Practical Martial Arts Tips
from Assassin John Rain

This article also appears in Crimespree Issue #9

Not long ago I shared some thoughts on self-defense in an article called "Personal Safety Tips from Assassin John Rain." I noted that all good defenses are layered, and that the place of martial arts like karate, judo, etc. is at the inner layer while the place of awareness and thinking like the opposition is at the outer. I made an analogy to firearms in the home: like your punches and kicks on the street, your firearm is your last line of defense against an intruder in your house; your perimeter lights and other means of deterrence, and quality locks and other means of delay, are your outer layers. I think this analogy makes the relative cost effectiveness of the inner and outer layers of a defense system pretty clear. After all, assuming you're not living out some Rambo* fantasy, would you rather shoot it out with an intruder in your bedroom or just have him take one look at your house and decide to rob someone else?

But no matter how much I talk about awareness and avoidance, people always want to hear about martial arts, too. It seems the Paralyzing Nerve Point Strikes of Long Dong Do are sexier than just knowing where trouble is likely to occur and arranging to not be there when it does. All right, let's talk a little about the "sexy" stuff. But please, let's keep in mind what really matters—awareness and avoidance.

That last sentence is worth a pause. If you think situational awareness has nothing to do with self-defense (hint: it has everything to do with it), you'd be at the bottom of the food chain in John Rain's line of work. The survivors—and yes, after a quarter century in the business and combat all over the world before that, Rain is one of them—don't spend a lot of time on fantasy scenarios because they know that, except in the movies, they're not going to be attacked by ninjas. They focus on what's likely to happen and spend their time preparing for that. If you want to survive, you should do what the survivors do.

Survivors work backwards. They reverse engineer the problem. They ask, "What kind of attack am I likely to face?" And they design their training and defenses, including martial arts, accordingly.

How about you? What kind of attack are you afraid of? A mugging? Someone drunk and belligerent in a movie theater or at a concert? A fanatical football fan? If you're a woman, you're most likely concerned about rape; I'll come back to that in a moment.

Let's go with these for a minute. Imagine them. Do you see your attacker adopting a "put 'em up" stance before launching? Executing a spinning back kick? A "fingers of death" thrust to one of your nerve centers? In the real world, people don't attack like that. They'll lower their head and charge like a bull. Or try to grab you in a bear hug or headlock. Or throw a John Wayne roundhouse. These are your most common street attacks. But how many martial arts dojos devote significant time to learning how to counter these attacks? Versus how many devote significant time to learning how to counter pretty roundhouse kicks to the head?

The title of this piece is "Practical Martial Arts," right? Practical as in, "concerned with actual facts and experience, not theory." People who don't train for the attacks that really occur are learning ingenious solutions to fantasy problems**. They're getting really, really good—at the wrong thing***. They're the people Rain cuts through like a buzz saw if they get between him and a target.

What about training? Again, work backwards. Whatever you think you're likely to face, you should try to get your training to imitate is as closely as possible. The more realistic your training, the better prepared you'll be for the real event. This is obvious, right? Would you trust a surgeon who had only read an anatomy book? Or would you prefer someone who'd worked on cadavers and animals? In fact, wouldn't you most prefer the surgeon who had actually performed the operation in question hundreds of times? Bruce Lee said, "The best preparation for the event is the event." This is a profound statement and worth pondering.

A few hints: real violence involves fear and other emotions that will cause your body to dump large helpings of adrenaline into your bloodstream. If you're not accustomed to it, adrenaline will cut off your access to whatever training you thought you had and cripple your ability to respond effectively. Most dojos give a nod to adrenal stress training by having their students spar. But how much like the real event is point sparring, with light contact and no shots to the head? With rules and a referee and consenting players? With no "woofing" or verbal aggression, no uncertainty about the other person's intentions beforehand? Introduce yourself to adrenal stress training before the actual event so you'll be better able to handle the adrenaline dump during the real thing****.

I know what you're thinking now... hey, he promised to talk about martial arts and there's nothing in here about karate and kung fu and all that stuff! I mean, who would win between an aikido master and a savate master? Come on, tell me!

I've always found these questions strange. After all, are you planning on becoming a judo master? Do you expect to have to fight one? If not, how is the question relevant to you? Pick an art based on how, how often, and how long you're going to train, and on whom that art will help you defend against, not based on hypothetical death matches between wizened martial arts masters.

Here's another hint: training matters a lot more than technique. What difference does it make if you're using a boxer's punch or a judo throw or a karate kick if you haven't practiced the technique 10,000 times or more? (sub-hint: techniques that can be drilled more quickly can be learned more quickly, too. Ten thousand repetitions of a drill that takes one minute takes less time than 10,000 reps of a drill that takes five minutes. So simple moves can be learned more quickly, and are less likely to fail under adrenal stress, too).

As for specific arts, I tend to favor the ones that can be practiced "live." Boxing, judo, jujitsu, muay thai, sambo, and wrestling are all examples of arts that, by their nature, can be practiced as a sport against a determined opponent. If you're trying to learn how to weave off the line of an incoming punch, it helps if the punch is thrown by someone who's really trying to knock your head off. If you're trying to learn how to hit someone with a hip throw, it helps to learn how to do it against an opponent who's trying his hardest to stop you. Yes, I know neither of these examples is the same as the "real thing." Training is an approximation. The closer the approximation, though, the better the training.

A few paragraphs up I promised to mention women and defense against rape. Let's work backward again, as we know survivors do. What does a rapist need to do to carry out a rape? He needs to be very close to you, right? That's grappling distance. So other things being equal, which is a more practical martial art for fighting off a rapist: a grappling art like Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), or a kicking art like Tae Kwon Do (TKD)? And which kind of training will give you better adrenal stress inoculation against a rapist's attack: rolling on the ground face to face with a partner who's trying to pin you, armbar you, strangle you, and otherwise submit you using all his strength, or point sparring with a partner who's trying to kick you? Which art is a better approximation of what you're training for? *****

If you've never been grabbed violently and thrown into the wall or onto the ground, the emotional shock of the experience is apt to be as debilitating as the physical event. The whole feeling will be completely unfamiliar to you; the chances of your freezing are high. But a woman who trains in a grappling art like judo or BJJ gets thrown around every day. She's used to it—she has been partially inoculated against the effects of adrenal stress. When the real thing happens, it's therefore considerably less shocking; the danger of freezing, considerably lower.

A more specific point: a rapist is likely trying to position himself between your legs. A scary thought, true. But one of the strongest positions in BJJ is the "guard," where you control your opponent in precisely this fashion—by holding his torso between your legs. A rapist trying to force himself between the legs of a properly trained BJJ woman is therefore putting himself in a position the woman has actively sought to put her opponents in thousands of times before, a position from which she has trained and learned options like armbars and strangles and escapes. What does the TKD trained woman do from here? How familiar is the position to her? What sort of "muscle memory" and stress inoculation is she relying on?

Back to martial arts generally. I don't mean to imply that arts like aikido, hapkido, karate, kung-fu, TKD, etc. aren't combat effective; I know they can be. But because the way these arts are taught and trained is a more distant approximation of the "real thing" than is, say, a boxing or wrestling match, if you're talking about a fight, or than, say, BJJ, if you're talking about an attempted rape, the learning curve is longer. Again, you have to ask yourself how long you're going to train, and how often, and measure the answers against your objectives.

But remember, none of this matters as much for your safety as awareness and avoidance. No matter what your martial art, make sure you practice those.

Further reading and training:

Awareness and avoidance (there's a reason this category comes first, by the way):
Gavin DeBecker, The Gift of Fear,
Marc MacYoung, Cheap Shots, Ambushes, and Other Lessons
Peyton Quinn, A Bouncer's Guide to Barroom Brawling

Mechanics and psychology of violence:
Tony Blauer's tapes and courses,
Alain Burrese, Hard Won Wisdom from the School of Hard Knocks, available through
Loren Christensen's books and videos, available through
Marc MacYoung's books and videos, available through

Effects of adrenal stress on combat preparedness:
Dave Grossman, On Killing
Dave Grossman, On Combat
Peyton Quinn, Real Fighting

Firearms training and justifiable use of lethal force:
Massad Ayoob

* Tip of the hat to David Morrell, writer of the terrific First Blood and creator of Rambo.
** As noted by Peyton Quinn of the Rocky Mountain Combat Applications Training institute. I took his course, and recommend that you do, too, if you're serious.
*** I borrowed that one from Tony Blauer. Took one of his courses, too—and and recommend that you do, too, if you're serious.
**** For a focus on adrenal stress in unarmed encounters, Peyton Quinn's RMCAT is the place to go. For adrenal stress firearms training, Massad Ayoob's Lethal Force Institute is incredible.
***** I can hear the TKD people already: with TKD, you take the rapist out with punches and kicks before he even grabs you. Well, maybe, but... how did you know he was trying to rape you before he started trying to rape you? By the time you're sufficiently convinced of his intentions to respond with violence, my bet is that you've already been grabbed and it's now a little late for TKD distance. This is doubly true for date rape.


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