Hard Lessons: Fights

Most people teaching self defense have never been punched in the face. we give a personal, practical, and raw view of fights and how they affects your life.

December 30, 2019


There's a culture of martialism that's grown up in the decades since UFC crashed into the American mainstream. We've seen MMA and Jiu Jitsu come into their own as popular competitive sports, up there with weightlifting or soccer. It's given rise to endless debates between street fighters and martial artists about who's more effective, what happens "in the streets", and who's discipline is more practical, relevant, or beneficial.

If you're new to this, there's a dizzying amount of information. If you've been around the block a time or two, the whole mess starts looking a little different.

As you know if you've been around ISG for any time, we don't tout credentials first; we present information that speaks for itself. Our guiding principle is to avoid talking on subjects that we don't have relevant, first-hand experience with, which means that if we take up a topic we've got something useful for you.

So in this article, we're going to take you through our experience dealing with everything from street-level, drug based crime to competitive fighting.

Bottom line up front: fighting isn't about guarantees promised by instructors or thug-life viciousness, and neither will 'win' reliably.

So what is it about?

Who wins when it comes down to it?

What wins fights

First, we've got to talk about what it means to win.

Once you enter the fight there are two ways of looking at a "win".

  1. Looking from the outside of the fight in, if you wind up fighting it out you failed at all of your avoidance strategies. From this perspective, a fight is a zero sum game in which you now have to lose as little as possible. That means no major injuries, no loss of conscious, and no court dates. In this view, there is no winning. Fights are to be avoided.
  2. Looking from the inside out, you've now got to be as fierce and committed as possible to beat the other guy(s) into submission as fast as possible to avoid being hurt, maimed, or killed. From this view, winning means crippling the opponents ability or will to fight before succumbing yourself.

So how do you "win"?

If you asked 100 experts, you'd get as many answers, and we're no different... but it largely depends on the type of fight. Are we talking some chest thumping at the bar, or a knock down-drag out domestic violence brawl? Is it shooting your way out of a carjacking in South Africa, or fighting off Taliban in Afghanistan?

We asked ourselves this same question among our peer group, professional friends, guys with some experience in brawling, and here's what we came up with... no matter what you want to call it, when all other things are equal, the fighter who wins is the one who is the most:

  • Technical
  • Fit
  • Aggressive
  • Lucky

...Will win, whether we're talking fists, pistols, rifles, or hand grenades.

There is, of course, the sad reality that "all other things" are never equal. Even worse, if you're not a professional fighter "winning" doesn't mean you're taking home some massive jackpot while you convalesce for 6 months.

It means not rotting in a cell, getting shot or stabbed, or killed. It means you lost as little as possible under the circumstances. If you're a police officer or grunt, it means you soaked up as little physical trauma as possible and preventing injury or death for your team.

If you think about it, this all makes fighting a 'zero sum game'.

Even if you're the most fit, technical, and aggressive, 'winning' comes at a cost. It might be sore spots and injuries later in life, or it could be debilitating PTSD.

Furthermore, even the 'high speed', dedicated, and professional practitioner isn't immune to bad luck. The Soldier in this link went to Infantry AIT and worked under a couple of our oldest ISG team guys. He was a truly dedicated professional. He was killed by what amounted to a stray bullet while doing something he was exceptionally good at.

One of the reasons we practice extreme humility when it comes to our material is that 'bad luck' can snatch your life right out from under you. It doesn't pay to get cocky about something you can't control, and those who showboat what they can control (skill at arms) are missing the bigger, worthier part of the picture... that there is a razor line separating your existence as a sentient being and a rotting bag of meat and we can't control it.

So let's level the playing field and talk about how to sharpen ourselves as much as we can and talk about how to control the playing field before it comes to blows.

Before the Fight

Pre-Attack Indicators & Body Language

Learning to recognize some of the asocial attack indicators can go a long way in sparing you the trouble of getting bashed over the head and robbed or carjacked. It's easy to get lax because it's honestly not as big of a threat as it seems if you live a regular middle class life, but as we discuss in Understanding Emergencies, sometimes circumstances make people act out in wildly irrational ways. Sometimes it's just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whatever the case, here are some of the pre-attack indicators we've seen over the years.

  1. Distance—The distance a person allows you to maintain during a contact speaks loudly about the level of comfort you are extending to them and the level of safety you feel with them. Distance also shares a very important relationship with motor reaction. The farther a person is from you, the more time your brain has to observe and react to a threat. Conversely, the closer a person is, the shorter 'reactionary gap' you have to make a move. This is the basis of initiative. When fighting, we always want to try and reframe the fight where we're *acting*, not reacting. We do that through dominant positioning and angles.
  2. Positioning and Weight Shifting—Where a person chooses to stand when verbally engaging you can show either respect or disrespect. Staying too close or being in someone's 'personal space' is typically seen as disrespectful and either an invitation or precursor to violence. Also, notice how a person stands. Most people tend to throw big hits hoping to knock the other guy out. As such, they often load their weight on a rearward leg before launching into their attack. Shifts in weight can indicate that a person is working up the nerve to throw a punch.
  3. Verbal Clues and Challenges —The tone of a person's voice is closely related to their level of frustration. And the words they choose and/or excessive repetition of the same words will give you a hint about their level of anger. Often times, bystanders will be caught in situations. I'll reference a fight below in which three dudes called me an asshole just to get a response. All it took for them to decide the fight was on was me making a face. Stay blank. Don't let them read you, but understand what it means if they are using obvious escalation tactics. Don't pretend it won't boil over just because you wouldn't do it. Don't respond to the challenge, be the challenge.
  4. Hand Movements—Hand movements will show a subject's readiness to take action, kind of like a batter warming up in the batting on-deck circle. Often you see these take place when someone pulls their pants up, or moves their hands into a jacket, hoodie, or pants pocket, or they start talking with their hands while slowly bringing them higher. This can be either defensive or offensive, but the objective is always to put themselves in a better position to either throw a punch or make a grab.
  5. Eye Focus -- Where they are looking and how intently will give you insight into their level of focus. What the eyes focus on is displaying what they are thinking about doing. Glancing away from the target is another major cue that a person is about to strike.
  6. Grooming - Craig Douglas calls movements about the head and face 'grooming' cues. These can be stroking the jaw or hair, pinching or brushing the nose, or wiping the face in some other way. These are often used to 'excuse' bringing the hands to face level for a strike.

A person's movement can also give you clues as to what they're up to. These aren't hard and fast, but they can serve as a useful guide in tandem with our other elements of awareness.

  • Casual Pace—Walking in a steady but slow speed with no set time or urgency on their arrival, typically looking at what is in front of them not caring too much about what is around them. If eye contact is made, there is usually no facial expression because you might be in their line of sight but not in their mind's eye of purpose or view.
  • Strolling Pace—Walking in a slight pattern and direction typically with no defined goal or purpose but with a destination or time in mind. This is an uneven pace, like three to five steps forward casually looking at what is around their immediate area but careless of what is directly in front of them. Their steps are in spurts.
  • Targeting Pace—Walking with a direction and purpose in mind, paying very close attention to what is 10 feet in front of them very clueless as to what is going on around them. Their breathing is at a rhythm that matches their attention, but their eyes are focused on a specific location. This can also be referred to as "tunnel vision." Their speed is much faster than a stroll and their eyes are focused directly on you as they walk, possibly bumping into others as they get closer as if they do not see them. This could be a sign they are planning to attack you or they could really need your attention.

Avoidance and Self-Awarness

So it's easy to preach avoidance. It's another thing entirelyto practice it. We're not angels at ISG. Our tempers and inability to just back down from a fight has earned us everything from free lodging in county to black eyes and busted lips. What we can tell you is this:

The experience of having to call your significant other while she's at work and ask for bail money after spending a weekend in jail is far more embarrassing than just backing off the throttle when someone challenges you.

As we describe in Spheres of Violence, almost all of what we call Social interpersonal violence can be avoided. That means violence between two ruttin' bulls who wanna lock horns. You don't have to lock horns to prove you're a man. The truly dangerous animals don't waste their time on this sort of pageantry.

Does the leopard go out and challenge the bull to a horn-locking competition? Nope. It's a stupid, unnecessary risk with no real payoff.

The leopard is playing a different game than the bull. As such, don't overthink trying to look intimidating if it doesn't come naturally to you. Keep capability like a predatory cat keeps its claws; tucked away until it's go time.

It might seem like common sense, but here's a few things you can do if you're serious about avoiding trouble:

  1. Situational awareness/locational avoidance.
  2. Easy on the hooch. Drinking is fine, but don't get drunk.
  3. Quit flexin', be cool. Being nice is both the easiest, and the right way, to treat people.

Getting Involved: When to Move and When to Walk

Often times our best intentions blow up in our faces. From trying to step in and help a woman getting manhandled (and having her deliver a bottle to the head for the effort) to trying to calm tensions between people at a bar (got socked in the jaw for the trouble), getting involved is for Hollywood. That's because people who are escalating to violence aren't thinking straight. Whether it's because they're drunk or enraged, you can't expect them to reason.

Having dealt with everything from bloody marital disputes to severe psychological illness, we want to give you one rock solid takeaway:

You can't understand what's going on in the mind of someone who's mentally ill.

It doesn't matter if it's temporary (jealous, drunken spouse beating his wife) or a schizophrenic woman with borderline personality disorder holding a kitchen knife. You can't think the way they do, and there's no reason to believe you'll be able to reason with them.

In these situations, you're honestly best sitting them out. Best case is you get thrown on the cold concrete to sit in handcuffs and think for a spell or get your hand slashed.

We live in a neurotic society. To some degree, you've almost got to have a mental disorder to accept reality as normal. Think for a second about how arbitrary it is to get mad at someone in traffic. It really shouldn't matter. We're probably less angry about that person than we are at the overall conditions that made the traffic, but we can't punch society in the face and give our anger a way to vent.

So when should we walk?


Any time we're not forced to fight.

Be judgmental, avoid problems, and don't end up bloody if you don't absolutely have to. And don't ever get involved in a fight between couples. Been there a few times and it never works well. Stepping across the spheres of violence, most police officers will say the same; one of the diciest call you can get is domestic assault.

Forced to Fight

"If you have to be physical, be first, be ferocious, and take them off the planet."
Geoff Thompson

Sometimes you end up in a position where there's no choice but to throw down.
The military has an adage they use for assaults: Speed, simplicity, violence of action.

Not many of the military's sayings translate as cleanly to the civilian world, but in violence, these things are universal. Fancy stuff usually doesn't work. Striking isn't nearly as effective as you think. Pain compliance only works on people who aren't committed. Complicated moves don't work well... especially if it's 2 (or more) on 1. For example, an arm-bar works excellent in martial competition. If you use it on a guy who digs out a blade or a gun, where are you then? How about if his buddy shows up and decides to start smashing your face with a bar glass or beer bottle?

Don't over think this and don't use it as an excuse to avoid learning. Just be aware that limits apply to what translates from martial competition to street level violence.

Things get confusing fast, and as Craig Douglas says "Stay conscious, stay mobile". The fight will change as soon as it goes to the ground. So let's talk about some of the things that work and don't.


There are various instructors who teach various techniques for how to defend yourself against an attack. The best way to do it is to get some boxing gloves, and have a friend try and sock ya for a while. Keeping your hands high using a technique like Geoff Thompson's "fence" concept makes reaction (and offense) must more efficient. Despite the low quality of that video, please give it a watch. Thompson's take on violence is very real and mirrors our own.

Just like criminal attacks have pre-assault indicators, we should have pre-assault tactics. Stepping offline, having a refined "fence", and loopholes to give the aggressors an option for a dignified out are all part of the discipline. Just like tactics, we want to be able to hit an adversary from an oblique angle, rather than straight on. Work a discreet step into your conversational tactics.

Wake up call.

Above we stated that striking doesn't work all that well. If you've ever been in a slug-fest or even watched one unfold, you've probably seen what we're talking about. Barring a solid, surprising punch to the mid jaw, you're probably not going to knock someone out (defensive positioning above). The second their jaw muscles clench, their body is in fight mode, and they're going to absorb a surprising amount of damage. Let's look at some of the strikes that are useful:

  • Headbutts - my affinity for the headbutt came from watching a fight in the 8th grade. I saw one guy flatten a bully twice his size by head butting him straight on. The kid dropped like a sack of rocks. After, I found myself in a couple fights where a good headbutt resulted in the other person being unable to fight.

    Well timed, a good headbutt will ruin a persons day. Obviously, it carries the risk of you getting hurt as well, and it typically works better if used against someone taller than you. Keep the headbutt in your back pocket. Most of the time, it's a bit overkill. However, if a junkie is biting you while trying to stick you with a dirty needle full of air, it doest the trick.
  • Jabs and Straight Kicks - you might not think it, and in just about every fight I've been in guys throw *big* haymakers, but the jab and straight kick of opportunity does a lot to create and maintain distance. Often times, guys will lose their shit after being punched and throw some wild swings or try for a takedown, so use that distance to your advantage and watch how he moves. Big punches are easy to deflect by keep your hands up and staying light on your feet. When someone does close in...
  • Knees and elbows - Don't expect immediate results, but the sapping effects that a good knee to the floating rib or elbow to the neck or head has can't be overstated. Pushing a knee into that floating rib can really halt an advance. It's also effective and can open windows for clinches, throws, or escapes. In both of those fights, I was able to use the window the knee created for a takedown or follow up attack.
  • The Non-telegraphic punch - it's stunning how many times you see the 'pre-fight indicators' mentioned above right before someone attempts a strike. Being able to throw a decent cross without advertising it to the world can pay dividends in social violence and it's gotten me out of a bind on a few occasions... mostly with drunks. Practice a solid, relaxed punch that doesn't require you looking all guilty before you throw it. Remember: strikes don't have to be haymakers. They're easy to see coming and rarely have the desired effect. Distance is a big part of the non-telegraphic punch, so get familiar with how long your arms are, and where you're "space bubble" really begins.

We'll cover some very basic, simple, and effective techniques regarding clinching. Keep in mind, as with most things, you'll need some training and experience to make this information relevant. A good mixed-martial arts gym should be covering most of the topics early in your training, so get out and build these in to your repertoire.

Wrist tie and undertook. The baseball bat grip to control that blade. More on this in our article "Bring a knife to a gunfight".
A budding choke - this is a sloppy execution. That elbow should sit in front of the adams apple. Turn the palm away from the guy your choking and ball your hand. This rotates the radius (small bone of the forearm) into their carotid artery. Be careful with blood chokes. When they go slack, continuing to hold could earn you a voluntary manslaughter or murder charge.
  • Ties: Wrist, arm, and bicep ties form the basis of limb control during a fight. Being able to control a limb is more than just jockeying for position in competition... it's tremendously important in the weapons based environment - specifically when edged weapons are present. Most of the ties have roots in Greco-Roman wrestling, which can be a tremendously useful discipline for street fighting.
  • Chokes: The rear naked choke is one of the principle chokes you see used in fights. If you can take an opponents back, it's one of the most effective and quickest ways to forcing an opponent into unconsciousness. Done correctly, the elbow will rest over the adams apple. Once you've set the arms in place, turning the palm of the choking arm towards your towards the outside of the body (which is the opposite shoulder) activates radius - the small bone of the forearm - and sharpens the occlusion of the carotid artery. Be careful using this choke. It can easily go from "rolled back eyes and foamy mouth" to "morgue".
Takedowns and Throws

Throw and take downs are honestly some of the most useful and under-appreciated aspects of technical fighting. Not only are they useful for escaping from chokes or grabs, done right, they allow you to maintain mobility while tossing the other guy into a heap of uncoordinated meat. That can certainly buy you time and options.

Judo is the crown jewel of under appreciated traditional martial arts, and if you can get into it, the throws and take downs you'll learn will certainly make you a more formidable fighter, for competition or for social violence.

Traditional martial arts (TMA) aren't only for when you're fighting men in loose fitting pajamas (which, stay away from married women and you should be OK), and a good deal of contemporary MMA draws from Judo, Aikido, and of course, Jiu Jitsu. Don't turn your nose up at learning from TMA.

Martial Arts is the "technical" aspect of fighting, but they also improve your fitness. As such, they're a really worthwhile pursuit that can absolutely be applicable "in the street". However, and this is a big caveat, don't forget the following:

  1. Martial arts are of greatest use in "social interpersonal" violence; recall from Spheres of Violence that this is the one type of violence that we control to a large degree. Learn, get fit, understand the technical aspects, but keep in mind beyond a certain point, you're over-training for situations you can control through awareness and avoidance. Living and breathing one specific discipline is fine if it's your thing, but there's time going in that just won't pay off.
  2. Skill in martial arts is typically set to the backdrop of an 'even playing field'. You start at the same time, fighting against the same (or similar) discipline, and there's usually only hurt or money on the line. While those things can be motivators, for the experienced martial artist, that mindset can work against you. Against someone - or a group - who is vicious, you'll need to tap your inner reserve of savage. On that note...
A shoulder throw in ECQC.
Use the Environment

Finally, if you're scrapping for keeps (see: against people who will kill you), don't be afraid to smash heads into walls or hit people with heavy stuff. If you can bring someone off their balance (probably because they threw a huge haymaker or tried to kick or something silly like that), don't be afraid to grab them by the skull and bash their head into a brick wall. Stupid should hurt. It's amazing how disorienting blows like this to the head can be. Again, be cautious. This is something that shouldn't be done unless your life is seriously at risk.

Likewise, loose brick or concrete can really turn the tides in a fight. During one altercation three dudes were clubbing another guy mercilessly. One of our guys grabbed a broken chunk of concrete and threw it at one of the attackers which did a hard reset on their OODA loop.

The amount of "holy shit" that came off their faces translated into "this guy is willing to turn the noise up loud and I'm not sure this is fun anymore." Don't underestimate the role of commitment to violence in serious fights. Most people don't have a lot of experience and are just there for the easy stuff. If it gets real, viciousness can break spirit quickly.

The Five-Oh and Conclusion

While we've talked a bit about this in "The Non-Permissive Environment", the law isn't going to hear your story and see you as the good guy. They're going to look skeptically at everything you say, and who contacts the police first does so with 90% of the truth. That means you've got a couple choices:

Get out of there before they show up (in which case it's their word against yours), or call first - which is petty and stupid. The days of a good-ole, honest dustup between folks are gone. Replaced are legions of people who chronically let their mouths write checks their ass can't cash because they know how to play the victim the way men in times past knew how to fight for what's right. So, as a part of your acknowledging that fights can happen, acknowledge that you need to control what you can control - learn some technical aspects and work on your fitness. Avoid stupid people, places and things, and be aware enough to spot them before they blindside you. Expect consequences, and above all, don't think that you can force violence to conform to your expectations.

You can't, and it won't.

Be safe out there and we hope that this entry has given you some useful and actionable information on dealing with fighting.

ISG Team

Post Script: A massive thank you to Craig Douglas, who made a lot of this knowledge mainstream. We've mentioned him often, and will continue to do so, but we'd like to give another "thank you" and show some respect to his efforts.

Note: Guys and gals, we hate talking about this stuff. It reminds us of a lot of stupid years doing a lot of stupid stuff. Take this info for what it is and with a grain of salt. Our experiences aren't going to fit every problem - but the basic template of spheres of violence will. Avoidance, awareness, be cool, and don't end up in jail. It's nearly ruined some of our lives on a few occasions.

Be smart and use violence as a tool of last resort. Also, if we gave an example throughout the text, that's not us making stuff up. It's stuff that's happened. While these experiences have helped frame our perspective, they've also caused us problems.

Thus is the way of violence.

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