Are the Martial Arts Effective in a Fight?

Posted by: John W. Zimmer


It was the mid-1980’s and I was having a conversation with an old guy I knew from another business. He owned a metal shop and the conversation got to fighting. He knew I used to own a karate school and thought I could take care of myself. He told me that he knew karate and was good at street fighting. We went back and forth for a while with our experience and I assumed since I outranked him I could win easily in any kind of fight. Well as you know in a street fight there are no rules. I squared off with Henry and as I was getting ready into my stance – he jabbed an eye-poke at my forehead!!! My ego was great and my counter punch caught him in his gut and I declared myself the winner!


It reminded me of my childhood cap-gun fights arguing who got who first. You see in a real fight it only matters who wins and winning most often is taking an early advantage and keeping it. Fights only last seconds if someone knows how to fight. I could not accept that a man in his 50’s could get one over on me (a fighter in his 20’s). But looking back on that incident the way a real fight would have gone is me temporarily unable to see while the old guy had his way with me.


I bring this up because of today’s topic, “Are the martial arts effective in a fight?” Save yourself some reading and I’ll tell you the answer now… maybe.


First I would like to mention that the martial arts I am speaking of include Eastern and Western martial arts. I am not discriminating here. I have always said fighting is fighting is fighting. No matter what techniques you choose to accomplish fighting – there are only so many ways to do it and everything is known. So I include karate, kung fu, wrestling, boxing, muay thai, jiu-jitsu (Japanese and Brazilian),  judo, savate and so forth… any martial art you can think of I am including in this list.


Check out this short video from a school owner I found on youtube, Fred Mergen, about will MMA work in a street fight to frame the arguments.


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I agree with most of Fred’s points and want to echo that if a fighter is well conditioned and at the top of his discipline, the type of fighting does not really matter. So yes a top fighter will likely come out ok in a street fight. But that is not really the question I am asking. I am asking if they are effective or to put it succinctly – are the sport martial arts more effective than fighting or the way I would use self-defense.


So what do boxing, MMA, Judo, Jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, Kick boxing and point karate all have in common? They are a sport. They have rules. The fighters are constrained and train their muscle memory to adhere to the rules.


There is a universal truth in the martial arts – (yes there is one), you fight the way you train. Let me repeat this point: YOU FIGHT THE WAY YOU TRAIN!!!


So considering the universal truth while examining, my question, “Are the martial arts effective in a fight?”  one has to consider what muscle memory will do if all of a sudden one has to kill or maim your attacker instead of submit him in a fight?


I am speaking from experience although I have not had to kill or maim an attacker before, thank God. My background is I started as a point fighter then took a job as a bouncer at a bar for two years. In those two years while I was winning  trophy’s at tournaments I was also getting into about one fight a week at the bar, removing troublemakers from the bar. I found whenever I got into a fight that was near a competition, I tended to use more strikes with less impact in real fights to accomplish the same win. However when I was just doing a lot of heavy contact at the school (our normal non-tournament mode), I knocked out my real opponents faster.


This got to be funny sometimes. For instance one time at the bar I fought a guy with a pool stick. He came at me and I quickly stepped into his swing and hit him a bunch of times and broke off. The guy was still standing. There was no judge to award me a point for my effort – only the guy taking another swing at me before I knocked him out.


So when is fighting really fighting for your life and how would one do that? Most martial arts disciplines (and state laws) hold that if you are attacked and fear for your life – you can do whatever it takes to protect yourself up to and including taking a life!!! (so long as you did everything to avoid if possible and stopped when it was clear you were no longer in danger).


This is where traditional Eastern Martial Arts shine. Most of them include instruction on eye gouges, nerve strikes, groin – throat and other pressure points that help a slighter person defend themselves effectively against a larger – stronger opponent!


I should also point out that most sport competitors understand most of these deadly pressure point strikes because they exist as fouls in their respective sports.


If one is fighting for their life instead of trying to get a point or knockout – yes there are more effective ways of doing that other than what the neutered sport rules way of doing that. It is true if I knocked out an attacker that jumped me with a knife – I would win the fight. But if I parried the knife while hooking the eye and half-fisted the throat  – game over with little effort.


There is no safe way to practice many deadly strikes that would work in self-defense but are not allowed in the sport fighting methods. So if one trains on the bag and the equivalent of shadow boxing on the deadly methods – you are creating muscle memory in my mind that are more effective than sport martial arts simply put.


So tying this post up – are the martial arts effective in a fight? I think so for most top sport competitors and for self-defense martial artists that spend significant time creating the muscle memory to immediately respond with deadly force if needed.


I do not think the typically (not top-tiered) sport martial artist has as much of an edge as they might think however because if they run up against a robber that is a good fighter (no rules), the average sport competence is not trained for that kind of fight.


So to sum this up, “Are the martial arts effective in a fight?” Maybe. Depends on the person.

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7 Responses to “Are the Martial Arts Effective in a Fight?”

  1. Dr. J Says:

    Excellent discussion, John!

    I feel my martial arts training gives me a much better chance in a conflict than I would have without it.

    When I train, I try to have as much realism in my movements as I can.

    Perhaps it would be a good idea to do one-step sparing with more attack variety than is now normally practiced, rather than the standard one step punch.

    “You fight the way you train” is going to be my new mantra!

  2. Ed Says:

    Effectiveness of Martial Arts in a street fight depends on how you train.

    The biggest problem is when martial artists train only against their own style.

    In order to be effective, a martial artist should train against a variety of opponents: larger vs smaller, boxer vs wrestler, etc and train in all of the fighting ranges.

  3. SDF Says:

    Martial Arts mostly teaches you how to react to various situations in a way that any technique that you could come across you understand a counter for it, but the ability to react to the situation is what is key.

  4. Clay Berg Says:

    This video is on point the guy in it pretty much makes all the points necessary most MMA fighters actually have much of the knowledge needed to fight dirty. Just reverse the list of dont do’s to do’s and you have a an awesome self defense system combined with great physical strength, aggression and experience. Here is a good example of a regular guy who shows a regular kick jab cross combo and makes changes it slightly for self defense making it quite effective and even deadly.

  5. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Thanks for the video Clay!

    While I certainly think mma can be used for fighting if you don’t have the rules – I would just caution that ground fighting is only for one on one… and as so often happens one does not know how many you are in a fight until you begin.


  6. Matt Klein Says:

    Hi John! Great thought-provoking post. Your last comment, depends on the person, sums it up. Before I learned boxing and karate, I was a wrestler and football player in high school. I ended a few fights by double leg takedown or fireman’s carry and smashed the guy to the ground. The ground is your friend! You just use the tools that you have available. Wrestling and football taught me to withstand a lot of pain, and that is a big factor in fights; toughness. Ability to dish out and withstand pain are key in a fight. I believe MMA fighters, boxers, BJJ guys, and Muay Thai guys in particular train in a more realistic way and are better trained to withstand pain, and will therefore have a real advantage on the street. It is too hard to train most other arts in a realistic way without really hurting people, so it is rarely done. That said, however, if I was in a fight to the death I probably would not train my Kenpo for anything. Like Dalton said in Roadhouse, “No one ever wins a fight”, so always best to avoid. People get killed..

  7. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Wow Matt!

    I was able to picture you slamming guys while reading this! Great points. Toughness cannot really be taught – one has to be willing to go the extra mile while taking on pain. I think sparring can help one experience that – well it worked for me.

    A fight avoided is a fight won… great advice!