Self-defense, or the Holy Grail of Martial Arts

What do you think a "real situation" means?

Self-defense, or the Holy Grail of Martial Arts

For a Martial Arts practitioner, an article on self-defense is the ultimate Holy Grail. At some point, you have to write one, regardless of your background. Many people approach Martial Arts (MA) or combat sport in general with self-defense in mind, at least as a secondary goal. And often they abandon it because they have been taught a bunch of stuff that seems absolutely detached from what they imagine as “real situation” on the street.

Now, an initial point that should be made is very simple: what’s a “real situation”? I believe this concept to be a fantasy or, ironically, at least an artificial construct. Here go 4 different real situations:

  1. You’re walking home at night, and someone comes to take away your wallet.
  2. You’re out with friends and a brawl starts.
  3. You’re in some law-enforcing or security staff capacity and you have to deal with a potentially dangerous situation.
  4. You’ve watched too much Breaking Bad and thought it was a good idea to try your luck at the Mexican border trafficking meth, but inevitably you got kidnapped by some cartel thugs.

These are all examples of perfectly reasonable “real situations” in which knowing some self-defense could be very helpful. But it’s also clear that all 4 have very different requirements. So, my first question would be: what do you have in mind when you think of a “real situation”? In other words, what’s more likely to happen to you, all things considered? And what I mean by that is that you should consider things like your job, habits, age, body mass, where do you live, unfortunately your gender, your meth-cooking skills and so forth. That should give you an initial idea of what you need.

But let’s say that you want to be prepared for everything and therefore want to learn the deadliest art in town. At some point you’ll probably stumble upon some pseudo-military training program like Krav Maga or similar. Eye-gouging, groin-attacks, and broken tracheas. You might think, great, that’s the one! With that curriculum you might even consider preparing your alembic and start to cook. Except it doesn’t work like that. Chances are that you’re going to be facing some low-level pickpocketing or some aggressive drunkard. Are you seriously going to Kill Bill the sh*t out of this person’s eye? If that’s your style sooner than later you are very likely to end up paying your aggressor a disability pension for the foreseeable future. And now, instead of buying a new car, you’re going to be buying your aggressor’s new face.

When I was in my 20s I worked for many years as a bouncer, and I’ve seen my fair share. Now, not only do I still have all my teeth, but also, equally significant in the context of self-defense, I have no criminal record, which unfortunately is not always the case in that line of work. And that’s where Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu played its part. By its very nature, BJJ is a control-based sport in which the whole goal is to reduce and control your opponent’s movements until you’re dominant enough to force your opponent to tap out. That is usually obtained through the application of joint locks and strangle holds. The latter few especially are great in self-defense situations, not only because they can’t be toughed out, but also because they result in your opponent gently passing out for a few seconds and waking up very disoriented, which gives you an incalculable advantage.

That’s why when I first started BJJ many years ago and the sport was still completely unknown, at least where I grew up, all sorts of security forces were still practicing striking sports and eye-gouging types of things. I have literally witnessed the transition with my own eyes: year after year BJJ gyms would fill up with security personnel of all kinds. They knew perfectly well that even when you are the one being attacked, you are still responsible and accountable for your aggressor’s safety and that there needs to be a proportion between aggression and defense.

I am now a lawyer, but this much I know: in general, in European legal systems, damage against the physical integrity of a person always outscores damage against property. That means that if someone is committing a crime against your stuff, you’re not allowed to respond with an attempt on his or her physical integrity. This framework makes it very risky to annihilate someone’s groins “just” because your wallet was in danger. So once more, BJJ is a great option precisely because you can respond to an aggression with minimal damage.

There is another point that needs to be made with regard to BJJ and self-defense, one that applies more in general to combat sports and is not exclusive to BJJ. It’s about the so-called non-cooperative partner. There’s a fundamental difference between any combat sport (I include BJJ in this category now as well) and self-defense styles like Krav-Maga. That is, simply put, sparring. Now, the argument that one often hears about pure self-defense practices goes something like “this is just too deadly to spar with”, or words to that effect. The idea behind it is to take away everything that doesn’t cause immediate and serious damage and teach only techniques that can be learned fast. It’s a combat style ready to use tomorrow if necessary.

Unfortunately, there’s a catch. By making something so dangerous that can be barely practiced, one also loses the vital opportunity to practice the techniques at full speed and strength against a resisting opponent. BJJ, as well as Judo, Wrestling and any sort of striking sport might not be nearly as deadly, but over the years you’re be able to spar daily against resisting training partners who would rather lose a finger than concede a position. Your practice involves so much sparring that now you know it: this stuff works. It not only works, which is probably true for the eye-poking as well, but what’s more, you can make it work! You can successfully make it work on a vast array of body types and under stress. As a friend of mine always says about high level competition: if it works there, against those people, it just works.

That is the point of a non-collaborative opponent. The less deadly the practice is, the more you can trust it to work, because you were able to apply it over and over and to perfect it under duress. The clearest example of this are tournaments. There can’t be any eye-poking tournaments. But although competition is still very different from a “real situation”, it still beats every sequence of trachea-hitting practiced with a cooperative partner who throws a clear and fake attack agreed upon in advance. In a competitive scenario, even within the ruleset, you hardly know what’s coming. In the gym you will precisely learn that: understanding what’s happening as quickly as possible and reacting accordingly will be a huge part of your training. Therefore, although the daily sparring or even the tournament seem very far away from the “real situation”, just by virtue of training you’ll have developed a series of skills that will eventually be helpful in a self-defense context.

Which leads me to my last point. When you spar everyday, even though many techniques as such might not be appropriate for self-defense, you are developing at the same time a series of invisible skills that are nonetheless fundamental for self-defense. I am talking about skills like distance management (where am I safe), angles (from which angle am I vulnerable), where and when to engage/disengage, balance, and so forth. These are wallpaper skills that after a period of constant practice you’ll end up developing, and these are the things that, in the majority of the cases, can make the difference on the street. I would say that self-defense arises naturally and imperceptibly out of the regular practice of combat sports almost as a collateral effect of constant sparring.

On the other hand, systems that have self-defense as a unique and primary goal with the pretext of being too deadly and efficient because they cut straight to the chase, miss the point entirely. They fail to develop all those collateral skills that can arise only in the context of intense but safe sparring. It’s only after a long period of repeated confrontation with non-collaborative opponents that you can develop the skills necessary to handle a fight. In this aspect, BJJ occupies a privileged position, because its practice is safe, intense, and above all, daily. There aren’t that many combat sports out there that, regardless of your age and physical condition, allow you to spar virtually every day without incurring in severe injuries or traumas. That’s why BJJ is regarded more and more as a great way to learn self-defense. It won’t be as easy as repeating a bunch of choreographic sequences, but that’s exactly the point.