experienced fighters. Have a look at this martial arts video to see Serkan in action.