Size Matters: On Fighting Bigger Stronger People – Teja Van Wicklen


I began martial arts in high school, and excelled at it thanks to a few years of ballet. Shortly thereafter, I found myself bombarded by invitations to ‘spar’. It was a question always asked with a wink or a raised eyebrow. As a teenager I took it as an opportunity to show my prowess. Ah the naiivitee of youth – that being taken seriously in such a situation was not yet a blip on my radar. Obviously if these guys felt fighting me posed any threat of lost teeth or worse, it wouldn’t be such a thrill. Interestingly, that high school mentality persisted well beyond high school.

Sparring is what you’re supposed do in class to train, learn, test your prowess. But after years of martial arts I have to ask myself now how much it really applies. It definitely helps to have had hand-to-hand combat experience. Though I’m not exactly sure how. I understand some of the things I’m capable of and some of what other people are capable of. I understand what it feels like to be hit and even knocked cold. I understand how to move my feet and use my body to get more power into a strike than my 125lb frame should allow. But I don’t have much experience doing what I would really have to if someone twice my size really attacked me. That is, I don’t have experience disabling people, not many people do. How much real time rape experience can you actually have. It’s one of those common conundrums of self defense, if you are really all that experienced, what are you doing wrong that has gotten you into that much trouble.

Play fighting someone who outweighs you or is twice your strength is a dubious proposition. Yes, you get to really test yourself over and over, but not necessarily in a constructive way. You can’t hurt people when play fighting, so it’s like a potentially dangerous game of tag with someone faster than you. The faster person will always win. Unless you cheat. And that’s really the key. You can’t fight someone who out-classes you without cheating. On the street, cheating is the name of the game. But you can’t do it in class, it’s too dangerous. You can discuss it, you can hash it out, you can act it out, but you can’t real-time-it. You can’t play-cheat.

The martial arts are many things but the central idea is the art, or arts of fighting. Training mostly addresses male on male violence, even when it claims to cover more. Male on female violence is a very different animal for reasons of strength, weight, leverage, motivation, etc.

After around 10 years old girls and boys are separated in tournaments and never face off against each other again, since even at the same weight the male athlete is likely to have 10 to 20 percent less body fat, which is to say 10 to 20 percent more muscle, soft tissue and bone density.

As a teenager and young adult I was extremely physically strong for my size. I benched my body weight and did 11 full pull ups from straight arms, not those halfsies we often see at the gym. I was determined to play with the big boys and make my mark. Naturally I was endowed with the blindness or lack of peripheral vision of youth (why else would one keep hitting themselves with a hammer in order to try and beat the hammer).

When sparring with men, if I went all out I might be told I was going too hard or was out of control. If I didn’t go hard enough, I would be pushed and pushed to hit harder, move faster. That balance is central to traditional fighting arts. You have to somehow manage to extrapolate how to fight or protect yourself while also systematically teaching your body to hold back and move beautifully within a specific framework. In many ways, those concepts are at direct odds. When I didn’t fight hard enough, I was called “cute” or, when I did, I got in trouble.

On some occasions, in training, if I fought my hardest, so would the other guy, and – since I couldn’t just kill him quickly – guess who would get hurt. Hence the myriad of random joint injuries I’ve acquired. You don’t pit yourself against a gorilla in a fair fight and expect to walk away and have lunch. I’ve paid the price of years of testing myself against people twice my size.
Which begs the question – if training is more dangerous than the danger you’re learning to protect yourself from, does it make sense.

In no school anywhere I know of do men regularly spar other men so far outside their weight or strength class. Even so, most lifelong male martial artists are pretty injured and dealing with bad knees, neck issues and multiple surgeries.
Is there even a way to train without doing more damage to yourself throughout your life then you might sustain in a single attack situation?

Many well-meaning male training partners played to me, they fell for me when being thrown or swept, they told me they wouldn’t want to meet me in a dark alley. They even winced and showed pain to let me know I was strong – a worthy opponent. But it’s not a pain they would react to at all in a real altercation. There’s pain and there’s pain. The pain that causes you to suck in breath wouldn’t even register if your life depended on it. Athletes routinely play sports with broken collarbones and even legs, separated shoulders, hernias.

There is learning to be had in play fighting, but it can also create a false sense of security. Especially in smaller people who want desperately to be and feel safe. This false sense of security can actually make them less safe, especially if they assert themselves at times when a more subtle approach would be smarter.

So that’s training. What about real life?
Where martial arts deal predominantly with fair fights, self-defense deals predominately with unfair fights. Most “street” attacks are by nature covert and sudden and come from odd angles. How do you train in a way that actually teaches you to fight unfairly with full force?

It’s a nebulous argument but one could assume that the people attacking men out on the street are roughly the same size, if not the same people as the ones attacking women. So the issue of being smaller makes all fighting more dangerous for women.
Take this query: In a fight between a six year old and a twenty-six year old, who would win – given the six year old isn’t unnaturally large and hasn’t been raised in the jungle by gorillas (or guerillas).

The question of size in fighting prowess is fundamental and ongoing. Some feel it’s all about weapons, since that same six year old wielding a knife wildly and unpredictably might pose a slightly higher threat. But weaponless, what would the six year old have to do to win?

That’s a pretty unfair fight, six year olds lack life experience. Let’s change it to a fight between a 220 lb Navy SEAL and a 320 lb mountain gorilla. Again, no weapons.

Still not very fair.
How about a 125 lb woman and 220 lb man?
We can skirt the main issue (pun intended) by asking what if our Damsel In Distress is highly experienced? But then we can counter with, is her aggressor as well? And criminals often have a lifetime of experience.

So let’s ask the question a different way: In a fight between a man and woman of approximately the same experience level, in which neither is asleep or in an otherwise vulnerable position and neither is wielding weaponry of any sort, who would win?
Size and strength buy time, and in a real attack, time is life.

You could ask who is more determined to live, and this would certainly play a large part. But I think in terms of simple math we could say the larger, stronger person presents with better odds for obvious reasons, the most obvious of which is he will hit harder. On a slightly less obvious note, the larger heavier person will be able to take more damage than the smaller or slighter person, even if only because he’s being hit by someone smaller! This gives him more time and space to make decisions. Which is a real luxury. I mean, if the first punch could kill you, or at least knock you into yesterday, there isn’t a lot of wiggle room. You either make you’re first move count or… not.

Size and strength give you a lot of leeway. If you have those things, every other tool you acquire makes you exponentially more dangerous. If, on the other hand you are tiny or slight of build, a bit slower, whatever, everything you acquire may inch you toward a slightly less gruesome outcome. The rich get richer.

Clearly we are talking theoretically, because we have completely left out context. And self defense is all about context. In class we face each other most of the time – admit it! We talk about rear attacks, but what percentage of time do we train it? In order for training to parallel life we’d have to train surprise attacks at least half, if not 75 percent of the time.

So we see classes where men in full padded outfits, that make it impossible for them to move properly, attack women who hit them multiple times and yell a lot. It brings to mind my seven year old throwing a tantrum because he doesn’t want to take a bath. I still get him in the tub.

Some will say things like experience and determination play a major role. Or we could go back to weapons. But then the question just becomes what if our Damsel In Distress is highly experience? Is her aggressor as well? What if she has a weapon? Her attacker or attackers probably do as well. So let’s ask the question again: In a fight between two people of approximately the same experience level, in which neither is asleep or in an otherwise vulnerable position and neither is wielding weaponry of any sort, who would win?

You could ask who is more determined to live, and this would certainly play a part. But I think in terms of simple math we could say the larger, stronger person presents with better odds for obvious reasons, the most obvious of which is he will hit harder. Short of being a taichi master, in which case you’re vulnerable the entire time until you become one, twenty or thirty years later, size and strength still give you a lot of leeway. If you have those things, every other tool you aquire makes you exponentially more dangerous. If, on the other hand you are tiny or slight of build, everything you acquire may inch you toward a shot at a better outcome. The rich get richer.

Where am I going with all this?
Good question. I’m small, and being small is a big part of my life, not least because I chose to spend my life playing a big person’s game (so I’m small and also not too smart).

The question of size and strength in fighting prowess and self defense is an octopus of a subject with arms reaching and intertwined throughout history, sex, politics. Everything really. It comes to bear on all things it seems. Who makes the decisions, who keeps the money, who get’s the girl. Might makes right.

The only hope a small thing has is high intelligence, or a connection to a large number of other small things. Example: ants, piranha, wasps, germs. And because size doesn’t negate intelligence, if you have both you truly hit the lotto. I should know, one of my main instructors at one point was 360 lbs, a prototype machinist, restorer of antique French art, gun smith and chess master among other things. He could also out sprint me, which was really supremely unfair.

What do I have to offer? Someday I might be unlucky enough to have to test my training – my use of the element of surprise, my reflexes and ability to snap out a freeze and act quickly. Or maybe like so many prey animals and even small predators, I’ll just stay healthy and alert and avoid trouble.

Realistic and boring, not macho or sexy. I’ll guess I’ll have to go to a kickboxing class for my daily dose of empowerment.

One Comment

  1. Silke Schulz


    Interesting perspective. I agree with most of what you’re saying about the difference between sparring in the martial arts and the ability to actually train for real-world self-defense. I think your argument leaves out three very important elements: First, sparring still teaches timing, targeting, and distancing from an opponent. It can also help with the “intimidation” factor. Second, taking a padded attacker self-defense course, like Impact or RAW Power Real World Self-Defense does allow for more realistic implementation of self-defense techniques. Finally, none of this argument takes into account that a large body of academic research says that resistance (not superior fighting skills) does prevent a very large percentage of rapes – this resistance can be based in verbal boundary setting strategies and/or simple physical techniques. Self-defense begins with confident body language, eye contact, and vocal resistance – and more often than not, ends there.

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