I recently watched the first six UFC events. Although there was valuable information in all of them -- and in those that followed, I'm sure -- I took a number of lessons away from the first.

I wish that I had seen the UFC when it first aired, or soon thereafter. I was in high school, and just about to start studying martial arts for the first time. Though I can't know for sure, I think that exposure to the UFC might have changed my perspective on martial arts considerably. Although many of the lessons available in the UFC video should have been apparent during sparring, the pressure and excitement of personal involvement made them harder to discern.

High Pressure Validation

One of the selling points of the UFC event was that it pitted different martial arts styles against one another, and would provide some validation as to which styles were better. I would contend that it did, and continues, to provide some feedback in that regard. Specifically, without knowing the styles of the competitors in advance (they were discussed and highlighted prior to each fight) I would not have been able to guess the martial arts background of any competitor except for those with a wrestling and grappling background. That's significant, because both the style I studied in high school (an eclectic mix of Kempo Karate, Kung Fu, and bits of Hapkido) and the popular media (magazines, TV, movies) tended to emphasize the differences between styles, and their relative merits.


Most striking techniques devolved at least to the level of full contact striking sports (boxing, kickboxing, Muy Thai). In many cases, striking technique devolved into balled-fist flailing. Successful strikers suffered hand and foot injuries.

This is among the lessons that any martial arts student can see in sparring practice. When techniques, such as the ones I learned, are applied at or near full speed, with a resistant opponent, many don't work.


To say that the ignorance of stand-up and ground grappling skills was lacking or incomplete in may of those competitors is an understatement. It's an uncomfortable truth that strength and endurance are important to these disciplines. There are size, strength, and mobility deficits beyond which skill is little compensation. Royce Gracie was much touted as the smallest competitor in the event, but he weighed 175 lbs. Had he weighed 100 lbs -- even with equal or greater skill -- would he have fared as well as he did? Ryron and Rener Gracie refer to this differential as "Boyd Belts".


The fighters participating in the first UFC event did not have a catalog of previous bouts to study, so they lacked information about the strategies that were successful. They took their own preconceptions and prejudices into the ring. It's no longer possible to arrange such an honest contest today, in the Internet Age, with such ready availability of information and video of both competition and genuine inter-personal violence on the Internet.

As an example, some fighters, such as Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn opted in later matches to wear shoes, eschewing kicking techniques in favor of the traction they gained on the surface. This is an example of strategic trade-offs made by competitors that were mostly unavailable to those in the first event.


Although competitors in the first UFC could make few assumptions, and the event was touted as without rules, fighters were able to assume at least the following.

  1. When we're both ready, the fight will commence.
  2. We are both trained, practiced fighters.
  3. Neither I nor my opponent have weapons.
  4. Neither my friends nor my opponents friends will join the fight.
  5. The environment is free from obstacles and hazards.
  6. Techniques that kill or maim are forbidden.
  7. The fight ends when one combatant...
    1. is incapable of self-protection (e.g., unconscious), or
    2. quits

Self-Defense Applications

When evaluating the applicability of techniques exhibited in the UFC to self-defense, the assumptions that the initial competitors were able to make must each be evaluated. Only one of the assumptions I listed above holds in a typical self-defense scenario: assume that the bad guy is a trained, experienced fighter.

Let's take a look at these assumptions in more detail. Each teaches something about how to apply that art to self-defense.

When we're both ready, the fight will commence.

Imagine a UFC where only one of the combatants knows what the other looks like, there are 20 similarly dressed non-combatants milling around inside the ring, and the less savvy combatant is forbidden to harm the non-combatants.

Self-defense is not a story that includes equal initiative. Your attacker chooses the time and place, and they'll disguise any sign that the fight has started.

We are both trained, practiced fighters.

Structured matches often pair competitors by size, weight, experience, and history to producing relatively equal, interesting contests. This wasn't this case in the early UFC, where there was a single pool of entrants.

In self-defense, you may be selected as the victim of crime precisely because you don't appear dangerous to the criminal who picked you. In reality, you and your assailant have an equal opportunity to be trained fighters. Learning self-defense techniques that only work on a completely untrained assailant are a bad bet. You can only validate self-defense techniques under pressure. If you're unable to demonstrate your techniques at full speed, against a strenuously-resisting opponent, they probably don't work.

That your opponent is a trained combatant is the only assumption UFC 1 competitors made that you should, too.

Neither I nor my opponent have weapons.

When defending yourself, you either know, or should assume, that your assailant brought weapons to the fight. You need to control access to any weapons (designed or improvised) that you have, and you seek to maximize your control of your assailants weapons, too.

Because there are no weapons in the "ring", participants needn't consider what movements they or their opponents make that either reveal the presence of, or presage the presentation of weapons. Outside the ring, moving the hands to the waistline (theirs or yours) in a fight (rather than striking or grappling, for example) represents a serious threat. In economics, you'd call this Opportunity Cost: if you're foregoing the use of your hands momentarily in a street fight, it's not to scratch an itch.

No friends will join the fight.

Although such spectacle is common in dramatized professional wrestling matches, UFC competitors' coaches, family, and friends refrain from joining the fray when it's not favoring their champion.

In real life, relatives, friends, and the uninvolved who are initially just bystanders may "tag in" at any time. And because your assailant chose the time and place, you should assume that they also brought a friend or two or three along to ensure things go as planned.

This is a particularly difficult aspect to train for. I've only seen this employed in force-on-force scenario training. Later ECQC evolutions, for example, introduce this uncertainty, where there are one to three assailants and you won't know how many until it's over.

The environment is free from obstacles and hazards.

UFC octagons, far more than boxing rings, are sterile places. The hard bits are padded, and you can't fall out.

The real world is full of stuff you really don't want to fall on, into, or across: curbs, corners, furniture, walls, stairs, etc. Look around the space you're in right now. What would you really hate to be pushed into or onto? This is, to a certain extent, an ambient risk. I haven't personally seen this trained in any empty-hand combatives.

Techniques that kill or maim are forbidden.

Although there have been deaths in MMA fights, they are few and far between. In particular, I think we can say with certainty that most competitors are not trying to kill one another, because (a) there are few fatalities, and (b) such an outcome would be negative for the survivor. Even in UFC 1, neither biting nor eye gouging were allowed, and the number of fouls has grown. Here are a few you can easily find on security camera footage of assaults:

  • Groin attacks of any kind
  • Striking downward using the point of the elbow
  • Striking to the spine or the back of the head
  • Throat strikes of any kind
  • Kicking or kneeing the head of a grounded opponent
  • Stomping a grounded opponent

The fight ends when...

In an MMA match, a referee stops the fight when one fighter ceases to protect themselves, or the combatants can concede to stop the fight. Even if the potential for death or serious injury exists, you are entering relatively safe mutual combat. There's a third party present whose job is to stop the fight on your behalf!

In self-defense, if you lose consciousness, the fight stops when your assailant decides it's over. If they decide to continue the ground-'n'-pound on a limp human punching bag, that's their call. Any defensive tools you have are theirs. Your home address and house keys are theirs. Do the math.

How low can you go?

Even other pressure-test environments, such as ShivWorks ECQC can only remove some of the UFC 1 assumptions. Others remain out of practicality or in the interest of a safe training environment:

  1. When we're both ready, the fight will commence. (You know you're in a ShivWorks class evo, right?)
  2. We are both trained, practiced fighters. (Craig does a masterful job at pairing people up so that they are challenged, but not overwhelmed.)
  3. The environment is free from obstacles and hazards. (Even in a car the environment is relatively free from hazards.)
  4. Techniques that kill or maim are forbidden. (But some are simulated via training knives and Simunitions.)
  5. The exercise stops if one combatant...
    1. is incapable of self-protection, or
    2. quits


The preceding may sound like I think the UFC and/or MMA in general is a poor proxy for self-defense instances. On the contrary, it's the best crucible we have to regularly test and evolve purely unarmed self-defense techniques, and the derived inter-disciplinary techniques are invaluable. Even with all the preceding assumptions, it's far closer to a self-defense fight than anything else we have predictable access to. Coupled with a compare-and-contrast approach now possible due to the ubiquity of surveillance cameras and easy Internet video publishing, we've never had better opportunities to realistically evaluate martial arts for civilian self-defense.