Monday, 02 April 2018 12:53

Let's Settle it! The Best Self Defence System is...

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The internet has been abuzz the last week or so over a supposed feud between Krav Maga expert Ryan Hoover and the famous BJJ Gracie family. The keyboard warriors are out in force over who’s technique is better, who said what and who would beat whom in a fight.

As my friend, Guru Heikki Martikainen says - “want to talk politics? First we train. Then we talk”. In other words, let’s remember what’s important, and that’s training. Let’s do that first. So I listened to Guru Heikki. I just finished an hour of BJJ, then some boxing, and about to go do some Krav Maga. I’m now feeling like I can talk about this. 

I’m not going to get involved in the politics of who’s right or wrong with this stuff. What I am going to talk about is why they can both be right, and why they can both be wrong.

If I’m lucky, I might even answer one of the most hated questions on the Internet… What’s the best self defence system in the world?


To Assume makes an ass out of you and me

In my opinion, where most self defence training fails is in the assumptions made about violence. Every instructor in every school in every system will have a slightly different approach, or different variations. Each will emphasise slightly (or not so slightly) different things.


Because everyone’s experiences are unique, and they will call on their experience. Maybe they used something in a self-defence situation a bunch of times and they swear it works all the time. Maybe they learned something and it always works for them in training. Maybe they saw something on YouTube (cringe) and the instructor swears it will work. And it does – for them.

But will it work for me, or you, or someone else? We don’t know.

I’ve trained with instructors who swear by the right cross, and can drop 9 out of 10 people with one shot. I’ve trained with others who focus on closing distance and grappling, and if they grab a hold of you, you are guaranteed not to go anywhere in a hurry. I trained with others who focus only on using gauging and tearing, and can make them work pretty much all of the time. Another instructor I trained with uses hammer strikes for pretty much everything. I train with a wrestling phenom who can do stuff, in self-defence conditions, that I could not dream of doing.

The reason I love training with all of them is that the technique, as Richard Dimitri would say, is incidental. They look at the assumptions first and work from there.

For something to be effective in self-defence, we need to understand that violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Any assumption we make regarding self-defence training has to be tested and have proof as well as currency. In other words, just because something worked for your sensei’s great, great, great, great, great grandad in the battlefields of -insert country here- doesn’t mean it’ll work for you here and now. Even more so, just because something works on YouTube, doesn’t mean it’ll work off-screen.

Here are some assumptions that we can say, with a reasonable amount of certainty, we need to include if our training is for civilian self-defence in today’s world:

  1. Multiple attackers – assume they are there even if you don’t see them.
  2. Weapons – assume they are there, even if you don’t see them. This can be anything from a shoe to a bazooka
  3. No rules – competition is, by definition, meant to be fair. The idea is to get two competitors and pit them in a game of skill, where all other conditions are identical. But self-defence is no competition. No weight divisions, illegal targets, rounds, pauses, medical stoppages, etc.
  4. Close range – When we look at ‘civilian’ violence (what an oxymoron…) most of the time things happen at close range. The effects of adrenalin compound this, as spatial awareness becomes impaired.
  5. Mobility – given that you are likely to be attacked by multiple, armed attackers who will fight dirty and are likely to get close or take you down, you have to keep moving. This means being on the ground is, most of the time, bad news.
  6. Adrenaline – adrenaline affects everything and is a reality of combat. While one might be stronger, faster and more immune to pain, one is also more stupid, have tunnel vision or auditory exclusion, memory distortion, etc. It also severely impacts one’s ability to use fine motor skills. Complicated, long or technical moves will be hard to pull off. This compounds if you are surprised.
  7. Environment - Our environment is a crucial parameter. It dictates what is or isn’t possible. Tight spaces, uneven, slippery or dangerous terrain, poor visibility, weapons of opportunity, etc.
  8. Legal framework - We live in a civilised society (at least most of us, most of the time), which means we operate within a legal framework. Should you end in a court of law, whatever you did in self-defence must be deemed to have been reasonable, necessary and proportionate.
  9. Awareness and Surprise – I have written a lot about the important of training and developing this. Simply put, you need to know what to look for if you are to detect danger in advance, as attackers will often try and surprise you or attack from the sides or back
  10. Verbal Judo – You need to learn how and when to de-escalate, as many social, spontaneous violence situations will start with some sort of posturing, dialogue, distraction or other interaction before the physical stage.
  11. Luck – some times we get lucky. Some times the other guy gets lucky. There is nothing that will work 100% of the time.

This is a quick summary of a topic that has thousands of books written on it (you can find more about this here and here, and some thoughts on common mistakes in self defence training here).

Proceed with caution

From the above assumptions we can conclude the following:

  1. Range and Skillset - We need to have competency at several fighting ranges, including grappling, striking, ground fighting and weapons in order to be able to deal with situations effectively. This doesn’t mean you have to be an expert in all of them, nor does it mean you can’t have a favourite, but you must have some experience dealing with all of these.
  2. Complexity - If something is really complicated or takes too long, there’s a good chance it won’t work or put you in a disadvantageous position.
  3. CRU - You must train with contact, resistance and unpredictable responses.
  4. Individuality - You must adapt whatever you learn to suit your abilities and limitations. As there are so many variables to consider, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solutions to most problems.
  5. Reverse Engineering – Solutions need to be reverse engineered. In other words, the problem dictates the solution and not the other way around.
  6. Risk/Return Tradeoff – What do I stand to gain and lost from doing soemthing? If doing something has a high chance of putting you into a bad position if it doesn’t work, then try something else. If something has a high chance of working but doesn't improve your position or buy you time, do something else.
  7. The Golden Rule of Combat – to quote Rory Miller: “your most powerful weapon, applied to your opponent’s greatest vulnerability, at his time of maximum imbalance”


Square peg in a round hole

If you’ve read this far, hopefully you agree with most of it. If not, I invite you to at least consider it. So what are Hoover and the Gracies arguing about?

To me, it’s simple:
The underlying assumptions of how violence happens in the real world.

One side says that violence happens like this, and so their solution is for this.

The other side says that violence happens like that, and so their solution is for that.

This is common to all systems from Tai Chi through BJJ and all the way to Krav Maga, and everything in between. There is a tendency to modify 'self-defence' into the way of training, rather than the other way around.

Some do this better than others, and that is usually where the arguments start. And here, in my opinion, lies the secret to effective self-defence training.

Best is as Best Does

So what is the best self-defence system in the world?

The one that works for you!


You can modify many things to work in the self-defence space (many, not all).

What to do:

Analyse how violence happens in our context (i.e. location, laws, etc.) and then see how we can take what we know and modify it to work in those conditions.

What not to do:

Look at what we know, and then modify the attack to make what we know work in our preferred conditions.


When I think back to those amazing instructors I previously mentioned, they all have a preferred skill set (i.e. striking, grappling, gouging, etc.), but have experience in a variety of skill sets. They all cross train. They all adapt and incorporate new experience and knowledge into what they do. They all follow the same pricniples, regardless of technique.

You may agree or you may not, and that’s fine. As long as you are safe, I’m happy!

In the spirit of growth, I challenge you (and myself!) to regularly analyse and assess your training. Challenge the assumptions that you make when training, and you will be a better martial artist, regardless of which art you practice.

Stay safe, stay tuned,


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