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Historically, combat involved weaponry. Nowadays we are not permitted to carry a weapon in the street so our concern must be unarmed combat.
Unfortunately your assailant will most probably be armed.

Unarmed combat

Realistic combat training must include the likelihood of facing an armed attacker whilst being unarmed yourself.

What does combat training involve?

You may find a number of different combat approaches in a typical martial arts class:

  1. Fighting

  2. Sparring

  3. Self defence

  4. Incapacitation

  5. Practice

The purpose/function of each mode of combat is an essential consideration. e.g. the aim of fighting is to beat the opponent whereas self defence is all about avoiding harm.

1. Fighting

'Fighting' literally refers to conflict - physical and psychological - and typically culminates in the exchange of blows. It has the connotation of reciprocity: two people trading blows. Taking turns.
Both parties are involved in the conflict. People may fight over serious matters, for fun, prestige or money.
Fighting often involves emotion, aggression, stubbornness, pride and the desire to get your point across/have your way. Usually there are two or more people involved in the combat.
There may or may not be rules. A fight can be for sport, it can be lethal, it can be playful.

It is said; “If the opponent does not move, then I do not move. At the opponent's slightest move, I move first."

(Wu Yu-hsiang)

2. Sparring

Sparring is fighting practice. There are rules. The combatants may wear protective gear and there may be a referee to ensure fair play/sporting attitude.
People spar in order to hone their skills and experience fear. Although sparring is not as emotionally charged as fighting, it still has the potential to be very dangerous.

Full contact or full power?

Full contact is commonly assumed to mean full power. This is not accurate. A full power karate punch would kill.
A full power judo, ju jitsu or aikido application would break a limb or concuss the attacker.

Full contact

If you do not actually make contact, there is no way of knowing whether or not your martial art even works. Pulling punches is just bad practice. A punch must impact a body.
A throw must take the person to the ground. An arm break must tax the joint.

Martial arts are dangerous

The British Medical Association Guide To Sports Injuries states:

Combat sports such as boxing, judo, karate or kung fu make tough demands on the body; training is intense, and participation requires all-round fitness. Regardless of the fitness of the participants, however, the aggressive blows traded between opponents means that these sports always carry a serious risk of injury.

Power management

Think of power management as being akin to volume control on a stereo system. Low volume is suitable for safe, controlled practice. The higher the volume, the more unpredictable the outcome.
Martial arts are meant to be lethal, so full power means killing somebody and no one wants to do that.

3. Self defence

Self defence is quite different to fighting and sparring. Unlike fighting, self defence involves one person being assaulted by another. The scenario is not a fight or a duel. It involves bullying.
There is an attacker and a victim/defender. Self defence classes vary greatly in what they teach. Some classes offer short courses featuring tips & pointers.
Other classes are much more serious; with the defender seeking to fight the attacker or even incapacitate them.

The martial arts were not developed for the defence of soldiers fighting on battlefields. Neither are they sports. The combat that martial artists practice is free of restraints. Martial arts have one objective only: to neutralise an attack by any means, and as rapidly as possible.

(Howard Reid)

4. Incapacitation

Traditionally, a martial art featured combat with swords or other bladed weapons. Getting cut, mauled, maimed or injured could mean death.
The martial artist sought to finish the battle as fast as possible without sustaining serious damage to themselves. Fighting was not the aim.
A fight can last for quite a while, cost a lot of physical effort and fatigue the body. The longer a fight lasts, the greater the likelihood of injury.
When weapons or multiple opponents are involved, a prolonged fight can be a real problem.

"In serving, serve. In fighting, kill." (Jinzu)

Instead of fighting, a martial artist seeks to stop the fight as soon as possible by putting the attacker out of action. Incapacitation literally involves rendering your opponent/aggressor incapable of combat.
The goal is to end a fight before blows are traded.

Banned from competition

It is important to remember that martial arts teach
a person how to defend oneself. They are not sport. In real life combat there are no rules. Exponents use what is possible, not what is allowed.
If you look at what is banned from fighting competitions, this is usually the material that inflicts the greatest degree of injury.
When your aim is to incapacitate rather than fight, you use the skills that work best.

Reasonable force

No matter whether you train a martial art or a fighting art, it is usually possible for a skilled exponent to incapacitate an opponent.
However, in real life we must exercise restraint and employ 'reasonable force'. Do only what you need to do. Nobody wants to receive a broken arm or be put in hospital. Show compassion.
Even the most serious martial arts are seldom practiced with the traditional goals in mind. Nowadays, people can learn how to incapacitate without causing undue harm.

5. Practice

A lot of the fighting training that happens in a class is non-confrontational. It was designed to encourage confidence, depth of knowledge, skill and experience.
Good quality practice requires the student to train hard in order to produce a thorough and convincing outcome that will work against a non-cooperative opponent.
Students work together at first to improve their combat abilities. With realism in mind, people explore the material in a controlled manner, withholding the use of full power.
As the student gains competence, the training becomes more earnest and decidedly non-cooperative: 

  1. Drilling
    - repeating combat movements solo or with a partner
    - high repetition teaches muscle memory


  2. Form applications
    - applying form movements with a partner in order to incapacitate the attacker
    - understanding biomechanical advantage, physics, distance, range, timing etc
    - employing sensitivity and power effectively
    - gaining the ability to change in response to a counter-attack


  3. Shuai jiao applications
    - applying take down skills with a partner in order to incapacitate the attacker
    - learning a repertoire of proven techniques
    - flowing between applications in response to a counter-attack
    - learn how to use shuai jiao in actual combat


  4. Chin na applications
    - applying a multitude of seizing skills with a partner in order to incapacitate the attacker
    - dividing the muscle, sealing the breath, misplacing the bones, cavity press etc
    - learning a repertoire of proven techniques
    - flowing between applications in response to a counter-attack
    - learn how to use chin na in actual combat


  5. 2-person combat sets (san sau)
    - armed & unarmed
    - repeating combat movements solo or with a partner
    - learning positioning, targets, timing, sensitivity and footwork

    - gaining the ability to change in response to a counter-attack

  6. Combat skills
    - there are a vast range of skills that promote success in combat and these must be identified and trained individually in order to gain competence
    - multiple opponents
    - armed opponents
    - different situations, scenarios and terrain


  7. Strategies & tactics
    - using the mind rather than force
    - learning and understanding how to best approach the experience of combat
    - putting theory into practice: The Art of War, The Book of Five Rings, 36 strategies, Tao Te Ching, The Way of Chuang Tzu, The Tai Chi Classics et al


  8. Impact (bag work & hitting a body)
    - training impact against a bag in order to encourage whole-body use
    - depth-penetration
    - accuracy
    - gaining the ability to find effective targets instinctively
    - being hit/learning how to take a blow without being injured or fazed


  9. Sensitivity training
    - employing a wide range of partnered exercises that teach the student how to feel, respond, move, flow and stick to the attacker
    - train the nervous system and awareness
    - learn how to use sensitivity skills in actual combat

  10. San da (freeform combat)
    the assailant does not use predetermined attacks and is encouraged to be as awkward and challenging as possible
    - the aim for the attacker is to provide a realistic combat experience
    - non-cooperative


When asked how he overcame his opponents, Hadrat Ali explained, "I never met any man who did not help me against himself."

(Hadrat Ali)

Which approach is best?

Martial arts classes tend to offer a variety of options aimed at different personalities and preferences. Individual systems and styles are favour certain training methods.
Most classes teach a workable system. Which approach is best?
It all depends on what you want. A person who enjoys fighting will choose a class that focuses on fighting.
Someone who wants to finish the fight quickly may select a martial art that focuses on incapacitation. Another person may choose self defence because they have no interest in fighting.
Which approach works best for you?

What do we teach?

Our taijiquan
(supreme ultimate fist) classes offer 3 different fighting approaches:

  1. Incapacitation

  2. Practice

  3. Self defence

Taijiquan includes self defence training, but focuses principally upon incapacitation and practice. San da (freeform combat) is the nearest we come to fighting or sparring.

Recognisable style

If you watch wing chun applied in combat, it looks distinctly like wing chun. The same could be said of judo, aikido, ju jitsu, pencat silat etc.
By the same reasoning, applied taijiquan must look like taijiquan.
What does taijiquan look like?

Taijiquan fighting method

Taijiquan looks like taijiquan. The form, pushing hands, you know... taijiquan. If your martial expression of taijiquan does not look like taijiquan, it is probably not taijiquan.

Page created 14 February 1996
Last updated 09 June 2019