Self-Defence vs Sport

Self-Defense Compared to Sport (MMA): What is the difference?
By Sifu Jim Kragtwyk – Victoria, BC

In the martial arts community, real or on-line, there seems to be intense differences of opinion when people compare self defense systems, traditional martial arts and sport fighting (MMA).  To me, making comparisons among them is not appropriate or logical as it is like comparing apples to oranges.  The context in which people fight and the underlying circumstances are hugely diverse.

Self-defense systems are primarily focused on real-world situations where the physical safety of you or a loved one(s) is at risk.  Skills and techniques are developed and trained to deal with a wide variety of situations that may involve one or more attackers, physical environments and even weapons.  The skills/techniques involved are only one of many factors that will influence the outcome of a dangerous situation.  Often times much training is focused on personal safety awareness and how to avoid or de-escalate situations so self-defense techniques won’t have to be used.  This is a direct reflection of the reality that despite how good your self defense system is and how much skill you have developed, something very bad can still happen.  You cannot defend yourself well if you are blindly/surprise attacked, such as from behind or from a sucker-punch.  You might slip or fall to the ground due to the terrain or weather and injure yourself.  Something in the immediate environment might be an obstacle for you to defend yourself in the way you have trained (close quarters, furniture or a slope in the terrain).

The motivation of the attacker(s) is yet another factor that can heavily influence the outcome of an attack.  Is the attacker motivated by personal material gain (robbery)?  Are they in a coherent state or are they heavily under the influence of alcohol/drugs?  Is their behavior a result of a severe mental health issue such as psychosis (the vast majority of people with mental health issues are not violent but a very small sub-population can become very violent due to psychosis)?  Is the attack a result of a deep emotional wound/issue that surfaces between 2 people who know each other intimately such as in domestic violence between partners?  The motivation of the attacker is relevant as their level of combativeness, and persistence therein, is reflected in their motivation.  Someone who is attacking another due to a personal/emotional issue is likely to be much more violent and persistent than someone whose motive is to rob you.  Also, many of us have heard the accounts in the media wherein four or more trained, protected and armed police officers are unable to subdue/restrain someone who is in a cocaine-induced psychosis.  These individuals seem to muster super human strength and don’t seem to feel pain.

Conversely, the motivation of the person being attacked plays a significant role in the severity and persistence of their defense.  If you are defending yourself when someone tries to rob you of your wallet you are less likely to risk your life for it, whereas if you or your loved one’s life is at risk your level of defense will be endless and ruthless.  Two people in a MMA sport fight are fighting for fame, pride and money so their level of motivation is different than if they were defending their lives.  In a real self-defense situation it is rare that you would find 2 highly skilled/trained martial artists fighting each other.  The common sense and respect they would/should likely have for each other’s skills (and ability to injure or be injured) would be a moderating factor.

MMA athletes usually train for multiple hours every day and part of that training involves strength conditioning, weightlifting and endurance conditioning.  The reason for this is that in MMA sport the “fights” can go on for many minutes and it is expected that each athlete will likely have to take a variety of hits before they can finish a fight by knockout, decision or submission.  So part of their training is to be tough to take many hits if need be and to have endurance to participate in an artificial fight environment.  Most fights that I have observed do not last more than a minute or 2.  Some martial arts systems train to actually avoid getting hit and to finish a fight as quickly as possible.

If you look at most of the MMA athletes they are big and strong and in the prime of their lives at a relatively young age.  This precludes people of smaller stature, weaker musculature/endurance or of advanced age to participate in this type of sport/fight.  As professional athletes they have the time, resources and support to train many hours per day.  This level of intense training also makes injury a common experience. This is just not possible for most people who want to learn a martial art or want to have some self-defense skills should the need arise while having a career, family and other pursuits/interests and who can’t afford to miss work or other commitments due to repeated injuries.

In real self-defense situations there are no rules, time limits, referees or safety gear. There is no cage to prevent an attacker’s friends from joining in on the beating. The possibility for severe injury and possibly death is real.  It is not a game or a sport in that moment.  So to compare MMA with other self-defense systems or martial arts does not take into account these real factors.

Having trained and taught Wing Chun Kung Fu for over 25 years I am very clear on why I am training and teaching.

  • Wing Chun is a highly effective self-defense system for people of different body types and ages.
  • It is a self-defense system that is smart, strategic, logical, brutal and aims to finish a fight in a few seconds (in Wing Chun time a few seconds is a long time!).  You train your body to respond guided by harmonized principles (structure, centerline, straight-line, energetic sensitivity, timing, coordination and explosive power) so that when a fight occurs your body will respond automatically, without thinking, fear or panicking.  This is how amazing confidence is developed.
  • It is a traditional Chinese martial art that develops the whole person (physically, psychologically, emotionally, socially, philosophically and spiritually).
  • It has a structured and scaffolded curriculum for incremental and consistent skill development over time.
  • It is for self-defense and not for sport.  It is a lethal art and should be treated accordingly – with the utmost respect for self and others.

In this article I am not saying whether martial arts, self-defense systems or MMA is more effective than the others.  I am saying they are different in many ways and that all have benefits and that each has some advantages over the others depending on the circumstances.  Hopefully this article will assist the seeker in getting clear on why they are considering training in any of these disciplines and to help them make an appropriate and informed choice, ultimately with the hope of being a good human being.

Sifu Jim Kragtwyk
Certified Gold Sash Instructor
West Coast Sunny Tang Wing Chun