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Distinctions are important in any field, and modern martial arts have a variety of functions, including exercise, meditation, learning discipline and physical and mental toughness, sport, performing arts, and self-defense.

The degree of nuance, and variation in quality in teaching, can often lead to ambiguity and confusion.

Self-defense and real-world combat were the primary drivers of martial arts, which includes not just training & techniques, but strategy.

  • How are martial sports different from self-defense?
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I've been interested in strategy since early childhood, which led to game theory, which led to AI theory. AI theory is useful in general, and taught me that the best way to think about dimensionality is "degrees of freedom".

(Algorithms can think in n-dimensions, 800 dimensions as a example.)

One of the lovely things about the "sweet science" of boxing is that it has very few degrees of freedom—using the fists only to attack the brain or wind (body blows.)

Kick-boxing adds another dimension—striking with the legs and feet!

MMA adds two more dimensions—grappling and "ground & pound". (Leagues that allow elbow strikes add another dimension.)

Prize fighting & amateur fighting competitions also include a psychological dimension, which the best competitors utilize both in the ring and prior to the match.

An easy way to understand the distinction between sports and self-defense/combat is that the latter have many more degrees of freedom.

  • In real-world combat, there are no rules.

  • In real-world combat, weapons may be used.

  • In real-world combat, hard surfaces can be used as weapons.

  • In real-world combat, the combatants can often "choose their ground".

  • In real-world combat, surfaces can be irregular or slippery.

Military strategists have understood terrain and its utilization to be essential for millennia.

  • In real-world combat, there may be lulls, but there are no water breaks.

Thus one must be prepared for continuous engagement of unlimited duration.

It's important that martial artists don't conflate martial sports with real world self-defense.

Training for and engaging in martial sports has utility in regard to self-defense, but they truly only cover a small number of the degrees of freedom of real world combat.

Training for martial sports is good for conditioning, and for getting used to physical contact, but too much can be detrimental, as it can result in injuries, which can inhibit capability and interrupt training.

(Taking too many blows to the head has been know to be detrimental, being "punchy" or "punch drunk", even before this was validated by empirical analysis.)

There is even an argument that training for sports competition is not ideal for real world combat because it limits the thinking, and potentially the training, to an insufficient number of dimensions.

  • In combat, the concept of a fair fight does not apply.

From a self-defense perspective, "fair fights" can occur if, by chance, the opponents are equally matched. (The size, strength and skill differential can be a factor in what strategies a defender adopts. Attackers can be significantly less skilled than the target of violence, in which case the defender may opt to be gentle, but in situations where this is reversed, defenders have no choice to by inflict maximum harm by any means.)

Miyamoto Musashi is a good real world example, a duelist in the most lethal domain where a single mistake is fatal. In an honor/shame society, Musashi was willing to break convention as necessary in order to assure victory.

"Either you defeat your opponent or [they] defeat you. You cannot complain that [they] did not follow the rules. You have to overcome your opponent(s) in a way appropriate to each situation."

  • Real world combat can involve multiple attackers.

Many schools train for this, but one of the potential problems of prizefighting at the highest level is it requires sole focus on single-opponent training.

Multiple opponent situations are the most dangerous for obvious reasons, so martial artists must be able to execute multi-opponent strategies without thought, and engage in some degree of training for this.

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Q: How does competition fighting differ from self-defense?

A: The other answers here round out this answer as well.

Competition fighting is usually done in a well-controlled environment. The opponents are commonly "fairly" matched by experience and weight, and they are aware that of the intentions of the opposing party.

Self-defense relies strongly on the element of surprise (from the hostile party's point of view), tends to be very one-sided in favor of a properly trained defender, can involved the surprise appearance of weapons, third parties, and usually occur in an uncontrolled environment. Arguably, the main goal in self-defense is to end the fight as quickly as possible for self preservation purposes. "Fighting" occurs when the element of surprise is lost before the defender can disable their opponent.

Of course, this has been mentioned before in other contexts, but holistically, the "self-defense" mentioned above is just a small part of the overall strategy. "Self-defense" starts with situational awareness, degrades into avoidance, de-escalation, and if absolutely necessary, into a surprise and pre-emptive attack. With all that being said, even with the element of surprise, and even if you survive and escape, there may be serious legal repercussions at the end of the tunnel.

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Whether it's sport or "real", fighting is different from self-defense.

Self-defense is about dealing with common, everyday scenarios that you might find yourself in. It is "do this if he does that". For example, he puts you in a side head-lock, so you need to hammer strike to his groin, then reach down to his ankle and lift his leg up.

But knowing a ton of self-defense techniques doesn't actually tell you how to fight. Fighting is squaring up and punching, kicking, grabbing, throwing, locking, choking, taking down to the ground, wrestling, and so on. Being able to fight is a much broader topic than self-defense.

You might want to see self-defense as a still-frame photograph, whereas fighting is a movie. But that's incorrect. Self-defense practice is missing virtually everything that fight training has: non-compliant partners actively resisting everything you do and able to do anything spontaneously in order to defeat you.

In self-defense training, you're typically partnered with someone who does something to you, stops, and waits for you to do whatever you're going to do. But he'll let you do that. He won't stop you. And he'll go along with whatever you do to him. He won't try to actively resist you.

Self-defense training is very static. It's looking just at a particular scenario in isolation of everything else. It doesn't prepare you for a dynamic, changing situation. And a fight is more or less completely described as the latter.

A self-defense situation in real life lasts a second or two. Immediately after you perform the self-defense technique, successfully or not, the fight begins. And it's a fight from that point on.

As for "sport" vs. "real" fighting, that's a separate and very broad topic. I won't get into that here. It deserves its own separate question. Yes, there are rules to sport fighting. Depending on which form of sport fighting you're talking about (kickboxing, muay thai, boxing, judo, BJJ, MMA, savate, etc.), the rules may or may not make that form of sport fighting dangerous to use in real fights for a number of reasons usually having to do with how that form of sport fighting optimizes its techniques and strategies for the rules. It depends a lot on what the rules are. And yes, real life fighting can be done anywhere, which definitely has an impact on the fight itself... But again, that's a much more involved discussion that I think deserves its own question.

Hope that helps.

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  • Just wanted to let you know I didn't downvote this. (Actually upvoted b/c you make a good point about real fighting—one needs to have been in real fights b/c most people freeze up the first time. You need to get punched in the face, in the body, kicked, locked, thrown, and wrestled, even if the ultimate goal is ensuring none of those things happen.) – DukeZhou Dec 10 '20 at 0:00
  • Haha. Well someone thinks I'm a moron. Doesn't bother me that I got down-voted. Thing is, what I said is important. People often get confused by the distinction between what is termed as "self-defense" and "fighting". Most martial arts teach self-defense. They don't teach how to fight. And it's why black belts often do poorly in real fights. They learned a bunch of stuff, but it was self-defense material, not fighting. They think they're learning how to fight, and they find out the hard way one day that they don't know how to fight. A quick MMA style sparring session is very enlightening. – Steve Weigand Dec 10 '20 at 3:46
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I feel there's more fairness, safety, yet conflict in competition than self-defense. In competition, it's a consensual, bare-handed, one-on-one fight in a limited space managed by a referee whose job is to prevent serious injuries and deaths. Fighting skills are still useful in self-defense, but since you can't assume many of those conditions, fighting is only one aspect of self-defense.

When it's possible to be taken by surprise, outnumbered, or out-weaponed (not sure if this is a word like outgunned, but I mean you have inferior weapons), you have to start thinking about weapon preparation, situational awareness, having backup, weapon improvisation, escape, and the legality of your approach. It's much more complicated than just knowing how to fight.

However, fighting skills are very important, even if they may not be your go-to strategy in self-defense. Just look up MMA fighters fighting random strangers: their superior skills, oftentimes in wrestling, lets them completely control the situation against unarmed opponents. More important than their fighting skills, though, is their situational awareness; when they notice the other person is shouting insults and approaching in a threatening way, they will throw the first punch or tackle. Surprise is one way of defending against surprise.

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  • This answer supports the utility of grappling in the case of the shouting approaching threat—grapplers are looking for body to body contact, and can counter with the least amount of escalation, or even without escalation in the case of submitting or pushing. Also useful to be able to look natural in guard position, via gesture, for instance one hand is closer to waist level and one at shoulder level, sufficiently extended—such gestures can even look like supplication (re: surprise:) – DukeZhou Dec 15 '20 at 1:19

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