I'm not saying it isn't fun, skillful, or martial, I am just saying it isn't true martial art. And let me tell you why...
Well first, let me tell you a story.
The Naval Academy Karate Team came to our ERKC this year and did an amazing job. If you were to imagine the type of group that would be welcome at any tournament, they would be it. Athletic, talented, humble, and intelligent. To give you an example, a yellow belt won the Kata and Fighting in the Women's White to Blue division. (Neglecting that she supposedly had dan rank in another art, she still was competing in the correct division based on my observation of her skills.)
Now here is where I come in. I fought one of their Yudanja in the Heavyweight division. He was a good fighter and tall like me. I'm not used to kicking against someone who is just as tall as me, so it was an interesting experience. He was up in points, 2-0, after he head kicked me. I wasn't getting my distances right, so I decided to use my hands. I scored with two 1 point hand techniques in two exchanges.
It was 2-2 when I fought dirty. I was getting anxious. I hadn't planned to lose in the sparring division, it has been a few years since that happened... So maybe my hubris was getting to me. Interestingly, when I switched my style to "hands", I was fighting a very different style than I normally compete with. In fact, I don't really drill my hands in sparring much; I am much more of a Kata exponent than a fighter. So the main information I pick up for hand techniques is from my Kata.
It seems you CAN actually learn to spar from Kata :)
So HOW did I fight dirty?
Now, this wasn't a conscious thought or intended action, but I used my right hand to grab onto his Dobak and punched him with my left.
That's not very sportsmanlike is it? (No Fezzik, it isn't...) In fact, that may not match your view of Karate at all.
While the legality of the move is questionable (according to one Kodanja, one hit while holding the Gi/Dobak is fine...) the intent is obviously outside the realm of Sport Karate.
But I am pretty sure it was awesome traditional karate. Real karate isn't about sport, but about putting the smackdown on anyone who would intrude on your individual safety. The Japanese call the grabbing/holding hand action "Hikite" in Kata. Every time we do a basic move, our non-striking hand is pulled back to the hip. Why? Shouldn't we be guarding against the next strike? Well yes, you should.... UNLESS: you are gripping a soft, fleshy spot on their body, pull them off balance and beat the living crap out of them. Then you don't have to worry about blocking.
For example look at the 4th and 5th sequences of Gojushiho:
During those sequences, the artists sweeps the hand in front with a clearing motion, a GREAT chance to cling on to something. Pull them into you, punch them a few times, kick them, and then punch them again (This version, while labled Dai, is the JKA Sho version). In the JKA Dai version, the kick is retracted backwards, in the JKA sho version, the kick extends forward with the body weight. In the Dai version, the kick would be lower on the leg while holding the attacker, destroying their base, while the hikite hand pulls them towards you as you punch in the head. The Sho version has you smashing their knee while driving through them.
Establishing control of your opponent is the first step in dominating a confrontation. Sport karate establishes that control as distancing and timing. Adding drills to practice physical controls can build strength, tactical awareness, and conflict based confidence and bring you closer to the true nature of Karate.