Slug Signorino
Slug Signorino

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My son just finished a three-month karate class. Last night he asked me if karate really would help someone defeat a larger, stronger opponent. I told him I honestly never heard of anyone using any martial art to win a fight outside of a movie. You would think here in New York, with so many muggings (at least at one time) and other violent crimes, there would be stories of people using martial arts to defend themselves. But all we got is Bernie Goetz, and he had a gun. So in all of recorded history, has a skinny black belt ever beaten up a beefy weightlifter? My son’s future athletic choices may depend on it.

—Patrick Castillo, New York City

Well, I’d keep him off the steroids, if that’s what you’re asking. Also, common experience suggests that where big vs. small is concerned, you don’t necessarily want to bet the rent on Goliath. Granted, David wasn’t using karate, and there’s no question the introduction of firearms into the situation tends to skew the odds. Nonetheless you do occasionally hear of martial arts adepts taking down attackers with their bare hands—including attackers with guns. For example:

• In 1996 a blind Philadelphia man used a combo of martial arts and wrestling moves to kill a guy who’d tried to rob him.

• In 2007, three masked assailants tried to hold up a group of U.S. tourists on a cruise stopover in Costa Rica only to be foiled by a military veteran in his 70s who used martial arts to kill the chump with the gun.

• In 2008 a New York subway conductor with a black belt took on three muggers and won. Unfortunately, he also killed a good Samaritan who tried to help out.

• In 2008 an ex-firefighter trained in an American martial art called bojuka subdued a neighbor who pulled a .45 on him by smashing the gun butt repeatedly into the guy’s head.

• In 1989 a blind man was forced to use his martial arts training to defend himself from police who attacked him when they mistook his folded cane for a set of nunchucks.

OK, the last fellow lost his fight, and yes, he’s not much of an argument for the usefulness of martial arts training in staying out of trouble. However, the more interesting observation is that, of the cases I dug up, 60 percent of those who used martial arts to smack down an attacker (even if only temporarily) were blind or elderly. Sure, maybe only the man-bites-dog cases find their way into news accounts. But it’s tempting to say blind and/or elderly + martial arts training = decent chance of kicked bad-guy ass.

Generalizing from anecdotes is a temptation we need to resist, of course. But there isn’t much else to go on. My assistants Una and Gfactor couldn’t find any reliable studies in the last 30 years on the benefit of martial arts training in combat situations. For what it’s worth, though, research on the more fundamental question of whether crime victims should fight back suggests that resistance, far from being futile, may do you some good:

• A recent 10-year study of attacks on women (733 rapes, 1,278 sexual assaults, and 12,235 general assaults) found that on the one hand, resisting an attempted rape lowered the odds of the perp completing the act by nearly two-thirds. But on the other, it slightly increased the odds of injury and doubled the chance of serious injury.

• A study of 3,206 assaults against women between 1992 and 1995 showed that women who fought back early in the attack were half as likely to be injured, and 75 percent of women queried reported that fighting back helped. An earlier study using data from the ’70s found that women who resisted had less likelihood of being raped and 86 percent sustained no serious injury as a result—which, I suppose, means 14 percent did sustain serious injury.

• Another 10-year study of victim response in 27,595 crimes (assault, sexual assault, robbery, larceny, and burglary) showed across the board that resisting resulted in less injury than not resisting. Similarly, studies have found that resisting reduces the likelihood of an attempted crime succeeding. For example, the chance of a would-be robber pulling it off drops somewhere between 20 and 48 percent.

These conclusions remain controversial, and nobody’s saying a kid with three months of karate classes is equipped to fend off a determined mugger. The main advantages of martial arts training are the same as for any sport—physical fitness and increased confidence. However, to the extent it encourages your son to be more aware of his surroundings and think how he’d respond if bad things were to happen…well, that’s a useful life skill for plenty of venues, not just the street. —Cecil Adams

Is there something you need to get straight? Take it up with Cecil at