Due to my humble background in martial arts, I’m occasionally asked about the best style for street fighting. Obviously, this is a question without universal rights and wrongs. Nevertheless, I would like to share some of my opinions.
Please note that this is a subjective opinion article; I don’t mean to praise or disrespect any martial art style.
The scope of the article is casual practice for street defense. If you are interested in philosophy / cardio / chi power / pro fighting / etc, this article is probably not the source you are looking for.
One should be aware that there are multiple distances in a fight.
- Avoidance: This is the distance where you avoid the confrontation totally
- Verbal: This is the distance where you exchange words
- Kick: This is the distance where you can kick, but not punch
- Punch: This is the distance where you can punch
- Grapple: This is the close wrestle distance
Street fights are not fair, and they don’t have any rules. Your opponent may have a weapon, or multiple allies nearby; which you didn’t see yet. Therefore, it is a risky situation to start with.
In terms of self-defense and safety, one should prefer the former distances over the latter ones. If you can avoid the confrontation, do it. If you can talk out of it, do it.
If you can finish the fight with one good punch, do it and get away quickly. Because if you get the fight to the ground, someone else can hit you in the head with a steel pipe. Steel pipes hurt bad.
You get the idea. Bravery is good, but thinking that you are invincible is foolish.
If you get into a fight despite your best efforts, you can’t foresee how the fight would develop. You might have room for punches only, your opponent can take it to the ground, you may face multiple opponents, etc.
Therefore, a fighting style focusing on only one aspect of fighting is generally not advisable for the street.
An oversimplified list of fighting aspects are;
If you are a boxer, you would know how to punch. But if the fight gets to the ground, you may end up being helpless despite knowing how to punch.
If you are a BJJ practitioner, you would know how to choke someone. But if your opponent lands a good kick on your liver, good luck trying to breathe.
You get the idea.
When picking a fighting style, you should preferably pick a style where you can focus on multiple aspects.
After the long introduction, here comes the vital question: Which style should I pick?
Ignoring all other factors and accepting a purely theoretical point of view, here is my subjective list of the most effective styles for the street.
Krav Maga is not even a martial art, it is a military system developed to survive on the street. It has collected arguably the easiest, dirtiest and most effective techniques from various styles. You can learn it relatively fast, and you wouldn’t need a lot of power & stamina to apply.
MMA is a close second. It is debatable if MMA is a style by itself; but MMA trainings include punches, kicks and grappling – a mixture you want to have in your toolbox on the street. The reason I put it after Krav Maga is, you still have some rules in MMA; like not kicking the balls. In a street situation, your opponent will make you spit your balls out with a single kick if he/she sees the opportunity.
Boxing lacks kicks and grappling, but it still has its solid place in the list. Most street fights start standing up and can be ended with a single good punch. Besides, the boxing footwork and defense is the base for any sparring situation.
Muay Thai can also be very effective because it adds up new tools on top of punches. However, Muay Thai partly relies on hardened bones; which requires a lot of wall punching & kicking – not necessarily the most realistic approach for casual practitioners.
Kickboxing could also be considered effective; however, I consider big kicks risky on the street. If you didn’t train enough, you may lose your balance during a kick and fall to the ground – which is something you want to avoid at all costs. So even if you train kickboxing, avoid the fancy kicks on the street.
Sparring, sparring, sparring… I can’t emphasize the importance of sparring enough. You can train all you want, but if you don’t put it into practice regularly, you probably can’t apply anything on the street either.
Frequency of free style sparring is maybe even more important than the style you pick. That’s where you learn how to confront someone, control your adrenaline, attack, defend, fall, stand up, feint, read your opponent, etc.
If a club offers daily sparring opportunities, you would want to prefer it over another club which offers monthly sparring; ceteris paribus.
Limits of your body is also a significant factor. If you have a disc hernia, for instance, you shouldn’t do any grappling and can lean towards boxing (with the approval of your doctor, of course).
Available teachers in your area is also a very important factor. If you find a very good boxing teacher with 10 medals, but the MMA trainers have never been in a real fight, you might prefer boxing for now. You can always train other styles later on.
The people you are going to train with can also make or break you as a fighter. You should be looking for a challenging but friendly and respectful environment, where your teachers and mates will help you grow while you help them too. Avoid fight cults blindly following an egomaniac teacher. Instead, look for a clean environment with a realistic & flexible mindset.
There are a lot of martial art styles I didn’t mention. You may be wondering why.
The first reason is; competition styles contain a lot of rules, which don’t exist on the street.
For instance; many karate competitions prevent face punching. If you train that for 10 years, your muscle memory can develop in such a way that your reflexes can’t even confront a basic punch. Your opponent would knock your teeth down your throat so hard you would have to drop your pants to chew your food.
Another reason is; a style focusing on singular aspect is a risky bet in a street fight.
For example; aikido assumes a certain starting position where the wrist or sleeve is held. If a wrist grab really occurs in a street fight, you can apply your aikido knowledge – but this is a very slim chance. I subjectively wouldn’t want to invest my time in a style which would help me only 5% of the time.
Wing Tsun assumes a peculiar starting stance, and focuses on arm based scuffles; where you seek an opening to apply your chain punches. Your training will definitely help you in a scuffle situation; but will this really happen in a street fight? I subjectively think that it is not very likely. Your opponent will swing a baseball bat to your head, that’s what will happen.
It must also be said that physical power, reflexes, talent, experience, etc. is as important as the style you pick. For instance; watch the videos of Emin Boztepe. He is a Wing Tsun practitioner, and despite what I said about the style itself, I am pretty sure that he’ll kick any *ss on the street.
Likewise; Royce Gracie forced many strikers into submission with his BJJ style, and I’m pretty sure he’ll do well on the street.
However; those are professional fighters. If you dedicate your entire life to any fighting style(s) and do lots of sparring, you will eventually get good.
This article considers casual practitioners visiting the dojo maybe 2-3 times a week. In that case; instead of focusing on the cream on the top, I recommend focusing on the bread-and-butter of fighting and picking a style that enables you focus on multiple aspects and do lots of sparring.
You need to be honest to yourself about your physical capability, the time you can invest, the teachers you can find in your area, the vague nature of street fights; and make a decision for yourself.
Remember that avoiding the street fight in the first place is probably a better strategy than fighting. A little respect, diplomacy and deterrence goes a long way.
Nevertheless; Sun Tzu said it well: “Better be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war”.