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The problems with "street fighting"

The problems with "street fighting"

In this article I want to look at the term “street fight” and what connotations, both intentional and unintentional, that term can have.

In recent years I’ve been making a concerted effort to get stricter and stricter with my terminology when teaching. I feel this is important because loose terminology can lead to confusion and errors in training.

In the Martial Map podcast – one of the most popular podcasts we’ve done – I discussed how it was vital not to mistake “fighting”, “martial arts” and “self-protection” as being one and the same. We also discussed how they were related, and the problems that can occur when one area is mistaken to be the same as the other. If you’ve not heard that podcast, you can find it on itunes and here at World Combat Association members and instructors can also find a full written version of the Martial Map in the members area of

In addition to the careful use of these broad labels, I also feel it is important to differentiate between “opponents” (who we would be facing in a consensual fight) and “enemies” (who seek to harm us through non-consensual violence). In the past I – like many others – was happy to use terms like “assailant”, “enemy”, “opponent”, “attacker”, etc pretty much interchangeably. I now regard that as a mistake because it helps blur important distinctions.

I now try to avoid using “assailant” or “attacker” because both infer a defensive mindset. The bad guy “attacks” or “assails” and you react to that. This is potentially problematic in my view. I am of the firm belief that awareness, avoidance, de-escalation and escape are infinitely better options than physical conflict. So by using terms like “attacker” we are inadvertently assuming they are already in a position to attack. Whereas what we really want to encourage is actions and behaviour that ensure we are not in a position to be attacked in the first place. We do our best to ensure they are never in a position to become an “attacker”.

For the situations that cannot be avoided, the term “attacker” still does not work as it infers that pre-emption is not an option. When we are convinced that a physical response is unavoidable, then we must seize the initiate and use the opportunity it creates to escape. Pre-emption is one of the few things that works with consistency and it’s dangerous to not seize that opportunity as a relinquished advantage can have extremely severe consequences.

Some karateka have an issue with hitting first as it would seem to be against the well established dictate of “no first attack in karate”. This is not the case however as striking first and then fleeing is a tactic advised in the writings of Funakoshi, Motobu and Mabuni and all are clear that “no first attack in karate” is meant to be a moral and ethical instruction; not a tactical one. It means we are never the cause of the violence. However, if we are forced into the position of having to avoid the violence of others, then striking first and escaping is the best way to do that.

To quote Mabuni:

“When faced with someone who disrupts the peace or who will do one harm, one is as a warrior in battle, and so it only stands to reason that one should seize the initiative and pre-empt the enemy’s use of violence. Such action in no way goes against the precept of ‘no first attack’ …the expression ‘karate ni sente nashi’ [no first attack in karate] should be properly understood to mean that the karateka must never take a hostile attitude, or be the cause of a violent incident; he or she should always have the virtues of calmness, prudence and humility in dealing with others.”

The term “attacker” is therefore problematic as in infers that it is the criminal who “attacks” and not the person who is legitimately trying to keep themselves safe from harm.

“Opponent” is also now a term I prefer not to use as I feel it infers the consent one would have for a “fight” or a “square go”. We have opponents in sporting contexts and consensual fights, and the mindset and methodology for consensual fights is not what we need for self-protection situations. The last thing we want is a “fight”. As I’ve said before, “Fighting is what happens when self-protection goes wrong.”

I now find the best term to use is “enemy” because it does not have connotations of being defensive – in action or in mindset – nor does it suggest the consent we would normally afford to an opponent.

So that’s a quick overview of some of the other terms I now try to avoid and the reasons why. So let’s take a look at the term “street fight”.

I think it would be fair to say that the majority of martial artists use the term “street fight” to differentiate between “rule bound consensual conflict” – such as one would find in the dojo or sport – and real violence i.e. it is the kind of violence that happens in “the street”.

I can understand why the term “the street” is useful in making this differentiation and I have no problem with that. I can also understand that “street fighting” can also be a useful term in the way that most people use it. These terms have common usage and we can’t deny that.

As an example, “martial arts” also has a common use. To my way of thinking, “fighting” and “self-protection” are different entities, with “martial arts” being the cultural, physical fitness and character development aspects. However, most use “martial arts” as a cover all term.

Most would also use the term “martial art” to apply to karate, but – if we are being strict with terminology – karate is not a martial art. The word “martial” has it’s origins in Mars: the roman god of war. “Martial” therefore means “warlike” or “related to war”. Karate was not designed to be used by soldiers in war; it was designed to be used by civilians in self-protection. It’s a “civilian” system, not a martial one.

So “martial arts” has both common and specific uses, and whereas I prefer to keep things very tight and specific, I have to acknowledge the everyday way in which these terms are used. What I may mean by those terms, is different from what most mean by them. So when I question the term “street fight” I want to make it clear that I am just putting forward my own thinking around the issue, and I’m not saying the term “street fight” is necessarily problematic when it is used in its “everyday” sense … providing that clarity is given around some of the issues we are now going to discuss.

Personally, I don’t use the term “street fight” within my direct teaching as I feel it can lead to misunderstandings and confusion. To be clear, I don’t see this as splitting hairs or an obsession with semantics. Unclear terminology can be a symptom of unclear thinking. And unclear thinking can lead to unfocused training; which, in turn, can lead to inappropriate actions in very dangerous situations. This is not splitting hairs, but vital distinctions that do need to be acknowledged.

As I see it, there are three key problems associated with the term “street fight” and I’d now like to address each of these in turn:

1, We don’t want a “fight”; and more often than not neither does the enemy.

The use of the word “fight” infers that a physical response is the best, maybe even only, solution to the problem. The bottom line is that a fight is the last thing we want. We want to avoid, de-escalate, escape, pre-empt and if all else fails quickly incapacitate. We don’t want a fight where the winner is decided by who is the best fighter. We should prioritise the non-physical aspects, and if it has to get physical then we pre-empt, and if that does not provide the opportunity to escape we don’t stand off, raise our guard and fight … we incapacitate with brutal, explosive, aggressive and entirely one way physical action. We don’t want a “fight” even when things get physical. And what is key to understand is that the enemy is highly unlikely to want a fight either!

The criminal element does not “play fair” but they will play smart. Whatever it is that they want from you – ranging from your possessions to simply wanting to brutalise you – they want to get it in the simplest way possible … and fighting you is not that way. They are most likely to use ambush, weapons, strength in numbers, etc. It would be stupid of them to stand in front of you and go “toe to toe”.

Anticipating and preparing for a “fight” is not the right way to approach criminal violence.

To reiterate, I know many people who use the term “street fight” who get this and do approach the problem as it should be approached. However, many teachers and students don’t fully understand that “fighting” skills are not what is required and I’m of the view that the term “street fight” can support this misunderstanding.

“Fighting” is not the same as self-protection, and developing fighting skills to the exclusion of all else will not adequately prepare you to effectively deal with the criminal element. We will touch on this again later. The key here though is that the term “street fight” infers that the way to win is to win the fight; whereas in reality we win by avoiding the fight, escaping and not getting harmed.

2, Street fighting is illegal / Self-protection is legal

This is a big one! When teaching and training in self-protection, the law and legal ramifications should not be ignored. As Rory Miller succinctly explained in “Facing Violence” the phrase, “better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6” presents a false choice. It is entirely possible to keep oneself safe and stay on the right side of the law. We have a legal right to protect ourselves from the violence of others; we don’t have a legal right to fight in the street.

As an aside, in some part of the world – certain states in the USA for example – there do exist “mutual combat” laws. These laws are generally there to ensure that people hurting others in the course of sporting events such as boxing and wrestling events are not acting illegally; because it was consented to by all participants. While on paper, it may look that so long as both people consent to a “street fight” they will be on the right side of the law, the reality is that they could well be prosecuted for causing a public disturbance or similar.

Back to the core topic, we have legal right to protect ourselves; we don’t have a legal right to fight in the street. Many of the people I know who have found themselves in trouble with the law because they were “fighting” as opposed to legitimately protecting themselves. Getting suckered into a fight because of ego, anger and poor judgment (alcohol often contributing to that poor judgment) is not a good idea and can have severe physical and legal ramifications. We should not think of it as a “fight” where the winner will be decided by physical technique. Control of ego, keeping our cool, being smart, not fighting, and staying on the right side of the law are our objectives and the means through which we truly “win”.

It’s a huge mistake to say there are “no rules on the street”. There are rules! There are rules in the form of laws which can have very severe consequences if you fail to abide by them. Approaching civilian self-protection as a no rules “street fight” results in the legal side of things being entirely ignored.

To be thoroughly prepared, training needs to ensure an effective response inline with the law of the land. Additionally, it needs to covers what happens after the physical event too. Students should be educated in the law, their responsibilities, their rights, what they should and should not do after the incident. If we ignore all of this we are setting students up to find themselves in trouble legally.

A “street fighting” approach is not only likely to ignore the law; it actually runs contrary to it. Self-protection is legal; street fighting is illegal. It’s very important that people understand this difference and hence fully appreciate that “winning a street fight” is not the same as legally “protecting ourselves.”

3, The term “street fighting” infers that a fighting methodology is an appropriate physical response to violence.

There are many differences between “fighting” and the violence associated with crime. We could do a full article on this – maybe even a full series of articles – but I’ll quickly touch on some key points here.

The first thing we need to address is that many martial artists are blind to this fact because they only have experience of one kind of violence; that of the consensual fight. They fight each other in the dojo, ring, cage or on the mat and get very good at what works in that context. When it is pointed out that things don’t transfer across wholesale, they protest because they know what they do “works”; they have experience of making it work. The trouble is that what works is always dependant upon context. It is not enough to ask if something works or not … we need to also ask the vital question of “works for what”?

Fighting is often very cerebral. The combatants quickly think through the tactics and actions. They identify patterns and potential flaws in their opponent’s methodology and then seek to exploit that. The violence associated with self-protection is far more emotional and explosive.

When we fight we put up our guard, move around and look for openings. Self-protection is much closer and primarily consists of frantic attack and counter-attack. Fighting skills such as blocking, trapping, slipping, bobbing and weaving, etc therefore have a very limited role to play.

When we fight we can seek to provoke trained responses. We effectively seek to play physical chess. In self-protection we don’t have an enemy interested in playing, nor do we have an enemy who plays as expected or by the rules. The result is seeming chaos. We need to embrace and prepare for that chaos. The “complementary” methods we often see when dojo or sport fighting don’t prepare us for the chaos of criminal violence.

To be fair, many who do use the term “street fight” feel the “street” part is what marks the differentials we just discussed. However, most who use the term don’t get these differences and feel a “street fight” is just a “fight in the street” … and for those people the “fight” part of “street fight” can support and bolster these potentially dangerous misunderstandings; and many more besides.

As I said at the start of this article, many people who use the term “street fighting” do so because of what it is taken to mean in everyday speech. I have many good friends and people who I admire who use the term with a full appreciation of the issues raised in this article. My criticisms are not aimed at those people.

My concern is the way the vast majority of martial artists use the term “street fighting” to be synonymous with “self-protection.” I feel it produces unclear thinking which in turn leads to potentially dangerous practises.

A true “street fight” is a foolish and illegal activity. True self-protection is legal and just. By preparing for one we are not preparing for the other.

True civilian self-protection should focus on the skills needed to avoid, escape and defuse situations. It should be in accordance with the law of the land and include what to do after the event. If physical action is required, then the last thing we want is a “fight”. In the first instance, we should strike pre-emptively with a view to facilitating escape. And if that is not possible, then we still don’t want a fight, but instead we aim to incapacitate and facilitate escape with one way, explosive and aggressive action.

While “fighting skills” have some crossover value, physical self-protection is very different from “fighting”. It is faster, closer, more emotional and way more chaotic. The techniques and tactics used to win a fight are far from an ideal fit when it comes to the physical side of self-protection.

In light of all this, I feel the term “street fighting” is largely problematic as is it inadvertently supports many potentially dangerous notions and misunderstandings. If we use it, then it needs to be used carefully. However, for me and mine, it is a term that I have chosen to strike from my lexicon.

“Street fighting” is not a part of our practise. We focus on civilian self-protection and we also train in fighting too. We do however carefully mark the demarcation between the two. Our approach to civilian self-protection covers more than just the physical: we cover awareness, avoidance, de-escalation, the law, etc. We know that these things are what is needed to provide a truly effective solution to the problems of crime and violence.

When it comes to the physical side of self-protection, we don’t aim to “fight to win” but to fight to escape and to fight to keep ourselves safe. We don’t need to “win” the fight. What we need to do to truly “win” is to entirely avoid anything that even resembles a fight. Even when things get physical, it’s not a “fight” we seek but fast and explosive incapacitation. No distance, no guards, no feints, no back and forth … nothing that looks like a fight.

Thinking self-protection and street fighting are one and the same is dangerous thinking which can lead to dangerous practise. Approaching self-protection with a fighting methodology runs counter to the objective and is likely to lead to a failure to avoid conflict, physical harm and legal difficulties.

We need to think long and hard about the terminology we use. In particular, we need to ask if that terminology reflects or creates unclear thinking and unfocused practise? Whether you wish to use the term “street fighting” or not is obviously a personal matter, but I would suggest that all the terminology we use needs to be carefully considered. Whichever way you decide to go, I hope you have found some of the considerations expressed in this article useful.