Via Potentia ~ Modern Self Defense Training

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MMA, NHB, Grappling and Self Defense

"MMA" specifically refers to programs that combine the technical set of multiple fighting styles to try to create a "rounded" fighter. These include boxing; Muay Thai kicks, knees and elbows; plus basic wrestling, judo or jujitsu-style clinching, throws and ground grappling. Some people are especially fond of jujitsu (JJ), itself. The most common versions are Japanese and Brazilian (there are several others that are similar). Japanese jujitsu (JJJ) includes a lot of upright techniques, joint locks, as well as ground movement. An adaptation of JJJ is judo, which is a great sport in itself, and has an emphasis on throws and sweeps (at last glance I think judo had something like 63 basic take down techniques). Brazilian jujitsu (BJJ) focusses more on the ground techniques. For the sake of simplicity we will refer to JJ and wrestling styles -- there are many of those, too -- collectively as grappling.

MMA is actually a subset of No-Holds-Barred fighting (NHB). Even NHB generally omits some attacks like eye gouges and other flesh-tearing attacks. Otherwise, almost anything goes. Where MMA can be rough, NHB is positively-brutal. However, they both serve as environments in which techniques get routinely "pressure tested."

Everyone I've encountered in various martial arts or sports believes that whatever they are doing is useful for self defense; Tae Kwon Do, Karate, Tang Soo Do, Tae Soo Do, Hwa Rang Do, Kendo, Kenpo, Aikido, MMA, NHB, jujitsu, even Tai Chi, to name a few. Maybe I shouldn't say everyone, but I'm not far off. And it may be true. I even heard of a tennis player who used his tennis skills to defend himself -- he beat the attacker with his racquet. And many people saw the soccer player head-butt an opposing team member in the chest awhile back (not exactly self defense, but certainly a public display of an effective head-butt... or maybe butt-head). And why should it be any different? In an emergency you are going to use whatever you are good at -- your strength or skill -- to the best of your ability.

That being said, one of the most common questions I encounter is "what is the best martial art I can take for self defense?" If nothing else, people join this or that program because, of the options that were available, it made the most sense at the time. Over several months they (usually) make friendships, get better at it, and their beliefs are necessarily confirmed by associates and experience. Whether the system was really designed for self defense or not, the participants imagine ways that it could be used for defense. They receive ranks and recognition due to their long-term participation, and become invested on several levels. Eventually they may learn to make adaptations that make their style more effective for actual self defense.

Whatever you are good at -- whatever comes naturally -- is what you are probably going to use most effectively to defend yourself. But some programs are going to adapt better than others. Sport systems that emphasize full contact are highly effective forms of fighting, especially MMA. They excel at dueling, voluntary fights and sporting events. People with minimal skills in these systems can often defeat people with decades and advanced ranks in "traditional" martial arts (TMA) when it comes to full contact fights (TMAs fare much better in non- and low-contact point sparring, demonstration forms, board breaking, etc.).

MMA-fans and practitioners are not unlike other stylists in the sense that they think their own system is pretty much the only thing that matters, and that all others are inferior. This is especially true when it comes to self defense. They can make a good argument -- irrespective of how rudely they usually make it -- but it needs some fleshing out.

Most assaults aren't done by highly skilled fighters or marksmen, but by men who are just familiar with hurting people and don't mind doing so. Thugs. It isn't a competition to see who has better skills or conditioning. Attackers aren't looking for a good challenge, a fair fight, or even someone who they think will put up any useful resistance. The usual factors in an assault include a large, strong male attacker, often a sociopath who is experienced with and enjoys violence. In about half of assaults there is a weapon -- usually a knife or gun -- and/or accomplices. The assault generally takes one of two forms:

  1. The attacker reveals a weapon or otherwise threatens the victim, making a demand of some kind. The victim complies.
  2. The attacker attacks the victim suddenly and with overwhelming force -- rushing, grabbing, slugging, slashing, etc.

Sometimes there are recognizable warnings. Other times it all happens too fast.

This is a horrible situation no matter what your skill level or system of study. And there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. Assuming you can't immediately flee and have decided to fight your way out, against the unarmed single attacker who roughly your size -- the one that chose his victim poorly -- grappling and infighting are excellent responses. Not necessarily so against multiple attackers, much larger ones, or one armed with a knife; striking, kicking and displacing are better there (actually, there aren't any "good" options against most weapons, especially a knife). Irrespective of the opponent(s), it is likely that you'll end up on the ground at some point in the conflict. So a good basic skill set for self defense would include... grappling, elbows, knees, striking and kicking. Maybe some boxing. Your basic MMA fare.

So MMA is not only an intense sport, and handily dispatches other martial artists, but its skill set readily adapts to self defense. Much more so than any martial art that I can think of. Further, being a full contact sport, people who do it know how to put power into everything they do, and they have less hesitation in doing so.

But there are some problems.

  1. There is a reason for tight weight classes in MMA. All other things being equal (condition, skill, etc.), size makes an immense difference. In an assault the attacker is almost always larger, stronger, more familiar with and ready to use extreme violence. It takes a lot of skill and strength to overcome a weight/size advantage of only 10-20%.
  2. A lot of people resort to punching for self defense, and are trained to do so in the martial arts. But the hands aren't designed to handle the punching forces, especially punches to the head. Without wrapping and other protection, the bones will often break or the wrist sprain.
  3. Many people simply don't have the strength, ability, aggressive personality or time to develop or execute the skill set necessary to repel a violent attack.

For these and other reasons we believe that a self defense weapon is critically important. It can really tilt the balance in your favor, perhaps even preventing the assault altogether. But sometimes the attack happens so fast, or the range isn't right, or something goes wrong and the weapon can't (or shouldn't) be deployed for whatever reason. In these cases one must fall back on physical fighting skills.

With the exception of programs that were specifically designed for self defense -- not sport, demonstration, self discipline, etc. -- some adaptation is always necessary for defensive application. Of all of the styles out there, though, MMA probably requires the least; in fact, it could be used quite effectively as is. But for reasons already mentioned, at least the following changes should be made.

  1. Palm strikes and other alternatives should be substituted for hits to the head, and strikes to the cranium and should be avoided.
  2. Targets can include those allowed in MMA sport, but should expand to those that are specifically not allowed. The additional targets include eye gouging, ear strikes, back of head, the neck, spine, lower abdomen, groin and knees. These targets need to be understood, practiced and preferred.
  3. Both striking and ground techniques need to be distilled even further than they already are to those that are effective on a larger, stronger opponent -- eliminating moves that might work only on someone of your own size or under a sport environment.
  4. Recognize that grappling a larger, stronger person is exceptionally difficult unless you have great skill and strength, and it is suicide if a knife or accomplices are present. The best path is usually to try to stay up, and get up as quickly as possible if you go down.
  5. The guard position in particular should be avoided (unless there just wasn't a better option). If entered, go immediately for an escape or attack. You absolutely must do whatever you can to keep his weight off of you.
  6. When playing or at little risk, play nice (grappling and body hits). If assaulted fight dirty (foul shots, joint breaks).
  7. Some psychological conditioning must be undertaken so that the person can take the steps necessary to defend himself.

What I have just described, above, is basically the approach of Via Potentia. I'm often asked what martial arts were combined to create Via Potentia. We actually didn't create VP by purposefully combining systems, but adults need ways of assimilating concepts, and the framework of combining ingredients -- combining understood quantities -- helps them. I have usually described it as being similar to what you'd get if you combined Krav Maga and jujitsu basics, with less punching at the beginning, plus some weapons training and a big emphasis on conditioning. I only realized after this last revision of this web page (prompted by a conflict with some people at another web site) that it would be equally accurate to say that it is basically amateur MMA with some self defense adaptations, plus some weapons.

Additional Thoughts

I recently had an exchange with some people on a popular MMA-related web site. One of the posters actually made some intelligent, useful comments, and I want to repeat them here because his opinion is shared by many and he has a good point in his own way. His general point was that the more intense the sparring and the more contact involved, the more it realistically prepares you for a possible self defense scenario. He was concerned by self defense programs that seem too theoretical, compliant, esoteric or abstract. He added that the best way of preparing for real self defense is via tournaments where you go 100%, and the best systems in which to do this are MMA-type. (Actually, no holds barred would be even better, but I don't think that is even legal in the USA, and if it was I wouldn't want to do it, anyway.)

These are good points, but I'm not sure that it actually changes much for us. We already encourage tournament participation, and require it for "graduation." Our sparring covers all ranges and goes from no-contact to pretty heavy, depending on the participants, we include grappling, and even allow striking while on the ground. We include all of the strikes in MMA, plus those they don't allow. The real tension is the intensity of the training, especially the sparring. Our students range from young children to people in their 50's, men and women. Many, including myself, have nagging injuries. The children's class is a separate issue, so I'll leave it to the side for now and focus just on the youth and adults.

I agree that the more intense the sparring, the more realistic it is and therefore the more useful for self defense training. But it is also much more likely to cause injury to yourself or your training partners. All out upright sparring is pretty dangerous for adults, and the training would be seriously unpleasant to most. To put it simply, no one comes to my class with the goal of getting hit in the face several times or the expectation of becoming an MMA fighter. Two questions therefore arise:

  1. Is it possible to have effective self defense training that is not full MMA-style?
  2. How can we increase the intensity of sparring/grappling without increasing the likelihood of injury? Is this even possible?

I think that the answer to #1 is yes. Via Potentia was constructed around actual crime statistics from the FBI (among other things). These indicate that victims of assault generally felt that their attempts at fighting off attackers assisted their situation. The vast majority of these people had little or no fighting training, let alone MMA training. Consequently, it is only rational to conclude that any training which improves their ability to harm the attacker is beneficial, even if it is not full-intensity MMA training.

The second question is more difficult to address, and is really a matter of conditioning and skill of the participants. We want to minimize gear, as it also introduces an artificial element. I think that allowing people to spar and grapple with the level of intensity they desire is the correct way to go here, while making it clear that the less intense it is, the less useful it will be for self defense. In other words, you'll get out of it what you put into it, and the whole risk/reward parity issue.

We already spend about 2/3rds of our drill-time sparring, much more than most martial arts, so I think we're on a good track there. The goal, then, must be to make the sparring as intense as possible, depending on the participants' abilities to handle it. Having it so easy that it is a joke isn't very helpful, but making it so intense that they leave class doesn't help them. We will renew our efforts at having people spar at the highest level intensity that they believe they can handle, and should see about having inter-school small-scale tournaments on a regular basis.

We welcome comments, questions and suggestions for improvement.
Via Potentia, 805 NW Alder St., McMinnville OR 97128
Telephone: 503-437-3450

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