Fighting Dirty

The knee to the groin–a classic “dirty fighting” self defense move

Both traditional martial arts and reality-based self defense (RBSD) systems often talk about “fighting dirty” in self defense. By this, they are generally referring to doing things like gouging the eyes, striking the throat or groin, pulling the ears or hair, stomping the knees, etc. All of these are perfectly valid fighting methods, of course, but many people have a tendency to rely on them too heavily. They will believe that these types of techniques, alone, are sufficient for self defense. Some even go so far as to say that they can defeat trained fighters in one-on-one fights, based solely on their ability to use such tactics. This is a dangerous over-estimation, but one that is quite popular. So much so, in fact, that many fighters and competitive martial artists–particularly in online discussions–describe these techniques, jokingly, as “teh deadly” techniques, because they are told that they are “too deadly” to spar with.

An American Green Beret gouging the eyes of a Peruvian Special Forces soldier in a sparring match

People who believe that “fighting dirty” will grant them easy victory tend to believe that these techniques are so effective that they will immediately end a confrontation. In a calm, controlled setting, it is perfectly understandable to feel this way, because you can feel the effects of these techniques acutely. If someone pokes you in the eye, it hurts a great deal, you can’t see, and you naturally flinch away. If someone strikes you in the groin, you double over in pain. If someone pulls your ear or hair, you will tend to move with it to reduce the discomfort. The reactions are real, and cannot be denied. Even in sparring, accidental “dirty” techniques can put a stop to things. A recent example that went viral was this video of an American Green Beret gouging the eyes of a Peruvian Special Forces soldier in a sparring match. In that instance, the eye attack worked exactly as intended. The problem isn’t necessarily with the techniques, themselves, but with the expectation that they will always work this way.

Human beings can endure a great deal of pain and damage when they are under stress, or the influence of drugs or alcohol. The stress of a fight can be enough to completely override the natural reactions that people have to these “dirty” fighting methods. People often do not realize that they have been hit, stabbed, or even shot, because of their body’s built-in response to the stress of an attack. There are also people who simply have very high pain thresholds and strong wills, who will force themselves to continue fighting, regardless of what is done to them. In the video, above, you can see Yuki Nakai, a Japanese MMA fighter, continuing to fight against, and eventually submit, Gerard Gordeau, a Kyokushin karateka and Savate kickboxer, after being so severely eye gouged and stomped on that he was permanently blinded in one eye. While many MMA fights are stopped, or at least paused, due to eye pokes and gouges, there have also been some instances just like this one, where the eye attacks did not change the outcome of the fight. The same can be said of fighters receiving other injuries–strikes to the groin, dislocated joints, torn ears, and pulled hair have all happened in a variety of combat sports, from MMA to judo to sumo, without ending the fight.

Another issue with relying solely on “dirty fighting” is the very real threat of being out-maneuvered or out-positioned. I cannot count how many times I have heard statements like; “Oh, if they do that to me, I’ll just bite/eye gouge/hit the groin/rip their ear off/etc.” These statements are often said without much thought being given to the attacker’s positioning and reactions. The video, above, was produced specifically to show how the positions of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu can make it impossible to reach the eyes of your attacker. Obviously, untrained attackers may not be familiar with these positions in the level of detail that a BJJ, judo, or wrestling practitioner would be, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t end up there. The chaos of a fight can put you into some very strange positions, which prevent you from reaching your intended targets.

Additionally, even if you do end up in a position do something, there is no guarantee that the technique will work as a counter to whatever your opponent is doing. A popular example is the “bite to defend against a choke,” which is often taught by self defense instructors, as you can see from the video of Jeet Kun Do practitioner, Paul Vunak, above. This is something that can work, but it isn’t the most reliable defense. This video illustrates exactly why that isn’t always the best idea, because it simply may not stop the attack effectively enough. I have personally done this demonstration on several occasions, and in every case, the biter chose to stop biting before I chose to stop squeezing. As previously mentioned, the stress of a fight can numb pain responses, so it is entirely possible for both the biter and the choker to be unaware of the damage being done. That said, the choke will eventually cause unconsciousness, or a broken or dislocated jaw, which is more severe than the damage a bite to the arm would do, blood-borne pathogens notwithstanding.

An example of a flinch response–a natural reaction to a threat

There is also the matter of your opponent fighting back, and blocking your attempts at counter attacks with “dirty” techniques. I have grappled, and done kata randori, with people who attempted to strike my throat and eyes, or grab my ears or hair, or kick me in the groin. The majority of the time, I’m able to block these attempts. Granted, I have training that an attacker likely wouldn’t, but that doesn’t mean they will be completely incapable of blocking. People have a natural tendency to try to remove unpleasant stimuli–consider what happens when you walk into a spider web, or when an object is thrown at you, suddenly. The same response will tend to occur if something comes at your face, or throat, or groin. Even if you do reach your target, the opponent might simply latch onto you to prevent you from doing any more damage, severely hampering your ability to continue.

Two people trying to choke each other during a fight

Another threat that you run up against when relying on “fighting dirty” is that your opponent can do it just as easily as you can–perhaps, even better. Any time you use a “dirty” technique, you escalate the level of violence in the confrontation, and your attacker will likely feel the desire to respond in kind. If you have greater fighting skill, or strength, than your opponent, this may not be much of a problem, but if you were relying on an eye gouge or groin kick to stop them, then you may be in trouble. Attackers are often people who are experienced with violence, even if they are untrained, and they can bite, poke, grab, and stomp with the best of them. This may not be something that they had originally considered, until you did it to them. They also may respond to the pain of your attack by getting angry, which will increase their pain tolerance and give them the strength boost of an adrenaline rush.

Former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, Jon Jones, routinely uses “dirty” techniques in the cage

When it comes right down to it, these types of techniques are excellent supplements, but they cannot be solely relied on to defend yourself. It is vital to have a solid platform of fighting skills from which these methods can be deployed. All of the dirty tricks in the world will not help you if you are unable to deal with a dynamic attacker, who is moving, struggling, and fighting back. Without a solid understanding of engaging in live striking and grappling situations, you will find yourself lost when you try to employ “dirty” techniques. A lot of the techniques found in kata incorporate such methods, but they are supported by solid, fundamental fighting skills. If you are comfortable fighting without those methods, then you will find it much easier, and more effective, to incorporate them. Once you can nullify an opponent’s attacks, position yourself and your opponent effectively, and deal with an opponent’s defense, “dirty fighting” becomes a very viable option.

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About Noah

I began training in karate (Shuri-Ryu) in the Summer of 2006. Subsequently, I started training in judo, kobudo, and iaijutsu within the next 6 months. During my training there, I earned the rank of Sankyu (3rd Degree Brown Belt) in Shuri-Ryu, Gokyu (Green Belt) in judo, a certification in the use of the bo, and passed proficiency tests for the four tachigata of Shinkage-Ryu iaijutsu. I moved to Arizona in the Summer of 2008, and continued training and researching karate at home. I continued regular training in judo at a local club until 2010, when I was able to start training in Shorin-Ryu with Sensei Richard Poage. I have been training with him ever since, and currently hold the rank of Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) in Shorin-Ryu under him. In addition, I began studying KishimotoDi under Sensei Ulf Karlsson in 2014.