Recently, I was in the pantry talking to a colleague. He commented that he may want to stop his daughter’s Taekwondo lessons as he feels that it’s not good at teaching self-defence. He asked if letting his daughter go for Muay Thai classes would be better.
I get asked about this kind of questions a lot especially since I practice both Taekwondo and Muay Thai. Personally, in all honesty, I feel that all kinds of martial arts can be good for self defense. At the same time, learning martial arts may not help you in self defense at all.
What is martial art?
According to the Oxford dictionary, martial arts refers to various sports, which originated chiefly in Japan, Korea and China as forms of self defense or attack .
Many martial arts originate from warfare and the need to equip soldiers with skills that will give them an edge over their enemy (e.g. Kendo). However, some originate from folk games and some cultures may incorporate them into the military either as a form of physical training or skills to kill the enemy (e.g. wrestling).
In this very narrow definition of martial arts, an effective martial arts is one that can help you defend yourself or attack someone. Even in this narrow definition, I would say Taekwondo is quite an effective martial art.
“But Taekwondo do not use hands to fight! No throws and take downs! Not to mention so many useless forms!”
This is perhaps the most common misunderstanding of Taekwondo and I can understand why. But Taekwondo in its truest essence, do have a variety of punches and throws. In fact, in order for one to progress from a white belt to a black belt, one has to master the punches and throws demonstrated in the poomsae/kata(forms). When going for higher dans, one has to show that they are able to throw punches and throw an opponent to the ground by doing it on a sparring partner. Surprisingly, Taekwondo also have techniques that involve breaking an opponent’s joints like BJJ.
A lot of times, people see on television that in competitions, Taekwondo fighters only try to kick each other with fast but weak kicks. Well, this has more to do with the rules for sparring in Taekwondo. While I too do not like this kind of competition, it developed out of a need to make Taekwondo look skillful, unique(spectacular kicks) and sparring safe so that Taekwondo will become an Olympic sport.
Which brings me to the next point:
Actually all kinds of competition type sparring is ‘unrealistic’
Before you shout “BLASPHEMY! MMA IS REALISTIC FIGHTING!” Hear me out and let me explain.
Most martial art competitions these days have special rules to protect fighters from getting maimed or killed. For example in all martial arts, fighters are forbidden to gauge each other’s eyes or crushing another’s testicles. Even in MMA, fighters are not allowed to head butt and in Muay Thai, fighters have to wear padded gloves. Each martial art have a set of rules and regulations to keep the fighters safe.(and sometimes, keep the fighters fight longer to make the match more exciting.)
But remember, many martial arts originated from the need to kill in warfare or have an edge over an enemy. But because of the rules they are bounded by, they often cannot show their full potential in the ring. Take Chinese martial arts for example. In its competition form (wushu), it looks graceful but quite useless with its flowery movement. But it’s an art that has been used to defend China for hundreds of years. It’s even used to great effect in defending against katana wielding Japanese pirates.
To view whether one martial art is more effective than the other from the angle of how sparring is done is quite unfair. As long as there are rules where fighters have to abide by, it will never be realistic because in the field of battle where many martial arts originated, there are no rules. If you have to gauge your enemy eyes or pick up a rock to hit his head, do it. Do whatever it takes to kill him. As long as you can’t do any of these, I feel that it is not realistic.
Hence as Oxford dictionary rightly points out, most martial arts today are pretty much sports.
History and development of martial arts
So why does martial arts like Muay Thai look so strong in the ring compared to the rest? It has to do with history and culture.
Thailand is a country that has faced many war with its neighbors. It needs to have soldiers that can defend themselves with weapons and bare handed. Hence, krabi krabong and muay boran developed.
Thai soldiers wielding sword and wearing simple clothing during Ayutthaya period, between 1350 to 1767 AD
Many Southeast asian armies do not wear armour as these countries usually conscript farmers who are usually too poor to afford them and armour typically do not work very well in a hot and humid South east asian climate. Hence, it made sense to use Muay Boran to bash up an enemy quickly. Muay Boran also gained popularity with the legend of Nai Thanom Tom. With practical uses and such a great cultural attachment, the art lived on and is continued being practised to this present day. This boosted its development as a ring sport.
On the other hand, martial arts in different parts of the world suffer a different fate. For example in Europe, armies don on elaborate mail and plate armour. Even militia would be equipped with gambeson. It’s not practical to try to bash someone or put them in a lock to break their joints in a chaotic battle ground using skills in Muay Thai and BJJ. It’s much simpler to just bring a small dagger and try to stab your enemy through the gaps in their armour once they are down. And once the gun is invented, nobody bothered to practise any martial arts any more. In countries such as China, laws were made to forbid anyone from practicing martial arts for fear of rebellion. Hence, martial arts development in these countries is severely limited.
Practicality of martial arts in real-life situations
Situation on the streets and what you face in the ring is also vastly different. Sorry to burst your bubble but it is extremely difficult to disarm an armed attacker. While it may seem that some martial arts are better in dealing dangerous situations on the streets, it is still extremely risky. I once watched a martial art self-defence video on Youtube where the instructor commented the skills that he is teaching is for last resort only. It is always better to just give up your wallet to someone who is holding you at gun/knife point and be safe. The most you lose a few bucks. However if you choose to engage an armed attacker, there’s high chance you can get killed no matter what martial arts you are equipped with. Furthermore, your attacker need not be very skilled to harm you.
An art beyond killing
Perhaps one of the most important question we need to ask ourselves before we get into this discussion is What is the purpose of martial arts?
If the purpose of martial art is just to kill or attack an enemy, then indeed, Taekwondo isn’t a very effective martial arts. Statistically, there are very few incidents that Taekwondo has harmed another person severely. Aikido on the other hand would be the most ineffective martial art.
But martial arts is much more than killing. In modern interpretation, it’s also about training of the mind and the spirit. Through it, practitioners learn values like discipline and honor. They also learn to develop an indomitable spirit. It’s also an art form involving movements where people train to learn to do spectacular feats(like 360 back hook).
While some martial arts may not be as effective in harming another person, they certainly have their place in other areas. Which martial arts one choose greatly depends greatly on what they wanna achieve. If one wants to be a prize fighter, then perhaps choosing BJJ and Muay Thai would be a good choice. If one just wants to keep fit, and learn to do various stunts then Taekwondo would be a better choice.
PS: These are my personal views. You are free to disagree.