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Knife Defenses

Many years ago, a student named Martin asked me how I would defend myself from someone who tried to rob me at knife point. I got a practice knife and gave it to another student and told him to “mug” me while Martin watched with interest, expecting to see me do something cool. I said to the “mugger” “You want my money? I am going to reach into my bag and get my wallet, okay? Please don’t hurt me.” Then I pretended to reach into a shoulder bag, very slowly took out my invisible wallet, and carefully handed it to the “mugger.” Martin was still waiting to see my demonstration of technique, and was disappointed when I said “That’s it. That is what I would do. There is no way I would resist a mugger with a knife if I could get out of the situation by giving him my money.”

Knives are scary. Knives are dangerous. It is so easy for even an untrained person with a knife to slash or stab someone. To see how easy, do some knife sparring. Give one person a padded practice knife – or better still, to make the outcome all the more evident, a big piece of thick sidewalk chalk – and have them attack freestyle, hitting whatever target they can with continuous, unchoreographed attacks for sixty seconds. You will be likely to “die” at least once, and will almost certainly be “wounded” a bunch of times.

Everyone has their own personal level of risk tolerance, so I will not say that anyone who resists a mugger with a knife is a fool. I will say, though, that I advise my own students to avoid engaging with an attacker who has a knife if at all possible. If you can safely run away, do so. If the demand is for your money or your possessions, and the person produces a knife, do as I did in that little improvisation all those years ago : give them the money. But it can happen that neither of these is an option, either because the attacker is not going to be satisfied with just taking your money, or because they, for whatever reason, are intent on injuring or killing you.

Of all the different kinds of videos we post on social media, knife defenses are the ones most likely to draw comments about how those techniques “will never work.” And if one defines “working” as making it certain that an unarmed defender will emerge unscathed from an encounter with a knife wielding attacker who is determined to do them harm, then yes, those comments are correct. The problem is, there are very few techniques that will “work” by that definition.

So what to do? Should we just give it up and not teach knife defenses because no unarmed knife defense is likely to keep one completely safe? After all, being attacked by a determined would-be killer with a knife is not all that likely, right? Maybe we should just hope our students never find themselves in that situation, and advise that if they do, they should run away when possible, and hand over their money if that is what is being demanded. Then we can just ignore the small chance that one of our students ever encounters a situation where just handing over one’s wallet is not sufficient, where an attacker armed with a knife intends to do one actual harm.

But I am not comfortable just hoping for the best. I feel that we should teach knife defenses, and that they are an important part of Eizan Ryu jujitsu training for several reasons. First of all, working against a knife attack demands more precision and a more concentrated kind of movement than defending against empty hand attacks, because a knife attack requires less force and less momentum than a punch in order to do injury. Second, a successful knife defense involves an even greater emphasis on controlling the attacker throughout the technique than a defense against an empty hand attack, and instilling that awareness is useful. And finally, if one does find oneself in the really bad situation of having to deal with an actual attacker armed with a knife, it is better to have training that might help than to be completely without options.

So we teach knife defenses early on in our students’ training, and knife defenses are required for their first promotion test. Initially, the attacks are very basic, and the student knows what the attack will be. That allows for learning, for practicing the same movements again and again. This is the kind of training – simple, straightforward techniques done against simple, straightforward attacks – that people who do not understand our training goals will say “will never work.”

However, the ability to improvise and “reflexively” make the right move can only be developed once one has a strong foundation, so this work against choreographed attacks is vital.  Also, from the start, the student is absorbing certain principles – inherent in even our most basic techniques – which will be useful in more realistic knife attacks. Get out from in front of the knife. Keep moving. Control the knife hand, but be aware that the other hand can also be a threat. If you can’t run away, get close enough to negate the distance advantage a weapon of any kind confers. When cornered, respond to an attack with a weapon with the most immediately damaging techniques you know; it is not over until the attacker is down or gone. And, most importantly, you almost certainly will get cut; if you control your natural fear response and do not give up, you may be able to avoid death or serious injury.

So yes, we do teach knife defenses. Hopefully, our students will never be confronted by a bad guy armed with a knife. If they are, we hope they have the opportunity to run away. If that is not possible, we hope that it is a simple mugging, and handing over their valuables will end the encounter with no harm done to them. But if those wise choices are not options at that moment, we want them to have resources that they can use to come out of the encounter with as little damage as possible. 

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Adi Zukerman
Adi Zukerman
Mar 07

Really enjoyed this, thank you! It is a great reminder that perfection isn’t the only goal.


Mar 01

100% agree! Better to have a few "extras" in your bag of tricks than to have an empty bag of knowledge. Good technique, muscle memory, distance management, and correct timing is half the battle.

Replying to

No system is perfect. But because Eizan Ryu is a living style, meant to evolve as we gain new knowledge, we are always working to improve our training. When I was first learning our basic knife defenses forty three years ago, I thought they were "the answer" to knife attacks. But because my instructor encouraged me to be curious and keep thinking, a realized that there is no one "answer" to knife attacks (or any other kind of attack, actually, but knife attacks more than most), and that what is important is awareness, determination, and solid movement skills built on a foundation of basics.


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