Applying Combat Sport Methods – A Real World Look

One of the best benefits of the information age is that we no longer have to settle for “old wives’ tales” or “war stories” as the only proof of the validity of a given martial art or self-defense method/tactic. Up until even 10 years ago, it was not easy to counter unverifiable anecdotes with documented facts. I remember around 1999 getting into an online debate with a minor martial artist about whether grappling joint locks actually broke bones. I ran rings around his arguments and he looked really bad (which I think contributed to his leaving of the martial art world and his move to finding other ways of making a fast buck), but it took awhile because the internet was not as omnipresent or as vast as it is today. If that argument took place today it would be about five minutes of Google search to have tons of documented evidence.

So we get to see things easily that we had to take on faith for decades. For example, watch the following video clip and think about what is there and, more importantly, is NOT there.

What do we see?

First, it is certainly a “streetfight”. It is obviously not two guys in a schoolyard pushing match. The one person is extremely aggressive and clearly wants to inflict pain and/or damage to the other person. Even as the other person tries to de-escalate and escape from the situation, the larger man continues to pursue in an attempt to hurt the other.

Second, there is an imbalance in the physical comparison. The aggressor is much larger than the person trying to move away. This is the classic mean and bigger bully picking on the small guy – right out of the old Charles Atlas ads.

Third, they are not in a gym on nice padded mats. Nor are they in an MMA cage or ring. The setting is similar to almost any urban area on the planet.

Fourth, there is no referee present. There is no third party to stop the use of foul tactics, nor is there anyone there to enforce a rule set or to keep outside influences to come into play.

Fifth, the defender uses a pure combat sport methodolgy to defend himself. It is incredibly clear that the he is a boxer, and uses the exact same tactics in the street that he would use in the ring.

So what do we NOT see?

One, we do not see multiple attackers. This is man versus man. This, according to many self-defense people, never happens. And yet it does. Why is this significant? Well, because if there are times when a fight/assault is one against one, then ignoring methods/tactics/techniques that are optimized for that in the hope that other, lesser methods work better against multiple opponents ( a very dubious and unproven hope, at best), only to never encounter an assault from multiple opponents is not a particularly useful idea. I have been conducting a research project over the past year or so, using huge databases with literally thousands of incidents, to try to quantify exactly the likelihood of that. While I am still working on it, the preliminary results are showing that, at best, the percentage of multiple attackers is 40%. So why should we ignore proven methods that work best in 60% or incidents, and still work, with only slight modifications in the other percent? It makes no sense. We should want best case answers as much as possible across the board.

Second, we don’t see weapons involved. Again, something that many experts claim will always be involved. And again using the same databases for my research project is showing somewhere in the area or the high 30s as a percentage of incidents where weapons are used. And many times those weapons are more opportunistic than purpose carried. Items such as tire irons/crow bars, steak knives, baseball bats, etc. This is absolutely not an argument to ignore the possibility. In point of fact, I think it is critical that we specifically train for that eventuality in part of our defensive preparations. However, that again does not mean we ignore high percentage answers for the vast majority of real world situations.

Third, we see no injury to the defender’s hands. He clearly hits the aggressor with a closed fist, and hits the bad guy on the head, including hard bony parts of the head. And yet, it causes him no problems at all, contrary to what many Self-defense instructors say (“never hit with the closed fist to the head”). Is the potential for injury there? Of course, just as it is if the defender had hit the bad guy with a chin jab and takes the risk of a devastating wrist or finger injury.

To sum up, this is not a call to ignore the dangers of multiple opponents or weapons. Those things must be trained for. In my own training, as well as when I teach, I always make it a point to include those principles. But, we need to be realistic about the odds, and stop making dogmatic pronouncements that a street assault will always go a certain way. The world is a big place, with lots of different people doing different things, all in a very chaotic manner. Let us deal with the variables and the chaos, and not try to impose our own wants and beliefs on the chaos.

2 thoughts on “Applying Combat Sport Methods – A Real World Look”

  1. While I do very much appreciate and agree with your overall argument and its conclusions, as I understand them, there are a couple of counter points that come to mind after reading your post.

    One, this might be an assumption on my part, and I don’t know what your data sources are or what they do or do not show, but might it not be the case that much of the one-on-one unarmed fighting is ego based and avoidable, or more avoidable than group-on-one and weapon use fighting?

    This might go back to the cultural models of a fair fight and the “need” not to walk away from it. Even in the example above the dodging and backward movement of the smaller man, might be his tactics and not an attempt to de-escalate, though, of course, those aren’t mutually exclusive. We don’t see the pre-fight build up, so we don’t really know. How common is that sort of issue in your data?

    Two, as to the hand injury, you argue that it is “incredibly clear” that the smaller man is a boxer. Might we then not suppose that some of his boxing training has helped him hit with a closed fist and avoid injury? Now maybe this is the point you are trying to make, that that sort of training should be part of self-defense training. generally. But I do prefer the point I have heard you make in other places to the effect that we need to concentrate on high-percentage methods. Here it seems the risk of injury in closed first striking might be where the high percentage is and thus what might be avoided, even though such strikes can, as demonstrated in the video, be used to good effect and without injuring the striker. Does your data have anything to say on this?

    Thank you for your thoughtful post and you thoughtful comments in other places on related subjects (like here: , and here:

    1. It is hard to know when a fight is ego-based in the data sources. Most police reports don’t spend a lot of time on the things that led up ton assault. More often than not the narrative is a straight forward “A did this, B did that”.

      And I would argue that making that distinction is somewhat irrelevant. What you and I would perceive as non-belligerent may be worlds away from what another violent criminal actor may perceive as such. William April has entire lectures based on the idea that our schemata of how the world works does not always align with the schemata of a thug who was in reform school at 12, juvenile jail at 14, and prison at 18. If you get the chance, watch the video of where the police office from Georgia, Dinkhaler, is murdered during a traffic stop. The killer had never been in trouble with the law, and was only being stopped for a minor traffic incident. However, he believed himself to be disrespected by the officer when the LEO asked him to take his hands out of his pockets. That set him off, and he proceeded to execute the officer. It is all on video. So we need to take into account all types of violent interactions regardless of their start.

      And I would very much argue with your implication that striking with a closed fist is harder, or runs a higher risk of injury. The real world data does not support that at all. There is as much if not more risk in striking with any kind of open fist, that leads to far more damage and incapacitation. In fact, a Tier 1 SpecOps unit, after undertaking an extensive study, dismissed the civilian who was teaching their combatives program (who focused his teaching on open handed strikes) and brought in someone teaching closed fist strikes. I am hoping that I can get a copy of the study. I have some contacts working on it. But is supports what I have seen for the past 35 years. It is no harder or takes longer to teach someone to hit with a closed fist than it does to teach someone to use an open hand strike with any force.

      Actually, many boxers don’t hit properly with closed fists in a bare knuckle environment because they spend all their time with hands wrapped and in gloves that support the fist. The fact that the guy in the vid hit well with the closed fist just shows one example that it is not inevitable that the hand disintegrates when it makes contact with the bones of the head.

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