Bullshido is a term used for martial arts that make false claims about themselves, for example that the art helps a much smaller person defeat a larger one, or defend against a knife barehanded, or defeat multiple opponents. Such claims are marketing, but believing them puts people in danger, because instead of screaming and running, the believers may try to fight against hopeless odds and get injured. There are websites dedicated to exposing and ridiculing bullshido.
In addition, one should distinguish fighting and self-defense, and thus also unarmed combat training from self-defense classes. Detailed explanations are e.g. on the website NoNonsenseSelfDefense.com. Briefly, self-defense is about (1) avoiding crime (specific times, places, people), (2) noticing dangerous situations developing, (3) escaping them, (4) negotiating if escape is impossible (giving away your wallet and phone to avoid a beating), and (5) only as a last resort, fighting. Just like a castle has multiple concentric walls, self-defense has multiple concentric layers. Just like war happens when diplomacy and sanctions have failed, fighting happens when all other layers of self-defense have failed.
Returning to bullshido, one should apply the general principle that the burden of proof is on the maker of a claim. Some claims are hard to test without substantial danger, for example defending against a knife barehanded. But fighting larger people or many of them can be done with reasonable safety using boxing gloves, shin pads, soft helmets and similar protective equipment. The test should be scientifically rigorous, not like the demonstrations of martial arts clubs where the attackers and defenders have agreed on the moves beforehand. Such demonstrations are just theatre. In a real test, the attackers and defenders should not know each other, should not have the opportunity to collude, and each should be motivated to succeed, e.g. by a significant monetary prize for the winner. All moves should be made with maximal speed, without unrealistic „winding-up” movements calling attention to when and where the punch or kick will come.
Tests of this sort have been conducted for bare-handed fighting, namely in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in the 1990s. There were several matches between traditional martial artists (karate, sumo) and more modern martial artists (Brazilian jiu jitsu, kickboxing). Traditional martial arts did not fare well. The evolutionary process in UFC and similar competitions, e.g. Pride, has led to the development of mixed martial arts (MMA) that is actually effective in bare-handed one-on-one fighting.
In general, martial arts that permit a wide range of full-speed, full-strength moves in competitions encourage more realistic training and improve fighting ability. Some traditional martial arts are included in this category, e.g. judo, wrestling.
Knife-defense can be tested with some realism using imitation knives. Even a rubber knife or marker pen can penetrate an eye or throat, so when using these, safety goggles and neck protection should be worn. A better fake knife is made of foam rubber and lightly coated in paint. The paint makes it very obvious when the knife has connected with the body. Without such an objective marking of a „cut”, the bullshido artist subject to the test can claim that the fake knife did not connect with them. A shortcoming of such a test is that the knife usually connects with a hand or forearm first, in which case many types of cuts from a real knife would make the arm useless and let the attacker get to the torso. Examples are cutting a nerve, tendon or muscle needed to move the arm. A safe fake knife does not make a hand useless, so the defender can continue using it in defense. There should be a referee competent to evaluate the damage to the hand or other part of the body that would have resulted from the „cut” (paint stripe) that the fake knife made. The referee should order the defender not to use a limb if that limb would be useless had the cut been real. One way to make a fake knife more realistic, but slightly more dangerous, is to add an electroshock ability to the fake knife. This can make a contacted limb go numb and become less useful for defense.
The idea of the knife measuring contact in some way has been used in fencing. The foils used sometimes have a pressure sensor in the tip that detects a touch on the opponent.
Training with an imitation knife and a motivated opponent who does not collaborate in his or her defeat will quickly cure the illusion of being able to defend against a knife barehanded. The same applies to most weapons, e.g. sticks, chains.
I have two stories about my experience with bullshido. In my early teens I took karate classes for a couple of years. Among other things, the classes taught how to twist an opponent’s arm or hand in various ways (and catching their punching hand prior to doing so). In training, I managed quite well to catch a punch and put the opponent on the ground with an arm twist. This is because the training was theatre and the opponent collaborated.
Upon hearing that I had learned martial arts, an adult construction worker offered to let me practise on him in the following way. He held his hand steady in front of him and I could try to twist it in any way I liked, using two hands against his one. He did not interfere with me in any way, just held the hand steady against any force. He was a physically average man, not some weightlifter or giant. I was about 15 years old, above average in size (about his height) and in good physical shape, but I could not twist his arm in any way I tried, using all my strength. The claim that non-full-contact martial arts can teach a weaker person to defeat a much stronger one is false. Even realistic training in modern martial arts is limited in how much it can improve a person’s chances of winning a fight.
Do unrealistic martial arts still help a little, e.g. enable a practitioner to win against a slightly stronger, or equal person? This is where the next story comes in.
After a year or two training karate twice or more per week, over 1.5 hours per session, I participated in a competition internal to the karate school (only members of that school took part). I was matched against a slightly smaller and weaker opponent who had only taken karate classes intermittently for a few months. In karate class, we had practised punches that ended an inch short of the opponent, to avoid hurting our training partners. I was a good student, as it turned out, because during the competition, all my punches ended an inch short of my opponent. I tried to overcome this in-trained behaviour, but could not. My opponent, on the other hand, had not been trained much and used the most common street-fighting overhand punches (called haymakers). These mostly landed on me and were moderately effective when they did. I lost badly.
The lesson from this is that bullshido actually reduces a person’s fighting effectiveness, unlike for example ballet or yoga, which train some aspects useful for fighting (strength, stamina, balance) and don’t ingrain ineffective moves. Unrealistic martial arts „help” a person lose against a smaller, weaker opponent, while falsely convincing the person of his or her fighting ability.