They were a young couple asked what it was that I did too. I mentioned my interests that included rock climbing, living in places like Thailand, the Philippines, and Holland. I also mentioned I was involved with the martial arts. At this point, the young lady expressed that her Dad was an Instructor at a local MMA gym and was excited to ask me this question:
“What do you think is the most realistic martial art?”
This was obviously a lead-in question and one that typical MMA types (especially if you have seen some of the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu commercials promoting it as a self-defense system).
Because of my background and education in the martial arts, I already knew the answer to the question she was so eager to answer for me. But I didn’t want to spoil her fun or insult her father by explaining my view. So I listened to the sales pitch and left the conversation without getting into any debates.
But… here is why I do not think that MMA (though incredibly popular) is NOT the most realistic martial art for self-defense.
First off, I don't have anything against MMA or grappling when it comes to training. Without labels, kicking is kicking and punching is punching. In fact, I did a heavy amount of grappling and kickboxing when I was studying martial arts more than 20 years ago, before the UFC and MMA became very popular. I was also a wrestler in high school, so I am familiar with the practical applications of grappling and ground fighting.
Very often you may hear statistics like:
80% of all fights end up on the ground.
This is a good argument to included grappling in your self-defense training but it is in no way the most realistic skill to learn. You learn to grapple in order to not go to the ground. At least that is how we teach it in our Personal Security Courses.
The first concept of self-defense is to not offend?
The first thing you want to think about (in relation to self-defense) is to simply not offend or be near the offense and this goes as far as not getting yourself into situations that you would require you to defend yourself. This is the first and foremost practical means of self-defense, by simply not being there.
Now, this can also extend into avoidance, which is to say, to avoid these types of situations by using some common sense but you won't need to be using any kind of physical martial arts. This is only true if you are not putting yourself into an environment that would require you to apply self-protection skills
Do traditional martial arts teach more than just punches and kicks?
Although this article is about what why MMA is not the most realistic martial art for self-defense, we also need to consider that martial arts are not always for self-defense or for combat. The traditional martial arts or many traditional martial arts offer a lot more than just teaching you how to punch someone in the face.
Traditional martial art systems usually have moral tenants or rules to live by and these are helpful guidelines for improving your life and can offer a lot more than just striking or kicking. There is also an interesting historical aspect to traditional martial arts.
If you were to learn to dance, play the guitar or study at a university, the benefits may extend into a new arena for mental development. It may not seem as practical as kicking someone in the sciatic nerve, but you will discover that those that get into the most battles with their fists and legs are those focused on their ego over their true development.
Now that may not seem very realistic in combat or for self-defense, however, if you consider the life improvement benefits as well as the fact that one who does study these types of traditions will learn to avoid getting themselves into altercations. There is a certain moral maturity that comes with traditional martial arts training that you don't find as much in MMA.
Sadly the MMA view seems to promote the idea of getting into fights and is developing a kind of image that one might consider looking like a typical MMA fighter: A person that isn't afraid to supplement drugs for more aggressive attacks, a show off that leads towards more of an ego boost, tattooed for the attention and rage for the ring.
This is a martial art that is better for promoting bar fights than it is a healthy adult with a mind designated towards avoiding fights. Obviously, there are many that practice MMA for only the sport of it and have found that they can extend their own balance through the training. However, this is not what something like the UFC is really promoting.
What if the person you are grappling has a friend?
I once saw a commercial by Gracie Jiu-Jitsu showing a person doing grappling or taking out another person using grappling and then labeling it as realistic self-defense and to click the button to join.
The problem with that concept or the idea of grappling someone is that you have to remember that you are tying yourself down to the ground and then it becomes very hard for you to also get up and get away. So in one sense, while you might be containing an opponent, you will also be hindering your own movement abilities.
So, what if this person you are tied up with on the ground has a friend or what if there is another person that you're not paying attention to or didn't notice before? If you are tied up like a pretzel and rolling around on the ground, you are in big trouble.
What if the person you want to fight has a knife?
In the TV show Patriot, there is a scene where the main actor goes into a room and is immediately assaulted by a group of Brazilians who of course use grappling to subdue him. He quickly escapes by simply stabbing one of them with a knife.
Now this too seems like common sense, but you cannot have a realistic martial arts system or realistic martial art for self-defense system that does not include training against weapons. If somebody has a knife, you are NOT looking to get closer to them, you are NOT looking to Grapple with them.
It is far more practical for you to learn to defend against weapons because that is a more common way to get in trouble.
If you consider all the different possible weapons in the world, a knife, an edge or a blade is both very practical and very accessible by almost anyone. Whether this is a cooking knife in the kitchen or even a screwdriver from the tool shed, you cannot use striking, punching and grappling as a self-defense mechanism for that type of situation.
What if you are on concrete and not on a padded mat?
Another thing that people fail to consider when looking at grappling as practical or even kicking someone in the head as practical is that they are not going to be in the environment that they are used to and in training, you have a mat.
Have you tried grappling on the concrete? Rubbing your knees and elbows into the concrete is not the best way to keep the body out of harms way. You also need to consider landing on the knees and elbows which makes learning how to fall more practical than learning how to punch.
When we teach our combat grappling, we put this concept of protecting the knees, elbows, and head into the equation by helping students to learn how to avoid putting their knees and elbows into the ground.
You are also not wearing MMA kickboxing shorts. Meaning that you might be in tight pants or you might fall or have less flexibility. You will not have the same conditions you are used to when training. Shoes and other items of clothing are also something to consider.
I remember a time I was out with my students in Amsterdam when we saw two guys in the distance that were arguing. One of them was a younger taller individual that looked like he was in good shape, and the other was an overweight older man appeared to be in his 40 or 50s. They had been drinking and testing egos which led to yelling at each other.
After the argument heated up, some punches were thrown and the younger one tried to kick the other in the head. He didn't realize that his jeans were not going to allow him that level of flexibility. So he actually swept his own ground leg by trying to kick with his opponent too high and fell on the ground. Immediately, the heavier guy just simply got on top of him.
This goes to show you that in the above scenario, grappling, of course, would have some practicality because the guy would be on the ground and most fights do end up on the ground if it is just a fist fight - like a high-school brawl between two people. But as an adult, you should not be training for high school fights, you should be beyond that it's not practical and it's also more of an ego issue.
So what is the most realistic martial art self-defense?
The answer to that question is actually opening up the doors to what you are defending yourself against. You need to consider what exactly you are protecting yourself from because most people will be injured from the environment and not the assailant.
Or one could be injured from a weapon and not a fist or a kick it is easier to avoid.
You also can not punch or kick against bullets. So the best training for self-defense might be one that doesn’t exactly teach you head-on-aggression.
A solid Mental Martial Art that teaches you how to avoid these types of situations is more practical, to begin with. Also, to control your anger so do not put yourself into situations where you might need to defend yourself by acting out in a rage. In MMA the idea of rage and anger seem to be quite the norm with popular fighters.
After the mental training, you would then learn to train ways to protect the body from falls or being thrown. This would then extend into protecting the body from weapons and physical blows.
The last part of the training which also accounts for the smallest number of injuries in a situation for self-protection would be learning how to strike or kick, grapple, and use weapons found in your natural environment.