Almost every day at Black Belt, we’re asked the same question: “What’s the best martial art for self-defense?” To find out the answer, we asked Dr. Mark Cheng, an expert in Chinese medicine and martial arts. “I chose the following arts because of my personal experience with them,” Dr. Mark Cheng says. “While I’m sure there are plenty of other arts, systems and schools that teach outstanding self-defense, I can’t recommend them on reputation alone. It’s the actual physical experience that makes styles recommendable in my eyes.”


Muay Boran

“It’s 100-percent application from the get-go. As Col. Nattapong Buayam taught me, its simple, brutal responses make it an outstanding choice in ‘shortcut’ streetwise self-defense. It’s the forefather of the ring sport of muay Thai.

Combat Shuai Chiao

“Nothing hits harder than the ground, and combat shuai chiao capitalizes on that debilitating impact. Unlike many systems that teach throws only from a pre-established grip, it uses high-amplitude throws against the full range of unarmed and armed attacks.”

Wing Chun

“Developed as a streamlined system of self-defense for smaller, weaker practitioners, it’s one of the best-known Chinese systems, and it was the basis of Bruce Lee’s jeet kune do. Wing chun earned its reputation as a street-fighting art in the mid- to late 20th century in Hong Kong.”

Sil Lum Fut Ga

“An archetypal system of southern kung fu, it’s part beauty and part brutality. Using open-hand strikes that can break the skin, along with deft kicks delivered to unlikely targets, it’s the perfect blend of artistry, culture and fearsome fighting techniques.”

Inosanto Kali

“The Filipino system taught by Black Belt Hall of Famer Dan Inosanto is far more than just the sticks and knives that the casual observer sees. Including every possible weapon and range of combat, Inosanto’s system is one of the most sought-after and imitated arts in the world when it comes to practical self-defense.”

Jeet Kune Do

“Made famous by its founder, Bruce Lee, it places heavy emphasis on streetwise dirty fighting that employs any and every means to achieve victory. Biting, eye gouging and all sorts of techniques and tactics go beyond the usual fare taught in most traditional arts.”

Krabi Krabong

“While some would argue that this ancient Thai weapons art has no place in a discussion of modern self-defense, I beg to differ. By training the practitioner to respond reflexively to a variety of weapons in countless ranges with both armed and unarmed defenses and counterattacks, it ranks toward the top for battlefield self-defense.”

Hwa Rang Do

“This comprehensive Korean art encompasses more techniques in just its joint-manipulation section than some systems have in toto. While that breadth makes the learning process rather arduous, it also develops superb combative attributes in all ranges.”

Savate

“The French kickboxing art makes it a point to use the tip of the shoe in street and ring combat. Not just another form of sportive kickboxing, it’s superb at developing a mastery of the standing range.”

Target Focus Training

“Former Navy SEAL candidate Tim Larkin created a system that ignores stylistic boundaries and focuses on a three-part goal: penetrate, rotate, injure. Its unique training methods allow everyone from the hardened combat vet to the stay-at-home mom access to its benefits.” Disagree with our picks? Let us know your choices in the comments field. (For more insights on the top martial arts for self-defense, check out the complete series in the August and September issues of Black Belt magazine. To contact Dr. Mark Cheng, go to www.facebook.com/DrMarkCheng.)
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The UFC returned to American network television for the first time in more than two years Saturday on ABC while former featherweight champion Max Holloway returned to his winning ways following two straight losses, earning a unanimous decision over Calvin Kattar in Abu Dhabi. Holloway showed he still has plenty left as a fighter dominating Kattar from the opening bell of the main event with a mix of punches and low kicks.

It appeared as if the former champion might stop his opponent in the fourth round landing a series of vicious body blows followed by hard elbows to the head as a bloodied Kattar sagged against the fence. But Kattar somehow survived managing to keep himself upright through the fifth stanza as well, only to lose a lopsided decision. After dropping his title to Alexander Volkanovski and then losing a controversial rematch, Holloway may have put himself in position for one more crack at the championship following Saturday's impressive performance.

The Legendary Black Belt Magazine Hall of Fame has never before been documented in a single location. Now, you can learn about all the icons that have achieved one of the greatest honors in all of martial arts.

Black Belt Magazine is proud to announce the NEW Member Profiles feature for the Hall of Fame. At the time of this article, the online records account for every inductee from the inaugural year of 1968 all the way through 1990 (upwards of 200 martial artists). The page will be updated continuously and will include every inductee through 2020 in the near future. For now, you can enjoy images and facts about the legendary members for each induction they received before 1991. Take advantage of this never-before-seen opportunity to learn about many of the martial artists who contributed to the lifestyle, culture, and community that every martial artist experiences today.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE BLACK BELT HALL OF FAME

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The Key Is to Customize Your Forms by Playing With Them!

When facing a real attack, creativity and fast thinking are crucial for overcoming an opponent. The human problem, however, is that in a moment of stress, people tend to resort to a single, familiar response — whether it works or not. The goal of martial arts training is to help the student develop the ability to solve various tactical problems in moments of crisis. To achieve this, several attributes must be cultivated. One of the most important is the flexibility of mind needed to make good tactical decisions. What may be surprising, however, is the method that traditional arts use to develop flexibility of mind: kata.

Kata, or forms, have been taught in the fighting traditions for hundreds of years. The thing that makes them so effective as a learning tool is what's overlooked in most modern schools, where forms are often treated like an annoying curriculum requirement. Classical forms are composed of actual self-defense techniques that are based on sound and reliable principles. So the first step is to actually practice forms "for real." This means that forms training must include not only the solo performances but also the bunkai, or two-person applications.

Now, some people say they practice bunkai, but they're misleading themselves if their practice consists of defending against stylized attacks that bear no relationship to what one is likely to see in a real-world encounter. And they're misleading themselves if the responses to those stylized attacks — supposedly, the movements from the form — depend on distance and anticipation to work. True bunkai is the purely functional use of movements from kata against common forms of aggression.

Note: To test whether you're practicing true bunkai, have your training partner attack with intensity and realism. If you can't make your application work, it probably is not true bunkai.

When kata are taught properly, the first step is to provide students with a simple, realistic and usable interpretation for each movement of a form. Each individual move is taught as a response to a realistic attack. And it's taught on the assumption that the attacker is about the same size as the defender. But what if you're a 5-foot-6-inch, 125-pound woman training in a dojo full of men who are 6 feet tall and north of 200 pounds? Clearly, the standard techniques won't work as standardly taught.

This is precisely what makes kata training so important. The secret lies, first, in understanding that kata are practical and that practicality is expressed in realistic bunkai, and second, in acknowledging that realistic bunkai is ultimately about understanding and applying the principles of a technique. In other words, if you have a practical use for a kata movement, you have one good technique. But if you understand the principles of that one technique, you have a thousand techniques.

So how can kata be taught and subsequently fine-tuned in a way that maximizes practicality and conceptual understanding? The answer is to give yourself permission to think creatively about forms so you come up with a variety of bunkai that work best for you. And to accomplish this, you must give yourself permission to play with the forms.

And how does one play with kata? Any way you want. A simple way to start is to change the timing and emphasis. For example, while performing a downward counter (gedan-uke), the emphasis is usually on the downward strike. Instead, emphasize the beginning of the movement when your hand comes up near your opposite ear. Suddenly, you discover another striking action hidden within the movement. Your downward counter isn't a low strike away from yourself; it's a rising strike that moves toward your own body.

Another way to play is to start with bunkai and work your way backward. Perform a bunkai you already know but on a differently sized or abled opponent. While performing the technique, pay attention to modifications that you make to execute the move effectively. Once you have identified a modification, try to apply it to the solo performance of kata play.

The point is to learn to think freely and creatively. Playing with kata is a form of free expression. This leads to creative thinking and to the discovery of principles of effective self-defense. And this, in turn, leads to different ways to solve tactical problems and ultimately leads to the skill one needs to make good tactical solutions under stress.

Now, some very traditional practitioners will object to the notion of playing with kata because it implies "changing" the forms — a notion that attacks the very heart of the traditionalist sense of orthodoxy. But playing with kata does not imply abandoning the "orthodox" versions, however they're defined within a given style or tradition. In fact, it's the custom of the authors to practice orthodox kata, then to perform a personalized, played-with version of the same forms.

Other instructors might object, claiming that it will create confusion if students are given permission to personalize their own art. But imagine what would happen if students were taught to think on their own — and not simply parrot the teacher's movements. Imagine how much more they could get done during class. Instead of struggling with students who can't get something to work, the students can play with the movement themselves and find alternative methods that work for them. In this way, playing with kata can solve some very important dojo problems.

For example, if students think there's only one correct way to perform a technique, they'll tend to sacrifice technique and muscle their way through the move when necessary to make it work. But when students are encouraged to adapt techniques to suit their strengths, they begin to work independently on improving their technique through proper body mechanics.

Another dojo problem revolves around the fact that karate is a male-dominated adult activity. But if you look at the kids classes, there's a more even mix of girls and boys. What causes girls to quit training?

There's no one single reason, but part of the problem is that girls are not being taught how to adapt techniques to make them work. Most girls, as they grow, find that they can't muscle their way through a technique against an adult male to make it work.

Sadly, most sensei don't have enough time or knowledge to teach a different way of doing the technique when this occurs. Nor should they. Instead, if all the students are given the freedom to play with kata and the corresponding bunkai, those girls — who might be in danger of quitting — can learn to think independently as they modify their moves.

Another dojo problem is that training partners don't always attack in a helpful manner. This is especially an issue for women training with men because the men sometimes will try to demonstrate their superior strength with female training partners. Students who have been taught to play with kata and modify them for different situations have a much better time adapting to meet changing circumstances — all the while, still using the framework of the kata. For students trained in this approach, kata aren't stagnant routines; they're living things that can be manipulated and shaped to fit a variety of combative circumstances.

***

Who knew that paying could be such a useful learning tool? Students who have been given permission to think creatively about kata will become better fighters. They will have already learned how to adapt to different situations and circumstances. Sparring will improve with the freedom to think outside the box.

And should the students find themselves in a self-defense situation, they will be prepared to think on the spot instead of freezing when a technique doesn't work like it was supposed to.

The ability to think is arguably one of the most important fighting skills anyone can learn. A good fighter has a good mind. Kata are the perfect tool for training a strong, effective mind — as long as you're given permission to analyze, adapt, shape, understand and play with those kata.

April Taylor is a practitioner of Ryukyu kempo. She stands 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 125 pounds — and regularly trains with 200-pound men. Chris Thomas is a longtime practitioner of the martial arts and a renowned instructor whose articles have appeared in Black Belt since 1981. He is also April Taylor's dad. Click here to visit his website.

Black Belt Hall of Fame member Fedor Emelianenko, considered by some the greatest heavyweight in the history of mixed martial arts, has been hospitalized with the Covid-19 virus. It was reported Thursday that the Russian fighting great had been taken to a hospital in Moscow. Though the hospital has not released any details of his condition, Emelianenko, 44, took to Instagram to assure his fans he's feeling well and recovering.

A former combat sambo world champion and heavyweight champion of the now defunct Pride promotion, Emelianenko retired from fighting in 2012 but returned in 2015. He is currently signed with Bellator MMA where he's gone 3-2 since 2017. There had been plans for him to have an epic farewell fight in Russia but the worldwide pandemic has put those plans on hold.

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