When it comes to arguments on the Internet, nothing I’ve seen in the martial arts has spawned as much emotion and posturing as the debate over the effectiveness of certain martial arts systems for self defense. I’d like to throw my hat into the ring on the side of reason. Brace yourself, this is going to be a long post.

First, when I talk about self defense I am not speaking about any mutually agreed upon combat - including many bar-fights. I’m talking about a violent response to the threat of, or to actual, violence. Non-violent responses fall into a different categories, mitigation, avoidance, personal protection - etc. If there is no threat or actual violence then we are most likely talking about assault.

Self defense happens in many environments. Some martial artists, myself included, use the expression “on the street” to differentiate between the training environment and the rest of the world. Violent attack rarely mimics the movies.

In my experience, spanning nearly 3 decades, self defense effectiveness is far less about the art and far more about the artist. During a home invasion, my untrained 80 year-old uncle broke the nose of an attacker with a glass ashtray.  I know of no system that teaches an overhand ashtray strike.

My feeling is that any training is better than no training. I have heard the argument that certain training is bad because it encourages people to get themselves into trouble. Again, if you are out looking for trouble - this isn’t self defense.  If a little bit of training causes you to go do dangerous things - that is a defect in your mentality not a defect in your training.

No matter what the training, your first option should not be self defense, but escape or mitigation (unless you are in the military or law enforcement and that isn’t an option).

Are there certain ways of training that produce better results in preparing people for violent confrontation? Certainly - here are a few observations:

  1. The closer your training mimics the conditions you face in self defense, the better prepared you will be. It is impossible to replicate every condition, so getting close is good.
  2. Physical fitness is extremely helpful, but you must consider that you are probably more likely to be attacked when injured, sick, tired, or intoxicated, or old. Fitness is an edge but can’t be relied upon alone.
  3. Criminals do not follow any set of rules defined by any martial arts sports body. Training against dirty tricks is important. Training to use dirty tricks is also important.
  4. Many attacks will come from multiple armed opponents. Training that takes this into account will go farther.
  5. The old adage that all fights wind up on the ground is untrue - the two statistical studies I am aware of don’t prove this out. Sometimes one or more people involved in an attack wind up on the ground. You don’t want to be one of those people, but if you are you should know what to do there.
  6. While wrestling with an attacker, or engaging in a drawn out punching match, the attacker’s friends are sneaking up behind you with weapons.

Arguing style vs. style is old and tiring. I am reminded of old kung fu movies like “Dragon vs. Snake”. Could a really good Tae Kwon Do guy beat up a really good MMA guy? Depends on each person. And, this will be a fight, not an act of self defense.

The outcome of any self defense situation is depending on factors including (but not limited to):

  • Physical and mental state of all parties
  • Environment, including weather, temperature, lighting, surface area, objects in the space, proximity
  • The awareness of the intended victim
  • Surprize caused by the attack
  • Training of all parties, what objects they are carrying, what clothing they are wearing
  • The intention of the attack (is it to injure, rob, scare, kill?)
  • Dumb luck (the “someone stepped on a banana-peel” effect)
  • Intervention by third parties

All interactions are complex, instances of self defense are no different.

I’d like to see an end to such arguments on the Internet and elsewhere, but I don’t think it’s coming any time soon. There’s just too much ego. Get over your need to be a badass and train, just train, whatever the art. Train hard, train your mental state, train honestly.

Category : martial arts / self defense

6 Responses to “Self Defense vs. MMA vs. Traditional Martial Arts”

Tim June 30, 2009

Now that is one of the few blogs that have actually kept it real and concise. Thank you for reaffirming what I teach. It’s not the style its the stylist, it’s the instruction, its the heart and mind of the attacker/attacked and realizing how bad you want to live.
I’ve trained in all three aspects and I gotta say no one group or section has all the answers but cross training in all three and keeping your head on straight surely gives you a great advantage.

Louis M Pontillo June 30, 2009

And there my friends are words of wisdom.

Shawn Call June 30, 2009

I agree with you, John. I teach Hapkido strictly for self-defense. The only trophies we take home are bloody noses, broken bones and scars. I’ve had this discussion with others many times before, but I like how you put it. I tell people that you can either study a martial art for sport or for self-defense. It’s apples and oranges and you have to decide why you want to study a martial art. Wrestling or grappling on the ground with one guy while 2 or 3 of his friends kick you from above is not advisable.

I remember one guy asking me if we used a Gi/Dobak in our training and I said yes. He proceeded to tell me how he trained without a shirt in a cage and that he would simply choke me out in a fight. He didn’t like the fact that we trained \cheap shots\ also, but since it was a friendly discussion (in church of all places), I asked him how often he walked around on the street and running errands without his shirt on… which he didn’t like, of course, but it got my point across.

If I had a student in the ring, of course they wouldn’t wear a uniform and they would shave their body and maybe even not shower for a day or two beforehand, as well ; ), but I would also hope that they’d beat their opponent and get disqualified in the first round for excessive use of force.

I’ve always enjoyed telling the story of one of our instructors, back in the early 90’s, who practiced Kenpo as a sport to score points and win competitions. But, like most of us, when he got into a high-adrenaline situation, his motor-skills finesse broke down and he reverted back to habit and what he practiced on a day-to-day basis. Well one night a big guy in a black hoody stepped out of the shadows and demanded his wallet. He gave the big guy a lighting fast tap to the head with his foot. After which the big guy pummeled him to the ground. That’s when he started taking Hapkido and studying martial arts for self-defense.

Every once in a while, we’ll take the rules for UFC fighting, of what they can’t or shouldn’t do and train exactly how to do those moves and techniques. I first teach avoidance of a fight or dangerous situation, the ABCDE’s Awareness, balance, control, distance, evasion. I’m also a firm believer that a true master should be able to end a conflict, against an untrained opponent, with one kick, punch or technique. Because when it comes to self-defense \vale tudo\ (anything goes). Don’t agree to any rules, unless it’s some friendly sparring, of course. Granted, you should use the appropriate force needed for the situation, but like I mentioned previously, I like the way you outlined it, John.

One more thing to add, my master (who trained under the grandmaster) is the POST instructor at the police academy. He once asked a room full of police officers, about 500, by the show of hands how many had been in fights. To which nearly all of them raised their hands. Then he asked how many of those who raised their hands, ended up on the ground, during one of those fights. Only 12 raised their hands. I agree with you that it is incorrect to say that most fights end up on the ground, but I think the important thing to mention is the definition of ground-fighting. Ground-fighting is if one or both combatants ends up on the ground. I think people are just unaware of the definition of ground-fighting and think of it as both combatants wrestling/grappling on the ground, which is incorrect. However, most fights do end up with one combatant on the ground ; ). That’s my two cents.

Ted Dinwiddie June 30, 2009


I like and agree with what you say here. I prefer the traditional approach simply because it encompasses so many aspects of life and I enjoy it. But, having said that, any art that a person practices with seriousness and dedication is a good art. It’s about the practice.

Which brings me to your post: I feel the intensity of one’s practice and the mindset developed by that intensity is what will, in the end, give the best chance to prevail. The old adage “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” bears a ring of truth.

Thanks for posting.

Dave B July 2, 2009

This is refreshing. Defending your life is far different than defending against a simulation. Just ask anyone in military special ops. The training,conditioning and learning curve all apply. Having roots in traditional training and using a “system” have benefits in reaction and timing but nothing prepares you for the true chaos of a real life battlefield. Long before I had trained my instincts in a bar or street fight saved me. Consequently my lack of awareness in another situation almost cost me my life and sent me towards the martial arts world. I learned several rules that I live by. Avoid the situation through awareness and if I’m in a situation I’m the one who gets to live regardless of the consequences. The rules are there are no rules in real life combat.

Michael Clifford July 17, 2009

John, this is a well thought out, well written post.

I agree that it is not the style it is what you bring in to your training in that style; and your reason for training in that system.

Thanks for a refreshing post