Domain Query: No bullshido allowed

Carey from speakeasy(X) emailed me on the back of my post about sparring with some good questions:
I want to take some form of martial art. I haven't the slightest interest in being a badass for the sake of itself in any capacity. I could, however, use the training as a way to further master my own mind and body. [Didact: ooh-rah] I've never had any trouble taking care of myself. I'm the sort who, once I've had a couple of minutes in a room, I've specked [sic] out all "force equalizers" (ash trays, glass bottles, a land line phone---anything I might need if things got ugly) and I watch people's eyes carefully.  
The art that has caught my attention in the last couple of years is Keysi. [Didact: This is the fighting style that was used in the Nolan Trilogy of DARK KNIGHT films, and yes, there is no question, Christian Bale is an almighty badass when using it.] I love the idea of using my upper body because I have wide shoulders and the whole dance the style uses looks, to me, like I could master it. I also love the various ways to stop an attacker even while in a chair next to them.  
I very much doubt I'll find any reputable Keysi instructors [in this area]. 
[I]f I cannot find a Keysi trainer worth his salt (I'm not sure how I'd know, really), would there be a style(s) that might be good for a guy who is [of above average height] with broad shoulders and good upper body strength?
These are questions that I've been thinking about, albeit in a different form, for some time, actually, so I'm quite pleased to answer them based on my own experiences.

First things first: this is NOT going to be one of those stupid "my martial art can kick your martial art in its sorry ass" clown-fight slap-fests. I have very little patience for that sort of thing. My view of "which martial art is best" is pretty much identical to that of my teacher. You should seek out a martial art that matches your particular goals:

  • If you're into the spiritual side of martial arts, learn karate (just be aware that karate is not terribly effective as a street art)
  • If you just want to get fit and have fun (and not pose any particularly terrible threat) take taekwondo
  • If you want to take a truly formidable and difficult competitive art, try savate or muay thai
  • If you want to learn an art geared specifically for real-world combat situations, try krav maga
  • If you just want to learn how to look pretty while dancing, try capoeira
  • If you want to try an art designed specifically to make maximum use of upper body strength, then a ground-based form like judo or jiu-jitsu (Brazilian or Japanese) would be a very good place to start
This is only half of the equation, though. You have to take into account the strengths and weaknesses of any given style. In my experience, most martial arts have easily-exposed deficiencies that make them thoroughly unsuitable for the kinds of real-world situations that Carey is describing above.

Several of the arts described above are strictly kick- and punch-based, such as karate and tae kwon do. The problem with these arts is that their practitioners have literally no idea what to do when they get taken to the ground.

Most people who practice traditional martial arts, or who do not practice any martial art at all, simply cannot understand how dangerous the ground is to a stand-up striking fighter. You could have the most powerful kicks and punches in the world, but if you don't know how to fight on the ground, you don't know how to fight, full stop. When you get taken down by someone, and you have no experience with ground-fighting, with getting choked, with getting body-slammed, with maintaining guard while striking on your back, then you are going down faster than a Twinkie in the hands of a fat chick.

This was demonstrated time and again during the early days of the UFC, for instance. Witness what happened when Royce Gracie took on Ken Shamrock in UFC 1:

Therefore, a style which emphasises self-defence after the take-down, and which incorporates grappling into the set of skills that it teaches, is definitely going to be vastly more practical than a purely strike-based style like boxing or karate.

Even a martial artist as great and as skilled as Bruce Lee discovered the importance of grappling and wrestling when he was introduced to Gene LeBell while filming the original "Green Hornet", and Bruce Lee was someone who originally thought that you could just kick the teeth out of everyone and you'd be fine. That was in fact the dominant view in the worldwide martial arts community until the Gracie family came along and completely destroyed that myth in the world of mixed martial arts.

I will readily admit that even my beloved krav maga is not immune to a grappling deficiency at times. We study to defend against a variety of dangerous situations, but groundwork and wrestling is not a mandatory class for most students. In my opinion, learning how to defend against punches, kicks, sticks, knives, and guns is all great- but if you don't know how to defend against serious close-quarters combat, then you are not a complete fighter. The art overcomes this by teaching groundwork at more advanced levels, and at my school students can take on groundwork classes starting from yellow belt onwards.

Also, a word here on bullshido styles like dim mak and kyusho-jitsu: don't waste your time. If someone tells you that he can teach you how to knock someone out with just a touch (or, worse, without any touch at all), he's full of s**t and doesn't deserve your time or money. You can knock someone out with a single punch- but it's a punch, not a touch. If you hit someone hard enough in the jaw, the temple, the base of the skull, or the nose, then yes, you'll knock him the hell out. It's just simple physics at that point- how much impact your skull can take versus how much kinetic energy you can transfer through your fist or leg.

So, from top to bottom in order of preference, here is what I would say are the best arts to take for a guy like Carey- who, I should point out, is physically similar to me judging by his description (tall, broad shoulders, solid upper-body strength, etc.):
  1. Krav maga (well duh, but I'm biased here- heavily focused on strikes with some groundwork)
  2. Judo or jiu-jitsu (heavily ground-based, far less emphasis on striking)
  3. Sambo (a Russian mixed martial art that combines wrestling and striking)
  4. Jeet kune do (aka "Bruce Lee's art", incorporates both striking and grappling techniques)
  5. Muay thai (exceptionally powerful striking art, no emphasis on grappling)
  6. Wing chun (likewise)
  7. Boxing (totally focused on striking, no grappling at all)
Note that the only reason I didn't put Keysi on this list is simply because I haven't met any real-life Keysi practitioners or seen them fighting in a competitive environment. Therefore I simply cannot comment on its relative effectiveness on the street. Also, the point here is to present a list of alternatives to Keysi that are both practical and accessible. The ideal art for someone like Carey (or me) will combine both striking and grappling, and will focus as well on street-defence techniques, such as escapes from chokes, headlocks, shoulder pulls, stick attacks, knife attacks, and multiple attackers.

There are also a few other arts, such as silat (a particularly nasty and dangerous striking/bladed art from Southeast Asia) and eskrima (a blade-based, stick-heavy fighting style from the Philippines) which are too obscure in the West to bother with, since you won't find practitioners who can teach you.

Note also that I didn't bother at all with karate or taekwondo. The reasons for this are much more important and subtle than you might think at first.

You see, it's all well and good to start studying a martial arts style. If you're anything like me and you actually enjoy exercise, you'll soon come to love doing an art because it will make you move and exercise in ways that you've never experienced before. Sooner or later you'll reach a level of proficiency that will make you very confident in yourself and your ability to conduct an intelligent street fight. This is a very dangerous point for a lot of aspiring students, where they think that their skills are sufficient to let them survive on the streets.

However, if you have never sparred or studied takedowns or gotten choked, you are going to be in for an extremely rude, and probably incredibly painful, awakening the first time you get into a real fight.

As I said in my post about sparring, if you have not sparred, you don't know how to fight. So in my opinion the first question that you should ask of any prospective school of any art is, "when can I start sparring?".

If the answer is any one of: "never", "after green belt", or "no kicks or punches to the head", just walk away. Don't become the product of a McDojo. (For more on how to spot and avoid McDojos, see here.)

And that is why I didn't put karate or taekwondo on my list. Most schools in the US that teach these arts ARE McDojos. They emphasise forms and stances over sparring. They are belt factories. They produce dancers, not fighters- dancers who have rarely, if ever, experienced what it means to take a kick to the back of the head (like I did this week), a punch to the ribs (like I did), a jab to the nose (yup), or any kind of impact at all. They give black belts to kids (!!!). The people who come out of these schools will think that they can handle themselves in a fight, right up to the point that some GSP clone dive-bombs them straight into the pavement and proceeds to use their bodily fluids to paint a Jackson Pollock on the ground.

My teacher keeps telling us this over and over again: if you can't hurt other individuals, you can't call yourself a fighter. It's just that simple. The products of McDojos cannot hurt others because they have never really been hurt themselves. So don't take them seriously, and don't become one of them.


  1. ... Thank you. You've convinced me that no matter what art that I take I am going to excel to the point that I can reach the grappling stage. I really understood what you were talking about when you mentioned that it wasn't all about kicking. If you don't have a ground game, you can get really hurt. Someday I hope to know your name. Because no one on the Internet has given me better information.

    I realize that no matter how I say the above it sounds fake. I assure you, it is not.


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