Live Fight Training For Self Protection

combativesFights generally do not have predictable outcomes. Anything can and often does happen in the course of a fight. If you don’t like surprises, a fight is not a good situation to be in, for surprising things happen in fights all the time.

The last surprising thing that happened to me in a fight was when the guy I was fighting bit my finger. Before that in the same situation, I got surprised when the fight went to the ground. And before that again in the same situation, I got surprised when the guys girlfriend started attacking me.

Come to think of it, every physical altercation I’ve ever been in has surprised me in some way.

In a fight, you get surprised all the time.

Now here’s a question for you: How often do you get surprised by something unexpected happening in your training?

The vast majority of training environments are tightly controlled affairs, with definite goals set by both student and instructor, goals and tasks that finish usually with a predictable and desired outcome.

Now here’s another question for you: How many fights have you been in where you have experienced predictable and desired outcomes?

Unless you were knocking out stooges for a living, many of the fights you have likely been involved in have turned out to be unpredictable and surprising.

One would think, naturally, that it would make a lot of sense for your self defence training to mirror that unpredictability and sense of surprise as closely as possible.

Unfortunately, this is not the case with most types of self defence training. The majority of self defence training, “reality based” or otherwise, revolves around narrowly defined tasks with wholly predictable outcomes. There is a large emphasis on hitting pads, practicing technique with mainly compliant partners, and doing live drills that are so tightly controlled they don’t allow for much, if any, unpredictability. Even the surprise elements to some of these drills are so worked out beforehand they are not surprising at all when they happen, because you knew they were going to happen at some point!

Lots of time is spent working on the seperate aspects of a fight, but very little time is spent actually fighting.

Even those padded suit drills don’t measure up to the task they are supposed to. They are supposed to allow for full contact fighting, but instead they are used for full contact versions of the drills just mentioned (and roleplay drills), and are still fairly controlled.


Fight Training

The best way to introduce real unpredictability into your training is to fight another person who is fighting you back in some way.

The pinnacle of this type of training is obviously full contact, anything goes sparring. Not many people engage in such practice however, due to the high risk of injury. The closest you will likely get to it anywhere these days is in MMA.

Say what you like about MMA, but it’s as close as you will get to real fighting. The RBSD crowd may think they are simulating real fighting in the drills they do in training, but usually they are not. More importantly, any risk of injury is usually taken out of the drill. While this can be important for safety reasons, it also makes things safe in a way that real fights are not.

In a real fight you have every chance of getting injured, knocked out or killed, which tends to add a heavy psychological load to the equation. The good thing about full contact fighting, even if it is performed within a certain rule set, is that you can still get knocked out. Knowing you could get knocked out at any time changes the game quite a bit. I’ve never feared getting knocked out in a self defence drill. I’ve only feared getting knocked out when engaging in full contact kickboxing, that I’ve done a lot of over the years.

It doesn’t hurt now and again, to do a bit of full contact fighting, if only to expose yourself to the threat of getting properly hit. It’s a threat you will always face in a real fight, so it makes sense to face up to that threat in training as well.

Constant heavy sparring will most certainly make you a tougher opponent and will hone your fighting skills no end if done in the right way. In a real fight, I’d give an MMA fighter a greater chance of prevailing than someone who only trains exclusively in so-called self protection. This is because the MMA fighter is not only well conditioned, but they will likely have engaged in many hours of hard sparring against determined opponents who have tried to put them down or take them out at every opportunity. They will be able to take punishment, absorb damage and still fight on, either standing or grounded.

Compare that kind of experience to the experience of your average RBSD practitioner, who rarely if ever does any sparring and instead engages in drills where the chances of getting hurt or anything truly surprising happening are minimised to the point of ridiculousness. Yes, these self defence drills can often feel intense, but intensity does not equate with truth. Just because a drill is intense, doesn’t mean it’s like real fighting.

And there are other dangers, as Matt Thornton has stated:

“By avoiding the contact, resistance, and most important required willingness to tap, be thrown, hit, and be beaten over and over, that is required with Alive arts, the “self defense” student instead draws deeper and deeper into their own world of self defense fantasy.”

Fighting means engaging in battle with a determined and motivated opponent. Even if that battle has rules, it is still fighting. Do you think you won’t be able to work outside of those rules if you had to? That you won’t be able to gouge and bite and claw if you were forced to in a real situation? Of course you would! Survival instincts would ensure you did what you had to. Having  a well practiced skill set already in place and being used to squaring off to guys all the time and taking punishment and carrying on (via fight training) will drastically increase your chances of prevailing in a real fight.

I’m not saying you have to abandon all training practices in favour of live fighting. You still need to practice your individual skills using pads and abstract drills, but you also need to balance that with “alive” training, with fighting.


Facing Fear

For me, the fundamental skill that comes out of this type of fighting is that of being able to face up to the fear of confrontation and having the courage to fight on, even in the face of defeat. Each time you spar with someone, there is an element of fear involved, just like in a real fight. Your opponent may be bigger or stronger or more skilled than you and the chances of you failing are often high. You are putting yourself in the firing line, and that usually takes balls.

How often do you put yourself in the firing line in your self defence training? Most self defence drills and training are often completely safe for the individual because all they are doing is working on the details of a fight, or what they think a fight is. There is never any chance of them getting hit or failing in any way. The courage muscles are therefore never worked.



Hard contact sparring is obviously the way to go here, the rule set doesn’t really matter. You can spar MMA, kickboxing, boxing, Muay Thai or whatever. It doesn’t always have to be full contact, but full contact should be introduced from time to time.

To make your sparring a bit safer to practice you can break it down into shorter training drills. You still go hard, but because of the shorter time frame and restrictive nature of the drills, the risk of injury is minimized. Importantly, you still get to work your skills against a live, resisting opponent.

Use your imagination with these drills. Having to break things up in such a way will force you to think about the dynamics of a fight, about what a fight actually is and what’s involved in it. For instance, you can have one person on the ground, the other standing. The other person has to get up and defend while being attacked. Or you could restrict movement by fighting in a very enclosed space. Or one person attacks with strikes, the other can only use takedowns. I’m sure you can think of many more drills. Let me know some of them if you do. Share your knowledge!

Thinking you will always knock someone out with a single blow in a self defence situation is folly, to say the least. So is thinking that the other guy will not fight back as you continually repeat the same blows. Attackers do fight back!

Live fighting is a great way to experience going up against another skilled and resisting opponent.

I’d go so far as to say that any self protection training that doesn’t include these live fighting elements is sorely lacking.

Now get it on!



  1. Zara says

    Full contact sparring is dangerous and shouldn’t be done often (if only for the brain injury that comes with getting hit full force or the unwanted attention you’ll get when showing up with a black eye at work), although I agree you should subject yourself to it at least a few times to gauge what it’s like to get hit and how you deal with it. Sparring should be worked into and all those partner and semi-free drills are a necessary part of the learning process otherwise you’re bound to get injured or you’ll get punch-shy for no reason since you’ll be lacking any defensive skills. First learn the technique properly, then learn to apply it in a controlled setting and only then are you ready to spar with it.

    It does seem from this post you’re promoting MMA over combatives (a change of heart?): if full contact training is the pinacle of SD-training it would follow that you’re better off going to a (kick)boxing or MMA-gym over opting for any other type of martial arts/SD systems. Surely a proper SD-system offers certain advantages that sports martial arts don’t? I for one am planning to train in muay thai as soon as time allows: to me the best preparation for any fight is training in a few systems that are different and complementary (e.g SD and sport, grappling and striking…). Nowadays we hardly spar since the students at our gym aren’t up to it yet and I do know I need the training in that department. I sparred with my sensei a few times and it’s just useless: he’s way too fast and good for me to get any shot in and I’m basically reduced to defending and trying to lessen the damage… Sparring should ideally be done against someone more or less your own skill-level otherwise it’s highly demoralizing and if you never experience any succes the motivation for keeping at it will fall quickly.

  2. says

    lol…I’m not jacking in Combatives for MMA, Zara. But I do think such training is underestimated in the self protection field. You need a bit of contact in your training, it’s essential. LIke everything, it’s balancing things out. I’m trying to take some the training methods from contact sports and incorporate it into the combatives training. It’s all a learning and discovery process for me, trying to find the best training methods and the best way to do things.

    I agree that you shouldn’t spar too hard until you are ready. It can be damaging to your confidence if you just get the shit beaten out of you by somebody more experienced. On the otherhand, I also believe that you should experience live fighting as soon as possible, even if it is only very light contact. The quicker you experience the dynamics of fighting the better.

    • Zara says

      For a moment there I actually thought you might have crossed over to the dark side ;). It’s certainly wise to learn from other disciplines and take what you can use in the context of your own training and goals. As to sparring: in my view it should be conducted with light to medium contact (depending on how advanced both participants are and how far they’re willing to go), this way there’s a balance between safety and learning opportunities. I don’t see what is to be learned by getting knocked out in training: it’s obvious if he can touch your face you messed up, no need to kill braincells over it. Even professional boxers don’t generally spar full contact so as not to get injured before a fight.

      • says

        I agree mate. You can still learn the necessary skills without going full contact. However, there is a sense of danger that comes with full contact fighting, and sometimes it is good to experience that as well every once in a while.

  3. Dan Stevens says

    Good article. I train with USP in Newton Abbot Devon and we love a good punch up :) We do as you have said a lot of drills and do them as safely as we can within a mixed group in terms of experience and age. There are a handful of us who go for it when doing live sparring/fighting. Normally short blasts of 30 seconds. I love this type of scrapping as I don't work in security and have no desire to get into in the street unless I have to, so it's as close as I can get to reality. When there is no ego involved you can let it go and win some lose some. Learn a lot in those moments. Cheers

  4. Deborah Holliday says

    I like to get my adrenalin and fear kickin in before I hit my heavy bag can you think of a you tube video of some big dominant and intimidating thug that can induce that fear?

    (for more realistic self defence training)


    • says

      Lol Deborah, that’s a strange request…try using your imagination first, which is always scarier than any video you could watch. Visualise someone or something that scares you into releasing adrenaline and then go from there.


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