Jhoon Rhee

The first ‘Safe-T Face’ karate helmet on the market was produced by Jhoon Rhee in 1974.

Head protectors for martial arts such as Karate and Taekwondo are more often called helmets because some of them are used in combination with face masks similar to a motor cycle helmet. Martial arts headgear consists of dipped foam rubber. The latex based material feels very soft and absorbs light blows very effectively. In brand new condition it is also able to withstand a small amount of strikes with medium intensity. The material looses its ability to recover after it has been exposed to hard strikes or a certain amount of medium powered impacts.
Since traditional martial arts from Japan and Korea are non-contact or light contact sports karate helmets are just designed for occasional hits. Another purpose is to soften the impact of a fall when a practitioner hits his head on the floor after being knocked out by a head kick. Those helmets were not designed to withstand multiple blows from different directions like in boxing. Karate helmets easily slide off and impair sight. They are not recommended for boxing.

The first martial arts headgear was designed and manufactured by Korean-American Taekwondo Grandmaster John Rhee. He was also the inventor of the first safety gear for sport karate. His safety kicks and punches enabled martial artists of all styles to compete in fights with full contact. Boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard used his headgear for training in the mid 80ies. He liked the soft material that allowed him to train while suffering from facial injuries.

Jhoon Rhee karate helmet

Sugar Ray Leonard using a Jhoon Rhee karate helmet made of soft dip foam material as legendary coach Angelo Dundee looks on.

The first time karate helmets were used in professional fighting was in Paris in 1976 when a squad of the best American kickboxers competed in a fullcontact event against top fighters from Europe including Frenchman Dominique Valera. The event was over-shadowed by the headgear’s lack of stability as it slipped off of the fighters heads more than a few times.

Jhoon Rhee was granted a US patent for his ground breaking invention: US3934271A.
The face mask and headgear were of such importance to the American People that an item is exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art.

Today, karate helmets are mainly used in Taekwondo and children’s karate classes. Compared to boxing products karate gear is rather cheap to produce and to prchase. Prices start at 30 US$. Distributors include companies like Kwon, Century, Mudo, Adidas, Wesing and Macho. Some manufacturers offer add-on equipment such as steel bars and transparent face masks for attachment to the front of the gear. It is mainly used for self defense simulations.

Japanese Karate Helmets

Many alternative solutions were sought after in the creation of better and more durable helmets for the martial arts. Japanese engineers tried manufacturing inflatable head guards. The air-filled transparent helmets were tested during national competition in 1983. The experiment was cancelled after it failed to impress at the All Tokyo Championships in 1983. The protector encouraged participants to hit harder and injuries were not prevented.

made in Japan

An inflatable karate helmet from Japan.

There were other experiments with air-filled paddings by manufacturers from France in the coming years. They all failed. Air dampens soft strikes well, but once the cushioning containment has reached its flexibility limits it either allows the full force of the blow to make impact or the containment field bursts if the material lacks flexibility as the air has nowhere to escape.

Categories: Sparring

1 Comment

Tony · 2019-10-10 at 1:39 pm

No or Light? I thnk you are mistaking Karate and TKD with American Kenpo. Usually for safety Karate and TKD allow full body contact and light to mid contact to the head for black belts in tournaments. Full contact is common as adrenaline and ego’s get involved. As they do stop for points, some people consider this non-contact as you are not getting as pummeled as in Kickboxing or boxing. Only Kyokushin runs continuous full contact tournaments under the name Karate. In Class TKD and Japanese/Okinawan Karate’s often practice continuous with heavy contact. There are some newer Karate groups that only run full contact continuous, but they are not the norm. American Kenpo pushed to be the Soccer mom style because that’s where the money is. As a result most (not all) practice no or very light contact in class and tournaments. The reason I can to this site was to see if you had compared karate helmets to boxing ones for safety. While the Karate ones tend to fall apart after a few contact matches, I tend to think they absorb more than the boxing ones and put less strain on your neck allowing you to take more hits longer. Granted I dont have a lot of boxing helmet experience in comparison (in over 30 years maybe 1 out of 100 times I wear a boxing helmet , 75/100 a karate one and 24 / 100 no helmet at all.

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