Knife Fight in Beijing

Dave sent me this video of a knife fight in Beijing. Take a look first:


Here’s what I see happening:

  • They’re having trouble trying to kill each other. There’s posturing, talking (to the other guy and also the girl who might be involved in the whole thing), pauses, etc. throughout the whole knife fight. More on this in a bit.
  • Neither one of the men is very effective. Count the number of stabs, slashes and cuts. Then count how many times they hit.
  • Mr. Black Jacket got very lucky. At 48sec, he tries a clumsy front kick and his opponent comes just shy of slashing him across the leg. Things could have gone awfully wrong right there.
  • His luck runs out at 1min17. Mr. White Shirt lands a cut that sends his knife flying in front of the bus. Mr. Black Jacket is forced to run (and even turn his back…) to save his life. Had Mr. White Shirt charged after his first hit, Mr. Black Jacket would have been pinned against the bus and then…
  • Mr. White Shirt gets serious. Right after disarming his opponent, Mr. White picks up the knife at 1min20, ignores the police officer and runs after Mr. Black Jacket to finish the job. Another key moment in the whole fight.
  • He comes to his senses? At the end of the video, he seems to calm down a little bit and reacts to the verbal commands of the police officer. He even drops the knife.


Some thoughts:

  • The Beijing people have guts. Look at the number of pedestrians, cyclists and guys on motorbikes just standing there and watching the show. Even with Mr. White Shirt coming right at them with two knives, they don’t move. Either they’ve got all kinds of courage or they’re stupid as hell. Personally, I’d be running fiercely if this would happen anywhere near me.
  • This type of knife fight is where Filipino and Indonesian martial arts have a lot of value. There’s a lot of long range fighting going on and a lot of opportunities to do crossing and following cuts to disarm or damage the other guy. You need to know your angles very well but the openings are there. However, not every knife fight is a “duel” like this one. When somebody really wants to kill you, they tend to close the distance differently than these two guys. Which is why I hate a LOT of the knife sparring I see out there: it’s great to learn skills for some kinds of knife fights but suicide for others.
  • Everything is easy, until the other side starts fighting back. IMO, the main reason why neither man closes the distance is because they don’t want to die themselves. Charging an unarmed man with a knife is easy. Charging a knife wielding opponent is something totally different: it takes the highest level of commitment because if you mess up, chances are high you’ll die. That’s why you see both men hanging back so much and trying to land shots without coming too close. As long as the other guy can’t reach them, they’re willing to attack but they don’t want to come too close when they do.
  • Taking turns. Every time one of the men advances, the other retreats. They do not stand their ground to try to finish the fight, they are unwilling to close the distance. Instead, they take turns advancing and retreating every time there’s an exchange.  This is a crucial point.
  • It’s all fun and games until somebody gets cut. When Mr. Black Jacket gets cut and loses his knife, it’s over: he runs like hell. This is a smart move obviously (though running as soon as somebody pulls a knife is even smarter…) and it highlights what I wrote in the previous two bullets: when the other side fights back with equal weapons, fighting is hard. When one side has the advantage over the other, it becomes easier. Not just easier to “win” the fight but also to make the decision to close the distance for doing some real damage. Which is exactly what Mr. White Shirt did as soon as he had the two knives.



  • We can argue about the lack of training these guys had and so on. I’m not going to, but feel free to see that as a decisive factor here. Personally, I think it’s not as relevant as the other dynamics I mentioned.
  • IMO and IME, footwork and timing are crucial in a knife fight like this one. If you look at the fight again, you’ll notice the exchanges are basically along a straight line with some sideways and circular footwork right after. Incidentally, one of the reasons why I do the straight line free-style pushing hands  (starts at 3min10) is exactly that: it teaches you to function while you move up and down that line.
  • Dealing with an attacker who closes in is just as important as knowing how to handle somebody who hangs back and cuts away at the edges. However, these are IMO very different skills and I don’t think there is a lot of crossover between the two.
  • It takes a lot of nerve to stand still or close against somebody with a knife, even if you have one of your own. I think this video is a good example of that.


Some rhetorical questions:

  • If you look at your own training, how many of the knife defense techniques you learn require you to close in?
  • Looking at this video, do you think you’ll have the guts to close in on a knife wielding attacker or will you instinctively back up like these two guys?


Just some thoughts to ponder while you train.


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  1. Good video find and analysis.

  2. The first thing I thought was “they don’t look particularlt commited, they really don’t want to really hurt the other guy” but after reading your analysis I think I understand. It’s probably hard to be commited when your testicles are trying to climb up your throat, because the other guy can cut you when you move in. I’m not sure how I would react. The only thing I can do is to say that in training I am generally VERY good at seizing the moment from the opponent’s horizonat slashing, by jumpstepping in and trapping his knife arm with my palm at his elbow or shoulder and stick my own knife in. But this requires “moving in”. It’s just that when he executes a wide horizontal swing (as they did frequently here) the opening is very good.

    I’d probably back up!

    I would add that at the beginning, many of the onlookers probably didn’t realize this would turn into an actual fight. there was little sense of urgency, and from outside, it didn’t look like they were really trying to hurt each other. That may be why they don’t run away.

  3. Hi, i lived in beijing for ten months. Fights happened all the time, i saw all sorts of people people fighting with all things from plastic bottles to tazers. Never saw a knife but perhaps i was just lucky, my point is because it was so common people either just ignored it or gathered to watch. The “police” intervention was also typical, wait for it to finish then wander up and not actually do anything

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