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How to Defend Yourself: Kelly McCann on Training to Avoid Injuries From Street-Fight Knockou

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

Many of the worst injuries from street violence don’t result from the punch that knocks someone out; they result from the head hitting the ground when the person falls. A 6-foot-tall man’s head drops six feet to the asphalt, perhaps smacking a car, a curb or a trash can along the way. Ugh. Here are a few street-fighting tips that will prevent that from happening to you:

Training Tip #1: Incorporate Contact Into Your Practice of Self-Defense Moves

In the past, I’ve written about the importance of incorporating contact as a part of your overall training in self-defense moves. It reduces anxiety over being punched at and hit, it provides a controlled opportunity to test your “chin,” and it develops your mental toughness to fight through anxiety, fear and pain.

Instructors who don’t include honest, real-time, reciprocal contact in self-defense training improperly lead their students to believe they can’t or won’t be hit catastrophically, that they won’t be hit multiple times as they execute self-defense moves or that every situation can be handled pre-emptively before getting hit. Most bona-fide medical authorities agree knockouts are caused in one of two ways:

When the head is struck, it accelerates in a way that results in rotational movement of the brain inside the skull, or when the head hits something solid, it stops instantly, again resulting in rotational movement of the brain inside the skull.

Training Tip #2: Guard Your Head

It’s essential to protect your head, face and chin in a fight. Although you can take some serious punches straight to your forehead because of the resistance provided by the musculature of the neck, you’re far less able to resist rotational force applied to your chin from either side (hook punch), obliquely (cross) or from underneath (uppercut) because your chin provides more leverage to those strikes.

Here’s a graphic visual image for emphasis: Imagine a Nerf ball with a pencil stuck in it. When you hit the ball, it moves away but doesn’t necessarily spin. When you hit the pencil, the ball spins. When you hit the pencil faster and harder, the ball moves away and spins, violently accelerating from rest to maximum spin. Make sense?

Training Tip #3: Keep Your Hands Up

Any striking coach knows that one of the most important first lessons is to keep your hands up and always protect your chin. Why? Well, partly because of what I just said but also because practitioners of the striking arts — in particular, boxing and muay Thai — actually hit each other. A lot. Consequently, they have to protect themselves from the very beginning of their training.

In contrast, a lot of self-defense moves initiate from a grabbing attack or from being punched at, not necessarily hit. Sure, people get grabbed on the street (“yoking” someone up), so there’s a legitimate need to know how to break grabs, but grabbing usually precedes punching by milliseconds. Besides, nobody gets knocked out solely by being grabbed.

Ever hear someone say about a fighter, “He’s got a puncher’s chance”? That means the fighter swings hard, wild and often, and he might catch his opponent on the chin, jaw or temple and knock him out. It happens all the time — one guy bends at the waist, drops his head and looks at the ground, then “swims” in at his opponent, swinging for the fences. The other guy stands tall, sways and moves straight back to get away but lifts his chin in the process and — bang! — he catches one on the jaw and drops like a stone. Oops.

You get the opposite outcome when someone swims forward but the other guy stays cool and covers, protecting his chin, then angles in and unloads an uppercut or cross to his chin. Boom! The swimmer face-plants, unconscious.

Training Tip #4: Keep Your Cool

Don’t succumb to your emotions when you get jumped or hit. Anger and rage are useful to fuel ferocity, to cement your resolve, but don’t lose your cool. That’s when you’re likely to forget you have a chin and need to protect it.

Can you “condition” your chin? I don’t know, and I don’t know that anyone else knows, either. There’s data to suggest strengthening your neck muscles helps somewhat — although no authoritative source is able to quantify how much or how it would affect outcomes when executing self-defense moves.

Training Tip #5: Use Your Best Judgment

Beware of questionable advice like “Dude, you need to take repeated shots to the head to get used to it.” Even more familiar and accepted advice like “Learn to roll with the punch” (moving away from a blow while snapping your head away to bleed off energy) is easier said than done, given how fast punches are thrown and that you probably won’t see them all.

On the street, without the benefit of headgear and gloves that effectively double the surface area of your hands when you block, you’re better off being evasive and avoiding getting hit, or covering up and putting as much mass as possible between fist and target.

Work on developing an effective, dynamic guard with similarly motivated partners. Video your practice of self-defense moves so you can identify your shortfalls. It’s a great way to avoid waking up on your back, looking up at a streetlight and wondering how the hell you got there.

About the Author: Kelly McCann has studied and taught combatives for 25 years. He provides training to U.S. government, law-enforcement and military personnel. He is the author of the best-selling book

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