Slicing Through the Myths That Surround Edged-Weapon Defense!
No matter which category a particular system belongs to — traditional martial arts, reality-based self-defense, modern combatives — almost all instructors of those systems teach methods for stopping a blade-wielding psycho. Or at least they think they do. Before you start sending me hate mail and planning a cancel campaign, let me explain.
You see, almost all knife-defense techniques work great in theory. They also work on a compliant student in the safe confines of the dojo. But when applied in a life-or-death situation, many of them amount to responses that I like to call "death by martial arts myth."
That's because many knife-defense methods are based on fight fallacies. In other words, they train you to respond to attacks that a criminal with a knife will never use, and that could leave you mortally wounded during a real encounter.
This article is not meant to criticize any particular style but rather to present a reality check for martial artists who are serious about fending off a knife attack. To that end, I'll examine five of the most common knife-defense training methodologies in an effort to see why they're likely to leave you bleeding … or worse.
Training Myth No. 1
The Attack Will Start With a Knife in HandIn 99 percent of the edged-weapon classes and seminars I've attended, the instructors had everyone start with the training knife in hand. That makes sense on paper. But on the street? Not so much because this is not how a gangster will gut you. Quite the contrary.
I've spent 15 years studying surveillance footage and cellphone videos that have been uploaded to the internet, and I've watched stabbing after stabbing. Rarely does the victim ever see the knife coming. And after I co-founded a combatives training company called Tiga Tactics with Dr. Conrad Bui, we compared notes and found that his years of research reaffirmed what I'd observed.
With the exceptions of police responding to calls of blade-wielding suspects or rare cases involving mass stabbings, most knifings are actually surprise attacks in which the weapons are concealed until the very last moment, at which point the assailants launch a barrage of piston-like thrusts or repetitive slashes.
If your practice sessions always start with your partner holding a blunt trainer in his or her hand, you're perpetuating a knife-fight fallacy. Instead, research how evildoers actually use knives. Then emulate those sociopathic tactics with a trusted training partner. Have your partner start with the training knife clipped to his or her pocket, tucked into a waistband or hidden behind the back. Then have the person draw the knife at random and attack.
Of course, it's important to do this slowly and safely at first with the proper protective gear. Eventually, however, you'll want to pressure-test it by having your partner progressively increase the speed, intensity and spontaneity.
Training Myth No. 2
You Can Kick the Knife Hand to Stop the Attack Whether it's Bruce Lee in 1971's The Big Boss or Mark Dacascos in 2019's John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, movies make it seem like kicking an opponent's knife hand is a solid technique. After all, you're using your longest and most powerful limb to counterattack while you keep the weapon away from your head and internal organs. Is this impossible to pull off in a real fight? No. Is it probable? No. It's improbable because it's based on the fallacy that a villain not only will have his edged weapon in his hand but also will present it so obviously that you can reach out and crescent-kick his wrist. As noted in Training Myth No. 1, knife-wielding maniacs like to keep their weapons hidden until they charge you like a linebacker blitzing the quarterback. Most of the time, they'll close the gap so quickly you won't have time to even raise your foot, let alone fire off a kick. Furthermore, this technique is just too risky. Aside from the fact that it's hard to not telegraph a kick, the bad guy just needs to flinch and you're likely to get your foot or leg lacerated.
Training Myth No. 3
It's Possible to Block and Counterattack Simultaneously and Effectively
A classic knife defense entails blocking the stab with one arm and simultaneously punching or kicking with your other side. Tactically speaking, it seems efficient. Why not save time and motion by combining defense and offense?
Problem is, you're dividing your power and accuracy. Either your strike is strong and accurate but your block is weak (and you get stabbed), or your block is strong (and you stop the attack) but your strike is weak and inaccurate. Or both your block and strike are inaccurate (and you get stabbed).The concept of blocking and striking works only when your opponent launches a single committed stab and then stops the moment you make contact. But after watching dozens, if not hundreds, of real-life knife attacks, I can tell you that almost never happens. When a criminal has committed to taking a life, he'll attack with the speed and brutality of a jackhammer.
The take-away is that doing two things (blocking and striking) rarely will be faster than doing one thing with deadly intent. After all, action usually beats reaction — especially during a knife ambush, which is what most knife attacks are. In a recent sampling of 25 online videos depicting authentic blade attacks, 90 percent of the victims were stabbed between two and 10 times in about two seconds.
So what's the fix for this fallacy? Focus on your first priority: Don't get hurt! This should seem obvious, but many people don't pressure-test realistically enough to realize how easy it is to get cut or stabbed. They don't realize that the adrenaline dump experienced under duress will cause physiological side effects like tunnel vision and the loss of fine-motor control.
Knowing this, you should keep your knife defense as simple as possible — think "cave-man fighting." Leave the complex choreography to the Hollywood stunt coordinators. Instead, focus on stopping the attack with tough but direct blocks while simultaneously moving toward the opponent to take away his leverage before getting control of the knife hand.
Then and only then should you consider your counter offense.
Training Myth No. 4
It's Best to Immediately Disarm the Attacker
If you've practiced grappling arts like judo, aikido or Brazilian jiu-jitsu or Filipino arts like kali or escrima, you probably know plenty of knife disarms. Armbars, wrist locks, elbow locks, shoulder locks, knife stripping — the list goes on. They all can work in the right context, just not as the first move in your edged-weapon defense.
Instructors often teach a knife disarm as the first or second move against a stab or slash. Much like Training Myth No. 2, this works only if the attacker launches a single committed thrust and then stops, giving you the chance to grab his hand, wrist or arm to begin your disarm.
In my years of research, I've found that edged-weapon attacks almost always involve repetitive motions, which means the criminal will pull back the knife to immediately attack again. And again. And again.
If the assailant is holding the knife in a forward grip, the attack most likely will be a straight thrust to the torso. Whether or not the first stab succeeds, he'll pull the knife back and immediately thrust again. If the bad guy has the knife in a reverse grip, the attack often will be a downward thrust to the head, neck or upper chest. And again, whether or not the first stab succeeds, he'll lift the knife up near his ear or behind his head and immediately bring it down several more times.
This sewing-machine-like delivery makes it almost impossible to effect an immediate disarm, which is often a sequence of intricate movements — not cave-man-like at all and not likely to work when the adrenaline dump has you losing fine-motor control.
What's the best way to bust this myth? Don't put disarms at the top of your go-to list. Instead, use what I call the PRO tect system: Protect yourself from the blade, reposition to a safer spot so you can control the knife hand and then unleash your barrage of offensive strikes. Tenderize him with your elbows, knees and palm heels. If he's still holding the knife, unleash some more strikes.
If you think he's been stunned enough and you absolutely need to take his knife away, then use your disarm of choice
Training Myth No. 5
You Should Just Go for Your Weapon Inevitably, whenever I ask new students what they'd do if they were confronted by a psycho with a blade, one of them responds, "I'd pull out my knife and cut him first." If the class is made up of firearm enthusiasts, the response will be, "I'd pull out my gun and shoot him first." If there's a Jackie Chan or Jason Bourne fan in the crowd, the response might be, "I'd grab an improvised weapon, like my belt or a broomstick."
Makes absolute sense. Any sane person would want to level the playing field. So why is this a myth? In a real-life knifing, you won't have time to draw a weapon or find an object to use as an improvised weapon. Remember Training Myth No. 1? My research has shown that goons keep their knives hidden until the last moment. They don't pull them out and twirl them around so you have enough time to deploy your own blade. Sorry, but life's not like West Side Story — knife duels rarely happen in modern society.
If a sociopath is intent on killing you with an edged weapon, he'll do everything in his power to do it stealthily and quickly, leaving you just a fraction of a second to respond. Use that time to protect yourself first, then reposition and control before you unleash some strikes. After tenderization, you'll have done enough to "earn your draw," which is when you can use your knife or firearm.
Plan of Action Find the Edged-Weapon Falsehoods
The martial arts are a lot like the sciences. To solve a problem (i.e., getting stabbed), you come up with a hypothesis (strategies), narrow down the variables (techniques) and then perform a series of experiments (spar or pressure-test). If the results don't yield what you want, you tweak the variables and run through the whole process again.
But unlike in the sciences, many people stop at "narrow down the variables" and never get to the experimenting part. They don't put on protective gear and test their techniques with trusted training partners.
In fact, some opt to skip even trying to solve a real problem (how violent criminals actually use knives on the streets) and instead focus on solutions to fantastical problems (e.g., knife dueling).As martial artists, we have a responsibility to learn not just the cultural and historical aspects of our systems but also the techniques that have the greatest chance of allowing us to save our lives and the lives of our loved ones. We all must question our arts, our instructors and our training methods. Only in this way can we make sure we're not practicing knife-defense techniques that could result in "death by martial arts myth."
Patrick Vuong is a Southern California–based writer and the co-founder of Tiga Tactics, a combatives training company. A self-defense teacher since 1999, he uses his knowledge of diverse fighting methods to close the gap between two traditionally separate warriors: martial artists and firearm enthusiasts. He's an instructor in several systems, including the Filipino art of pekiti tirsia kali. For more information, visit tigatactics.com.