Look Mean; Avoid Fights?

Posted by: John W. Zimmer
Under: Self-defense
8 May 2010


Ok imagine you are on the way to the airport in a major US city but you have to fill up the gas tank. It is 4:30 a.m. in the morning and you’ve found a station near the airport! Unfortunately this airport is near the barrio and some of the people are plain scary looking.


You get out but wonder if there is a way to keep people from messing with you. I don’t know about you but I’ve lived so many stories like this in my life and learned early on that you have to project an image of “Don’t mess with me!” if you expect bad guys to steer clear!


In this post I’ll try and explore what how you look has to do with your likelihood of getting into a fight. I mean should how you look have any bearing on your fighting ability? Do people prejudge you (wimp – duke)? Should you buy into other peoples realities and try and look the part? To start this off, take a look at this video.





What did you think of the angry glare? If you grew up in any rough areas this is all second nature but for the kids in the burbs – yes you soon learn (hopefully not the hard way) that you have to project an aura of “back off” to those strangers around you. Does that change your attitude in life? Nope… just puts on your game face to the world at large. People are going to have to get to know you to realize you are a friendly person.


I am serious about the image you project in bad areas should be either neutral (like I don’t give a darn about you or the horse you rode in on) or downright unfriendly (like the glare demonstrated in this video).


The reason is to project yourself because muggers do not want to mess with people that are predisposed to defending themselves. Rather the bullies will mess with an easy mark. The kid with his or her head in the clouds for instance will be the easy mark because the muggers can sense fear.




You have to exude confidence like bad, bad, Leroy Brown! Now I’m not suggesting that you truly become a bad man… just look the part or at lease cultivate an angry glare. An angry scowl has kept me out of many bad situations over the years because everyone around me instantly knew they were going to have to fight me if they messed with me.


Having said this – the image I project has nothing to do with reality. What you might be thinking? I mean what does my look have to do with anything? Why would a mugger not mess with me but mess with someone else bigger?


The other person’s reality has nothing to do with your reality. Only you know if you can fight or effectively defend yourself! How you look does not change that. Let me tell you a story.


I was teaching for one of my peers but ahead of my in rank – at this karate school. Larry McCraw opened his school (I later bought the school) in El Cajon, California. The school was in a seedy part of town next to a bar and a biker bar. Well let me just say Larry did not look mean. He wore a beard for a while but then shaved it off. He looked like a skinny kid from Montana that could not fight his way out of a paper bag.


The funny thing about this is Larry McCraw was a top rated fighter in the US in the early 1980’s and had also transitioned into full contact fighting. He also briefly won the world record for sit-ups by doing 50,000 of them.


Larry had to “teach” the local bikers (part of why I have such an affinity for outlaw bikers) “lessons” for the first few months. It was kind of funny to watch a biker strutting into the school with a few of his friends and challenging us. Larry accepted generally by knocking out the offending vermin and having his buddies drag the offender out of the school.


Now here is the funny part – one day I saw Larry had shaved his beard off and I remarked to Larry, “You don’t look mean any more”  and he said, “who cares what I look like, I can still fight” (paraphrasing)!


You see at that point I had a full beard and I was cultivating the “tough look.” I thought that part of learning to fight was looking tough. Well Larry brought me back to the reality of the situation that day. You see that walking confidently and projecting a willingness to fight if you have to is not really important so much as you knowing that you are capable of doing it.


So by now you are wondering what the point of this post is? I have said you have to project a, “don’t tread on me” attitude and it does not really have anything to do with your ability to fight. All true and congruent.


The fact that you can deter some mugging by confidence does not change the fact that the lack of confidence does not affect your fighting ability (you don’t have to buy into the bully’s reality). Let me explain.



So if you scurry along in the alley and a mugger approaches… the fact that he thinks you are easy does not make it so. When I was working as a bouncer at a bar I tried to talk people out of the bar that had to go. I reasoned with them and put up with some verbal abuse.


The worst case of this was a couple of guys pawing the girls. I talked them out of the bar and did not get too pushy. The guys mistook my kindness for weakness. They started getting increasingly verbally abusive until they were yelling that if anyone in the bar was man enough – come outside and they would kick their butts.


At that point I looked back at my customers with a smirk and they knew I had things in hand. I perhaps was too easy on these guys but at the door the guys started punching at me because they truly thought I could not fight because I was not fighting.


I out-punched both of them through the door and one of my buddies tackled one of the guys as I body slammed the other. The funny thing that night is when they started crying I called my buddy off and let them retreat. After the guys were about 30 feet away they were tough again. :)


Arguably my seemingly meekness led these two guys into thinking they could get away with anything. But you see the reality of the situation is the fact the guys had some beer muscle – did not suddenly turn them into fighters. They could not fight their way out of a paper bag.


I could fight but chose to use that only after all else failed. So you see the bully’s reality is not real. They don’t know you from Adam. You get to choose how to portray yourself in a bad area. You get to decide how and when to defend yourself.


Now for my sage advice, always avoid bad situations like dive bars, walking down dark alleys and putting yourself at risk. If you do find yourself around bad guys – don’t let on that you are a nice guy (or girl). Portray a purposeful, confident walk with a bit of a swagger (ok if you don’t swagger well – just look like you don’t care about anything – or mean). Remember that what the bad guy thinks about you does not matter. Your own reality is all that matters even if you are nice to a fault.


And if you cannot portray a nonchalant, confident attitude and are overly nice to everyone – know that your training will pull you through – even if you get in more fights than the next guy. So I think there is some truth to “look mean – avoid fights.”


I’ll close with a song I remember from my boyhood of a man no one would have messed with, Big Bad John.


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8 Responses to “Look Mean; Avoid Fights?”

  1. Martial Arts News 5.9.10 « Striking Thoughts Says:

    […] worked in prison — apparently it worked for Mr. Zimmer, too! The fact that you can deter some mugging by confidence does not change the fact that the lack […]

  2. Dr. J Says:

    Interesting, John. Going to med school in center city Philadelphia, I kept alert at all times. Here in Florida, old habits are hard to break, but I’m more friendly. Still have that inner confidence that is the gift of years of martial arts. I have been told that I project a don’t mess with me attitude. Who knew :-)
    .-= Dr. J´s last blog ..Lab Notes: Lose Weight Quickly for Long-Term Results; FDA Mulls Bariatric Surgery Option for Teens =-.

  3. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hey Dr. J!

    Isn’t Phili the city of brotherly love? :)

    There is a lot to be said for non-verbal communication.

  4. Matt Klein Says:

    Love the funny “how not to get mugged” and Big John. I was caught in the worst part of Paris about 7 years ago after I missed the last train. Put a set of keys in my fist with the longest one poking out. Started down a street filled with pimps, hookers, and lots of would-be muggers on both sides. I walked down the middle of the street, only moving to the side as cars approached, talking to myself. Don’t know if it was the talking or the gleam of silver people could see in my hand, but no one came near me. In fact, no one said a peep.

  5. “Look Mean; Avoid Fights?,” by John W. Zimmer Says:

    […] Click here to read entire blog. […]

  6. Elmer Querubin Says:

    Great post, John! You have to a demeanor of authority especially when you feel unsafe. When I was deployed, because of my position I had to display this demeanor of authority. Which is at the most times mean looking, not smiling, and looking focused, vigilant, and having a look that showed I owned the place.

    I go to the same demeanor whenever I feel the area I’m in is unsafe for my family. It’s usually on a gas station on the way to visit family or on the drive home.

    Anyway, this is good post, John! and Keep looking mean!

  7. Andrew Says:

    I’m 5’7″, am Chinese, and have been told by some people that I have one hell of an intimidating stare. I knew this would come in handy!

    A little known fact about the great Bruce Lee. Mind you he was only 5’7″ himself. In his teen years he had a nickname – the “stare king” – because he could stare down his opponents from across the street scare the living hell out of them before they would attack him and/or his gang.

  8. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Elmer,

    Thanks for the insightful comment! Yep keeping the “mean” face does discourage many!

    Hi Andrew,

    I loved Bruce Lee’s stare. The eyes are the window to the soul or so I’ve heard and with a good stare you can tell others that you don’t wanna mess with me! Thanks for the comment.