Out here in the regular world, where law enforcement is just a phone call away and most bars have bouncers employed specifically to break up fights, fist fights tend to be pretty short. A few punches thrown, maybe some poorly executed wrestling, and unless you’re on your way to become an internet celebrity on WorldStar, people tend to start to intervene — and even when they don’t, fights usually end once there’s a clear victor.

Fighting for survival doesn’t work like that. A fight for your life doesn’t end because one party is willing to acknowledge the other is the victor and, more often than not, no well-intentioned bystander (let alone police officer) is coming to your rescue. If you ever find yourself in a scrap with someone that legitimately means to end your life, the rules play out quite a bit differently than they do between rowdy frat brothers outside a Margaritaville.

Training to defend yourself is a strange endeavor. Thanks to movies and our tenacity for hero worship, we tend to think of training like it’s a suit of armor: we don’t imagine a highly capable Navy SEAL falling at the hands of a poorly trained nobody with an AK-47 in their hands, but the fact of the matter is, most of the special operators we’ve lost throughout the war on terror were killed by nobodies utilizing a combination of luck and seizing their opportunity. That’s not because SEALs, Rangers, Green Berets and the like aren’t as good as we think they are — it’s because underneath all that training and high-speed gear, each and every special operator is still just a bag of meat, susceptible to the same punctures, impacts, and explosions that would have killed them before they earned their elite titles.

A fist fight that turns into a life or death struggle with a burglar is different from the combat situations most special operators find themselves in — with one notable exception: the likely outcomes. Either you’re going to die or he is. In that moment, training can either be a weapon you carry with you into that arena, or it can an interesting footnote in your obituary. Don’t believe me? Lots of people know all about the stabbing deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman back in 1995 (O.J. Simpson case) but what most people don’t know is that Goldman was a black belt in karate, and according to a number of expert recreations, may have put up a decent fight against his murderer that fateful night in October.

He lost and was killed though. So, all that time he spent practicing katas, training with sparring partners, preparing himself for a life or death struggle really boiled down to nothing more than a few extra moments of life before succumbing to defeat. Training is important, but at the end of the day, it’s what you do in the moment, how you manage the fight you’re in, that makes all the difference.

There are a million things that go into effectively managing a fight, and many of them don’t translate well into the written word. I could tell you, for instance, not to get tunnel vision when your opponent reveals that they’re holding a weapon, but learning how to balance awareness of the blade with defending against the attacks of their other three limbs is the sort of thing you just have to do, over and over, before you get good at it. The one thing I can impart, however, is perhaps the most important — and can improve your chances at surviving long enough to worry about things like tunnel vision: it’s simple, counter-intuitive, and one of the toughest concepts to impart on new fighters, but it’s integral — efficiency of movement.

Here in the states, we all grew up on a healthy diet of Rocky movies and haymakers. When we fight, we swing for the fences, hoping to land that one-punch knockout we always see on TV. The truth of the matter is, knocking a guy out with one punch is usually more of a lucky break than it is about skill (at least when competing with a talented opponent), and if no one is around to break up the fight, those hay makers are going to empty your tank pretty quickly. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth giving them a try (provided you can do so without telegraphing your intentions so much that you leave yourself open to counter), but chances are that even a few landed haymakers won’t deter an aggressor intent on taking your life.

Most one-on-one fights end up on the ground eventually. We don’t have choreographers in real life, so dramatic roundhouse punches and hooks and jabs soon give way to stumbling feet and adrenaline. Before you know it, you find yourself in the grass, grabbing and feeling for soft spots on your opponent like you’ve been given the green light on prom night. That’s when efficiency of movement needs to kick in. You’re in close quarters, your life is in danger, and this fight isn’t going to end until one of you is unable to go on.

Unable to go on, of course, might mean different things to different people. If my family is in danger, “unable to go on” comes right after “completely dismembered,” but your opponent may be willing to give up their assault after you convince them with a concussion and separated shoulder. The secret is lasting long enough to seize your opportunity.

Ground fighting is different than stand up fighting at a fundamental level. When you’re standing up, every time your body comes into contact with your opponent is about causing harm or defending against it — but when you’re on the ground, you’re constantly in contact with your opponent, feeling your way through attacks and defenses, looking for opportunities while trying to minimize the ones you present to your opponent. Most stand up fighters struggle to appreciate this difference and will keep trying to hurt their opponent through force exerted the entire time they’re in contact on the ground – burning through energy all along the way.

A capable fighter I trained with in the Marine Corps was notorious for this. His long arms gave him a reach advantage when we were standing, but whenever we’d end up on the ground, he’d wrap his long legs around me and try to crush my torso with his thighs. Admittedly, I saw some Marines tap out under these conditions, but no one would in a life or death situation (nor would I while training). Sure, getting squeezed made it harder to breath and even made my ribs feel like that might crack… but I knew I could last longer being squeezed than he could squeezing. All he was doing was exerting force for the sake of exerting it — and eventually, I knew that would tire him out.

If you control your breathing and stay calm, you can even outlast most poorly executed choke holds. As long as air is passing into and out of your lungs, you’re still in this fight. (Wikimedia Commons)

Surviving a ground fight is about more than defending yourself and seizing an opportunity — it’s about lasting until the opportunity arises. When you find yourself tied up with your opponent and you feel them struggling to exert force against you, slow down and think about what the outcome of that force may be. Are they just squeezing your torso or are they sinking a submission? If they’re just squeezing, hell, let ‘em squeeze. When you feel their legs start to give, that means an opportunity is on the horizon.

Staying calm when someone’s meddling their way through a sloppy choke or a poorly executed armbar can be tough at first, and like all things, practice will make you better. Even if you don’t have a chance to train patience into yourself, you can improve your chances at surviving a life or death struggle by simply taking a deep breath and slowing yourself down a bit.

In that sort of fight, you’re going to get hurt. You’re going to want to quit. If you can last longer than your opponent though, you’re going to get to walk away.


Featured image: A Japan Ground Self-Defense Force soldier and Lance Cpl. Justin Peterson, an infantry rifleman with 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, grapple during Exercise Forest Light 16-1 at Camp Aibano, Japan, Sept. 10, 2015. Exercise Forest Light Exercise is a semi-annual exercise designed to enhance to cohesion between U.S. and Japanese forces through bilateral combat training. During the exercise Marines and JGSDF soldiers conducted hand-to-hand combat training exercises such as: Marine Corps martial arts techniques, grappling, pugil sticks and toshu kakuto, which is JGSDF martial arts. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Carlos Cruz Jr./Released)