Well, I’m not an expert in any of these martial styles but unless the characters were specifically trained for modern combat i.e. real world combat or street combat, I don’t know if I’d call any of the styles “practical”. A practical style is going to be like Krav Maga, Systema, M.A.P., Michael Janich’s Martial Blade Concepts, U.S. Police and Military H2H (CQC, CQB), and any variant of any style that specifically trains its students in real world strategies and for the threats they will face outside the dojo or training hall. Your looking at styles that aren’t shy teaching its student how to disable, maim, and kill someone upfront and in the quickest amount of time. I only list self-defense in this category if it’s a long term commitment as opposed to an eight week course.
The most important thing to remember when choosing your martial art is that all combat styles have their drawbacks, they all have the points where they are weak. Good all around styles usually incorporate strikes (hands and feet), wrestling, and joint manipulations to cover all the bases, but most styles have certain key aspects that they focus on. These will change depending on the humans in the equation, their skills, and the focus of their training. Judo, boxing, and capoeira can all be used as self-defense styles, but your character has to find someone who can teach them to use it in that way to give them an advantage in the scenario you’re suggesting.
From S.A.S and Elite Forces Guide Self-Defense:
If you decide to learn a martial art, keep in mind what it is intended for.
As an example, Taekwondo is a striking-only martial art with rules against certain strikes. Taekwondo fighters often become very good at fighting one another in a formal sparring match, but can develop ‘blind spots’ regarding many of the things that are not permitted in their competition rules. This does not make taekwondo bad. Far from it - it is an excellent sport for building fighting spirit, developing balance and fitness, and learning some powerful kicks. What it is not is a complete self-defense system.
Similarly, Judo teaches awesome grappling skills, is excellent for fitness, and allows players to develop a deep understanding of how to keep their footing while sending others crashing to the floor. But it does not teach how to defend against strikes, because these are not allowed in a Judo match.
Both Judo and Boxing are sport martial arts, they are highly specialized martial styles that are primarily geared toward fighting in an arena and with specific rules. The way they train and what they’re training to do is also important. Judo is a form of wrestling, it’s strongest in takedowns and on the ground. One of the main Judo drawbacks is that most of the throws are geared toward using the gi as a grab point. While this is fine in a period where wearing a similar clothing style is common place, it’s a drawback for fighting someone in plain clothes. The gi is much sturdier and stronger than the average cotton shirt. If the student is used to using the clothes, trained on throws that have been modified to account for it, and trained to fight from a starting position that doesn’t involve holding onto the other person then they’re going to have a better chance. If the judo practitioner is unused to catching and defending against strikes from kicks or punches, they’ll be at a disadvantage against an opponent that primarily uses kicks like Capoeira does. Capoeira is a style that hides it’s techniques as a form of dance (whether they’ve trained in a school that also incorporates Brazilian jiu-jutsu is also a good question) and cloaks it’s attacks in those movements. To someone whose never seen it before, it looks really weird and their opponents confusion may lend them an advantage.
Boxing is another good one, boxers are used to dishing out and receiving hits but their primary sparring experience is probably going to be with boxing gloves. The boxing gloves are there to protect the hands and govern most of the targets like the face. Unlike MMA fighters who may face a variety of styles in their matches, boxers train primarily to fight other boxers. In a situation where they don’t have the hand protection and the rulebook, they’re going to be at a disadvantage against someone who throws techniques they haven’t trained for. It’s also important to remember that the face is the most well protected parts of the human body in terms of bone density. It’s much easier to break your fist there than anywhere else on the body. If they’re not used to fighting barehanded, then they may accidentally hurt themselves just by executing a technique.
What you have access to an what you’re expecting will change combat priorities. The light, fast jab works exceptionally well as a bread and butter technique when clothed in a 24oz glove, will it work as well without it? That depends on the boxer in question and how much time they’ve spent building up the bone density in their fists.
To get your answer on capoeira, you’re going to have to dig into it’s focus as a modern martial art and it’s history. But capoeira for self-defense is going to look different from capoeira, the performance art and capoeira for sport.
Ultimately though, it’s going to depend on the characters in question. There are tons of factors to consider and are much more important beyond “which is the most practical?”. Where they’re fighting, the conditions they’re fighting in, etc, are much more important factors. Here are others to consider.
1) Who is the most mentally prepared?
In the real world, the aggressor in any situation usually has the advantage. They’ve already reached the point mentally where they’ve committed to the idea of hurting their victim and aren’t caught up in any extraneous thoughts. They’re there, ready, and mentally prepared. Their victim is still playing catch up, they have to overcome the shock of being attacked and get to the point where they’re willing to hurt their attacker. However, they’ve lost the first few crucial seconds of the brawl and by the time they’re mentally ready the fight is already over.
You don’t need to be trained in martial arts to do this, taking the initiative is a common human instinct and muggers with no martial training do it all the time. Good self-defense programs should have a discussion on how to notice the signs and leap frog your mind to the point where you’re willing to strike first or ready for the attack when it comes. The one who gets the initiative on their side of the engagement is usually going to be the one who keeps it.
2) Who spends the most time practicing against a variety of martial arts?
Practice, experience, and a flexible mindset are going to be more important than how well one martial art stacks up statistically against another. What you’re prepared to face is what gives you a helpful advantage, a martial artist who spends all their time training to fight only in their own circles is going to be at a disadvantage when facing someone who practices a different style and changes up their practice partners. If the boxer spends a lot of their time sparring kickboxers, taekwondo artists, sambo practictioners, and judoka then they’re probably going to be more ready to fight someone using capoeira even if they don’t know the style. They’ll have built up strategies and modified their techniques, maybe even branched out their style to fill in the holes. If they spend all their time fighting other boxers? They’ll probably only know how to fight boxers.
3) Where are they fighting?
Fighting outside, on concrete in an urban environment, in a field or a forest is going to be different from fighting inside a dojo, in a ring, or on a training mat. The footwork is different, whether you’re wearing shoes or not is important. How used are you to uneven surfaces, soft surfaces, slippery surfaces, and different kinds of friction? How much room do you have? A fight in a classroom between the desks is going to look different from a fight in a gymnasium. Amount of room determines which techniques you can throw. Tight spaces will lock out a lot of kicks, especially ones that require sweeping arcs like roundhouses and crescent kicks.
4) What are the stakes?
Fighting for your life is different from fighting with a referee in the room, fighting on camera is different from fighting behind the bleachers after school. What’s at stake will change how the participants view it and the lengths they’re willing to go to win. By the way, the one who wants it most is usually the one who does because they’re willing to work hardest for it in the preparation leading up to the fight. Individuals’ styles vary significantly even in a single martial art, most professional sports fighters study their opponents before a match. They get to know their style, their habits, their strengths, their weaknesses, and what they like to target. This can be video recordings of their previous fights to develop strategies and training regimens for countering that particular opponent.
The parts of sports movies where the coach spends a lot of time studying old sports reels is a real thing. Knowing what you’re up against and who you might face is an important part of preparing to face that thing.
It’s very difficult to switch up mentalities on the fly, what you’ve been preparing for and training to do is more important than what you’ve been trained in. Martial artists who train for practical combat in the real world will do better defending themselves on the street than someone who trains only for the ring. On the other hand, a martial artist who trains for a specific set of rules in the ring will do better there than someone who trains purely in self-defense. Someone who trains for performance will put on a better show than someone who trains only for sparring. You don’t have to look much farther than the public reception of the gun battle in Michael Mann’s Heat to know that audiences find real world combat tactics boring and unrealistic on the big screen.
This is pretty much why the answer to every question starts with: “well, it depends”. There are no universal solutions and while the one with the better odds stands a better a chance, random chance can turn a lot of dire situations into victories and that’s why we gamble because there’s never really a sure thing. (This is how you can tell the writers who have done the research and internalized this from the ones who haven’t. Anyone who says their characters will have 100% victory 100% of the time is…well…full of it. You don’t even need much to beat the guy with fighting superpowers, just a solid work ethic, a good plan, and a willingness to bend the rules of engagement.)
My thoughts on modern capoeira is that it’s a beautiful form with a rich and interesting history. As a performance art it’s very fun to watch and the footwork is fascinating. It doesn’t really draw on either European or Asian martial arts traditions, so the techniques have always been difficult for me to personally follow when I watch. We’ve had some discussion on capoeira in the past, so you can probably find them in tags. (I think… they need cleaning, we’re working on that.)
I hope this very long answer has given you some help.