One of my gripes in the martial arts world, is keyboard warriors and/or combat sport fanatics who insist that MMA and the like are the ultimate form of self defence. My answer to this has always been, and will remain to be, that no, MMA does not represent realistic self defence. The simple fact is that sparring one on one, on a matted floor, in a well lit room, with various rules designed to prevent serious injury, and knowledge of the repertoire of allowed moves at your opponent’s disposal, does not remotely reflect the reality of some thug trying to knock your block off, on concrete, with his mates to back him up, no referee, no rules, and goodness knows how many unknowns like how close that brick wall is or whether or not they might have concealed weapons ready to deploy. MMA and related arts are indeed a fantastic source of training for one on one fair fights with a referee and rules, but real world violence very rarely represents a fair fight
That said, having started to do some MMA training myself, I have affirmed my belief that combat sport training is one of the absolute best complimentary forms of training for the reality based self defence practitioner, provided it is approached with the correct mindset. That last point is key to my opinion on this but I’ll come back to that, as the obvious first question is, given my opening statement, why did I start taking part in MMA training in the first place?
It’s no secret that one result of the reality based self defence system I primarily train and coach, is that I do a lot of critical thinking, including analysis and breakdown of techniques and training methods, which ultimately means that a great deal of what is deemed ‘self defence’ training in most traditional martial arts (and even some of the more poorly thought out ‘reality based’ systems), I simply don’t agree with in the context it is presented. So, when I found myself wanting to increase my training regime (I was at the time only training once a week along with my once a month FRACT training sessions), I found that I simply couldn’t bring myself to go along to a traditional martial art class, as I just knew I would disagree with a lot of the training, and I didn’t want to be ‘that guy’ who constantly questions and critiques a class. As much as I am not afraid to speak my mind and call out utter rubbish, I also always try to remain respectful of others and just generally not be an asshole! The obvious alternative then was a combat sport, as sport is it’s own context, detached from the ‘self defence’ space, and I had no issue treating it as a thing in it’s own right, and I would have no need or desire to critique the training as it was a different context to train in, to learn new things and generally just enjoy training. The one thing that concerned me with looking for MMA classes was that I didn’t feel inclined to sign up to some hardcore gym where everyone is training at 100 miles an hour for competition fitness and punishment, so I was fortunate to find CODE Combat Arts in my area, which offers great MMA training with a friendly class environment and a down to earth and open minded instructor, which suited me perfectly
So, why do I now offer an opinion seemingly in contrast to my opening statement, that combat sports in fact complement reality based training really well? A few reasons, but the key one for me, is that sport is by nature competitive. I’m actually not a naturally competitive person, I never entered into any competitions back in my kickboxing days as I felt I had nothing to prove, and it just didn’t interest me, so that’s not what I’m getting at, but the inherently competitive nature of sports means that alongside the inevitable co-operative training of techniques that is part and parcel of any type of martial arts class (and I have a whole other blog post on compliance in training), you will be regularly sparring and trying to apply techniques against an actively uncooperative and unpredictable opponent. Now, does sparring represent reality? No, as I noted at the beginning of this post, it does not directly reflect real world violence for a myriad of reasons, but what it does do very effectively is get you into the mindset of having to deal with an opponent who isn’t going to just stand there and let you do whatever technique you want, or feed you a nice predictable attack that you can work with. No such niceties, you’re going to have to keep your cool, think on your feet, and work hard to get yourself into an advantageous position in order to apply some sort of finish, all the while dealing with the uncertainty of what they are going to be throwing your way and defending against that. A byproduct of this is also that you get more acclimatised to being hit, and to being in close proximity to other people and put in uncomfortable positions, so it stops being such a shock to the system and you get more used to keeping a level head under pressure. The beauty of it is that you don’t even need to spar at high intensity to gain all these benefits (I for one am not keen on getting my face smashed in on a weekly basis, I have an office job to go to the next day), whether in striking or grappling modes, you can spar at a relatively friendly intensity, yet still get a very productive workout and learning experience
Now, all of these principles can of course be made part of any good self defence class, and indeed should, but the fact is that in most self defence classes, pressure testing and/or sparring can all too often end up being occasional additions rather than a regular occurrence, as not everyone who attends self defence classes is comfortable from the start getting involved in high pressure drills, and as a result, classes tend to be built to cater to everyone, not just the hardcore. Also, there is the simple fact that a lot of the scenarios covered in the self defence context can’t be sensibly represented in a sparring setup. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, as everyone deserves to be able to learn, whether or not they’re comfortable getting up close and personal, and you wouldn’t learn much if every lesson was a free for all, more focused training is also necessary, but it does need to be noted that not getting involved with such drills on a somewhat regular basis, will hinder one’s ability to get acclimatised to the chaos of unpredictable attacks and trying to deal with an actively and dynamically resisting attacker
Finally I want to circle back to something I mentioned at the beginning of this post, keeping the right mindset about training in combat sports. As I have already repeated, sparring does not represent real world violence, neither does full on competition, so while sport training offers all the benefits I’ve talked about as a supplement to reality based training, one does have to be careful to always remember that sport is sport, it belongs in the ring, not in the street, so while many of the principles cross over into self defence in a beneficial way, and generally being a well rounded fighter is never a bad thing in any combative situation, it is not a direct translation. We also have to remember of course, that in combat sports, the very nature of the beast is a competition between two people which continues until one participant throws in the towel or is formally defeated, which obviously differs greatly from self defence where we emphasise not engaging in prolonged fighting, but simply doing enough to control and/or disable an attacker just long enough to get the hell out of there, get help, and get home safely
All said and done, I haven’t been training in MMA for long at time of writing this, but I love it and would highly recommend the class I attend, or anything similar in your own area. It’s great fun, I’m learning additional skills, and I get to spar with a friendly bunch of people on a regular basis, which benefits all aspects of my training, but I always approach it firmly in the sport context and simply enjoy it for what it is and how it benefits me, without losing sight of why I do reality based self defence. As I often say to people, context is key
I’ll close out this post with a quote I heard years ago in reference to reality based self defence, which I have always liked and has stuck with me as epitomising the difference between sport and street, ‘If you find yourself in a fair fight, then your tactics suck!’