Combat Sports vs Self-Defense

So there is this idea that adding a sports competition element to the martial arts can actually hurt or undermine the efficacy of the self-defense aspect. I’ve heard variations of this argument from multiple sources. You hear this argument mostly from Krav Maga people and old-school Karate guys, so most people who compete in MMA, Muay Thai or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu generally tend to disregard the argument. But, grappling legend and BJJ icon Rickson Gracie has also made this observation. In his autobiography Breathe, Rickson writes:

“Competition and the need to play within the rules had transformed our martial art into a sport and a game. A top Jiu Jitsu competitor might have five tough bouts in a single day. Why would he go all out and exhaust himself in his first match when he could get ahead on points and then stall and run out the clock? […] While I respected the top Jiu Jitsu competitors as remarkable athletes, I did not consider them complete martial artists, because they ignored the self-defense aspect of the practice. Fights in real life are unpredictable, and often your only goal is survival.”

But… but… my Jiu Jitsu medals prove I can fight!

Gracie goes on to recount a time he got into a fight, and his opponent’s friends swarmed him. He had to fight long enough to create a window to flee, and escape the angry mob. He goes on to say of the incident:

“Although I used very little actual Jiu Jitsu, my martial arts mind-set was the thing that saved me. I don’t care if a student is only interested in the sport of Jiu Jitsu; every blue belt needs to know how to block a punch, clinch, take someone to the ground and control them. Even more important, they need to know how to use the guard to defend against punches and head butts in the event of a real life assault.”

No matter what style of martial art you practice, whether you are in it for the fun and glory of competition or for the practical reasons of fitness and self-defense, the words of the legendary Gracie are worthy of consideration. But does this mean that preparing for martial arts competition makes you powerless in a street fight situation? Not really. You see, while I agree with the point Rickson is making, I also see a Pro/Con side of competitive martial arts in terms of how it relates to self-defense. I’ll break it down.


  • If you’re training for a tournament, you will be in great physical shape. A combatant with a combination of superior strength, cardio and/or flexibility is going to have a better chance of winning a street fight than the average human. 
  • Better cardio from athletic training also improves your chances of successfully running away. Some street fights aren’t worth it, and sometimes from a tactical standpoint escape is the best option. It works best if you have good cardio, if you have shit cardio then your attackers will just chase you down and now in addition to getting beat up you’re out of breath.
  • In terms of competitive striking, if you are competing in Muay Thai, Boxing or MMA or something similar like Kickboxing or Full Contact Karate, then you will be much better than the common jackass at a) throwing effective punches and/or kicks and b) defending against incoming punches and/or kicks by blocking, dodging, countering or redirecting.
  • In terms of competitive grappling, whether it’s Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Wrestling or Sambo, you will know a lot more than the average guy about takedowns, takedown defense, ground fighting and submissions such as chokes and joint manipulation.
  • People who compete in tournaments get better at their respective martial art faster than people who don’t. Competition and the preparation for it forces us to get in better shape and to put more time into practicing cleaner technique. 
  • If you’ve competed, then you have experienced performing under pressure. Tournaments are nerve racking, people in general are more afraid of speaking or performing in front of a large crowd than anything else. Keeping your head about you so that you can fight a tough opponent while under scrutiny of ref, judges and the audience is no small task.
  • In a competition, you are ideally fighting someone who is tough and who has put in as much training as you have. And they will be going as hard as they can to try and finish you. If you can fight a fighter, you can dominate a layman.
  • In the few street fights I have personally been in, most people are no longer interested in fighting me after I’ve hit them or after I’ve taken them down. 


  • In real life, there is no level playing field. No fence, no referees, no ringside doctor, and no rules. You also will likely not be fighting on a mat. There is a factor of chaos and unpredictability.
  • In real life, the fight will not be broken up into rounds with rests in between, and there is no point system, so stalling and playing the long game is a bad habit, as there are no “championship rounds.” The goal in a real fight is to end it quickly by either defeating your opponent(s), discouraging/intimidating your opponent(s) so that they back off, or running away from the situation altogether.
  • There is no guarantee a street fight will be a one on one affair. Your opponent may have allies who jump in and swarm you. Sport competition does not prepare you for that.
  • As Gracie pointed out, in a self-defense scenario our primary concern is SURVIVAL. Sportsmanlike conduct has no place here. If you’re used to competing, you may be thinking of winning. Sometimes the best option though isn’t winning the fight, but rather escaping the fight. Survival over pride.
  • If you are a grappler, then competition will NOT prepare you for someone who is trying to punch or kick you while you try to grapple them.
  • If you are a striker, then competition will NOT prepare you for someone who is trying to take you down and choke you or break your joints.
  • In competitive grappling, most techniques can translate to a self-defense scenario, but there are some techniques and some variations that only work in tournament or class settings, and are actually a dumb idea in a street situation. Combat athletes would do well to learn the difference.
  • In a flipside to my earlier comment about my experience with street fights, I’ve also fought people who simply would not quit no matter how much I beat them up or dominated them with grappling. Also, I have had to run away from multiple attackers before. Good thing I had cardio.

So my argument here is that while there is a disconnect between martial art competitions and the harsh reality of a street fight, a person who competes in combat sport tournaments is much more likely to be able to defend themselves than a person who does not. My follow up argument is that Rickson Gracie is right, you need to know how to apply your martial art to more than just a tournament situation. If your only aspiration is to be an athlete and win medals, then you are not a complete martial artist. So what’s the remedy?

I think the sport aspect is absolutely great for martial arts, and should continue, as it teaches us to perform under duress, and as I’ve observed and stated before, those who compete get better at their respective art faster. But if you want to be a complete martial artist, then the answer is simple: cross train. Bruce Lee and Gene LeBell were ahead of their time because of this mindset. Bruce Lee knew Wing Chun was limited and outdated, and supplemented his training with Boxing, Muay Thai, Wrestling, Judo and even Fencing. Gene LeBell is a well-rounded grappler due to studying Wrestling, Judo and Sambo, but he also studied boxing and knows how to slip, bob and weave to get past punches and work his grappling game. Cross training is what makes MMA fighters effective, you just don’t really see one-dimensional single-style fighters at the top tiers of the sport anymore.

If you are a competitive BJJ guy, then go do some Boxing or Muay Thai and learn what it feels like to get hit but still keep composure. Rickson Gracie writes about how he used to have a boxer in his class, and he’d see if his students could take down the boxer while defending against punches. If you’re a competitive kickboxer, get your ass into a wrestling or BJJ class, and find out just how much gravity really hates you. Even if you are not into ground fighting, learning to defend against takedowns or work your way back to your feet if you’re taken down is worth it. Learning to escape submissions is worth it. If you’re a competitive MMA fighter who does both grappling and kickboxing, then ask yourself which tools and strategies from your arsenal will work best in the street vs which will work best in the cage? There will be overlap, but there will also be discrepancies. 

One of my first grappling teachers, a man named Jaime Vasquez, would preface when a technique was appropriate for a tournament but not self-defense, and vice versa. He would sometimes show me some pretty cruel and dirty things and explain that in a fight, do this, but in a tournament or in the gym, do not. Having a teacher who is knowledgeable enough to show the distinction between what works better on the mats vs what works better in an actual fight is a cool thing. Jaime was a blessing to me pretty early on in my martial arts journey.

I am not disparaging you if all you want to do is compete and win medals. By all means, do what makes you happy. But I would also encourage you to look at your martial arts from a self-defense perspective and be honest with yourself about any deficits in your over all game. What aspects of a fight might you be unprepared or underprepared for? Sure, many of us could beat up the average human in a fight, but as pointed out in this article, self-defense isn’t something that takes place in a bubble, real life fights are not fair or predictable. So, cross train, and whenever you learn a technique, analyze it and ask yourself if it would work better in competition or on the street, or both, or neither.

As always, I hope you’ve found value in this article. If you have any thoughts or comments on the topic feel free to comment below, I just ask that you do so respectfully. Thank you for reading, happy training and remember to breathe.

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