Are Combat Sports a Waste of Time for Self Defence?

This is a key topic of dispute.

Are the combat sports useful for self defence?

Or are they a complete waste of time?

I was reading the Budo Blog the other day which sometimes has really interesting articles and is well worth checking out. One of the recent articles was about an experience of one of the students of the editor for Budo Blog Kasey Keckeisen who is a police officer and martial arts instructor.

I found the article interesting and generally found myself agreeing overall except for one point. Kasey argued that training in the combat sports was of little use in self defence and was a waste of time. This point I disagree with and will go over sections of the article and detail the reasons why I disagree.

"A predator will use tactics he has developed to get what he wants from you in the safest surest manor. This is in no way a “fair fight”. The predator will take every advantage using speed, surprise and ferocity to prevent you from responding in any way that could be effective in stopping him."

Very true. I have no issues with this. This is as what has previously been written in "The Two Faces of Combatives" as well as “The Most Dangerous Animal” and numerous other works.

Predator vs Sport Fighting

Kasey then goes on to talk about using combat sport approaches to self defence against predatory attacks.

"It (combat sports) is a sport because it is hard work. You have to give the opponent a sorting chance. Weight classes, separate brackets for the different genders, different age categories etc, all to make things as fair as possible.

Skill is demonstrated by gaining dominance over someone in the same “class” using ineffective methods."

I agree with most of the above except that last bit “using ineffective methods”. Is an arm drag to get to the back “ineffective”? Is a rear naked choke “ineffective”? Is a big right hand to the chin that knocks an opponent out “ineffective”? Is a Thai clinch then knees “ineffective”?


I think I know what Kasey means by this. Fighters cannot pull out a knife or shoot an opponent dead. Fighters cannot eye gauge or kick to the groin or use other banned techniques. However I feel this is an old argument that throws the baby out with the bath water.

Combat sports (such as mma) training develops far more than teaching somebody a hand full of “banned and lethal” techniques. And I am not trying to take away from Kaseys article overall just the section that the combat sports are a waste of time for self defence.

It's about the Base

MMA training develops a solid base. It develops as strong a foundation as will ever be needed for building any structure onto. MMA training develops the ability to get into an advantageous position. This is possibly the biggest benefit to training in MMA. This is often glossed over yet is so important.

It doesn't matter what techniques you know and intend to apply, if you try to apply them from a poor position with an opponent being in a dominant position, your technique will probably fail and you will give the aggressor an opening to go for and an incentive to attack you harder.

The other aspect MMA type training develops is (wait for it), Aliveness. I know many people hate on the term the same way some people hate on Apple. Regardless, the term articulates and captures very well the meaning which is the ability to flow from one position and/or technique to another against a resisting opponent. This is also so important. Real violence is dynamic so should training be. The training methods used in MMA develops this Aliveness.

Yes, fighters in combat sport matches are evenly matched. The argument against this implies that it is not really that important to be able to defeat an attacker the same size, the goal is to defeat a bigger attacker.

But I have a simple question to ask about this claim.

Bigger not Smaller?

If you cannot defeat someone in the same weight class (as in sport matches), how on earth should you expect to defeat somebody much bigger? There is no way to bypass people the same size and move straight onto bigger people. Sure you cannot use strength against a bigger attacker. Agree.

But arguing that the skills learnt in sport fighting cannot be transferred to larger people is flawed. Remember the early UFCs? I remember seeing a sport fighter under very few rules knock down and stop a large sumo fighter through simple effective striking techniques. I also remember seeing a skinny Brazilian defeat many larger opponents.

These two examples were when the rules were that basically the only thing not allowed was attacks on the eyes and inside the mouth. And these fights were when the overall skill level and corporate knowledge within the MMA world was nowhere near the level it is today.

Yes no weapons were used but this an argument that the combat sports are an effective unarmed combat methodology. Attacks against the eyes can easily be added into an arsenal from a solid base.

Single not Multiple

Another argument used against the combat sports are it is simply one on one and no other combatants are involved. This is true. But if you cannot efficiently defeat just one opponent, how do you think you can defeat more than one at the same time? I am not saying that combat sports are the end game in town, they are just an excellent base to build from.

"Cheat for the purposes of this blog meaning not getting sucked into a fair fight mindset."

Very true. Though I think it is underestimating sport fighters to think that they will play by competition rules in a self defence situation. MMA is a sport and the training method is a very effective means of training in hand to hand combat to a very hard and realistic manner safely. It is just training.

Scaling a Response

From a dominant position, they can choose any technique they want. They can scale a response. If it is just an angry and frustrated uncle at a party, they can hold them down and slap them around a little. If it is a group of four intent on hurting them, they can rip eyes out and stomp.

In today's world where legal use of force is so important, having the ability to scale a response is vital. Having only “lethal” tools in the arsenal is a risky game, legally. This is another key benefit to using the combat sports as a self defence base.

"I bet every hardass Military, Cop, Martial Arts Man reading this would have a hard time if ambushed by surprise by Brock Lesner. Yet that discrepancy in size, strength, and ferocity is what every woman faces with every man they encounter."

Very true and good point. To me this is highlighting the importance of the competent use of weapons rather than that combat sports training is somehow a poor form of unarmed combat.

Encountering a Large Aggressor

There are very few if any high percentage unarmed combat approaches to defeating an attacker on the street the size of Brock Lesner with his aggression who has the element of surprise. This is where weapons are needed (and of course awareness and avoidance but I am trying to stick with combative responses).

I agree you need to cheat and use every tool in the arsenal in such situations. But these are best applied from a neutral or dominant position as trying them from being mounted is still a bad idea.

Manoeuvring and Escaping

What is more important is getting out of being mounted. Do this any way possible. Going for eyes can free up space and reaction time to bridge and roll or escape the hips out. Combat sports skills are important here in this bad self defence situation.

Escaping from a bad position including from a position of rape is vital for females. Combat sports training is very beneficial here as well when talking about female self defence.

"Don’t get me wrong women still need physical skills, but don’t waste their (or your) time with stuff that only works in their weight class against women of a similar age."

I feel this point is again missing the key benefits of combat sports training. It is about getting to a dominant position. It is about getting out of bad positions and situations. It is about applying a scaled response. If you cannot apply these things against someone the same size you cannot go past go and collect your 200 dollars and go straight to larger attackers.

Plan B

The other key trait combat sports training develops is the ability to have a plan B. It is about going from plan B to C to D and so on. You will not panic or be lost when a technique is attempted and fails. Combat sports develops the ability to go from one thing to the next to the next with little delay or thought.

There is no avoiding the fact that defeating a larger attacker is very difficult. I don't feel that applying a scaled response from a dominant position (or escaping from a poor one) which is what the combat sports allows is a waste of time.

"Fuck fair fights, fuck sportsmanship - get that out of their head."

Very true! Again, it is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Combat sports is a training methodology. Those who train in combat sports for self defence will not stick to the rules in a real violent struggle. They will scale their responses as needed.

Training and Real Thing

I think it is important to not underestimate combat sports athletes in self defence situations. Yes you fight how you train. However combat sports athletes have trained under harsh and stressful conditions for so long that they have become inoculated to many of the stresses of combat and can think when engaged in combat. They can choose to slap, punch or rip.

I am not saying all combat sports athletes think in this manner. They probably do not. I am just saying that somebody keen on learning self defence skills can easily apply this approach and gain the benefits of training in a combat sport such as MMA.

"Work on physical skills that exploit these weaknesses, very high end use of force skills to end the attacker / the confrontation quickly. Including the use of close quarters weapons, edged weapons, fire arms ect."

I agree with this. But when talking about an unarmed approach, this does not highlight any deficiencies in the combat sports. In fact an excellent training provider ISR Matrix builds on combat sport skill sets and builds on top weapons use and small team tactics.

Overall it may sound like I did not agree with the article though I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and agreed with the overall intent of the piece. I just disagree about the shortfalls of the combat sports in self defence training.

Combat Sports in Self Defence

I recommend firstly trying to avoid violence which readers and subscribers of Low Tech Combat will be well aware of. Then if that is not possible, de-escalate a developing situation. Then if that is not possible, I am not recommending “fighting” the aggressor such as what is seen in the UFC.

I recommend applying an appropriate use of force in the sneakyest most deceitful way possible. This can be by verbally deceiving an aggressor or responding to an attacking technique you can read or some other response. Up to this point, this is where you attempt your best self defence approaches from verbal through to physical.

But what happens if your technique fails? Hopefully you have a transition to move into. But what if that fails? After all, your shoes aren't the best and the ground is slippery and you were caught off guard.

It is about this point where combat sports skills come into play. Once an encounter has gone beyond a few seconds you need “fighting” skills to fall back on. Again, I am not talking about going toe to toe like a UFC champ, it is simply using a fighting base to apply appropriate self defence responses.

Can you get to an advantageous position? Can you escape from a terrible position? These grappling skills will also enable you to disengage and flea if this is possible or even restrain. This is the short version of how I see the combat sports being of benefit in self defence.

Taking it Further

The training methods found in the combat sports generally follow the progression of learning a technique until competence is gained. This technique is then drilled easily at first and then further developed possibly introducing transitions depending on how the opponent responds. These drills are then progressed into a form of sparring which isolates that element of combat. Later full sparring is carried out.

We should also use this training methodology for all self defence. Techniques should be learnt. Once competence has been gained, they should be drilled and the drills expanded. Once a certain level of proficiency has been gained simple self defence scenarios should be introduced which harness those skills. The scenarios can then expand starting from a situation that evolves with a threat in the distance then closer introducing verbal elements then physical then if the situation is not resolved as planned the scenario continues.

Scenarios involving defence against weapons and use of weapons can also be included in this way.

The intensity of these self defence scenarios can be scaled as too much too soon can harm progress. So combat sports training methodologies utilising the strengths of the combat sports can be used for more specific self defence training.

I recommend hopping over to Budo Blog and reading the original article if you haven't yet as the article contained more than this one aspect I have focused on.

What are your thoughts? Are the combat sports a good or bad choice for developing self defence skills?

Image by MartialArtsNomad