Which Martial Art is The Best For Self Defence?

This is a question that man has been pondering since the dawn of martial arts. Men have continuously debated this grand question which is highly subjective and thus highly likely that any favourable answer will change as long as the earth continues to spin. I'll give it a shot. 

Firstly I guess it's important to point out that when you categorise the strengths and weaknesses of each martial art, it becomes apparent that each martial art brings something to the table and potentially becomes the most effective martial art in a specific situation. For example, would collegiate wrestling be effective against multiple aggressors? Absolutely not. What about boxing? Absolutely. Now, place a boxer vs a collegiate wrestler in a 1v1 situation and we'll likely see the boxer get viciously dominated on the ground. This creates a rock, paper scissors situation which means a martial art is only as effective as the situation you can find yourself in. So when we ask a question such as 'Which Martial Art is the best for self-defence?' we must form the average. We must weigh up all the conditions, ranging from body size, gender and the number of aggressors when we assess what martial art is the most effective.

Today, we have the pleasure of Mixed Martial Arts to witness hand to hand combat in a setting of sport. A full-contact combat sport that takes place all over the world allows us to witness humans going into battle on every level utilising martial arts on their adversaries. Many rules are in effect during MMA events to maximise the safety of the athletes and to limit the brutality of lawless combat.

Some of the rules include: 

  • No butting with the head
  • No eye gouging of any kind
  • No biting
  • No hair pulling
  • No groin attacks of any kind

I guess some of you are now immediately assessing if MMA can be used as a representation of martial arts in regards to self-defence. And you would be correct in accessing this motion as the aforementioned rules are common tactics used in street fights. MMA strategy is formed around the idea that threats cannot come from head butting, biting etc and this does not create our ideal self-defence scenarios. 

But let's not kid ourselves. A well trained mixed martial artist on the street is somebody who will certainly know how to throw down and deal damage if required. So dismissing MMA as a guide would be silly and we should use it as a reference in combat effectiveness. 

The evolution of modern mixed martial arts has exposed many old methods of human combat. A few decades ago watching cage fighting often could only be found on dodgy VHS tapes and we had the pleasure to witness large units of men who held boxing at the forefront of their strategy in their hunt for the win. Then came UFC  1 and the game changed forever. November 12th, 1992 - Denver Colorado, USA, bore witness to an eight-man martial arts tournament with the winner taking home $50,000. Step up Royce Gracie, a black-belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu who submitted every single one of his opponents with ease to take the tournament crown and truly show the world the horror of how effective BJJ is at controlling and submitting your opponent.

Royce Gracie, 6th degree black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Royce Gracie, 6th degree black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Even today, the grappling arts, in general, are a niche speciality of martial arts that ensure utter control of the untrained from any seasoned practitioner of a martial art like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Youtube contains countless footage of BJJ within street fights and the devastating effects of a martial art which doesn't necessarily rely on athleticism or strength which many other martial arts do. 

The general consensus we have today among the minds of modern martial artists is that we have an established group of techniques that are truly effective in the real world. When we look at the stage of MMA we have been privileged to witness devastating techniques implemented from a broad spectrum of different disciplines. We've witnessed the true effectiveness of Karate employed by Lyoto Machida, devastating Muay Thai via Anderson Silva and beautiful Judo initiated by Ronda Rousey. Our list could go on, but the point I'm trying to make here is that we all have the pleasure of viewing our world's best fighter's constantly looking at harnessing the most effective techniques into their tool belt and the absence of many disciplines is not coincidental.

It's very important that when we look at martial arts we must truly evaluate the effectiveness of the art against highly trained fighters. Any martial art is better than the absence of technique so when any discipline is pitted against an untrained opponent it will often hold up well, validating the technique at hand. If you're confined to a remote part of China, perhaps you're not being exposed to the true challenges of highly trained fighters walking into your gym daily. Change that scene to London, and perhaps you're training out of a gym with international athletes who compete globally and sparring regularly with killers. Your technique is now truly exposed, often leaving the old arts truly ineffective against quicker, deadlier combinations. 

The evolution of the sport of MMA has seen many martial arts simply fade away. Take Kung Fu for example, no presence within the modern sport of MMA. Do the moves employed within Kung Fu work? Sure they do. But are they the most effective techniques you should be drilling? No, you can do better. Our globalised access to information has laid out the martial arts spectrum for all to see, and the internet allows us to debate such questions with vicious precision often backed up by real-world examples showcased on Youtube or other media platforms.  

One of the world's finest mixed martial arts coaches Firas Zahabi who is the head coach of the Tristar gym in Montreal, Canada has recently made a youtube video discussing his personal thoughts on the best martial art for the streets. Check it out: 

As Firas Zahabi quickly points out above is that even a BJJ practitioner has the luxury of biting, head butting and eye gouging if it truly comes down to it in a street fight scenario. Such lawless combat does not discredit the effectiveness of modern BJJ which derives from Hélio Gracie's vision that a BJJ practitioner should be able to defeat a much larger opponent using their force against them in the streets. 

So, it's pretty clear that BJJ has a very strong base to lead with this question. But what about a scenario where multiple aggressors begin to attack? This is where many decide that the grappling mindset must now be dropped. Rener Gracie has an excellent 42-minute edition Gracie Breakdown detailing his thoughts and philosophy on the multiple aggressor scenario:

Now let's take a look at the self-defence system of Krav Maga. When looking at effective martial arts for self-defence, it's inevitable that at some point you'll be discussing the system that was developed for use by the Isreali military. Krav Maga consists of a wide combination of techniques from many different martial arts (Boxing, Judo, Wrestling etc) which aims to focus on real world fighting with an emphasis on aggressive threat neutralisation.

Lior Offenbach teaching Krav Maga. 

Lior Offenbach teaching Krav Maga. 

When we weigh up a system like Krav Maga, it recognises the effectiveness of one art, then it moves to another art and takes another technique from there and so forth. This approach to martial arts is the modern approach, and it ties in nicely with what we see in the sport of MMA today. We see the effectiveness of many different martial arts and people collecting what works for them.

A martial art or a defence system is a tool. And when looking at self-defence we must look at a variety of tools and apply them together for what works best for us. Today, I truly believe there is no singular best martial art. Even a system like Krav Maga is a tool that is limited by its own knowledge base. Somebody who operates solely under the banner of the Krav Maga system may be missing out on a technique that is more effective for him. I personally train a few times a week in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and when taking part in sparring sessions, it truly is refreshing when somebody uses a move outside of the BJJ playbook to get the better of me. I've regularly been swept with Judo moves and controlled with wrestling holds that have truly bested me. This all comes down to picking the most effective tools at getting the job done for you and your ability. 

In summary, your knowledge of the arts is key. Choosing a reputable gym that has access to many coaches from grappling and striking is the key to begin training in the martial arts. Go online, read about your coaches and their background and experience. Find a gym that covers many different programs and martial arts. Many gyms offer a subscription package which often allows you to simply sign up and you're covered for all the floors. Meaning you can jump into the BJJ class at 17:00 and then after a quick change out of the Gi, jump into the 18:30 Muay Thai class. Such environments should welcome the diversity of the school of thought and challenge the established methodology that can often find itself entrenched within the conservative training culture.

The founder of Capable Men. 

Currently operating personal projects while he simultaneously attempts to develop the Capable Men platform. John served five years in the British army, with a tour of duty in Afghanistan before eventually departing the forces to begin a career in the private security sector.

John attended several private protection courses dealing with security strategy, close-quarters combat training, firearms and advanced driving. This new profession took him worldwide Including the protection of government assets in South America, VIP tasks on the Côte d'Azur and security work within the French Alps.

His interests include global affairs, philosophy, hiking, sports and fitness.