Self Defense & “Dirty Fighting”
Does it really work?
In Martial Arts, self defense is frequently defined as a methodology of survival-based fighting used to protect oneself from an attacker or aggressor. Many traditional martial arts claim to focus on self defense specific techniques which, they consider to be quite distinctive from sport fighting methods. Non-sportive or “dirty fighting” methods such as eye poking, groin strikes, and attacking illegal sparring targets are hallmarks of many survivalists martial training. Additionally, they often criticize sport fighting as a non-realistic approach to true combat. Prohibited techniques, conditions of rules and artificiality of settings (such as weight classes) and a generally non self defense format (that which is an arranged and expected fight) are not respective of a true dire combat situation.
Recently, like traditional martial arts, the validity of the self defense ideology has been under a good deal of scrutiny. The fact that many self defense martial art proponents have consistently, and often quickly lost to sport fighters in challenge matches has greatly fueled the debate. Even when allowed to use their dangerous “dirty fighting methods”, they could not actually pull off their “lethal” maiming techniques against a trained sport fighter - youtu.be/5UnXCDASwUQ. Consequently, many modern martial artists have understandably dismissed the effect of self defense techniques all together.
However, the self defense ideology does raise several valid points regarding the limitations of combat sports and the potential danger of using survival-based maiming techniques. At closer observation, one can see that these “dirty fighting” methods actually do work (as sown in the video). Though they are not necessarily fight ending maneuvers that many claim, they can substantially change an outcome of a combat situation. The issue is, unlike sport techniques, they are very difficult to safely practice. This often results in self defense proponents limiting their practice to static and non-reactive demonstration only. To make matters worse, many of these martial artists leverage the claim that their techniques are “too deadly to practice” as a justification to avoid realistic training altogether.
Any form of fighting, especially survival combat, have certain vital requirements for success. In addition to conditioning, accuracy, reaction speed and timing, one’s mindset and emotional response are also supremely important in combat situations. Mental fortitude is often what determines the ability to perform martial techniques under true pressure.
Practice and continual training are crucial to improve martial skill sets and is the key to gaining the above-mentioned attributes. Unlike self defense fighting, due to its relative focus on safety (or usage of less damaging techniques), sport fighting allows the appropriate amount of repetition to gain the necessary physical and mental combative skills. Because of this, it continues to be an established method to train instincts and reactions required for response to attacks.
Granted, the tactics do indeed differ between self defense and sport fighting. Dancing around jabbing and throwing fakes or prolonged and intricate set ups are not suitable, and perhaps dangerous in desperate or emergency situations. Likewise, repeatedly targeting vulnerable body parts is not appropriate or safe for sport training. However, what many traditional and self defense martial artists misunderstand is that, despite the effect of illegal targets, the raw techniques between sport and defense are very similar. Sparring techniques can quickly transfer to its dirty fighting counterpart. A jab can become a finger jab to the eyes, a round kick can be a groin kick, a hook punch can be targeted at the back of one’s head or neck etc. This is why Chinese Martial Arts has a long history of combat sport training contrary to popular belief. In true traditional practice, Kung Fu encompasses both defensive fighting and sport fighting for the very reasons stated above. Some techniques are better suited for sport, some better for defensive fighting, and some are good for both.
To clarify, I don’t think that competition fighting is necessarily required for all martial artist, but the combative conditioning (both mental and physical) that sport like training provides is essential. In class sparring, real time drills and reaction exercises that train similar responses as does competitive sport training can also have practical effect as well.
To further illustrate this point, below is a video of sport fighters performing many techniques that are trademarks of self defense and “dirty fighting”: eye pokes, groin kicks, back of head hits, kicking a downed opponent and open hand strikes (open hand strikes are not really dirty fighting, but a common self defense maneuver and an underused technique). In combat sports some of these techniques are legal and some not depending on the tournament rules. Either way, we can see that sport fighters perform them well.
(I kept some of the original audio from the selected videos as I thought the commentary was amusing). (I should also mention that Bas Rutten, featured in the video sometimes calls his palm/open hand strikes punches).
I hope you enjoy the post and video,
Matthew Blazon Yee
Jiao Li Kung Fu