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What Is Self-Defense?

With self-defense, as with everything, we have to establish some sort of definition before we can say anything about it without constant misunderstandings.

I don’t know any unproblematic, simple definition of self-defense, and of course there is not just one answer, but in these two articles I will try to give you at least part of my answer, and in the process I will attempt to make an important distinction, that may help you understand some of the technical choices I make in my videos, and why those choices are sometimes different from those of my colleagues.

For me, the essence of “self-defense” isn’t lack of initiative. You can be ambushed by a child, but that hardly motivates training in preparation, does it?

What does motivate training is disadvantage.

To formulate definitions of different situations according to disadvantage however is very difficult, and so what I will attempt in this article is to snappily capture the essence, not of “self-defense” and “streetfighting”, but of recognizable scenarios which can typically represent the two.

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For that I have chosen to divide violence into “types”, in reality leaving us with three types:

I. Pre-arranged
II. Escalated
III. Sudden

These three types are also relevant to separate because, while they of course overlap, they are not only typically characterized by different relations between the participants in terms of advantage, but also tend to encompass different initial attacks.

The first type, the pre-arranged violence, is one I will not talk about here. It is the violence of duels and competitions (fighting-sports of course forming their own category in many ways), and is very far from the violence of self-defense, in many important ways.

The second type, the escalated violence, is the one that causes confusion. It is the archetypical violence of pubs and schoolyards, where guys start talking big, after which push comes to shove, which finally escalates into a fight. For many, these are counted as self-defense situations, and relevant defenses are taught as self-defense techniques.

This is not wrong, but escalated fights tend to be of a nature in which not only the initial attacks, but also the mid-fight techniques, and their performance, are different from a type 3 situation.

Henceforth, the word “self-defense” will be reserved for “type 3” situations, whereas “type 2” situations will be labeled “streetfighting”. It is the second type of violence we will look at in this article.


The only thing necessary for something to be classified as a streetfight is that all parties are well aware of each other, before the fight starts.
This is important in itself, because it means for example that there will be no initial attacks from a blind spot, like from behind. However, there are a lot of factors that are not necessary, but extremely common, in streetfights between two participants, which are also very important:

I. Both participants are usually around the same intuitive fighting capability, meaning a tendency to relative equality in things like size and strength.
II. Both participants are usually to some extent actively prepared to fight, meaning both are standing up, neither of them have their hands in their pockets, and so on.
III. Initial attacks will as a rule be executed from a middle distance, meaning almost exclusively impact-techniques, right hooks being over-represented. For an elaboration on definitions, dangers, defenses and own means of attack in the various fighting distances, read through this article.

So What Does This Mean?

Against an opponent about your size, against whose attacks you are prepared, you have a lot of options. Just an ounce of surprise, a little bit of speed, minimal technique or just plain effort can each on their own be enough for you to successfully execute a great variety of attacks.

It’s easy. All you need is some confidence, a few basics, maybe a well-practiced trick or two, and you’ve got a great advantage over most.

When your opponent is trying to pull you down, or has you in a bearhug, or tries to push you backwards, or has you in a clinch, all you have to do is strengthen your structure, for example by lowering your center of gravity and widening your base, and you can break loose doing pretty much anything, because a figurative single corn of rice is enough to tip the scales in your favor.

You get away with a lot, simply.

In a previous article, found here, I gave three exaggerated examples of martial art-school stereotypes, and a curriculum largely adapted for streetfights is most commonly associated with “the minimalists” as described in that article.

For an excellent example of what a technique adapted to a streetfight can look like, check out this video by our representatives from “Prana Jiu Jitsu” in Stockholm.

Compare with what in this article is described as a “perfectionistic” approach:

Note that in the first video, the performer uses a motion in which he would be only slightly stronger than an opponent his size, in order to slightly weaken his opponent’s structure, after which strength is used against that weakened structure, to execute the technique.

This in contrast to the second video, in which the “sweeping of the arm” represents a non-strength reliant mechanical cause and effect (for elaboration, read this article) to weaken the opponent’s structure.

After the initial attack on the opponent’s structure, the same weakening of structure as in the first video is achieved, but where in the first video, the strength of the performer’s arm was used to manipulate the opponent’s arm, the second video shows the performer using his entire body, just in order to manipulate the opponent’s wrist, explicitly as a way of “avoiding just using your physical strength”.

After this, the wrist is actively kept in a weak position, and the free hand is placed on the elbow joint, adding a pain-withdrawal reflex to the effect of the lever, which is also supported by the performer’s weight, as the technique is complemented with a step forward.

The execution of the technique in the second video may seem more effective and efficient than in the first video, but the question can be raised whether the amount of detail in the second video could be considered unnecessary in a type 2 situation, which leads us to consider whether it’s actually the most adequate, especially in terms of training.

In the next part we’ll take a look at type 3 situations, and what assuming them can mean for your training.

John Bishop

Category Tactical

Type article

Duration 10 mins
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