I’m on the ground absorbing disconcertingly violent blows when a message blasts through my reptilian brain—kill something or get the fuck out of here—and I turn into an animal. I throw my head back and feel something go soft. I’m pretty sure it was someone’s nose. It creates a minute crack in the assault, giving me time to stop covering my vulnerable vital organs and throw elbows and fists in every direction.
Is it fear that motivates me? Is it the primal instinct to fill the power vacuum within the pack? I don’t know and I certainly don’t care. The leader is down and the rest of the pack loses will or is confused or who gives a shit because they are no longer hitting me.
I run as fast I ever have.
Training for Trouble
But you don’t know Rocky Balboa from rocky road ice cream. You’ve seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but can’t tell wing chun from Wang Chung. Maybe you took a kickboxing class at the gym, but it was about cross-training, not learning a right cross. So what’s the best self-defense practice for you to pursue?
For seven months I punched, kicked and threw my way through seven fighting styles—spending one month on each and enduring pummeled ribs, bruised shins, swollen fists and many, many ice downs—to help you answer this question. No matter which style you choose, preparing yourself for a violent situation means practicing violence. Self-defense practice is not like getting beat up every night—it is getting beat up every night. But I promise it hurts less than five guys pounding you to the cement.
I found that it took me one month of solid, dedicated training to feel any semblance of proficiency at any fighting style. It took slightly less than that, about three and a half weeks, for me to experience a deeper understanding and connection to any of the techniques; that’s when the newbie frustration started to peel back and reveal, well, fun.
So stock up on ice packs and painkillers, and—as cheesy as it sounds—find out what you're made of.
Because situations that call for self-defense are situations that require violence to be done on your behalf—by you. You are not the sheep being attacked by the wolf. You are about to become your own sheepdog.
RELATED CONTENT: PHYSICAL FITNESS
Boxing turned out to be my favorite of the seven fighting styles. I’m not saying it’ll keep you safe in a full-on emergency, but that might not be the point. Boxing is relatively simple: a few punches, step in, step out, bob and weave, done. Okay, that’s a simplification, but it’s not complete bullshit. There are no kicks, eye gouges or convoluted sets of moves mimicking an angry crane. That’s why it’s so effective. Your fists are the main weapons in almost every violent hand-to-hand situation—it’s even in the name.
On top of that, most street fights are over after just a couple of blows. Get the best at the easiest fighting style of all, and you have a very good chance to rock someone’s cranium and win the fight. Rocky would be proud.
TrainingA tiny joint down an alley—with a sliding warehouse door, an obligatory sweat-soaked olfactory assault and a pit bull watchdog—Trinity Boxing Club Los Angeles is just the right amount of dive-y. Owner and head trainer Martin Snow is well along the path to Burgess Meredith’s Mickey in the original Rocky, but don’t be fooled: His comically gruff exterior camouflages a Fordham University–educated interior. It won’t take long for him to get inside your head, pushing you to break through mental barriers.
Training is just as I’d hoped—push-ups, sit-ups, tire flipping, sledgehammer swinging, shadowboxing, more sit-ups and push-ups, running up and down the alley in between it all, then getting in the ring and following Snow’s “Pop, pop, pop” as you work the punches. Everything’s done in cycles, as you and your fellow brawlers rotate from station to station following the relentless sound of the ring clock—two and a half minutes of work, 30 seconds of harder work, then 30 seconds of running the alley. Go again.
Sparring is the highlight. Strap on the headgear and chomp down on your mouthpiece—shit’s about to get real. Snow or one of his senior students goes toe-to-toe with you for a round. Three minutes. That’s all. And it will be the longest three minutes of your life. The stress compresses your chest, making it hard to breathe. The mouthpiece doesn’t help, and the adrenaline exacerbates the situation. Then, bam, someone is punching you. Fight or flight. Harder to breathe. Block. Weave. Try to punch back. Take a blow to the head and feel your bell ring. Tighten for the body blow that’s about to connect. Three minutes of “holy shit” until the ring clock chimes—followed by a whole lot of smiling and laughing.
Yep, when you step out of the ring you’ll feel a sort of accomplishment that washes away the pain. You’re a boxer. You’re sweaty. You just took blows and delivered your own. You’re on your way. The pain will settle in later that night.
One-month verdict—brawler or bawler?
“It depends upon who’s jumping you. If some kid on the street decides to mug someone and thinks, ‘There’s an easy mark,’ they’re going to find out you’re not so easy. You’ll throw a big monkey wrench in his plans,” says Snow. “If it’s the Rock, you’re probably gonna get your ass kicked.”
Check out the ring if you’re looking to maximize cardio fitness, hammer your abs and learn some self-defense without practicing convoluted kicking techniques or wearing a goofy uniform.
The Chinese term kung fu actually means something akin to “work hard.” You can have kung fu in math, painting, anything. It’s an apt name for this ancient martial art because you will work hard just trying to remember the multiple styles. To name a few: tiger, crane, drunken monkey (yes, it’s a thing), wooden dummy, tai chi and chi gung. Within each style there is form after form, each one physically demanding in its own way. (Technically, some styles aren’t classified as “kung fu” but are frequently bundled together.)
But kung fu is tons of fun. I mean, shit, Jackie Chan? Jet Li? You can’t help but feel a little badass jump-kicking while striking with a “tiger claw.” And perhaps most important, kung fu is the one discipline on my list that includes spirituality part and parcel with an energetic physical aspect. If anger management is not your forte, then you’ve found the right the place.
Like so many martial arts and fighting schools, the Chinese Shao-Lin Center Los Angeles is in a no-frills warehouse with a concrete floor covered by a thin sheet of scratchy material that passes for carpet. But in a school that practices wooden dummy and iron bone, it’s a luxury. You’ll recognize the wooden dummy from any martial arts movie ever: a body-size contraption with “arms” sticking out that you punch, elbow and kick. If that’s not tough enough, don’t worry; there’s also iron bone. Using a metal-handled bundle of a couple dozen thin metal rods, you—of free will and sound mind—repeatedly strike your forearms and shins. After that, being hit by a little flesh and bone isn’t so bad.
Which is good, because class starts with a warm-up followed by light sparring. Even beginners are encouraged to join in. There’s much of the repetitive form practice that pieces together punching, blocking, kicking and stepping moves into single routines with colorful names such as “reversing four opponents.” Yes—one of the first things I learned is how to fight four opponents who are attacking at the same time from four different directions. You quickly tack on new forms, sparring and even stick techniques.
These outwardly focused “external” techniques are anchored in the “internal” arts of tai chi and chi gung, which focus on a meditative connection with your own energies. That connection has direct applications in the external techniques as you learn to be centered in your own core even as attacking energy is directed at, say, your face. The meditative practices are what set time in a kung fu school apart from other fighting styles.
One-month verdict—dragon or deer?
“If you go out on the street right now, I would say you’re more likely to defend yourself, if that’s what your intention was. That’s why I’m so big on the self-defense parts—if you’re using it to defend yourself, it’ll probably work,” says Sifu Brooks Nelson, head instructor at the Chinese Shao-Lin Center. “If you’re using it to get in and win a fight, it might not work. As three-time welterweight mixed-martial arts champion Georges St-Pierre said, ‘There’s never a guarantee with any fight.’”
If you have anger issues, come here first. Learn to control that shit, grasshopper. Work on fortifying inner peace before looking to tear someone to pieces.
TAKE A READING BREAK
I half-jokingly started to describe Krav Maga like this: In Krav Maga, what do you do if someone grabs you? Kill them. What if they punch you? Kill them. What if they have a knife? Kick them in the nuts—then kill them.
Developed for the Israel Defense Forces, this is brutal stuff with one goal: winning. Assembled with pieces of many other disciplines, Krav Maga has a well-warranted reputation for being a useful self-defense style for everyone—but especially for women. If you put a gun to my head—I would kill you, then kick you in the nuts. Then I would vote for Krav Maga as the number one discipline on this list.
Roy Elghanayan, a former staff sergeant in the Israeli Special Forces, is the man behind Roy Elghanayan’s Krav Maga, or REKM. That name is perfect, because that’s what he teaches: Wreck your opponent. A Krav Maga class is a blend of military discipline and fun—if working yourself over physically and mentally is your idea of fun.
One thing is clear: The marketing message that this is the best self-defense method for women is getting out. It’s the only style where women make up the majority of my class—almost two thirds, in fact.
You start with a military-style warm-up—running around the mats, push-ups, sit-ups, burpies, plyometric movements—then jump right into techniques. It’s high-energy, focused and effective. They specifically omit hitting someone in the torso, because why would you hit someone in less-vulnerable places where they could prepare for being hit? Eyes, nose, throat, ears, nuts, knees—these are the targets that take someone out of the picture.
From my very first class, practicing is a full-on proposition. Just a few classes in I injure my right hand working on hammer blows (vertical strikes delivered with the side of your fist). My hand swells up, and it’s a few weeks before I can punch or even grip something without pain. Elghanayan and an advanced student both say the same thing: “You’re going to get hurt when you’re training.”
On day 10 of class, Elghanayan has us circle up and practice mixing techniques on the fly. Each person holds a strike pad, and one at a time we move person to person as they call out a technique. It’s a ton of fun and really helps focus your mind on being flexible with your body and mind. But later that day my ankle goes nuts (Muscle spasms? Interior bruising? Did I stress-fracture something?), and I’m forced to take a couple days off.
At one point Elghanayan tells me he’d like to open a gym with hot and cold rooms and more. “Why?” I ask. With a devilish gleam in his eye he says, “So we can train in simulated altitude and climatic conditions.” That’s Krav Maga. That’s being prepared for anything.
One-month verdict—deadly or dipshit?
“I would say that compared to the you that came in on day one, you now have a better chance of taking a beating and striking the right points of the body. You just increased your chances of defending yourself and surviving,” says Elghanayan. “But there’s no guarantee.”
The cliché is true: women. The no-nonsense techniques are applicable immediately.
If you want to be the best street fighter around, welcome to your future in Muay Thai. There’s a reason its techniques are popular with mixed-martial artists. Muay Thai can leave the impression that victory is won through attrition, that winning simply means taking a beating while doling out even worse. And I think that’s accurate. But when shit goes down and you’re facing close combat, you’ll be glad you’re the one who’s ready to take, and to dole out, the beating.
At the Yard Kickboxing Fitness Center, Mark Komuro, instructor and co-owner, trains you like a fighter—intense cardio, bag work, shadowboxing and tons of sparring. There are few women, but Komuro tells me the women who do train conquer whatever fears they might have a lot more quickly than with other fighting techniques. I feel like I’m watching young wolves playing as they learn how to fight.
My right leg is bruised from knee to ankle after the first day, and my left isn’t much better. My girlfriend laughs at me each night when she finds me on the couch covered in ice packs. Yes, you will learn to defend yourself, but good luck not ending up in the hospital while you do. This is my first month of training, and I almost don’t make it to the second. My ribs are jacked. My shins are a mess. I think I broke a toe. I’m popping Advil like candy—and I can literally count on one hand the number I had taken before training in Muay Thai.
Halfway through, I learn an important lesson: You might think you’re tough, that you can take a punch, but if you get hit just right, you’re going out. Doesn’t matter what you think. I get hit in the jaw, and for a millisecond everything kind of wobbles. I shake my head like a cartoon. I’ve never almost been knocked out before.
The final day, Komuro tosses me a mouthpiece and tells me to get in the ring for a regulation three-round bout. I get punched in the face. It hurts, but doesn’t take me out. Fight or flight battles within me, and the ring is surprisingly small. There’s no flight to be had. I get kicked in the ribs. It knocks the wind partially out of me. It stuns me. Komuro says, “You’re not hurt. Straighten up. Hands up.” Nervousness and adrenaline kick in and I start breathing even more heavily. I get in some shots of my own and walk out of the ring defeated—but not embarrassingly so.
One-month verdict—kicked ass or ass kicked?
“You know what it feels like to get punched in the face. The first time it hurts, and it stops you in your tracks. If you get hit, you can hit him back a few times,” Komuro says. “Most fights will end in three shots—it’s not going for a three-minute round. Bang, bang, bang and somebody usually quits.”
If you want to know you can take a beating on the street and be pretty sure you can dole one out, this is the place for you. I warned you. Bring ice.
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Eskrima (also called kali or arnis) originated in the Philippines. Filipino stick fighting, as it is also known, is incredibly complex and has one aim—put an attacker down so you can go home. The Bourne movies used these techniques because they’re effective and designed to exist in real-world situations. What’s within arm’s reach? Use it to maim or to kill. Similar to Krav Maga, Eskrima meets violence with extreme violence. Similar to kung fu, you become proficient in part by absorbing an immense body of knowledge.
Two other things: Ferdinand Magellan died in the Philippines at the hands of Chieftain Datu Lapu-Lapu, allegedly an Eskrima master. And Eskrima is the national sport of the Philippines—remember that if you get into a bar fight in Manila.
Los Angeles Doce Pares Eskrima is part of the Doce Pares Multistyle Eskrima system founded in 1932 by 12 of the Philippines’ most-renowned eskrimadors. Head teacher Erwin Mosqueda is a nephew of one of the founders. Doce Pares refers to the 12 peers, or paladins, of Emperor Charlemagne—his bodyguards.
Imagine Eskrima as a ballet of serious ass-kicking: Complex footwork combines with equally complex single- and dual-stick training. Its techniques are also applicable using a knife, knives or fists, as each move was created for a spectrum of violence. And although the system leans toward the ferocious, the moves are actually set up to emphasize blocking and defense. It’s only when your opponent is too dumb to retreat that the rough stuff comes out. Toi, one of Master Erwin’s main students and teachers, puts it like this: “If you threw a punch at me, I’d break your wrist, then your elbow, then get you in a wrist lock, then probably break your knee before putting you into a headlock and taking you down, pummeling you the whole way. People ask why we don’t fight UFC. I just described what I would do, and most of it is illegal in UFC.”
Eskrimadors don’t fight UFC because it’s too weak.
In one class, some students suit up in full-on protective gear because that’s the only way to practice a simulated real-world experience without killing each other. To my untrained eye much of the sparring looks like two panicked kids flailing at each other; however, unlike children’s blows, any of these would do serious harm.
There isn’t as much emphasis on fitness as in some of the other styles, but I realize I better keep my fitness up. If nothing else, my brain will need the extra oxygen to remember everything. Toi tells me higher-level training includes learning how to fight while kneeling (if you get knocked down) and even how to fight from your back. That, it would seem, is the kind of “never give up” attitude that could translate into living to fight another day.
One-month verdict—big stick or tiny poker?
“You have basic understanding of how to defend and counter. But how can you recover when you get hit? Mentally, you need to defend yourself. What’s your reaction to that?” says Master Erwin. “You don’t know in an actual situation. If a guy swings at you, you don’t know what you’ll do. If somebody pulls a gun, nobody knows what they’ll do.”
If you’re itching to blend brutal and complex fighting, you’ve found your forever home. I’m convinced that this is the most effective fight training available—if you’ve got a few years to spare.
Judo (“gentle way” in Japanese) was created in 1882 by jujitsu expert Kanō Jigorō. Don’t be fooled by its precepts of improving society and teaching manners—judo’s officially recognized 67 throws and 29 pins, chokes and joint locks can be devastating. There’s a reason most MMA bouts end in a choke hold or arm or leg bar. Those are game-over moments, ending in either incredible pain or in choke-induced nighty-night time. (Without an official keeping watch, we’d be talking a severely fucked-up limb or even death.)
The principle of using an opponent’s size against him really does translate into an opening for the smaller and possibly weaker person to come out on top—probably literally. I was put on my back several times by women I outweighed by at least 50 pounds. But such skills take precision and practice, acting as a fighting physics master, calculating weight, angle, leverage and more in an instant. Prepare to throw and be thrown over and over and over again.
In one way judo is the most shockingly brutal of the seven fighting styles: Every single person in the dojo was nursing some sort of injury. During the month I took classes, at least three people put their training on injury hold—and I almost did too.
Philippe Morotti, head coach at the Hollywood Judo Dojo, is a former member of the Swedish national judo team, a five-time national champion and two-time Scandinavian champion. According to Morotti, old-school judo practice was even more brutal. I can believe it. On my fourth training day, the last throw nearly breaks my neck. It happens right at the end of practice, but it would’ve ended my night regardless. I land on my arm, which might’ve broken given a slightly different landing, and that snaps my neck back in a weird way. I hear vertebrae pop.
Despite that, I find judo to be fun and mentally engaging, and it could be incredibly useful in a street fight, which frequently involves grappling. But that’s at least three years of steady practice away, says Morotti, and 10 years before I’m really good at it. One of the beginners’ teachers says it this way: “That’s what we do in judo—practice the same thing 10,000 times, then fight, then practice 10,000 more times.”
According to Morotti, old-school judo was about 65 percent standing and 35 percent ground work; now it’s more like 85 percent standing. He compares it to judo’s very popular cousin Brazilian jujitsu, which he says is probably 90 percent ground work.
While judo tends to equalize size and strength differences, when you first start to practice, it takes its toll. I frequently practiced against guys 220 pounds or more compared to my 170. And that 50 pounds made a huge difference to my back and knees. Same for someone much shorter. Nailing the right angles and movements is key in both of those situations. In the precious few moments when I felt glimpses of proper technique, the motion began to feel effortless—and it was exhilarating.
One-month verdict—grappler or crappler?
“If you encounter a guy who’s drunk and strong, but has no fighting skills, you know some techniques and could probably handle him,” says Morotti. “But if it’s an MMA person who picks you as his target, better off to run.”
Do you thrive on the dictate “freedom through discipline”? Are you are woman or a smaller man? Do you love physics? Plan out your next three years (at least) and find yourself a judo dojo.
TAKE A READING BREAK
Maybe on a college campus you ran into a group of athletic hippies standing in a circle wearing loose white pants, the dudes probably shirtless, playing tall gourd-based instruments, singing and clapping while two people performed a ritualistic, acrobatic dance low to the ground yet with legs flying. If so, those hippies can definitely kick your patchouli-hating ass. Literally.
Capoeira originated in Brazil with slaves who wanted to practice fighting but not be tortured or killed for it. They disguised devastating footwork with music, dance and, ultimately, culture. In fact, if you’re looking for the most community-oriented training, there’s instant camaraderie from the moment you walk in the door—hugs, group outings, singing and a general Latin-infused joie de vivre are the norm.
If Eskrima is ballet with ass-kicking, capoeira is aerobics with ass-kicking. I’m sweating my ass off at the end of the first day, and I’ve created and worked through two giant blisters on each foot. It’s loud and fun, with plenty of movement. Camaraderie is more palpable than in the other fighting styles. (Paradoxically, there’s something about fight training that breeds it.) At Capoeira Brasil in Los Angeles, classes are at least half women, and many attendees sport tattoos, ear plugs, dyed hair or nose rings.
While the other styles are generally heavy on fitness, capoeira demands it. The base movement is the ginga, a back-and-forth lunging motion that is the source of those aforementioned blisters and sweat. I highly recommend a base level of cardio fitness and flexibility before heading into a class. It’s not required, but you’ll thank me.
By day three of practice, my groin, ass, hips and lower back hurt in places I didn’t even know existed. By day eight, my knees are decidedly unhappy. There’s a reason you don’t see much gray hair in capoeira. The movements generally require squatting and/or bending, and half the students are nursing knee injuries.
Initial classes focus on kicking and arm blocks plus lots of handstands and cartwheel training—kicking cartwheels. I admit my first thought is, “If someone did that to me, I’d just punch the shit out of them.” Man, was I wrong. Watching a skilled practitioner is scary stuff. Later, students learn strikes and takedowns. But for the first month, it’s all about improving fitness, coordination and strength—with many, many push-ups, sit-ups and handstands.
At some point, you’ll join the roda, capoeira’s form of sparring. Students stand in a circle and clap, sing and play instruments, including that long stringed gourd, the berimbau. This is the “game,” and while it can get quite brutal, it is “played” as a fun way to practice techniques without harm. As Jessica “Pavão” de Lima-Moran, the main teacher at L.A.’s Capoeira Brasil, says, “It’s like playing a game of chess. It can be acrobatic and beautiful, or aggressive and linear.” It’s intimidating at first, but unlike the other fighting styles, it’s a great way to practice without getting your bell rung.
And as demonstrated by de Lima-Moran, capoeira students often get nicknames, a tradition born of necessity—slaves used nicknames, so if caught they couldn’t rat each other out. Mine was Bigode. It means mustache.
One-month verdict—Mean Kelly or soft like jelly?
“I would hope that you would be intelligent and intuitive enough to understand your opponent and make your decisions from there,” says de Lima-Moran. “Should I run? Should I duck and counterattack? That’s perspective. It’s a mind-set.”
Women, anyone looking for community along with training or anyone looking to let their freak flag fly. Get your nickname wish-list ready.
The Final Score
My assumption before training was that anything that makes you feel more confident is a step in the right direction, a step toward not looking like a wounded calf to a predator. While that might be true, I found that fight training made me both more prepared for and more attuned to the possibility of violence—which isn't a bad way of being in many parts of the world. But in my day-to-day life I began to feel a creeping, insidious desire for violence to find me, a subtle wish to test my new skills. My ego worked hard on that one; it was looking for a fight.
If you can control that ego impulse, the flip side is an increased awareness and a growing ability to keep your wits about you. We’re the only animals that aren’t constantly mindful of the dangers surrounding us. Women are far more attuned to this reality, which is why your girlfriend, friend, sister and mother should learn one of these seven styles to the best of her ability.
But knowing how to fight presupposes being ready to use brutal force against another person. When I faced that life-threatening moment, I felt the panic of possible death. I began to act viciously, to claw, scratch and fight. And you might too. In training I began to learn how to recognize a truly life-threatening situation and how to act savagely without hesitation. Use my foot to forcibly drive a person’s knee backward, breaking it—perhaps irreparably. Punch someone in the throat to crush their windpipe and suffocate them. Be willing to hit someone so hard that they will, at the very least, piss blood.
Remember, though—as long as you stay out of war zones, the chances of having a truly life-threatening violent encounter are slim, slim, slim.
And get your ass to the gym. The best thing you can do for self-defense is improve your fitness—not just cardio but full-body endurance. Try to keep your hands in a defensive position for 10 minutes while you constantly move around—then add a massive adrenaline rush. I know I was fighting for air—and that doesn’t even include punching and blocking. It takes fitness, a lot of it.
Finally, it’s possible to punch something so hard you damage yourself, literally and figuratively. Run instead. Run knowing that if you really truly can’t outrun the danger, you can take a deep breath, pull the L out of flight and seriously mess up someone’s day. They fucked with the wrong person. Because whichever fighting style you choose, you’re about to teach them a life-changing lesson: Violence hurts, and it should never be the answer.