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  • Ian Bailey

How effective is boxing for self-defence?

In this article, I will try to compare the pros and cons of different martial arts when applied in a real life scenario, in order to discuss the possibility that boxing could be just as effective as other arts more traditionally associated with self-defence.

Although I have trained in other martial arts, my personal references will be focused on the three I have trained in the most; Karate, Boxing, and BJJ, and the experiences I have had applying or seeing others try to apply these styles, with no other training, in real life scenarios.

In my boxing gym, we get occasional enquiries from people wanting to start training for self-defence, people who start boxing for this reason probably only make up around 2% of the people who attend the classes, or train at the gym, the vast majority start boxing either for fitness, or because they want to be a competitive boxer. In a BJJ academy, probably around 75% of all the students will be there with achieving competence in self-defence as their main goal, and in a Karate or other traditional martial arts dojo, it will be close to 100%, that’s certainly why I started as an 8 year old back in 1992; I’d heard there were ways a kid could beat up bullies if they practised martial arts like Karate, so I pestered my parents until they took me.

So why is boxing seemingly never considered as a martial art for self-defence? It is often said that most fights end up on the floor, particularly by those trying to market the grappling arts. This may be true, but every fight begins with both protagonists standing, and almost always begins with punches being thrown, so would it not make sense to up-skill yourself in these areas as a priority?

If you were going to start training for self-defence, which martial art would you choose? Which of the myriad styles would you assume to be the most effective for protecting yourself in the event that you were attacked? Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is one of the arts most synonymous with defending oneself nowadays, but why is that? Jiu Jitsu was brought to Brazil in the early 1900s by Japanese judoka Mitsuyo Maeda, but it wasn’t until 1993 when Royce Gracie won the first ever UFC that BJJ was revealed to the masses as such an effective fighting system. Gracie appeared to defeat his opponents that night with relative ease, finishing all three opponents by submission, in a combined time of less than five minutes. Gracie won the second UFC the following year in similar fashion. Exponents of BJJ and the grappling arts dominated mixed martial arts, and the UFC for a long time after, and so their styles became known as far more effective than others. BJJ has since then had a popular appeal to anyone seeking to learn self-defence skills as it enables a smaller, weaker person to dominate a bigger stronger person. I have trained BJJ for around 4 years, since retiring from boxing in late 2016, and I can attest to how easy it is to dominate someone using BJJ, control their movement, and potentially render them unconscious, regardless of their size, providing you have more skills than them, which, especially in the UK, and much of Europe, given the absence of any kind of grappling culture, is usually a given factor leading up to any potential physical altercation.

This gulf in skill is definitely one of the reasons BJJ is such an easy sell to anyone wanting to begin training martial arts for self-defence. If you were to attend a BJJ class with no prior experience, you can expect to be utterly helpless, even against people who have only been training for 6-8 months. Therefore, a beginner can quite easily envision themselves as comparatively effective after a relatively short period of time, as even a little knowledge is infinitely more than your opponents, if they have none!

So does Brazilian Jiu Jitsu/other grappling arts’ prominence in mixed martial arts, and historical dominance when pitted against other styles serve as proof that it is also the best choice for self-defence? Not necessarily. Before we try to analyse which martial art is the best for the purpose of defending oneself, we should ask; what are we trying to achieve when defending ourselves against an attacker, or attackers? Our primary goal, in self-defence, is to minimise the chances of ourselves getting hurt; are we always doing that by taking the fight to the ground? If we are in a one on one scenario, the answer is definitely yes. By taking your attacker to the ground, you are removing the most dangerous aspect of any one on one fight; your opponent’s ability to generate explosive force with strikes, which have the potential, especially when dealing with someone bigger than yourself, to end your resistance instantly by knocking you out. But what about when dealing with more than one attacker, or when there is one attacker, who has associates, who you can assume will jump in to help – in this scenario, taking the fight to the ground would be a catastrophic mistake. I remember watching a YouTube video, where two men were fighting on the street. One of them, clearly with grappling experience, took the other down, and moved into a dominant position, at which point, a third man entered the fight, kicking the grappler in the head, knocking him unconscious. This is not to say that BJJ isn’t effective for self-defence, it clearly is, however, scenarios like this show that immobilizing an opponent by taking them to the ground, isn’t always the best method of self-defence.

Still popular choices for those seeking to arm themselves with the skills of self-protection, although nowhere near as popular as they may have been a couple of decades ago, are the traditional martial arts; Karate styles such as Goju-Ryu, Goju-Kai, Shotokan, Kyokushin and Wado-Ryu amongst others. Other Japanese arts, Aikido, and Jiu Jitsu are still practised by many. Kung Fu; the most popular style, certainly in the UK seeming to be Wing Chun, perhaps due to it being synonymous with Bruce Lee. All of these martial arts are different styles, with different approaches to fighting. What they have in common, is that the movements and techniques within these styles were all created with the sole purpose of self-defence, and causing damage to an adversary in a real life, not a sporting scenario. Although BJJ was originally created for self-defence, many academies today are focusing purely on winning competitions, where there are some techniques and concepts that would not translate to a no holds barred fight very well. Judo practitioners can throw an untrained person at will, even if they are much bigger, but their training doesn’t prepare them for what happens once they’re on the ground and punches are being thrown, if they’ve only been training for Judo competitions.

Boxing, Muay Thai, K1 kickboxing and other striking martial arts are all primarily sports, so again, there are many things that exponents of these arts will do in training, that would not be applicable, or helpful at all in a real scenario. This is often the criticism aimed at “sport martial arts” by supporters of traditional methods; “There’s rules in your sport, but there are no rules on the street.” Most boxers/Juijiteiros/Judokas/wrestlers would have heard this many times in conversations with untrained people, but it’s also a selling point of the traditional martial arts, and even modern self defence systems, like Krav Maga; these are methods of self-defence, that were designed with that as the primary concern, not scoring points, or achieving a victory within a very narrow ruleset, they are literally practising how to fight people with no rules.

How realistically can these scenarios be practised though? You can’t spar with no rules…you certainly can’t compete. I feel this is the fatal flaw with traditional martial arts and the modern self-defence methods; there is no way they can practise their techniques under serious pressure. Obviously a boxing match or Jiu Jitsu competition isn’t a life and death scenario like being attacked in a dark alley. However, anyone who’s competed in either of these sports knows how hard it is to retain composure enough to execute the techniques they thought they had mastered in training under the extreme pressure of a competition. Some people crumble mentally, and forget almost all of their training, and are reduced to the level of a complete novice the first time they compete under the lights. The pressure a competitor feels in the ring, cage, or on the mats in a competition they have spent weeks preparing for is definitely not the same as the pressure one feels in a self-defence scenario, where the cost of losing, could be life.

However, it is an acute pressure. I have seen people train for weeks and then pull out of a match due to the fear of losing hours before they were due to step in the ring, I’ve seen fighters shaking from nerves, others throwing up before a fight, even during a fight in between rounds. The pressure of fighting is real, it’s the reason many people train martial arts for years, even their whole lives, but never compete. When a martial artist has competed a significant number of times, they get used to dealing with the nerves, anxiety, and pressure of competition, these feelings don’t ever go away, but the fighter learns how to deal with them, and use them to their advantage. I believe this mental conditioning is a pre requisite of any martial art being used in a self-defence application. The athlete needs to have learned to perform techniques, improvise, and implement strategies under extreme pressure and imminent risk of injury if they ever hope to be able to use their training to defend themselves during an unplanned attack. Traditional martial arts, and modern self-defence systems can never provide this crucial part of a martial arts preparation for use in real life combat, and so, as a stand-alone choice for self-defence, I don’t believe these methods are fit for purpose. I believe, these schools can help a martial artist massively, when combined with other competition arts. I myself benefitted from a lot of the things I learned in Goju Kai Karate training from my childhood, both in boxing competition and in self-defence applications, however, in my opinion, it is my competition experience, especially in boxing, (where I competed amateur and pro a total of 75 times), which has given me the ability to use the skills I’ve learned during my life as a martial artist under serious pressure.

So to return to the title of this article; “How effective is boxing for self-defence?” I believe it’s very effective in most scenarios if used correctly. The first thing a boxer learns is footwork; how to move around the ring in a stable position so that they can attack and defend whenever necessary, as quickly as possible. This is a key skill in any self-defence scenario, maintaining stability, especially when you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Another skill addressed early in a boxers development is judgement, and control of distance. Knowing exactly when an opponent can reach you with their arms, and when you can reach them is crucial for self-defence as long as the fight stays standing, even more crucial if an attacker is holding a knife.

One key skill in boxing that’s given high priority in the coaching of footwork (particularly defensive footwork) is lateral movement. A person with no previous boxing training will step back when a punch is thrown at them, and back again, if another punch is thrown, or even step forward and clinch, but they’ll never step to the side. This kind of movement is coached very early in a boxers development, and isn’t seen at the same level in any other martial art. Boxing contests take place in a ring, anything from a 16ft, to a 24ft square. This is a relatively small area, and can feel even smaller when performing evasive manoeuvres against an oncoming opponent. Ring generalship, is a term often used to identify the level of control a fighter has over the space available to them, and their opponent during a fight. A boxer with a high degree of ring generalship, will always make sure they have space behind them to move into, and will never allow their back to be pinned on the ropes, and their movement to be compromised. When used against an opponent of similar skill, these moves are constantly being subtly counteracted, and it can be hard to see, but when used against an untrained, or less skilled opponent, it can be beautiful to watch. This awareness of position, in relation to obstacles (ropes in a boxers case) that may limit a boxers movement, becomes second nature to fighters with significant experience, and is hugely transferrable to self-defence. It’s obvious that boxers have better punch technique than any other martial artists, due to punches being the only strikes they ever learn. Years are spent honing punch technique in incredibly fine detail, so that boxers can cause maximum damage to their opponents, and do it very quickly. When you watch two highly skilled boxers competing, often you can’t see many punches landing with power, this is due to subtle defensive skills, learned over the years, that boxers use, to minimise damage when hit with a punch. Experienced boxers know how to ride a punch; a skill used to take much of the power away from the strike by moving the head in the same direction as the punch, and sometimes even turning the head at the precise moment the glove lands on the chin. This, like many other skills, becomes second nature. When someone with near perfect technique, lands a punch on a person with no previous boxing training, the fight, whether in the ring, or on the street, will usually end at that point. The ability to, given the opportunity, render an assailant unconscious with a single punch, is obviously a huge advantage in a self-defence scenario, and should be a huge selling point for boxing as a martial art for those looking to protect themselves. Is boxing an effective martial art for self-defence? Yes. Is it a comprehensive system, that covers all skills required for self-defence? No. What happens if you’re a skilled boxer who gets taken to the ground by an attacker, with even a little training in grappling? Well, in layman’s terms, you’re f****d! No martial art alone is appropriate to prepare someone for the unpredictable landscape of no rules fighting, but boxing certainly covers many skills that would be very useful.

In short, there is no martial art that provides you with a comprehensive, applicable approach to self-defence. Boxing coaches teach boxers exactly how to win boxing matches. Wrestling coaches teach wrestlers exactly how to win wrestling matches. No coach, whatever they market themselves to be, can teach anyone exactly how to win a no rules altercation, because unlike sport martial arts, these situations don’t take place within a set of rules, with a limited number of techniques, anything can happen. I believe, the only realistic way to prepare for this, is to train in the most likely scenarios; 1. The assailant(s) may throw punches. 2. The opponent(s) may grab/clinch you. 3. The fight may move to the ground. I believe that if you prepare yourself for these highly likely eventualities, you will have a far better chance of staying safe, and protecting yourself in a real conflict, than if you aim to protect yourself from every possibility, like knife defence, gun disarms/defence, fighting multiple attackers. You are never going to be able to practise these extreme scenarios under real pressure, so what are the chances of any specific techniques working if someone pulls a knife on you? Not great…and like many techniques, performing them wrongly, or with hesitation, could have dire consequences. By training in a martial art where you have to compete and spar under high pressure, you will also develop faster reaction times, and decision making skills that will help you to improvise, should you need to defend yourself in a scenario that falls outside the most likely eventualities mentioned above.

To summarise, I believe that boxing is an effective martial art for self-defence, when used correctly, and ought to be widely used by those seeking to arm themselves with self-defence skills. I also believe, that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, even if only practised for a year or two, can elevate a person way above the average skill level in this area, and so is a no brainer for anyone training for these reasons.

Finally, the importance of competition must be stressed; if you are trying to arm yourselves with the skills needed for self-defence, you can’t just learn the skills, you have to test the skills. I competed for 15 years as a boxer, amateur and pro, it was my whole life, I was obsessed with fighting. Now I have retired from competition, and train Jiu Jitsu, my ambitions in this sport aren’t the same. However, I still compete whenever I can, because I need to see how good I really am, and get used to applying the techniques I know under the highest possible pressure, so I know whether they really work. So keep training, and testing yourself, don’t be afraid to fail, improvement should be the only objective. Thanks for reading!

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David Edmunds
David Edmunds
15 Δεκ 2021

Great article 👌

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