How many times have you been part of the conversation about whose martial art is best or most effective for self defense? It’s funny how everyone thinks it’s the one they practice. I guess that’s not surprising. If people didn’t think theirs was best, they wouldn’t study that particular style. As we mature as martial artists (and as people), many of us begin to realize there are strengths and weaknesses of every style and learning different things from different styles actually makes us better.
That said, there are certainly some arts that are more effective on the street, but not necessarily for the reasons one might think. Before we delve into what makes one art more effective than the next, let’s first start with a couple of points.
First of all, what is a martial art exactly? If you go looking for a definition, you’ll generally find that included points are things like being of traditional Japanese, Chinese, or Korean origin, using empty handed techniques without weapons, being often used for sport, involving mental and physical discipline, and of course, being some sort of set of skills for combat or self defense.
So that would be formal definitions, but there are a few things I take issue with. First is being of Oriental origin. Indeed, the oldest formal martial art is from India, and some might even say the first known martial arts came from ancient Egypt. The other would be the lack of weapons use. Martial arts from the beginning of their history have involved using weapons.
Personally, I see it this way – martial arts are any set of skills that involve self defense but go beyond in an attempt to add style and complexity, requiring a learning process that can endure for a lifetime, regardless of how long ago you mastered the ability to simply fight. As such, not every fighting style is a martial art, although there are many that might have never even been considered, perhaps because of their non-stereotypical point of origin.
Okay, so if martial arts go beyond self defense, what does that mean exactly? Well, it helps to look at components of self defense. What does one need to know to be able to defend themselves in a fight? Honestly, not much. 98% of the population not trained in a school have no idea how to fight, including those who start them. You have a small percentage who are trained in the military or who might be street thugs and have to fight to survive, but otherwise, most people who DO know how to fight learned it in a school or gym.
The vast majority of fights start either by someone bum-rushing another, trying to tackle them to the ground (and not knowing what the hell to do once they’re there) or by someone swinging a fist at someone else’s face (proving they don’t know what they’re doing since most people don’t know punching someone in the face bare-fisted is a bad idea). This is the kind of stuff I’m talking about. They call it “worst”, but it’s pretty normal for most folks.
So basically, all you really need to be able to do to defend yourself is move and counter when someone swings, escape when someone gets you to the ground or grabs you, maybe control someone with joint locks when they won’t stop fighting, and run. Yet, once we as martial artists learn and even master these basic skills, we continue to study and go deeper because we love the arts we practice. But let’s get back to talking about effectiveness and which arts (or types of arts) translate the best to truly protecting oneself or others.
Obviously, there are many styles and types of martial arts. Some focus more on strikes, blocks, and using the hands, like karate, tang soo do, many kung fu systems, such as wing chun, and while some might not like its inclusion, I’m going to go ahead and include boxing since it is a formal fighting style. These are great skills to have, of course, and any art that places significant value and attention here are valuable.
Then we have kicking-centric arts like taekwondo, taekkyeon, savate, and kickboxing styles. Kicks are important in most martial arts, just like punches and other hand strikes, but there are clearly those with a stronger focus on using the feet as weapons. Kicks are powerful and important, especially when using hands doesn’t make sense or is impossible. The main drawbacks, though, are that balance is harder to control and high kicks can be slow and easily avoided, so we still want to be sure we have more arrows in the quiver than just our feet.
Of course we want to be able to use both our hands and feet at different times for different reasons, but should we limit ourselves to these? Likely not. Have you ever punched someone in the face without padding? It only takes a couple to realize that it can hurt you more than it hurts your opponent. Personally, I’m not a face-puncher. I prefer open-handed strikes and using elbows and forearms. I like to use my elbows for many uses, including leverage for grappling and throwing, as well as for striking. So elbows and knees, as well as forearms and shins (although they have to be conditioned), can be quite beneficial. Muay thai and lerdrit are well known for this, as is choy li fut kung fu. They place quite a bit of emphasis on bone conditioning to support this.
Now, we can’t forget the grappling and wrestling systems, which can include throwing, joint locks, bone breaks, and pressure point techniques. Now I’m talking about chin na, jujitsu, sambo, judo, aikido, and the like. These skills are so very important, as more often than not, fights end up on the ground. And let me point out the fact that ground fighting, while a blast on a nice set of mats in an air conditioned gym, fighting on asphalt in a parking lot in the middle of the summer absolutely sucks. You’re dragging body parts across a hard, rough surface, while trying to overtake someone who is trying to cause you real harm.
Weapons are another ubiquitous part of martial training, and they can make the difference between winning and losing (and sometimes just surviving). While we won’t use most of the weapons we learn in class on the street – seriously, who walks around with a katana? – if we learn enough of them, we can easily pick something up and figure out how to use it to our advantage. These skills are less about the individual weapon and more about being able to adapt to our situation and what we might have at hand. Bujutsu and Shaolin/wushu kung fu are very heavy in their use of weapons, although I’m sure that no matter what art you’ve studied, you’ve used some cool weapons somewhere along the line.
If the arts you study don’t include at least some amount training in all of these skills, it falls short. It just does, sorry. But the fix is easy; just supplement what you love with other skills that you need in order to handle any situation. One of the things I love about studying bujutsu (the art used by the samurai) is that it covers all of it to some degree. With that said, there is still a great deal that I incorporate from my kung fu and aikido training to supplement the new skills I learn at my current dojo.
So where does that leave us? Am I saying that Kazan Ryu bujutsu is the best just because it incorporates many things? Well, no. Otherwise, what would be the point in incorporating other skills from other styles that I find valuable? Besides, many martial arts are comprehensive, like MMA. Likewise, there are many other arts that distill all these skills into a focused set designed solely for the purposes of combat and defense. Sure, bujutsu was the samurai fighting system, but so many others are designed this way, as well, such as krav maga and systema spetsnaz.
Okay, so that’s a ton to take into consideration. In that case, which truly is best? In the end, the reality is that it’s not about a single martial art. It’s about a set of skills that an individual practitioner works on over time to perfect. Any system can incorporate the different skills needed to defend oneself, even if it has a primary focus on one specific area.
I think I can say that there are definitely some schools that are better for this type of learning than others, and if you’re at a strip mall black belt mill, you might want to do some shopping around. Sorry to all the White Tiger and Kim’s TKD storefront sport centers with all their medals and trophies in the window, but these places are really more for the tournament competition side of things, not practical application. And that’s okay as long as you understand what you’re getting. In the west, it’s more common for kids to get into sport competition than actual fighting, so this makes a ton of sense, and it’s a great business model.
At the end of the day, serious martial artists are talking to friends and learning things that are not in their own school’s curriculum, expanding on everything they learn from all over. In the last quarter century, I’ve known countless artists from different schools that all trade secrets and techniques and very few who would limit themselves to one single art, anyway. That’s because a martial artist doesn’t really worry about whether their art is the best. They worry about learning something new and growing their base of skills. After a few years, most serious students can defend themselves just fine, even against other skilled practitioners, so at some point, it’s not about that anymore.
MMA champion George St-Pierre said it best: “There is a difference between a fighter and a martial artist. A fighter is training for a purpose: he has a fight. I’m a martial artist. I don’t train for a fight. I train for myself. I’m training all the time. My goal is perfection. But I will never reach perfection.”
I’ll leave it up to you. When you think about the difference between a martial art and a martial artist, do you think there really is a best system for self defense? Or do you think it’s more a matter of the person who wants to be truly great? Do you find that the best fighters you know are skilled in only one art, or do they combine skills from all over with no limits to what they’re willing to learn? I bet I know the answers to those questions, but I’d like to hear your thoughts, so drop a comment below and tell us!