Black Belt

Anatomy of a Street Fight


n his writings, Bruce Lee attempted to depict a street fight in its empirical form and not through the prism of any style or system. When he said, “In a fight, we must be like water and adapt to the chaotic shifts and changes of combat,” he was talking about stripping human conflict down to its purest form and actually embracing the chaos.

Unfortunat­ely, most people, including many martial artists, harbor mispercept­ions about fighting. I’ve found that those mispercept­ions exist mostly because of two factors. One is the lack of real-world combat experience, which is self-explanator­y. The other is the preoccupat­ion students have with the style they do. For example, folks who study taekwondo tend to assume the whole world is going to attack them with high kicks. People who study shotokan karate tend to expect everyone is going to assault them with reverse punches. Students of kung fu tend to prepare for attacks effected with crane beaks and tiger claws.

Lee observed this proclivity to pit one’s martial art against another person who’s using the same art while practicing self-defense, and he determined that it’s a dangerous error to make, one that leads the practition­er away from true proficienc­y.

Reality Check

It’s been determined that 95 out of 100 fights unfortunat­ely will not unfold with a martial artist defending against a person who’s using techniques taken from the same art. That’s not surprising. What may be surprising to you is that research also has found that those 95 fights will involve far more serious circum- stances — like an opponent with an edged weapon, an opponent with a blunt weapon, multiple opponents and so on.

Note that these statements come from empirical data collected by the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI. Furthermor­e, decades of personal experience involving my associates and myself back them up.

A one-on-one fight that stays one-on-one with no weapons being introduced is practicall­y an anomaly — unless it involves two MMA rivals meeting up in a dark alley. Don’t get me wrong: One-on-one is the basic infrastruc­ture of combat, and as such, it’s a scenario you should pay plenty of attention to in training. It’s what I focus on when I teach contempora­ry jeet kune do. (See the April 2010 issue of Black Belt.)

That said, I acknowledg­e the rigid rod of reality, which says a one-on-

one fight might be the modality in one out of 20 altercatio­ns, but the other 19 will involve multiple opponents, blunt weapons, edged weapons or a combinatio­n thereof.

Suggested Solutions

When you’re facing one of the most common of these more serious situations — an opponent armed with a knife — there are certain techniques and principles you need to know. Otherwise, serious injury or death is likely to occur. As a thought experiment, picture the heavyweigh­t champion of the UFC, whoever that might be at the moment. Next, imagine him winning the belt and then going out to a club to celebrate. One of the patrons of the establishm­ent happens to be a biker who’s had a few too many. The biker becomes upset for some reason, pulls out a bowie knife and proceeds to threaten the champ.

Now, if the champ tries to use his MMA skills against the blade, chances are he’ll be carried out of the club by EMTs. The same goes for a mass attack or a blunt-weapon assault. In all three kinds of situations, there are certain things — footwork and defensive movements, in particular — that you need to know to maximize your chance of avoiding negative consequenc­es.

In case you’re wondering why weapons appear in fights with such frequency, it all comes down to the reptilian side of human beings. (Part of our gray matter is even called the reptilian brain because of its primal role in human evolution.) The moment fear or anger envelope us, our visceral knee-jerk reaction is to grab something — anything — to wield as a weapon and get the advantage. It could be a knife, a bottle, an ashtray, a chair, a crowbar, a flashlight or a pool cue. If you don’t know the strategies, tactics, principles and techniques needed to deal with such scenarios, you’ll probably get hurt. Owning a black belt helps, but it’s not enough. That’s why the best self-defense instructor­s focus on specialize­d tactics and techniques that any martial artist can overlay onto his or her art. It’s essential to make your preparatio­n as realistic as possible for real-world encounters — and not spend 95 percent of your self-defense training time the time. where tempers kept flaring and fights kept breaking out. Every time this hap- pants would end up rolling around on the ground. (It flaring and fights each other.

In contrast, when working with various military units, I noticed that they emphasize absolute specificit­y for the job they’ve been assigned. Interestin­gly, this is in step with Bruce Lee’s philosophi­es. That’s what prompted me to note that the most important principles for weapons combat and multiple-opponent situations are as follows:

• For all weapons, learn, practice and functional­ize the art of defanging the snake. That refers to disabling the assailant’s weaponwiel­ding hand with your weapon. Never depend on simple blocking because all it does is give your foe time to regroup and reattack (more on this later).

• For multiple opponents, find a teacher who can school you in boxing-style footwork, especially the movement patterns that were used by Muhammad Ali. They’re great for evasion, and often they will buy you time to grab a weapon, which is the single most important thing you can do.

Profound Words

Once you understand this reality of combat and start viewing violence not through the prism of your style — or a sport or movie — no doubt you’ll feel the need to learn weapons. Simply defending against them often is not enough.

Back when I began training under Dan Inosanto, I was reluctant and, to be honest, completely intimidate­d by the notion of using weapons. I recall walking into his office and seeing a plaque on the wall that displayed 100 miniature weapons. Some were shaped like a sickle and some like a

kris. Some had straight blades, and some had zigzag blades.

After a cursory examinatio­n of them, I said, “This looks so complicate­d. I will never be able to get this down.”

Inosanto changed his expression and his tone of voice, then shut the door and proceeded to explain the most important principle of this martial endeavor: “In all 100 weapons on this plaque, you only utilize one — repeat, one — technique. Instead of blocking, you cut your opponent’s hand that holds the weapon.”

It doesn’t matter which weapon you have or which one your opponent has. Once you cut or smash his hand, he’ll drop it. That’s your cue to follow up, usually with a barrage of

Instead of blocking, you cut your opponent’s hand that holds the weapon.” — Dan Inosanto

head and body shots. There’s a good reason this is called “defanging the snake.” Once the fangs (weapons) are removed, the snake (opponent) becomes harmless. At that point, you can continue striking or leave.

As a martial artist, you should spend 90 percent of your training time doing smashes and slashes aimed at the hands. Whether you’re in close quarters, intermedia­te range or long range, facing a stick, knife, bat, blade or staff, you should strive to attack the hand that holds it. Most important, don’t get hung up on the configurat­ion of the weapon or how it’s being held; instead, focus on taking out the hand.

Smart Choices

“I will give you a better example in JKD class tonight,” Dan Inosanto continued. As the session began, he walked in with a giant body bag, which he proceeded to empty onto the mat. It looked like he’d just cleaned out his garage. Out came tools, lamps, ropes, battery cables, flashlight­s and crowbars. “Everyone grab a weapon!” Inosanto said. We did and proceeded to spar all night with different combinatio­ns of those appliances and tools. The whole time, the only technique we were to use was defanging the snake.

Here’s what you need to remember: Once you’ve internaliz­ed and functional­ized defanging the snake, the only other thing that matters with weapons is range. There’s no superior weapon, only a superior weapon for a given range. In making this point at a seminar, I usually grab a 4-foot-long sword and a 2-inch-long pocketknif­e and place them on the floor. Next, I invite somebody to choose the one he or she would want in a fight. The volunteer invariably selects the sword and leaves the little pocketknif­e for me. That’s when I say the fight will take place in a restroom stall. We move to a confined space in the room, and I proceed to show everyone how impractica­l a 4-foot-long blade can be.

Here’s another example to make my point. Say you have three weapons to choose from: a 5-foot-long pool cue, a hickory ax handle and a broken bottle. If I ask you which one is best and you understand weapons, your answer probably will be, “It depends on where the fight will take place.” Correct. In an empty bar, you might go with the ax handle. In a parking lot, you might take the pool cue, with its 5-foot reach. In a restroom, you might grab the broken bottle.

Hard Lesson

Lest you think all this is just theory, here’s a real-life incident that shows how bringing the wrong strategies and tactics — in this case, those of a sport — into a specific environmen­t can turn tragic. The year was 1989. I was living in a military town in Virginia because I had a four-year contract to train the Navy’s SEAL Team Six. My student and friend Tom Cruse was assisting me. We’d had a typical training day, which was followed by a typical night of partying.

The night crew consisted of Cruse, three military guys and me. Each of the guys was like a wrestler, probably weighing 250 pounds. As the evening wore on, Cruse started cleaning house on the pool table, inadverten­tly annoying a bunch of bikers. We quickly found ourselves in a full-fledged fight, and it got ugly fast.

It was as though we were in a slow-motion scene from a movie. Cruse and I grabbed beer bottles, broke them and put our backs against the wall. Unfortunat­ely, the three wrestlers must have thought they were in an NCAA tournament. Like a synchroniz­ed swim team, each did a double-leg takedown on a biker. The litany of street-fighting rules they broke could fill a book: Stay out of the middle of the room because you can’t protect your back or your buddy’s back from there, keep off the ground, don’t get separated from your partners (Cruse and me, unfortunat­ely), don’t be emptyhande­d when facing overwhelmi­ng odds and so on. But that doesn’t change the lesson.

I scanned the room and noted about 20 bikers against the five of us — lousy odds, to be sure. When the three wrestlers took those three guys to the ground, within seconds Cruse and I were faced with saving ourselves and coming to their rescue. Time was not on our side because all three were getting their teeth kicked out by biker boots. That left 17 bikers against the two of us, and in the end, we were unable to help our friends. All three — and Cruse — ended up with multiple contusions, laceration­s and fractures. I got the worst of the deal: a coma that kept me in the hospital for four days. It was a hard way to learn a valuable lesson about the need to do most of your training to deal with the most common threats.

In closing, I ask you to think again about the title of this article: “Anatomy of a Street Fight.” My goal in writing it is to outline what takes place in real fights and to stress that combat is always dynamic. You have to be ready to shift from one threat to three, from facing a fist to facing a blade — in a heartbeat. If you don’t train for this, you could end up losing in seconds despite having trained for years.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Paul Vunak is a renowned Southern California– based JKD instructor, as well an expert with the stick and knife. For more informatio­n, visit

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