Why train for Self Defense?
One of the longest ongoing debates in the Martial Arts world is the relative effectiveness of all the various martial arts disciplines in a street fight or self defense scenario. Everything from Kung Fu and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu to western style boxing and Muay Thai kickboxing have claimed to provide real solutions to life threatening situations. In fact the very first UFC was supposed to answer this age-old question by pitting style vs. style in an attempt to crown the best and most “realistic” martial art.
First I think its important to define the difference between a combat sport and a self defense scenario. A combat sport has clearly defined rules, with consensual participants and safety measures in effect to prevent serious injury. Self defense, on the other hand, can mean many different things to different people. A bar room brawl, a drunk uncle at a family reunion, an aggressive boyfriend, or a more sinister predator on the street can all represent a self defense scenario. To put it more simply effective self defense is the ability to keep yourself safe in any real world encounter without the safety nets of combat sports in place to protect you.
One of the fastest growing and most popular martial arts in the world is Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. It has been on the rise since Royce Gracie demonstrated its effectiveness in the very first UFC, and you still see modern MMA fighters basing a great deal of their ground fighting techniques on BJJ. However, as effective as BJJ can be it also ignores some crucial components of a street fight. For instance in scenarios on the street which involve striking, weapons or multiple attackers it would not be wise to put yourself on the ground underneath your attacker(s).
What is concerning is that most people feel that all martial arts are created equal in terms of accomplishing the goal self defense. While I agree that any training is better than none, and that being physically fit will help in a fight, there are still big gaps and key components which are missing. If you took an athlete who had only ever competed in western style boxing, a martial art which expressly forbids grappling, and entered them into a grappling based competition like wrestling or Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, they would not enjoy any kind of success. Of course their fitness might help a small amount, but a boxer has never prepared for that specific situation and they would be hard pressed to perform effectively in that environment. Or, to look at the other end of the spectrum, we can look at the recent super fight boxing match between Connor McGreggor and Floyd Mayweather. Despite having an extensive background in Mixed Martial Arts, and being the younger, stronger and fitter athlete, it was clear that Mr. McGreggor was at a serious disadvantage competing in boxing against an opponent who had only ever worked in that specific rule set. Everything else being equal it will always be the person who has spent more time drilling, working and training for a specific scenario who will come out victorious.
So there is clearly an advantage to training specifically for a street scenario. Does that mean that there is a black magic secret that will allow you to emerge untouched from any violent confrontation? Of course not; any instructor who claims to have a quick fix is at best delusional and at worst a conman looking to take advantage of unsuspecting customers.
One of the real advantages of situational and realistic training is becoming aware of the reality of violence in the real world. That isn’t to say that an effective self defense program ignores other martial arts, quite the opposite: an effective self defense program will use anything that is applicable from other arts. Learning which techniques will translate well from combat sports to combat, and which are better to be discarded. Understanding how to throw an effective punch is obviously important, and studying boxing to learn those mechanics is an effective use of your time. However, a self defence student will need to take those mechanics and apply them in a larger strategic framework that will be fundamentally different from a boxer. A boxer competes in a series of three minute rounds against a single opponent of the same weight with a limited rule set. The average street fight lasts just 40 seconds and has many other concerns to address. The strategy will be different.
The reason it is important to think about this, and to discuss it amongst martial artists openly without feeling challenged or undermined, is that combat athletes often think they will be “fine in a fight.” But what does that mean? Are they confident they could deal with striking and grappling? Multiple attackers and weapons? What about uneven or dangerous terrain? If your goal is self defense and you are not addressing the variables you will see on the street you are setting yourself up to fail in an environment that does not forgive mistakes lightly.