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MMA versus Self-Defense
The Case for a Consensus
© 2012 James LaFond
The Debate
All through the 1970s and 1980s I listened to and engaged in debates about what really works in a real fight. I had tended to stay quiet, as I had plenty of real experience and the results were mixed and I didn’t really know how objective my first-hand facts would be. Was I an anomaly I wondered? I wondered why the teachers of fighting arts seemed to disagree on even the most fundamental questions, and I never was able to form a solid opinion of my own.
Eventually, in the early 1990s NHB [No Holds Barred] competitions began to be staged and a lot of these questions began to be answered by way of example. By the end of the 1990s NHB had evolved into MMA [Mixed Martial Arts] and become a sport. As a sport MMA was enthusiastically embraced as a combat model and the young adult male memberships in self-defense schools began to evaporate. This did understandably vex many a self-defense instructor looking for a protégé to carry on his art.
Now, in the beginning of a new decade, my fifth decade as a combat sport and self-defense enthusiast, I find that many self-defense and sport jiu-jitsu instructors are pulling back from MMA as a combat model. The jiu-jitsu teachers I spoke with have expressed various, often political or moral, reasons for distancing themselves from MMA. The self-defense people, however, regularly comment on how MMA is ‘fake’ ‘not real’ ‘not reality based’ and unsuitable as a reality combat model. This may have something to do with the fact that the four fundamental arts regarded as essential for MMA success are wrestling, jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai and boxing. Without a place-setting at the MMA prep table one can see why most self-defense folks would be disenchanted, and why they now disparage MMA as their predecessors in the 1970s did boxing. They have a point though, and this is it:
Self-defense instructors point out that since NHB has evolved into the sport of MMA there are too many restrictions. What is most often pointed out is that eye, throat and spinal strikes are not permitted, which therefore permits unrealistic wrestling to succeed. This is similar to the argument against the Gracie’s brand of jiu-jitsu before the inception of the UFC.
The counter argument made by MMA enthusiasts, is that vital point striking is overrated; being hard to pull off under pressure, and that the continuous nature of MMA recommends it over the stop-and-start nature of traditional self-defense as a combat simulation.
I believe that both of these points are correct. What we need is a compromise.
Where are the Answers?
The answers lay in the practices used by the artists that form each side of the debate.
Traditionally self-defense sets are not full-contact and are often non-contact, since the targeted parts are easily damaged: the eyes or throat for example. Self-defense sets are also usually not of a continuous contact nature. As soon as karate went the continuous contact route gear and rules were added and it became the sport of kickboxing, frowned upon by self-defense practitioners. The salient observation here is that the absence of continuous contact drills, sets and sparring from traditional self-defense amount to a tacit acknowledgement by those who practice these arts that ‘continuous contact’ poses, at the least, a safety hazard.
So, in my mind, one should look for a way to make continuous contact training safe. That takes us to MMA sparring.
Now, it is very easy to deconstruct a combat sport as the admissions of effectiveness are stated explicitly in the rules. Let’s stick with eyes. One of the classic fouls in boxing before thumb-attached gloves was ‘thumbing’ the eye. In the 1980s gloves were modified to prevent this. [Hello, eye-gouging is so easy to do by accident that an entire manufacturing industry retooled to prevent it!] In MMA eye-gouging was the first technique that was outlawed and declared a foul, going all the way back to the early NHB days when groin strikes were acceptable. One can further confirm the effectiveness of a prohibited technique by noting the number of times that it occurs accidentally. In MMA accidental groin strikes and eye-pokes are running neck-and-neck for most common accidental foul.
So, in the effectiveness of eye and groin striking self-defense and MMA are in perfect agreement. The dilemma is that if self-defense programs permit continuous full contact striking students and instructors will be maimed and sued. If MMA permits blinding and emasculation it will be outlawed.
How can you work a compromise? Below is an example of experimental competition without officials in which the fighters must check their egos at the door to arrive at the riddle posed by combat competition.
Using MMA Stick-fighting as a Self-Defense Model
Damien Kestle is one of Richard Bustillo’s instructors in Maryland. Damien and I matched up well in competition because I was older and a little larger and more experienced, and he was more skilled. In our quest for realistic free-style stick-fighting we arrived at a number of answers. Our ultimate test is ‘MMA-stick’. This is a fight with ideally minimal gear, though sometimes we did it in machete-fighting gear as in the video I am about to reference. In this type of bout the stick is simply an accessory to the violent act. It is a pure untimed submission contest. To make it realistic one has to take note of head shots that could have incapacitated him. Our rule of thumb is that if it hurt or stunned you with the headpiece on then you are out.
Now Damien had a fair stick, good kicks, good hands, and an excellent ground game. I had a good stick, no kicks, good hands, and a terrible ground game. So, when I failed to get a good clean headshot on Damien, even if I had disarmed him, the fight would basically become a self-defense situation for me when it went to the ground.
The specific fight I will now reference occurred in the April rain of 2005 on the football field at Archbishop Curley High School in Baltimore City. We were fighting over a helmet, essentially playing smear-the-queer with a Museum Replicas gladiator helmet as a ball. The bout is on Cory Bracken’s YouTube account; it may be found here: ( .
I managed to knock away Damien’s stick but failed to defend against his takedown. I was shrimping around on the ground like an accountant being attacked by an Аrуаn Brotherhood hitter in Folsom Prison. Somehow I managed to tear his face cage loose. Just as he was angling for an arm-bar I put my hand up inside of his cage and touched my fore-finger and index-finger against both of his eyes and pressed just a little. Since I was wearing lacrosse gloves my fingernails did not abrade his eyes. We had never discussed this, never thinking that someone’s face cage would get ripped off. But we both knew why we were there, and it wasn’t to have a fantasy pillow fight. He paused wondering what I was doing at first. Then I said, ‘”Did I get it?”
He said, “Yeah”, sat back, and then helped me up.
Since then we have advanced our stick work to a lighter gear set relying primarily on the ‘submission ethic’ which means checking in on your opponent when he is hurt and asking if he’s done. It also means saying things like, “Hey man I was seeing six of you after that pummel to the temple. If I didn’t have his mask on I’d be asleep. You win.”
The answers are plain to see if we just make that dark shadow cast by our ego get out of the way.
Combat Sport Deductions
As I hinted at above combat sports are fertile mines for self-defense deductions if you know how to look at them. I will cover that in my next piece titled The Vicarious Way. Look for it here.
Sincerely, James LaFond, 5/14/12
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by this axe!
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