It was only a tap. But the hulking driver whose bread truck Rhon Mizrachi's Nissan had grazed was enraged. Standing in a jammed Manhattan intersection trying to calm the man down, Mizrachi turned his head for an instant and suddenly felt a fist slam into his temple and his neck wedged in a headlock before crashing to the ground beneath the full weight of his burly assailant. The short-fused bread man could not have known what would happen next. Mizrachi, a teacher of the Israeli martial art Krav Maga, was "already in full fight mode," he says, his brain scanning his encyclopedic repertoire of moves. "There was only one part of the guy I could get to. So I bit the whole top of his hand off. When he jumped up, I just went to town on him."
Perhaps because more Americans are living in cities, more Americans are taking self-defense courses. The problem, according to top martial arts instructors, is that relatively few systems prepare you for the chaotic experience of a hand-to-hand fight. Here is a quick guide to the four that are most effective outside the gym. (Please don't put them to the test without proper training, and then only as a last resort.) They might not be the prettiest, and if you're looking to break boards or balance your chi, you could be disappointed. But, as Mizrachi says, "they get the job done."
"Some of these other styles, tae kwon do and so on, are all about fancy kicking way up above people's heads," says Jimmy Fusaro. "Now tell me: What good is that?" At his X-Fit gym in Manhattan, Fusaro teaches perhaps the most useful – and toughest – kicking art around. Muay Thai, which directly translated means "art of eight weapons," gives you all the skills of Western-style boxing, but with six more tools: elbows (used like knives carving the air in close quarters); knees (used to attack the stomach in a close-up clinch and, with your hands pulling down on your opponent's head, as a finishing blow to the face); and, of course, feet (used with the lower shin in roundhouse, hammerlike kicks). But what sets Muay Thai apart is the physical and emotional hardening that comes from sustaining and delivering such blows.
In Thailand, as dramatized in the Jean-Claude Van Damme classic Bloodsport, professional Muay Thai kickboxers destroy one another in smoky bars while locals shout and bet thick wads of cash. No longer do they wrap their fists in glass-encrusted gauze, yet even now, fighters die in bouts every year. And in a place like X-Fit, students who after their first few sessions hobbled home on shins turned purple from kicking the heavy bags are, after a few years, in possession of tire irons for tibias. "A lot of martial arts are based on theories," says Fusaro. "With Muay Thai, we train by kicking and getting kicked. A fight, in the end, is about the abuse you can take, and Thai fighters are used to the abuse."
When to use it: A hothead is bothering you at a party and won't let up. Even after you walk away, he tracks you down outside.
How to use it: Predictably, the aggressor opens with a right cross. You – the Thai fighter – counter with a hard right roundhouse kick to the leading leg. As the man crumbles, you deliver a left knee to his face, and then finish him with a left-right combination. Fight over.
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