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A great deal of intelligence can
 be invested in ignorance.
                     Saul Bellow

The differences between martial arts, fighting,
self-defense, sports fighting and combat

On this page:
 Martial Arts | Tournaments | Self-defense | Fighting | Assault | Combat | Performance Anxiety | Legal | The Sad Aftermath of NOT Recognizing the Differences | So What Do You Do? | Further Resources

Having said there are differences between martial arts, self-defense, combat et all,  there are a lot of people out there who would have you believe there aren't.

Many commercial martial arts schools -- and their students -- actively promote the idea that all these ARE the same thing. And by studying their system (read paying the head of the school lots and lots of money) you will automatically be masters of all these aspects of conflict.  

This is simply not true.

The actuality of violence is that it extends far past the physical act -- and the act itself is not only controlled by these external issues, but the act influences them as well. Violence doesn't start with the first blow, nor does it end with your opponent hitting the floor because you used your ultimate fighting system on him. And this really applies to all those 'reality based self-defense' wankers and Mixed Martial Arts players -- who think that they're ready for the 'big time.'

Unfortunately, this is a very popular fantasy/dream/perception of what "real fighting" is. They want it to only be about physical condition, techniques and how aggressively you apply them. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard these jokers justify their total lack of understanding about the realities of violence by preaching "'Cause in a street fight their aren't any rules!"


Even if that statement were true, there are all kinds of rules and laws  ABOUT fighting (many of which you can look up in your State's Penal Code). The pre-conflict conditions and your behavior prior to, in the middle of and after the incident will determine what you are charged with...or if it legally deemed self-defense and you are exonerated.

The reason violence is a complicated situation is that it  isn't about what you think it is, it is about what other people think it is (1) And that takes it far beyond any simplistic misconceptions about what it takes to "survive a real streetfight."

These kinds of misconceptions are actively encouraged by
   a) ignorant,
   b) unscrupulous or
   c) a combination of both,
instructors who claim to able to teach you to defeat anyone using their ultimate fighting system. You cannot go out onto the Web or into an internet forum without hearing such claims made by the instructor, his students or, sad to say, cult members. In cyberspace these internet warriors are invincible ... and they will spend days telling you all about it too.

In light of these claims I am reminded of the old snake oil salesmen who traveled the West making claims about their cure-all elixirs. "Drink Dr. Boneacre's Miracle Elixir. It cures whatever ails you, re-grows hair, rejuvenates you, makes you attractive to the opposite sex and sweetens your breath. All of this in one small bottle!."  With a little imagination, you can come up with a slick-backed haired grandmaster in a shiny polyester gi doing a similar sales pitch about everything that his martial art will do for you (2).

When in fact, what they are selling is the dream that you can defeat an imaginary "uber-bad guy."  An individual who -- from our experience -- resembles nothing more than a schoolyard  bully on steroids. Yes, we're talking about the jerks who made school so unpleasant for you. But  now, using the Grand Master's undefeatable fighting system, you can extract revenge for the indignity and shame that the school bully heaped on you all those years ago.

Except for one thing... that isn't how the overwhelming majority of violence really happens.

The martial arts equivalent of a snake oil salesman is selling what you THINK the danger is. It  is not an effective counter to the actual dangers presented by violent people (3). Yes, when you were a child in school, the bully was a real threat/issue. But in all honesty, how likely are you to meet that same kind of bullying in your present life? The sad truth is what you are likely to encounter will be significantly different these days. That's where things start to get complicated. If your concern is self-defense, then that is what you must not only train for, but tailor your intake of information to meet the needs of the situation.

What we are going to do here is to give you an introduction to the differences between these subjects. If you don't believe us, fine. But at least go out and check with someone OTHER than your martial arts instructor ... like maybe a lawyer, and a cop and a military serviceman. In other words people who live the difference.

Martial Arts
In his thought provoking book Martial Arts America author Bob Orlando poses a well considered model for the evolution/de-evolution of the fighting arts. He postulates that there is a cyclic rise and decline from fighting methods, to fighting systems, to martial arts to martial ways/sports. At each level more and more is added, as well as more and more  subtracted. This exchange of factors is reflective of shifting emphasis at each level.

Below is a short commentary regarding the idea that I posted to the Eskrima Digest on 6/4/04. It covers a great deal of territory other than Bob's system as we were discussing not only Don Pentacost's Put 'em Down, Take 'em Out: Knife fighting from Folsom Prison and the current marketing trends in SD circles to be able to teach "prison" and/or "historical" knife fighting. ***************************
Anybody ever read Bob Orlando's Martial Arts America?  He has an interesting theory on the "Evolution/de-evolution of martial arts. If you take a look at his four part model: fighting methods to fighting systems to martial arts to martial sports/ways, you can rock back on your heels and say "Hey wait a minute!" when someone tries to tell you about so-called fighting systems from prisons, historical sources or heroic figures in history (like James Bowie). What I will be the first to admit is that criminals have all kinds of fighting methods (moves/approaches/etc). Shit, I've even seen them practicing certain moves. These are a loose collection of  -- for the lack of a better word -- techniques that these guys tend to use. But, quite frankly, if these moves fail, they are often at a loss. All in all, these are kind of like the "dirty tricks" that were passed on from father to son in my youth. It is important to realize that these moves have no coherency, organization or any other elements other than dropping someone before he does you.

This is followed by a fighting system. This occurs when someone gathers various closely related fighting methods and organizes them in a coherent whole to be passed on. This is usually done during time of war. The works of Fairbairn/Sikes and Applegate are prime examples of this. Again, these have no other purpose other than to make sure that you are left standing and your opponent isn't -- especially when your opponent is attempting to do the same to you. These tactics tend to be rather simple in nature and easily/quickly taught to some kid from Podunkee Iowa before you send him out to kill enemy soldiers. Their total lack of other issues (including moral/ethical application) is what limits them to simple killing systems instead of martial arts. We can also take a look at "schools of fence" as an example ofthe transition from fighting method to fighting system.

It is here that I'd like to point out that what Don (Pentacost) is talking about is a fighting method, not a fighting system. And while I have seen criminals working on fighting methods, I have never seen or encountered an organized fighting system among convicts. And remember, aside from my dim background, I also ran a correctional center. So while I don't claim to know everything, I tend to question claims of prison fighting systems. Fighting methods yes, fighting system no. I base this statement on the fractured, territorial and warring nature of criminals, I have never encountered a "Crip" or "Aryan Brotherhood" fighting system, whereas I have encountered them sharing piecemeal fighting methods. With this in mind, we also have to wonder about "systems" supposedly based on historical precedent /figures. I mean, did Jim Bowie really have a fighting system or was he just a bad mo'fo with some really good methods?  And if it was organized into a system, where is the historical documentation?  If it wasn't, then what is up with people claiming to be teaching his system? You show me proof that he even HAD a system, much less developed one, THEN I'll start buying that what is being sold is how he used a blade. Until then, as far as I'm concerned it's a marketing ploy. (now this doesn't mean it doesn't work or isn't effective, that's an entirely different issue, but let's just say martial arts are martial arts and salesmanship is salesmanship).

It is at this point in the Bob Orlando's  process when you begin to include other issues like a warrior code, ethics, traditions and social relations. In other words, you have reached the point of "martial arts." The physical aspects work hand in glove with other factors. This gives rise to issues such as chivalry, bushido and adat/ hormat. You still have the core fighting system (which works) but you have other factors which both temper and control its application. It is very important to consider the fact that in this definition of martial arts, "you must plan for success." In other words, the physical aspects are still effective enough that you will have the aftermath of their use (e.g. your opponent laying on the ground gasping his last) and that is why you need these other aspects. In war, you don't need to deal with the long term repercussions, in everyday life you do. And this is where the long term elements like self-control, self-discipline, tradition, and codes of conduct are important aspects of martial arts training. Simply stated, you don't want to let loose onto society a potential sociopath who is only skilled in fighting methods and/or a fighting system.

Then things move into the "decay"  phase of the cycle, which is martial ways/sports. Although the term decay might offend some, Bob's standpoint is from that of effective physical application in a combat situation. In short, while these approaches might personally benefit the individual in matters of personal/spiritual growth or collecting trophies/titles what is being done physically is no longer the most effective means to send someone into the void. I mean hey, Iado is wonderful, but an M-16 is far more effective. In this phase the purpose of studying these systems has significantly shifted from just physical survival to many other aspects. (and in case anybody is getting grumpy, let me point out that quite frankly, these other aspects are far more effective for day to day existence than the ability to snap someone's neck in three seconds ... which face it. If you are in the kind of place where that is a skill you regularly need, you're in the wrong place).

I recently went to a Ralf Krause tournament here in Colorado, and while I saw some awesome displays of martial sports I didn't see too many displays of effective fighting systems. What was interesting however, is how often the guy who took the trophy, was in fact, using a fighting method (i.e. charge in off the mark and hit him first), which is interesting because it really does kind of demonstrate Bob O's idea of a cycle. And looking at this cycle also helps us understand that even if we focus on a particular aspect, we have to acknowledge (and in some cases learn to cope with) these other aspects. ***************************

Although many practitioners of various arts/systems/styles/etc. will claim they are doing what Bob deems martial arts, most are engaged in martial sports and/or ways(4) Having said this, even if you don't agree with Mr. Orlando's divisions/summation, it will make you think about what you are doing in a new light. And it is in that new light you should evaluate what you are doing.

In the mean time, I suggest you take a look at the Four Focuses of the Martial Arts and figure out what focus you practice. Return to top of page

By now you should have realized that there are significant differences between sports martial arts and self-defense. However, like a bad check this myth continues to keep on coming back. Currently the there is a new resurgence of this idea being promoted by a rather eloquent gentleman who is very, very adept at explaining why tournament fighting can -- and will -- prepare you for self-defense. And he is making a lot of money selling this idea because it is exactly what martial artists want to hear.

To start with we're not arguing that there are several overlapping factors that can be found in both self-defense and tournament sparring. Nor are we dismissing the idea that tournament sparring can indeed be a very good venue to practice key components and perfect fundamentals that you will need to apply in a SD situation (especially if you look at the tournament as a chance to practice against an unwilling/attacking opponent). And we definitely acknowledge that tournaments acquaint you with the idea of operating under adrenal stress conditions.

The main difference however, is that nobody is trying to kill you in a tournament.

This critical difference takes it miles beyond the idea of "winning"  and introduces a terrible fear of "losing."  No longer is it a friendly competition among students of the same school. Nor is it the ferocious, and yet controlled, contest between experienced and highly trained competitors that you see in the professional/semi pro circuits. Self-defense is exactly what it's name implies. It is protecting yourself from an unprovoked, unasked for, assault. And the consequences will be dire if you fail.

Having said this, can a tournament teach you how to fight? Well, it will do a better job doing that than it will teach you self-defense, because a tournament is willfully engaging in a contest. This "choice" gives you time to mentally prepare yourself for conflict. In that regard, as far as training for "reality" goes, it is far closer to both fighting and assaultive behavior. But even there you run into some significant problems that will be fully explained in the fighting section.

What we can address now however, is a point that has been mentioned already. That is that moves have been "pared down" so as not to inflict damage on your fellow competitor. That means it doesn't matter how "hard you do it," the safety protocols are already in place because the components that would cause severe injury have been removed. These moves were neutered long before you learned them and for reasons that have everything to do with safety, insurance, legal indemnification and commercial reasons. Again we respond to the contention that these moves would work for self-defense if they were only done "full force" with the question of "If that is so, then why do sporting events last for so long?" Which if you think about it, should make you hesitate before trying to use them in a fight as well.

To further complicate things the strategies and tactics, as well as the mindset and goals are entirely different than either combat or self-defense. Many of these issues are so well ingrained that the automatic reactions are in place without the martial artist even being aware of them. For example the strategy of jumping in, pounding on your opponent and then leaping back when he begins to counter attack -- which while it will score you points in the ring -- can get you killed in an actual fight as it gives your opponent time to pull a weapon; especially because you have just shown him both that you are a skilled fighter and yet, you gave him time to regroup and reorganize. In addition a good sports fighter has conditioned responses that can be turned against him by a sneaky opponent (e.g. tapping out or calling "break")
Return to top of page

 Self-defense is one of the most misunderstood concepts among commercial martial arts schools. It is further complicated by the common martial art belief that you can be arrested for "attempted self-defense" As mentioned before self-defense isn't fighting. But if it isn't that what is it?

 Here is a short version of what self-defense means: Imagine you are sitting in a restaurant/bar waiting for a table and a total stranger steps up and a total stranger walks up to you and says "Hey mo'fo, I'm going to kick your ass" and swings. What you do to stop that attack, that's self-defense. Here's another: You're walking to your car and three guys jump out of the shadows and attack you. One more, someone you are trying to reason with suddenly pulls a knife and lunges at you.

Now looking at these three scenarios, what you should seriously consider is that
A) in both cases the attack was unwarranted and unprovoked. B) There is a serious element of surprise, confusion (that is to say, there was no mental preparation to get ready to fight) and downright fear that will very likely inhibit you from performing well,  C) there is no escalation or provocation on your part to warrant such violent responses and D) while it is coming out of the blue to you, he obviously is prepared to attack. But the most important point to consider is E) that these situations are not about "winning" they are about surviving.

In other words, forget about your so-called "fighting prowess" or what you think you can do in the safety of the dojo. At this moment, your best chance for success, is to get your way clear of the attack and escape. That means you only engage an attacker long enough to get out of there and only using enough force as is warranted.

At this junction many wanna-be heros will begin to proceed with "What ifs" and excuses as to why they cannot escape(5) or how under the stress of being attacked they won't be able to control the degree of force they use or how they have go apeshit on the guy because anything less "might not work".

Let us say again and very directly, the goal of self-defense is not to win; winning is the realm of fighting and is concerned with ego, pride, gain, coercion and the countless other motivations for fighting. Nor is it to kick the shit out anybody who dares to attack you. It is  not an excuse to "unload" on someone and physically harm them for dissin' your precious self. And it especially is NOT a chance to vent a lifetime spleen of anger, frustration and bile on someone who you think has given you a perfect excuse to engage in violence.

The goal of self-defense is not to be physically injured by an unprovoked or unwarranted attack by using a reasonable amount of force. If you are engaged in physical conflict for any other reason or using excessive force, it is not self-defense. It is something else. THAT is what you will be judged by. And yet, it is exactly those motivations mentioned above that many people have who believe they are "defending themselves"

Under US legal standards it is NOT self-defense if: You were an active participant in the creation, escalation and continuation of the conflict. If you  step forward and strike someone who, at a distance, says he is going to kick your ass. You also cannot with a knife slash an unarmed person for trying to punch you. Even if he swung first, you cannot continue to attack when he has turned and is attempting to escape. You cannot continue to kick and punch someone who has fallen to the ground. You cannot pursue to instigate or continue the altercation with someone who, while withdrawing from the situation, continues to "mouth off." Any and all of these situations do not meet the standards of "self-defense," but are instead acts of aggression on your part. No matter how justified you think they were! Or how in the heat of the moment, they seemed to make perfect sense! All of these actions will be viewed not by how you felt they were appropriate, but how they compare with the standards of self-defense.

The goal of self-defense training is clear, it is to get you out of a dangerous situation as quickly and effectively as possible while  using a level of force that is appropriate to the situation. It should do this without attention to pride, self-esteem, revenge or "I showed him." Any other intent, any other application, any other training goals and any application of extra/escalating/excessive force takes it out of the realm of self-defense and puts it into another category

This, not that the laws are so screwed up, is the reason why so many people are arrested for "attempted self-defense." The law is well acquainted with how people use violence to get what they want. What the law is just as acquainted with is how often people try to hide their misconduct under the guise of self-defense! Ask any cop how many times he broke up a fight where both parties claimed it was "self-defense." When the officer starts asking questions and he hears about your part in the escalation of the conflict, guess what he is going to think of you saying you were "defending yourself?"

Putting it in the most juvenile terms, by acting in such a category you aren't the "good guy" anymore. While it may seem silly to phrase it this way, as many people have discovered the hard way, not being the good guy has severe legal and social repercussions. That is to say if you engage in violence for any other reason than immediate physical preservation then both the law and society considers you to be fighting. Your pre-conflict behavior is going to be carefully scrutinized to determine if it was, as you claim self-defense, or in fact, a fight. Your conduct during and after is going also going to be carefully scrutinized to determine if it was an assault, assault with a deadly weapon, attempted murder, manslaughter or even murder.

And we can tell you right now a very, very important point: self-defense is legal, fighting and all those other behaviors are illegal. Return to top of page

Return to MA main hub

Simply stated if you are fighting you are part of the problem. Fighting implies that you are not only part of the conflict, but that you assisted in its creation and escalation. This is what we meant when we said your pre-conflict behavior will be carefully reviewed. If you, in any way, were a) instrumental in the creation of the problem that lead to the physical violence, (e.g. if you were threatening him, insulting him or arguing with him), b) continued to attack after he was obviously losing and/or had broken off his offensive actions or c) instead of attempting to escape you stayed there and fought to "win" you are fighting, you are not defending yourself. Straight up, police arrest both combatants of a fight... no matter who started it.

We address the difference between fighting and self-defense more fully elsewhere. In this section we would like to address another critical difference. A difference that is by and large why experienced fighters so often speak of the martial arts failing in "real fights"  And that is the difference between assaultive behavior and a fight.

Unfortunately, when most martial artists dream of fighting, what they are picturing is assaultive behavior. A situation where you charge in and immediately overwhelm your opponent with a flurry of kicks and blows is not a fight, it is far, far closer to the legal definition of assault and battery. Putting it bluntly, charging in and beating the hell out of someone before they can defend themselves is a pretty reliable strategy. That is why it is so commonly used by aggressors.

It is not, however, a fight. If you have seen this strategy, you were not witnessing a fight, what you saw is legally deemed an assault.

Legal issues aside there is another critical component. With an assault you have the confidence of success because you are initiating the violence. In other words, you are pretty safe because you are launching the attacks and by immediately overwhelming your opponent you pretty well assure your safety. As such, even though there is an adrenalin dump and excitement, you're not overly concerned with your personal safety.

Not so in an actual fight. A "fight" is a knock down, drag out, tooth and nail conflict with someone who is just as tough -- if not tougher -- than yourself. And that somebody is as dedicated to getting a piece out of you as you are dedicated to getting him. And that means the only thing keeping from doing unto you before you do unto him is you and your fighting skills. Here's a hint, how to tell if you're in a fight, you fire your best shot and he shakes it off and charges in firing back.

When you find yourself in a fight, all the confidence of an assault goes out the window. You now have to deal with the fear of getting your ass kicked. And putting it mildly, this can result in performance anxiety, especially when you find your defensive moves crumbling before his attacks. Now you have the extra stress of making him go down before you do.

This happens even in empty handed slug-fests where the fighters are not trying to kill each other, but rather establish dominance, punish one another for misconduct, ego-preservation, revenge,  seeking a "prize" or any of the other sociological/psychological reasons people fight. If you aren't scared of damage being inflicted on you, you aren't in a fight, you're assaulting someone.

Let me tell you, you know you've done treed yourself a bad one when he takes your best shot, his head whips back and glares at you for a split second before launching himself back at you. When that happens you know you're in a fight and it is a bad, bad sinking feeling. 'Cause win, lose or draw, you know this one is gonna hurt... Return to top of page

Beating the hell out of someone is one of the few times that you won't have fear of losing. It is also one of the few times that your martial arts training is likely to function just like you trained it in the dojo/dojang/kwan/academy. You are safe because you are the aggressor and your victim cannot offer an effective defense, much less effective counter-offensive.

This superman feeling is what many people think they will undergo when using their killer kung fu commando moves that they practiced so long and hard. And to tell you the truth there is an incredible rush of emotion, adrenalin and endorphins when engaged in this behavior. In fact, it such a rush that many people get addicted to it. There is a technical term for this: Sadism.

The problem with engaging in this kind behavior is that if you run in the kind of circles where this behavior is, if not accepted, then at least tolerated, sooner of later, you will run across someone who either a) will take your best shot and still come back at you, b) will be faster on the draw than you are (in the latter, then you will be the victim of the assault) or c) you'll end up in prison for murder or aggravated assault. Return to top of page

As we previously stated combat usually involves things like missiles, artillery, RPGs, machine guns and rifles, not empty-handed fighting. It also is either in the name of national interest or professional application of force. It is NOT a personal matter. You don't find yourself in the middle of combat because someone insulted you or parked in your parking space. What's more is very seldom will you find yourself involved in "combat" by yourself. Combat usually involves groups of men working together (e.g. military tactics). So an empty-handed,  martial art system being sold as a "combat style" is a prime example of snake oil salesmanship.

We further define combat as a situation where people are dedicated to killing each other and have the ways and means to do it. It is to "fighting" what a wolverine is to a poodle, namely because of the threat to the participants. Combat isn't just a kill or be killed situation, odds are good that it will be a kill and be killed situation. Even if you inflict fatal damage to your opponent, there is still a good chance you will take fatal damage yourself. If you don't, it is bloody miracle. At the very least expect major damage to yourself and extended hospital time.

One of the key points about combat between individuals is that it is over quickly. In three moves or less the opponent is down and dying. Anything longer and less effective will make sure you are the one heading towards the halls of your ancestors. This is why so many so-called "combat systems" aren't. They leave their opponent still up and able to inflict lethal damage back on you.

The nature of combat is such that terror is an integral part of it. The trauma of looking into the eyes of another person and seeing unbridled killing intent -- if you survive -- will stay with you for the rest of your life. The ability of operate and function at this level is far beyond your rational mind and intellectual training. This is why so often training fails, because neither the training, nor the belief in its effectiveness has not been ingrained in the deeper, more primitive levels of consciousness.

A good starting point on understanding the complexities of this issue is in On Killing by Lt. Col David Grossman. Return to top of page

Performance Anxiety
By now you should have realized that in only one limited circumstance will you not be in the grip of adrenalin and fear. The higher the stakes the more these will interfere with your ability to engage in your training. This potentially lethal combination is something that cannot be addressed without specialized training. Training, if not to teach you to over come it, at least how not to be overcome by it.

Quite frankly, this kind of training is not available in "traditional," much less commercial martial arts training. A book we highly recommend to read in order to acquaint yourself with the complexities of this issue is Real Fighting by Peyton Quinn.

Until you have researched into the complications resulting from actually using your martial art for self-defense, there is a very good chance that you are risking your life by believing commercial martial arts fantasy about how effective your art is for something that the instructor has no idea about. But that won't stop him from selling you something that will give you false confidence rather than real protection.

Return to top of page

Legal repercussions
"I'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by six"

I can't tell you how many times I have heard someone use this infamous line by Col. Jeff Cooper. I say infamous, because how they use it. Not in the sense that Cooper devised it, meaning as a well-thought out and researched conclusion regarding the complications of self-defense. The way they use it is an excuse not to bother learning the legal ramifications of using their ultimate "defense" system -- whether that is empty handed, knife or gun. They figure it ends when the "bad guy" hits the floor.

To these people I have to add, "That's nice, because the next dozen you will be dealing with will be the 12 guys raping you in the prison shower"

Over the last decade I have become a real stickler for understanding the legal repercussions of violence. That is because most people aren't in a lifestyle where they would NOT have to deal with the legal aftermath of violence. Not too long ago I had an ex-Marine lieutenant make a very keen and accurate assessment about my early books. He said "You spent a lot of time in places where people were looking into their beers"  

 When and Where I was when I was in the "Life," the cops showed up to clean up the mess, people were either gone or, they claimed they had been looking into their beers when whatever happened went down. In short, witnesses were real scarce. Nobody wanted to rat anybody out because of the possibility for punitive action before the case got to court. Times have changed as have police/security measures. Video surveillance is far more common now than it was back in my violent days. Who needs witnesses when it is all on tape?

In addition to this I made a bad mistake in my earlier writings...I assumed people knew how to hide the bodies. That statement is a basic summation about the mindset, knowledge and skills that street-rats have in comparison to the average "civilian."  Criminals know how to lie to the don't. And to further complicate things, the cops know how break a criminal's lies. That means they are used to debunking professional liars (as the number of people in prison show) so catching you in your lies is going to be easy.

Let's look at this idea of what criminals know that you don't a bit further shall we? Criminals also know how to get away with things so the cops can't find them. And even then, the cops still find them. So without this specialized knowledge, what are your chances of participating in violence without facing the police? Slim to none and Slim left town (6).

Bottom line, if you aren't already so deep in "the Life" that you already know how to get away with it you're going to be dealing with the cops. So you better know the differences that we have discussed on this page. If you crossed the line with physical violence, you're going to get busted. Quite frankly the places I ran were populated with beer watchers, but the odds are where you are, people are more likely to stand up and say "I saw the whole thing...he did it!" If it occurred in a place where you are known, they'll give the cops your name and address too.

And don't ever underestimate the chances of the guy whose ass you kicked running to the police and getting you arrested -- even if he started it. This is doubly true now that a) triage has become so effective at saving lives from wounds that even 10 years ago would have been fatal and b) hospitals are now legally required to report to the police any knife/gunshot wound or injury from violence. That's why you need to know not only the differences in violence, but what you can and can't legally do. Take a look at Brandon Otto's Introduction to Use of Force page for an nice general introduction about what you will have to not only learn, but standards you must meet if you want to keep from getting raped in prison..

 I have seen so much BS taught as self-defense that it terrifies me. An example is the so-called knife fighting expert who -- on his commercial video tape -- teaches people how to stand with their hand on the top of a door frame holding a knife, so when the guy tries to punch, you slash his arm. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? Where is this guy from that using a knife against an unarmed opponent isn't assault with a deadly weapon? And this is especially in light of the requirement for emergency rooms I just mentioned. If you ever try that stunt, the cops will be knocking on your door and you will go down for aggravated assault (or assault with a deadly weapon/attempted murder/felonious assault depending on what your state calls it in the penal codes).

But this is the kind of garbage that is being taught out there. These issues are not mentioned in combat martial arts,  reality based self-defense or ultimate fighting circles because the people who are looking for an excuse to unleash their killer kung fu fighting system on someone don't want to learn the legal ramifications and complications of violence. Instead, they chant to themselves "I'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by six"

Wake up people, this is reality. And the reality is that violence has legal ramifications no matter how much you don't want it to. And if what you were calling "self-defense" was really something else, then you're going to get nailed.

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The sad aftermath of NOT recognizing the differences
I am often accused of "making things too complicated" when it comes to this subject. It saddens me when this happens.

I really wouldn't care if a MA snake-oil salesman were to find himself in a dangerous situation and get his brains blown into a fine pink mist. (Funny thing about these great gurus however, they seem to have an almost magical ability to avoid putting themselves into situations where they would have to physically act). Truth be told, I also lack sympathy when an aggressive "true believer" of an martial art cult/guru does get torn up in an actual violent encounter. That's the price for trying to overly simplify the realities of violence to fit what you want it to be about. I especially lack sympathy because these behaviors usually are rooted in personal profit/gain mixed with aggressive/dysfunctional personality flaws. When reality comes home to roost my feelings is they are finally paying the price for their fantasies.

The reason the "too complicated" comment saddens me is the number of innocent people who unwittingly believe that all they need to know about this subject can be found through these characters. These innocents, not the grand poobahs or their uber-studs, are the ones who are really going to get hurt. And they are going to get hurt for putting their faith in the wrong kind of person.

How does this happen? People commonly mistake both overbearing arrogance for competence. They also mistake the shallow interpretations of MA pirates as a thorough understanding of complexities. They also get taken in by grandiose titles and fast, flashy moves that they see in these schools. But perhaps the most alluring trap is the Dr Boneacre's promise...the one that offers to give you the cure for your concerns in one simple, concise package. "Gee, I didn't know it was that simple to feel safe" And that's the hook right there --  no matter how complicated the study of this system gets later (advanced instruction) -- in the beginning, it is simple. Here is one-stop-shopping for all your concerns and fears.

Simply put, if you don't know any better, these self-defense messiahs look like the real deal. And quite frankly, how are you going to know if it isn't legitimate information that you are receiving?  To someone who hasn't been there, it sounds good. It sounds legitimate. When in fact, it's like an untested, idea for bullet-proof vest. You won't know if it works or not until it is too late. But, you can put a whole lot of time, energy and effort learning something that doesn't work. (And believe me, these guys are really good at explaining why when what they taught you didn't work, it was your fault for not doing it right or not being advanced enough in the system. When, in fact, the problem is with what they are teaching -- or not teaching as the case may be).

Not too long ago I was informed that a young "star" at a particular martial arts school had been seriously wounded in a knife encounter. The event occurred in a small town in Utah where he was attending college -- not exactly a hot bed of crime and violence. The short version of the story is that he had encountered an emotionally disturbed person who, after prowling the perimeter for five minutes, then jumping the fence and punching a girl with the group -- slashed the young man with a knife. In doing so, the EDP gave him permanent nerve damage in his arm. The sad part of this story is the young man did everything exactly as he had been taught. He did a Tae Kwon Do down block right into the knife.

There were several aspects that infuriated me about this situation. First is that I know this kid personally. Although he is not one of my students, nor are we particularly close, he is a nice kid. I spoke with him afterwards and he was severely emotionally and mentally traumatized by the event. This kid's world and faith in himself has been shattered. A big part of who this kid thought of himself was wrapped up in the fact that he was a supposedly invincible black belt. Okay so it was a black belt from a strip mall dojo and he was a big fish in a little pond who had wowed them at the school with his physical prowess in that system, he really had a lot of his self-perceptions invested in this fantasy.

Second, is that upon getting the full details of the incident, I hit the roof. From a professional standpoint (that of an instructor of crime avoidance and personal safety), the incident was not only a disaster, but it was -- worse -- utterly avoidable. Legitimate danger signals were not only actively displayed for five minutes prior to the assault, but they were ignored and dismissed instead of being acted upon. Action that could have prevented the escalation of the event was not taken. When action was taken, it was far too little and far too late.

The reason this is infuriating to me is that this kid had never been taught how to recognize these signs, their significance or what procedures to put into effect when the signs are present. Instead of reacting correctly when they were displayed, he and his friends sat there watching. Actions that would have sent professionals into immediate countermeasures, were laughed at and dismissed as he sat there content in his belief regarding the effectiveness of his martial arts training. Putting it bluntly, that is not fault, which brings me to the next point.

Third is that NOBODY at the martial art school -- that makes a very big production on their so-called self-defense instruction --  had ever told him that when you see A, B, C and, most of all, D it is time to take these countermeasures. The kid was caught totally flat-footed because nobody had ever explained to him the importance of both preventative and preparatory countermeasures -- because nobody at that damned school knew this information themselves. It is NOT part of the curriculum of the school, the idea is not taught, understood or discussed by the instructors. Their ignorance about the "realities" of violence -- and what it looks like when it is developing -- got this kid permanently crippled. And then, instead of redefining, reworking and including this information in their program, they lied to themselves about how what they did works.

How do I know this? Because I was standing in the school at a black belt test when the head of the school announced that this poor kid -- who was standing there twitching with PTSD -- was a hero and how his martial arts training had saved him. NO! What saved his life was a combination of both he and his attacker running in opposite directions. Had his attacker continued his knife assault the kid would have been dead. Yet, I stood there and listened to the head of this strip mall dojo tell everyone there that this unmitigated disaster was proof how effective the martial arts system was.

His ignorance damn near got his student killed and then he had the chutzpah to lie about it to the rest of his students and underlings. This poor kid was like a lamb to the slaughter and head instructor tried to spin it to his advantage. Do you now understand why I have no sympathy for grand masters and their true believers who get injured in violent encounters? That's because they get people hurt with the BS that they are teaching as "self-defense."

And these are the same people who claim that I am making things too complicated when it comes to self-defense.

Well maybe a little more training in countermeasures, awareness and avoidance and a little less training in their devastating fighting system would have saved that kid's arm and his psyche. As is, both are permanently damaged. And largely because nobody had ever taught him how to recognize and/or assess the degree of danger he was facing. He tried a tournament sparring move against a knife assault. A knife assault that could have easily been avoided  if he had been taught how to react to the danger signals in the first place.

The reality that I speak of is: When it comes to physical violence, things really are complicated. And a major part of keeping things, if not simple, then at least in perspective and appropriate to the situation is knowing the circumstances you are in and what is both required and appropriate. If you are not being taught this kind of information in your self-defense training then what you are being taught is something other than self-defense.

So What Do You Do?
The short answer is: Research.

Self-defense isn't about fighting. By and large it is a subset of a much larger issue; namely "life skills." It is your ability to effectively and reasonably deal with people, conflict and difficulty that will do more for keeping you out of violent situations than any fighting system. Furthermore, these same skills will assist you in gaining success in your life, work and relationships. The more proficient you become at these skills, the less likely you are to find yourself in a violent situation. That's because, like the story you just read, you acquire the ways and means to prevent a situation from developing into violence through other means. If you don't acquire these skills, then again, like the story you just read, simple physical prowess might not be enough to save you.

In the same vein, the value of studying the martial arts far extends beyond self-defense -- which is the most limited of all the focuses of the MA. It took me years to realize this because in my youth all I was concerned about was fighting. As such when snake oil salesmen told me that they could teach me how to fight, I was taken in by their claims. When I discovered that this was untrue, I dismissed the martial arts other values. But even then, it was those values that would prove themselves to be far more useful and profitable in my life because as I progressed I slowly found out how little fighting had to do with everyday life and the skills I needed to get by. If you have to use your martial arts training for ceasing a threat to your personal safety, do not attempt to stand there and fight. Simply use it to deflect the attack and to extract yourself from danger.

Now on the issues I have discussed on this page. I don't want you to take my word for it. I want you to go out and ask experts from those fields. Not people who claim to have expertise by the grace of being a martial arts instructor, but professionals who make their living in that field. Read books on the subjects, do Web searches, buy a professor/ author/professional a cup of coffee and pick his/her brain on the subject. Don't be afraid to chase down interesting facts, leads, ideas that relate to the subject. In short, the more you know, the more you research the more fascinating and interesting the subject becomes...and the more you learn life skills that will help you avoid having to use physical means to end a conflict.

The more research you do, the more you will find that the information on this page -- and this Website -- checks out. That's because it is based in research into the fields we've talked about. And the more you know about these fields, the more skilled you will be at avoiding violence...and if violence is indeed unavoidable, then you will be prepared to operate within the definitions and restrictions of the law. Which will keep you out of all kinds of trouble.

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1) Why is this important? Number one, there are a whole lot more "people" than you...which means you are outnumbered. Number two, a lot of these people -- who will take an interest in what you did --  have legal, moral and societal power to back them up in making your life "real interesting." So you can tell yourself any little, warm-fuzzy story you want to about how you were justified to do what you did, but where the rubber-hits-the-road is what these other people think about what you did.
Oh yeah, there is also another party involved, the guy you are facing, and who knows what he is going to do. There's a good chance that whatever trick he's got up his sleeve can and will slide right past all your finely honed fighting skills and make all those other issues kind of secondary. Sucking chest wounds tend to do that. Return to Text

2) And while we are on the subject of the problems of lumping things together and thinking they are the same; the term "martial art" is a new invention. Our research doesn't show it appearing anywhere before 1927, and as late as the 1980s all the different styles, regardless of origin,  were deemed "karate" in most phone books. When discussing a variety of systems you will commonly find them referred to as martial sports and martial ways in writings from the 1950s and 1960s. The all-inclusive term of "martial arts"was popularized by Bruce Lee in the 1970s,  prior to that practitioners of various arts referred to them by the style's name. Someone was a "judoka" (a practitioner of Judo), not a "martial artist." Return to text

3) Do not underestimate the influence of salesmanship to get you to sign up for a martial art school. Often claims of what a school teaches not only promote, but rely on the misconceptions about the complexities of violence. What they teach might be a fine martial art, that however does not immediately qualify it as effective for self-defense -- especially if you don't know what that really entails. The real problem, however, is neither does the MA instructor. As most, although they may have years experience in the MA,  do not have much experience with violence. Or if they do, the nature and context of that experience is very limited. While this might not sound like much of a problem, when you realize how vast and complex an issue violence can be, you begin to see that such claims are like someone with a backyard telescope claiming to be able to teach you everything there is about astronomy. Return to Text

4) In light of the fact that the term "martial artist" is a construct the Western mindset, what is involved in a "martial art" is hotly debated while at the same time being poorly defined  Return to Text

5) A particularly common excuse for staying there and fighting is "Well what if he chases me when I run?" It is extremely hard for us not to yell in frustration "You IDIOT! If he chases you it goes miles for proving you WERE trying to defend yourself instead of fighting!" How is he going to explain to the cops that by chasing you he was defending himself? Unless you are in a place where "beer watching" is common among would-be witnesses, you WILL be talking to the cops. As such your actions had better reflect your claims of self-defense. If not, you're going to be spending time in the county jail for fighting  Return to Text

6) Every time I mention the idea that criminals have ways and means not to get caught I am always challenged "whaddya mean?". Usually  by someone who doesn't want to believe that his ultimate fighting system doesn't prepare him for everything involved in the "reality" of violence. Here are two very simplified examples. 1) If you are going to a place where there is likely to be trouble, don't park in the parking lot or near the door. 2) If you do, and if you have to exit tires screaming, DON'T turn on your lights until you are about a quarter mile away. Both of these actions reduce the chances of your car's license plate being picked up by witnesses and/or video. That's the kind of "tricks" these people know. If you have never thought of these factors, then you are way, way behind the criminal and how he operates. Because he not only has thought about it, but has come up with many more advanced ways and means of not getting caught. In fact, a significant cause of criminal capture is that the criminal gets too cocky and fails to do the measures he once practiced religiously to prevent being caught. He therefore makes the same mistakes you would. Return to Text

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