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There is no terribly novel material here; chiefly I write this little essay in order to have a fixed location to refer back to when, in the course of some argument on other over on Bullshido.net, I have to reiterate what I have said before (considering the length of this, I think excerpts will be called for). (It should also be mentioned that much of my thinking on the subject has been very directly inspired by posters on that website.) That said, on to the meat.

Contents

Goals

Any fruitful discussion on what's good or useful must explicitly state the goals for which these values are evaluated. This discussion assumes that the goal of martial arts is to attain real fighting skills, primarily in terms of real self defence. If your goal in martial arts is strictly exercise, or strictly fun, or perhaps Japanese historical re-enactment, then my criteria and arguments do not apply. To someone whose primary motivation is aesthetic appeal, a Tai Chi master is a better example than a UFC champion.

Self defence

I should also mention—though I hope I do not have to!—that martial arts should never be anyone's first line of self defence. Rather, a sensible strategy might look something like, in order of importance,

  1. Don't live in a dangerous area
  2. Don't go into dangerous areas
  3. Don't walk around alone
  4. Work on talk and avoidance skills
  5. Carry a gun
  6. Carry a Taser or can of Mace
  7. Learn to run really, really fast
  8. Learn a suitable martial art

None of these are exclusive, of course; in particular, martial arts is best combined with running away really fast after incapacitating an opponent, before he can recover.

Personally, I practice martial arts for a number of reasons; primarily, exercise, for fun, and to boost my self confidence—rationally, I know that I am not great at any martial art and may never be able to confidently defend myself against even a single, unarmed attacker, let alone a pair of muggers with knives—but it makes me feel less paranoid (hopefully without robbing me of appropriate caution!). However, if my chosen physical hobby is to be martial arts, I would feel like I were missing an important piece if I didn't also gain some real fighting skills; much as if, were I to shoot guns for fun, it would feel rather odd always to fire blanks or never aim for actual targets, even if were the bang and the smell of gunpowder that I really liked.

The rest of this essay deals with martial arts as self defence, not because I think it is the superior option—if you are in a physical altercation, your primary levels of self defence have already failed—but because this non-ideal level is the subject of many common errors and misunderstandings.

Premises and definitions

First, let us forcibly divide martial arts into two categories (acknowledging that borderline cases will have to be evaluated suitably): Combat sports, and all the rest. By combat sports I mean any martial arts that (1) contain competition as an important element, and (2) compete in full-contact fighting events.

By full-contact, I do not mean anything-goes type events; I just mean that, within the limitations of the ruleset at hand, competitors are not required to pull punches or execute their techniques carefully; nor is there a co-operative element. Judo contains no strikes and has strict limitations, but is full-contact by this definition (a judo player does his very best to throw his opponent); the kind of karate tournaments I have participated in do not (because contact was extremely limited). We might, very loosely, say that if the contest is always decided by the referees, it probably isn't full-contact, whereas if there is a completely ojective way for it to end—by knockout, TKO, submission, choke to unconsciousness, etc.—it is.

If you are thinking of practicing a martial art, and are wondering what to practice, what does this mean for you? If you want to compete, the choice is obvious: Go for a combat sport, because that's how you get to compete. But what if you don't particularly feel like taking part in any tournaments? I myself don't, but my answer will be the same: Go for a combat sport. In other words, even if you won't compete, you should train with competitors. Why?

Some of the answers to this question are rather façile (You learn by doing, etc.), and though there's a fair degree of truth to them, it's only fair that I look at least a little deeper. Detractors of combat sports tend to raise arguments that fall roughly under the umbrella of one of the following three:

Common arguments

  1. We already do the same style of training. What would we gain by competing?
  2. It's just not necessary to compete, or do that style of training. Our drills suffice.
  3. Our techniques—eye-gouging, knee-stomping, elbow-snapping locks—are too dangerous to be allowed in competition.
    1. …We don't compete because we wouldn't be allowed to.
    2. …By practicing a combat sport, you will condition yourself not to use these brutally effective techniques. Thus, it's not just that combat sports aren't better; compared to our practice, they make you less able to defend yourself.

The above are more or less organised in the order of ascending notoriety, with 3b being the worst argument of the bunch. The answers, point by point, are as follows:

Responses to common arguments

  1. We already do the same style of training. What would we gain by competing?

    Well, this isn't so bad. The same style of training means that you already spar in class without unnecessary restrictions. The problem is that you lack exposure to other practitioners of your art, or other arts. This means that although it may be that you can hold your own against your club mates, you could have a glaring weakness—only because you practice against people with the same blind spot, it is never exposed.

    Contrast this to something like Brazilian jiu-jitsu: Not only do my club mates compete against people from other BJJ clubs; they also have to contend with people in tournaments who have extensive backgrounds in judo or wrestling (or perhaps less common arts like SAMBO). If they have glaring holes in their games, they will soon be found and capitalised on by people who want to win; the holes will be plugged, or we will have a losing club.

    In other words, you may have a good skill set, but how do you know? Unless your skills are tested in competition, it's impossible to tell whether you really are good or whether you just haven't been seriously challenged.

  2. It's just not necessary to compete, or do that style of training. Our drills suffice.

    The same problem as above applies—How do you know?—but is further compounded by the fact that you're vastly likely to be dead wrong. Anyone who has done even light-contact sparring can tell you that the psychology of training changes entirely when you have to worry not about your training partner scoring a point by pulling a punch next to your face, but about him actually hitting your face.

    Training that's centered on drills tends to lack a lot of elements of proper training, such as free motion, or suffer from downright stupid rules like stopping a sparring match every time contact is made. Not every blow is a fight-ender; karate people may talk about ikken hissatsu (one hit, one kill), but since history shows that bare-knuckle boxing fights could run over 150 rounds(!), this is clearly not realistic. (And let me not do my old karate instructors injustice: If anyone mentioned it, it was a metaphor to illustrate commitment to an attack, not a literal belief in the deadliness of our strikes.)

    It may sound brutal, but the simple truth is that if your training does not include a few bruises and contusions, and continuing uninterrupted in spite thereof, you are not prepared for real-world violence.

  3. Our techniques—eye-gouging, knee-stomping, elbow-snapping locks—are too dangerous to be allowed in competition.

    Now we're drifting into the territory of the idiotic. I hope I have convinced you, the reader, that if you do not practice with some contact, you will be even less prepared to execute any high-precision strikes to vital points.

    By the way, whenever anyone says that their response to full mount and ground-and-pound tactics would be to reach up and gouge the aggressor's eyes with his thumbs, be aware of this: In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, we refer to this reaching up (for whatever reason) as giving up your arm.

    1. …We don't compete because we wouldn't be allowed to.

      This is a poor excuse. If you can't hit a largish target, like somebody's face, with a jab, what makes you think you can hit a tiny target, like an eye, with your thumb, so quickly that your opponent will not have time to react and break your fingers off? By all means advocate nasty, brutal techniques for self-defence, if you will (anyone who assaults or attempts to rape somebody deserves to be brutalised), but don't pretend that you actually know how to fight if you haven't trained for it.

    2. By practicing a combat sport, you will condition yourself not to use these brutally effective techniques. Thus, it's not just that combat sports aren't better; compared to our practice, they make you less able to defend yourself.

      True, a boxer may be so used to simply hitting people on the button with his fist that he just doesn't think of poking their eyes in a real altercation. However, he will be good at punching people in the face, having practiced it seriously, and learned to do it even to people who are actively trying not to get punched in the face.

      Meanwhile, the people who advocate just eye-pokes and groin strikes will not have practiced their techniques in an alive manner—how could they, without seriously injuring their training partners on a regular basis? If your argument against boxing is that you will fight the way you train (i.e., without the nasty techniques), then how much more does that argument apply to you?—that is, pulling techniques short, not being prepared to apply them against serious resistance…

Combat sports for self defence

All right, that was in a sense a very long digression, addressing what may seem like hypothetical arguments (though I assure you, in various fora they are—alas!—anything but hypothetical). Back to the earlier question: Why do I assert that combat sports are superior to other, perhaps more traditional forms of martial arts, as self defence? —Not least when karate and Tae Kwon Do advertise themselves as arts of self defence, and many combat sports do not!

Actually, I hope I have already answered this question. Practicing a combat sport will make you a better fighter, and being a better fighter will help you in the unlikely and terrible event that you get involved in a physical altercation. Do you really think that learning three ways to escape from collar grabs and six ways to break a wrist grip, or eight Aikido throws to toss someone who runs blindly at you with a swinging overhand blow, will help you more in an assault situation than a year's worth of boxing?

Why you should train with competitors

Especially if you are primarily looking for self defence, argument 1 above may still look somewhat compelling, and maybe I haven't convinced you. If you don't compete, don't you fall into the same trap as people who train in clubs that don't compete at all? And if you'll fall into that trap regardless, why bother going to a club that trains competitors?

This is not so. I do expect that people who compete end up better for it, and I'd urge you to try it out—I haven't yet, but I plan to. However, if you train in a club that trains competitors, you know that you are getting training that produces competitors. If you train in a good club, you know that you are getting the same training that produces winners. It's true that if you're skipping the competitions, you are missing part of what made them winners, but you are still receiving the same type of instruction from the same coach.

Again, I've never yet competed in jiu-jitsu and will almost certainly never compete in kickboxing (maybe I'm too much of a pansy; getting punched hard in the face scares me). However, because my kickboxing coach has competed, I know that he has the kind of skills that can be put in the ring. Because my jiu-jitsu instructor not only competes, but also produces students who compete successfully, I know that I receive training good enough to put winners on the mats (Tim can both do and teach). Competitive pressure prevents the teaching from getting inbred: If Tim's students all had a hole in their game, it would be found and exploited at open tournaments, and presumably fixed. (Whether I will ever be good enough to place in a tournament is, of course, very debatable, but I have solid evidence that I'm at least getting good training—the rest is up to me.)

It's been said before on the the Bullshido fora: Whether you ever plan to compete enough, only by practicing with people who do compete can you be sure of receiving instruction good enough for competitors.

A final point to address is, of course, Which art is for me? I should make it very clear that I'm no kind of authority on the subject, but I will lay out both my reasoning and my conclusions and you may decide whether you agree with me or not.

Effective martial arts for women

It is my understanding that women, much more than men, need to be concerned with being grabbed. The statistics I have found all suggest that a woman assaulted by a man almost certainly will be grabbed, particularly if no weapon is involved; often, she may be grabbed before she realises that anything is about to happen.

This makes answering the question pretty simple: A woman who wishes to learn effective self defence in the form of martial arts should choose an art that teaches her to deal with grabs and grappling. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is an excellent example, focusing on ground grappling. Judo is a similar art, which focuses more heavily on the standup phase of combat (throws) and less on the ground grappling. It does have the advantage of being cheaper (Brazilian jiu-jitsu instruction is usually expensive). The Russian art of SAMBO also garners a great deal of respect, as does ordinary Western wrestling. Japanese ju-jutsu schools are more of a mixed bag; competition is typically not encouraged, which is a definite disadvantage.

Another advantage of grappling arts over striking is that, apart from throws, they are quite safe. While some—chiefly beginners—tend to go a bit too fast and rough, the nature of grappling arts makes it possible to go hard and go seriously and still cause no actual injury. Once your opponent has you in a solid choke hold, or armbar, or whatever the technique may be, you just tap three times—and voilà; you're free. Unlike a boxing class, you don't need to take any punches to the face (though you'll definitely develop a few bruises).

It seems clear, from personal experience, that many women find the notion of practicing grappling arts unappealing; and yes, you really would have to grapple and roll around with sweaty men, some of them quite large, and—in spite of the very best of hygiene—some rather smelly due to the aforementioned sweat. This is indisputably true; I can only say that this aspect doesn't appeal to me, either, but all the rest of it makes it worth it. I also want to reassure the reader that I have never encountered a grappler who finds anything sexual about it, no matter how some detractors may portray it. I do not consider myself less libidonous than the next guy, but a woman's legs around me lose all their erotic potential when they are in the process of painfully choking me unconscious or slowly pulling my shoulder out of its socket. Training is training. Additionally, a commonly feared assault scenario of women is to be tackled to the ground (perhaps by a previously unseen attacker) in a rape attempt; being able to outwrestle large men, dislocating or fracturing their limbs, and choking them unconscious, seems like abilities tailor-made to address this form of self defence.

You might also be well served by working your way through this message board thread, which discusses the subject of women's self defence. Some of what I have written here, I wrote there first.

Effective martial arts for men

In fights between men, the statistics suggest that such fights often begin with punches. The advantage of grappling arts is less clear-cut; however, common wisdom (for whatever it's worth!) dictates that most fights go to the ground at some point. Additionally, both common wisdom and events like the early UFC have shown that in a fight between a pure grappler and a pure striker, grapplers tend to win. (Balanced training is, of course, always superior.) I have no conclusions to offer; do what appeals to you, but do not underestimate grappling arts. Brazilian jiu-jitsu, judo, SAMBO, and wrestling are still great; arts like boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, and San Shou are perhaps more useful for men than they are for women.

Effective martial arts for everyone

The most complete training anyone will get, man or woman, is found in mixed martial arts. A good MMA gym will teach you to deal with all ranges of combat.

Date: 2009-02-25 01:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] slideyfoot (from livejournal.com)
Nicely done: gives me another good link to recommend in the FAQ (http://slideyfoot.blogspot.com/2006/10/bjj-beginner-faq.html). Glad you mentioned it in that Newbietown thread (http://petter-haggholm.livejournal.com/106776.html). :)

Interesting article

Date: 2009-08-29 05:33 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I'd mention that another good art in addition to the striking arts you mentioned would be Wing Tsun and in particular the EBMAS brnach. We have a complete system and compete regularly in chi sao and push hands competitions to keep our skills sharp.

Anyway, good article and just wanted to chime in on a style you might have forgotten to mention.

Date: 2009-08-29 05:52 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] petter-haggholm.livejournal.com
Chi Sao is not sparring. I gather, in fact, that it’s quite useless. Push-hands competitions may or may not count for sparring, but is certainly a very limited context, either way. Wing Tsun purports to be a striking system: Do you participate in full-contact striking competitions, such as Lei Tai, Sanshou, or kickboxing tournaments? If so, props to your school; if not, well, no props.

Wing Tsun (and related arts: Wing Chun, Ving Tsun, Wing Tsjun…Chunners seem to prefer to change transliteration after political splits) is generally not held in high regard, as practitioners tend not to practice heavy contact sparring, nor participate in real competitions; furthermore, an awful lot of weight seems to be given to useless theorising, compliant drills, and impractical issues such as chi sao and the ‘trapping range’.

I didn’t mention the style—but not because I forgot.

Date: 2009-08-30 02:56 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I htink you am being trolled, Petter :P

Date: 2009-08-30 06:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] petter-haggholm.livejournal.com
I think so, too; but as I like to send people hither who have little to no knowledge of martial arts, I want a serious refutal, all the same.

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Petter Häggholm

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