Other Systems: Martial Arts, Sports Fighting & Combatives

In today’s “results-driven-by-the-second lifestyles,” individuals seeking a practical course in self-protection are understandably reluctant to go through the "traditional" martial arts route. That’s because they are: #1) either not interested in investing years of study in a traditional martial art, or #2) are altogether not interested in the subject matter, or #3) have family and career responsibilities that limit their schedules.

Inasmuch as fighting sports such as boxing and muaythai provide superior unarmed fight skills (in a shorter period of time) than traditional martial arts, they too demand years of hard work and dedication over time and don’t specifically address street crime, which after all is mainly weapons-based. In this cursory overview of general fight systems, we mention some highlights as well as disadvantages of each general system. This survey is based on the perspective of an average business professional looking for a practical and effective program for urban self-defense.

There are basically four major categories of fight systems you can choose from:#1) Traditional martial arts, #2) fight sports/mixed martial arts, #3) combatives (and/or military styles) and #4) reality-based defense. Inasmuch as a good instructor is the most important component of any study of self-defense, and the individual involved in the activity is also an important component, I am only presenting generalities here, and assume all other variables are equal.

#1) Traditional martial arts

For most people today, when they hear the term self-defense, they immediately think “traditional martial arts.” That’s understandable given that until the early 1990's, traditional martial arts was the only thing available. In addition, Hollywood emphasizes many of the traditional styles in the movies; but the fantasy moves you see in the movies have no real functionality in many cases. Martial arts are called "arts" for a reason. Some call them theatrical arts because they wear uniforms, engage in rituals and perform best in the movies. Like theatrical fencing, the techniques look great but when it comes time to fight, often not practical. Classical kungfu styles are the best representatives of this category.

There are two distinct categories in traditional martial arts, the "purist's", and individuals who practice a hybrid form of martial arts, blending sports fighting and/or reality-based techniques into their traditional arts.

The Purists
There are many individuals who study pure and authentic styles of martial arts not solely for practical self-defense applications but also to pursue a way of life, to relax, to be immersed in a culture etc.. That's perfectly fine, however, the emphasis of this site and article is to find the shortest possible route to the goal -- which is: an effective and efficient method of defending oneself in a violent confrontation. Most popular traditional martial arts include: kung fu (there are dozens of sub-styles), some karate stles, aikido, tae-kwon-do, hapkido, iaido and many others. 

Traditional Hybrid styles
There are many individuals that have blended traditional martial arts with elements of sports fighting and/or reality-based principles to enhance their disciplines. These are immediately more effective than purely traditional styles. Many karate and classical jujitsu styles have followed this paradigm. Note: BJJ (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu started out as traditional Jiu Jitsu). Karate and kung fu styles that include non-traditional elements do much better in a street fight. They have adapted.

Advantages of traditional martial arts
Most fighter’s today started with some sort of traditional martial arts training (that’s all there was back in the day). These systems offer great exercise and fitness benefits; they are culturally interesting; the uniforms look cool; and if you are very good, you may get movie parts. Traditional fighters who blend in sport styles such as boxing, muaythai and MMA can be very effective.

Disadvantages of "pure" traditional martial arts
There's an old saying, if you only have a hammer, all problems look like nails. The issue with traditional styles is that although some systems may have good solutions for certain things, their whole style is devoted to extending those principles to all situations -- which in many cases are not applicable.

It takes a very long time to gain any type of mastery in traditional arts, and once you do you will find that many of the techniques aren’t practical or well suited for the street today. In traditional styles, quite often the student needs to adapt to the system, it should be the other way around.

Traditional systems usually expound a philosophy, religion or way of life. They sometimes appeal to a supernatural or mystical agency (Chinese styles); theatrical weapons are taught (Chinese styles), not the weapons you will be attacked with in real life. Many of these arts have not evolved to keep up with the type of violence presented today. Forms and rituals are emphasized instead of actual fight practice; students train to stay and fight, not to escape.

Summary of traditional martial arts
If you are interested in practicing a physical manifestation of an Eastern philosophy, and wish to delve deeply into Eastern traditions and culture, and have lots of spare time, traditional Asian martial arts may be for you. Hybrid styles are much more street effective than pure traditional styles. But if you’re a busy professional who needs to learn a practical and effective self-defense method in a short period of time, look elsewhere.

#2) Sports Fighting
This category includes boxing, wrestling, muaythai, Brazilian Jujitsu, and judo; this also includes the category called mixed martial arts (MMA) a blend of several sports styles. Weapon styles include Western fencing, arnis/escrima, kendo.

Advantages of sports fighting
You are doing it, you hit and get hit, you learn timing, distance and how to use power. Sports fighting provides a solid foundation for unarmed fighting; this is as close as you can get to a real fight without getting seriously hurt; effective and real-world techniques that work. These are good add-ons to a reality-based program if you have the extra time.

Mixed martial arts used to refer to traditional martial artists adding other elements to their game, such as boxing, muaythai kicking, etc. But nowadays it has come to mean a blending of several sports fighting styles. These are usually fought in major venues such as the UFC, IFL and Pride. This style of unarmed fighting has come to represent the ultimate in unarmed fighting.

Disadvantages of sport fighting
It takes several years of hard work and dedication to make significant progress. You need to add a conditioning component (which is great if you have the time). MMA takes even more time and effort to gain proficiency since you are integrating several fighting styles. No weapons defenses (but it’s a sport). The emphasis is on fighting in the ring with mats and referees; you will have to modify the approach and techniques for the street.

Summary of sport fighting
For unarmed fighting, sports fighting is great and provides real-world feedback. It takes several years to gain mastery but you’re prepared for anything with the exception of weapon attacks. If you have a few extra hours a week besides your reality training, try to add a component of sports fighting to inprove your overall fighting ability. 

#3) Combatives or military styles of self-defense
A system of fighting/self-defense that was developed in the early part of the 20th century. One of the early pioneers, W.E. Fairbairn, was years ahead of his time (in the 1930’s) and developed innovative concepts and techniques which eventually found their way into allied commando training in WWII.

Combatives and military styles have evolved in the U.S., the UK and Israel. During WWII, Germany and Japan had their own methods. Some U.S. military styles are lagging behind, particularly with knife-work. Many Israeli styles (for the military) are effective, but civilian Israeli styles are often not the same as the military versions. Some civilian Israeli styles can be good depending on the instructor.

Advantages of combatives & military styles
The attitude and mindset is powerful and highly aggressive. Combatives and military styles in general are one of the forerunners of reality-based defense. No uniforms, rituals, or philosophy here. Techniques are simple, powerful and effective. Weapon defenses are taught, as is defense from multiple attackers; learning how to shoot is encouraged.

Disadvantages of combatives
No ladder of force or de-escaltion strategies, the goal is to demolish an attacker. There are some die-hard WWII technique purists; not all combative techniques are suitable for use today. Escape solutions from holds aren’t fully addressed. Combatives often attracts macho types who walk around in military camo outfits all day (even though they never served a day in the military). Knife defense is not comprehensive especially in the military styles. More students are injured practicing combatives & military styles.

Summary of combative and military styles
In general, most combative and military styles are best suited for all-out attacks (as in a war) with less consideration for de-escalating an event or restraining an attacker. In civilian life, that type of training can et you into trouble with authorities. Many combative/military programs emphasize toe-to-toe fighting, it woud be better to escape if possible. However, there are a few combative styles that are starting to offer more of a reality-based curriculum.

#4) Reality-Based Defense
Unfortunately everyone in the world and their grandmother teaching self-defense claim they teach reality-based-defense. In truth, there are probably only a dozen worthwhile programs out there.

Advantages of reality-based defense
Encompasses a full spectrum of defense, it goes well beyond the normal street fight scenarios into hard violence and overall survival strategies; de-escalation; ladder of force; includes: pre-conflict, conflict and post-conflict phases; rehearsal or scenario training under stress; teaches overall weapons defense; teaches how to deal with multiple attackers; how to deal with the law; medical attention, self first-aid.

Disadvantages of reality-based defense
Finding a good program is difficult -- almost everyone claims they teach it. Reality-defense students, like combatives students don't realize that it takes many months to develop skills, and many drop out after a few weeks and months of practice. Reality-based programs do not provide a fitness or conditioning component, but that's why you go to a gym.

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