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Does size matter in self-defense? Training trumps size when victory is on the line...and there'

Does size matter in fighting and self-defense? NO, training will always defeat size. But that’s not all.

Anyone who trains in a martial art always wonders how they will emerge from hand-to-hand combat. Often mentally sizing potential opponents, asking themselves, “could I beat that person?” This question really comes to light when they see someone larger. They tend to size up much larger people wondering if their training would enable them to defeat a much larger opponent. This article is intended to provide an answer to the question: “Does the size of an opponent matter against a well-trained martial artist?”

For perspective, Mike Tyson is 5’10” tall

Sammy Scaff 6'5" - Tyson KO 1

Mike Jameson 6'4" - Tyson KO 5

Dave Jaco 6'6" - Tyson KO 1

Mitch Green 6'5" - Tyson W 10

Reggie Gross 6'3" - Tyson KO 1

Jose Ribalta 6'5" - Tyson KO 10

Bonecrusher 6'5" - Tyson W 12

Tony Tucker 6'5 - Tyson W 12

Tyrell Biggs 6'5" - Tyson KO 7

Larry Holmes 6'3" - Tyson KO 4

Tony Tubbs 6'3" - Tyson KO 2

Frank Bruno 6'3" - Tyson KO 5, KO 3

Carl Williams 6'4" - Tyson KO 1

Buster Douglas 6'4" - Douglas KO 10

Henry Tillmas 6'3" - Tyson KO 1

Alex Stewart 6'3" - Tyson KO 1

Razor Ruddock 6'3" - Tyson KO 7

Lou Savarese 6'5" - Tyson KO 1

Andrew Golota 6'4" - Tyson KO 3

Brian Nielsen 6'3" - Tyson KO 7

Lennox Lewis 6'5" - Lewis KO 8

Danny Williams 6'3" - Williams KO 4

Kevin McBride 6'6" - McBride KO 6

[endif]--Above is a list of most of Mike Tyson’s fights and the size of his opponents. Most are significantly larger than him. Interesting boxing trivia. However, this article is not intended to address competitive fighting. Competitive fighting is limited by rules. In competitive bouts both combatants have innate abilities and strategies to win within those rules. Instead, the context of this article is self-defense, be it an attack by a criminal (muggings, abductions, burglaries) or an unanticipated altercation in public (bars, concerts, parties) or in private. That is, scenarios where there are no limitations to our offensive tactics, where the preponderant opponent is simply malicious to evil, not another martial artist.

With this in mind, let’s get started.

There are three personal characteristics that will determine the outcome of an altercation. These three characteristics –listed in least to most influence on victory -- are:


Yes, as you see above, size is least important in defeating an opponent. We’ll discuss that first.


Size in and of itself does matter in combat. The reason for this is obvious. With size comes weight that can crush; larger muscles that are directly proportional to strength (the larger the size the larger the muscles the greater the strength); and, size produces innate intimidation in others, especially those who are smaller. All else being equal, a larger individual will prevail over a smaller one. However, as a martial artist, all is rarely equal in your world.

For the trained martial artist, a person with size alone is hardly a threat; that opponent is simply a large person swinging. Defending ourselves from “large people swinging” is what our martial arts training is all about. The typical giant thinks that his 5-inch height and 50-pound weight advantages are all he needs to defeat you. The martial artist knows that a height advantage does little against a broken finger or a violent clap to the ears or, in a life or death situation, a collapsed throat. Size alone as a determinant of one’s ability to defeat another is vastly over-rated.


A 24 -year old son of a friend of mine is about 6’2” tall, in relatively good shape (he is now a fireman in southern California), and exceptionally nice. He is not a fighter. More or less one of those “not a mean bone in his body” kind of men. This young man was at a local bar and as happens at local bars, found himself face-to-face with an obnoxious, comparatively “little” 5’8” bar patron. My friend tried to de-escalate the situation by calmly talking to the guy, assuming his calm demeanor and his greater size would be enough to prevent a physical altercation. As they were talking, the smaller guy grabbed the back of my friend’s head, headbutted him directly on the bridge of the nose, and walked away as my friend was completely incapacitated.

The point of this story is that in this scenario, the passive nature of my friend resulted in grave injury. He thought his size would protect him and he was wrong. Aggressive action —in either a malicious or honorable context—plays a critical role in not losing a combative situation. We must be able to instantly transform from that passive, non-violent person that resides in the core of all martial artists, into an animalistic warrior ready persevere at any cost.


No trait can overcome training and skill in combat. The combatant who is better trained will always emerge victorious…period. It begins with the concept that a better trained individual is just smarter and not looking for a fighter. Thus, “better trained” may mean not getting into the altercation in the first place. In the example of my friend, a trained martial artist, at best, would have walked away from that situation, not into a verbal altercation that ended up with a broken nose; while, at worst, would never have been caught off guard allowing himself to be struck.

Better trained means resourcefulness…kicking the knee or groin or scraping the eyes rather than punching to the face which most can recover from. It may mean recognizing the size of the opponent and not standing within their range. Better trained simply means that you know what you are doing whereas the opponent does not. A larger opponent or a more aggressive opponent who is not trained will make mistakes and create openings that we are trained to exploit. Should you ever have to face someone who is a hack, your training will ensure you will prevail.


A larger opponent will prevail over a smaller one. A more aggressive person will prevail over a less aggressive one, regardless of size. A better trained person will beat an untrained person, even if smaller in size. But we, as complete martial artists, are aware of these not discretely, but as a combination of characteristics. We consider all three factors together to ensure that we maximize all of them. The person who has the advantage in more categories will be victorious; the person with greater strength in an individual category will dominate.

This table illustrates how this all falls into place.

Given that there is little we can do about our natural size, our goal as martial artists is to enhance our aggressiveness, and to continuously -- as a way of life—enhance our skills and training in realistic scenarios. If we develop our aggressiveness and training, then size will only a positive if you have it, and neutral if you don’t. Even if you don’t have size, your aggressiveness and training will always supersede the others. To under-score the aggressiveness factor, I want to emphasize how an aggressiveness mindset at the time of conflict is a critical. Krav maga, for example, is exceptional at teaching aggressiveness. Many drills include simple, but effective, attacks on a bag, where hitting faster and harder is the emphasis.

Consider that most large people out there are neither aggressive nor trained. However, it is also true that many large people (football players, bullies, etc.) are aggressive yet not trained. What this means that your training, and the inherent noble aggression that your training begets, will ensure your safety against virtually any opponent.

To summarize, all else being equal:

< >Larger size beats smaller

< > Aggressive beats larger size

< >Training beats aggressive

< > Therefore, training beats size

What about those who have some training, are aggressive yet are also larger? The answer to that is in your hands. Since you can’t change your stature, you just must ensure that you are better trained. Capitalize on each and every minute at the dojo to become the best. Period.


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