Why the untrained fighter kicks your highly trained butt.

I just found this comment by Iain Abernethy via Facebook and it’s well worth reading. He covers one of the oldest but most persistent myths you find floating around in dojos and martial arts gyms. The one that says: “Your typical street thug is untrained and therefor he doesn’t fight very well.” The conclusion that follows out of this myth is that you, as a trained martial artist, can easily handle that brute strength, clumsy, untrained crap he throws at you. The result of that conclusion is all too often a mindset of “Dude, I’ve got it. I can handle myself. Look at my Kill Face!

Sometimes they’re right and they actually can take care of themselves. More often than not, they’re absolutely wrong. Just because you are trained to handle certain things, it doesn’t mean you can automatically handle others no matter how similar they may be. And even more importantly, no matter how much you think you can. Right off the bat, we run into the classic problem I’ve mentioned here ad nauseam: the differences are just as important as the similarities.

I’ve written a lot about this in the past so I won’t rehash it today.  Suffice it to say I think it’s crucial to understand and apply this concept to make any true progress in whatever art you practice. I’m also going to take a slightly different approach than Iain (though I’m in total agreement with his words) and it’ll take a while for me to get to the final conclusion. So please hang in there until the end.

Similarities, differences, equally important....

I can do it! I can do it!

In a way, nothing fails like success. Take the example of the leg kick, one of my favorite techniques:

  • I’ve knocked people out with it.
  • I’ve made people cry after landing it.
  • I’ve used it to distract them so I could hit them in the face.
  • I’ve used it to scare stronger fighters into keeping away from me to avoid the pain they cause.

To me, this technique is real and reliable. I know so, deep down at gut-level, because I’ve experienced the results it yields over and over. I have faith in the technique that if I can land it (which is always a big “if” but let’s say I do), then the other guy will be in a significant amount of pain. 

So why am I not teaching it to my students as the most effective kick you can throw in a street fight?

Because it isn’t.

In the instances I described here above it worked fine for me but there are qualifiers (just another name for “differences”, really) you need to know about. Here are some of them:

  • In the vast majority of these cases, I was in a sports-fighting environment and not on the street. Huge difference.
  • I’m a heavyweight. Even with less than stellar technique, I weigh enough so it’ll hurt regardless which technique I use.
  • This is especially true when I face lighter opponents. I can usually take their best leg kick but they can’t take mine. It isn’t fair, I know, but it is still true.
  • Despite the previous two points, I’ve worked very hard to improve my leg kick technique. As in, I spent 20 years working on it almost every day. That training has made it an even more effective technique for me.
  • I’ve worked exceptionally hard at timing my leg kick correctly (thank you Rob Kaman!). Not only to do more damage to my opponent but also because I don’t want him to block my leg kick; that stuff hurts.

There are more factors but I’ll leave it at that.

What this all boils down to is that I have both training and experience with this kick. This is a key issue and I’ll get back to it at the end of this post.


Now to illustrate my point, please watch this exceptionally lame “street fight”, in particular 25sec into the clip.

What do you see? Lo and behold, a leg kick! And what happens? Nothing… Well, the black kid does lose his shoe so something did happen. But other than that? Nope.

The “fight” goes on for about 9 more minutes and the leg kick (along with most of his other tries at kicking techniques) is pretty much useless. So when the kid later sees this video and watches the leg kicks he threw, he can only conclude it’s a crappy technique in a real fight. And he’d be right. In his case, he is better off not using it.

  • But I’ve thrown it in the street and had people pick up their marbles to go play elsewhere right after it landed.
  • A good friend of mine used it on a guy who pretended going for a gun inside his jacket and dropped him to the floor, too traumatized and in shock to do pretty much anything afterwards.

So for us, it’s a violently effective technique. How can we be right and simultaneously, the black kid be right too?

Well, however said fighting was black and white? Whoever claimed it was an either/or thing? Why can’t we both be right?

Which brings us back to the original similarities vs. differences subject I didn’t want to go over again, but it seems I can’t escape it… I’ll try though and instead focus on what’s wrong with the black kid’s leg kick:

  • It lacks power because he’s swinging from the leg and not kicking with his hips. It’s not even a decent half-hip turn.
  • The angle is off. He’s sliding more than he is cutting into the big kid’s leg.
  • He’s not stepping in at an angle. This in and of itself robs the kick of power.
  • He is kicking a much heavier opponent. Had he been fighting somebody his own size, he might (I repeat, might) have had more success with the kick. But on a much heavier opponent, you need extremely good technique to do damage and not get countered.

All these factors together make the smaller kid’s leg kick useless for him in a fight.

Now let’s focus on the last point: using the leg kick against a much bigger opponent. In most cases, this is a dangerous proposition. Because the leg kick typically places you within range of your opponent’s punches. And as most people, even big guys, can punch faster than they can kick, you run the risk of getting countered. Given the weight difference, in most cases he doesn’t even need to hit you all that hard to do damage; he only needs to land his shots

Or does he?

Here’s a classic match up between Ernesto “Mr. Perfect” Hoost and Bob “I say I’m a beast but actually I’m a pussycat…” Sapp. The fun starts at 2min40sec.:

 It takes Ernesto about one minute and ten leg kicks to have Bob limping in the ring… Granted, he then stays too long in front of that behemoth and gets punished for it but that’s not the point. The point is:

Throwing leg kicks at a much bigger opponent is usually a bad idea, unless you are technically proficient, experienced and in good shape.

So the general rule can be broken. Clearly not by the small black kid of the video against his much bigger opponent. He simply lacks the skill, experience and muscular strength to do what Hoost did.


What’s all this have to do with trained vs untrained fighters?

Let’s start with this: I could just as well have written the above sentence in bold italics like this:

Throwing leg kicks as an untrained fighter at a much bigger opponent is usually a bad idea. Unless you are technically proficient, experienced and in good shape. In other words, unless you are a trained fighter

So the conclusion is that a trained fighter like Hoost has certain skills and tools available that allow him to do the very technique an untrained fighter can’t. Because of his training, he has those skills and tools. Because of his lack of training, the untrained fighter doesn’t.

The second factor is experience. The more actual experience you have of pulling off a technique in a live-fire situation, the more skilled you can become. I think this is a given.

OK, here’s what I wanted to get at:

What if the opposite is also true?

What if there are certain things an inexperienced trained fighter can’t do and an experienced untrained fighter can? 

I think this is true.

An untrained fighter with lots of experience fighting in the mean streets has faith in his techniques in the same way as I have faith in my leg kick. His faith doesn’t come from training (barring certain exceptions, I’m talking the average street-asshole here) but from live-fire experience. He knows his haymaker works because he’s used it over and over.

Now contrast this with the average martial artist. Trained as he may be, he has a lot less actual experience in using his techniques (again, barring exceptions.) Training, sure, lot’s of it. But actually doing them with violent intent on somebody while you’re in full adrenal mode and you go to the hospital or die if you fail? For many trained martial artists, the answer is “Never.” As a result, they don’t have the same type of confidence in their techniques as that untrained fighter. Nor do they have the experience to know the difference between the factors that are crucial to make things work for real and the stuff you can only get away with in training or in low-level conflicts.

I believe this difference is as big as the difference between Hoost’s and the black kid’s leg kick. Hoost knew how to make his leg kick work against a huge guy like Sapp. The black kid not so much.

I also believe that’s why trained martial artists get their butts kicked by untrained fighters with lots of experience. They don’t necessarily lack the skill to win such a fight, they lack the experience of actually fighting with their skills.

In a way, I’m oversimplifying things a bit because I’m leaving out a lot of factors that influence the outcome of violent conflicts. OTOH, I think what I’m saying here is true. It’s not fun to think about, nor to admit to yourself that you might be missing something you need to be effective at fighting. But pretending it doesn’t exist, choosing to delude yourself that untrained fighters are crap and that you can handle them just because you are trained? That’s just wrong.

Comforting and a nice pat on the back for your ego, but still wrong.





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  1. Viktor Lindberg says

    All of this makes sense, i’ve though along these lines before even though i don’t actually have any experience of real life violent situations.

    I have trained martial arts for some time now, but i don’t think i would stand a very big chance if i actually ended up in a fight with someone that has been in many real fights no matter how unskilled they are in any form of martial art. (partly because i’m not that skilled in martial art yet nor am i very well trained physically or have any experience at all in real situations, all in al not much in favour of me)

    And one thing i’ve been thinking about a lot is how to train for a real situation, San shou or sparring is of course a way to train techniques in a simulated fight, but that final touch that is needed for a technique to work in a real situation; a situation with adrenaline, full power and speed is hard to train for. I’ve often thought that i should aim for competitions because i think that is as near as i can come without actually being in a fight for real even though i otherwise think that fighting or violence as a competition doesn’t make sense. What is your take on competition as a way to train and test techniques under stress?

    What would you say is a good way to train for real situations? Can it even be done?

  2. BelfasKalista says

    Choose your art wisely, choose your teacher wisely. The best art can be taught badly, the (most commonly thought off) crap art can be taught well. My Si gung (very famous guy) was a scrapper before training in Ving Tsun and looked around schools before giving himself to a sifu. When he went to Ip man, he found that Ip Man was up for a scrap, none of that old traditional nonsense to excuse himself.

    My Si gung taught that the art was only a tool for fighting. One may only use a small part of it or none at all in an actual fight. Here’s the rub: If you are not willing to be hurt in a scap, you’re stuffed. If you’re from the nice part of town and the idea that walking home with a busted face and a pair of aching testicles and still you may be the winner, is an alien concept, no competition or sparring in the world is going to help you make the jump.

    In a real fight, one has to concentrate on what one has to do rather than on what one does not want done to oneself. Because of certain circumstances, I moved from a nice part of town to a craphole when I was 12 and it was the best lesson I ever had.

    One has to get used to pain. I always regarded a sparring session, after which I did not feel pain, as time wasted. I learned to like and to use pain. Having said that, that has to be done on a progression but a progression it must be. I’m unsure if a teacher would get away with the things that happened in my day, today. Thing is, it worked. When I was/am in a confrontation, I feel very, very icy, very calm.

    Just to add. In 20 odd years of doorwork, I’ve only ever struck 2 people. The first threw a glass at a bar maid and the second grabbed me from behind when I was removing his friend from a club. I’m not an aggressive type but anyone who knows anything about Belfast, Northern Ireland, can make a rough guess at the sort of stuff one may face.

  3. Viktor already has bigger balls than a lot of deluded martial artists for being honest about his abilities and experience. Definitely a good question which I look forward to reading your response to Wim, as I feel I am in a similar place with my martial arts training and experience.

  4. I think if comes down to the person, trained or untrained.

    Training can get you into shape, hone your reflexes, teach you about strategy, etc.; which should all add up to give you an edge … but it is no guarantee.

  5. Gye Greene says

    Great essay!

    Another way to look at is to substitute the word “experienced” for “trained”. That is, a tavern thug without formal training, but lots of real-world experience, may have more over-all “experience” than a martial artist who has taken classes for a lot of years.

    Also: there’s no way to know ahead of time whether an opponent is “trained” or “untrained”: they have boxing gyms (etc.) in the bowery, y’know. ;) So in some ways, the whole hypothetical question is moot: the yahoo you’re facing may have more skill and experience than you — or less. And you won’t know until you engage.


    • Gye, I distinguish between trained and experienced. They are IMHO not the same thing. Training is what you do to increase your skill. Experience is what you get when you apply it for real. IMO, these two are not the same thing. Hence the disconnect I notice between an inexperienced trained fighter and an experienced untrained fighter.

  6. Love the article! I feel that instinct (natural and realized from actual combat/ fights/ abuse) can be a huge factor in a win/ lose / live situation. First strikes are huge in my world. Natural athletic / fighting ability sure can help as well as training. I like the comment regarding pain. I would like to add fear and controlling one’s emotions and actions regarding fear (as well as anger/ adrenaline) to the pain equation.

  7. I think that many errors in the martial arts are based on blanket statements and beliefs. Wim, you and I often talked about this when we were working on our coauthored books. It’s poor writing to generalize, it a poor martial arts teacher who generalizes, and it’s a poor student who generalizes about his skill and the opponent’s.

    This statement “Your typical street thug is untrained and therefor he doesn’t fight very well” is a blanket statement and belief. Likewise with these: “A knife fighter would never attack like this” and “A kick to the ___ (target) will drop anyone” and “My fighting art is better than all the other fighting arts” and on and on. All blanket statements, all false beliefs that will get a fighter in deep doo-doo. (Yes, “all” is a blanket a generality)

    Confidence is a powerful trait, but confidence based on a generality can be dangerous. (Notice the qualifier “can.”)

    • Loren, I think that’s one of the reasons so many practitioners get into trouble. They don’t even know they have these assumptions and blanket statements as key pillars of their practice. All too often, when some thug with lousy technique but not reservations to use it smashes their face in, it’s too much to handle and then they blame the art or instructor.
      I guess people just want easy answers and don’t like the truth which is that things are rarely black and white.

  8. The dojo is not the street. The street is not the dojo.

  9. There are so many unpredictable factors when it comes to fighting someone with no martial arts experience. They often react in unpredictable ways and move much more erratically, while most martial artists are training with other martial artists so they tend to move in a certain way that they come to expect. You have to train in unrehearsed ways that encourage improvisation and responsiveness to unanticipated conditions and responses to be able to handle the randomness of a real fight with a non-martial artist. Great post!

  10. I think it all comes down to morality: the street thug’s world view is from an immoral perspective so he/she has no qualms about inflicting serious injury or death, while the typical martial artist does have a moral code (so many pursue MA for the philosophical aspects, as much as the physical). If the “moral man” hesitates for even a split second his defensive edge has been lost and all his training may not save him. I like what Melissa Soalt writes (Dr. Ruthless) regarding tapping into our primal selves to unleash a fury of agressive attacking techniques. While her perspective is from training women, I think it applies to anyone who is moral and wants to successfully survive a confrontation against an untrained yet experienced, immoral street thug.

  11. It’s hard to deal with what you are not accustomed to. If you and everyone you train with are taught that the haymaker is an ineffective technique, then you will not know how to deal with it. You only know how to deal with ‘effective’ techniques because your friends also only want to give back the same effective techniques. They also want to win so why would they try to hit you with something they also think is ineffective?

    Then you get into a real fight and now that stupid haymaker is effective against you and your friends because it wasn’t part of your training.

  12. Have been in a physical conflict with someone who has martial arts training, it didn’t help him whatsoever with me who has no training or really any fighting experience. We ended up calling it even after like 15 minutes of neither of us being able to take an upper hand in pinning or knocking out.

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