Image credit: Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power
(This guide was originally published on January 8, 2008. In that time, it has been read more than ten million times. Given the current political climate and undeniable reports of bullying and harassment (especially of schoolchildren), I wanted It has been updated and reformatted, but otherwise remains largely unchanged.)
It has to be said, first sentence, first paragraph: the best way to win a fist fight is not to get into one in the first place.
No shit, Sherlock.
Every single mens’ magazine who has ever attempted to publish an article like this has started (and ended) exactly that way and is usually devoid of any real information – sometimes because someone on the editorial staff wanted to avoid putting the periodical at risk for a lawsuit; other times because the author has absolutely no clue what they’re talking about, so they cop out with this “Verbal Judo Wins The Day!” crap. In fact, that’s precisely why I wrote this guide in the first place.
It’s common sense – avoid fighting if at all possible. No one likes to get hit (and if you do, there’s no need to go crawling pubs to find it. There’s any number of clubs filled with rubber-suited men and women who will give you a safety word and a few bruises for the right price…). But sometimes, diplomacy erodes to a good old fashioned bust-up, or worse, your opponent is just a big bully who’s looking to drive a knuckle into your nose. In either case, you are – at some point in your life – going to be called upon to defend yourself.
So… What to do? Well, I can’t promise that the following information will turn you into a hands-of-steel cage fighter who can handle any MMA bruiser in a back-alley match… In fact, if you’re actually in NEED of the information in this article, I can guarantee you that a trained martial artist or fighter will destroy you. But all things being equal, if you’re simply an untrained person who’s facing a bully, or someone looking to simply get the basics under your belt in case something gnarly goes down, I can assure you that you’re way better off knowing this stuff than not.
Note: This guide has been on the net in some form or another for 9 years now. In that time, I’ve gotten lots and lots of feedback. I’ve decided to incorporate my notes on that feedback throughout this latest version. I’ve formatted those side notes like this — bold “Note:” and italic text — so you can tell at a glance which sections have been argued over (and over and over and over), and why I’ve decided to go with the advice that you read here.
Some things before we begin:
- I’m giving advice based entirely on my own experiences and training. There are as many opinions on fighting techniques, stances and behaviors are there are people fighting in the world, and really, there’s no “right” and “wrong” – simply “effective” and “ineffective”.
- My advice is intended specifically for inexperienced people for whom there is no escape from a fighting situation. Flight is not an option. Training is non-existent.
- The entire goal of the guide is to keep instruction minimal and intuitive – stuff you can readily recall when you’re in a dangerous situation, and stuff that won’t set a beginner / inexperienced person up for failure. “Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face” is true for a reason. Panic makes thinking tough.
First, you need to know a few things:
- You are going to get hit.
- When you get hit, it does not feel good.
Knowing and accepting those two things as fact will free your mind up enough to begin thinking about much more important stuff, like strategy and technique. If you’re petrified with fear over how much it’s going to hurt when the big bad guy hits you, you’re going to be out of focus. Thus, you’ll be much more vulnerable to taking damage than if you can just accept the reality of the situation and move past it… And perhaps, walk into the situation with a bit of confidence.
Confidence CANNOT be overvalued in a fight situation. If you walk in knowing you will win, your chances of winning are far greater… If for no other reason than the fact that you will gain a psychological edge on your opponent. If you don’t have confidence, fake it. Seriously, it’s important.
If you’re fighting in an enclosed area, position yourself so that there is an exit to your rear. If you cannot, try to get an exit positioned to your strong side (right side, if you’re right handed, left side if you’re left handed). The ability to retreat can make the difference between getting punched and getting beat. It’s helpful to remember that “retreat” does not always mean “flee” – sometimes, you have to back off a bit to get your act together.
If you’re a student or a frequenter of bars, you need to know that there is a very high liklihood that your fight is going to take place in the center of a huge ring of people who are chanting, yelling, screaming and whatnot. If this is the case, get to the door and get in position before they can seal it off as a crowd of spectators.
Lastly, if you’re up against two or more guys, someone with a weapon, or other crazy situation, don’t be a hero – get the hell out of there. If you simply cannot escape, look at the end of this article in the section “Impossible Situations”.
Your stance is the way you stand and position yourself during a fight. It’s by far the most important part of your actual fighting technique. Your base – the position of your feet and legs – determines how much power you can deliver in a blow. You should keep your feet about shoulder width apart, with your “strong” foot slightly forward (note: if you are a trained fighter, this advice might sound suspect, but follow me here: if you’ve never fought before, you have no idea what a “power hand” even is, much less how to use it. The main goal is to keep from being dragged around or pushed over, and a slightly even stance with strong foot forward is far more stable for a novice in a street fight). Your knees should NEVER be locked – keep them slightly bent, but not so much so that you feel a strain in your upper legs.
As far as your “guard” goes, there are any number of techniques and positions that you could adopt, but the most simple is your strong hand in front of your face, your weak hand slightly below it guarding your chin, and your elbows very slightly pointed outward guarding your chest.
This amazing video featuring Chris Romulo, MMA / Muay Thai fighter, goes through the basic stances for most fight styles. Even he recommends a strong guard with strong foot forward for beginners.
Never, EVER drop your guard. Keep your hands in front of your vital areas at ALL times, unless actively delivering a blow or in the midst of grappling with someone.
Keep your chin tucked to your chest as much as possible, and ALWAYS keep your eyes up and on your opponent. You will find that, if you take away the chin and neck as targets, your chances of becoming disabled (knocked out or unable to breathe) are reduced by an order of magnitude. We’ll cover more of this in “Taking A Punch” – for now, you just need to know how to stand.
Now, with that strong foot forward, your strong-side hip is going to be slightly pointed at your opponent, and your strong hand – when you throw the punch – is going to place a lot of pressure on your strong leg. This is vital – if you can use the power of physics to align the transfer of energy from your foot, up your leg, through your hip and shoulder to your fist as you throw the punch, you will devastate your foe when you connect.
Keep moving. Don’t dance around like a moron, or you can get tripped up and probably knocked out… But definitely keep moving to the side, occasionally changing direction. Don’t pick your feet up off the ground completely; rather, try to shuffle slightly. Stay as much of a moving target as you can without putting yourself at risk of being tripped, pushed, or otherwise taken out stupidly. You’ll DEFINITELY want to practice this in your room / garage / backyard to get the hang of it.
Lastly… No wild blows. Don’t go into a fight flailing like a madman, trying to hit whatever you can as much as possible. You’re going to wear yourself out VERY quickly, which will leave you completely vulnerable to the patient opponent – which is completely counter to the goal of this guide, right? You want to win, not end up a bloody lump of exhausted meat on the ground. Find your target, be patient, look for openings, and deliver your blows carefully and with great purpose. And that leads me to…
What You’re Actually Here For: How To Punch Someone
First, the fist:
- Fold your four fingers downward into your hand
- Place your thumb on the OUTSIDE of your fingers
Now, the particulars:
You want to fill the space in your palm with whatever you have at your disposal – a roll of pennies, some dirt or hunks of grass… Anything to reduce the space between your fingers and the inside of your hand. If you have nothing available (or, don’t want to be accused of “dirty fighting” or whatever… But let’s face it, all’s fair when there’s no ref’s and the threat of bodily harm), try to grab the “meat” of your palm, where all those callouses are, and wrap it slightly under your fingertips.
Whatever you do, do NOT fill that space with your thumb. Your thumb MUST be outside your fingers, sitting at a 90 degree angle to your index finger and bent at the second knuckle.
Also, regarding your thumb and fingers: Don’t let any of them stray off to the side. Don’t do that little “thumb out” fist-pump swagger thing you saw that one guy do in that YouTube video. Maybe that person is a very skilled fighter and has experience. Assuming you need this guide, you don’t. Don’t take the risk.
The same goes with your pinky. Some flashy morons try to show how cool they are by sticking their pinkies out in the air while waving their fists at you, like it’s wine-tasting time. Don’t be that person. Keep your fist tight – all four fingers folded and your thumb out of the way, or they’ll be sticking WAY out… In a fiberglass cast for six to eight weeks.
Now that you’ve made a fist, it’s time to fling it at someone. First, a word of caution (or, if you prefer, a note on technique): It is IMPERATIVE that you keep the back of your hand completely in line with your forearm at all times. Never, ever flex your wrist in any direction when delivering a punch, or you’ll break it.
There are several types of punches, and I’m sure you can readily call to mind several types based on what you’ve seen in movies, televised boxing matches, MMA bouts, etcetera. The type of punch that I most highly advocate – especially for an untrained fighter – is a simple straight punch. Keeping the elbow bent and at a 30 – 45 degree angle to the body (and in front of your face – remember, don’t drop your guard), extend the fist forward with simultaneous extension of the elbow and the shoulder. The elbow should straighten the arm, the shoulder should deliver the force… It sounds strange, but try not to deliver force by the extension of the elbow. Let your body weight push through your shoulder into your arm. Connect the blow at the peak of extension to get the maximum force out of your blow. Connecting too soon, you’ll lose power; Connecting too late, you’ll throw yourself off balance.
Hooks – the wide-sweeping side punches you see a lot of people throwing – are great for boxing or other score / tactical fighting… But they don’t deliver the force a good straightforward punch will, and they’re SLOW. If someone’s out there scoring you on how many times you connect, sure, go for it. But otherwise, just stick to the straight punches. The same goes for uppercuts and light jabs. Stay away from those unless you’ve been training purposely with combinations and whatnot (which this guide assumes you’re not, since you’re obviously here to learn the basics. All you “trained” fighters out there, I don’t need your emails about how I’m wrong to suggest avoiding these. You know what you’re doing? Go for it… Otherwise…).
Make your punches count – give a full-force blow that connects quickly at the apex of extension each and every time.
Taking A Punch
Have you ever seen the movie Million Dollar Baby? You know the part where Clint Eastwood tells Hillary Swank to step into a punch to minimize its effectiveness? It’s 100% true. Short of simply not being there to take the punch, minimizing the distance between the point the punch was thrown and the point at which it connects will reduce the impact it can make.
The downside is that you’ll need to retreat to set yourself up for your punches. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing if you’re aggressive with your defense – because your opponent will do that work FOR you. If you continually turn your body into punches and step forward, they will keep backing up and backing off. This will not only give you the distance you need to throw your punches, it will also give you the opportunity to do so – each time they have to step back, they’re resetting for another attack. This is an opportune time to strike.
Remember our discussion on stances – keep your chin tucked to your chest and keep circling your opponent. Keep them in a situation where they have to calculate movement along with distance to judge strikes. Balance is a key factor in fights, both physically and mentally – if you can keep them off-balance, the edge is yours.
Train yourself to flex your abdominal muscles and keep your core tight on command. When your opponent goes for a solar plexus hit, if you fail to turn into it so that the blow glances off the side, you won’t lose your breath when they make impact.
Lastly… Keep breathing, slow and purposely. Keep the oxygen going to your brain. Don’t allow yourself to lose your breath, or run low on air when you must exhale and flex your stomach to guard against a mid-blow.
Remember this – no blow feels as bad during a fight as you think it’s going to. Your adrenaline is pumping, your nerves are spiking and your mind is racing. You simply won’t have time to feel the pain… It’s the debilitating blows you need to be weary of and guard against, and if you keep taking your opponent’s power away, they won’t be able to take you out.
Just… Don’t. Seriously. It’s suicide, unless you’re highly trained, or, failing that, you have an insane opportunity. Outside of the UFC, kicks are pretty much all flash and flair for your audience, and leave you VERY open to counter attacks and moves that can throw you off balance. It’s just plain stupid in a real fight situation to try doing a bunch of roundhouse nonsense.
Not him? Don’t kick.Note: In a REAL fight situation, anything that reduces balance or stability is dangerous. Kicks – even to the shin – are not something I suggest for a beginner fighter who has not spent time developing balance and strength in the ankles, hamstrings, knees, groin and waist. If you’ve personally trained kicks, and you want to incorporate kicks in your fighting style, I applaud you. But this isn’t “How To Actually Win The Heavyweight Belt In The UFC” and as such, I refuse to advise people to disrupt the balance and stability of their base when they’re not trained fighters (and more than likely, scared out of their minds to even be in the situation). I won’t say you’re wrong if you do. I just refuse to.
Elbows and Knees
Seriously powerful blows can come from the knees and the elbows… However, they force you to be close, and you need some training to use them effectively (elbows especially, since they pretty much remove your guard when you use them). Feel free to practice these on your heavy bag (or, if you don’t have one, head up to the Salvation Army and get an old twin mattress and some duct tape – you can make one in pretty short order). Just know that they are to be used when opportunity permits, not as primary strikes.
There’s a very high liklehood – especially if you keep stepping in and frustrating our opponent – that you will be taken to the ground or wrapped up in some way. This is not the end of the world, especially if you can keep your cool. So long as they’re wrapped up on you, they’re not throwing punches… It’s only when they can get you into a position of opportunity that they can strike you, so your primary goal is to GET OUT.
If your opponent has you from behind in a standing position, there are three moves you need to be doing over and over in succession or simultaneously until you break free:
- Stomp the instep – come down as hard as you can with your heel on their instep. You will damage or disable your opponent’s foot bones and provide yourself with the ability to escape.
- Backwards Headbutt – keep flinging your skull back toward their nose. If you make contact, freedom awaits.
- Wring the fingers – don’t pull at the wrists of your opponents’ clenched hands. Get your hands around any or all of his fingers and wring the hell out of them until he either gives up or breaks one.
If you’re on the ground and wrapped up, you need to do the following things as quickly as possible:
- Prevent the mount – don’t let them get on top of you.
- Get to your knees as soon as you can.
- Scramble like hell to get out of there.
If you end up on your belly, prevent a choke from behind by keeping your chin to your chest and keep your hands around your neck. If you start to feel punches on the back of your head, remember – minimize the distance. Try to get to your knees and get them off of you.
Note: If you don’t know how to fight on the ground, get the HELL of the ground. It’s something I just cannot recommend. If I personally were in a one-on-one fight with someone, regardless of their size, strength or fight style, I’d be on the ground with them in a millisecond, because I’ve trained in arts that focus on groundwork. But for the first, oh… Three months or so of learning that crap? I got OWNED on the ground. So did you. You can puff your chest out on the net and say “no way, I pwnd!” if you want, but it’s a lie. Every beginning wrestler, BJJ fighter, Judo player, etc. found the ground to be the last place on earth they really wanted to be for at least 3 months. You have to learn it. If you have to learn it, it’s out of my guide.
If you can gain the advantage on the ground, mount the opponent and punch the face until they are incapacitated. If they’re on their belly, get around their neck and choke them until they pass out – just make DAMN sure you let go once the snorting starts (you’ll know what I’m talking about if you ever hear it). Going any further, and you could kill them. However, if this is a flee-for-your-life situation and you somehow managed to choke your opponent out, feel free to break an ankle or dislocate a knee to prevent pursuit. Do this in a high school fight, however, and you’re going to end up in juvenile hall.
This leads me to a very important point: if you do gain the advantage in a grappling situation, do NOT perform any ridiculous moves you see on WWE or on movies and telelvision. No body slams, no DDT, no Pile Driver… That shit will seriously injure or kill someone, and there’s a very real part of fighting that you have to consider – what happens tomorrow. If you break someone’s neck and paralyze or kill them, you might be arrested or sued, and no one will let you off with “self defense” when you took the time to perform some ridiculous move on an opponent who was already disabled or overcome.
Plus, there’s the chance that you’ll hurt yourself and lose… And again, losing is counter to the goal of this guide.
In all of the following situations, fleeing is the optimal response. Get the hell away from the situation and live to fight another day… These situations are unfair, and to be honest, anyone putting you in these situations is out to hurt you in ways that go far beyond simple matters of pride or minor altercations.
Assuming flight is not an option, try to keep the following in mind:
- Facing a much larger / stronger / better trained opponent: stay fast, stay away. Don’t allow them to grab you, and avoid any and all strikes if possible. Look for an equalizer – gain elevation on them, grab a weapon, throw dirt in their eyes. You need to bring them down to your level if you want to stand a chance… Otherwise, enjoy your ass-beating.
- Groups of two or more opponents: Find a corner and get into it. Don’t allow them to surround you, no matter what happens. Lash out as hard as possible at one opponent, then immediately move to your strong side and take out the next. Get one guy in front of another – try to keep yourself fighting one person at a time. Again, a weapon or equalizer of some sort should be sought. Go for one-attack-per-person until you break them up and can get out of the situation. If you do find yourself surrounded, attack the man in front of you, then immediately go for the one behind you, turning to face your left and right opponents once you can create a break in the circle.
- Opponent has a weapon: Get as many objects and as much distance between you and your opponent as possible. Find a shield or other object to deflect the force of a blunt weapon. If the weapon is a knife or other blade, you need to get it stuck in something that isn’t you as quickly as possible. Knife fights look daring and crazy in the movies, but in reality, they bleed you until you die. As an interesting experiment, get your friend to arm himself with a red marker and try to fight him without getting any ink on you. Take a look after the fight to see just how many times you would have been cut. More than once anywhere on your body, you would have died. Once anywhere in your gut, you would have died. Knife wounds are serious. Get the hell away from it.
Final Thoughts And Tips
- It’s so important, it bears repeating – confidence wins. Go into a fight with the attitude that you’re going to get your ass kicked, and you’ll get your ass kicked. You want to win? Throw as much bravado and confidence at your opponent as you can. Even if you know they’re better, they don’t know that you realize that. Just keep roaring and flashing your feathers like nature dictates you should. At the very least, you might lose the fight, but the next guy who wants to mess with you will know you won’t go down easy and might think twice about attacking you.
- Always maintain awareness of your surroundings. Know where your exits are. Know if your opponent has friends in the crowd. Know where to grab a chair, bat, or other weapon – especially before your opponent can.
- There’s no such thing as a fair fight if there’s no money on the line or men in striped shirts judging you. You need to win. More than that, you need to not lose. These goals are paramount. Keep them in mind at all times.
- At any point you get the chance, disable your opponent. Take out the eyes. Take away the breathing passages. Remove mobility. An opponent who cannot see you cannot fight you. An opponent who cannot breathe cannot attack you. An opponent who cannot move cannot pursue you.
- Above all else, remember that standing up for yourself is hard, and sometimes it can hurt… But nothing hurts more than being someone else’s bitch. And so long as you are willing to stand up for yourself, it won’t matter if you lose this one fight – you’ll win respect from your opponent and anyone else considering taking you on, and that’s worth fighting for.