One of the toughest things for most of us to face up to seems to be the uncertainties in our knowledge.

I’m not talking about the obvious gaps in our knowledge. I’ve never studied organic chemistry and I have no problem with admitting my ignorance of the subject. I’ve never practiced Praying Mantis Kung Fu and I would never think of claiming expertise in that art. Most people are the same. (We’ll ignore the occasional blowhard who read a magazine article once and is now prepared to lecture you at length about what he thinks he knows.)

What I’m talking about is accepting that some of what we think we know may not be correct and we may not even be able to know for sure. For some reason, people seem to have a hard time with uncertainty. You see this in politics. You see this in religion. You see it in martial arts.

Those of us who study the martial arts seriously have a lot invested in our practice – time, money, hard work. It’s understandable that we would want to know for sure that our training “works.” Unfortunately, that may not be possible.

It’s not a problem if we’re just training for sportive contest. Does a triangle choke work in BJJ competition? The results of thousands of matches say “yes.” Have I learned the triangle choke well enough to successfully apply it myself in competition? All I have to do is step onto the mat to find out.

When it comes to real world violence, things get more complicated. Some topics we can be relatively confident of. In other areas we may at best be just making an educated guess.

Let’s take something easy – how to land a hard right cross. For the general theory of this subject a knowledgeable instructor can draw upon observations of thousands of punches thrown in boxing and kickboxing matches, in MMA bouts, in bar brawls and street fights. That includes punches that have missed, punches that have landed, punches that have knocked out the opponent, and punches which have been laughed off. The instructor can also draw upon the accumulated wisdom of previous coaches and fighters who have witnessed and/or thrown tens of thousands of punches over the years. That’s a lot of data about what works and what doesn’t. Furthermore, an individual student who has been the recipient of this accumulated knowledge has the opportunity to test his or her skills – in the gym, in the ring, or even on the street. (I don’t recommend seeking out street fights to test your skills. I do my best to avoid real world violence. Still, I have knocked someone down with a punch in a real fight.)

At the other end of the spectrum, let’s talk about unarmed defenses against a knife attack. I’ve learned knife disarms from a few arts. I’ve even occasionally been able to pull off a disarm in sparring with a training knife. But…
I’ve never defended against a real knife attack.
To the best of my knowledge, the people who taught me the knife defenses had never used them against a real attack.
I’ve never seen anyone successfully defend unarmed against a real knife attack.
The people I’ve talked to who had successfully taken on a knife-wielding assailant did it by picking up a weapon of their own.
Many of the defenses I’ve been taught are based on styles of knife attack which do not match the most common attacks I’ve seen video of or read police accounts of.
Even if the techniques I’ve learned have been used successfully by someone at some point in time, I would have no idea of knowing how often they succeeded, how often they had failed, and what made the difference.
Probably no one else really knows that either. The data just isn’t available. Even if you find someone who has successfully defended himself unarmed against a real knife attack, he may have done it once, or twice, maybe even a few times. That just isn’t enough data to form much in the way of reliable conclusions. It’s not like our example of the right cross where we’ve seen thousands of punches succeed and thousands of punches fail and we can carefully analyze what works and what doesn’t.

None of this means the knife disarms I learned wouldn’t work. It means I don’t know – and I have no way of knowing.

The uncertainty goes beyond individual techniques. Real world violence comes in many forms and the tactics which work best for one circumstance may not be so useful for another. Consider the following situations:
1) a pair of drunks squaring off in a monkey dance outside a bar
2) a gang member shanking a victim in a prison yard
3) a bouncer ejecting an unruly patron
4) a trio of police officers taking down a potentially armed suspect
5) a teenage girl fending off a date rapist
6) a political demonstration that devolves into a riot
7) a group of toughs putting a beatdown on a stranger for being in the wrong neighborhood
These are just a sample of the possible ways that violence can occur. You can find some commonalities in these situations, but there are a lot of differences as well. No one is expert in all of them.

In fact, some of these situations no one is really expert in. There are professionals who deal with violence on a regular basis – some police officers, bouncers, leg-breakers for the mob. They may deal with hundreds of violent encounters in the course of their jobs and become very knowledgeable in what works – for their particular job. There are also people who engage in violence recreationally – challenge matches or bar brawls. Some of these people also become very aware of what works for their particular situations. In contrast, consider the classic “self-defense” situation that many people imagine when they begin studying a martial art – being cornered by predators with no chance to walk away and no choice but to lay the evil-doers low with righteous fists of fury. You aren’t going to find folks with the expertise that would come from surviving this sort of encounter hundreds of times. For one thing, getting caught in this situation on a regular basis would mean that you are completely failing in the fundamentals of awareness that make up 95% of real self-defense. For another, actual predators (the sort who don’t give you a chance to walk away) aren’t really looking for a fight. They prefer to overwhelm their victims with surprise, superior numbers, and superior weaponry. If you allow that sort of attack to occur too many times, you aren’t going to survive long enough to become an expert.

I’d love the security of knowing I was an invincible badass who could handle any sort of violent situation. Even more, I’d love the satisfaction of knowing I could teach my students what they needed to safely survive any sort of violent encounter. Since neither of those is possible, the best I can do is to be realistic about the limits of my knowledge and ability.

For the record:

I know that I can verbally defuse a bad situation before it turns violent, because I’ve done it on several occasions. I don’t know the best way to do it with different types of individuals or social situations or how to recognize when de-escalation isn’t going to work.

I know I can control my ego enough to not respond to provocation, walk away from a fight, or even run if need be. I’ve been able to do all of these successfully.

I know that during violent encounters I’ve been able to maintain situational awareness of my surroundings and disengage when necessary. I don’t know what my limits are on this ability. Perhaps if the encounter had been more intense then tunnel vision would have set in and I would have been vulnerable to being blindsided.

I’ve learned to recognize and avoid certain vulnerable situations. I don’t know how well I would do at recognizing the clues and reacting appropriately in time if a really skilled predator was stalking me.

I don’t know if would recognize in time if I was in a situation where a pre-emptive attack was my best option. I’ve done some scenario training, but never been there in real life.

I know I’m physically and mentally capable of hitting hard enough to knock some opponents out. I know other opponents are tough enough to walk through my best shots. I don’t know what percentage of potential real-world attackers fall into each category.

I know I can take some hard shots and maintain enough composure to keep fighting with some semblance of technique. I don’t know what my limits are on this.

I know that if a fight goes to the ground against a single unarmed opponent that I can protect myself and be dangerous even against a bigger, stronger attacker. I don’t know how likely this situation is to arise in an encounter that I couldn’t avoid in the first place.

I know that if a fight goes to the ground against multiple opponents that I am better prepared than most people to disengage and get back to my feet.

I know a number of weapon defenses. I don’t know how likely any of them are to work in a real fight.

I know a number of unarmed techniques and tactics that have been effective in a real fight for others and that I think would be effective for me, but I don’t have the experience to know for sure.

I know other techniques that have been effective in real situations for others and that might possibly be effective for me, but I don’t know whether I would even take the chance on them in a real fight.

It’s kind of humbling to admit all these areas of uncertainty, especially after 30+ years of martial arts training. Fortunately I do feel pretty confident that I’m pretty good at one essential self-defense skill – living my life in such a way that no one is really interested in hurting me.

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