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Defanging The Snake

Updated: Jan 15

Dr. Leonard C. Holifield is the president and founder of the International Academy of Executive Protection Agents, the Phalanx Training Academy and the Sikaron Karate Federation. In his 50-plus years of training, he's earned a 10th-degree black belt in karate, a sixth degree in hapkido and a third degree in judo. From 1987 to 1997, he served as the chief combatives instructor for the U.S. Army. For more information, visit


What would you do if someone suddenly threw a venomous snake at you — or any snake, for that matter? Instinctively, you'd jump back, right? This happens because most human beings have a deep-seated fear of being bitten and killed by snakes.

Now, take that same serpent and remove its fangs. If someone threw a fangless snake at you, would you jump? Maybe you would because of the fear of snakes we all share, but your fear of being bitten and envenomated would be greatly reduced. This is so because the snake is now essentially harmless.

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We know that a snakebite can be lethal — or, at the very least, painful — and that the fear of dying from a bite automatically puts us in a state of fear, forces us to go on the defensive, and raises our blood pressure and adrenaline levels. However, a snake that cannot inject its venom is no longer a threat because its primary weapons are its fangs.

As I always tell my clients, you must train to fight and fight to win.

Defanging The Snake: Parallels

In some ways, humans in combat are snakelike. Whereas the snake has two fangs, we have five: two arms, two legs and a head. Our arms are capable of landing strikes, effecting grabs, delivering elbow smashes and sinking in chokes. Our legs can deliver kicks, knee strikes, stomps and sweeps. The head, of course, can incapacitate via a head butt, and the teeth can inflict pain via bites.

Also like the snake, humans can be defanged. This is accomplished through the use of "limb destructions," techniques that break a wrist, snap a finger, damage an elbow or dislocate a shoulder. If your opponent sustains a broken wrist in battle, he won't be able to strike you. The pain would be too great, and fear of further damage likely would cause him to avoid using the limb at all.

Similarly, a leg can be taken out of commission by dislocating the patella (kneecap), breaking the limb or hyperextending the knee to cause ligament and tendon damage. Other methods include damaging the ankle, fracturing the small bones of the instep, and cutting the tendons behind the knee or at the heel — all of which would make a leg attack virtually impossible.

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Neutralising the attack potential of the head is complicated by the fact that it's encased by the cranium, and striking that bone can cause injury to you. It's more efficient to target the side of the head or the temples, which are its weakest points.

There are other options. You can direct your defanging strike between the attacker's eyes. Or you can break the jaw, which incorporates a hinge joint that, once damaged, makes biting impossible and often causes a knockout at the same time.

Each weapon — or fang — that you take away from your opponent decreases his ability to fight effectively, thus increasing your chance of survival. That's why the practice of defanging is an art in and of itself. It's quick and effective no matter the size or skill level of the adversary.

We see the inadvertent effects of limb destructions in sports all the time. Witness the number of pro football players who have fallen on the field after a knee injury. Think of the pro boxers who have gotten knocked out from a well-placed strike to the jaw or side of the head. Although they're used to this type of punishment, they still go down. The effect a limb destruction will have on an untrained person will be even more severe.

Paul Vunak (left) faces off against his opponent.

The man kicks, and Vunak uses a defanging technique that entails blocking with his leg.

The impact of shin on knee takes the leg out of commission...

which gives Vunak an opening to finish.

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As noted, the goal of attacking the limbs or other vital points on an assailant's body is to render his striking tools useless. When he attacks, trap his "fang" and disable it by breaking the elbow, snapping the finger, dislocating the shoulder, etc. Your aim is to methodically break him down to incapacitate, to immobilize or, if the situation warrants, to kill. There are three ways to accomplish this:• Make your attacker lose his concentration. If he stops thinking about striking you, he'll stop trying to strike you.

Interfere with his neuromuscular control of his body. If he has a bruised nerve or muscle in his forearm, he cannot effectively make a fist. That means he cannot strike you.• Destroy the integrity of his body. If his arm is broken, the extreme pain that accompanies the injury will prevent him from trying to hit you — whether he can form a fist or not.

Although it's not normally thought of when limb destruction is discussed, the clavicle, or collarbone, makes a very effective target. If one clavicle is broken, it will prevent both arms from functioning properly. That's because the pain that results from a fracture is so intense that trying to use even the opposite arm is excruciating. I know this from personal experience: In high school, I broke my right clavicle while playing football. I immediately discovered that both arms had become essentially useless. That's when I concluded that a well-placed hammerfist to an attacker's clavicle can destroy the integrity of his upper body.

Remember that the body is only as strong as its weakest link. In general, joints are weak because of the muscles, tendons and ligaments that are exposed. The knee, for example, is considered one of the strongest joints in the body, but it's known also to be one of the most vulnerable. Because it easily can be broken or dislocated by a strike from the inside, outside or front, it can be prevented from doing its job, which is to support the body's weight. That eliminates the person's mobility and may cause immediate incapacitation.


To be an effective destroyer of limbs, you must possess a mindset that allows you to break through intimidation and overcome the fear of injury, the fear of being defeated and the psychological effects that accompany breaking an attacker's arm, crushing an attacker's trachea or putting your finger into an attacker's eye.

Before you can do that, you must rid yourself of any sympathy or pity you may have for your opponent. Don't look at him as a human being; instead, see him as a target that must be destroyed.

Mike Tyson displayed this exact mindset in his career. At first, when he would approach the ring, fear flooded his mind — fear of his opponent, fear of losing, fear of disappointing his friends and fans. He said later that this was his way of giving respect to his opponent. Then he started seeing his adversary as a target invading his space, his ring, his world.

After that, Tyson would never lose eye contact with his opponent. His confidence was superior to his opponent's, and the result was knockout after knockout. Most of his bouts were won before he ever set foot in the ring. His opponents were scared to death by his reputation, fight record, power and demeanor.

The lesson for martial artists is that in a real fight, you can't stop to think about techniques. When you need to defang the snake, you must have an instant response that you can unleash even though you've turned off your conscious mind and switched on your animal instincts, which are part of what's often called the "reptilian brain."

When animals fight, they fight! They continue until one combatant is killed or backs off. There are no preplanned techniques or attacks. From their example, you learn the necessity of ridding yourself of fear, hesitation and the perceived need to choose a technique.

No matter what type of opponent you face, you must avoid playing that person's game. For example, if your foe is a grappler, don't go to the ground — unless, of course, you are also a grappler and know that your skills are superior to his. Always fight on your own terms using your own techniques. If he does take you to the ground, you have several options for defanging, including gouging his eyes and biting his neck. Even breaking his fingers is good because a grappler with broken digits is severely limited when it comes to effectiveness.

Val Riazanov (left) confronts the attacker.

As soon as the man initiates his punch...

the systema master sends a kick into his thigh.

The resulting pain means the leg no longer can support the man's bodyweight or provide mobility.


Before the fight begins, your mind should function like a computer, quickly assessing vital targets, weak points and possible exit routes. If you find yourself facing a large, muscular opponent, think about which soft targets are available: eyes, throat, ears and so on. While not technically soft, the shins and knees are almost always unprotected and can result in an immediate defanging — as opposed to having your strikes be absorbed by muscle tissue and body mass.

While you're facing your opponent, never focus all your attention on a specific part of his body, even his eyes. The key is to look at him and see everything. You must see the whole forest and not just the trees. When you focus on a single point, you miss all the others. For example, while you fixate on his eyes, he might kick you in the shin. You must see all his weapons from head to toe and be ready to answer any weapon that's thrown at you — preferably with a defanging technique.

Once the attack begins, you should be two steps ahead of him — like you're playing chess rather than checkers. If you have to launch a pre-emptive strike, plan to follow up with more strikes to ensure a limb destruction or incapacitation, and until that happens, keep him off-balance (mentally and physically) and on the defensive.

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Each strike — whether you happen to be defanging the snake or not at the time — should yield a high return. By this, I mean that each technique should do maximum damage. Recall the sage advice to punch "through" the target and not merely "to" it. Consider the following:

In the dojo, martial artists often practice one-step self-defense techniques while controlling their strikes and kicks so they don't hurt their partners. The problem with this type of training is that in a real fight, you'll tend to apply the amount of force that you've trained yourself to apply. In a real street fight, this can result in you executing a technique that could have defanged the snake but that doesn't because it lacked the requisite power. Full-contact fighters, MMA competitors and pro boxers tend to fare better in street fights because they don't fall victim to this training method.

The solution is to train as you will fight. If you want to be ready for a street fight, train for a street fight. Include full-force strikes and kicks — how to throw them and how to receive them. Note that many traditional martial artists may be skilled technicians, but when it comes to taking a punch, they're quick to get knocked out. You must develop your ability to take a punch, kick, elbow strike, knee and so on.

A person doesn't jump into a pool and expect not to get wet. Likewise, a boxer doesn't step into the ring and expect not to get hit. If, by chance, he doesn't get hit — maybe it's a good day — fine. But nine times out of 10, he will get hit, and he knows it. His key to being able to continue is being able to take a punch. Your key to being able to continue long enough to defang the snake lies in being able to take that punch, kick, elbow or knee that momentarily stands in your way.

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