Martial arts are primarily a hobby and a competitive sport. Many forms of martial arts, such as judo, boxing, or taekwondo, are Olympic disciplines, furthering their popularity as sports. However, the historical applications of martial arts were combat and self-defense.
Since well before recorded history, every part of the world developed some form of organized fighting system, either with or without weapons. However, the first formalized defensive martial arts usage dates to the Xia Dynasty in Ancient China. These fighting systems are over four thousand years old and are the earliest precursors to today’s martial arts.
Martial arts remain an effective solution for personal self-defense, offering an alternative to lethal and less-lethal solutions. Explore the best martial arts for self-defense and discover why these forms have proven street effectiveness.
What Makes a Martial Art Effective on the Street?
Martial arts encompass a broad range of forms and disciplines. Some, such as the modern sport of Wushu (kung fu), are primarily performative and resemble gymnastics. Others, like Tai Chi Chuan, mainly focus on internal growth and health, with a relatively small combat component.
Learning any of these can provide numerous benefits, such as better health, improved mental preparedness, and a stronger sense of discipline. However, they may leave you unprepared for a real-world confrontation, such as a street fight. Selecting a martial art that can cover as many bases as possible is critical.
Below are some criteria and factors to consider when gauging a martial art’s effectiveness on the street:
- Completeness: Most martial arts moves can be categorized into strikes (punches, kicks, strikes with joints) and grapples. The more complete a martial art form is, the broader its technical focus and array of moves.
- Simplicity: While many martial arts include visually impressive moves and techniques (e.g., roundhouse kicks, jump kicks, etc.), they are often impractical, if not actively detrimental, in real-world situations. A martial art form intended for self-defense should teach fast, simple, easily repeatable moves. These moves are more easily mastered and used in street confrontations.
- Adaptability: Although most fights begin with you and your assailants standing, the majority of street fights involve ground fighting. A complete martial art form teaches you how to avoid being sent to the ground and how to keep fighting if you do.
- Suitability in the real world: In a real confrontation, you should never expect to face a single opponent in a fair fight. Many street fights are against assailants looking for an unfair fight in their favor. They often travel in groups and use weapons to inflict more harm. Your chosen martial art form should account for situations involving armed and multiple opponents.
- Training quality: Daily practice and training should be conducive to fighting, not just practicing a sport or winning a competition. Besides the physical execution of fighting techniques, quality training drills should involve fitness regimens, body conditioning, reactive sparring sessions, and scenario-based training.
Don’t Forget the Essential Principles of Self-Defense
In addition to ensuring your martial art is effective when the fight has begun; you must also receive proper preparation before a confrontation starts. Your dojo, school, or training facility should teach you the universal rules and principles of self-defense. It should also integrate these rules into the martial art, ensuring you know what to do in the face of potential danger.
The three universal principles of self-defense, regardless of weapon or martial arts, are:
Know the law: While no martial art form is specifically considered illegal in the United States, using martial arts techniques is a form of use of force. Consequently, using martial arts in self-defense may subject you to your local jurisdiction’s laws and regulations on the defensive use of force.
While martial arts are generally not considered inherent lethal force in the same way as knives and firearms, each self-defense situation is different. The potential to deliver grievous bodily harm or a deadly blow is always present, even when defending yourself without weapons.
Remain mindful of the force used when defending yourself, even when lethal force is warranted.
Develop situational awareness: Avoiding a dangerous confrontation is the best way to survive it. While some fights may be inevitable, you can avoid most unnecessary danger by maintaining a state of relaxed awareness at all times.
In Japanese martial arts, such as karate, this concept is known as zanshin (残心), which means “mind with no remainder.” When in zanshin, you are focused and mindful of your surroundings. It lets you perceive potential threats or danger states without being overstressed or overburdened.
American gun owners may recognize similar principles in the Cooper color code, particularly Condition Yellow. Both require you to remain aware of your surroundings and be prepared to react to threats, real and potential.
De-escalate first, fight last: Not all self-defense situations are clear-cut. Some of them can start just because of an argument or a display of anger. While such cases often involve yelling or verbal threats, they may not necessarily warrant the need to fight in response.
A complete martial art form should teach you de-escalation methods to defuse a conflict before it turns into a fight. Examples include techniques to keep a safe distance from a potentially violent person, speaking calmly and confidently and ways to get yourself to safety.
Your school should also teach you how to recognize when it is acceptable to fight back and whether the threat against you is potentially deadly. These factors allow you to determine when force is necessary and whether to use potentially lethal force to protect yourself.
The Four Most Popular Martial Arts for Self-Defense and Their Street Effectiveness
Below are some of the most popular forms of martial arts in the world for self-defense and combat. The best way to choose a martial art is to learn about its history, characteristics, and pros and cons for real-world self-defense.
Krav Maga is a martial art developed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The words krav maga (קרב מגע) are Hebrew for “close combat.”
Krav Maga was first developed in the 1930s by Imi Licthenfeld. As a Jewish resident of Axis-aligned Czechoslovakia during World War II, Lichtenfeld combined his experience in boxing, wrestling, and gymnastics to protect himself against anti-semitic riots.
When Lichtenfeld later joined what would become Israel in the late 1940s, the IDF requested his help to create a comprehensive self-defense system suitable for police officers, the military, and civilians. Lichtenfeld eventually formalized his experience into a system known as Krav Maga.
Pros of Krav Maga for Self-Defense
From the outset, Krav Maga was designed to be a comprehensive fighting system. It integrates the best elements of traditional martial arts, such as karate, boxing, judo, aikido, and wrestling. Today’s Krav Maga is a fully realized martial art form with its own range of techniques and methodology.
It encompasses nearly every aspect of self-defense, from situational awareness to striking techniques. The core principles of Krav Maga are simplicity, speed, and explosive power, emphasizing the importance of muscle memory, simple and easily practiced moves, and reacting effectively under stress.
A skilled Krav Maga practitioner learns to deliver strikes at the full extent of their strength quickly and instinctively. They also learn to exploit any advantage at their disposal to survive a confrontation, such as targeting an attacker’s weak points for maximum damage. It also encourages using the environment to your advantage, such as using nearby objects as improvised weapons to survive fights against multiple attackers.
As students progress, they also learn more advanced techniques with real-world effectiveness, such as gun disarm techniques, defense against knife strikes, and movement strategies to defend against multiple attackers.
Cons of Krav Maga for Self-Defense
While Krav Maga is a martial art in the loose sense, it is better described as a close-quarters combat (CQC) system. In that regard, training in Krav Maga is similar to training in sambo, systema, or MCMAP.
Most sparring in Krav Maga relies on scenario exercises, sometimes with training weapons such as plastic knives or defensive batons. Although they are useful for learning the basics, there are very few ways to practice Krav Maga at full strength.
Additionally, while Krav Maga is a fighting system, no standardized curriculum or lesson set exists. Each Krav Maga school will teach the system’s elements and components with its own methods. As with other military CQC systems like combat sambo or systema, you must choose a highly reputable school to ensure you receive quality training.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
In 1915, Mitsuyo Maeda, a world-famous Japanese martial artist, traveled the world to teach judo and jiu-jitsu. Three of his students, brothers Carlos and Helio Gracie and Luiz França, went on to develop their own martial arts system, known today as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ).
While a traditional BJJ bout starts with both fighters standing, the core of BJJ techniques is positional dominance via grappling and ground fighting techniques.
As a self-defense martial art, BJJ aims to make the practitioner defeat the opponent by taking them to the ground. Typical Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu techniques include a full range of joint locks, chokeholds, and other grappling moves.
As a martial art descended from judo, BJJ borrows one of its core principles: attaining maximum efficiency by leveraging the lowest amount of strength possible. While physical strength always helps, BJJ is accessible to nearly anyone due to its focus on technique over raw power.
Pros of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for Self-Defense
As the premier martial art for ground fighting, it addresses a frequent component of street fighting: fighters on the ground without an opportunity to strike standing.
BJJ practitioners are not only better prepared against assailants while on the ground; they are fully specialized in this form of fighting and may intentionally bring themselves to the ground to gain an advantage.
The heavy focus on grappling also grants skilled practitioners a high degree of control over the force exerted against an opponent. It is effective even against larger opponents as, like judo, a BJJ fighter can leverage a larger or heavier opponent’s weight to their advantage.
BJJ also offers a unique advantage for self-defense applications: it allows a dominant fighter to promote de-escalation through restraining.
Cons of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for Self-Defense
Although BJJ is a full-contact martial art that can be highly effective against single opponents, its focus on grappling and ground techniques means it is not a complete martial art.
There are no traditional strikes (only open-handed hits are allowed while on the ground), and the art neither uses nor accounts for weapons. Lastly, and most importantly, a grappler can only effectively use their techniques against one assailant. This means that BJJ alone may not be enough to survive a fight against groups.
Muay Thai / Kickboxing
While the English term for kickboxing encompasses various sports and disciplines, such as Sanda, Savate, or Lethwei, the most popular form is Muay Thai.
This combat discipline originates from Thailand, and its name translates to “Thai boxing.” It was developed from the unarmed components of Krabi Krabong, the ancient military martial arts of the Siamese Army.
Muay Thai is also known as “the Art of the Eight Limbs.” The “eight limbs” of Muay Thai are the fists, the shins, the elbows, and the knees. A skilled practitioner is expected to use all eight body parts expertly as striking weapons.
While Muay Thai includes various striking techniques, it also develops footwork, distance control, and clinching techniques to restrict the opponent’s range. These particularities make it similar to Western boxing while offering a greater and more versatile range of moves.
Pros of Muay Thai for Self-Defense
Muay Thai practice emphasizes the importance of muscle memory. With regular practice, it can be used with great effectiveness against opponents in a street fight.
While some flashier techniques exist, such as flying knees, most Muay Thai fighting techniques are designed to be relatively simple and easy to practice. The focus on clinching and fully using the “eight limbs” allows a Muay Thai fighter to react to threats at nearly any range.
The art also teaches vital mobility and footwork techniques, allowing you to remain on the move and keep in control even against multiple opponents.
Cons of Muay Thai for Self-Defense
The primary disadvantage of Muay Thai is essentially the inverse as those of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Where BJJ specializes in ground combat, Muay Thai specializes in clinching and standing combat, teaching little to no ground fighting techniques.
While Muay Thai is often compared to Western boxing, it lacks the bobbing and weaving maneuvers traditionally associated with the latter. Without additional training in other forms of combat, a Muay Thai practitioner may have fewer options to dodge strikes against a well-trained opponent.
Unless you also decide to study Krabi Krabong, Muay Thai doesn’t teach armed combat or self-defense against an armed opponent on its own.
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)
Although Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is well-known in its formalized full-contact sport format, it didn’t originally refer to any single discipline. As a combat and self-defense concept, MMA is simply another term for hybrid martial arts, borrowing the best elements and techniques from as many disciplines as possible.
In that regard, MMA is like the Pankration of Ancient Greece or Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do (JKD). All are martial art forms that mix techniques and elements from multiple others, encouraging the use of what is the most effective instead of adhering to a fixed style.
The modern MMA sport incorporates moves from a variety of martial arts, including Western boxing, Krav Maga, Muay Thai, BJJ, traditional wrestling, and various schools of karate, judo, and taekwondo. While many moves are banned in sanctioned MMA events, they can be incorporated for self-defense and real-world applications. Common examples include eye pokes, eye gouges, headbutts, and strikes to the groin and throat.
The effectiveness, pros, and cons of MMA for self-defense may vary considerably. It depends on the practitioner’s capabilities, the quality of the training they received, and the mastery they have over the various moves at their disposal.
While MMA has the potential of being the most effective self-defense martial art, in practice, it depends on each fighter’s physical and technical level.
Be Prepared For Any Situation with Uppercut Tactical
At Uppercut Tactical, we make it our objective to prepare everyday American citizens to face any situation confidently. We encourage the cultivation of preparedness through any means necessary, from unarmed combat and martial arts to the proper use of knives and other self-defense weapons.
We carry an extensive collection of self-defense and combat knives, first-aid kits, and survival equipment. Browse our defense and preparedness articles to learn more on how to protect yourself and your loved ones.
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