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Bill Wallace: Are Your Favorite Martial Arts Moves Overrated When Used as Self-Defense Techniques?

The first time you watched your favorite martial arts star wipe out a horde of bad guys with a string of jump-spinning back kicks on the silver screen, you probably were impressed. I know I was. On the other hand, you probably weren’t quite as inspired the first time you saw a real martial artist knock out his opponent with a plain old punch.

There are so many martial arts moves that it’s only natural that some are going to work better than others as self-defense techniques. It’s also natural that some are going to look flashier than others. The following are my observations on the qualities of the most popular ones.

Jump-Spinning Back Kick

This is probably the most overrated martial arts move when it comes to being used as a self-defense technique. Don’t get me wrong — it’s an absolutely beautiful move. However, it has several problems. If your opponent is very quick, he’ll have no problem getting out of the way before you nail him with it. Or he’ll rush in and jam the technique before you make contact.

Because you’re essentially blind for a second while you’re spinning, you don’t know where the other guy is or what he’s up to. There’s no way to defend yourself if you miss or if he counters while you’re in the air. If you lose your balance during the landing and he punches you as you fall, he’ll get a point for knocking you down.

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Rear-Leg Roundhouse Kick

The rear-leg roundhouse kick is very powerful because you can put your entire body rotation into it, but that’s not the end of the story. Because your kicking foot begins its motion so far away from your opponent, he has plenty of time to see it coming, then avoid and counter it. Experienced kickboxers like to throw a rear-leg roundhouse kick to the knee or body, but they seldom aim for the head because of the distance that must be traversed.

Front Kick

The front kick is one of the first techniques kickboxers learn, but hardly anyone uses it in a match. It’s a terrific self-defense technique for fending off an aggressor on the street, provided he doesn’t know any martial arts. However, another kickboxer will have no trouble countering it. Indeed, everybody I’ve ever seen throw a front kick in competition has limped out of the ring because his toes got mangled or because his elbow, hip or knee got caught.


The jab is easy to learn and execute. Not only can it set up virtually every technique you can think of, but it’s also very hard to defend against. It’s fast and subtle. As you snap it out at your opponent, he has to fight hard to deal with it, especially if he’s in a boxing stance.

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Nevertheless, very few people throw jabs in kickboxing bouts, probably because the association between kicks and knockouts is so strong. It definitely could be used more often. I know because I’m left-handed and left-legged and have used it to set up numerous techniques. For example, I can throw a series of jabs and then stick a side kick in right behind the punches, coming under the guy’s arms and hitting him in the gut.

Left Hook

Also known as the forward-hand hook, the left hook is a phenomenal weapon. It makes a particularly good counter because you’re already standing sideways; all you have to do is create the hook, bring your hand up and turn. Don “The Dragon” Wilson destroyed his opponents with this technique because he was so fast. Since I fought as a middleweight, I nailed my opponents with it because I could hit really hard.

Side Kick

The side kick is a great weapon because when you land it on the other fighter’s body, usually in the rib area, it really takes the wind out of him. However, it’s very difficult to throw if you’re in a kickboxing or boxing stance, which is facing forward. You must turn sideways before you can launch the kick. Unfortunately, shifting your stance will immediately warn your opponent that a side kick is coming, and he might be able to defend against it.

These brief descriptions are meant to be guidelines, not absolutes. Knowing when, where and how to throw a punch or kick is what ultimately wins the match. Timing and distancing count most in the ring as well as on the street.

About the Author:
Bill Wallace is a former kickboxing champion and Black Belt Hall of Fame member who now teaches seminars around the world.

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8 Responses

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  1. Adam says

    So Bill Wallace, wrote this article, who is a sports competitor….but you use a picture of Kelly McCann who does use kicks and is a true self defense expert? Huh?

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  2. Jon says

    @Adam: You’re totally right. Let me see if we have a more appropriate picture for the front page. Thanks for keeping us honest.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  3. Adam says

    Haha. No problem Jon!

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  4. Geoff says

    I guess I’d question the whole premise of this article. It seems much more written from a “winning the match” standpoint than a “defending yourself” standpoint. There are a lot of things to consider, when thinking about how effective any given self defense technique is, and limiting it to talking about a few kicks and punches falls well short of any reasonable mark. I started reading this article expecting to read a reasoned discussion of the effectiveness, or lack there of, of the kinds of self defense techniques that are commonly taught in martial arts schools today, many of which could, frankly, get you killed if you tried to use them on the street. These kinds of techniques are doubly dangerous, in my mind, because they give the students a false sense of security.

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  5. Tony says

    Bill Wallace is one of the greatest martial artists of all time. And, I like that the article admits these limitations on techniques are not absolutes. There are limitations with every type of technique. But, it is all in how you set it up. I was sneaky enough to set Bill up for a 360 jump spin back wheel kick in 1988 when we fought an exhibition in Nashville, Tn. I feinted a half round kick low which became my scissor motion for the jump wheel kick. The tip of my heel was on the tip of his nose and he smiled in acknowledgement. Then it seemed like he was trying to kill me and would have succeeded had I not kept circling to his left. Later in the bout I made the mistake of stopping for a split second and I literally blinked and when my eyes opened I saw Bill’s heel of his hook kick after it had bounced from between my eyes snapping my head back. My thought was “damn that was fast.” After the fight Bill and I became friends and I ended up helping him with several seminars at local martial art schools before we drove to Memphis for a tournament in a car Elvis had given him. I would love to write an in depth article for Black Belt about the whole experience including when a huge drunk guy threatened us with a knife outside a Memphis restaurant . Just in case the editor is listening. lol

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  6. Victor says

    “If you lose your balance during the landing and he punches you as you fall, he’ll get a point for knocking you down”

    I thought we were talking about self defense? Last time I was in a fight, I don’t remember any points–maybe I was doing it wrong? lol Straighten out that messaging dude.

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  7. Nyai says

    One of the biggest variances in interpretation is what a Martial artist is.
    Lately people are inundated with being told, even before they do a martial art, what will work and what won’t work in “reality” Whatever reality they are trying to impress.
    Even people that have never learned a martial art or stopped practicing years ago, will confidently tell you what is genuine and what is not. Because it is everywhere. Not just in MMA and competition kickboxing. But now in all the martial art magazines. The martial art discussion forums are stocked with people that will pounce on you, with the blessing of the Moderators, if you deviate from this collective “reality” they are trying to forge.
    Maybe this has always been with martial art schools competing with each other.
    Bill Wallace, like Joe Lewis, their minds were set on ring competition and records.
    My interpretation of a martial artist, Bill Wallace wouldn’t be in there.
    I would look to someone practicing a martial art as an artist, and with the intention of evolving internally as well as externally. And I don’t mean to just get better at knocking people out or getting points.
    People will find what their awareness will allow them to. But I would suggest, don’t just follow what someone says about something, just because they couldn’t master it themselves.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Martial Arts Training Myths, Bogus Self-Defense Training & SEAL Team 6 linked to this post on June 23, 2011

    [...] Are Your Favorite Self-Defense Techniques Overrated? Bill “Superfoot” Wallace in Black Belt offers a sober assessment about the effectiveness of many of the most popular self-defense techniques taught in commercial martial arts schools. Food for thought. [...]

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