I read and hear many discussions debating whether BJJ is the best martial art for self defense and if not, which martial art is the best? Everyone seems to have a different take on this and my position on this is that it’s just not so clear. In short, it depends.

My Experience With Self Defense

During my youth, I got into the occasional street fight. Nothing major, and just a few here and there. Typically, they were broken up fairly quickly and nobody ever walked away with more than just a few bruises to their body and ego. However, at the present time, and especially as an adult, the consequences of a street fight are much more extreme. Even the “winner” of a physical altercation can find themselves consumed with lengthy criminal or civil trials, or even worse, prison.

The last “opportunity” I had to engage in a physical altercation was while I was in college. Someone was under the impression that I cut them off while driving and unbeknownst to me, they followed me into the parking lot where I was headed. When I tried to get out of my car, I found myself cornered by an irate man about 6″ taller than me and easily 75 pounds heavier. He began screaming at me and threatening to beat me to a pulp. At that time, I had no martial arts training and even if I had any, the odds were stacked against me. He was significantly larger and angrier and he had me cornered. I didn’t have room to assume a fight stance let alone a kick to the knee. In retrospect, my best defense would have been a firearm.

Instead of engaging, I apologized profusely. Within about 10-20 seconds, he cooled off and walked away.

That incident left a big impression on me. While the blow to the ego was brief, it was worth it to spare myself the damage I would likely have incurred from a violent altercation. I also realized that if I was able to talk the aggressor down from his rage in that most extreme case, perhaps most other physical altercations could be avoided as well. As my former Krav Maga instructor used to tell us, “if you have to use your Krav Maga on the street, your first line of defense has already failed you.”

My Self Defense Training

When I began my martial arts journey, I wanted to learn self defense, so I enrolled at Krav Maga Experts here in New York City. They’ve got a fantastic team there with real world experience in the field. I’m grateful for their emphasis on situational awareness in addition to the physical aspects of the Krav Maga combatives training. However, as soon as I took a Jiu Jitsu class there, I was hooked and had to make BJJ my main pursuit.

I enrolled at Vitor Shaolin Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in midtown Manhattan haven’t looked back since. I soon discovered that many of my instructors from Krav Maga Experts trained grappling at Shaolin’s, so I knew I had found the right place.

The other reason why I knew I had found the right place was that Shaolin makes a point of teaching BJJ for self defense in addition to sport Jiu Jitsu. He personally teaches the four Fight Foundations classes each week, which are classes that focus specifically on the self defense aspect of BJJ. I now regularly take several Fight Foundations classes per week in addition to Gi and No-Gi classes. I get tremendous benefit from the BJJ self defense curriculum. I enjoy the connection with the history of the art, it gives me more mat time to drill concepts which carry over into sport Jiu Jitsu as well, and I enjoy being exposed to the complete picture of the various aspects of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

As a side note, I met Royce Gracie last year at the SHOT Show in Las Vegas, NV. When I introduced myself to him as a student of Vitor Shaolin, the first thing he mentioned was how happy it made him to discover that Shaolin teaches the self defense component of BJJ.

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Meeting Royce Gracie at the SHOT Show

Thoughts About Krav Maga for Self Defense

While I admire the simplicity and economy of movement in Krav Maga, its flexibility, and the emphasis on situational awareness, I realized that it’s not for me. It’s a ton of fun to train, but I’m just not comfortable with using eye gouging and other such techniques as a go-to move on my tool belt. In my view, such techniques escalate an encounter to a very high level of intensity very quickly. In a life and death situation, I can see the necessity. In most types of scenarios I’d be likely to encounter, I just don’t see a place for those moves. At least if I truly did need to use them, I now know they exist as options.

The other thing that doesn’t make me comfortable about the ferocity of Krav Maga for self defense is the legal aspect. In today’s litigious society, I just don’t feel comfortable using such extreme self defense techniques knowing how they might be perceived from a legal perspective.

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Here I am learning a Krav Maga knife disarm technique at the Caliber-3 Counter Terror and Security Academy in Gush Etzion, Israel

For weapon disarm techniques, I love what Krav Maga has to offer too. It also is a great way to learn how to be aggressive during a violent encounter, but that can be learned in BJJ too, as we’ll see shortly.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for Self Defense

As I trained more of the Fight Foundations classes with Shaolin, I grew to see many benefits in the curriculum. As the techniques focus on joint locks and chokes primarily, I’m much more comfortable with the possibility of using them in an altercation. Also, since I’m using the same concepts in my rolling, I’m getting practice in the self defense part of the sport too…sort of.

I have no intention of pulling guard on the street and I have no desire to find out what doing a berimbolo on concrete feels like, but I’d be perfectly comfortable using joint locks and chokes in a self defense situation, and certainly much more comfortable than using eye gouges or strikes to the groin. I also believe from what I’ve read that a choke hold, while possibly illegal in some jurisdictions, would be viewed more favorably in a legal situation than multiple strikes to the face resulting in an opponent with a broken nose and a black eye. Of course, if such an attack is necessary in self defense, then so be it. It’s just not the first tool I’d want to pull out of my tool belt.

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A live fire exercise at Caliber-3

Shortcomings of the BJJ Self Defense Curriculum

We’ve all heard the various arguments against using Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for self defense and some of them have merit. I wouldn’t want to have to use BJJ against multiple attackers and I wouldn’t choose to take an aggressor to the ground if I didn’t have to.

One thing I’d want to improve upon in the BJJ self defense curriculum is in how it’s trained. I find it difficult to remember the hundreds of moves well enough to be able to remember instinctively the right move in a high stress situation. That said, a violent encounter is a dynamic event and the ability to think in terms of concepts rather than specific techniques places one at an advantage. This can be drilled through sparring sessions even if those sparring sessions are geared toward sport Jiu Jitsu.

One thing I try to do to account for this is to try to focus my sport Jiu Jitsu game on techniques which cross over, at least somewhat, into the BJJ for self defense realm. At least this way I’m staying realistic about what may or may not work.

As an example, when I drill the Osotogari when training the self defense curriculum, I choose to do so from the clinch rather than from gripping the Gi in the traditional lapel and sleeve positions. This makes the drilling closer to what I might encounter on the street.

However, I’d love to gain some experience with Combat Jiu Jitsu specifically for the purpose of studying how to approach the guard as I’m sure there are many things I do from bottom guard which would have unfortunate results if I ever found myself in that position on the street. Of course, if I found myself in bottom guard on the street, several things have probably already gone wrong.

I’m also a bit skeptical of the knife and pistol disarms taught in the BJJ self defense curriculum. As anyone with knife experience will tell you, it’s not a matter of whether you’ll get cut, but the degree to which you get cut. Honestly, if I’m threatened with a knife, I’d rather hand over my wallet and run than try to attempt a technique. That said, I’m glad to know the technique just in case using it were my only option.

The gun disarms are also a Hail Mary move. In my opinion, much of the success of these moves will be affected by the aggressors comfort level and experience using firearms, whether their finger is already on the trigger, whether there is already a round chambered, and many other factors.

Why BJJ is My Choice for Self Defense

I don’t believe that there’s any martial art which will teach every possible technique necessary to be invincible on the street. There are too many factors involved such as the environment, whether there are multiple attackers, whether the attacker(s) is/are armed, the attacker’s comfort level with violence, the attacker’s motives, whether or not the attacker is under the influence and if so, what that substance is. The list goes on and on.

I think the most important elements here are that one has a plan of action and that one’s plan of action and arsenal of techniques are things that are within one’s comfort zone.

I know that BJJ won’t prepare me for every possible situation. I also don’t have the time or the desire to do the work to prepare for every situation. However, I’ve learned situational awareness from my Krav Maga training and my BJJ self defense training has given me valuable tools that I can use should the need arise. Will I be invincible? Probably not. But in many cases I feel confident that I have the skills to at least create an opening to get away from the situation.

Another benefit of using BJJ for self defense is that the BJJ self defense curriculum stays consistent with the use of force continuum, which makes me much more comfortable when viewing this issue from a legal perspective. And that enables me to execute the techniques much more confidently.

Of course, my goal is to never have to use BJJ for self defense. In fact, the one time I used my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training on the street was the time I fell in a dark theater backstage and instinctively did a break fall. I simply got right back up and went about my business.

My plan is to always avoid physical confrontation whenever possible, just as I did when that guy followed me into the parking lot and threatened me. But I like knowing that if it becomes absolutely necessary to use force, I do have a plan. As General Mattis says, “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”

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