When to Fight? Why is this a Question?

Posted by: John W. Zimmer
Under: Self-defense
22 Aug 2010

Reading blogs and comments I think the question of when to fight or run can be a bit confusing to those who have never faced this decision. I mean if someone confronts you behind a bar on the way to your car – what do you do? Your best choices are to diffuse, acquiesce, frighten, flight or fight normally but most do not see all of these choices.

  • Diffuse = talk your way out of a confrontation – maybe offer other outcomes the attacker likes
  • Acquiesce = I mean take the lesser of two evils… give up your wallet if you can do it safely… I would not suggest giving up your life
  • Frighten = if he pulls a little knife on you  – You pull out a bigger knife, gun, or pepper spray
  • Flight = this is if you have a reasonable chance at success – you can get away
  • Fight = if there are are no other reasonable choices – you are left with fighting for your life – note this makes sense even if you think you have no chance at success – you might just get a momentary advantage and run away

Disclaimer – I am not really talking about how reasonable it is to just give up. There are some discussions about taking acquiescence to the next level – let the attacker have their way and hope they will let you go. While it is my opinion that this not a safe choice as you leave the power of your life in your attackers hands – a person you already know has no regard for your safety. So that being said if giving up your purse or wallet does not sasify the attacker – you have to make the best decision for you – and (hopefully) live with the consequences.

Most have heard of the fight or flight response where the body prepares for action when stressed but what of the actual decision? How does one decide the proper course of action? While I’ll touch on the different choices above, the main point of this post is how and when you make the decision to fight!

In this post I will try to help the reader see the decision making process that one goes through if confronted with a fight or flight response in a trained fighter. The reason I am speaking of the “trained fighter” is I am not going to deal with how unprepared people deal with attacks – I think that is understood… they use the more simplistic fight or flight response and depends on the body for formulate a split-second plan. While that might just work – there is not guarantee that not any forethought will allow someone to mount a successful escape or defense! Take a quick look at the fight or flight response in this video.




As you can see the human body is capable of incredible short-term boosts in energy, speed, and strength but one even experiences increased mental clarity. In another post I pointed out that time seems to slow down because of this increased mental boost. This clarity can help one formulate the best response for a given situation.


One point to keep in mind is you can only pull out a trick you already know… unlike the old cartoon, Felix the Cat – if you want to run, jump, climb, fight, trick, or spray pepper spray at your attacker – you had better practice and prepare. Here is the old jingle for those of you who know it… but the jist of the cartoon was whenever the cat got in trouble – he reached into his magic bag of tricks and saved himself!




So assuming you have prepared somehow by learning how to fight, run, trick, have a non-lethal weapon or such… the question of this post is when do you react? That depends on your training, ability, and tools on hand for the given situation.


For example I am a former karate tournament fighter who has been in numerous fights while dispensing my duties as a doorman at a bar. I also trained in boxing, kick boxing, and wrestling as a kid and young adult. In addition I was in track and field in school as a kid and well as climbed fences and trees. I was a 9th grade chess champion and I a masters degree in business. I have played with various weaponry including swords, staffs, knives, mace, guns and rifles over the years. I have kept and trained dogs and even liked magic as a kid.


What I am saying is I have all of the tools to react. Now I assume that fighting should not be the first choice in an altercation but rather one should try an avoid, diffuse, acquiesce (to a point), or run first. Why? Because these are all safer alternatives to fighting. When one enters into a fight – no matter if justified or not – one is risking everything! Do not enter into such a state lightly.


Say you cannot avoid, diffuse, give up your wallet (and get out of it) or run? You are left with fighting for your life as the only reasonable alternative – if you have prepared for it.


What if you have not prepared to fight? Fighting back might still be your best option but hopefully you have a plan B like some mace or a stun gun. But I think I’ve covered all eventualities now so lets focus on just the question of when to react (whether fight or flight).


You first go though thoughts like this cannot really be happening to me – or there must be another way out. When you are thinking these thoughts it is generally time to decide and do. It can be a surreal experience and you might seem to have a lot of time to think. Remember this is because your brain function has sped up. You don’t really have a lot of time. After all reasonable course of action has been tried – you are left with fight or flight.


This is where your training comes in. The body can adapt reactions based on how you train. I would go further and say you react how you train. Many fighters have had to adjust their training to do better in matches because merely thinking about how to react is not enough… you have to have practiced it at some point to have a chance at getting away or overcoming an attacker!


So say like me you are not confident in your ability to get away from a young attacker? I am middle aged now so and after having been trained as a fighter – if left no other choice – I would fight anyone or group of any-ones that threatened me or my family. I would try to walk away or capitulate if I could turn over my wallet without letting them get close. But failing that I would fight!


When would I fight? If I waited until they threw the first punch – I probably waited too long. Why? Because any fighter worth his or her salt would not attempt a punch or kick until they had a reasonable chance at connecting – and then follow through! It has been my experience in street fights that the first good strike that connects – turns the tide of the fight.


Generally speaking street fights last in seconds – some up to a minute is trained fighters are involved. Hey but wait a second. What if the attackers cannot fight their way out of a paper bag? I don’t know about you but I depend on my own strengths and not others weaknesses when planing to defend my life! I assume that every attacker is a MMA super star! Once it comes to fighting – I would concentrate on not making any beginners mistakes and not giving any quarter until I won decisively… you now when the other guys were no longer a threat to me and mine.


Sorry I digressed for a moment but when would you through the first strike? When you thought you had an advantage. There is nothing wrong with the sucker punch while you are bargaining for you life! Say three guys are confronting you and you take one guy out – that leaves only two!


Can one guy beat two guys? Sure if he or she is a trained fighter. Back when I first worked the door – my first group fight was when six guys jumped me after I kicked them out of the bar. I managed to flip out of their initial grip – lost my shirt but then I challenged the biggest guy by saying, “fight like a man, one at a time.” Then the biggest guy came at me and I took a half step back, allowing his hay-maker to miss and I counter punched his face. He dropped in front of me… I took out the two next biggest guys like that and then they all attacked again. That fight ended 10 minutes later with three guys (they were left) trying to attack me in the middle of the street. They were scared to attack because every time one came at me – I side kicked or counter punched them… when they all attacked, I ran in half circles and attacked a single guy at a time.


So you see you have to strike if you have an advantage – either by timing or trickery… fighting is not fair so don’t try to fight by any rules other then the governing laws in your area. Generally speaking if you make every effort to avoid or get away from a fight… you can reasonably explain throwing the first punch – especially if they have a weapon or there are more than one person AND you did not go overboard… meaning fighting past the point of a credible threat.


So getting back to the decision – you do not want to depend on, that you can always find a way out… no – rather you have to be willing to go for broke if you have to… and put your training (hand to hand combat, weapons, mace, or your dog) to good use. After all freezing will not accomplish anything positive. If you freeze up – you might as well have just gave up.


How do you avoid freezing? Practice your negotiating skills, running, magic, weaponry and fighting often. Even if you are an old fighter like me – get out to the garage now and then and kick the bag. You have to give your body a reasonable chance to have the confidence that resisting is the best course of action! After you fight back for the first time and succeed – your brain will begin to believe you can defend your self.


What if you never get attacked? That is the ultimate goal! That means your confidence, choices in life and training has kept you and yours safe! There is no need to test yourself. I read many martial artists questioning what their response would be if they are ever attacked. I have the answer! You fight the way you train. If you train for fighting and take reasonable steps to avoid fights… if you ever have to defend yourself – you will have the best chance for success! A way better chance then the piece of slime that made the mistake of trying to take you out. They don’t know how you have prepared for this day most of your life!


I’d like to close with a story that will demonstraite when one might have to jump off of the fence and fight. Say you are day hiking and come on a couple of bums. Now normally bums are meek and beg for money but some just pretend to be beggars and really will take advantage of you if they get you alone. Say one of them pulls a kinfe and you are middle aged like me. So running is not a good option as they guys are young alcoholics… still in semi-youthful.


What would you do? Be aware that you are in the middle of nowhere… if they stuck you and hid your body – you might never be found.


What I would do is keep a safe distance and negotiate. Because of my karate training I would be confident that I could take two bums with knifes if it came to it but no reason to temp fate.


Keeping a safe distance (out of their punch, kick, and knife range) I would throw them my wallet. Remember running is probably not a viable option in this case or I would throw my wallet one direction and run the other.


Assuming the bums were happy with my wallet – I would get back to civilization as fast as possible – all the while keeping a look out for a trap.


If the bums did not go for it I might pretend to tie my shoe laces (grab some sand) and throw sand (before their attack) in one’s eyes and attack the other with some hard kicks (all the while looking for a stick or rocks that might even up the score).


If I had the chance and they were still aggressive I would take out one by any means necessary (to remove the threat and only have one to deal with)… this I think would be justified as my very life hangs in the balance… they had their chance to back up the threat – now I would be fighting for my life.


Unfortunately as this attack did not happen in the city where I might yell “FIRE” to get other people to look and possible help – call the police – I would be left with fighting until they backed off or having to end it by removing their ability to threaten me. Given the choice I’d gladlly break an ankle rather then take their life – but make no mistake – one way or another – If my life it threatened – I would do whatever it took to try and be safe.


To stay safe I would throw the first punch if I was facing overwhelming odds or if I was fighting a single guy – I would step of of range of his first strike and counter effectively… you have to decide when and how to respond.


So to answer the question posed by this post… yes when to fight is a question to people who have not considered fighting… and generally it is too late to first consider it if you are being attacked. You have to know how to react and your range of choices. So I say to you that when to fight should not be a question but rather your answer to a threat!

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12 Responses to “When to Fight? Why is this a Question?”

  1. Dr. J Says:

    I appreciate your well thought out column on when to fight, John! I’m glad I don’t have to face this question very often :-)

    I do tend to think about many of the things you mention. It is not in my nature to be the aggressor, but I do have it in my mind that if someone is threatening me, and tends to talk about their intentions, I will probably strike first, no talking.

  2. Matt Klein Says:

    Made a lot of good points John. Avoid the fight if possible, that is the best course of action. You never know what can happen, lucky punch, guy picking up something, arrival of friends, too many variables. Like the advice about fighting multiple attackers–stay on the periphery and fight one at a time. Challenge and defeat biggest one, that demoralizes the others. Yes, sometimes you have to hit first, if the situation calls for it.
    Matt Klein recently posted..Kids Karate Tournaments- Good or BadMy Profile

  3. Wang Says:

    To know when to fight we first have to have decided what we will fight for. It sounds like common sense, but i think it should be written on paper and seriously thought about every now and then. That will later on take on spot contemplation out of the picture.
    Now that we have decided what we are willing to fight for, we have to study how that fight would likely arise. For example, i decided that i am willing to fight the moment i feel that there is a threat to my family or myself and would therefore have to study the imminent signs of attack. What kind of person would put me in that kind of position and how would they do so. Why would they choose that method of attack. How would that make me at an advantage/disadvatnage. What is the “trigger” that will set my body into “attack” mode. These are all things that we have to take into account when deciding when to fight.
    But on thing is for sure, you dont ever wait for them to throw the first punch!

  4. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hey Dr. J!

    I’d take the first strike too if the situation called for it. You make a good point about about not having to face this decision very often… it is better to have rules like for instance if someone gets inside my critical distance and threatens me… there is only stick or move! :)


    Never enough said about avoidance. I remember when I was a new black belt… friends asked me what I had to worry about if street thugs were acting up… I told them that because I can fight does not mean it will always go my way… like you say… too many variables to say for sure. Great insight Matt.

    Hi Wang!

    I sounds like you have thought this out clearly… Good to have a plan in place and like you I have considered this. For me I use the critical distance model to decided if I first can afford to lay back.

    If the attack is verbal and out of range – I can afford to avoid, appease, or run. If they step into my range or are moving that way…. I can either stick or move… no other real choice.

    I could move a half-step back or sideways and then counter if I was fighting one guy (If I knew that). Thanks for your well thought out outline Wang.

  5. John Says:

    This is another useful post about martial arts. I love reading it and I am pretty sure others would say the say thing. It’s very important to learn self defense. :)
    John recently posted..The Little Engine that CouldMy Profile

  6. Kenneth Says:

    Nice article and insights! I couldn’t agree more on that, a trained fighter should find a way to avoid a fight then fight as he was trained when no other option is available.

  7. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Thanks John! Thanks for commenting.

    Hi Kenneth! Agreed. The point of learning a martial art is to not have to use it if possible.

  8. Dorothy Says:

    Like you, I also have all the tools to react and that’s the main reason I opted to really learn self defense techniques, for my safety, security and protection as well as for my kids too. However, I have not yet experienced such situation but if in case, I will. I will first maybe give what they want but if they show that they will not be satisfied by it then I will use my skills. I am not proud yet of my skills, I’m not a master or anything and I’m still honing it but at least I have some knowledge and have been training eversince.
    Dorothy recently posted..Staying On Your Feet For More Effective Self DefenseMy Profile

  9. MarciaisBrasil.blog Says:

    I made an approach in my blog about your post, citing some parts of your comments that I liked (your credits). If you could check it, I would be grateful: http://marciaisbrasil.blogspot.com/2010/09/senador-cria-projeto-de-lei-que-poe.html

    Thank you!
    MarciaisBrasil.blog recently posted..Senador cria projeto de lei que põe auto-defesa nos currículos escolares! – Califórnia- Estados UnidosMy Profile

  10. Ronald Says:

    I have been following most of your blogs and I am quite impressed with all the numbers of responses posted under your blogs. You always put a lot of good points and I have actually noted your site for future visit.
    Ronald recently posted..The 3 Basic Self Defense Tactics That You Can UseMy Profile

  11. Erwin Says:

    I like this site a lot and like always I am interested in self-defense.
    You can think situations over and over, but when you get trapped in a violent situation you sometimes have to go with the flow. I bought a new car and drove out for the first time, while I turned onto a parking lot of a great shoppinh mall another car nearly drove into me. Legally I was ok, but I let him pass. That was not enough for the guy, he followed me, and I wasn’t aware of that. I stopped and before I ever knew he opened the car-door and took me by the troath, I could not move because of the seat-belt. I tried to talk to him, but he didn’t react, he only said that I was getting what I deserved. The thing is that I kept calm, reached for a small maglight (2AA-size)and slammed that straight into his nose-bridge. He fell down, got up and ran to his car. He was arrested within 15 minutes, and that wasn’t his first time ! After the incident, my legs shaked and I was afraid and angry at the same time. When the police asked me what happened I couldn’t speak normally … tears of training in martial arts and I took a weapon and I was glad I did.

  12. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Dorthy – good idea… you have to do what you think is reasonable for the situation. If the guy is happy to chase your wallet.. you can run the other way! One good advantage you have is guys don’t think girls can strike… so if you have to – you should be able to get a little head start!

    Hey MarciaisBrasil.Blog! Loved the post… I like how you bring varied content to your website!

    Thanks for stopping by Ronald.

    Hi Erwin! Good show… many get too freaked out to realize they have the upper hand. You know the attacker thinks he has you and does not realize you are formulating a plan. Love the flashlight smash. Great improvised weapon!