MMA is NOT The Street

If you have followed any of my other thought pieces on self-preservation training — then you will know that I am an advocate of ‘athletic’ training when it comes to preparing for interpersonal violence. In simple terms this means, training against resisting opponents, ensuring that you have a good level of fitness, and work on building attributes such as timing, precision, distance management, strength, etc. The reason I advocate sparring as a method of achieving these goals, is because sparring develops all these elements I just outlined (and more). Crucially, if approached properly, you can spar every day too. More than that, sparring offers you an opportunity to go against various resisting opponents, who may be bigger, stronger or faster than you (definitely something you may have to contend with on the street). Sparring also teaches you what it is like to hit a moving, aggressive target, but equally what it is like to be hit back, and still be expected to continue.

However with all the martial benefits of what is often labelled as ‘sport fighting,’ it is, and will never be the street. To suggest that a sport fighter can simply transfer those skills developed in the ring or cage, to the street, is to not understand the street environment at all. As coaches, we also have to have the humility, and common sense, to know where we should draw the line on what our area of expertise actually is. For example, in a recent interview I watched, a well recognised Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt when asked what he thought about specifically training BJJ for self-defence — replied that it’s all nonsense and all you need to do is train the sport aspect of jits, and you will have all the tools you need to defend yourself. It is this kind of thinking that’s dangerous. Clearly he has never been in any real street altercations, and crucially his ‘mindset’ is setting his students up to get seriously hurt should they ever have to use their jiu-jitus for self-preservation.

For the most part, sport fighting as it is typically taught only crosses over to the street if guaranteed of a one on one showdown, where no weapons are involved. Beyond that, you have to make several biopsychosocial adjustments to be able to survive a street encounter — that will more than likely not be a one-on-one fight — and will have the potential for weapons to be involved. Not to mention there is no referee to stop the fight if things go south.

As Miyamoto Musashi, in the Book of Five Rings noted, “You can only fight the way you practice.” The biggest draw back for sport fighters isn’t the fact that on the street anything is allowed, but rather how a sport fighter trains his focus. In sport fighting, you centralise your focus exclusively on the target in front of you. When you know you only have to deal with one opponent, this makes absolute sense. But like anything you train for in a fight, as Musashi notes, is what you will execute. In the street, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to be so centrally focused on one target, that you allow unseen threats to catch you off guard. In the street, you ALWAYS want to have what I call Decentralised Focus. This means, while you are aware of the primary threat you are dealing with, you are also scanning the environment for possible other threats as well. This is especially crucial when talking about mass attacks.

Decentralised Focus is not something that is going to come naturally to a sport fighter — in fact — it doesn’t come natural to the average person who never trained in martial skills either. I would argue, that a sport fighter is seriously disadvantaged in this regard, as every time he does train the martial element of his skill sets, it’s always focused on one opponent. In other words, a habit has been formed in training, that will present itself outside on the street. You have to purposively train Decentralised Focus just like any other survival skill. If you are not setting up scenarios in training that allows for this, you are not just naturally going to do it if you suddenly find yourself in the midst of interpersonal violence on the street.

Secondly weapons pose a huge threat too. It doesn’t have to be a knife either. A simple 2 by 4 is enough to whack a sport fighter right out of his comfort zone. Add in multiple opponents, and the odds of coming out unscathed just diminishes. As with Decentralised Focus, you need to train to deal against the most common weapons one would find out on the street.

The best example of everything I noted in this piece, is the following event of two well known MMA fighters, who provoked the following incident. I provide a voice over of the common themes to take note of.

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  1. Although I do agree that street fighting is worlds away from sport fighting, I also think that being trained in some sort of martial art definitely gives you a huge leg up when it comes to a street fight, if for no other reason than the fact that you’d be used to the stress of a fight and taking blows. Most people have never taken a punch in their life so when they finally do it’s a huge shock when they find out what it’s really like.

    1. And that’s exactly why I am a huge advocate of athletic based training. But if you training in a martial arts system that has no real contact, and or training against resisting opponents, it’s not worth much. But regardless, knowing how to adjust your game for the street is imperative, and just because you train MMA, Boxing, Muay Thai etc, doesn’t mean that by default you will know how to make those adjustments. This too takes training!