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The Harsh Truth About Self Defense

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

Shutterstock / Straight 8 Photography

Last month I wrote about how to use Muay Thai for practical self defense. I still maintain that as far as a pure striking art goes, Muay Thai (along with boxing) are the most practical for self defense, because they are the simplest and emphasise sparring with those simple techniques. However there are several harsh truths about self defense that I need to talk about today.

This article will likely not make me any friends, but I’m not writing to please people. I’m writing to state the truth. Self defense is a matter of life and death, and far too many martial artists delude themselves into believing and promoting unreliable and dangerous ideas when it comes to the street.

Today we’ll be going through these harsh truths one by one and explaining them. This article will likely annoy many martial artists, but it all has to be said.

Harsh Truth 1: Your martial art is USELESS unless you practise regular hard sparring.

If your martial art cannot stand up to pressure testing in the context of MMA, or some other full contact sport, your martial art does not work. The only way you can know if you are able to take a punch, is by taking one. The only way you know you’re able to land a punch is by doing it, over and over again, in a live environment.

Drills do not prepare you for self defense. Kata does not prepare you for self defense. No martial arts practise that relies on a hypothetical will prepare you for self defense. The only thing that can prepare you to defend yourself, is actually having to do it in a live combat situation, and the closest you will get to that is in real hard sparring where you do run the risk of getting a broken nose.

There is no other alternative, anyone who claims otherwise is wrong. Combat sports cannot fully prepare you for a fight on the street, as there are so many variables at play – but they train more reliable, high percentage techniques that are guaranteed to work for you in a fight.

Harsh Truth 2: Knife and gun disarms to not work in real life.

There are many ‘self defense programs’ or ‘street martial arts’ that will train you to disarm a weapon bare handed. These techniques do not work. In real life an attacker with a knife does not make a deliberate swing at you, which you can then grab and disarm. In real life a knife wielder lunges at you and will stab rapidly, dozens of times. You will not be able to stop them all. You will most likely not be able to stop even one, as knife disarms teach ridiculous hypotheticals in which you’re able to stop the knife and then turn it on the opponent. These drills also imply that you already know the attacker has a knife. In real life it will likely be concealed until the last moment. Attempted to disarm a knife will get you killed.

There is ever so slightly more leeway with guns, as a gun is only dangerous if the barrel is pointing at you. For the most part though the principle remains the same.

Harsh Truth 3: TMA ‘Illegal Techniques’ do not work in real life

The excuse that TMA practitioners always give for why their martial arts have not been successful in combat sports, is that their techniques are ‘too deadly’ to use in competition. The eye poke is banned, the finger break is bad, the throat punch is banned (a particularly silly one as head kicks nearly always actually land on the neck).

If these techniques are ‘too deadly’ to use in a sport, then that means they are too deadly to be used in training. Am I to believe that these deadly banned techniques, are so dangerous that you cannot use them in competition, but that you would practise them for real against a partner in training? This is ridiculous, what happens in real life is that illegal throat chop is practised in super slow motion, against a compliant partner, and no one is hurt.

That technique is NEVER trained full contact and as a result is useless. There are some martial artists who have build their entire egos around their martial art being so deadly that it can’t even be used. If it can’t be used, then that means the practitioner has never used it. That means that it doesn’t work. If the martial art does not have a thriving combat sport where bones can be broken for real – the martial art is not worth using – and it will certainly not save your life in a street fight.

Harsh Truth 4: Women’s self defense courses do not work.

Here is a sad truth, while men are statistically more likely to be the victim of a violent crime, women undoubtedly fear it more. It’s a completely reasonable fear, after all women are typically smaller and weaker than men and as a result will look into self defense options. Unfortunately, the reality of women’s self defense classes are nonsense courses that effectively teach a woman how to get assaulted. They will teach aforementioned bogus techniques like eye gouges and finger breaks, or God forbid those same knife and gun disarms. Of course, there is no full contact sparring either, as these courses want to create a ‘friendly’ environment, even though that friendly environment teach bad practises that can lead to death if used in an emergency.

Women who want to learn self defense, need to learn in a proper combat sport. Whether its muay thai, judo or boxing – the only way to learn to defend yourself is to learn how to fight for real.

A Word on ‘Opinions’

This article is harsh, and it is harsh for a good reason. As a martial artist, as a teacher and as a writer, I need people reading to know what is real and what is fantasy. Which is why my piece on how to use Muay Thai for self defense always emphasized de-escalation and running before any proper combat. There is a common fallacy, that every opinion is equally valid. This is not true. This is not my opinion vs the opinion of other equally knowledgeable martial artists. The sort of martial artists, and self defense “gurus” who encourage the very ideas I have fought against in this article are wrong.

Which is why Bas Rutten is such a good person to listen to. Being publicly very critical of self-proclaimed defense gurus who encourage dangerous practises. There are opinions, and there are facts. These harsh truths are based in fact. Train hard. Train safe. Be aware of hucksters.

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