Where Reality-Based Self Defence Meets

Cage Fighting:


(Please note that this article was written when the class was called 'Street MMA'. The training we do has since evolved, but the article is still a worth-while read)

It has become one of the most debated topics in the martial arts community in the guise of various titles; “Is MMA suitable for self defence?” “Who would win in a fight, an RBSD practitioner or an MMA fighter?”

It was when searching for a name for my ‘reality-based self defence’ class (after being asked several times “what are you guys doing?” and not really having a simple answer to respond with) that I realized that what we were doing looked remarkably like ‘MMA’. And so after taking a long hard look at what MMA and RBSD actually are, that I realized what I was teaching was MMA… in a way.

So first, let’s look at what MMA and RBSD are...

What is MMA?

Mixed Martial Arts (also known as cage fighting) – is exactly that; a mix of martial arts that work best at winning fights in the ‘no holds barred’ or ‘cage fighting’ sports. Through a process of elimination, early NHB events such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship revealed that for winning these fights (by knock out or submission) contestants would be wise to cross-train in the individual arts of Boxing, Muay Thai kickboxing and Grappling (namely, freestyle wresting and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu).

In recent years, this mix of martial arts has, to quite an extent, become a system unto itself that is referred to as MMA.

MMA training with Eddie Kone

What is RBSD?

Simply put, reality-based self defence (RBSD), also known as ‘combatives’ is any system that teaches techniques and tactics specifically for protecting one’s self in every day life (a term referred to as ‘on the street’) without adhering to any particular tradition. The idea is to use science (namely, body mechanics and neurophysiology) as the basis for all techniques. Some systems are better at this than others.

The better RBSD systems will also include large amounts of awareness tactics and psychology for verbally de-escalating dangerous situations.

Kelly McCann, the epitome of 'combatives'

Set Responses vs Attributes

Even if you take away the petty differences between RBSD and MMA (such as the fact that one group trains in jeans and with their shoes on while the others wear shorts and train barefoot on mats), the fundamental difference is of course the fact that MMA is a sport that adheres to rules and RBSD is about surviving and escaping violence on the street.

However, for me, this difference is so fundamental, so obvious that I can’t believe martial artists still have debates about ‘which is better’. And so, I’m not going to go there. Instead I’d like to point out another difference.

Something I’ve noticed with many (not all, but many) RBSD systems is their fondness for teaching ‘combat scenarios’ which revolve around having a set response to any given form of attack. This is known as fighting by the numbers.

The idea is that if the attacker does this (insert any given form of violence here) then the defender should do this, that, and then grab here and proceed to do this  until the attacker is unconscious. And then run away.

One problem with this type of training is that it’s largely based on the assumption that the attacker doesn’t know how to defend against this or that. And so, the chaos of combat, the improvised aliveness that is typical of fighting has been largely ignored. Another problem is that when these set responses are the main form of training, less time has been spent on developing in the student the individual attributes needed for doing this or that under pressure. So what you’re left with is a student who will kick ass as long as the attacker responds in exactly the same way their training partner did when getting hit with restrained punches and kicks etc during class. But if their attacker resists, if he or she then counters the set response, then you have a student who may - not an absolute, but they may – panic under the pressure of having to improvise a defence.

MMA doesn’t have this problem. The central theme of MMA training is skill and attribute development.

An MMA fighter who is being trained for a specific fight will most certainly be trained in certain set responses; if, for example, they are going to be fighting an opponent who has won many fights by a left hook, then they will work on a set response defence against that left hook. But this only happens after the fighter has spent hours upon hours of developing the overall attributes needed for fighting in general. These range from the technical such as footwork drills that teach you never to cross your feet when fighting, to the general such as exercises for developing explosiveness in strikes and stamina to delay exhaustion.

The main attribute that I see MMA fighters being conditioned for is a psychological attribute that I feel should be central to all RBSD training: forward drive (also known as aggression) Whether you’re talking about the cage or the street, fighting is an ugly business… much like unblocking a toilet. And just as you have to motivate and psyche your self up to unblock a toilet, clean up some puke, or change a baby’s leaking, steaming diarrhoea-filled diaper (or ‘nappy’ for us Brits) or any other ugly business, you will have to be in the right psychological state to fight your way out of a violent assault. MMA is very good at this and so are the good RBSD systems.

I sometimes wonder if the fighting-by-the-numbers type of RBSD schools buy into the Jason Bourne image of the hero who dispatches his attackers with snappy karate-chopping precision whilst remaining as cool, calm and detached as a Buddhist monk. Perhaps nobody told them that fighting is ugly and that the law of the jungle rules.

And so I discovered that the reason my class resembled an MMA class is that apart from relying on a similar physical style of fighting, we were training that same psychological attribute of forward drive. But of course, there is that fundamental difference of sport vs. ‘the street’ so I wouldn’t want to describe my class as an ‘MMA class’…

Non-Sport MMA

From here, we’ll refer to regular MMA as sport MMA, as this is where we will look at Non-sport MMA or MMA for the street.

What’s the difference? There are several.

Despite starting off in the early days as ‘no rules’ fighting matches, mainstream mixed martial arts tournaments such as the UFC have evolved to have several categories of techniques that are illegal such as eye attacks, groin shots, small joint manipulations (breaking fingers), stomping, throat striking/grabbing, head butts, kicking or kneeing a grounded opponent, hair-pulling… the list is actually quite long but all can be summed up by UFC rule # 22: Engaging in an unsportsmanlike conduct that causes an injury to an opponent.

The reason these and other ‘moves’ are illegal is simply because they are too effective in the combative sense. And that’s exactly why we train to do those things; in order to end the altercation as quickly as possible.

However, although an entirely new article could be written on the subject of ‘dirty tactics’, I feel it’s worth mentioning that contrary to popular belief in many RBSD circles, the above mentioned dirty tactics do not change the nature of fighting to any great degree. Used individually, these types of techniques are what I call ‘close quarter inserts’ and don’t end altercations by themselves. To find out how they can be used to maximum effect, I highly recommend you study Richard Dimitri’s ‘Shredder’ concept.

Unsportsmanlike conduct is of course not only something that can be utilized by the RBSD practitioner in defending his or her self, but is most likely what they will be faced with on the street. The most obvious way this manifests is when we are faced with more than one opponent or ‘attacker’ in the case of self defence. And in non-sport MMA, this not only means that we practice drills for fighting our way out of a gang attack, but creates a very distinguishable gap between the approaches to ground fighting.

With the guarantee of never being attacked by a second, third or fourth person, the sport MMA fighter can afford to roll on the floor looking for opportunities to submit his opponent by joint crank or choke or to land a strike (but only one of the legal strikes of course). The fact that he will be rolling on a matted surface also creates the opportunity for this approach to ground fighting.

On the street, the fact that any fighting on the ground will most likely mean rolling on a very hard surface (with the possibility of gravel or broken glass to make things worse) and that you can only ever fight one person at a time on the ground means that in non-sport MMA, we train to get to our feet again as quickly as possible if grounded and don’t focus much on submissions.

This doesn’t mean no grappling however. As Richard Grannon correctly said, “The best anti-grappling system is grappling”. Grappling doesn’t have to mean submissions, but does mean positions. Some of our drills will involve rolling around on the floor, but only so as to ingrain the attributes needed to getting out of that situation as quickly as possible.

Weapons are also the kind of unsporting type of threat we are likely to face on the street, and so this subject is something else that separates sport from non-sport MMA. Through pressure testing, I have personally found that there is no system of weapon defence that can be separated from learning to fight in general. There are VERY few techniques that are unique to defence against knives or guns at close quarters that don’t rely heavily on the attributes needed for fighting an unarmed opponent. However, the fact that we even have rubber knives and guns in our box of training equipment instantly causes an obvious separation from sport MMA.

With the luxury of not only knowing that he will be fighting only one opponent, but also knowing exactly how long the maximum amount of time the fight will last for, the sport MMA fighter can afford to take his time. On the street, once we know that a physical response is required (after verbal de-escalation attempts have been exhausted) then we have no option but to respond with forward drive and maximum aggression until the threat subsides to make good our escape.

This means that in non-sport MMA, we practice very little evasive manoeuvring. We can’t afford to play the pugilist’s game of bobbing and weaving. By back-peddling on the street you could easily find yourself tripping over a kerb or any other object and falling onto your butt.

You’ll rarely find toe-to-toe sparring in our class, simply because self defence doesn’t really happen like that. I don’t teach a specific fighting guard other than “keep your hands up and bend your knees” because the truth is that if you find two people squaring up to each other with their dukes up, then it means they have both CHOSEN to enter into that situation. It’s not self defence when you could have walked away.

We train for ambush type street attacks, in which case, you’ll be lucky to have time to put a guard up.

Overall, fighting is fighting. And nobody can argue that MMA tournaments aren’t fighting and that its athletes aren’t fighters. And so, just as it’s now widely understood that the dancing, acrobatic styles of martial arts don’t really prepare you for self defence, if your RBSD class doesn’t look like an MMA class, you may want to re-think what you’re doing.

Sharif Haque