Recently, Black Belt Magazine posted a quote from the late legend Joe Louis:
Against a professional fighter’s speed, accuracy and field-tested willpower, I don’t believe any self-defense expert, regardless of style, would have a prayer.
While I have the greatest respect for Joe Louis, this quote represents another myth that’s common in martial arts circles. The myth is that doing well in sport fighting makes one invincible “on the street”. It’s one I particularly dislike, and I take it apart below.
So there is some truth to Joe’s quote above. Sport fighting builds amazing characteristics, including pain resistance, speed, timing, accuracy, physical conditioning and skill. All of those things certainly can help someone in a self defense situation. I personally belief that any martial arts training is better than none when it comes to self defense.
But let’s examine why this quote perpetuates a myth:
1. This quote is based on an unrealistic fantasy situation
In a toe to toe, face to face, one on one sport fight with given rules between a sport trained fighter and a “self defense expert” clearly the sport trained fighter is most likely to prevail. How often does this actually happen?
Many years ago (when I was a mere yellow belt), a champion collegiate wrestler from the UK came down to the dojo I was training in and started running his mouth about how everything we did was crap. We tried to ignore him, and he challenged me to wrestle him. Since I’m not stupid I declined saying, “I’m not going to wrestle you.” Deciding he wasn’t going to take no for an answer he attacked me and tried to take me down. I put him in a choke that I’m guessing is illegal in wrestling and put a crush on his trachea. He dropped like a ton of bricks, when I put my entire bodyweight on the back of his head, he started slapping the floor with all four limbs like a fish out of water. I eventually let him up and he went away – never to return.
I’m not saying this to brag, but to point out that this sport fighter would have crushed me if I agreed to his rules. When he assaulted me, he wasn’t used to what I did and didn’t have a good response to it – other than to hope I wouldn’t kill him.
The sport fighting scenario is not common, in my experience, in self defense.
2. Sport fighting is not self defense, period.
If there’s one thing that bears repeating, its this – sport fighting is related to self defense in the same way NASCAR is related to driving a getaway car in a shootout. There’s an overlap in skill, to be sure, but they aren’t the same thing.
Sport fighting involves, usually, one on one agreed-upon combat. It’s expected in advance. There are rules and safety measures. There are normally no weapons. People are only rarely hurt, and very rarely killed. There’s good lighting, doctors, and safety equipment. There is a known environment with perhaps matted floors. None of those things apply to real self defense.
In self defense you have unknown opponents. Their skill and number vary (I have seen 5 guys nearly stomp another man to death). Weapons may be involved. It happens when you don’t expect it. The terrain could be anything, the environment could be anything. It’s involuntary, and you don’t get to quit if you are sick or injured. There’s no trainer, officials, referee or doctor standing by.
The goals are also very different. In self defense, you can win by running away, but “winning and losing” may be literally life or death.
Here’s an interesting video that shows a group of UFC fighters who went to Quantico to experience the Marine Corps Martial Arts program. At the end, they suit up and go up against two armed opponents. Basically none of them do well in this situation.
And not to take anything away from these guys. They are some of the best trained combative athletes in the world. What this shows is that people have a hard time training for situations that are really foreign to them. Undoubtedly they did better than most people would have in the same situation, but not as well as those who train for this situation.
I remember somebody asked my jujutsu teacher once what he would do against Royce Gracie. I think his answer shocked the asker. His answer was, “I would take my knife out and stick it in him. The reason is that I don’t fight for sport, I fight to protect myself and my family. The only reason I would be in a fight with Royce Gracie would be that he was attacking me or my family. Royce seems like a really nice guy, so I don’t think that’s really likely.”