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What Martial Art is Most Effective For Self-Defense?

All self-defense systems are not all built the same. Most people agree that self-defense classes are important, but there is a wide variety of martial arts that courses can be based on, providing hugely different results. Popular forms of self-defense come from Karate, Krav Maga, and MMA sports. MMA sports are those that MMA fighters use in their competition, mainly kickboxing, wrestling, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). Athletes are free to add elements of any sport they want- but there is a general consensus on what techniques and sports are most effective to use in a live high stakes situation. Let's discuss some of the important concepts that are necessary for an effective self-defense program, and see how each art measures up.

Multi-leveled approach

There are many situations one might find them self in where they need to use self-defense, and a program should aim to give students answers from as many as possible. For example, most fights start with two people standing up. But most fights actually end with one or two people on the ground. Considering that, it seems neglectful to only teach people how to punch and kick. The reality is that one way or another, if someone is attacking you with intent, it is likely that you will find yourself with your back on the ground. This is especially true for cases of sexual assault. Unfortunately there’s no amount of punching or kicking or hi-ya-ing that can help you if someone bigger and stronger is sitting on your chest. Karate and Krav Maga are both striking based arts. MMA, however is comprised of both striking and grappling- meaning everything that happens once opponents have grabbed onto each other, and what happens when opponents are grounded (on their knees, backs, or butts). Specifically kickboxing, wrestling, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is specifically dedicated to finding the most effective ways to win from these positions, and wrestling is specifically focused on how to stop anyone from putting you on your back to begin with. MMA involves integrating BJJ, wrestling, and striking, in a holistic way that makes defending yourself and gaining a dominant position as efficient and effective as possible. Being able to switch from defending yourself from your back when someone’s sitting on your chest, to defending a choke, to standing up properly, to defending punches and kicks, to defending yourself when someone grabs onto your waist or arm, is absolutely necessary for real world self-defense. Krav Maga and Karate leave out defensive strategies from some of these crucial situations.

Video: Highlight video of Demetrious Johnson, one of the most well rounded UFC fighters

Combination of Techniques

One of the misconceptions of self-defense is that any one strike or technique will work exactly the way you practiced and be enough to keep yourself safe. This is just not true, especially in real world situations. The truth is that there are always techniques that won’t work at certain times, or on certain people, and any program that teaches you that you only need one move to get out of any given position is incompetent.


Krav Maga and Karate both focus on one strike moves or one technique moves to escape positions. Even in the rules of Karate competitions, after one player scores a point (a punch or kick), the referees restart them from a neutral position. Krav Maga uses arm blocks for punch defenses, single punches, and simple joint manipulation techniques to ‘disable’ your attacker. The problem is that, often a single block does not guard the full weight of a punch, and it certainly does not block several punches in a row. Similarly, in no way will a defender need only one punch to disable their attacker. Krav Maga was also developed for self-defense from the Israeli army, and does not have any high level competition in the sport to show how the moves work when two people have an incentive to win and a natural way to test and improve moves.


Many people unfortunately believe that their one-punch-move or wax-on-wax-off arm block will keep them from real harm. And many programs unfortunately lead them to believe this. I will say though, that Krav Maga does teach students how to defend against knives and guns, which MMA does not.

Krav Maga Higlight Video- notice that all exchanges are comprised of just a few moves.

Let’s compare the sport of MMA. Take the rules of competition. Opponents have a set number of rounds with a set number of minutes. What happens in between the bells is a sort of free for all, fighters can use whatever moves they want to win, which can happen by knockout, submission, or by having more points than the other at the end of the fight if the first two don’t occur. There is no stopping in between rounds to break up a fight (unless someone is stalling in a position too long or there’s an illegal move), and fighters are forced to get through the round and win no matter what damage they incur, and how many times they have hit or been hit (unless they tap out or are too hurt that the referee stops the whole fight - a TKO).

The rules and general format of MMA is much more applicable to a street attack. There’s no referee to stop it after one hit, and you are forced to use a continuous string of moves from multiple different levels (standing up, holding onto each other, and on the ground) to ensure your survival. In wrestling, and BJJ, students learn strings of moves, meaning ‘when this doesn’t work, you switch to this, then this, then this’. Kickboxing does the same. The ability to switch your attack under pressure when the first try doesn’t work is very important for self defense, and it’s an importance that is ignored by many traditional martial arts based self-defense systems.

The competitive nature of the sports

As mentioned above, there are differences in the rules of each sport when performed competitively. Watching a sport in live competition shows a lot about it’s effectiveness. It might seem like any sport is effective when two opponents are limited to only using sport-specific techniques. In MMA however, fighters are allowed to use any techniques from any martial art available - whatever gets them the win and improves their performance. Still, fighters use mainly wrestling, kickboxing, and BJJ to win fights.

This certainly says something about the sports real life effectiveness compared to other limited martial arts, especially considering that MMA fights are the closest legal competitions to street fighting that the world has. Fighters have significant interest in winning a fight in the UFC, and face serious risks and consequences should they get beaten up, so there is a reason they use the techniques that they do.


Isaac Brekken/Associated Press


Among MMA sports


But what about the difference between the sports IN MMA? Let us break it down like this:


Striking: mainly kickboxing and boxing. Students learn how to keep a balanced stance while ready to protect their face, body, and legs. They learn how to defend punches and kicks from their opponent, and how to execute such strikes with good technique, power, and speed.


Wrestling: Without striking and submissions, students learn how to stay standing when someone is trying to put them on their back, and how to use take downs to put their opponents on their back. These moves extend to wrist grabbing, body grabbing, head locks, when someone picks you up, and much more. It also includes how to throw opponents as also seen in Judo.


Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: Without striking, students learn how to establish dominant positions of control and power. They learn how to escape dangerous positions (like being on their back or underneath someone), how to defend chokes and arm locks, and how to submit their opponent with them.

Each sport in MMA confronts a different level, and each are necessary for forming a complete understanding of self-defense. Since almost all fights start with two people standing up, it’s essential to learn how to keep your distance, protect your head, and defend strikes (kickboxing). And since most fights end up on the ground, it’s very essential to learn how to get out of truly dangerous positions (BJJ) and to defend the initial grabs (wrestling).



We hope this gives you a good idea on our philosophy of self-defense and why we teach the techniques we do at Stand Your Ground and Girls Who Fight! And if you are out of the Toronto area, we would encourage you to start training in at least one of these sports if you’re interested in learning how to defend yourself.

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