Bar Fights; What is the Best Plan?

Posted by: John W. Zimmer
Under: Self-defense
18 Aug 2009


Say you are on  the deck of a star ship, away from your home planet for the first time and you need to blow off some steam with your buddies. Why not stop in at the intergalactic watering hole? But what do you do if you find a creature hankering for a rumble? That is the subject of this post – what you can do to survive the bar fight – anywhere in the universe!


I come to you as a quasi expert in so much as anyone can be an expert because in my youth I was a doorman at a fairly rough bar. I talked my way out of a fight at least every other night in my capacity as a doorman because most people just want to be dealt with respectably. I will relate a few stories about some altercations that I could not avoid and some that I handled poorly (yes I too was sucked into some meaningless tussles). But first watch this excellent video on how to avoid a fight (at least for a little while)!


Did you notice how calm Scottie was and how he consoled Chekhov to remain calm? After all the Klingon was only insulting them with words. And then the Klingon figured out what Scottie considered, “fighting words!” As funny as this episode of Star Trek was, it did roughly mirror real bar fight scenarios.

People all of the time get caught up into silly arguments that seem so important at the time but in reality do not matter much. As an example, on of the toughest fights I’ve ever been in started stupidly. A stocky guy and his woman came into bar and ordered “tall” drinks. The bartender happened to be black and I know he was a great fighter.

The guy yelled at the bartender that these drinks were not talls and told him to make them again. The bartender made the “tall” drinks again in front of the couple and the guy started yelling. The bartender refused to make the drinks again and I walked up from the door to see what was up.

The guy started cussing out the bartender with racial slurs and I noticed the bartender just shrugged it off. I asked the guy to calm down and was about to explain to the dummy that he should have ordered doubles instead of talls (double the alcohol) but he started cussing me out.

I got pissed off and without thinking I picked up the guy from behind and stated to take him outside. He still had the drinks in his hand and was trying to escape. I used his head as a battering ram and open the push bar on the back door and threw him outside. I turned and walked halfway back to the door (I figured it was over) and I heard my buddies tell me to lookout.

I spun around and saw the two talls flying right at me! All I had time to do is two double inward-blocks and luckily the glasses shattered on my forearms without effect. I charged and the fight was on. I soon discovered why the guy was stocky – he was a wrestler. I punched him a few times on the noggin and he went down – grabbing for my legs. I sprawled back and he got a hold of my sash (of my sweater).

The fight was tiring and tested my stamina. I was raining down punches on the back of his head and he would try to come up and I would knee his nose. He was a tough bugger and finally a couple of my friends pulled him back and he left. His woman was upset because she understood why I threw him out but did not understand why I chased him down outside after it was over. I showed her the glass over the right side of the bar and she understood.

Still I felt had I been a little more diplomatic – this whole fight could have been avoided. But like Scottie, I had been triggered by the wrong thing. That is no excuse though so as time went on I honed my conflict resolution skill set.

Here are my list of things to do to avoid a bar fight.

  1. Don’t hang out in a dive bar
  2. Don’t gravitate to the trouble but away
  3. Diffuse the situation verbally and leave if need be
  4. If it looks like it is going to get ugly – find your distance
  5. Verbalize that you don’t want any trouble
  6. Look for an out all the while defending yourself
  7. If it comes to a fight – make your move and get out of Dodge!

I’ve lived by rule number one for a long time now and have only been in two near fights in 29 years! My former boss did not understand one night when I told her that I normally did not hang out in these kind of bars… I think I offended her but so what!

Now by now you have noticed that I have not offered any fighting advice but just some winning strategies. I assume that everyone has some level of training nowadays unless they have lived a sheltered life. But rest assured that the kind of guys that fight in a bar cannot generally fight their way out of a paper bag. Why else would they wait until they were drunk to pick a fight? They are hoping the next guy will even be drunker and they will be bragging rights or some similar “logic.”

Now in closing I will first tell you again that the simplest way to avoid fights is not not hang out in dive bars. Find a high-end classy restaurant bar to meet people and you be happier.

Now for the dumbest fight I was ever in for your perusal. I was a new bouncer, just one month into the job. I invited a few of my friend at the karate school after a Thursday night workout. Terry made me promise that I would not get into a fight. I swore that I would be good (I was a brown belt at the time and really liked fighting).

The four of us went into the bar as I led them through all of the people. About halfway to the table a guy I know came up and patted me on the shoulder a little too hard and said.. heeeyyy! I smiled and patted him a little harder on his shoulder  and said… hhhhheeeeeeeeyyyyyy!!!!

The guy stopped smiling at me and started to do a two hand shove at my shoulders. I met his shove with a reverse punch to his nose and he dropped in convulsions on the floor! At the time I just walked around him and Terry could not believe that I had still ended up in a fight – even after I promised not to! Hey I did not ask for the fight? Or did I?

Anyway the guy was dragged out as he came out of it, 86’ed for the night and the bartender bought us a pitcher on the house. I seemed to have lost the focus of this post along the way. This kind of reminds me of the Ikigai post entitled, “Do all martial artists love violence?” I commented that the younger me only have to believe that I was in the right but the older me might have to do the same, but I’d worry about the opponents family and friends.

So there you have it, my take on bar fights. While I personally loved to fight when I was younger – part of the reason I took a job as a bouncer – the older me has learned lots of valuable life lessons and now I am a strong believer that one should avoid fights if possible because once you are in them – the outcome is not assured!

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9 Responses to “Bar Fights; What is the Best Plan?”

  1. Urban Samurai Says:

    The thing about bar fights is the selection of weapons on hand- bottles, glasses, chairs, tables- I’ve seen people use them all. That’s the one thing you have to be careful of. My dad is still a bouncer in a bar. Just last week he was arguing with a guy who all of a sudden asked to shake my dads hand. My dad wasn’t drawn in, for the guy had a glass in his hand and my dad knew the second he clasped the guys hand the guy would break the glass and try to stick him with it, which he ended up doing anyway, though a distance my dad could handle. He just kicked him in the stomach and the guy dropped the glass, then he was turfed out. A slightly newer bouncer a bit green around the gills may have been sucked into that ploy and got glassed in the face. So you always have to be careful of such things in bars.

  2. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Great point Neil, In a bar fight there are just too many damn weapons easily available! I have lots of memories of fighting guys with pool sticks, balls and such… not fun.

    The other thing I used to worry about is figuring out who was friends with who… you would think two guys were trouble makers and come to find out they were with a larger, mostly peaceful group that would come to the two idiots defense!

    Always better to avoid if possible.

  3. Zara Says:

    This is very useful information and it just goes to show how much we can learn from those more experienced than ourselves (in actual fighting, which is perhaps more important than formal MA-training). In a parafrase on Bismarck: most people just learn from their own experience, if you’re truly smart you should aim to learn from the experience of others. Even a completely untrained person can still take you out if he smashes an ashtray on your head when you weren’t looking or he’s ready to even the odds by using using broken glass to attack when all you expected were empty-hand techniques. In formal training these sort of things are almost never adressed: sure we train defenses against weapons but they’re always objects we readily identify as such like a 70 or 90cm club, baseballbat or a large knife, in reality if there’s a weapon involved you’ll most likely be confronted with everyday objects like pool-sticks, glasses, bottles, small knives… employed with sneaky and underhand tactics and certainly not at the ideal distance with us in the ready/fighting position we’re all so used to. A danger that never even occured to me (while still very real) is the situation John described: being at a bar just minding your own business or doing the work you’re paid to do and all of a sudden having a glass flung at your face! I’ve been training for over 8 years and never (not once) in all those years of training did I see any kind of defense against this (or even a mention of the possibility) and I’m sure this is just the tip of the iceberg.

    Many thanks to both John and Neal for sharing their experiences with us novices and (let’s face it) amateurs when it comes to real, down&dirty fighting. Keep up the good work! I for one am going to talk to my sensei about this and see if we can incorporate some of the things I’ve learned from your stories. It won’t be a fix-all solution to every possible problem but at least we may prepare ourselves and others a little better. Teaching people self-defense is a heavy burden and one that my sensei and I, as sempai, take very seriously. If you teach someone rubbish or didn’t prepare them adequately (within reason of course) then you’re at least partially responsible if they get seriously hurt or even killed. Watching others when you fight to make sure they won’t jump you once your back is turned is another great piece of advice and one that may actually save your skin one day. This reminds me of an interesting post Neil wrote about getting at least some experience as a bouncer in order to test your skills and be better prepared (especially important when you plan to become a teacher like me). I’ll have to think about this and then I’ll write a reply on Neil’s blog, maybe we can carry on the discussion there. In any case it’s been a pleasure learning from you two fine gentlemen. Domo arigato gozaimasu!

  4. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Zara,

    We all learn from each other. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read something and realized that I had not ever quite considered that before!

    I read Neil’s article about becoming a bouncer to learn fighting. I kind of agree because fighting has never been a question for me after working at a bar.

    I’ve read a lot of posts about martial artists theorizing on what would work… well other than guns – I’ve already faced it and know what I’ve learned and how I’ve been trained works.

    Now after I worked as a bouncer – I realized that if I had not – I still would have been able to fight because of my sport karate training.

    Now had I not liked sparring in the school or sport karate, it would have been difficult to transition to real fighting but probably not impossible.

    I’ve said this before but when learning a martial art – take every advantage of sparring opportunities as this will do more to learn how to fight than all of the basics and step sparring.

    One thing, if you do the bouncer thing – be a nice guy. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt. You will have plenty of fights to gain some experience.

    We can all learn if we adopt a critical eye… meaning look at everything and figure out what works and what does not. Then look at why it worked. Can you duplicate it? Is it a move that you are suited for or not? If the move was bad – why was it bad? Can you take advantage of it? I remember trying to blitz guys whenever they changed stances as I knew their legs were crossed for a split second and could not respond well.

    I’m 52 years old and I still get excited when watching MMA, kick boxing, grappling – heck any physical contest. I’m evaluating as I’m watching and if I like something – to this day I’ll still try it out.

    Thanks so much for you insights and kind words!

  5. Zara Says:

    Hi John,

    It is very true sparring is about the single best way to prepare for fighting other than to go out and actually pick fights (rather immoral) or enter competition. I must say in our style (ju-jutsu modified with techniques and tactics from other styles) which is almost entirely self-defense orientated we do not spar alot, at least not in the context of free, all-out, one-on-one standing sparring. What we do practice is a form of randori on the ground (judo/BJJ) without strikes and a form of standing randori where we form a circle with one guy in the middle, the others attacking one at a time with a technique of their choice (grabs, chokes, strikes, kicks or weapon-attacks). While we do not go all out (you do not want to put the guy in the hospital when his defense failed) we do try to attack fast and realistically and give resistance in order to learn how to deal with pressure and to quickly get rid of one attacker to deal with the next. One of the main principles is to always try to keep to your feet, if you do get taken down finish the attacker and get back up asap (otherwise you’ll get choked or stomped on by the second incoming attacker). I do feel this exercise and our training-method in general has alot of benefits but sometimes I get the impression it’s a bit too defensive and I would like to aquire some standing one-on-one sparring experience and learn to attack properly when the situation requires it. In the academy where I train there’s also the possibility to take up JKD (a form of street-orientated kickboxing, great for infighting), kali (a very complete and very effective MA with a main focus on weapons), thaiboxing and mixfight. If my time-schedule allows it I’d like to train regularly in JKD and kali (the arts I feel are most suited to self-defense and streetfighting) with maybe a class in muay thai and MMA every once in a while (they’re sports surely but there’s still alot you can learn from them and they’re great for conditioning/sparring).

    About the bouncer-job: I will think about this as I do feel Neal made some very good points about it and it does seem very exciting but there’s also the risk involved (I can take pain or a few hits but getting stabbed or ending up in the hospital with severe injuries is a bridge too far and this is a very real possibility when you put yourself in harm’s way like that). Perhaps it would be better to first study kickboxing for a while (a year or so) and then give it a try, from what you said I gathered it’s actually a good idea to learn to mount a decent attack and get a good insight into the dynamics of a one-on-one kickboxing-type fight. Another option would be to apply for a job as a policeman, a friend of mine is a cop and from what I gathered from him they’ll be plenty of opportunity to use MA-skills and my ju-jutsu background actually seems better suited to policing (where your first priority is to restrain and cuff suspects and not necessarily in beating them to a bloody pulp) than bouncing and as a policeman at least you have the comfort of weapon-accessibility (at a certain range a gun beats MA anyday) and the authority of the law behind you. Either way it’d be a good idea to get some experience behind my belt while I’m still relatively young (I’m 26) since I do not want to end up a keyboard-warrior or a dojo-only fighter and it is my dream to one day become sensei myself (my time-schedule would be 5 to 10 years max). When you do take on teaching-responsibility you’d better know what’s out there, otherwise what you’re teaching is just hearsay or a form of athletics/dance/culturel exercise. Yet another possibility would be the military: I’m also quite interested in a military-style education but then again it doesn’t pay that much and from what I’ve heard MA or close-combat training is actually one of the lowest priorities (why fight someone bare-handed when you have a machinegun handy?) so there won’t be alot to learn nor opportunity to actually put into practice what you’ve learned. Either way there’s always the reserve: playing soldier a few weekends per year but at least then I’ll actually learn to shoot without having to resort to expensive private-training. What do you think?

  6. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hey Zara,

    You make a good point about wanting some fighting experience but I do not think it is really that important because any well train fighter will do ok in a real fight. Back when I was a bouncer it was almost too easy to fight an untrained fighter that I coined a word for the stupid bravado of the types I fought – beer muscle. :)

    Police work appealed to me when I was younger and as you say grappling would be better suited than striking (and legal).

    The military would not be a great option where I live unless you were willing to go to war. I tried to get into the US Navy when I was a kid (I wanted to learn how to be a deep sea diver and make some bucks when I got out) but my knees were injured from running (training to get my black belt) so they did not take me in the new volunteer Navy. :)

    I would not pick a direction because you want fighting experience but rather pick a direction that makes sense to you. You can always as you say take the JKD/Muay Thai, MMA to supplement your striking game… and believe me a trained fighter will not have any problem with self-defense.

    So in review, put your dreams first and everything else will fall into place. :)

  7. Zara Says:

    Dreams? Right now the only thing that I still care about and what still makes sense to me is training. My academic-career is pretty much down the drain and the rest of my life isn’t exactly fun and games either. The only thing I’m fairly good at it is MA, why not try to make a few bucks out of it? As for the military: since I happen to be living in one of the most god-forsaken pacifist countries on earth with a military worth shit – the army hardly gets enough budget to stay operational, let alone fight a war, and personnel has been cut back to 37.000 men (and that’s for the three branches: sea, air and land) – the chances of being sent overseas (even for simple peace-keeping mission) are minute at best. Even guys perfectly willing and able to serve abroad (in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Africa) usually don’t get the chance, go figure. Hell, if I’d be living in the US I’d welcome the opportunity to get a good education and go to war. At least it’d be exciting and one hell of an adventure and if I’d happen to get killed in the process lets just say that would be the least of my worries. Death is the garanteed end-result of life (whoever you have been or whatever you may have done) and at least that way you’d die a noble death in service to your country (however wrong the reasons for the invasion) and you’ll be doing it in decent company. Truly: I thoroughly despise the people I’m forced to deal with everyday and the [m]ucked-up morals in society these days (no respect whatsoever, materialism and consumerism everywhere, no justice and promotion of stupidity, incompetence and plain evil selfishness).

    I don’t want to bitch and moan (it’s not my style) or whine about my personal life but by the gods it’s hard to see how I could have possibly done any worse (except for training and MA-ability) and the only thing that is keeping my self-esteem intact is the knowledge that this isn’t my fault (not completely anyway) and that I’ve been dealt some pretty rotten cards to begin with. At least in the MA and Zen I still find values and goals worth striving for and peace, tranquility, honor and friendship that is missing in the rest of my life or in the people I’m generally dealing with. At least fighting is honest and true (you know what to expect and you can actually retaliate), psychological warfare and having to deal with other people’s shit is far more difficult and almost impossible at times. Truly: stay away from those that are suffering (however close they may be to you) for sooner or later you will be infected by it too. On top if that you can forget about being thanked and recognized for your efforts (let alone helped when you need it): human-beings are the most ungrateful creatures on earth (they do not want to be reminded of past misery), all you’ll get is lies, bitching, betrayal and even more shit than you originally had to deal with. The closest thing I ever got to a father and proper male role-model was my old sensei (now there was a guy you could respect and admire) and nobody ever taught me how to live life to the fullest and be a good, honest and honorable man. I had to find that out for myself (probably the reason why it didn’t work out so great) and unlearn a whole lot of bad habits from my so called parents and role-models.

    Ah well, this is completely off-topic, feel free to delete it if you must and thanks for the advice and the generally enjoyable and fruitful discussion.


  8. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hey Zara,

    Being a good martial arts instructor is a noble occupation. As far as life – yes it is challenging at times. I bought a Karate school young without a business education and was not too successful with money. I did make a lot of lifetime friends that I have to this day.

    As far as education – I did not have much until I started college in my late thirties. I finally got my Masters in Business Administration at age 50. I don’t really need it but used it as insurance in my employment strategy.

    Life will go better and worse and dreams will seem like they cannot happen at times. Just keep the faith and eventually things will work out.

    A quick overview on my life from 1986 through 2000… I worked several jobs, got laid off for 6 months while I was learning job skills (computers)… I had two newspaper routes on the side and in the 90’s I was working full time, throwing two newspaper routes and going to college full time… for a couple of years I was a walking zombie!

    No matter I had a family to support and I remember looking up at the stars (I started work at 2AM) some mornings wondering what it would be like to just work one job and make enough money… eventually (after 14 years) it happened because I just kept trying to better my lot in life.

    Hang in there Zara – Happy you are commenting and adding value to martial arts concepts!

  9. Zara Says:

    Hi John,

    Thanks for your wise and kind words, you’re obviously speaking from experience and this is to me is both proof for the truth of your words and an example worth keeping in mind. You know you remind me of my grandfather (not that you’re that old or anything, lol): an honorable, kind and hardworking man who basically had nothing to begin with yet managed (through iniative, hard work and determination) to start up and maintain his own business and shop and supported and put through college a family of 7. I’ve never heard a harsh word from him and he treated all people with respect and honesty, almost the complete opposite of my father really. Too bad he passed away years ago (before I was fully grown up), it would have been cool to be able to talk to him about this and ask for his advice. In fact both my grandfathers were honorable, decent men: while my grandfather on my father’s side was fairly well off to begin with (he came from a good family) he too took proper care of his family and had his fair share of hardships (he became a refugee when the Germans invaded and had to be responsible for his younger brother), beats me why my father turned out such an egotistical jerk.

    Anyway: I truly would like to someday become sensei myself and maybe own my own school/dojo so I guess I do have a dream after all. I doubt I’d be able to live off it though: it takes a respectable amount of starting-capital to begin with (like any business); you’d have to find a decent building and cough up the dough for equipment and possible reconstructions. On top of that it’s fairly difficult to find people who’d be willing to share in the teaching-responsibilities: to become profitable a dojo has to be able to offer classes at least every evening, preferably in a few different arts and that simply is too much for one man to handle. I’d settle for a small, private dojo where I’d be the only teacher, preferably in my own house of course, and train a few dedicated students. In the end quality always beats quantity and the main thing is to improve people’s lives through the MA and carry on the tradition. Clearly we’re not there yet (I still need a lot to learn and plenty of experience in handling all the affairs that go with teaching) but at least I’m on the right track.

    I do think I have a knack for teaching: although I’ve only done it a few times (by myself) my sensei trusts me and the students seem to be happy with my performance up till now. One of our female students even came to me after class and told me that she finally understood a certain technique (one that we’d been working on for weeks) because of my approach and attention to detail. Next Friday sensei’s out of town (knife-seminar) and he asked me to take over the class, even though I’ve been pretty down lately I’m actually looking forward to it and have already made a plan for that class (probably way too much for two hours but hey, we’ll see where we’ll end up).

    I’ll keep track of your writings and reply once in a while when I feel I can make a positive contribution (meaning the subject is within my area of expertise and experience), I know my words and thoughts probably aren’t that impressive in the eyes of someone who’s been training for such a long time but then again I’m sure you would have told me if what I wrote was total rubbish or inaccurate. In any case I enjoy reading about and discussing the MA, training and everything that is part of it.