Jiu-Jitsu In the Streets — My Experience

Flickr/Creative Commons: Sylvain

In my almost five years of training jiu-jitsu, I’ve participated in several conversations about jiu-jitsu’s potential effectiveness (or perhaps lack thereof) in a real street fight scenario. I think, like most practitioners, I like to believe it’s the perfect martial art, and by far the most effective in self-defense situations. That said, fortunately, I never had the opportunity to test this theory and hoped I never would. That was up until recently, when I witnessed and unintentionally instigated my first street fight. 

I recently relocated to a new city, and in an effort to explore I went out for drinks one night with some friends. At some point during the evening, my friend and I noticed an increasingly persistent man was lingering a bit too long. We both have jiu-jitsu and self-defense backgrounds, and that coupled with having lived in a big city before granted us the kind of hyper-awareness to identify this uncomfortable situation right away. This man was insistent about purchasing us drinks, and persistent in his attempts at convincing us to leave with him and his friend. In an effort to deter him, we stuck with our two male friends and insisted we had pre-existing plans and simply were not interested. Our polite declining of his advances only threw fuel on the fire.

We managed to relocate and thought he was gone, so we went on with our night. Later, we exited the restaurant, still accompanied by our two male friends, only to turn a street corner to see the drunken man sitting on a bench with his friend. I immediately knew he had been waiting for us and was probably hoping to catch us alone. He jumped up, and slurring his words, yelled in our direction. At this point, I knew a fight was inevitable, this man was belligerent and his friend was laughing and gearing up for the showdown. 

I attempted to verbally de-escalate the situation, I wanted to avoid a fight, but my efforts to subdue this man were lost on him. He was screaming at our friends and threw the first punch right over me. I managed to duck out, as they began to fight. At this point, we had to attempt to remove ourselves from the situation.

Yes, we know self-defense moves and jiu-jitsu, but what if this man had a knife? Or a gun? Sure, some of my professors would theoretically demonstrate street scenarios, but they weren’t something I regularly drilled. A lot of my training has been purely jiu-jitsu, setting up submissions, focusing on positioning, and based on a points and rules system. There’s no points in the streets, no referee, no rules, and certainly no tapping out. Eye-gouging, multiple opponents at once, and weapons are all things that we seldom discuss in jiu-jitsu class. Not to mention, a lot of jiu-jitsu revolves around taking the fight to the ground, and we were on a paved sidewalk. I was confident if this man grabbed me I would be able to defend myself and revert to my training, but I didn’t want to have to.

As these men engaged in the least technical fight I’ve ever witnessed, I had the realization that jiu-jitsu in the streets looks very different. I would more likely kick this man in the groin than I would try to arm-bar him. The plethora of jiu-jitsu submissions and holds are great, but in a real-life situation like this, they are going to be heavily decorated with a number of actions that I would never do in the gym, and that’s okay. It’s about having that foundation and comfort with combat, but knowing when to let go of the technicality and “points” and defend yourself at all costs. Aside from the pavement and potential weapons, there are a number of additional factors that exist in a street fight as well — for example, if his friend who was merely an instigator decided to participate as well. 

Fortunately, my friend and I were able to escape this situation unscathed, with the main takeaway being that it was a profound learning experience. Talking about theoretical street fight scenarios in BJJ class is great, but witnessing it showed me just how many additional factors exist. I’m glad I know jiu-jitsu and am confident had I needed to, I would’ve been able to defend myself. That said this scenario looked very different from the training that I’m used to and comfortable with, and it taught me that were I to be involved in a street fight, I would need to modify my methods. My friend and I have since purchased pepper spray and gotten right back to training. 


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