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PART 1: The Last Resort of Proactive Self-Defense

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

By Lito Angeles

Until now, this column has focused on the prerequisite elements and first two realms of my Core-4 Self-Defense Battle Plan, namely threat recognition and situational control. Now I will delve into the third realm, which is physical engagement.

First, I want to emphasize that what I covered in those previous columns represents the foundation of practical self-defense. Without a solid grounding in those elements, the information I will convey moving forward will be a moot point. To establish context, a physical self-defense engagement is the polar opposite of a combat-sport match in that the former is characterized by uncertainty, deception, surprise and the fact that it’s asymmetrical, while the latter is a prearranged and consensual mutual-combat contest that’s characterized by symmetrical, give and take action.

In my column in the April/May 2022 issue, I left off with a mention of situational control through verbal de-escalation. When those tactics don’t peacefully resolve the conflict or aren’t viable in a specific situation, it’s time to transition to physical engagement. When you enter this realm, it’s your last resort. There’s simply no other practical option available.

The reality is that if you have to respond to an ego-based or criminal-intent-based situation with physical violence, it should happen because you’re facing an imminent threat, meaning you couldn’t avoid or de-escalate it and your adversary is on the verge of attacking you. As such, you should always look at this as a potential life-or-death situation — for all people involved — because it is.

With that said, there are four ways you can be attacked. First is a volatile confrontation, which is an ego-based conflict generally caused by one person offending another intentionally or unintentionally. It results in one of them attacking the other at random if the situation isn’t de-escalated.

Second is a deceptive-approach attack. This is a criminal-intent-based situation such as a mugging or the “knockout game,” in which a criminal innocuously approaches an unsuspecting victim and once in range, attacks him or her.

Third is a targeted-approach attack. The term refers to an ego-based or criminal-intent-based attack in which the bad guy pre-meditatively walks toward the victim, who sees him coming but may or may not be cognizant of the impending attack. The bad guy has a focused sense of purpose to immediately attack — and does so from close range. As the attacker closes the distance, he might say something, but often, he’ll stay silent.

Fourth is a blindside attack, an unprovoked assault (premeditated or random) in which the victim is caught off-guard — ambushed from behind or randomly sucker-punched from the front. There is no possible responsive or reactive defense because the victim is unaware of and oblivious to the bad guy. As such, the victim is at the mercy of the attacker who, depending on his intent and actions, can injure or kill the person. The only defense for the fourth type of attack is to be proactively aware of your surroundings and the people around you from the get-go so you’re cognizant of anyone’s approach. From there, the attack changes into one of the other three types, which you can recognize and proactively respond to as needed.

When it comes to physical defense, the most effective and efficient way for a smaller, weaker, slower, less-skilled person to prevail against a bigger, stronger, faster, more-skilled adversary is to use deception and surprise to preemptively strike when all other options have failed or are not viable. It is therefore the optimal way for everyone, regardless of physical attributes and abilities, to efficiently neutralize a bad guy. With this in mind, it’s crucial to view initial contact with any suspicious stranger, in any one of the three types of attack, as the start of an assault. This will give you the proper mindset to employ all the proactive elements of the battle plan. That way, you can stay one step ahead of your adversary.

Conversely, if you wait to be attacked before you defend yourself, you’re most likely done for. The assailant will overwhelm you — and take you out instantly, if that’s his intention. Having said that, I will explain the proactive tactics for physical self-defense through the use of a scenario. For simplicity, I’ve chosen an ego-based volatile confrontation that will enable me to delineate the tactics I teach because it’s the least complicated way to convey them clearly. I will also include the other tactical elements that come into play before you get physical. You’ll learn about everything from the start of the engagement to the finish.

All the tactics I’m about to cover are applicable to the deceptive-approach attack and the targeted-approach attack, with relative adaptations based on the specific interpersonal dynamics involved. I will purposely repeat certain things to drive home important points. There will be many tactical, technical and conceptual elements that I will cover in a general manner; I will get into the specifics in future columns. Imagine that you’re coming out of a restaurant and a stranger bumps into you in the parking lot. He immediately calls you out, then proceeds to get hostile. He threatens bodily harm. At this point, you should employ your innocuous fence stance and attempt to de-escalate by apologizing — and not AACTing, which stands for antagonizing, arguing, challenging or threatening. You can say it was an accident that happened because you were distracted or something along those lines, even if he intentionally did it.

As you convey this message, create space between you and him — 3 feet or more — by subtly stepping back and moving to the right or left of center. During this conversation period, there will be telltale body language and proxemic signs that he will give before launching a surprise attack. They include giving you a death stare, stepping back into a stance, splaying his arms, sticking out his chin, expanding his chest, balling a hand into a fist, looking left or right, looking down and/ or over his shoulder, touching your torso and shoving you.

While these cues can indicate that he’s about to attack, there’s one big problem with all of them: If he is within arm’s reach — 1 to 2 feet away — when he displays these signs, recognition of them is almost always useless. I say that because at close range, any of them immediately can be followed by an attack that’s impossible to defend against. Action is faster than reaction at close distance, and he’ll hit you before you can do anything defensive, even if he’s telegraphic with his attack.

If he hits you on the intended target with a modicum of accuracy and power, guess what? You can be instantly overwhelmed and incapacitated and possibly knocked out or rendered in a semiconscious stupor, which means he can continue his attack with impunity. So, to reiterate, the most useful sign to watch for so you can thwart his impending attack and go pre-emptive first is the closing of distance. This is something you can manipulate and suss out by subtly stepping back, optimally at an angle and not straight to the rear.

You may need to do this once, twice or more depending on whom you’re dealing with and the circumstances you’re in. Keep in mind that the more times you tactically retreat, the greater the chance that he’ll beat you to the punch. So it behooves you to really understand and ingrain the pre-physical dynamics of the three types of attack and have your proactive strategy and tactics in place before you get into any situation that calls for their deployment.

Along with the closing of distance, the other useful sign that indicates an attacker is about to assault you is touching you in any manner. This usually comes in the form of lightly touching your torso or shoving you. If he does either, it’s almost a sure thing that a pre-emptive attack will follow.

My mentor Geoff Thompson taught me a cardinal rule: No adversary should touch you in any manner more than twice. It’s a good rule to heed, but it’s not set in stone. There may be times when your adversary touches you just once or not at all.

Again, the best and most reliable pre attack cue is the closing of distance into the 1- to 2-foot zone. If your adversary does that more than once, it’s basically go-time. At that point, it’s a race to see who acts first. Let that be you.

To order Lito Angeles’ best-selling book Fight Night! The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Mixed

Martial Arts, visit

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