The answer to this is that, in short, MMA fighters focus on very different things than KM practitioners do. When you pit one against the other, you are not comparing like for like. By definition, then, the comparison is a facile one.
An individual who wants to compete, to learn how to fight in a ring or a cage, is going to be far better served learning BJJ or judo combined with a striking art like karate or muay thai.
An individual who wants to learn how to defend himself on the street, however, is far better served learning a system like Krav Maga.*
To understand why these things are true, you have to understand the motivations behind MMA versus KM.
MMA for Fitness and Strength
Mixed martial artists train for a competitive environment. It's just that simple. They are training to pit their skills against others in an environment with rules and clearly defined start and end points. They train to fight in intervals and rounds while moving at very high speed and with extreme intensity.
As a result, they are extraordinarily well conditioned, extremely fit, and very, very strong.
You will almost surely become fitter and stronger and faster by training in MMA than you will in anything else- because fighting builds fitness and strength like nothing else can. Even the Iron God cannot grant you gifts of fitness and strength as fast or as thoroughly as learning how to punch someone in the face, kick him in the ribs, and then tackle him to the ground- fighting is exhausting, and in order to fight you have to build endurance to do so.
Fighting is the most elemental form of activity in human existence; in many ways, the human body is designed specifically for fighting, and because of this, men who really know how to fight are some of the fittest and most badass guys you will ever meet.
Moreover, if you want to learn how to be a truly formidable striker or grappler, MMA is the fastest way to achieve this. Hell, most serious martial arts will do this better than KM will.
If you put a muay thai expert up against a Krav Maga specialist in a striking contest, I believe the former would win almost every time- because muay thai trains you to punch and kick to a degree emphasised by almost no other art. Some of the most dangerous strikers that I have ever seen have backgrounds in muay thai- I'm talking about men like Bas Rutten or Anderson Silva.
I spar weekly, with hands and feet. I can pull off some pretty decent wheel kicks and combo kicks (e.g. a straight snap/roundhouse/side kick, all with the same leg, all in one set of motions) and "head-fake" kicks. I train against a heavy bag to perfect my striking at least once a week- not that I'm all that good, mind you. Yet I would absolutely hate to go up against a muay thai fighter- I'd get my ass beaten, severely, within five minutes.
Similarly, a trained judoka or BJJ specialist is almost always going to be better at fighting on the ground than a KM specialist- because that is precisely what those arts train you to do. They emphasise the takedown from day one, whereas in KM you don't get to groundwork until intermediate and advanced stages; indeed, groundwork only became a part of "mainstream" KM teachings relatively recently, once it became very clear from the world of MMA that stand-up striking simply is not sufficient for victory.
Because of all of these things, you will never hear me speak disrespectfully about an MMA fighter- hell, about any fighter in a real art like muay thai or BJJ or judo or traditional karate. I will happily pay not insignificant sums of money to watch and support MMA matches, because I always feel like I could learn from the guys who practice mixed martial arts in any capacity. I greatly respect and admire the men who study these disciplines.
Krav Maga for Street Defense
MMA is useful for a very specific purpose: to learn how to fight, against a single opponent, in a supervised setting, with clear rules.
MMA is not useful for the purpose of learning how to survive in the street.
To be sure, someone who is trained in MMA is going to have few problems defending himself against a single unarmed attacker on the street.
But what if your opponent has a gun that is being held a little out of arm's length from you? Or, worse, what if he's up close with a knife or broken bottle? Worst of all, what if you're up against two or more individuals, all carrying weapons of some sort?
In situations like that, the average MMA fighter- who is still far more skilled and capable of defending himself than the average person- is going to be outmatched, outclassed, and every bit as likely to get killed as anyone else.
In the street, there are no rules, no time limits, and no referees. There is no limit to the number of opponents you might face. There are no limitations concerning the kinds of weapons you might face, whether they be sticks, knives, or guns.
Great MMA fighters like Bas Rutten would argue that anyone trained to fight with rules can also fight without rules, and that is true- but remember that MMA fighters are trained according to a very specific paradigm, and that breaking out of that paradigm is actually extremely difficult. When you have trained in the same patterns and ideas and situations for years or decades, breaking out of the strictures imposed by that training is going to be quite hard to do, because your brain is conditioned to think in certain ways.
In street warfare situations, in fact, certain elements of MMA training will actually end up hurting you.
When you face a knife, for instance, an MMA fighter might well seek to get in close and go for a takedown- which is exactly what you should not do when faced with a knife. One possible technique for dealing with attackers with knives involves controlling the wrist such that the knife points right at your attacker; another involves kicking him outside the range of the knife and then controlling the wrist.
How about defences against half-nelsons and full nelsons? This is a technique whereby you approach a guy from behind, snake your arms around his shoulders, and interlock your fingers behind his head. It looks like this:
|This is every bit as dangerous and painful as it looks|
The defence against this involves keeping your elbows down, snaking up to grab a finger from your opponent's hand, forcing it back (preferably until it breaks), wrenching the arm around once the grip is broken, and then either kicking the attacker hard in the groin or taking him down to the ground and striking his groin and ribs and head.
All of which are things that MMA fighters specifically do not do.
Or take defences against bear-hugs. A bear-hug is a very effective weapon- particularly a lifting bear-hug. If you get lifted, or trapped in a bear hug, and you don't know what to do, you've had it- your opponent has free licence to take you straight to the ground and beat the snot out of you. Effective techniques for bear-hugs generally involve striking the groin, the back of the head, and the columella (the point where the bony part of your lower nose attaches to your upper lip).
These are all highly vulnerable targets- it hurts like a mother when you get nailed in the balls with a knee, or when someone digs a bony joint straight into the columella.
They are also targets that MMA fighters are specifically trained to avoid hitting.
If you ever watch an MMA fight where one fighter goes in for a low takedown against another one, you'll never see the other guy bring the point of his elbow or a hammer fist down on the connecting point between the attacker's spine and skull- because that's illegal in MMA. Yet this is exactly how you defend against a low bear hug in KM.
The Right Tools for the Job
Once again, the question comes down to what is the most appropriate tool and system for dealing with a given problem. And when it comes to street warfare, MMA is not going to be that useful. The founder of the art of Krav Maga, Imi Lichtenfeld himself, discovered this the hard way when he rounded up a group of boxers and wrestlers- sports fighters, basically- in Hungary in the late 1930s to defend Jewish neighbourhoods against the predations of pro-Nazi sympathisers. The sports fighters would get their asses beaten, often brutally, by soldiers and street thugs, because they had no idea what to do when confronted with real life-or-death situations.
That is the key difference between MMA and a survival or street-warfare system like Krav Maga. Other similar systems include Systema Spetsnaz, used by the Russians to train their military; MCMAP (Marine Corps Martial Arts Program), which is even more brutal in some ways than KM and is taught to, well, the Marines; and hisardut, another martial art originating from Israel that is taught by Dr. Denis Hanover and emphasises survival in all situations, not just the street.
The thing is, all of those other systems are either not readily available for civilian instruction or are not applicable for civilians. To study MCMAP, for instance, you need to join the Marine Corps- not an option for most people. Hisardut is really only taught in one part of this country and is not really an art suitable for the average civilian, if you look at it closely.
Moreover, you have to look at the nature of street warfare. Most people who get involved in brawls in the street do not have formal martial arts training. The average civilian will not be able to take ten years to learn how to perfect his kicks and punches. He needs to know how to deal with chokes, bear hugs, and street weapons. He needs to know how to fight in the clothes that he is wearing, with the shoes that he has on his feet, without protective gear like shinguards or groin cups or hand wraps or gloves. He needs to be able to use whatever weapons he can find around him- ashtrays, bar stools, pool cues, beer bottles, whatever.
Striking Above All
Having thus outlined the key differences and distinctions between MMA and KM, let me finish off by pointing out one major feature that both have in common, and one area where I personally think KM needs some improvement.
My teacher constantly tells us that striking, above and beyond everything else, is key. I completely agree with him, and I try to practice my striking whenever I can. I spar weekly because there is no better way to expose the deficiencies in your striking, and your ability to defend against strikes, than sparring. Ultimately, "martial arts" and "self-defence" are just euphemisms for "learning how to severely hurt other people". That's really what self-defence is- the capacity to injure, cripple, or even kill others so that they cannot do the same to you.
In this, there is no conflict whatsoever between MMA and KM. None at all. MMA students learn to practice their strikes from day one- they work hard to perfect their punches and kicks and stances and defence. So too do KM students, and for the exact same reasons.
However, MMA emphasises both striking and grappling. In today's world of MMA, thanks to the Gracie family, you simply cannot be a pure stand-up striker. You'll be wiped out by anyone who takes you down and puts you in a submission hold.
This is one area where KM is perhaps not as strong. KM does not emphasise groundwork- in fact, we are taught that the ground is our most dangerous enemy, so the last thing we want to do is get taken down. We are taught, at the beginning levels, how to fall properly, how to roll properly, and how to get back up properly, so that we can maintain intelligent and effective combat. We are not taught wrestling and guard defences and other basic ideas about ground combat until the "intermediate" levels of the art.
Personally, I view this as a shortcoming; I think there is a lot to be said for introducing ground-based combat to students looking to get to Orange Belt (like me). Timing defences against punches and kicks are great, but they don't really apply when sparring- just you try timing a defence against a straight kick in a sparring match, and tell me what happens. You'll most likely end up eating several punches. They are useful building blocks for other things, but they are in and of themselves not perhaps as useful as learning concepts about guard and mount and ground-and-pound.
If you're wondering whether you should take up a martial art, the answer is always going to be "hell yes". I'd recommend martial arts to anyone as a great way to get fit, strong, and toned. (Learning martial arts is also a great lesson in humility- there is no more effective way to learn how much you suck at something than having a blue belt beat the tar out of you in a sparring session.)
But the question of which martial art to study is really a question of "which tool is most effective for dealing with this specific problem?"
If your problem is "I want to get fit and strong and lean", then pretty much any art will do.
If your problem is "I want to compete against highly trained fighters in an amateur or professional setting", then MMA is the way to go.
If your problem is "I want to learn how to survive in a street brawl", well, there is only one answer- Krav Maga.
*I refer to KM as an "art" purely for brevity and convenience. It really isn't a martial art- it's mostly martial and very little art. There is very little that is really aesthetically artistic about kicking someone hard in the nuts, you know.