One of the most common claims in martial arts is that ‘our style will allow a smaller person to beat a larger, stronger opponent’, which I like to call 'David and Goliath Technique'.
It’s mostly prevalent in Krav Maga (and any other ‘reality based’ system), BJJ, and traditional grappling styles like Aikido, Jujutsu, etc., but is a common advertisement in most martial arts.
However, when we look at most combat sports, there are strict limitations on weight – and by extension on size and strength. The idea is to take two competitors who are similar so that the competition becomes one of skill.
So… Is there truth to that claim? Does size, so to speak, actually matter?
Let’s start with an analysis of attributes and skills.
Attributes mean pretty much everything outside of one’s technical base – strength, power, speed, endurance, etc. It can also mean intangibles, like fighting spirit, timing, toughness. Skills refer to the actual techniques that one knows.
All things being equal, attributes trump skill. Here’s a hypothetical for you:
Take two people who are identical in everything except skills and attributes – same age, size, weight, etc. The first has no skill, but is strong, fast, powerful, can get hit for days and doesn’t care, and has the endurance of an ultramarathon runner. The second has poor attributes (i.e. unfit, weak, etc.), but has an incredible technical base and knows all the techniques and can execute them well. Which would you put money on in a fight?
For me, it’ll be the former 99 times out of 100.
However, the core assumption in the above was ‘all things being equal’, which is the exact opposite of ‘smaller person can beat a larger, stronger opponent’. Is there a middle ground? What other things can impact this?
The answer, as always, is context.
So what things do we need to consider? Well, loads. But to start with, let’s look at the ruleset, disparity in skill, and the training methodology and preparation.
Let’s start with the ruleset and definition of winning.
Can a smaller person, highly skilled in BJJ defeat a larger, stronger boxer? Potentially. Are they in a BJJ match or a boxing match?
Can a smaller person, armed and highly skilled in the use of firearms, defeat a larger, stronger person who is unskilled and unarmed? Potentially. At what distance do they start the engagement? You may recall that's how David beat Goliath...
Even when taking these into account, the outcomes are not definite. However, by asking these questions we can get a pretty clear idea of the likelihood of certain outcomes.
I can hear the screams of discontent from many a practitioner already saying ‘this is not what we meant, we were talking about self defence’ or ‘what about Royce Gracie in the UFC’.
Well, self defence situations also come with a set of assumptions that affect the rules, though it maybe in a different way. For example, psychological attacks such as intimidation and distraction, as well as lack of consent to engage in violence (unlike a combat sport or martial art), as well as potential relationship or history with the person can impact the rules, even if that is not necessarily explicitly articulated. Add to that environmental factors, not to mention the critical fact that you can potentially defeat an opponent in the physical engagement of a self defense situation, and still lose in court, suffer from trauma, and/or be the victim of retaliation, means the definition of ‘defeating an opponent’ becomes very different.
And as for Gracie and the UFC, while the rules were looser than many combat sports today, there were still rules that were agreed upon in advance and given how the world has changed, unlikely to have the same result today given the fact that all fighters today know how to grapple (which is credit to the Gracies and the UFC’s early days).
And this is a nice segue to the next topic, which is that of skill disparity, though that still happens within a given ruleset.
Can a smaller BJJ practitioner defeat a larger, stronger opponent within a BJJ ruleset? Yes, but that will greatly on the level of skill of both combatants. If they are both of equal skill and experience, the answer is likely to be ‘no’. If we reframe this to ‘can a small BJJ black belt defeat a larger, stronger BJJ white belt’ then we start evening the odds a little bit. But the amount of training time required is significant for this to happen and is rarely advertised in the ‘get your black belt in one year’ circles.
Which opens another issue to consider, which is that of training methodology and preparation.
Many of the one-year-black-belts don’t test their techniques in any way that can be considered combatively effective. In other words, how you train a technique is often more important than the technique itself. The concept of aliveness as a methodology for effective realistic training is critical to things working or not, even more so when there is a distinct size disparity.
Can a smaller opponent defeat a larger, stronger opponent who offers zero resistance or intent to their attack? Mostly, yes. While the second part of the sentence (you can guess which one) is left unsaid and is unlikely to be what either the trainer or student meant, it is implied in the training methodology.
With all of that in mind… there are certain things that work better and can give someone an advantage. But the statement in itself, well, is highly unlikely.
A more realistic statement is ‘I have a technique that can help a smaller, highly skilled person who has been training for a long time and using specific training methods defeat a larger, stronger but unskilled opponent under very specific rules that were agreed upon in advance, with an unambiguous definition of winning, and with agreed upon levels of resistance’.
But that’s a bit of a mouthful and doesn’t sell as well…
So what’s the lesson here? Size matters. Training methodology matters. Rulesets matter. And there are no absolutes in training.
Stay safe, stay tuned!