Last night as I waited for the bus, I was hassled by a man who was “interviewing” robbery candidates. (In the past month alone, 35 muggings took place at bus stops in my section of Baltimore.) After missing my second bus there, I walked through a drug-infested neighborhood where two drunken construction workers — cruising for trouble in a pickup — threatened me.
This morning, an angry young man who was pacing impatiently outside a rehab clinic scanned my hands and belt line, then attempted to make hard eye contact. When I passed him, he rose and turned to follow, but he stopped when I looked over my shoulder and shifted the bag I was carrying into my left hand.
Each of these fleeting encounters had the potential to escalate into the physical dimension. In fact, most of the fights I’ve been in were preceded by similar situations. However, each encounter described above was readily defused with the appropriate body language. Those opportunities for mayhem did not turn into contests between me and a potential antagonist. Instead, they were struggles between my rational mind and the egomaniac within.
It is unfortunate that the ego of most trained fighters, which is often exemplified by their attachment to their martial art, yearns for expression in such situations. I have trained with enough sensei and sifu to know that many capable martial artists secretly yearn for such an opportunity to prove the utility of their art at the expense of some cretin who desperately deserves to be their proving ground.
However, those who manage to find such opportunities through risky employment — such as bouncing and law-enforcement — soon lose their curiosity. Also, those who are regularly exposed to such situations outside the context of an authority role never cease to dread the possible entry of personal violence into their daily life. In any case, peril soon loses its romance.
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The key to boosting long-term personal security in dangerous places is to avoid planting or nourishing the seeds of bad intentions. Not doing vigilante work in a gang-infested city is No. 1 on my list. No. 2 is not accepting the slurred threats of a drunk as a true indication of intent to do harm. Shutting up a tormentor with a punch combination — while his huge friend lumbers around their truck — may sound like fun, but jail cells and emergency rooms await the winners and losers of such altercations. Also, the level of success that trained fighters are taught to seek in combat could easily plant within the mind of an attacker the seeds of true bad intentions, which might turn him into an enemy who is willing to settle the score with a screwdriver, a gun or the grill of his truck.
As trained martial artists, we must abandon the glorification of “winning” a street fight if we are to achieve real peace of mind. I, for one, have yet to achieve this goal. On a bad night, I might have escalated one of the encounters described above. I have set this goal because — at only 35 years of age — I am beginning to have a hard time handling the adrenaline rush that accompanies a spontaneous confrontation.
The last situation I permitted to escalate into the physical realm resulted in a rush that left me too weak to effectively do my work. That spunky little hormone known as adrenaline had enabled me to prevail over my antagonist, but when I returned home 16 hours later, I was still too weak to speak audibly. That led to my study of the dynamics of personal violence, specifically to identify the point at which threat and hostility crystallize into serious intent. That line still appears blurred, but the characteristics of the dangerous attacker are quite clear.
Photo by Thomas Sanders
An untrained person who challenges you to a stand-up fight or who “faces off” with you for a physical contest is not a serious threat. If, for some reason, you find yourself unable — or unwilling — to decline such mutual combat with an untrained person, all you really need are the three basic skills of the combat athlete: the ability to strike effectively with your lead hand, the ability to utilize lateral movement to avoid a clinch and the ability to splay against a takedown.
The criminal is scenario-dependent. To reliably “score” the number of victims necessary to support his drug habit, he must do one of two things. The first is conduct an ambush based on previous observations of the target’s patterned behavior. The second is approach a fixed target (such as a person waiting for a ride) and conduct an “interview” according to a practiced pattern, the course of which will determine — and possibly set up — a successful attack.
The robbery-motivated attacker is best foiled by closing his window of opportunity through avoidance tactics like walking instead of waiting for a bus; pacing, as if your ride is late, instead of standing; carrying something in your hand; or varying your arrival time and parking place. Combat with this type of attacker is often successful — but almost always discouraged. A friend of mine who is not a trained fighter recently managed to fend off two armed muggers, but how can he know whether they were HIV or hepatitis-C positive?
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The criminal’s approach tactics include panhandling, bumming a cigarette and asking for directions or the time. This is intended to measure the target’s timidity, distract him and keep his hands busy.
To avoid falling into the criminal’s trap, do not stand in the open or against a wall. Putting your back to a light pole or mailbox is better. That protects your back against a secondary attacker and gives you an obstacle with which you can frustrate frontal attacks. When subject to approach tactics, step away, speak with authority and scan your surroundings for accomplices while engaging the primary attacker in minimal conversation. Shift any burdens, such as a briefcase or bag of groceries, to the arm closest to your assailant, preferably to your weak side. Persistent “interviewers” can often be frustrated when you use a curb to shift your position to a higher or lower level. Getting close to traffic — and even walking down the center line of the street — should shake off all but the drunken and the deranged.
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Personal assaults resulting from grudges, arguments, jealousy, envy, hatred and so on tend to be brutal. They are often, but not always, related to alcohol use, and they usually begin with a sucker punch. Real-life assailants are far more effective than most martial arts teachers would have you believe. I’ve sustained worse injuries while dealing with unskilled but experienced fighters than while facing trained fighters. Although every violent incident is unique, it is useful to note some general tendencies of the different types of attackers:
• The tall, untrained fighter feels a need to dominate. That urge can result in an attempt to control the situation through slapping, pushing, grabbing and pinning — a head against a wall, for instance — with his lead hand. He is less likely to “hook” his punches than is a shorter man. He is also more likely to finish a prone opponent with a stomping attack, as tall men are generally uncomfortable on the ground. Overall, experienced tall fighters tend to exhibit more versatility and less bad intent than their shorter counterparts.
• The short, untrained fighter is a well of bad intentions, motivated by an intense urge to injure his larger antagonist — usually with a vicious hook to the head. He is more likely to punch with both hands than is a taller man. Fear of a larger man often ensures a ruthless attempt to finish the encounter by maiming an immobilized opponent with gouges, bites, head butts, jump-stomping and the use of improvised weapons. Expect him to work harder than a bigger man. Ground-fighting with a stocky person who is motivated by hatred is not a lot of fun.
• The group is dependent on cohesion, in much the same way that the criminal is dependent on an advantageous situation. The key to dealing with a group is the ability to affect its unity. There are plenty of competing theories for accomplishing this objective, and debating their merits is beyond the scope of this post. However, keep in mind that the application of such theories will be messier than their study.
• The hitter is a rare version of a type of attacker who has had enough success to formulate a recipe for doing business. He is more dangerous than most highly skilled fighters — and some prizefighters — and often has a background in scholastic contact sports. Only those willing to plant and nurture the seeds of bad intent — by stiffing their bookmaker, for instance — are likely to be ambushed by such a person.
To better understand the mentality of this type, watch videos of David “Tank” Abbott’s early matches in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Mike Tyson’s post-prison bouts and any Paul Varelans UFC fight. These are all examples of undisciplined, undertrained fighters who nevertheless retain the ability to bully many of the world’s best. Conversely, Marco Ruas and Evander Holyfield demonstrate the character and skill required to deal with an experienced brute.
The term “street fighting” is a misnomer. I’ve fought on road surfaces only twice in my life. The most dangerous thing on the road is an 80-year-old woman in a Buick. Criminals respect traffic if nothing else.
That’s why it pays to consider the other types of surfaces on which you could fight. On grass, mulch, gravel and especially sand, you can forget power-hitting. Instead, expect to end up on the ground.
Wood, painted concrete, steel and tile floors should be considered “fast” boxing surfaces. If you and your attacker go down, these surfaces are tolerable but bruising.
Concrete and asphalt offer enough traction for power-hitting. They are also hard enough to crack a skull and abrasive enough to tear flesh from bone. Experienced fighters know that pavement can be deadly.
Remember that going to the ground is not always the rule. That perception persists because martial artists rely on bouncers, cops and practitioners of combat sports as sources. My attackers have included amateur wrestlers and professional criminals. Two out of 12 fights went to the ground — but none stayed there.
Combat-sport events are a necessary distortion of reality. Sports require rules, and every rule takes combat a step away from its raw form. The most influential rule is the fighting surface, which further distorts the contest in favor of styles suited to that environment. Professional boxers sometimes make purse concessions to get an advantageous ring configuration. Remember that the terrain on which a battle is fought is far more than a variable; it literally sets the stage.
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Style-vs.-style arguments are an empty obsession when it comes to surviving real violence. Would you compare an apple to an orange to determine the flavor of an avocado? The most troubling aspect of this obsession is the value that eclectic martial artists place on their perceived ability to defeat traditionalists and athletes. Fumio Demura and Roy Jones Jr. are not among your potential attackers.
Winning a street fight is an adolescent notion at odds with practical self-defense. This ethos of winning is often reflected in the use of hyped terminology like “shatter,” “destroy” and “blast.”
In reality, victory is a perception. As an adult, I’ve never been defeated by an attacker, yet I cannot claim to have “won” a single real fight. A referee never stepped onto a parking lot or loading dock to raise my hand in victory. People who consistently “win” real fights all have one thing in common: They enjoy hurting people.
Survival is good enough for me.