If you think about it, one really only needs three or four solid techniques to be a good fighter. I could argue that a fighter skilled in a gyaku tzuki1, mae geri, mawashi geri, and a solid defensive move like uchi uke would be able to mop up the floor with the vast majority of the population. The UFC helps to perpetuate this notion, sport (WKF) karate only rewards a handful of techniques, even Daniel San won the All Valley Under 18 Karate Championships with, like, two moves.
So why do we bother to learn a vast and wide assortment of karate techniques – most of which seem out dated and obsolete? Well, one could simply revert back to the “it’s traditional; we are maintaining a tradition” argument. And that holds water but we must then ask why the old masters developed these techniques and passed them down in the first place.
I like to think of the great soccer (football for those not in North America) player: Pelé. The Brazilian superstar’s list of honours seems to go on forever. But what made him so good? All elite soccer players will have a command of the basics of the sport and Pelé was no exception. Command of the basics allow the players to control the ball, dictate the game, and score goals a lot of the time. What set Pelé apart was his mastery of all the odd little “trick” or seemingly useless moves that were perhaps only used once, if at all, in a soccer career. If a player found himself in a situation where the basic techniques could not be utilized, he would lose the ball, lose the opportunity to score, and game would continue. But since Pelé had such command of so many techniques, he could turn those seemingly hopeless situations into scoring opportunities.
You can read up on Pelé here.
The same logic applies to the martial arts. Three or four techniques can be used most of the time but what happens in a pinch where these techniques are neutralized? This is where the martial arts differ from soccer. In soccer, a scoring opportunity is lost but in martial arts, the consequences of not having the tools to handle oneself, even if it’s in a rare situation, can be dire. Well rounded karateka can specialize in reliable, “bread and butter” techniques but must have an arsenal of other tools at their disposal to be used when a situation dictates it.
So, why practice the odd, obscure techniques? To maintain the traditions, yes. But they might one day save your life.