Will This Work in a Fight? It Depends!

Not a week goes by that I don’t receive a personal message on Facebook from someone in the world wanting some advice on improving their game. When I reply that it’s difficult for me to give a definitive answer, I get the sense that the person on the other side feels disappointed. In a world consumed by factory martial arts, with neatly packaged answers to every single possible interpersonal violent encounter, I am not surprised by this reaction.

Two Types of Questions

These questions usually come in two categories. The first I could call more ‘combat sport’ related questions, where a person may be struggling with something in sparring. The second category are more self-preservation oriented. In either case, both are difficult to answer, with the later category being the hardest. On the combat sport based question, my typical reply is, “Film yourself sparring in the problem area you describe and send it to me” (interestingly most don’t). The later, more self-preservation related questions are hard to nail down, unless I ask a person to go out and pick a fight and hope the problem they are concerned with materialises (which I would never do).

The truth is, interpersonal violence, either as sport on the mat, or on the street is a complex animal. This complexity is amplified even further when we begin to talk self-preservation – for example when there is more than one attacker, and or weapons involved. All of us that teach martial disciplines, try our best, myself included, to offer up ready made answers to a myriad of situations that may arise in a fight. But if I am honest, I am also very well aware that there is no neat, cookie-cutter answer to the realities of fighting. If a person wants an honest answer to what they should do in ‘X situation,’ my answer is, “It depends!”

It Really Does Depend

As an example to illustrate this, Lets look at self-preservation. In the midst of finding yourself in a position that you require to defend yourself, three things immediately become important:

  • The Environment (is it in Mogadishu, a battlefield, the streets of a built up city, the woods etc?)
  • The Act (is defense needed against a weapon, without a weapon, one-on-one, multiple assailants etc?)
  • The Intention (is it just an argument, a bar room scuffle, or is someone really intending to kill you etc?)

Now taking the above into account, for a moment, forget what could go right, but rather focus on what could go wrong? And the truth is a lot could go wrong.

If you are not really going to have a neatly packaged answer available to interpersonal violence, and that a lot can go wrong – the obvious question then is, why train at all?

Even further, why set up scenarios and develop a strategy against them?

These are good questions.

Beyond The Script

Now outside of the positive side of setting up scenarios of common place threats based on where you most move around in, the real reason you practice varied responses has actually nothing to do specifically with that particular sequence of responses.

Rather, and at least this is my view point, the reason to train as many potential variables against threats, isn’t so that you will answer that particular threat with that exact counter measure (because you never will) — but rather, and far more importantly is so you can develop flexibility in your responses. In fact, I make it a point of never allowing a student to respond to a specific threat the same way every time.

The truth is, martial success in training breads complacency, and complacency every-time breeds failure.
You read right. If every-time you attend to a specific threat in training the same way, the more likely when it does arrive you will lose.
Because for example even though there may be some commonality in attacks, every-time they are deployed for real they will just be different enough to potentially not register as the same as you remember them in class. For example, a person executing a jab/cross/hook in the gym all warmed up, will be different to someone who’s drunk, or wearing a snow jacket in Alaska moving about on an icy floor, to someone doing the same waist deep in water.

So in actual fact, what you really want to develop isn’t canned responses to what is believed to be the most common threats you may deal with, but rather, the ability to respond with flexibility, to be adaptable in your response in the moment of neutralizing the threat in front of you. This means, that each time in training, you want to press yourself to be creative with your counter offensive measures. Even to the point of having many of your counter actions fail. The easiest way to know what not to do, is to have done it and learned the hard way that it doesn’t work.

The Concept of Principles

Now, I know what the next question is going to be: “If there is really no prescribed methods on dealing with specific interpersonal violent encounters, what should you focus on in training?”

This is where I am a huge advocate of conceptual training. A conceptual framework can offer reasonable answers, without being bogged down with certainties. Contrary to what people often think of in terms of concepts, they are not arbitrary, vague ideas. In fact they are made up of principles. A ‘principle’ is a concept or value that is a guide for behavior or evaluation. In law, it is a rule that has to be, or usually is to be followed, or can be desirably followed, or is an inevitable consequence of something, such as the laws observed in nature or the way that a system is constructed.

Let me give you an example. One of the first things I teach my students is the ITP principles (seen below). You’ll notice its starts with three primary kinds of threats to a person’s safety. This is followed with a protocol of principles that should, where ever possible, be applied. As you will see too, it says nothing immediately about physical fighting technique. In fact, unlike my contemporaries, I generally advocate avoidance at all costs.

If I am aware of my surroundings I hope this will be sufficient to detect a potential threat, and implement an avoidance strategy. If that’s not possible, and I am confronted by a threat, I try to deescalate it first. While I am working deescalation techniques, say through Verbal Jiu-Jitsu, I am considering my options to escape the current threat, and evade it further.

Only when all else fails to I then attempt to neutralize the threat, but even then, I am considering options to escape and evade as soon as I can.

It Still Depends

Now, it still depends!

In an ideal outcome I would always want to avoid violent interactions at all costs. Remember we not talking combat sports here, but rather life and death. But in an Unknown Threat encounter for instance, something like an ambush, I may have no choice but to go hands on immediately and neutralize the threat/s I am facing. And guess what, as soon as I have the upper hand, and the opportune moment presents itself I am out of there.

Now even in Threat Neutralization, I am thinking principles. Here I apply what I have termed a STEPD approach to threat neutralization. Crucial to these principles is that they are always executed from a decisive-time sensitive approach. In other words, I am going to do what I need to do to survive, with speed (but without compromising STEPD) and remove myself from the place of threat as soon as possible.

As such, when executing a physical technique, irrespective of what it is, it needs to meet the following 5 principle requirements:

SAFETY: What ever I decide to do, I must still be safe when doing it. Think of striking with your chin up, and head exposed as being opposed to this safety principle.

TIMING: Timing is multi-faceted. It ties precision and distance together. In other words, can you hit the target in front of you now, or do you need to adjust your position first? But timing is also about choice. It’s deciding when something should be done. In this case, what level of force will be required? The timing may be bad if you decide to take someones eyes out at your friends wedding because he had way to much to drink and fell into the wedding cake.

EFFICIENCY: What ever I do, must be done with the least amount of energy expenditure. Fighting is energy draining. The worst thing that can happen in a fight is that you lose your wind. Conservation of energy is paramount in fighting.

PRECISION: I will sacrifice quantity of techniques, for precision. Firing off a blitz attack while great in theory, is meaningless if nothing lands. One well placed shot, is worth a hundred that misses the mark. Think sniper, not “Rambo spray and pray” style.

DISTANCE: Where am I in relationship to the threat? Distance is key to fight success. For example, an elbow is useless two meters away from an opponent, but devastating in the pocket. Know where you are, choose wisely, and make it precise. This requires you to know your ranges subconsciously, as I cover in my Bareknuckle online course.

And it is Still Going to Depend

Not just on the things I just outlines, but many other variables. Obvious things like: do you train consistently? Does the training you do prepare you to go up against a resisting, unpredictable opponent? Are you in shape or out of shape? And so forth!

Don’t kid yourself that there is some easy answer to surviving interpersonal violence, even the best of us, don’t believe that.


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