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.