Throughout my nearly 30 years of training and teaching Krav Maga, I have heard a particular line of questioning asked many times. Which is better for self defense and fighting: Krav Maga or Ring Fighting? Should someone train in Boxing or Muay Thai as a defense system, or Krav Maga? Ring fighters train for and experience fights, so would they be better at defending themselves in real world situations? Likewise, does training in Krav Maga really prepare you for a fight?
By their nature, ring fighting and Krav Maga are different. Let’s start by looking at the differences. For combative and ring fighting sports like Boxing, Muay Thai, and MMA, the goal is to win the match in a controlled environment, with known rules. That means a ring, time limits, rules and restrictions, referees, coaches at the corner, a cornerman to heal you, and targeted preparation. A ring fighter prepares, knowing in advance the length of each round, the number of rounds, and that there is only one unarmed opponent. The one with the better technical/physical/mental ability and who comes with better preparation has the better chance to win.
In contrast, Krav Maga is a self defense and fighting system. Practitioners plan for the unplanned, including preparing to deal with more than one opponent, with or without weapons, under different conditions, and in uncontrolled environments. Its goal is not to win any sort of competition, belt, or title. The goal is to prevail, survive, and be safe using any means possible.
This leads to the issue of respect. In ring fighting, the goal is to win the fight and both fighters know they are there for sport. As it is a controlled environment with rules and regulations, both should respect his opponent and maintain good sportsmanship. In non-competitive real world situations, we are often misled by the question of how do we fight while maintaining respect for our opponent. How does one go to war without casualties? The true answer is that if you respect your opponent, don’t fight or go to war with them—negotiate and solve the problem some other way. In Krav Maga, we prepare for the worst case, after prevention has failed, when the fight has already begun, and any chance for respect is gone. There are no rules, no codes, and when it comes to results, no respect or honor—just survival.
There are plenty of differences between competitive ring fighting and Krav Maga. What about similarities? With my long history in Krav Maga and having competed as an amateur boxer (Golden Gloves Israel), I can definitely say there are a lot of similarities.
There are many similar moves and techniques between the two. In order to execute a good knife, gun, or stick defense, one needs to also have a good striking ability. Without effective counter attacks to soften your opponent, the chances of the weapon defense succeeding is low. In order to be effective, you must repeat, repeat, repeat each strike in training. Repetition is also necessary in training you to recognize attacks and openings, and respond instinctively.
This leads to another false idea in the self defense world: the reliance on “knowing” techniques. Knowing a technique is like having book knowledge, but in self defense, repetition and experience are of the utmost importance. This means that it is not enough to “know” a technique or a move. You must have repetition, practice, and experience (through training) in order to execute that technique in the best way possible, just like a ring fighter.
However, having knowledge, practice, and experience is not enough. For both, one of the most important training methods is training under stress. In Krav Maga, we do this in order to be able to execute our knowledge, technique, and ability under stressful real world life-or-death situations, and in the case of the ring fighter, under the stress of the match. The problem in self defense training is that creating this type of environment is very difficult. We definitely try to be creative in order to bring the stress in training as close as possible to what one would experience in a real situation, but it is still limited. The ring fighter trains constantly to execute under pressure. Competition and competitiveness, especially when you know you have to spend 15-45 minutes in the ring with someone who really wants to hurt you, is extremely stressful. Ring fighters train with the knowledge that that day is coming. It requires commitment and demands a strong mental character—to step into the ring and FIGHT is very significant! One has to experience it in order to understand it.
Even with the best preparation, neither the ring fighter nor the Krav Maga practitioner truly experiences a 100% intensity fight except for at the moment of reckoning—either the match itself or in the real world situation. In Krav Maga, we cannot train with maximum intensity without protective gear. Our students often have jobs and other lives to live, and frankly the techniques can be lethal. Ring fighters spar constantly to prepare for the bout, but also never train at 100% force. The only way for both to experience what it’s like to hit and be hit at full force while under stress is to go through those situations, such as in the ring.
Is one is better than the other? My answer is no, they are both good, but the goal will influence the training method. I will strongly state that ring fighting sports and Krav Maga complement each other and are both beneficial. The ring fighter might experience more fights and is more used to the stress and intensity, while the Krav Maga practitioner has trained to deal with more complex situations and lack of rules. Even still, ring fighters can benefit from Krav Maga’s take on street fighting, and Krav Maga practitioners can benefit from the stress of competition. The founder of Krav Maga Imi Lichtenfeld was a boxer and a wrestler, and these two ring fighting sports are naturally a strong influence on the core of the system.
I will never forget the words my old boxing trainer told me before I stepped into the ring. With a strong Russian accent, he told me, “Danny, inside the ring, it’s like in life: Everything that is going to happen from now is up to you.”
So that one may walk in peace.
Boxing photographs courtesy of Andrius Petrucenia.