Can combat sports get you killed in a self-defense situation?

Before I talk about why your MMA or muay Thai might get you killed in a self-defense situation, go read this excellent blog post by Kasey Keckeisen.The man is a SWAT team leader and instructor; he knows what he’s talking about.


Can my MMA or muay Thai get me killed in the street?

Yes it can. Not necessarily, but it can. Before you start writing flaming comments, read this:

  • I train in and teach combat sports and absolutely love it. I’ve done so for the last 20 years, I’m not bashing them at all.  Here’s a clip form my Sanshou class if you don’t believe me.

  • Nor am I saying that traditional arts or H2H systems are the best thing since sliced bread. Yes, I do train in and teach these too. I believe they’re just as valuable as the full contact sports.
  • The most important thing: there are no guarantees in a fight, regardless of which style or art you practice, so in a way, the point is moot.

That said, if you’re interested in using MMA, muay Thai, kickboxing or sports karate not only to stay in shape or to compete but also to defend yourself in the street, then I’m going to assume you’re interested in learning the differences between the ring/cage and the street. Because that’s what’ll determine if you make it out alive or not.  If you’re not interested in those, then you’re a fool. Not because you aren’t intelligent but because you refuse to accept these differences out of pride. I’m sorry if that offends you but I believe it is true.

I’ve written about the differences between sports fighting and MMA before, so I won’t go over it again. If you want to read my reasoning, go here first:

Now let’s move on to what Kasey wrote, in particular this part.

If you are teaching self-defense what you can do within your weight class doesn’t mean anything. You need to teach people what works outmatched in strength, skill, experience and ferocity. How to deal when the assault is on before they are aware. And help them work out and overcome much of their social programming.
It can be done. It has been done. But not by staying in your comfort zone perspective.

I couldn’t agree more. One of the hidden pitfalls in sports fighting is weight classes. Let’s talk about that for a second

Size matters, also when you fight

Despite what some girlfriends say to make guys feel better about their manhood, size matters. It matters even more when you’re fighting. In the early days of the UFC, there were no weight classes. And a significantly lighter guy like Royce Gracie beat big heavyweights with apparent ease. There are reasons for that, the main one being that his BJJ was a perfect fit for fighting his opponents. Not that it was a superior grappling system but simply because most of his opponents didn’t have good grappling skills.

Fast forward 20 years to today and when was the last time you saw a Gracie dominate the UFC like back then? Exactly… Every fighter has a good ground game now, so things have changed for them.

Another question: when was the last time you saw a significantly lighter fighter beat or even stand his ground against a bigger opponent? Re-exactly… Barring demonstrations such as the Fedor vs. Aoki one, it hardly ever happens anymore. Look at the video again. Is there any doubt in your mind that Fedor could crush Aoki at will?

Here’s the thing:

When you compete, you train to handle people from your own weight. You don’t train to handle guys in other weight classes.

Even if you spar with lighter/heavier partners in class, it still isn’t the same as when you fight them for real. If you don’t believe that’s true, by all means, go train at another gym and challenge a guy two weight classes above yours. See what happens. Don’t forget to post it on YouTube though, we all would enjoy seeing it. :-)

Same weight class training can breed limited fighters.

Like Kasey said, what you can do within your weight class doesn’t mean anything. I’d add the caveat that:

  • At best it means you can handle people your own weight.
  • It usually, though not always, means you can handle lighter guys.
  • It rarely means you can handle heavier guys.

The reason this happens is this:

What works against an opponent your own weight don’t necessarily work against lighter, but especially against heavier opponents. Case in point:

Last year, I was hired to evaluate and train a young Sanshou fighter who was breaking into the international scene. He was a middleweight and he was good: superb conditioning, strong, aggressive and quick. The only problem was, he was used to being the best guy in the gym and owned every sparring partner there. Because he was in such great shape, they couldn’t keep up with him, even when they outweighed him.

So I sparred with him a bit and first looked for weak spots while I let him come at me. As of the third round, I started exploiting those weaknesses. By that time, he was thinking “This guy got nothing. I is gonna whip his butt!” and had become reckless. I let him come in again and then suddenly switched from evasive, defensive fighting to the “Tsunami” offense (constant pressure, slowly but continuously moving forward, ignoring everything he throws at me.) Suddenly, the size difference worked against him:

  • Anything he threw at me, even his hardest shots, I could take it and keep advancing. I just absorbed his shots and walked through them.
  • This caused him to often lose his balance because his strikes rebounded off me earlier than he was used to them hitting a target.
  • As a result, he was always fighting a retreating battle, which made it even harder for him to get power in his techniques.
  • As I never stepped back, he never got a break and it kept on becoming harder for him to land decent shots.
  • Every time he lost his balance or didn’t retreat fast enough from my reach, I landed a heavy blow or short combination. Not at my maximum but at what I estimated to be his full-power levels.

The result of all this: he crumbled in front of me. All the techniques that had always worked so well failed him and every time he tried to get close, he took hard shots. After two rounds of this, he was lying on the floor, exhausted by the effort, but also the psychological stress.

Imagine what would have happened had he tried the same thing in a self defense situation…

Can your combat sport get you killed in a self defense situation?

"Seriously, size doesn't matter dude!"

The key is this: the techniques, strategies and tactics he used against his sparring partners were fine. But there were glaring technical errors for me to exploit. Errors that don’t mean much when you fight a guy your own size but when your opponent is bigger, they are crucial. For example: He used mainly bouncing and ripping impact (I show this in detail in my Combat Sanshou video on striking). That’s great when you are faster than your opponent and it can sting real bad. If you are very precise with your shots, you can hurt your opponent real good with this type of impact.

The downside of such strikes is that it is very, very hard to stop an opponent cold with them. They just don’t have the right structure to stop his forward momentum as they only target a part or point of his body and not the whole.

By using good defense and slightly angling my body and head, I kept absorbing most of his power and lessened the effectiveness of his punches and kicks. It was my weight and size advantage which allowed me to keep marching forward as I did this, nailing him with shots every time.

Had he used other types of impact, he could have actually used my Tsunami offense against me, because he had the physical skills for it. But he lacked knowledge, specific techniques and experience. To make matters worse, he didn’t know the problem existed. He didn’t know that his best stuff wouldn’t work against a heavyweight.

It is the same when you use combat sports techniques that work great in your weight class and then try to use them in a self defense situation where you should assume you’ll have to handle bigger and stronger opponents. Along with no rules, potential weapons or multiple opponents, not being warmed up, being terrified, fighting in clothes that limit your movement and fighting on a different surface than in the gym with objects in the way everywhere.

Please re-read this last paragraph again and then take a look at your own personal training: what exactly are you doing in your combat sport that prepares you for such a situation?

I’m not making fun of you here, just asking an honest question. If you are already factoring in these aspects and train accordingly, then I believe you have an excellent shot at not getting killed in the street. But if you’re not, then you’re deluding yourself into thinking your style is so good, all these factors don’t apply to you. If so, I wish you well and pray you never have to test that theory…

The flip side of that coin

Just as this young fighter found out that a heavyweight can take his hardest shots, I had to learn to fight lighter opponents. Here’s another story for you:

When I started competing, I was poorly trained. I was enthusiastic but not in the shape I needed to be. I just didn’t know any better and my teacher at the time wasn’t a specialist in conditioning. I was strong, that wasn’t the issue. But I was slow. As a result, lighter, quicker sparring partners kicked my butt every time. I’d attack them, they’d use nimble footwork and snipe at me form a distance. If I managed to get close, then I could make them pay, yes. But they knew that and exploited my slowness to the fullest. It pissed me off.

So I vowed to never be vulnerable like that again and started training to fix this:

  • I worked on speed and specifically, speed-endurance so I could be as fast as them and keep it up.
  • I worked on my footwork so I could follow them, cut corners and force them to stay within my reach.
  • I focused on technique, eliminating parasite movements that slowed me down.

It took years to make decent progress but eventually, it all came together when I sparred in a muay Thai gym with one of the top fighters there. I was in competition shape and so was he. He was about 30 pounds lighter than me but faster and more mobile. He also packed a solid punch, one I couldn’t ignore if I wanted to avoid hitting the canvas.

It was the most intense sparring session I ever did and the slightest mistake would have meant pain, a knock out or injury. We went at each other for several rounds, both giving as good as we got. At one point, he really came at me, with the intent of putting me down and forcing the knock out: he did an insanely fast combination of punches and kicks and I only had time to see the initial step forward. After that, I could only close my guard, take the punches and wait for him to stop because he was just too fast for me to do anything about it.

The split second I felt him finish and step back, I launched a barrage of my own, finishing off with a powerful kick. What I remember most is the look in his eyes: surprise mixed with fear. His attack had not only failed to knock me out, I was apparently only waiting for him to finish to do the same to him.

He blocked everything but that was the point at which I took control of the round and he never got it back.

size matters in martial arts

What’s the point of your self-gratifying stories?

The point is that had I never done the training to handle those faster opponents, had I kept on counting on the fact that my size allowed me to soak up punches long enough to get close and finish an opponent, I would never have lasted against this muay Thai fighter. He’d have eaten me raw.

Yes, being heavier and stronger than most people is a benefit you can use. You’d be a fool if you didn’t. But it won’t always be enough to win. That’s why I spent the last 20 years working on defense, footwork and learning not to get hit. Just in case I fight a guy who’s bigger, stronger and better than me. Because in such a horror scenario, my size won’t make a difference. And everything I learned that works against people my size won’t be enough. I’ll need things that work against heavier guys then.


That’s the real lesson in what Kasey wrote: it should inspire you to think out of the box and train for things that are uncomfortable (fighting a bigger guy who’s better than you.) , to strive to keep on getting better and better at fighting when the deck is stacked against you.



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  1. Glad to read one of your interesting long post while drinking a good cold beer. This argument it’s one of the most important self defence key issue (after multiple opponents and weapons situations of course). In fact the first thing a girl fear is the toughness of the attacker (man),wich means more power! I think everyone fears an attacker more tall and weighted than us, it’s normal in a real fight situation to hesitate a bit. It’s more psychological than what we believe, just because we got used to see security personnel or bodyguards (90%tall and heavy bodybuilders), it doesn’t mean they’re all skilled too.
    Someone used to say “power is nothing without control!”To be more weighted it means to be slow and not in a good solid base most of the times.
    That’s why I think when you face a taller and weighted opponent, you have to concentrate your attacks at the legs(base)where all the weight is supported by, turning his virtue into a defect. Telling this I remember a k1 fight between Mike Bernardo vs Butterbean.(here is the link: ) Of course in this case there’s no such a big difference of weight between them and we’re not talking about an everyday self defense situation.
    Just let’s say that size matters, but not always…butterbean helps us again:
    Essentially (I’m 6,00”inches tall x 240lbs ) I think what really matters in real fight situation are “premeditation” and “surprise factor”,more than size or skills! The difficult part is to try to prevent them… ;)

  2. Good stuff, Wim.

  3. Awesome article
    Like you explained so well in your previous articles.
    Combat sports can only cover a piece of the pie of violence.

    I agree with that size and weight matter a lot.
    However i think this is only true to a certain level.

    When two people in a combat sport are both equally skilled and experienced.
    Usually the guy who is bigger and heavier will win.

    However this does noth say size is the determining factor.
    Und that combat sports techniques won,t work on bigger people.

    When i sparred with kickboxing und i used some throws/trips they had no idea what happened leth alone how to prevent gething thrown.
    I dropped big dudes without effort.
    However against Judo guys that size i am at a huge disadvantage.

    So i think that when the skills are kinda equal then size starts to kick in.

    Here some videos where David beats Goliath:
    Hong Man Choi defintely had the size advantage yet he lost.

    Und here Andrei Arlovski (2nd place World Sambo championships und former UFC heavyweight champion) gets outgrappled by Marcelo Garcia.

  4. I agree mostly with Daniele. Size matters to some extent. However, a lot of bigger people are simply fat and slow. Furthermore, to be effective muscle needs to be lean, Just look at all those body builders and bouncers. They are all bulking with muscle but lack speed, technique and stamina. Often a lighter and quicker fighter can simply wear out a bigger opponent.

    • Try this and then this.
      Another point is this: self-defense is not a 5-round MMA championship fight. Your reasoning not only assumes the big guy is slow, it also assumes you will have the time to wear him down. Those are risky assumptions that in many cases are mistaken.
      As a general strategy, I always assume my opponent is stronger, more skilled and faster than I am. If he is, then I have already taken those factors into account. If he isn’t, then my life just became a whole lot easier than I thought. Either way, I’m better off than hoping he’ll suck.

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