Why the untrained fighter kicks your highly trained butt, Part Two.

In part one of Why the untrained fighter kicks your highly trained butt,  I covered some of my thinking about the whole training vs. experience thing so you might want to read that part first before going over what follows.

In the comments section, Viktor wrote this:

All of this makes sense, i’ve though along these lines before even though i don’t actually have any experience of real life violent situations.

I have trained martial arts for some time now, but i don’t think i would stand a very big chance if i actually ended up in a fight with someone that has been in many real fights no matter how unskilled they are in any form of martial art. (partly because i’m not that skilled in martial art yet nor am i very well trained physically or have any experience at all in real situations, all in al not much in favour of me)

And one thing i’ve been thinking about a lot is how to train for a real situation, San shou or sparring is of course a way to train techniques in a simulated fight, but that final touch that is needed for a technique to work in a real situation; a situation with adrenaline, full power and speed is hard to train for. I’ve often thought that i should aim for competitions because i think that is as near as i can come without actually being in a fight for real even though i otherwise think that fighting or violence as a competition doesn’t make sense. What is your take on competition as a way to train and test techniques under stress?

What would you say is a good way to train for real situations? Can it even be done?

It’s an interesting question but before I answer it I need to give some qualifiers and context:

  • Viktor says he’s not very skilled, experienced or in great physical shape. Two out of these three are things you can remedy quite easily by training harder and more frequently. Doing so will give you not only more skill but it’s also a quick way to get your physical attributes (like speed and power) to a higher level. Once you do that, your chances of coming out on top in a violent conflict are better already. There’s no guarantee that these things will let you win every fight you end up in but I believe not working on them definitely decreases the odds in your favor. So I’d say: go out and train some more. There’s no reason you shouldn’t.
  • That said, I don’t think there are easy answers to the “I lack experience, where should I get it?” question. I know people who answered it by starting to work as a bouncer or join the military. I know of others who would go out and pick fights to see if their techniques worked. They all ended up getting experience though not necessarily the kind they wanted. E.g.: One guy on purpose tried a crescent kick as a knife disarm and found out it worked perfectly. The only downside was that even though his attacker was now just as empty handed as he was, the knife was now stuck in his foot. Kind of ruined the rest of the fight for him…
  • I’m not going to delve into it but there’s a price to pay when you go out and get experience. In my native language, we call it paying your “leergeld”. A crude translation would be “Learning Money” as in, the amount of cash you pay for learning a hard and/or painful lesson. The cash can be in actual money but also in emotional and psychological currency. Which is just a fancy way of saying it can mess you up permanently.
  • This last point brings forward the main question you should ask yourself: why do you want to have more experience? Is there an urgent need for it? Are you (or your loved ones) in immediate danger? If so, then the wisest course of action is often to avoid conflicts (move, don’t be there, evade, etc.) and for that your awareness is key, not your fighting skills. Remember, you’re the one without experience, not the bad guys you fear. So why on earth would you want to go up against them when you can avoid having to fight them? IMO and IME, you can more often than not avoid trouble. So your focus should lie there and not in trying to learning how to beat more experienced opponents. Caveat: it’s not either or, it’s a matter of priorities.
  • I understand this last point can be upsetting and many people don’t want to confront this issue. To them I say: I understand but ignoring it won’t make it go away. Worse, ignoring it will probably make you focus on the wrong things (“How can I win against an experienced street thug?”) instead of the right ones (“How can I avoid having to fight an experienced street thug?”) So I guess being real honest with yourself is where it’s at. For instance, you might want to ask yourself the question: “Is getting experience with fighting the solution to my problems?” In my opinion, this isn’t nearly as much the case as martial arts practitioners like to think.
  • There is nothing wrong with wondering if you can win (“win” isn’t really accurate but you know what I mean) in a real fight or not. It’s part of the training process and also means you are confronting your inner demons. But what I’m trying to say with the previous bullets is that there is something wrong with focusing on it at the exclusion of other factors.

Please take all this into consideration before reading on.

 

Now my actual response to the question: “What is your take on competition as a way to train and test techniques under stress?”

My take on iit is that,  at best, it’s only a small part of the answer.

I didn’t say a useless part, on the contrary. I think there are some crucial elements to be found and that’s why I still train in full contact competitive fighting. But there are a lot of “if”s and “maybe”s. Here are some thoughts on this:

The good:

  • You get hit, hard. Knowing you can take a hit and keep going can make a big difference in the street. If you don’t know what it’s like to face somebody hellbent on hitting you as hard as they can and not stopping until you’re unconscious on the floor, competitions are a good way to experience this in the safest way possible. I’m of course talking full contact competitions here, not point fighting.
  • You learn how to hit. Unless you’re trained really well, hitting the heavy bag or pads and doing solo reps of techniques is never 100% like hitting a live opponent. Not that these things are useless but there are some crucial differences with hitting an actual opponent who hits back. Competing will teach you those. I think this aspect is one that carries over to self defense quite well, with a few caveats I’ll cover below.
  • You need to be in shape to compete. This in and of itself is made of win. As you prepare for your competition, you get in better shape (at least, that’s what you should be doing…) The mere fact of being stronger, more explosive, have better reflexes, etc. than before improves your chances in a “real” fight.
  • You get used to adrenaline. Handling adrenaline is key in any fight. If you haven’t been exposed to it, you really don’t have a clue. By competing, you get introduced to its effects: Waiting for hours before you’re up, trying to stay calm and not get psyched out, etc. is an introduction to certain kinds of violent encounters where the fight is only at the end of a long build up period. That fraction of a second right after the referee says “Fight!” gives you an adrenal dump not unlike some guy yelling at you out of the blue and cocking his fist back to punch your lights out. So there is overlap. However, there are also huge differences and as you get more experience competing, your adrenal responses will probably change too.
  • You learn to think about strategy and tactics under pressure. After your first couple competitions (during which most of us suck), you start getting to the point where you can do more than just flail around. Eventually, you start implementing basic (and later on more complex) strategies and tactics to beat a specific problem each opponent gives you. Being able to think/act under pressure like this is a key point in self defense.

There are more benefits than this but these bullets are enough to get you started.

And now for the drawbacks:


The bad:

  • Getting hit doesn’t always feel the same way. There is a huge difference between getting hit by an opponent in the Octagon (when you’ve had months to prepare and then hours to concentrate before the first punch lands) and getting sucker punched by a street-thug. You see this difference best at work in fights where there’s an early knockout: a fighter gets KOed in the first couple seconds because he’s a “slow starter” and needs a few minutes to get his head completely in the fight. On the street, you shouldn’t assume you’ll get that extra prep time.
  • Hitting without rules or gear is a different animal. If you’re only allowed certain techniques during a competition, you can run into trouble in a street fight where you might have to use others. Similarly, wearing gloves or shin guards allows you to get away with bad technique and not know it. Even the small UFC-type gloves can help avoid damaging your wrist or escape from breaking your hand when a crappy punch lands in the wrong way.
  • Adrenaline in the Octagon and in the street are not the same thing. That’s why I said competing only introduces you to adrenaline as you will experience it in the street. It’s a qualitative difference you can’t appreciate until you encounter it. Despite competitors claiming otherwise, knowing that the referee will step in if it goes bad for you makes a gigantic difference in how you fight. When your life is literally on the line (and each time you are in a violent encounter in the street, you should assume it can escalate to that point), things that seem so easy in class are extremely hard to do. Because this time, when you mess up, you could die. A good example of this is the knife fight in Beijing I covered a while ago: it’s easy to say you should close in and defang the snake but when you’re ass is on the line, it’s a lot harder than it looks.
  • The strategy and tactics in the street are radically different from those you need in the Octagon. I’ve harped on and on about this for years so I’m not going to rehash it here. The point I want to make is that competition can train your brain to implement strategies and tactics while under adrenal stress; it can teach you this skill.  But the specific ones you need in the street are very different. That’s the crux of the matter, which many MMA practitioners refuse to accept. Things like awareness ((hidden) weapons, multiple opponents, etc.) and environment (floor surface, walls, uneven terrain, slippery footing, etc.) are either not present or underrepresented in the Octagon. As a result, you don’t train for them and they can be used against you. For the nitpickers: this doesn’t mean you can’t defend yourself with MMA techniques, only that you need to adapt your training to the different context.

 

Here’s an example of these benefits and drawbacks of competition training in a real life situation. Read this article first.

There are some things that stand out:

Guy Mezger's hand after being in a knife fight...

First off, Guy Mezger was a top-level UFC fighter. He’s no wannabe, the man fought hard in the cage and has a good record. Also, he claims to have had a rough upbringing and having faced knives before. I can’t verify that, I can only repeat his words.

Here’s the thing, he made a number of strategic and tactical errors, as far as I can tell from the interview. So let’s add the caveat that the interviewer might have butchered his words but I’m assuming he didn’t. Here goes:

 

He wasn’t a big guy. He was maybe 150, 160 pounds. I’m presently about 200, 210 give or take, so I figured my physical size would be somewhat intimidating to him, which it wasn’t.

There are no weight-classes in the street. You shouldn’t assume somebody will be intimidated because of your size. The lighter guys in particular will try to offset their weight disadvantage by carrying a tool like, oh I don’t know, a knife

 

I was like, ‘Yeah,’ and he starts coming at me. It’s funny because he didn’t know how to fight,”

Another assumption. One that turned out to be partly true, because the guy obviously didn’t know to fight with MMA techniques. But he did know how to fight on the street, because he was smart enough to use a knife when he couldn’t beat Mezger unarmed. And he was also smart enough to hide the knife before using it. More on that later.

 

It was hilarious, actually. I just kind of grabbed him and held onto him with an overhook on the right side and he was trying to hit me with his left.

So Mezger’s first move at controlling his opponent is one that leaves the guy with one free arm. And then he lets him punch him…  This is a huge strategic and tactical error. Imagine the guy using the knife instead of punching. We now know he had it on him and wasn’t afraid to use it. Mezger could have been stabbed to death at that stage of the confrontation.

 

He tried to bite at me and then he tried to grab my nuts with his left hand. Then I just had enough, so I did a head-and-arm-throw. [It’s] one of my better throws. We hit the concrete and it knocked him out.

Same problem, waiting until you’ve had enough gives your opponent the chance to do serious damage. Training for the Octagon teaches you to absorb shots and like I said, it’s important to know you can take a hit and keep going. But it’s insane to just stand there and take it until you’ve had enough in a street fight. Again, what if the guy had pulled the knife right then and there?  But on the upside, he managed to KO the guy.

 

I didn’t expect him to get up. I figured [he’d do] one of two things: he’s either back off and talk shit, which I expected because he got handled pretty east, or he’s coming.

Not expecting your aggressor to get back up is a strategic mistake of epic proportions. Of course, in the cage, once you KO a guy, the fight is over. It’s easy to assume this also translates to the street by default. But the opposite is true. As soon as you end the fight, you follow procedures to make sure he can’t get back at you and you get the hell out of there.

 

 I was acting like I wasn’t really paying attention, but I was paying attention.

Peyton Quinn has a short list of rules for surviving violent encounters; one of them is “Don’t deny it’s happening.” There are two parts to this: one is denying it in your own head, refusing to accept what’s going on. The other is pretending to ignore the attacker. Given the psychological dynamics of such fights, Mezger pretty much forced the guy to come at him again by ignoring him.

 

Somehow in there he pulled a knife out, but I really didn’t see it because I really was paying attention up until then.

See my previous bullet points. A thug with even only a little bit of experience will pull the knife in such a way that you don’t see it. The assumption should always be that he’s armed, even if you don’t see a weapon in his hands. This is another critical difference with competition fighting, where there is no doubt your opponent is unarmed.

 

He was throwing a really kind of wild punch, which I thought was a punch — I didn’t know he had a knife in his hand — and I kind of blocked it with my left and hit him with the right and knocked him out again.

See above. Here’s the question: if you know your opponent has a knife in his hand, would you still block his attack like Mezger did? Or would you try to get out of the way, dodge, parry or move inside to avoid the blade? Again, not an issue in MMA. On the upside, the block worked (the knife cut Mezger’s hand, not his throat or face) and he managed to KOed the guy once again.

 

When he fell down, the knife fell out of his hand and I was like, ‘Oh, shit. I got lucky. I could have got stuck.’ I didn’t even see it. When I looked at my hand I saw a little bit of blood, so I just put pressure on it. I didn’t realize how bad it was.

As mentioned above, on the street, the knife is often used and then felt before it is seen. Knife wounds also don’t always bleed as much as you might think. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any damage though.

 

I went back over to the girl and picked her up because I accidentally pushed her when I was trying to get her out of the way and the guy starts rolling over crawling towards the knife. I kicked the knife about two or three feet away and he started crawling towards it, so I had to go after him again,

At this stage, Mezger knew there was a knife and he chooses to ignore it and leave it lying there? A better strategy would have been to secure the knife right away. That way the thug can’t reach for it again, nor can any possible accomplices you should assume are out there as well. Instead, Mezger ignores the weapon and turns to the girl. Though it’s a noble gesture, it’s not a good strategy. As evidenced by the guy going after the knife again.

 

I didn’t see the knife. That’s the reason I got caught the way I did. I didn’t see the knife until…

Mezger is refreshingly honest here. He could have lied through his teeth to make himself look better. So a lot of respect for coming out and telling the truth. The point remains however that he didn’t see the knife, didn’t expect it and once he knew it was there, chose to ignore it until his attacker went for it again. These are all strategic and tactical mistakes.

 

I’ve got an older son who’s grown, but I’ve got two younger children and I’ve got a beautiful wife and I was thinking, ‘Man, I got lucky.’ It’s very tough to remember everything that happens in a fight. You think you remember, but generally it’s not how it really happened. I think he was really throwing that shot at my neck, which is how I got cut. Obviously, it could have ended in a much more serious situation. I’m just grateful that it didn’t.

Tip of the hat and a round of applause for Mr. Mezger. Here he shows some crucial insights into the nature of street violence. He also recognizes that he got lucky, which I think is very true here.

 

For the record:

  • I’m not saying Guy Mezger sucks. I have a lot of respect for his career as a fighter and the skill he displayed in the Octagon. If you think otherwise, feel free to go out and duplicate his fight record…
  • Nor am I saying MMA sucks for self defense by default. I’m saying you need to adapt your training to the different context. Just like traditional martial artists got their asses kicked in the early UFCs and learned that they needed to adapt what they were doing if they wanted to be successful in the Octagon. It’s not a black or white thing.
  • You can’t prove a negative. I can’t prove things that didn’t happen. I can’t prove Mezger could easily have died because he didn’t. What I can say is that in my opinion and if the interview is accurate, he made numerous mistakes and I believe many of them come from decades of ingraining sports-fighting techniques.
  • He came out of it alive. Whatever you might think, he survived the fight. Mistakes or not, that’s undisputed. I for one am very happy he made it and so should we all be.
  • Look at it as a case study. I don’t have an axe to grind here. Like I said, I like Mezger as a competitor and think he fought well during his career. The only reason I’m including this breakdown of events is because it illustrates the points I tried to make in response to Viktor’s question. No more, no less.

 

The final bullet is where it’s at for me. Mezger survived the fight and was classy enough to honestly share what happened, including what went wrong and how he felt afterwards. I think his story is best used as an example of the differences between competition and the street. Please notice I said “an” and not “the ultimate” example. There are no guarantees, there’s no black or white here.

I hope this helps you out a bit, Viktor. Good luck in your training.

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Comments

  1. Very good discussion and insight. Enjoyed it Wim.

  2. Mike Williams says

    Interesting subject Wim..
    My background sort of matches Viktor`s.
    My “answer” would be..adrenalin training/aka Peyton Quinn type stuff…yes I realise you linked to his excellent site.
    That way..”we” get to feel the adrenalised state/learn simple moves that dont require a great deal of motor skills and get to feel what its like really hitting hard..
    Sadly..this type of concept/system has not taken off in Australia so far..
    I really like your site by the way and the no BS.

    Mike

    • Hi Mike,

      First of, glad to hear you like the blog. I appreciate the kind words.
      The thing about adrenal stress conditioning is that it’s still no magic bullet. It’s IMO pretty much the best thing out there but it’s also only a simulation of reality. Peyton himself once said that people do his training and think that this is it. But it isn’t. It’s only your first step through the door into a new world of understanding violence. I totally agree with him.

  3. Mike Williams says

    Hi Wim

    Sorry for my lack of clarity.
    I wasnt suggesting a singular training methodology was a magic bullet. :)
    I was suggesting it as very important addition to standard/formal training methods.
    Other than a streetfight..everything else is a form of simulation of reality.
    But the adrenaline training is one of the closest IMO to a live situation.

    • No worries, I got what you meant. I was just making a general observation about that type of training. And I agree, it’s an important part of the puzzle.

  4. Great article!

  5. What a fascinating and profound article. I really enjoy how you don’t exclude the complexity in this subject, and also set boundaries for the discussion.

    I’ve given these issues some thought over the years. I’ve had over 30 years with traditional Japanese Goju, but have also had military experience, and street fighting experience. My instructor has made it clear he isn’t teaching self defense, but instead a systematic method of exercise. His emphasis is on keeping a beginner’s mind, and every class includes practicing basics. I love this training for the mental and physical development, but I don’t think of it as self defense training.

    An Army friend went on after I left the service, to head up a US Army SF team, and we spent some time together. He showed me some breaking exercises his team was learning, but the goal was to break with the least amount of muscle tension. They were trying to prepare for a prisoner situation where you may be injured, malnourished, etc. The goal was to break with mental intent. I was impressed with this approach to self defense, and the realization that many situations happen when you are least prepared, physically, or mentally.

    I also spent time with him on knife training, as we had both done a lot of this in the service together. We spent a lot of time with a butterfly knife, but all of it was to be able to remove and open it without your opponent knowing. We spent a lot of time on how to position your body so your opponent doesn’t see your movements, and distracting your opponent. We also worked on our knifes, in order to remove them and open without any sound. We also worked on techniques to conter the usual knife defenses of blocking the knife arm, etc. We also worked on something he called the 3 second kill, which helps you realize the danger of a trained knife fighter.

    I think that being realistic about potential situations, and training for those, can really help with effective self defense training. There is also value in doing traditional martial arts which can help you avoid confrontations, and give you confidence in the case you need to respond.

    I remember spending time with my Goju instructor talking about escalation, and de-escalation in confrontations. It was after I had someone try to pick a fight with me, when picking up my wife and a friend from a bar. I covered my wife and her friend until they were in the car, then moved to the back of the car, where I could protect my back, and have a sense of other opponents. (I’ve learned never to assume there is only one attacker). Turned out there was only one person, and he kept yelling at me, and threatening to attack me. I stay relaxed and ready, and looked at my opponent, but did nothing to escalate the situation. My mind was plenty occupied with staying aware of his hands, distance, and peripheral movement that might be another opponent. Eventually, he walked away, and I left. My instructor later told me how most confrontations (By amateurs), need escalation on both sides. He felt I was doing the right things by not reacting to his words, and project a sense of calm. His view was that only the most dangerous attack without going through some escalations.

    Hope you don’t mind my wordy comments. I think this has been a great article, and very appreciative of the time and effort you’ve put into it.

    Regards,
    Iain

    • Thanks for your feedback Iain and no worries for posting it.
      I try to treat all the subjects as well as I can. Sometimes it works out, other times not so much. This blog is basically me thinking out loud. But if you enjoyed the post, then I’m happy.

      Feel free to drop a line whenever you like.

  6. very informative. What would u suggest for us to prepare ourselves then, for the unavoidable confrontation? So far I learn the pros and cons of competition fighting. What about self-defense classes? Are they more suited for real street-fight situation?

  7. Probably the best thing to learn regarding street defense is avoidence, followed by de-escalation techniques.

    I’m no expert, but I see street defense in two basic ways: the sudden attack from nowhere (mugger/rapist jumps out from a bush so no way to size him up as you approach), which would require an immediate addrenelin-fueled response until the attacker lay helpless on the ground. Or the verbal confrontation which can either be avoided by changing direction or vebally de-escalating while remaining calm and confident. Easier said than done though!

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