How to prevail in a street fight

Whether you’re like me and shoot your mouth off for a living, or you simply hate running (again, like me — it’s so unbecoming), knowing how to protect yourself is vital when words come to push and push comes to shove. The ancient Russian martial art of systema could be described as being among the most effective but also most humane martial arts in the world, and these are its core principles for surviving a physical confrontation, be it on the street or anywhere else: 

 Street fights can literally happen at any time. Credit James Walker

1.       Relax. The most difficult but most important thing to do in a high-stress situation is to remain calm and relax your body. You can achieve this by regulating your breathing. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, trying to fill your belly with breath. This will slow the release of adrenaline and decrease muscle tension, which can cause fear and paralysis and make you an easy target. When opponents attack, they instinctively go for still or solid targets, because they know that resistance will deliver the most damage. Breathe, relax and keep moving; this will minimise the effectiveness of their strikes and make it easier for you to strike back.

2.       Don’t Block. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but blocking is one of the worst things you can do. When someone attacks you, they expect one of three possible outcomes: either they hit their target, indicating they should keep doing what they’re doing; they miss their target, indicating they should try again; or they are blocked, which immediately sends the signal they should try harder. You don’t want them to try harder — that’s bad. Instead, building on the notion of ‘relaxed movement’, you should ‘fend’ or redirect the attack. This is very confusing to the opponent(s) because none of the outcomes they expected have occurred. Typically it will take longer to figure out what has gone wrong, which you can use to your advantage.

3.       Hit Everything You See with Everything You Have. A person can understand being hit in one or two places at once, but a bombardment of strikes from all angles is very difficult to deal with. The brain overloads when it tries to defend too many angles at once, and the opponent becomes susceptible to effortless takedowns. You don’t have to be a heavy hitter, just as long as the brain recognises that multiple attacks are happening, it will redirect energy away from simple motor functions such as standing up. Try it on your friends — they’ll think it’s hilarious.

4.       Move from the Body. In a street fight, it is sometimes impossible to tell whether the opponent has a weapon. What you thought was a punch is actually a strange stinging sensation, and too late — you notice the knife. Train your body to move out of the trajectory of attack. Take your whole body off the line of danger if possible. It’s one thing to redirect or stop a blade with the arms, but if you miss, the main target is still there, ready for a new navel to be installed. One of the happy side effects of learning to free the body for movement is that you will find yourself naturally falling into very advantageous positions. By escaping the trajectory of attack, opportunities will suddenly appear out of the blue and once that happens, refer to point #3.

5.       Don’t Punch People in the Mouth. Is this guy crazy? Yes. Crazy like a fox. It’s fine to punch people in the mouth in the Octagon, but not on the street. In the ring, people have mouth guards and hand protection, but on the street, you have nothing. When you punch people in the mouth, what typically happens is their teeth break. When teeth break they become sharp and, almost invariably, they cut your fist open. Now your fist is cut open and full of some jacked-up meth-head’s blood. Good luck with that. To avoid disease, try to punch the fleshier areas of the head: the side of the face and the jaw. Even under the best circumstances, bacteria in the mouth can cause sepsis and all kinds of nasty stuff. Punch the mouth and you may win the fight, but you might not like the test results.

6.       Don’t Resist Going to the Ground. There is nothing wrong with going to the ground. You can be just as effective there as anywhere. If you are thrown to the ground, or knocked there, keep moving. Don’t stay still. What tends to happen when you hit the ground is that attackers will begin kicking and stomping you, so don’t be an easy target! Keep moving and keep calm.

7.       Focus on Attack, not to be cruel or malicious, but to ‘introvert’ your opponent. If you spend too much energy on defence, you are merely buying your opponent(s) more opportunities to pummel you. You need to give them problems. Through constant attack, the once-extroverted aggressor will suddenly see themself as a victim and abandon further action. Of course, experienced fighters will have a higher tolerance for this than laypeople, but the effect affords all kinds of other tactics too. You need to make the attacker instantly regret their decision and start looking for an out. You can’t do that with a bunch of fancy ‘crouching tiger’ stuff — you have to hit them. A lot.

8.       You are Going to Get Hit. This one’s pretty straightforward. No matter how good you are, no matter how much you know, there will always be a point where you zigged instead of zagged, and copped one in your pretty face. This doesn’t mean you’ve failed and it definitely isn’t a reason to stop. Try not to get angry and keep working. 

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