Why You Should Definitely Learn To Fight

If do right, no can defend.

If do right, no can defend.

I am not a violent person. I haven’t been in a non-organised, non-officiated fight since I was seven, when my class went to war with our opposite numbers in 4B over an imaginary football-related slight. But since learning to fight – and subsequently getting pretty good at it – I’ve become something of an evangelist for fighting, like some people are for juice diets, yoga, or the Kabbalah. It’ll make you more confident, I say, and change the way you think about things, and get you fit and make everything else less scary. It is also brilliant fun.

None of those things work, obviously, because fighting itself seems scary and difficult and doesn’t seem like a great trade-off for the slightly nebulous benefits mentioned above. So here’s what learning to fight really does: it gives you options.

I’ve often said that my (currently hypothetical) daughter will learn to choke a man unconscious before she goes on her first date, and I stand by that. She’ll also learn that the best way to deal with the threat of Bad Things Happening, in order, is:

1. Try to avoid places and situations that are likely to be dangerous or unpleasant in the first place.
2. When unpleasantness seems likely or unavoidable, leave: either at a brisk walk or a run.
3. If someone wants something from you that isn’t going to ruin your life, consider giving it to them.
4. If all the above fails, start breaking limbs and choking people unconscious.

It takes surprisingly little time to learn 4. – probably less than you spent getting ready for your driving test or watching the last season of Homeland, if you do things properly. I choked out a karate black belt 20kg heavier than me after barely six hours of tuition when I started, and I know plenty of people with similar stories. The trick is picking the right sort of fighting.

Boxing, Muay Thai, and most sorts of striking are not that useful for actual fighting. You aren’t going to learn to knock a bigger opponent out in any decent space of time. Also, if you don’t knock them out with one punch then you’re in a clinch – watch how often this happens in actual boxing – and then nothing you’ve learned is going to work. Also also, these styles are based on being upright, having lots of space, and the ground underneath you being grippy and stable. If you’re squashed into a car seat, on the underground or even just up against a wall, almost nothing you’ve learned is going to work.

The actual best thing to learn  is some sort of grappling. I do Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu because it’s specifically designed for fighting in unpleasant, scrappy circumstances, though other styles – judo, sambo, catch wrestling – are available. The main point is that you pick a style that lets you spar, or ‘roll’ at near-full-intensity, so that you get used to the feel of someone fighting you back.

Most of these styles are technically sports, so there’s no hitting or biting or gouging, but everything is about joint locks,  chokes, and ‘positional control’ so if you’re ‘winning’ in sparring, then it’s fairly likely that you’d be able to subdue someone (more or less painfully) in a real fight. I know men – and women – that have used it to subdue burglars/muggers/unruly bar customers with less than six months’ training in BJJ, and one guy who used it to defuse a road-rage situation while he was still jammed into his car seat. Because it’s based on fundamental principles of movement and leverage, it’ll let you respond to situations with appropriate amounts of force – after all, you may not want to eye-gouge someone who grabs your wrist in a pub, or punch a friend unconscious when they go crazy in a bar – but you might want to deter or restrain them. If you see some lunatic getting aggressive with someone else they shouldn’t, it’ll give you options in that situation. It’ll also help you get off your back/get an attacker off you if you somehow end up in a very bad situation: boxing definitely won’t.

The slight downside is that all the body-to-body contact might feel a bit uncomfortable, at least at first. But there are options, especially if you’re a lady: women-only classes or learning online, or only sparring with teachers you’re comfortable with are viable and sensible options. Once you’re more used to it, you can always make things tougher if you want.

You can’t prepare for everything: no martial art is going to let you fight five people or a man with a knife, whatever Steven Seagal says. You aren’t going to be able to do everything. But you are going to be able to fight better in some situations, and that might all the difference between something terrible happening or not. And, of course, once you can fight, nobody’s saying you have to: if you think you’re going to make a situation worse by resorting to violence, you can just leave, or ignore the insults, or hand over the iPhone, or do whatever else will make it go away.

But you ought to learn to do it. You should learn to defend yourself, and you should know, that if it absolutely comes down it it, you can defend other people. You shouldn’t have any doubt in your mind about whether you can fight or not, because you might need to. With statistics showing that one in five women has been a victim of a sexual offence and no sign of street harassment abating, you owe it to yourself, or others to be able to threaten to kick someone’s ass and mean it. Because even if you aren’t worried about any of the other stuff, there might be a day when you have no other option but to fight. And if that happens, you need to fight well.

HOMEWORK: At least investigate the possibility of learning to fight properly. It might be the best thing you ever do.

About the author


Editor and creator of Live Hard. Fighting enthusiast, steak lover and aficionado of all things self-improvement related.


  • Surely you can’t honestly believe this Joel.

    I don’t owe it to myself or to anyone else to know how to fight. The aggressive twat who’s going to kick my arse owes it to me NOT to kick my arse. And his dad (or whoever) owes it to him not to knock him around, or abandon him, or fail to hug him enough, or do whatever it was that taught him rage-filled assault is the way to deal with his sense of inadequacy. Violence, even in self-defence, isn’t an answer to anything.

    Besides, I’m with Louis C.K. There are three things I’m too old to start doing: fighting, blowing guys, and skiing.

  • Chris, I believe it with all of my deadlifting-enlarged heart.

    Even if I didn’t think that practicing fighting is massively beneficial in various character-building ways (which is a subject for another post) and would still be a good idea if we loved in some sort of utopian Iain M. Banks society, we don’t. It would be nice if you were sure that nobody would ever hit you without your permission, and I think we can all agree that the people who do are dicks, and hopefully the law will send them to jail – but that doesn’t do much good when it actually happens. It certainly won’t get you your brain cells, teeth or life back.

    EDIT ALSO: I’ve had a few people email responses to this that consisted of ‘Jiu-jitsu isn’t much use in a bar fight.’ To that I would say: stop going to the sort of bars where fights happen. This piece was repurposed from something I originally wrote for a fairly lady-centric blog, and the point is not being able to Van Damme somebody when they accuse you of looking at their girlfriend – it’s that you need a worst-case scenario option for times when someone tries to drag you into a van, or hurt somebody you care about, or worse.

    • Whether it is beneficial is arguable. I certainly think it’s less beneficial than any number of other things. But I don’t and will never believe that I somehow owe it to myself to learn because of bad things that might happen. That’s a bleak fucking road that I don’t want to go down. (In case someone attacks me)

  • The calmest most chilled folk I know are the ones who can fight. Not acknowledging the possibility that you might be on the recieving end of violence is like not brushing your teeth in case you get tooth decay. Most of us will be fortunate enough to go through life never having to defend our selves. But when push literally comes to shove, having a basic understanding of what comes next might well save you or your loved ones. Self defence is simply the ability to de-escalate a confrontation, whether that is by walking away, talking it down or getting physical, quickly enough to stop the situation before it get worse.

  • Love your blog, but can’t disagree with you more about the BJJ bit! Best rule of thumb I have ever heard of in terms of self defense is the following, “If it is a move/technique/skill that a 50kg women can do to a 100kg man with minimal effort, keep it.” This sadly eliminates most of BJJ (and most striking arts as well for that matter). My thought is that if i’m close enough to guillotine somebody, I’m close enough to grab their balls or poke them in the eyes, and it’s way more efficient anyways in terms of energy use or skill/strength/speed required. I have been training jut shy of 10 years now and by most people’s standards I should be able to fight at least moderately well. I also have a 2 year old nephew. Poke either of us in the eye and I bet we both react the same way!

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