Martial Arts Scepticism: The Pornography of Reality-Based Self-Defence

John Rambo in 1982, after returning to civilia...

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Ockham’s razor is a centuries old principle that argues for simplicity, reductionism and minimalism. Many scientists and a good number of mainstream historians use it to shave off theories that overcomplicate matters. Supporters of Ockham’s razor put forward the idea that when all things are equal the solution that requires the least number of assumptions is usually the correct one. It would appear that this philosophy would be acceptable to the vast majority of those who are interested in the practice of martial arts as a means for self-protection. For example, many self-defence practitioners support the “log-jam” theory in line with Hick’s Law, where the superficial practice of too many combative techniques can overload and confuse a person when they are met with a stressful situation. Then there is the argument against fine motor skill techniques. Again, in a stressful situation when blood is leaving the brain to engage muscles it is more difficult to perform techniques that require a greater degree of accuracy and coordination. The use of the more aesthetically pleasing techniques such as high kicks, acrobatic moves, dramatic throws or complex locks are also generally dismissed as low percentage/high risk moves.

There are those who have completely embraced these principles as laws and built up entire systems around them. Seeing themselves as neither traditionalists nor sportsmen and women many have placed themselves under the moniker of Reality-Based Self-Defence or RBSD. They see their training as having the singular goal of being dedicated towards training for defence in the modern world. However, as we will see, far from creating minimalistic systems of pragmatic self protection, many are making the same errors they accuse others of making.

Some RBSD use a different type of aesthetic. Their promotional pictures are a type of pornography, where the visceral ugliness of the “real” techniques takes precedence of effectiveness and efficiency. Pick up a mainstream martial arts magazine today and you will see alongside the high kicking movie stars, successful sportspeople and serious looking traditionalists in their crisp white gis or doboks, another type of martial artist: The RBSD practitioner. He can be immediately identified by his “street clothes” and often posing with his fingers in someone’s eyes or in the corner of someone’s mouth or even up someone’s nose, his teeth clamped around someone’s ear or savagely brandishing a pair of car keys. The message being conveyed is that these martial artists are the real deal. They teach the ugly side of violence as a means to deal with the ugliness that is real-life violence. And yet just how efficient are these “real” techniques?

First up, there is the bite. The idea of someone biting taps into a primeval fear in many human beings. With the development of civilisation and a sophisticated society, the prospect of being bitten by anything is much rarer and more shocking to us now than it was many millennia ago. To receive the bite off another human being can be quite alarming. No mainstream combat sports permits biting today for good reasons. Bites can be very painful to certain sensitive areas and, most of all, they can be disfiguring. In addition to this, the human bite is known for its apparent toxicity caused by the bacteria that typically gathers around the human molar. It all sounds pretty nasty and is visually impressive in a magazine or on a website. However, a few factors need to be taken into consideration before we list the bite as a major weapon in our unarmed combat arsenal of self defence techniques.

Human teeth are fairly unimpressive compared to all our fellow primates and the vast majority of other mammals – let alone the rest of the animal kingdom. Having grown up on a circus and then a zoo, I have seen first hand and heard countless accounts of the damage non-human bites can cause. We have evolved to be the best tool developing animals on the planet and much of this is based on our relatively substandard natural weapons. Check out the teeth of closest living relative, the chimpanzee, in the ape family or, for that matter, consider lesser primates like the somewhat diminutive lemurs that have teeth capable of cutting straight through denim!

Our teeth are just not great attacking tools. They are not proportionality large or very sharp in their natural form and our jaws are not nearly as strong as our close cousins in the ape world. There is no evidence of humans using their teeth as hunting weapons as other primates do. Sure, we have plenty of incidences of children biting and humans utilizing biting in brawls outside nightclubs or on the street, but typically they are used as a back-up or incidental weapon. They do not, for the most part, ensure a high percentage of stopping a desperate adversary. This is mainly due to their effectiveness not being based on any typical mechanical advantage. They offer little in the way of leverage, they don’t create brain shake or typically restrict blood flow to the brain, and they are not a high percentage immobilization or unbalancing tool. Instead the bite relies heavily on either gaining advantage through pain compliance or psychological intimidation i.e. the fear of being disfigured. If you are basing your tactics upon either of these, you are assuming your adversary is a rational person.

How often have you sparred heavily or energetically only to discover injuries later? We have all heard or seen people discover some very nasty weapon injuries after a real fight has ceased. This is due to the adrenaline that has flooded the fighter’s system and helped stop the brain from registering the pain during the fight. In a real fight there is an increased chance that your adversary will also be under the influence of some form of intoxicant. This is the weakness behind all pain compliant techniques. While at this point it is also worth considering the various locks, holds and pressure point attacks commonly found in many RBSD systems that rely completely on a rational opponent being subdued through pain alone.

It is a very valid point, and one I personally endorse, that bites should only be applied, as with any technique in a real life situation, with an aggressive and proactive intent. The animalistic front can help with the psychology and perhaps also with your own drive against inhibition. However, this again relies on your adversary being a rationally-minded or inexperienced fighter. A veteran of the street will know bites and biters. A person "off their face" on a narcotic or perhaps even on alcohol or naked rage may not be so easily moved by a victim who suddenly pretends to be a lion. This is not to say I am dismissive of the animalistic rage approach, but these points should be considered if you are relying on the bite as a primary attack tool, which I generally discourage.

If you do use bites then it is best to attack in a rapid action, consistently biting rather than sinking your teeth deep into a target. Pain receptors will stop after only a short period of time anyway, so you will not be getting anywhere on the pain compliance front after the first few seconds. A bite is best applied, but not relied upon, as a type of incidental or accidental secondary attack tool within grappling range.  

Fish-hooks have turned up on several occasions in our training, and their novelty has pretty much worn off for many and never even registered for others. I have seen many a rational student fish-hooked in various ways, but refused to tap, especially if they are in a dominant position. Apart from lacerations from nails, the most damage typically caused by fish-hooks is a slight cut in the corner of the mouth. The double fish-hook can appear to be an awesomely dangerous technique, but stop to consider how much force it really takes to be able to rip into a person’s face or, for that matter, whether it is really necessary. Obviously you will be using the full leverage of your body to apply the tear in an explosive fashion, but if this is being applied as a self defence move, your opponent is not going to be standing still when you apply it and you will need to be behind them anyway, where you would be better making your exit rather than engaging in some sort of sadistic overkill.

The eye gouge does have a clear advantage over techniques like biting and fish-hooking. It provides decent leverage to the head, a key target area on the body. The eye gouge gives the counter-attacker good purchase on the head, so that it can be moved into a good position to administer strikes. Although it is never advisable to rely on the pain and psychology certainty, it is a fairly safe bet that the eyes will be an organ that most people will instinctively notice if attacked, helping to put them on the defensive. It is with the eye gouge I feel that we find a good example of how so-called “foul techniques” can be an advantage if used correctly and in conjunction with more efficient techniques. You should never stay in the gouge, as you will remain fixed to your adversary who is unlikely to allow you to continue to gouge for very long unless they have completely surrendered themselves to a bad position i.e. you end up on top of them. The resilience of muscles in and around the eyes should not be underestimated either. The eye gouge, like bites and grips on the skin are anti-grappling techniques. However, anti-grappling is best built on at least the positioning of robust grappling training – sprawling, pins and close movement around the body of a fully resistant fighter. In short, don’t expect these moves to be a major response like a pinch you found when play-fighting.

Scenario training is also a trademark of many RBSD schools. Training occurs in various different environments under as many different conditions as possible. This is all well and good to help provide a realistic situation for the student who wants to train for “real-life” violence, but this should be kept in context. Every situation is different, but this does not necessarily mean it requires a completely different response. There are an infinite number of possibilities that can happen in a conflict situation and it is therefore virtually impossible to train an individual response to each one. Ockham’s razor should be applied here, but it comes to the actual RBSD methods it is rarely wielded with much ruthlessness. Instead what often happens is that lists are compiled of the most common types of assault and individual responses created to counter them. Surely a more generic and less reactive approach would be in order, something backed up by robust yet highly adaptable principles that can be applied in as many different situations as possible.

Another favourite of RBSD promotion is improvised and modern weaponry. This really does make it stand out from sporting and traditional categories, although some traditionalists argue that the traditional weapons training can be adapted for incidental weaponry. There is little arguing in the practical effectiveness of using obvious incidental weapons such as big sticks, light items of furniture like chairs, broken glass, domestic knives, hard throwing objects like bricks or flexible material suitable for ensnaring or entanglement. We have an abundance of case studies and evidence to support the practical use of these objects. However, the world of RSBD training hasn’t settled at the most obvious incidental weapons. Adapted metal cans, pens and car keys are also fairly common in the average RSBD training course. The problem with these objects is that although they will undoubtedly hurt and can cause damage if used correctly, they don’t necessary increase the odds of an otherwise unarmed human. Once again, we seem to be back to stacking our hopes on the benefits of pain and psychology, although the psychology this time seems to be more to do with giving the potential victim more confidence.

We have already gone over the problems with anything that relies on pain compliance, so there is no point in repeating it here. Confidence – although perhaps the most important component to make self defence work – can be dangerous if misplaced. This applies to the use of all weaponry and should be taken into account by those who actually carry weapons. There have been a large number of incidents where a person’s weapon has ended up being used on them. It is true that this often comes down to bad training, but overconfidence in the use of the weapon is also a factor. In fact, overconfidence may encourage or escalate a situation that might not have even needed violence in the first place.

RBSD throws a net long and wide over many different individuals, schools and styles, but there is a definite extremist element that places such emphasis on the use of weaponry that they don’t see the importance of physical conditioning at all. This is somewhat comparable to the extremist element in combat sports that do not see the relevance of self defence training at all, believing that the confidence acquired from a combat sport is enough to prepare an individual for a real-life assault. The latter will be addressed in another article. The former, however, needs to be sceptically examined now and I unashamedly put my oar of opinion in here.

The extremist RSBD argument is that in the real world violent situations rarely last a long time and the self defence practitioner should therefore be focusing his attention on a short response only. Furthermore, they go back to the issue of weapons and modern weaponry such as firearms, which are far more accessible and available in countries like USA and South Africa than they are in my native UK. Both are fair and true points to a certain extent, but they also have reasonable criticisms too. Those who do advocate hard physical training and conditioning point out the contingency benefits and the physical tactical advantages of being fit and healthy. You may have to run, the violent incident might last longer than you have anticipated and if engaged at close quarters then being strong, agile and having stamina are all going to help reinforce whatever technique you will be using. This is a very solid argument in its own right and I think it stands up against the extremist RBSD argument, however, I also have a couple of points that I think are often missed but are just as relevant.

Firstly, being physically fit and conditioned are the hallmarks of a person who trains their close-quarter combat skills regularly, consistently and to the point where their tactics and mindset are going to be at least second nature. To be good at anything you need to practice it regularly and the by-product of regularly drilled and pressure-tested close-quarter combat is a physically fit body – a body fit for the purpose it is being trained for. Secondly, hard physical training specific for self defence develops mental strength. If you are training for survival then you need to have the will to survive. How do you really know you have the will to survive without testing yourself in some capacity that brings you to the point of failure? Hard physical training helps reinforce the message that you will only give up when it is impossible to continue, and that bar of impossibility should be consistently nudged upwards over your long term training plan. This is in alignment with the Central Governor Theory, which argues that our muscles quit not because they are being drowned in toxic by-products or have simply run out of fuel but because our brain sets a limit we interpret as muscle fatigue. We can increase this threshold through physical training and become more aware of the role our emotions play on our bodies, and in self defence terms this could mean our very survival.


In conclusion, RBSD promotes itself as a modern and pragmatic approach to combat training for the civilian. The distinguishing points it likes to make are that it throws out unnecessarily risky and low percentage techniques, and promotes anything that will best ensure maximum results in a “real-life situation”. However, the pragmatism it aspires to can all too often become confused with a desire to promote “foul moves” as a distinguishing feature. These are techniques not popularized by traditional arts and are often banned from full contact combat sports. A key criticism of many traditional martial arts is that they, in general, do not or no longer sufficiently test their techniques under pressure and have become embroiled in the aesthetics of their art. However, there is a good argument that RBSD is committing exactly the same sins. Not testing a technique is explained by the “It’s too dangerous to practice under pressure” line, which is advocating the training of untested techniques.

Besides, it is not really true. Eye gouges, biting, small joint manipulations, throat and groin shots, and just about every other nasty technique you can imagine have been tested legally in a fully resistant and full-contact environment. In the UK Geoff Thompson popularized them in his Animal Days and Mo Teague’s Animal Nights, albeit with some small restrictions. The sport of Vale Tudo, currently enjoying an “underground” resurrection via the Rio Heroes label, is a great place to watch the efficiency of “foul” unarmed moves. Head-butts remain legal in some MMA bouts such as the Finnish federation, Fin Fight, and are a mainstay in Burmese Boxing, Thaing. What surfaces time and again is that effectiveness of these moves tends to rest on solid striking and grappling principles that are taught in mainstream full contact training. In isolation their effectiveness is precariously reliant on an adversary who is both rational and inexperienced. Putting it quite simply, if you bite a dangerous person when they have a dominant position you could very well just be reminding them that they can also do the same to you and they have the advantage.

I did not write this article in order to decry the whole area of martial arts that profess to teach modern combatives or self defence. After all, my own club and services fall under such monikers and it was this area of martial arts that helped shape my interests and career. My intentions in writing this article were to apply critical thinking to certain areas of self defence that are being taught worldwide. RBSD has arisen as something of a critique of the rest of the martial arts world, emerging as a camp of its own. They have used Ockham’s razor to shave off the unnecessary and pointed their training towards the single goal of self preservation. This is fundamentally fine, but in order to be honest and progressive the critique should never be above criticism. I argue the razor often shaves off what might prove to be beneficial. Dismissing techniques from a combat sport because the sport has rules is not sensible. A hard straight right works well on the street as does do in the ring or cage. Therefore, a student training wholly for civilian self defence needs to ask what will ensure subduing with the minimum amount of risk. Heavy trauma to the head or neck region through the hands preferably or constrictive strangulation or choking methods appear time and again to be people-stoppers. We have case studies galore both in the “real world” and in the sporting world. This needs to be considered the next time we are discussing the energy consuming and probably unnecessary task of tearing people’s ears off.


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Useful articles expanding on this subject:

Police Performance Under Stress by Kathleen D. Vonk

Hicks Law? by W. Hock Hochheim



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