Being able to defend yourself is a skill that for some reason, isn’t taught by default in the USA. Isn’t that strange? What could be more important than preserving your own life? Whatever the reason for neglecting it, this skill is important. I don’t think anyone’s personal vision of Arete includes being pushed around by bullies.
There is a slight difference between self defense and martial arts that we should make note of. My experience has been that programs that advertise themselves as self defense rather than martial arts teach a limited curriculum; the idea being to make what’s being taught simple enough for someone to learn quickly and without dedicating years of study. These courses are a good place to get started, as (if it’s a good program) you will get a lot of usable techniques in a short time.
Martial arts, on the other hand, are systems of fighting that take much longer to learn and often include physical conditioning. Traditional martial arts include Karate, Kung Fu, Boxing, Muay Thai, and many other disciplines. Although all martial arts can be used for self defense, you should be warned about sport versions. Many martial arts schools teach students to fight for sport: in a match with an opponent where both fighters follow strict rules. On the streets, there are no rules, so sports versions of martial arts do not work as well. If we are learning a martial art for self defense, we therefore want to avoid sport versions as much as possible.
Choices for Learning Self Defense
It seems to me that having some exposure to self defense training before moving on to martial arts is a good idea. This way, you will learn some techniques that you can use right away should you need to. If you can find a school with instruction in self defense, I say, “go for it.” In leu of that, I can recommend a dvd-based course.
Street Self Defense 101 Volume I and the rest of the series are what I would recommend if you need to start off with a video. Even if you are taking self defense or martial arts classes somewhere else, I recommend that you get volume one of this series. In volume one, you will learn counters to 30 common street attacks. These attacks are all designed to be simple and effective and to require little skill to execute. This is because of the author’s realization that in a street fight, the amount of adrenaline dumped into your system makes it hard for you do anything requiring skill and precision. Trained fighter who have been up against many opponents may not have this problem, but you will.
I like the approach and I think the dvd is pretty good, but you will need to know how to use the dvd or it won’t work when you need it. Remember how I went on and on about automaticity? Well if this is what you choose to study, you need to practice each move until it comes naturally. Watching the video and understanding the moves is not enough because you won’t have time to think about your next move in a real fight; it has to happen almost automatically. In a class, you will practice moves over and over to develop your reflexes. If you learn from the dvd, you will need to do the same thing. Finding a partner would be best. You can take turns applying the move and being the bad guy. If you don’t have a partner you can maybe use a dummy, or just pretend someone else is still there. My guess is that you could find a training partner on Craigslist. My Suggestion: Learn the 30 moves on dvd 1.
Martial Arts for Self Defense
I’ve mentioned that a lot of martial arts are used more for sports than for self defense, but there are some exceptions to that. Some sports-centered martial arts seem to be good for self defense despite the sports focus.
There is a martial art out there that has no sports influence that I’m aware of. Krav Maga is the martial art of the Israeli military forces. It combines aspects of many other martial arts and focuses on quickly, and brutally neutralizing an attacker. This martial art was developed with street fighting and self defense in mind and includes training in dealing with an attacker with a weapon.
Training to handle an attacker with a weapon is important because without it, an otherwise competent martial artist can end up dead in a matter of seconds. Watch the Human Weapon episode featuring Krav Maga, and you’ll see two American fighters get stabbed with a rubber knife almost instantly.
Krav Maga is taught in many locations, but schools are much harder to find than other martial arts. If you happen to live near a school, I highly recommend Krav Maga. My Suggestion: Make Krav Maga the first martial art you study and stick with it for at least 6 months.
Striking and Grappling and the UFC
Before the Ultimate Fighting Championship, most martial artists in America concentrated on the types of martial arts that you’re familiar with from movies such as Kung Fu, Karate, and Kickboxing. And for the most part, these fighters stay standing and try to hit and kick each other. The UFC was formed ostensibly as a way to determine which was the most effective martial arts form in a real fight. This is the kind of knowledge we’d want if we want to study martial arts for self defense in a real fight. As most fighters stayed standing at the time, most UFC fighters in the first season tried to stay standing. We would say that they practiced striking arts because most of them sought to win by striking their opponents.
Royce Gracie, however, practiced a grappling art called Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Grapplers wrestle their opponents on the ground where they attempt to submit them by choking them or threatening to break one of their joints. Most of the fighters in the UFC were not prepared to defend against such moves. Gracie, though smaller and weaker than many of his opponents, dominated the first season and became champion.
Street fights often make it to the ground where a grappling art such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is very effective. BJJ, however has such an emphasis on grappling that striking is totally ignored. Sometimes striking is more efficient than patiently maneuvering your opponent into a submission hold. Today, mixed martial artists study both grappling and striking and attempt to use whatever techniques are most effective given the circumstances. A popular technique combining grappling and striking is Ground and Pound, where a fighter takes his opponent to the ground (grappling) and then punches him until he taps out (striking). So to be an effective fighter no matter what the circumstances, it’s good to train in both a grappling and a striking art.
Choosing a Grappling Art
Krav Maga includes both striking and grappling, but If you can not find a school near you, I recommend that you study Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, as it is an excellent grappling art. BJJ includes a lot of sports competitions, but one school I know of that focuses on self defense is the Gracie Academy. I earned my bluebelt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu through them. One of my training partners came from another school that taught a more sports-centered BJJ. He noticed that the level of detail in the instruction was much higher with the Gracie Academy schools. He also performed many moves in a way that left him open to punches. This is fine in sports BJJ, where no one tries to punch you, but it leaves you vulnerable on the street.
Gracie Academy schools exist all over the world, but if none exist near you there are some options: You can enroll in the Gracie University online where you can access video instruction and then submit videos of yourself demonstrating the moves to earn your bluebelt. This would work best if you joined a ‘Gracie Garage’ which is a bunch of guys training together out of their garages, but with no certified instructor. Gracie garages can be found on the Gracie University website. If you live in the middle of nowhere and can’t find a training partner, you can use a dummy with realistic joints named “Bubba” that the Gracies sell on their website. I don’t think you can use Bubba as your attacker in your bluebelt videos, though. I think you need a real partner for that.
I’m sure there are other good schools out there, but the Gracie Academy schools are what I know, and what I recommend. Once you earn a bluebelt, you’ll be able to defend yourself against a bigger, stronger, more athletic opponent; providing that he isn’t trained in martial arts (which in a street fight is likely). My Suggestion: Earn a bluebelt in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.
Other effective grappling arts include freestyle wrestling, sambo, and judo.
Choosing a Striking Art
There are a lot of striking arts out there and I think it would be hard to go wrong picking one, but I’ll tell you which one I choose to study and why.
I choose Muay Thai, the national sport of Thailand. Yes, Muay Thai is a sport but it seems to be effective for self defense nonetheless. You can still learn the older techniques from before it became a sport from many schools including mine. Muay Thai is very popular with mixed martial artists and that is one of the reasons I chose it.
Another reason that Muay Thai appeals to me is that it includes knee and elbow strikes. Muay Thai is referred to as the “Science of 8 limbs” because it uses the two hands, two elbows, two knees, and two shins. Feet are also used, but not as much. And yes, none of those things are actually “limbs” in the English sense of the word, but I’m sure it makes perfect sense it Thai. Anyway, I like all the options that it gives you. I see a lot of Muay Thai influence in the Street Self Defense 101 video mentioned above, so studying Muay Thai can only help me understand those techniques better.
Muay Thai requires that you master a lot of punching and kicking technique in the beginning and this takes time. After your first few classes, you won’t have the pleasurable feeling that you had in BJJ class where you learned a technique that you could apply on the street that night if need be. In time, your hard work will pay off. And hard work it is. Muay Thai training is physically demanding. It will get you in shape far faster than BJJ classes will. For this reason, many schools offer a fitness version of Muay Thai.
My Suggestion: Take Muay Thai classes for at least 6 months.
Muay Thai Unleashed Book by Erich Krauss will give you a good overview of Muay Thai’s history, practices, and techniques. I use it as a supplement to training at a Muy Thai Academy. You can’t realistically learn Muay Thai from a book, but a book can help you perfect your technique.