I’ve taken kickboxing, krava maga, and systema. Right now I’m taking systema.
Kickboxing is very straightforward, very western, more about brute force and speed than anything else. Krav maga is widely well-reputed hodgepodge that is less “martial art” and more “here are a bunch of ways to debilitate people really quickly.” Systema is kinda obscure, focuses on learning how to move people’s bodies (and your own), and has no codified forms or techniques.
IF your focus is self-defense, rather than learning a martial art: it’s less about “what martial art am I taking” and more about “how good is your gym?” It’s hard to figure out what a good gym is… so I usually just go for whatever’s cheapest & closest to me and see how it goes.
A few tips to consider, though.
- If you are a woman/small-sized person, DO NOT do MMA unless you are willing to get really really hurt sometimes. MMA culture is… kinda awful testosterone-heads. Things I have heard about MMA: “My sister does MMA. She was sparring a guy and he broke her wrist. She won, though.” “I work at an abuse shelter. Most of the abusers of married women are husbands who do MMA.” etc etc
- Does your gym do live fighting? That’s one good thing about MMA: they do live fighting. The only way to get really competent at self-defense is to have some sort of live sparring and/or active fighting. It’s hard to find gyms willing to take that kind of insurance burden, sometimes. But it’s worth the extra experience.
- Are you memorizing a lot of forms? Does the class teach you to use your size and weight, instead of brute force? As a (probably small-ish woman-sized-person), if you’re in a class that teaching you a lot of memorization & brute force techniques, you should probably try to find a different one. These are not super helpful and do not prepare you for being attacked and defending yourself. You will freeze up and be unable to do anything.
- Ask your instructor explicitly what kind of training they have. A lot of instructors… don’t have much good experience. The guy who teaches me right now is an inner-city cop in one of the most violent cities in the US. He knows his shit. The last guy who taught me was an orthodontist. He claimed to have a lot of experience. I’m not sure he did.
A few tips for researching martial arts: if you Google pretty much any martial art, Google will recommend “[martial art] fake”. Why? Because MMA and Bullshido think that literally every martial art that isn’t MMA or Bullshido… is fake. There’s a lot of snobbery about “real” martial arts: “martial artists” are all I am a real martial artist who pursues self-discovery through memorizing techniques & making them part of my body,etc. Which is, uh, great if you have like 30 hours a week to memorize useless repetitive fighting stances that will not protect you from anyone until you’ve been doing it for five years… but not so great for small women who have maybe 5 hours a week and need to pick up skills fast.
Personally, kickboxing was a great starting point. There was no contact and it would’ve fucked me up if I’d tried to get into any fights with just kickboxing experience, but it was a good place to start.
Krav is solid all around. Its mission statement: I will get violent faster than you so that you can’t kill me. It’s not a combat sport; it was designed for military resistance, meaning “I don’t have time to teach you useless shit because you have to go fuck up Nazis to save your children” (actual reason krav exists: Jewish strike-forces wanted a better way to protect themselves against Nazi forces). It’s also not designed to combat trained fighting athletes; it’s more intended to be streetfighting-esque. It kinda emphasizes memorization and doesn’t exactly make accommodations for size, but it does focus on debilitating people as quickly as possible. Which, as a small person, is about all you can hope to do! A good krav gym can serve really well for self-defense. (However, I’ve had a hard time finding krav gyms that actually permit… sparring or real contact… so there’s that.)
Systema is the favorite that I’ve done, but that’s also because it’s been the best gym I’ve used. Like Krav, it’s a military martial art. (…Although, apparently that’s debated, because no one actually seems to a) know where it came from or b) agree on how it happened. Because Soviet Russia.) System is nice because it’s not at all codified; pretty much anyone who does systema will do completely different shit around a basic pattern/philosophy of movement. Bad in the eyes of martial artists. Good in the eyes of people who actually want to get shit done. You get a lot fewer of those “HURR DURR MARTIAL ARTS” people because it actually… has a poor reputation in competitive circles. I don’t expect to be in competitive circles. I expect to get into streetfights or domestic spats. Things that I learned in systema that I never once learned in any other class: where to easily sucker-punch people; how people move, stand, balance, etc (so you can knock them over); how to take punches; how to relax and be super chill when someone is trying to hurt you; how to fight on my own terms, as a super tiny person, instead of in forms made for huge-ass dudes.
Again, this is all assuming that your instructor is competent.