Is Capoeira the Best Martial Art for Self-Defense?

Many people choose to take up martial arts for self-defense, to learn to protect themselves should they be threatened with violence or attacked.

It is often said that Capoeira is not an effective martial art for self-defence. The reasons being:

  • It is predominantly “non-contact” (everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face…)
  • It contains many “non-functional” movements such as florieos
  • It has many “telegraphed” strikes such as meia luas and armadas
  • That capoeira is just for show, and wouldn’t work in fight.

Personally, however, I beg to differ.

Having trained numerous martial arts throughout my life (Karate, Jeet Kune Do, Muay Thai, Brazilian Ju Jitsu and MMA), I personally believe that Capoeira is actually the best option when it comes to self defense.

Self-Defense is NOT a Cage Fight

The Gracie Family started the UFC in the early 90s to “find the most effective martial art”, and used their victories to claim their style as the number one fighting method.

Over the years, MMA developed, and it’s now generally agreed that to be successful in the sport a combination of Kickboxing, Wrestling and Grappling are what’s required.

Those that have entered the ring trained only in one discipline, or practicing “traditional” martial arts have not fared well. To say the least…

Let me make it very clear now, I am most certainly not saying that training Capoeira alone is a an effective or sensible way to prepare for a full contact MMA competition. (There are of course successful MMA fighters that train Capoeira, but they train other martial arts too).

What I am saying however, is that there is a big difference between street violence, and what happens in a boxing ring or octagon.

Though Capoeira may not prepare you for a big money prize fight, it may well pay dividends in the real world, where kickboxing, wrestling and BJJ could very well let you down.

5 Reasons Why Capoeira is the Best Martial Art for Self-Defense

1 – A Bare Knuckle Punch Hurts – Your Hands!

Big Knockout Punches are a great way to make it to the top in competition fights, but what many people don’t realise is that they were only made possible by the introduction of padded gloves (made mandatory in Boxing in 1867 as part of the Marquess of Queensbury Rules).

A common misconception is that boxing gloves are to protect the fighter’s heads from damage – in reality, they are to protect the hands. Without gloves, you’re more likely to break your knuckles than knockout your opponent. Boxing gloves actually made the sport a lot more dangerous!

My best guess would be that Capoeira evolved the way it did – without punches – for this very reason. The early Capoeiristas, whether slaves or freemen, would have worked in manual labour and could not afford to injure their hands.

Without gloves, the kicks, sweeps, open palmed strikes and headbuts of Capoeira are much safer types of strike.

2 – The Ground is Hard

The Gracies proved their grappling style to be highly effective in the ring.

But taking a fight to the ground in the street, where your attacker can bite, eye gouge, headbut, and even kick and stamp on your head, might not be such an effective strategy!

The floor itself is also likely concrete rather than nicely matted, and have broken glass and other dangers.

Capoeira recognises all this, and uses the floor as a weapon with rasteiras, bandas and vingativas: Take your opponent to the floor with a bang, without getting tangled up and dragged down with them.

In terms of techniques, it is the sweeps and takedowns of Capoeira that I believe are some of the most effective in a real life self-defense situation.

Mestre Bimba took sweeps and takedowns from Batuque and added them to Capoeira to increase its martial efficacy

3 – Peripheral Vision and Awareness of the Environment

Inside a ring or cage, 100% of one’s attention is focused on your opponent – they are the only risk and only target. In the real world, however, your attacker may have accomplices, there may be dangerous obstacles, and innocent bystanders.

In Capoeira, one must develop the ability to focus on the player in front of you, while still being aware of the other players forming the roda, another player entering to buy the game, and the Mestre leading the roda, all skills that would pay dividends in a self-defense situation in a chaotic environment with lots of people around.

4 – The Little Capoeira Book of Dirty Tricks

Train most martial arts, and you’ll learn how to fight cleanly and fairly.

That’s not how real life works though. Thankfully, with Capoeira you’ll learn Malicia… A handshake turns into a headbut, a chamada into a chapa, a misdirection followed by a poke in the eye…

Always expect the unexpected, respect everyone but trust no one, invaluable Capoeira life lessons!

On the topic of fighting dirty, in addition to sweeps and takedowns, a swift cabeçada to the bridge of the nose, or a cheeky ponteira to the nether regions are two more very effective street techniques if you find yourself trapped in a corner that you can’t ginga your way out of…

5 – Spot the Valentão

Perhaps the most useful tool from Capoeira in terms of self-defense, is learning to read people.

In full contact martial arts, everyone you train with tries to take your head off, irrespective of their personality. It’s their duty to ensure you’re prepared for competition.

Capoeira is different – play in enough rodas and you will soon learn to spot those who want to play, and those that want to fight.

Just as within the roda, if you want to stay safe in real life, best to learn to spot and avoid those that want to hurt you.

The World has Changed, and so has Capoeira

Capoeira used to be very different to how it is today. Even just a few decades ago, there was much more of the element of Jogo Duro. In the days of Mestre Bimba, and in the times of the Maltas of Rio, Capoeira was a hard fighting style practiced by tough individuals who needed to fight to survive.

This is no surprise, as Brazil was a tough and violent place. Capoeira of course reflected this, and had to be so to be useful.

We are now very fortunate (in Western Europe at least) to live in an incredibly safe society. If you’re reading this in the UK, Spain or Italy, your risk of a violent attack is thankfully very low.

Train MMA or Kickboxing, and you’re much more likely to get a serious injury from training, than you are to be able to use that training to defend yourself.

This is not to say that capoeira is without risk, obviously there are dangers, but when it comes to fighting sports, it is those that include frequent blows to the head that pose the most serious danger to long term health.

It is true that to learn to take a punch, you’ve got to take plenty of punches. But thankfully, you’re risk of getting punched nowadays is so low, it’s better just not to get punched!

Train Capoeira, and you may not be able to take a punch in the face as well as Conor McGregor, but you will become very good at avoiding being hit. A skill that hopefully you’ll never have to use outside of the roda, but will always be there should you ever need it.

2 Replies to “Is Capoeira the Best Martial Art for Self-Defense?”

  1. I think the post like most style vs style discussions always just take into account what you’ll do instead of what others can do. Often times it’s not just about pulling guard in the middle of a fight it’s that if you don’t train these things you’ll be defenceless against them, you can’t choose if the enemy is charging at you, hugging you to the floor, etc. You don’t have a choice on how the fight progresses.

    Punches hurt your knuckles such and such, broken wrists even if so I hardly think it matters given that punching is probably a necessary tool for violence. And in some self defence scenarios such as tight quarters, obstacles may hinder particular techniques and wrestling or a weapons MA approach might come into play, maybe low front kicks but certainly things like roundhouse kicks and the assortment of capoeira techniques will not work.

    For bags of dirty tricks, every style has them, everybody has them, Krav Maga, most “Urban Self Defence Systems”, Wing Chun. Problem is that unlike techniques there aren’t fall back plans in case it fails, plus everybody has their own way of the finishing the fight before it starts. Kick to the balls, stand up ball and chain, Knee to Face in a clinch, armbreaks…

    1. I wrote specifically in the article that obviously many techniques from capoeira aren’t suitable in a real fight situation (well not if you’re fighting someone who knows what they’re doing).

      You talk of pulling guard – that’s far worse than throwing a punch, let’s see how it works out when someone can gouge your eyes or fish hook you – no more useful than a capoeira cartwheel. Low kicks, headbuts and sweeps are the useful techniques. Again, I did write that in the article.

      Also, another major point of the article was exactly the opposite of your first critique – capoeira forces you to be more aware of both your opponent and surroundings as there’s more unpredictability.

      But anyway, I think you missed the most important of all of the post which was that capoeira is best for self defense because you’re much less likely to get hurt training.

      Getting punched repeatedly in the head for self defence is rather counter productive…

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