In the movies, fights are always very clean. Good guy meets bad guy, there’s a stare down, they put up their dukes, and then deliver a perfectly executed sequences of moves that result in a just outcome. Kind of like this:
In real life, fights are messy. Most of the time you don’t even know if they’re going to happen, much less when. There’s a tense build-up where feathers get ruffled, voices get raised, and everyone’s adrenaline starts to flow. And that’s before the unpredictability of the physical altercation itself.
So here’s a step-by-step guide for how to act when you find yourself in a self-defense situation:
Step One: Assess and De-escalate
As soon as someone starts behaving aggressively, you need to do three things at once:
- Figure out how bad it is—i..e., how likely you are to have to defend yourself (or someone else).
- Put yourself in a better position to defend yourself should you need to.
- De-escalate the situation as much as possible.
Lots of people escalate accidentally, because they don’t know how to de-escalate.
When I was a bouncer working in bars, if somebody needed to get kicked out (usually because they were sloppy drunk, getting handsy with a girl, starting to get riled up, etc., and not actually starting to fight just yet), we would ask to see their ID, and then because it was so dark we would say that we needed to go outside to get a better look at it. Once we were outside, we’d hand the ID to the door man and tell the guy he needed to go. This may sound like a really bizarre tactic, but it was incredibly effective—when the guy is inside the bar, he resents getting kicked out and is exponentially more likely to come to blows. But once he’s already outside, he just says forget it and goes somewhere else. So rather than risking the fight inside, we take it outside and it de-escalates automatically.
It’s generally pretty easy to guide yourself and the aggressor into a place where there are no tables and chairs for you to fall on (for example), so you won’t hurt yourself on those if it comes to that. But you need to do this without it coming across as a direct confrontation. “Let’s take this outside” is a pretty threatening way to say it, but if you’re assuming non-aggressive posture, avoiding moving toward him, using non-threatening voice and body language, etc., you can usually move to a clear area away from other people.
A tactic I commonly use is to let the other person know that you hear where they’re coming from. It takes a certain level of confidence to be able to hear that in the first place (training in martial arts helps you develop that confidence), but a lot of times people don’t want to fight, they just want to talk. I’m okay with that. So I’ll listen to them run their mouth for a bit, and then say, “I hear you man, I hear you. It’s real tough. I can’t help you.” Personally I don’t like to apologize, because some personalities smell blood when they hear an apology, and it incites them. But it does depend on the person.
Step Two: Pick Your Game Plan and Act First
Once you make the decision that the fight’s going to happen, start thinking about your game plan. Are you going to take him down? (Usually a good idea, especially if you know BJJ.) Where do you want him to land? What takedown are you going to use? Aggressors don’t think in terms of a game plan, they just want to hit something. Be smarter than that.
But contrary to peace-love-and-harmony-type wisdom, it’s really important to act first. Some people think that you need to wait for them to throw the punch because otherwise it’s no longer self-defense. That’s bullshit. What if they knock you out? What if you slip and fall when they hit you? I’ve been in a lot of self-defense situations, and they can go south really quickly. I’ve seen guys slip and fall and crack their heads and die. I’ve seen a guy fall on his own knife. If you can act first, you get to control the pace of the fight, which is really important—not just because you’re less likely to get hurt but because if you control the fight, your opponent is less likely to get hurt, too.
Which brings me to:
Step Three: Don’t Let Them Up
Ideally, your game plan should include taking the guy’s back and putting him to sleep. That way nobody gets permanently injured, nobody gets sued, and everyone gets to go home to their families.
What you shouldn’t do is let the guy up, especially if there’s any indication at all that the guy is still angry or spoiling for a fight. I’ve seen this plenty of times, where the guy says, “I’m cool, man, I’m cool,” but the guy wasn’t cool! Here’s just one example (start video at the 1:50 mark):
This guy was still inside an altercation and still wanted to hurt somebody. So don’t give him the chance to hit you again—put him to sleep, control him until you know he’s no longer a threat, or immobilize him if necessary.
Step Four: Re-Assess
Look for other attackers. I’ve seen it before where a guy gets in mount, thinks he’s winning, and then gets kicked in the head by the other guy’s buddy who he never saw coming. Be on the lookout for that sort of thing.
And separately, look for the exit. And no, I don’t just mean the exit to the building, I mean the exit to the situation. That’s why putting the person to sleep is the best way to go, because then this step gets taken care of automatically. But the choice between breaking the guy’s arm or controlling him until help arrives, is much tougher, so you need to figure that out. Again, do not let the guy up unless you’re 100% sure that he’s not going to come back and try to fight you again. Keep your cool, and look for the peaceful resolution.
Professor Mikal Abdullah is a 2nd Degree BJJ Black Belt, veteran, father, philanthropist, and founder of Aces Jiu Jitsu Club. You can find her personal Instagram account with the handle @cerebralbjj or just stop by one of our locations and get a session in!