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Anatomy of a fight


If you practice tolerance and try to understand how people think, you should be able to avoid fights. Avoidance is the best strategy since nobody wins a fight, both sides are injured in some manner, be it physically, emotionally, or monetarily. Simple arguments over something minor may escalate into a fight that may end in your death or incarceration.

Two types of fights

Fights may be unprovoked or provoked.
  • Unprovoked fights. These begin when someone attacks you, without justification. The attack may come physically or verbally, the only difference being the degree of aggression.
  • Provoked fights. These begin when you physically or verbally attack another person, without justification, and the other person retaliates by attacking you. Or, when you, without justification, verbally attack another person, the person gets angry, and then you attack in response to the person's anger.

Try to avoid fights

As martial artists, we should avoid conflict but be prepared for it if it is inevitable. If it is inevitable, we must end it as quickly as possible and be willing to accept the consequences.

You are responsible for your actions, but you are not responsible for the actions of others, unless you have a duty to be responsible, such as when you are the parent, caretaker, or boss. While you must react to a situation and protect yourself or your family, you still have some responsibility for the damage you cause, so you must avoid doing unnecessary damage to an attacker.

Since most fights are an escalation from a minor disagreement, you should be able to recognize escalation and avoid it or diffuse it. Escalation is caused by both parties not backing down. When one party eases up, the escalation eases or stops. If you are escalating a fight, then you are provoking the other person into fighting and have no right to claim you were provoked. You can end most confrontations by safely simply walking away.

In a fight, the aggressor is not the one that throws the first punch, but the one who insists on fighting. If you ever get into a fight, it should be because you are forced into it. Take every opportunity you can to get out of it. Leave if you can, fight only if you must! If you do get into a fight, it is usually because you missed opportunities to get yourself out of the situation or to assess the situation properly.

Many people use anger as their fighting spirit, but this is dangerous since anger stifles control and thought. A person fighting with pure anger is easier to beat than a person that is fighting using wits. 
Your fighting spirit should be your will to survive. Control your anger and you will have the edge. Controlled fighting means you minimize damage to yourself while maximizing damage to the attacker. After a fight, a person may not remember how much they hurt you, but they will remember how much you hurt them.

If you have done everything you can to avoid a fight, then there should be no regrets after a fight. A person that has picked a fight, ignored every warning you gave, would not let you back down, and has instigated aggressions deserves whatever happens to them. Just remember that the law requires you to use only the force necessary to end the attack.

Fights start for a myriad of reasons, some legal, and some illegal. However, for whatever the reason fights start, they all have some common characteristics.

Common characteristics of a fight 

  • The winner will usually be the first to act. The first to land a good punch will probably be the one to win the fight. Traditionally, there is no “first-strike” in most martial arts, including taekwondo. However, in a fight, you can never allow your attacker to gain the advantage. You must take control of the situation and not merely react to the attacker's actions.
  • Most fights are decided by punches to the head. In a fight, most people strike toward the face. It seems to be embedded in our genes. As stated above, the one who lands the first good punch usually wins. That first good punch will probably be to the head. However, punches to the head have two big problems: the head is very mobile and difficult to hit, and, since the head is dense, punching it with the fist will probably break the hand. Therefore, well-targeted, powerful body attacks are a better choice.
  • Most fights are at close range. When sparring, competitors usually start outside of kicking range. Then the competitors will close the range, attack, and then open the range again. However, fights usually start at punching range and rarely, if ever, have the back and forth motion seen during sparring matches. Usually, a few punches will be thrown and then the fighters will clinch, fall to the floor, and start grappling.
  • The opponent is very unlikely to use martial arts techniques. Since most martial artists train to be non-violent, most will not be initiating fights. Since martial art training involves discipline and hard work, most violent people are weeded out. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that attackers will use martial arts techniques. Not impossible, just unlikely. However, they may use highly effective street techniques that have been learned through hard experience.
  • Fights are unorganized. Fights are not choreographed as fights in films, nor are they as organized as martial arts sparring matches. Fights are crude and rude. As martial artists, we work to perfect our techniques, but in a fight, the bad guy is not impressed by techniques, he or she is only impressed by pain. 
  • A technique is easy to execute in class against a willing partner, but it may be next to impossible to execute in a fighting situation. It is difficult to hit specific targets and complex combinations fall apart. As martial artists, we practice techniques against other martial artists, so boxers get good at fighting boxers and taekwondo students get good at fighting other taekwondo students. To win a fight, you must train to fight against a person who is untrained, but who is probably well experienced in street fighting.
  • High kicks are unlikely to be effective. High kicks in a fight are dangerous to the kicker. First, your clothes will probably not permit the movement required. The soles of your shoes may grip the floor/ground too much or they may slip and slide. Your leg may be grabbed leaving you vulnerable. Groin kicks are expected. Streetfighters know all this so they only kick at the knees.
  • Real fights are not like sparring matches. There are no rules or referees in a fight. Your opponent can bite, gouge your eyes, spit, use weapons, etc. When you are dazed or injured, there is no time out. Losing a fight can result in permanent physical or mental damage or even the loss of your life. You must be prepared to use violent, repugnant methods when it becomes necessary. 
  • Most fights are over in seconds. Most fights end quickly. Often, the loser will be decided in the first few seconds, the victim of the first good blow. 
  • You only need a few good techniques. If most fights only last a few seconds, how many techniques do you need to know? Knowing numerous techniques is not only unnecessary but dangerous. For a technique to be useful, the user needs to be able to apply the technique with little or no conscious thought. If the user must choose from numerous techniques, he or she may choose the wrong one. Instead of learning numerous techniques, learn the basic principles of self-defense, and then react to your opponent’s movements with techniques that cause them pain.
  • Blocking and countering is unlikely to work. Blocking works best at long range, as when sparring, and it works best when you can see the attacking technique coming. Neither of these things is likely to occur in a close-range fight. Watch boxers, how many blocks do you see them do. If the attacker is intoxicated and moving in slow motion, you may be able to block, otherwise, you must learn to slip attacks and come back with quick, powerful counterattacks.


  • Abernethy, I. (2003). Kata Bunkai; The Nature of Fighting; Brief History of Kata; and How Fights Start (Parts 1 and 2). [Online]. Available: [2003, August 1].
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