Tactics and Strategies in the Martial Arts

This is kind of dual purpose blog post.  I don’t hit on martial arts as much as I have in the past because I’m focusing more on the writing side of things, but I still study and teach Kenpo so the martial arts are very much on my mind.  For those of you studying martial arts, this is useful information because oftentimes we forgo a lot of the beginnings of the fight in favor of the finality of beating holy hell out of an opponent.  For those of you writing fight scenes, this will give you a bit of an insider look at fighting and very fluid nature of combat.

First up, a couple definitions:

Strategy:  Strategy in a fight is similar to a strategy in warfare.  It’s the overarching goal, the intended end result of the conflict.  This could be escaping with minimal contact or rendering the opponent unable to continue fighting.  Of, if you’re Batman, simply causing a lot of pain is enough.

batman dark knight image 1

Tactic: A tactic is a way of achieving the strategic goal.  If the strategy is escaping with minimal contact a tactic would be placating the attacker.  If the strategy is rendering the opponent unable to fight a solid kick to the knee would be a good tactic.

It’s important to realize that tactics must align with the strategy.  If a strategy is to escape with minimal contact then a ground and pound tactic simply won’t work; a throw and then running away would be more in line with the strategic goal because a throw is very good at knocking the wind out of someone’s sails, giving you time to escape.  Ground and pound is more in line with teaching punks a lesson.

Not certain what happened to her clothes.

Not certain what happened to her clothes, but I’m little leery of questioning her about it.

Most people don’t enter a fight situation without some strategy at least lurking in the back of their head.  The strategy could range from “I want to get this person’s wallet and get the heck out of here” to “I’m going to teach this punk a lesson for looking at my girl.”  Strategic goals in fights, especially street fights, are wildly unpredictable and prone to change during the fight.  This is an important note for writers.  All too often fight scenes in books (and movies) have a very simplistic approach to the rationale for a fight and the tactics and strategy never change.

Strategies can change quickly in a fight because fighting is dynamic by nature.  It’s likely that both people will start the fight with the strategic goal of “winning” the fight, but as it becomes more and more obvious that the strategy isn’t working goals will change from attack to defense.  It’s also important to realize fights can start and end extremely quickly.  The long, drawn-out fights of the movies simply aren’t realistic.  Take, for instance, this:

Three strikes.

Three strikes, you’re out.  This looks very Kenpo to me.

The attacker’s strategy was like to end the fight with one punch.  The tactic was to move in quickly and decisively with a single shot to the face.  If you’ve ever been punched in the nose you know it’s debilitating: sinuses fill out, eyes start watering, it gets difficult to breathe. all in all not a fun thing.  The defender had a strategic goal that seemed to be to end the fight as quickly as possible.  As such, he didn’t limit himself to s a single decisive blow and instead chose a tactic of a defense followed multiple strikes designed to cause mechanical damage, which is pretty much Kenpo’s philosophy of fighting: hit him a lot in places that are going to hurt.  Fights can be over very, very quickly.

Trained fighters can go for a long time in a sporting environment, but even then Rhonda Rousey, in her first MMA fight, took out Hayden Munoz in 23 seconds.  And that’s without doing any of the real nasty stuff like kicking someone in the side of the knee.  Bear in mind, though, that trained fighters are trained to make sure the other person can get up and fight again in the future.  It’s sport fighting, not trying to cripple an opponent.  Back in the old days of Pankration this wasn’t necessarily the case but the ancient Greeks were a pretty surly bunch.

A couple weeks ago someone posted a video on one of the various martial arts groups on Facebook.  It was pretty grainy and wobbly and showed two guys fighting – don’t worry, they were actors – in a parking garage.  One thing led to another and the smaller guy threw the bigger guy and tried to go for a submission using an arm bar.  Problem was, the bigger guy wasn’t looking for a submission and wound up stabbing the smaller guy in the chest a few times with a knife he fished out of his pocket.

The moral of the story was never go to the ground in a street fight.  Plenty of Jiu Jitsu guys disagreed and a huge amount of dick waving took place.  In the end, of course, no one could agree with anyone else, but a good time was had by all.  By which I mean nothing was accomplished.  Shocking, I know, that trained martial artists can rarely agree that other systems might have some valid points.


Shocked. I am shocked.

But it did get me thinking along the line of tactics and strategies in a fight.  In the video there were two very mismatched strategies: the big guy wanted to pummel the little guy and didn’t how much damage he did.  People like this are dangerous.  The little guy didn’t want to fight and when he did engage he chose a strategy of making the bigger guy submit and a tactic that necessitated getting in real close.  His tactic was was a simple hip throw followed by a cross body arm bar.

One of these.

One of these.

Unfortunately, people who are really keyed up rarely submit and the little guy – even though he seemed to know what he was doing – wound up with a chest full of steel for his troubles.

What should he have done?  Submission holds are good for the ring, but in an abandoned parking garage there’s no ref to make sure the guy who just tapped out stays tapped out.  In my opinion he should have done as much as possible to disrupt the attacker and high-tailed it out of there or fully committed with the intent of destroying his opponent’s ability to fight back.  Both could have started with that hip throw. Hip throws are effective (hell, any throw can be) at knocking the wind out of someone and followed it up by either a: bolting or b: stomping on the big guy’s nuts and ankles.  And maybe his face, too, depending on circumstances.

So, then, what does this have to do with writing?  Simple really and it’s mostly character development stuff.  Most people will avoid a fight at all costs.  Anyone willingly entering a fight will have to have a good (enough) reason to fight, something they want to accomplish by fighting, and a plan for how they’re going to accomplish their tasks.  It all comes down mental justification, a strategy, and a set of tactics for accomplishing that strategy.

Last December I wrote a post on Writing the Martial Arts that took apart a Kenpo technique, examined what it would probably do, and tried to make some decent fiction out of that technique.  The general gist was in order to write a fight scene you have to be able to visualize the space the fighters are in and have some idea of how people react to being struck.  Now, to take that a step further – and make the characters that much more realistic – you really need to examine why they’ll fight, what they hope to get out of the fight, and how they’re going to fight.

Not every fight needs to be a fight to the death.

Now, one last little bit.  This video has been floating around Facebook for months now, billed as a US Marine vs a Bohemian Kickboxer.


It’s actually a scene from Never Back Down.  No US Marines or Bohemian Kickboxers (whatever the hell that means) were harmed in the making of this gif.

The funny thing is I work with a couple Marines, one of whom was stationed in Thailand.  He says in Thailand it’s not all that uncommon for anyone to walk into a Muay Thai ring.  Some of the Marines in his company got drunk and tried it.  They got beaten senseless.  Apparently they guy I work with told them “Well, your first mistake was stepping into the ring drunk…”

Military folks are often regarded as being fighting machines.  Granted, hand to hand combat is one of the things they study and there are some dangerous folks out there, but your average member of the military may have only been through a few weeks or months of training.  They’re usually not inept at fighting but they’re hardly unstoppable killing machines.  Except maybe the SEALs.  Those guys are scary.

That’s another little tidbit to throw into your next book.

2 thoughts on “Tactics and Strategies in the Martial Arts

  1. Found this one via a link at the bottom of your latest post. 🙂 I forget you did Kenpo also.

    I’d agree that one GIF looks Kenpo. I think it’s the alphabet soup freestyle drills that more traditional Parker Kenpo schools teach to try to get you to learn to better apply the self defense techniques and think beyond them. I only went to one school that taught them years ago, and it closed fairly quickly unfortunately.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.