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Maai (literally: “interval / distance”) is the engagement distance between you and the opponent. While it is defined by the amount of physical space between you and your opponent, it also must consider the time needed to traverse that distance. Maai ultimately dictates which techniques can be used, so whoever controls the distance controls the fight.

Boundaries are determined by the length of your reach, and by your opponent’s reach. You must train with a variety of opponents to be able to quickly discern these different boundaries, and adjust yourself accordingly. The chart and diagram below are general guidelines which assumes that 1 leg’s length ≈ 2 arm’s lengths, which is true for most people. However, only practice can tell you where the maai is truly at.

Fighting Ranges
Range Distance (in arm lengths) Japanese Name Slang Name
Long distance > 2 Tōma
Middle distance 1-2 Chūma "The Pocket"
Short distance < 1 Chikama "The Clinch"

Closing the Distance

At long ranges (> 2 arm’s lengths, or > 1 leg’s length), you cannot attack until you “close the distance” and enter a more favorable range. Doing this is tricky, because it heavily depends on timing. Closing the distance works best when either the opponent is rechambering a kick, or was rotated or off-balanced from one of your blocks, buying the time you need to double step in.

Alternately, you can initiate a series of attacks with a space-consuming technique, like:

Considerable practice is needed to avoid telegraphing these long-range attacks -- that goes without saying -- if cannot do simple things well, then you were doomed from the beginning.

The Pocket

Having an opponent “in the pocket” (i.e., 1-2 arm’s lengths away) places them in-range of most kicks, and one step (i.e., a 7-3) away from punching/striking range. Most of the action takes place inside the pocket.

Tall people have a natural “reach advantage” in karate. Tall people have longer arms and legs, which encloses a larger circle than that of a shorter person. Because of this difference in “wingspan,” there exists a small region where pockets do not overlap, and a tall person can safely attack shorter people, while being out of range of their techniques, as demonstrated by the video below. Shorter or stockier people can still become excellent karateka, but they must become extremely good at closing the distance.

Lone Starr holds a reach advantage over the shorter Dark Helmet. Because Dark Helmet did not close the distance to compensate for their height mismatch, Dark Helmet is now inside Lone Starr's pocket, and his big Schwartz remains out of range.

The Clinch

"The clinch” refers distances less than your arm’s reach away, where you can grab your opponent without reaching. Most punches and kicks are jammed up and are rendered ineffective or impossible in the clinch, so specialized strikes must be used instead. Takedowns, wrestling, and grappling moves are only possible from the cinch. There is no room to think inside the clinch; you must act immediately, because your opponent will.

Karateka with stocky body types are more successful once they close the distance and enter the clinch, because taller fighters are more prone to takedowns, and they lose their reach advantage in this region. Most of a taller fighter’s techniques will be jammed, so they must evade or retreat to reclaim the maai.

The following techniques work well in the clinch: