© 1999 by Ned Beaumont Artwork © 1999 by Spain RodriguezIf you want to train for a streetfight, then start with a sport.
A sport? Isn’t the Hand-to-Hand Gospel According to Beaumont exactly the opposite of every martial arts “master” and self-defense “expert”? After all, Kapitan Karate, 19th Dan from Bugs Bunny’s Bushido Bund — or whoever insists that his “art,” “style,” or “system” alone is the key to street survival — says that sports may make you an athlete but not a fighter. What you need is an “art,” a “way,” some “style.” Isn’t it?
Well, quite frankly, no.
Contrary to the impression some readers of my books have developed, I do, in fact, respect most martial arts — if not necessarily most martial artists. “Style is bullshit!” remains the best advice about martial arts I have ever received, and so I’m always suspicious of any “style” that claims to be the best for everyone. Every “style” of unarmed combat is necessarily incomplete; but each style can work in the real world if the man (or woman!) in the fight is tough, determined, and fit. In my experience, boxers and wrestlers more often demonstrate those qualities than do martial artists. Of course, I have met karatekas, akidoists, kung-fu men and others who could kick my ass (that’s not saying a whole lot) or give any wrestler or boxer a hard battle. For the modern American who needs to know how to handle himself in a streetfight, though, I do not think that karate and other Asian arts prepare him as well as sports for the real thing.
Let’s start with the real keys to survival on the street — mental and physical toughness. Martial arts, as commonly practiced in these United States, develop neither quality very well. The legendary “masters” of long-ago China could beat the tar out of their enemies less because of some secret skills than because they were stronger, fitter, and physically tougher than their likely opponents. Likewise, an Okinawan karateka, who ate a decent diet and worked out with stone barbells was understandably an easy victor over a peasant who performed stoop labor and lived on the verge of starvation. And nowadays a professional boxer will make short work of the average working stiff. Mastery stems not from the “style” itself, but from the physical toughness built by constant practice.Mental toughness also, in large part, results from practice. Any man who regularly meets and surpasses the physical challenges that make up most of serious training concurrently builds mental toughness, the will to win that is the “secret” to winning a fight. But it’s harder to find that kind of toughness-building martial arts training outside of Korea, Japan, or the Navy SEALS. Mr. Fly By Nite’s tae kwon do academy next door to Pizza Hut isn’t likely to teach toughness. Body type also may create problems for Americans when they try Oriental martial arts. If your parents came from East Asia, then karate and the like may work for you: you’re likely to possess the small stature, short limbs, and suppleness that allow kicks to hit hard and fast. How many modern Americans, however, raised on Wheaties and McDonald’s burgers are built like the typical Japanese? Small, slight Asians emphasize kicking in their unarmed combat because fighting with their feet is the only way they can hit hard; having lived without chairs all their lives, those Asians have the hip flexibility to kick effectively. Americans, on the other hand, sit in La-Z-Boy recliners, and so have a harder time kicking. For a tall and long-armed man, the straight punches of a boxer should serve him well. If someone’s built thick and heavy, wrestling might be a better choice. People should work with what they were born with. If a guy is built like a westerner, he should probably fight most effectively with a “style” from the West.
A final problem with modern martial arts for the streetfighter is the tendency to emphasize the art instead of the martial. The men who developed those “styles” centuries ago were warriors, and that’s why the military remains among the best sources for practical hand-to-hand training. Founders of the martial arts were also often killers: Chinese organized crime still contains some of the best kung-fu masters alive. When warriors and killers trained, they trained to fight.
But nowadays the Self-Esteem Academy at every other strip mall is a place for little Jennifer and Kelly to spend a few hours until Mommy arrives in her minivan. Those kids — the typical martial arts student in modern America — may learn self-discipline, build confidence, and gain a certain amount of fitness on their ways to black belts.
But can they fight?
I’ve known a handful of black belts whom I wouldn’t attempt to tackle with anything less than a 12-gauge. I’ve also known plenty of others whom I could take with a teaspoon. Face facts: a black belt used to mean that the man wearing it was hell in any back alley brawl, but nowadays cripples, old ladies, and kids wear them.
So if martial arts have so many drawbacks, then what can sports teach a streetfighter? Three things, I think.
First, physical fitness. Anyone claiming that strength, endurance, and speed don’t mean much in a real fight probably hasn’t thrown a punch in anger since the third-grade schoolyard. The fact is that the stronger fighter with greater stamina almost always wins — and that’s why prizefighters and champion wrestlers spend so much time in the gym. Moreover, hard workouts, remember, are the best way to build the will-to-win that decides streetfights as much as physical toughness. Nevertheless, I’ve met “serious” martial artists who smoke three packs of cigarettes a day and are built like the Pillsbury Doughboy.
Next, sports teach the lesson that size matters. Anyone who tells you otherwise, in any context, is trying not to hurt your feelings. Boxers learn early that “a good big man will beat a good little man.” Most every light-heavyweight champion gets around to challenging for the heavyweight crown, but the only one who won the title was Michael Spinks — and that was after building up from 175 pounds to 205. Amateur wrestling competitions run within strict weight categories, and the pros know that no one could beat Andre the Giant. On the street, in a fight without rules, sheer size is even more decisive. Still, martial arts types too often sell the nonsense that their “secret art” enables a little man to beat a big one. Bet on the 6¢²¢²
Most importantly, sports teach by means of contact. To prepare for a streetfight you need to know what it feels like to get hit — and get hit hard. The fraud of too many martial arts is that the students never bleed. And so, when the blood starts to flow in a serious fight, Junior Black Belt panics and gets stomped into a stain by some drunk. Boxers and wrestlers, on the other hand, learn to make a friend of pain early in their training — or else they find some more pacific activity.
Combat Sports the Key
Which sports work for the streetfighter? Well, not just anything. Basketball, for example, may require fitness and athleticism, but anyone who has watched an NBA brawl knows that when basketball players hurt someone it’s mostly by accident. Football and hockey may help, but a real fighter needs combat sports.
So let’s start with boxing.
Boxing is the combat “art” of the Western world. Until about fifty years ago, whenever an American thought of self-defense he thought of “the manly art” — not some “style” designed for samurai, rice-fed peasants, or gangsters of the Triads. Why? Simply because boxing works to put an opponent down and out. For a thorough examination of the reasons, check out my Championship Streetfighting; but let’s also look at evidence of boxing’s effectiveness I didn’t cite in the book: fighting for million-dollar purses, don’t you think that prizefighters would adopt the shoot-from-the-hip reverse punch if it were harder, faster, and could produce more knockouts than jabs, straight rights, hooks, and uppercuts? The fact remains that boxing blows are the most effective ways to end a fight fast, in the ring or on the street.
Street fights are messy, though, and often end up in grappling. Therefore, boxing, like any “style,” is necessarily incomplete. Wrestling is the solution, and by wrestling I mean good ol’ catch-as-catch-can, the stuff that ancient Greeks used against Persian invaders, the sort Abe Lincoln fought with on the frontier, and the type that formed the best hand-to-hand combat instructors during W.W.II. Wrestling works especially well for the stocky, heavily built fighter who was never meant for the Asian ballet of spinning side kicks, but whose strength and mass make him murder when the fight comes to grips. As the most strenuous sport, wrestling also has the advantage of producing exceptional physical fitness: The bull neck and hard muscles of a wrestler are often sufficient to scare off threats on the street.
If you’re dead set on an Oriental “style,” then I suggest you give judo a try. Through the 1950s, judo was fashionable in combat circles, and everybody and his brother called his system judo, no matter its real source. Judo is really a kind of Japanese wrestling, and so possesses most of the same advantages as Western freestyle. Just like wrestling and boxing, judo is a sound core discipline that teaches toughness, balance, strength and fitness. Judo players tend be mentally tough and in good shape. Since he’s earned his black belt through competition on the mat, you can guarantee that a judo black belt can handle himself in a fight. Can you say the same for the typical strip-mall karateka?
Judo, wrestling, and boxing: none is “the ultimate killing art.” But, then, none claims to be. All three “styles” have their holes. However, if you supplement sound striking skills as in boxing with basic grappling skills, as in wrestling or judo, then you’ll end up with as complete a preparation for a streetfight as you’re likely to get. No, boxing, wrestling, or judo won’t give you an “art” or a “way.” Still, when push comes to shove — and maybe punches, beer bottles, and blood, too — you’re better off trusting in the physical and mental toughness, the strength and fitness, the will to win and skills tested in competition that come from rough combat sports. Leave art to the artists.Ned Beaumont is the author of Championship Streetfighting: Boxing as a Martial Art and Kill-As-Catch-Can: Wrestling Skills for Streetfighting.