MMA is Not Self Defense!

What is the big difference between sport and self-defense training?

 There are many Martial Artists today that practice specifically to compete in sport competitions. While there is nothing wrong with this, comparing this training to realistic self-defense training is where I have a problem. Just using the term “Martial Arts Tournament” to describe these events, in my opinion, is flawed. Martial Arts were designed for real combat… period! I will not dive too deeply into the meaning of the Martial Arts here, as I will leave that for its own article. Neither will I attempt to make anyone believe that I am an expert on the true meaning of the Martial Arts. However, I do know one thing; sport competition is not it!!! Today, we also have a new style of training called Mixed Martial Arts. Although I believe that these individuals possess a degree of skill that is far superior to most sport Martial Arts practitioners, as far as real combat goes, I will list and describe below why sport Karate, Judo, MMA and UFC type training are not self-defense training. This also applies to many other sport martial arts.

Sport -You are fighting for money or trophies. You are fighting by choice.

Self- Defense –You should not want to fight. Taking a challenge is NOT self-defense!

-You know when you will fight.

Self- Defense – This could happen at any time, and probably when you least expect it. Or it may never happen. You are training for a what-if scenario.


Sport -You know you will be fighting only one person.

Self- Defense – You have no idea how many people may attack you.


Sport -You know who you will fight.

Self- Defense – You will not know ahead of time who might attack you.

 Sport -You know what style of fighter you are going to fight. Also, you know that you will be up against a fighter of the same style. If in Karate or Judo, you always will be fighting an opponent of similar size who is at approximately your skill level. That is the only way to keep it fair. It would not make sense to think that a Judo practitioner would enter a Karate tournament and try to throw you; therefore, you do not have to train to defend against a grappler to win. They always start facing each other and are asked by the referee: “Are you ready”.  In addition, they always start by feeling each other out and gradually start striking to begin with then, if it is MMA, the person who has more grappling experience will go for a takedown.

Self- Defense –In self-defense, you have no way of telling, before an attack, what way a specific attacker will use to assault you. For example, will he or she try to hit or kick you? Will he immediately try to grab you? Will he want to bring you to the ground as quickly as possible?  Will he come at you at an angle or from behind? Will you be grabbed before you even know you are under attack? Will it be some combination of all of the above? An attacker may not have any Martial arts training, but may be very dangerous because he or she may have had many real fights and, thereby, may have developed their own fighting style based upon past success. Alternatively, they could have any combination of training from different Martial Arts. The bottom line is this: you had better practice to defend yourself against almost anything.


Sport -You know where the fight will be.

Self- Defense – Attacks can happen anywhere! From a store parking lot, to your own home, or even in your car.


Sport -You know the size of your opponent ahead of time.

Self-Defense – You will have no idea, ahead of time, what size your attacker will be. However, you had better plan for being attacked by someone larger that yourself. If a potential attacker sees that you are bigger or appear stronger than he or she is, likely that potential attacker will seek to attack someone else.



Sport -Your opponent will be using a combination of offense and defense, because he/she is aware of your skills.

Self-Defense – In real-life situations, those attacking you tend to put much more emphasis on attacking (offense) and show little or no regard for the possibility of you applying a defensive technique.


Sport -Your opponent usually is not enraged or intent on hurting you; they just want to win the money or trophy. Most tournament matches end with light injuries or none at all. Remember, in sport matches you do not have to injure your opponent to win.

Self- Defense – Attackers often aim to hurt you, or worse.


Sport -You can tap out or give up at any time. When this happens the opponent should stop fighting you and, if not, the referee will make them stop.

Self- Defense – (Your attacker probably will not even know what tapping out means) If you have failed to defend yourself, you are at the mercy of the attacker as to when he or she will stop. Will they not stop until after you are dead?


Sport -There will be doctors present.

Self- Defense – No doctors are waiting to treat you on the spot if you get hurt. IF you live long enough AND someone sees this happen, AND this person feels like calling an ambulance for you, MAYBE you will live.


Sport -There will be a referee who can stop the fight if someone gets badly cut, goes unconscious, or can no longer defend themselves.

Self-Defense – NOPE! You are on your own on this one too.



Sport -There are rules involved like: No strikes to the eyes, ears, throat, or groin. Some have rules against hitting with a closed fist. Some will not allow kicking or striking an opponent while he/she is on the ground. Most Karate tournaments only allow very light contact and absolutely no grabbing of an opponent. Furthermore, in Karate tournaments, the referee will stop the match if someone ends up on the ground for any reason.

Self-Defense – Try to ask your assailant to follow some rules and see where that gets you. You do not want the first time you get punched in the face really hard, or get choked, grabbed or dragged to the ground to be in a real-life situation. Attackers generally will use anything and everything they can to try to hurt you. Rules are not a reality on the street.


Sport -There are time limits.

Self-Defense – No time limits. The length of the attack generally depends upon how long it takes you to defeat your attacker, or how long it takes until the attacker gets tired of hurting you. Sure, someone may step in to help you, but don’t count on this. The bottom line is this: street attacks often go until someone can’t go on any more, because of serious injury or death.


Sport -There usually are judges to determine who won.

Self-Defense – You are the only judge of this. Are you alive? Are you severely injured? If you have successfully defended yourself because you have stopped the attacker from hurting you, but he is dead or mortally-wounded, did you win? In fact, ‘winning’ is a concept that really does not apply to self-defense.


Sport -You know you will not be defending yourself against an armed opponent.

Self-Defense – You may have to defend yourself against a variety of weapons. The three most common types of weapons are blunt (club type), pointed or bladed (knives, spear-like objects) and guns. Remember, these weapons can come at you from any angle, including from behind. Also, how about the possibility of multiple assailants with any combination of weapons?

 Fight vs. Attack

As you can see in the above comparison, I use the word “fight” when speaking about sport tournaments. I use the word “attack” when speaking about self-defense. Here is the big difference. A fight is a situation where two or more individuals decide that they want to settle their differences by fighting each other. If someone threatens you, this is not an attack. If you can leave the situation by retreating or talking your way out of it, the problem is solved. If you cannot retreat, the individual must do something to physically stop you. If he grabs, pushes, or punches you, NOW you are under attack. In an attack, you are not a willing participant. Winning money or any sort of recognition is not the goal. Getting out of the situation with your life or as little physical damage as possible is everything!

 It is not my intent to put down tournament fighters in any way. They are very skillful individuals, in most instances. The point I am trying to make here is that these individuals train for one specific scenario. Self-defense training is a completely different discipline.

Anyone who practices sport Martial Arts, reads the above comparison, and still believes that sport training is the same as self-defense training will be making their future attacker/attackers very happy.



Jim Barry