ISelf Defense vs. Martial Arts

Self Defense vs. Martial Arts

It’s a question that comes up quite frequently: Can you defend yourself against someone who is bigger and stronger? And: How important is size and strength in martial arts? The answer requires a bit of a breakdown:

1. Don’t confuse sport with self defense. Combat sports like MMA, boxing, and wrestling have weight classes for very good reasons. Being larger and stronger offers distinct advantages to punching power, grappling ability, and reach.

However, combat sports are not self defense. They are pre-arranged fights, within a controlled environment, with specific goals, and specific rules. Generally combative athletes train and condition specifically for these fights. In Sumo (pictured left) the goals are to knock the opponent out of the ring or to force him or her to touch the ground with a body-part other than the feet. Having a great deal of body-weight makes it more difficult for an opponent to move you. I can’t imagine a 700 pound Sumo wrestler doing well in a Tae Kwon Do point sparring match.

Contrast combat sports with self defense. Generally you will be unprepared, it won’t be pre-arranged. There may by multiple opponents and weapons in an uncontrolled environment. Running away may be your best option. There are no rules. The tactics that are the most effective actually have a higher chance of causing injury – but would be illegal in sport.

2. Fitness provides a self defense advantage. Strength, speed, dexterity, balance, flexibility all provide self defense advantages. Endurance is extremely important for running away, or surviving a physical attack. However, these things alone cannot be relied upon. Here are some reasons why:

  • You may need to defend yourself  when you are sick or injured.
  • You may need to defend yourself against someone who is larger, stronger, and faster than you are.
  • You may need to defend yourself against a weapon – you are not faster or stronger than a bullet.
  • You may want to be able to defend yourself when you’re 90.

3. Self defense is about escape, not beating up your opponent. For civilians, self defense is about 1 thing only: escape. A few years ago, Boston had a serial rapist running around it’s North End. I spoke to a police captain in the area and he told me that the perpetrator ran away at the first sign of resistance, and that included simply screaming. One woman got away after stomping on his foot and screaming.

None of these scenarios involved a toe-to-toe fist-fight. Yes, there are attackers who are more persistent, but this is where training comes in. Putting the emphasis on escape means that you train to survive. It means you can use whatever force (from none to lethal) required by the situation. You can use improvised or actual weapons, you can run, you can scream, you can poke an attacker in the eye.

The majority of people I speak to get their complete understanding of self-defense from TV and movies. Most of the time it’s completely unrealistic.

My sensei was asked once, “what would you do in a fight against Royce Gracie?” His answer, “I don’t know, probably take out my knife and stick it in him.” The person was appalled, but my sensei’s answer was wise as he explained: Since I don’t train for sport and have no beef with Royce, the only reason I would be in a fight with him would be if he was threatening my life or the life of my family. If that were the case, then there are no rules and I would use whatever means necessary. However, the scenario is very unlikely since Royce is, by all accounts, a very nice guy.

This question, and one’s like it are the product of a lazy thinking paradigm. It goes back to the whole, “who would win in a fight, Bruce Lee or Batman?” silliness that surrounds martial arts discussion boards and magazines. People are looking for easy answers: If I can bench-press 300 pounds, nobody can defeat me. Nothing in self-defense is ever that simple.

There’s no secret to effective self defense, but here are some essentials:

  • Awareness of your surroundings will mitigate most issues before they arise
  • Train honestly and build your tactical repertoire based on large muscle movements
  • Don’t escalate verbal assaults unless you believe there is absolutely no other way
  • Escape
  • Build good muscle memory by practicing at variable speeds (slow for learning, medium for practice)


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