Does Taekwondo Work in Street Fights and Self-defense?

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Let’s start by stating the facts. In a real street fight there will always be flaws to exploit in every martial art, no martial art is perfect. There are counters to every man-made style, a boxer could be countered with low kicks from Muay Thai, a Muay Thai fighter could be countered with wrestling takedowns, a wrestler could be countered with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu submissions, a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighter could be countered with a sprawl and brawl style from a striker and so far and so on.

Why do some folks still think “Taekwondo doesn’t work” ?

While going through the comments on social media, I have noticed that people who think Taekwondo does not work seem to be judging Taekwondo based on them watching Taekwondo as a competitive sport in the Olympics using a specific set of rules where points are scored with fast explosive kicks rather than strikes with knockout power behind them.

A Taekwondo practitioner is skillful with his/her kicks as much as you are with you fingers

Most of those critics are missing the high level of dexterity that taekwondo practitioners develop throughout the years of training their legs almost exclusively. This type of training allows a Taekwondo fighter to kick at any level of power they want, they can kick at any speed and they can reach any point they target in your body even if the opponent is much taller.

What wins street fights?

In a street fight, there are many factors that decide who is going to win. In my opinion, the type of martial art is the least deciding factor.

Your proficiency in the martial art you choose compared to the proficiency of your adversary in their own martial art is one of the biggest deciding factors. If you are a novice Taekwondo practitioner and your adversary is Floyd Mayweather then your chances of not getting knocked into oblivion are very slim, regardless of your fighting style. But if you are a high level Taekwondo practitioner with great leg dexterity and good countering reflexes, and high alertness and your opponent is at the same level of mastery then it is going to be a battle of distance, counters, explosiveness, alertness, etc.

Your fighting style is a sword, the battle is won by the man who holds the sword, not by the sword itself

In a self-defense situation you will most likely face a thug who has no idea about martial arts and you will be at a clear advantage if you are at a good level of awareness of distance and counters and how to fight in general. But in case you face someone who does martial arts, the outcome will be decided by who is bigger and faster, your fitness level, stamina, strength, reflexes, experience, controlling jitters and adrenaline dump, timing, aggressiveness, the distance you are prepared to go, age (The odds will always be in favor of a young guy against a 50 or 60 years old man, even if the 60 years old guy is a master in Taekwondo or any martial art).

Is Taekwondo the most effective martial art in self-defense situations?

The answer to that question is obviously “Of course not”. The concept behind Taekwondo is that leg reach is longer than arm reach which can give you a clear advantage over somebody who is using arms exclusively. The only downside to it is that our Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) takes more time to transfer information from the brain to the arms than legs, which makes the Taekwondo practitioner at a disadvantage, but the disadvantage is compensated by distance. So if a boxer needs 1 meter to land his strike on the target, a Taekwondo practitioner does not need to be that close, a distance of 1 meter and a half would be sufficient to land and get out of the way of danger.

Kicks are 3 times stronger than punches

As Humans we have built natural strength to our legs due to the fact that we are using them for standing, walking, running, etc. Humans use their legs more often than they use their arms, therefore we have developed  greater strength in legs than we have in arms.
The hook is the most devastating punch in boxing. An average hook from a boxer weighing 180 lbs can be measured at around 600 lbs of force. While a roundhouse from a middleweight person can be measured averagely at 1750 lbs of force which is the triple of a hook.

Kicking and safe distance

As stated previously, Taekwondo does not need to be very close to the adversary in order to land a kick which gives the Taekwondo practitioner another advantage.

When you are trading punches in a street fight, even if you are a good puncher, the risk of getting caught with a random punch is high, since you have to be in the adversary’s reach in order to land your own blow. Even the best boxers and MMA fighters get caught with lucky punches, so you are no exception to that.

That is where Taekwondo gives you an advantage. According to UFC fight metrics 93% of fighters in the UFC roaster use their hands almost exclusively to deliver knockout strikes because they come from backgrounds of wrestling, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or Boxing and they haven’t been introduced to a kicking art in an early age (Taekwondo, Karate, etc.). These statistics show that kickers will always be a minority even in professional prize fighting. So in a street fight your chances of facing a kicker like you are so slim, therefore you can kick your adversary without risking of being countered with a lucky punch.

Also in a self-defense situation you can’t know if your attacker is going to fight dirty. If you are at arm’s reach and your attacker pulls a knife or a blade of any kind you will be at great risk. Sometimes even a big ring on your opponent’s fingers can cause great damage.
With fast kicks and fast footwork you will eliminate these risks.

Things to watch out for if you are using Taekwondo in a self defense situation

As stated previously, every martial art has flaws, there will always be room for improvement:

  • Space and distance: Distance is one of the most advantageous points in Taekwondo, but it’s also one of its weaknesses. Kicking needs space and distance, and sometimes in self defense you are caught in a small tiny place like a bar where kicking is almost impossible. So be aware of your weaknesses and always bring the fight to your advantage, never let your attacker be at arm’s reach, you can get sucker punched at anytime. Once you are at arm’s reach of your aggressor you become dependant on them and their morality, you are at their mercy, if they decide to throw the first punch you can’t do much about it. Always create distance between you and your attacker.
  • Use kicks accordingly: Do not get lost with fancy kicks like tornado kicks and spinning kicks. Stick to the basics, if your attacker is close and his chest is facing forward use a front snap kick (ap chagi) to the chin (This technique has been used by UFC Middleweight champion Anderson Silva against Vitor Belfort in UFC 162 which resulted in a knockout). If you see your opponent popping his head into the air and dropping his shoulders throw (dollyeo chagi) roundhouse kick where you aim at their temple. If your opponent is going forward and you are going backward and their guard is down throw a wheel kick (Spinning kicks are used exclusively as counters when you are going backwards or when your opponent is throwing a Roundhouse kick, never spin while going forward, the spinning will be telegraphed and your aggressor will see it coming a mile away).
  • In a street fight never use a kick that you haven’t practiced a thousand times: While boxing has 5 or 6 types of punches, Taekwondo has a lot in its arsenal. Don’t try to experiment in a fight, you will regret it instantly. Use the kicks that you are familiar with, the ones that you master and you are proficient at. Avoid fancy jumping kicks and tornado kicks and 540º kicks.
  • Upgrade your fitness level: Your kicks will not be effective if you are obese and your belly is hanging out of your body. The amount of force generated by kicking requires a great deal of fitness, if you are not conditioned, you will be out of breath by your first or second kick. Kicking also requires lightning speed, even if your technique is on point and you are a 3rd dan black belt but your kicks are slow and telegraphed, you will most likely get beat in a street fight.
  • Forget sports/Competitive Taekwondo: Forget scoring points with fast kicks with no power behind them, forget feints to test your opponent’s tendencies. It’s a street fight, there is a 99% chance that your attacker has never set foot on Taekwondo competition matts, so don’t waste your energy on feints, just surprise them with a strong powerful kick to the jaw and you will be amazed at how much damage a simple powerful kick can do to a human skull.
  • Know the limits of your art: Every martial art has its own limits, be aware of yours. In a self defense situation you might be forced to clinching, grappling, multiple attackers, weapons, etc. Don’t stay imprisoned to your own art, cross borders and learn from other arts. A good percentage of street fights end up on the ground, you have to be prepared with basics from Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to survive. Krav Maga is a good art for disarming your adversary. Muay Thai teaches you devastating low kicks to cripple your attacker’s legs from under him. Judo has the best foot sweeps and throws in town. Wrestling has the best slams, you might need them against a lighter opponent who might be too fast to catch with a kick.
    Your own life or the life of your loved ones might be on the line, cross train as much as you could.
  • Do not use your instep in kicking: Most Taekwondo schools train students for point kicking, therefore the kick lands with the instep in order to gain the longest reach possible and score a fast point. In self defense you need all the odds to be in your favor, so you need to bring your heaviest armour, your shin.

MMA fighters with a Taekwondo background

  • Anthony Pettis (Former UFC lightweight champion) : 3rd dan black belt in Taekwondo
  • Anderson Silva (Former UFC middleweight champion) : 5th dan black belt in Taekwondo
  • Edson Barboza (UFC lightweight fighter): Black belt in Taekwondo
  • John Makdessi (UFC lightweight fighter): Black belt in Taekwondo
  • Daron Cruickshank (UFC lightweight fighter): 2nd degree black belt in Taekwondo
  • Rose Namajunas (UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion): Black belt in Taekwondo
  • Sage Northcutt (Former UFC fighter) : 3rd dan black belt in Taekwondo
  • Kung Lee (Former UFC fighter) : 1st dan black belt in Taekwondo
  • Benson Henderson (Former UFC lightweight champion) : Black belt in Taekwondo
  • Yair Rodríguez (UFC featherweight fighter): Black belt in Taekwondo
  • Mirko Cro Cop (Former Pride FC champion and Former UFC heavyweight fighter): Black belt in Taekwondo

Last Warning: If you still don’t have the skills to be surgical with your kicks then don’t throw them

If you are a Taekwondo novice and you have only been practicing for a year or so, do not use kicks in a street fight. If you still don’t master your kicks the way you master your fingers then don’t use them, you will be at risk of:

  • Slipping
  • Getting your kick caught by your adversary if you throw it to the midsection

If you can throw kicks as easy as you can throw jabs and you can hit the point you target surgically then congratulations! You are amongst the minority of people who can defend themselves with the longest and heaviest limbs of the human body. You are amongst the elite who carry two long and solid bones surrounded with dense muscles and can throw them like baseball bats at their attacker’s skull.