A fight’s a fight, isn’t it?
Yes. No. Maybe? Different people think about fighting in different ways, with different assumptions, and often those different ways don’t mesh with the realities of a situation when fighting skills are needed most. The term “fight” has become many things to many people. One person views a common fight as a barfight. Another thinks of a MMA fight in a ring. Another still imagines a mugging gone bad and now involving a life-or-death struggle. Someone else might think of being jumped by Bad Guys™ out to kill them for some perceived slight. Yet another thinks of resisting a bully. In a way, they are all right, and that’s a problem when trying to think about how martial arts training can best mesh with a fight outside the training hall.
In order to really enable a useful discussion of how martial arts or other training relates to fights, it helps to be very specific. Outside of war and other professional physical violence, there are three main types of physical conflict, by which I mean adversarial, non-compliant altercations. These are: contest, dominance, and predatory, and they are categorized based upon their defining goals. Note that there can certainly be cases in which the lines between them can blur, depending upon the individuals and any contributing context.
These types of fights are characterized by a desire to test the participants against each other. There are mutual rules, both explicit and implicit, that cover a wide range of possibilities. Contact can be light (or even no-contact) to full power and full speed. Contests can be paused at each contact, or the exchanges can be non-stop, using rounds or not. There might be armor or protective padding, and weapons are usually padded or otherwise made less deadly. There might be limitations to the choice of targets or the techniques allowed. Since we don’t live in gladiatorial times, death and similar mayhem is not normally on the table. There is an agreed-to honor code among the participants that forms the basis for the rules of the contest. Usually permanent damage is also off the table, though some incidental damage is to be expected, including accidents.
Contests certainly include all sorts of combat sports events, such as boxing, MMA bouts, tournament matches, sparring in class, fencing matches, stickfighting tournaments (ranging from live-stick-no-pads to padded-sticks-and-armor), etc. But they can also include certain adversarially-oriented contact drills, such as reaction drills or root-disrupting drills (push hands, chi sao, etc).
Each person in a contest type of fight is a willing participant, the goals are the same, and the rules are the same, so these types of fights are unique in that they are “fair” and that the end conditions match for all parties. Contest type fights are generally quite commonplace in martial arts and are fairly benign, but tempers can heat up and things can escalate to the next type of fights.
These types of fights are characterized by a desire to establish or maintain a sense of dominance for the purposes of impressing others, or for preserving a sense of honor or “face,” or to enforce the rule of law. (Note that I’m specifically leaving aside law enforcement, war, and other professional violence considerations for now – those could be a whole series of articles itself!) For dominance type fights, there are usually some implicit rules, but they are more than likely not mutual, meaning that the one committed to more extreme measures will be less inhibited and more likely have the upper hand – they will have escalation options not open to the more inhibited combatant. Like contests, death and permanent damage are not the primary goals and are usually off the table, but tempers can flare (sometimes due to the differences in the assumed rules).
Dominance related fights span the breadth of non-contact and contact, ranging from intimidating looks or words to bullying, to full-on brawls or subduing a Bad Guy™ (detain/arrest). These are the second most likely types of fights for those not in law enforcement.
In dominance type fights, it is not necessarily true that all participants are willing, nor need they have the same end conditions, though that can certainly happen if pecking-order is the primary goal. Many times, the instigator has the goal of domination while the victim has the goal to avoid, escape, or nullify the predator’s attempts. If the predator’s goal is dominance or honor, once the desired effect has been obtained, the fight is over. However, in a dynamic situation involving both revenge and/or “face,” eventual retribution could still be a factor later, and it can also be a bridge to the next type of fights. If the goal is to subdue, the fight might be over when that is achieved, but the struggle will remain a possibility while the subdued person looks to escape or re-engage, perhaps at the next type of fight.
These types of fights are characterized by the instigator’s desire to victimize or take something from their target, whether it be possessions (valuables or people), control (rape), or even safety (health or life). Victimization itself is the goal, with a secondary goal of not getting caught. Once the interaction becomes physical, it is almost guaranteed that there are not any implicit rules whatsoever – but it really depends on the nature and commitment of the predator to either obtain their goal and to avoid being caught. Certainly, if the goal is more than valuables, then serious damage or even death are most likely on the table.
These are the least likely types of fights, the most unique in terms of commitment and unpredictability, and they are probably for what most people think they train but hope they never have to use.
The predator is almost always the only willing participant, and they are the ones that get to set the initial level of escalation – often directly to the level of their goal. The victim’s main goal is to not be victimized, whether by avoidance, escape, nullification, countering, or disabling the predator. Once the predator attacks, it is possible that the victim must overcome a natural resistance to escalate appropriately, and the predator depends upon this. The predatory fight is only over when the predator reaches their goal (which could be long-term) or the predator can no longer continue the attack (i.e. the would-be victim avoided, escaped, nullified, countered, or disabled the predator).
The following article will use the framework I’ve outlined above to discuss what works in fights, why, and how to get there in your own training.