Necessary and reasonable force


It is quite common to hear the argument today that if traditional fighting arts were "effective", they would be used in the MMA cage. The fact that they generally aren't is taken as proof positive that aren't "effective" (whether for their intended purpose or any other).

However as I have often previously argued, this sort of argument is fundamentally flawed. Why? Because it makes some assumptions that are manifestly false.

And be aware that countering these assumptions in no way denigrates skills useful in MMA (eg. BJJ), nor even their potential applicability in some civilian defence scenarios. It's simply that such scenarios involve much, much more than the two similarly skilled fighters purposefully slugging it out one-on-one in a cage or similar environment.

More importantly, what you can and can't do in these scenarios is significantly different from what you can and can't do in the cage. Sometimes it's a whole lot more, often a whole lot less. This article is about understanding what is permissible, and what is desirable/necessary, in a civilian defence context: in other words, its legal, ethical/moral and physical landscape, and how this differs from sport contests.

The false assumptions

By now it should be apparent that the first, and most basic, of the false assumptions is that cage fighting is "basically the same" as "street fighting" (whatever that is). The second false assumption relates to objectives and how these objectives can (or should) be met. The third ignores both law and ethics/morality, and how these will sometimes dictate similar tactics - but more often than not vastly different ones - from a combat sport.

So let us examine the first false assumption: that cage fighting and "street fighting" are basically equivalent.

Well, we know what that cage fighting is.

By contrast what is "street fighting"? If this term is intended to cover civilian defence, then it is manifestly inaccurate. The latter covers such a wide variety of scenarios that it is impossible even to make a presumptive list of them.

To begin with, they are (by definition) not "fights" but defences against attacks. These attacks range from a relatively harmless scuffle/wrestle to the most extreme violent crime.

In terms of the latter, my professional experience is that some people mean to take you out in the cruellest, most efficient way - not engage you in a "contest" or something similar (ie. a "fair fight"). Others don't know what they want; they are acting out of rage (whether emotional or drug-induced), psychosis (however induced), sociopathy/psychopathy or just ego/pride. Either way, they generally don't plan to "fight". They mean to hurt; and to do so in a way that is "not very sportsmanlike" (to quote Fezzik in "The Princess Bride").

Once you realise that that "civilian defence" is a much wider umbrella term than "cage fighting" could ever encapsulate, you should start to realise that the goals/objectives are fundamentally different. As I've previously stated, in a cage fight you win by "beating" your opponent. In a civilian defence encounter, you win if you don't get "beaten".

This is not a small difference. Indeed, it is critical. Papering over this difference by imagining worst case, one-on-one, unarmed scenarios - where your opponent must be killed or otherwise "totally disabled" (through MMA skills) in order for you to protect yourself - is not just simplistic; it is statistically inaccurate. Furthermore, it is likely to be plainly wrong by reference to not only our laws but by our society's ethical/moral standards (which the law generally reflects) and by the standards of logic itself. I'll explain what I mean by the latter shortly.

The difference in fighting scenarios

In a cage there are two combatants and one referee. The combatants have the same goal: to defeat the other combatant. The contest ends when the referee interrupts the action (due to a knockout, technical knockout or tap out). The rules allow certain blows and prohibit others.

What is a typical civilian defence scenario? There is none.

If it takes the form of two combatants in a circle fighting without interruption, then it is really indistinguishable from an MMA bout. And in those circumstances it is manifestly true that MMA fighters are supremely suited for the task and that pretty muchy no one else is.

But "civilian defence" doesn't often take this form. A scenario where the law would actually see this kind of fight as a genuine case of "defence" would have to resemble the storyline from B grade chop socky. That's what I think it might take to explain how an otherwise law-abiding citizen was "forced" to fight one-on-one in some sort of "contest".

In my former life as a prosecutor I never once saw a case involving a one-on-one fight similar to a cage match. Yes, such situations are prosecuted but they aren't the norm. And if they are prosecuted, the combatants generally share in the blame for allowing the scenario to unfold. Put simply, a "challenge match" is entirely different from a scenario where one is attacked in a civilian defence context. And it would be viewed as such under the law as well as our society's ethical/moral standards. In other words, rather than be viewed as one offender versus one defender, the law will consider that there are two offenders: two people who are committing assault against each other.

Stacking the odds

What are some things you might expect in a civilian defence scenario?

Well, your attacker is almost certainly going to stack the odds in his or her favour. I add "her" not just to avoid sexist language (the overwhelming majority of violent assaults are perpetrated by men) but because, in our State at least, there has been a disturbing increase in muggings and other assaults by female gangs on sole females – usually at train stations.

How do attackers "stack the odds"?

First, they use surprise. Now this doesn't always mean something obvious like a strike from behind. Rather, "surprise" might take the form of a strike to which you are forced to respond, ie. a blow that has come "out of the blue" and in relation to which a "pre-emption" has been simply impossible (for legal and ethical/moral reasons, never mind logical ones – more on that in a minute). I discuss these sorts of attacks in my previous article.

Second they use numbers: During my prosecuting years I can't recall a case of an assault where the offender wasn't in company – company that was prepared (and usually did) step in – particularly if the "playing field needed further levelling". (In my brother's recent experience, the attacker had an accomplice who came at him with a wooden post while he was restraining the first attacker. In a recent case of my own, I was accosted by 2 large young men, as I describe a bit later.)

Third, they go armed. In our State this is unlikely to include a firearm but it will very likely be something else that is nasty. A student of mine confronted a car thief who was armed with a sharpened screwdriver; a former colleague confronted a man with a sharpened car aerial; a friend was attacked in his home by a man wielding a hammer; I was once accosted by a man armed with a heavy torch). People go armed with blades of all kinds. Some use pepper spray. In the US you're very likely to be facing a firearm.

Different techniques for different situations

For obvious reasons this "stacking of the odds" combined with the legal, ethical/moral and logical constraints jointly require very different tactics depending on the exact nature of the circumstances. In some respects, practically every traditional fighting method has its time and place – however "absurd" or "ineffective" those techniques might seem within the confines of a one-on-one cage fight.

Nowhere has the above been explained better than in Lloyd Irvin's the video below.

As he describes, civilian defence situations require a very wide variety of possible responses and accordingly a wide variety of techniques – most of which are utterly out of place in a cage. And virtually every traditional civilian defence art deals with a specific manifestation of civilian defence needs; from societies where grabbing hands was common (to prevent a sword being drawn – eg. traditional jujutsu/qin-na) to societies where fighting often involves knives and batons (Filipino arnis/escrima/kali) to societies where fights occur in close quarters in crowded streets (wing chun/Naha te karate) etc.

Lloyd relates a scenario of his own where he successfully diffused an armed home invasion using qin-na and aikido-like skills, among other non-cage related tactics. As he puts it, his cherished BJJ skill (which is considerable) never came into play. My brother fought and restrained an intruder in his home using a variety of techniques, ultimately choosing ones that had little to do with punching his opponent (which he found he could easily do). My own experiences in civilian defence have utilised techniques - or simply psychology - vastly different from the ring.

That first punch...

In my previous article I dealt with one common assault that occurs in civilian defence scenarios, namely the "sucker punch".

In that article I discuss ways in which you might "see it coming", how to avoid it and, if necessary, how to deal with it. You'll notice that I am hesitant to advocate a "pre-emptive strike" as a simple (yet effective) recipe for resolving any such situation "before it arises". This is very deliberate.

By contrast, many of the responses I've had to that article comprised a statement along these lines:
    "I'd never let him near me in the first place. I'd... [insert destructive technique here]."
But there is a big problem with this sort of response: try it and you'll very likely find yourself with a criminal record – if not behind bars.

"Ah," comes the inevitable response: "I'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by six."

The "12 and 6" cliché

Well I'll refrain from noting how clichéd, simplistic and foolhardy this statement is. Rather, I'll let Marc Macyoung and Rory Miller flesh this out for you. No, I'll just note briefly that if you decide to "clock" every person who comes into your personal space in a suspicious or argumentative manner – or even just push them - you'll quickly gather a rap sheet longer than your arm. I've lost count of the number of times where I've had no choice but to let someone hostile into my personal space – and I'm not even including argumentative relatives and friends, etc.

Yes, it is a very good idea to keep your personal space (as I discuss in my previous essay) and there are instances in which you can and should strike someone before they enter that space (as shown in the "karate instructor vs. pimp" video embedded further on). But to think you'll be able to adopt a "one size fits all" solution to civilian defence – and a violent one at that – is blatant nonsense.

Some examples of "overkill" tactics often taught in some modern martial art schools. In the unlikely event that you actually executed such a sequence, and did so successfully, in most cases you would be facing a very lengthy jail term. The circumstances in which it would be both "necessary" and "reasonable" to be stomping and re-stomping the head, groin and other vital regions would be very rare, in my professional (legal) opinion.

So when I hear someone tell me all about some formulaic approach I can only shake my head wearily. A recent example is where someone told me:
    "Normally, I give the guy fair warning. Then I tell him to BACK OFF. And if he doesn't listen, I... [insert violent method here]."
To begin with I'm more than a little suspicious of anyone telling me what they "normally" do in such situations (when they probably haven't had anything more than a verbal stoush with their neighbour over the fence). But trying to fit such narrow and violent wish-fulfilment fantasy to real life is absurd and, frankly, farcical.

And it is also guaranteed to get you in serious trouble (assuming you ever do carry out this fantasy – which you probably, and thankfully, won't). If this leads you to back to the "12 and 6" cliché, do me a favour: don't. Because you'll not only be in trouble with the law:
    You'll also be wrong.
You'll be wrong both ethically/morally and you'll be wrong logically.

I'll try to explain what I mean below:

De-escalation, avoidance and the need for a calm mind

What most people are voicing when they utter the "12 and 6" cliché is anger: anger born out of fear, anger born out of impatience, anger born out of frustration and anger born out of righteous indignation. But it is anger just the same.

Most of the time, I've found anger to be utterly unproductive to resolving conflict. You have to act calmly and dispassionately – even if you are striking your opponent with full force. Because it is only when you are calm and focused that you can be in the best position to make split-second choices as wisely as you can. The available time might not be much – but you'd be surprised how a cool mind can avert disaster; for you, for your attacker, for your family, your attacker's family, for everybody.

By contrast, anger can and does cloud your judgment. And I'm not just talking about going too far in defending yourself and getting in trouble with the law. I'm talking about escalating situations unnecessarily – situations that needn't ever have developed into a physical altercation (like the fellow who joined the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums only to announce that he might get physical with a shop assistant if he/she were rude). And I'm talking about leaving openings and making disastrous errors during the course of combat.

These are all lessons I've learned the hard way. As a younger man I had a nasty temper. I know only too well the pitfalls of letting that temper lead me into a brawl, then being hit so that my temper flared even more, then throwing all my effort into a stupid attack (with absolutely no regard for defence) only to find myself walking into painful and humiliating blows. Thankfully I escaped my own youthful altercations largely intact. But then again, as my training progressed, I found I was less and less likely to get into any altercation. Studying violence has that potential.

A personal example

In an article a while back, I wrote about how my wife and I were once accosted by two young men after a particular St Patrick's Day concert in Northbridge (a nightclub district adjacent to the city centre). I had seen the men before, clowning around in front of the stage where the band was playing. They were big, well-muscled and had enough drink in them to make them volatile, but not enough to dull their reflexes to any significant extent. Despite disrupting the band severely with their antics, no one had been willing to do anything to stop them – due to their obvious physicality, no doubt. So, as we were exiting the venue, I made a mental note to steer clear of them. I noted that one in particular, the alpha male of the two, reminded me a bit of one of a brother-in-law who is about the same age and build.

We had been walking for some time when I became aware that the two trouble-makers were just behind us, making some derogatory remarks about my wife. You can imagine my inward reaction. But even as I turned to look at them, I knew that it would be folly to engage them in a brawl. Not only did they stand a foot taller than I – there were 2 of them.

So I did something more sensible. I said to the alpha male (with a smile): "You know, you look just like my brother-in-law! It's amazing. You guys could be brothers!" From my reaction, I could tell he assumed that I hadn't heard the nature of their comments – or at least he wasn't sure (from my perspective this uncertainty was actually a better manipulating tool; I'll discuss this sort of thing in a future article). The alpha male abruptly changed his demeanour from a sneering, antagonistic one to one of puzzlement.

"Really? What's your brother-in-law's name?"

And so it went. Within 5 minutes we were swapping mobile numbers and having a laugh.

There is no formula

I don't relay this story to say that this tactic will work every time. Of course it won't. There is no one recipe for every situation. Instead, I used the information available to me. The fact that I put anger out of my mind let me react with a great deal more calmness and composure than I might otherwise. And one thing is for certain. Giving him "fair warning", then telling him to BACK OFF, etc. (according to the modus operandi of the previously-mentioned correspondent) would have spelled absolute disaster. As my good mate Dave says, in the best case scenario I would have occasioned a "whole lot of bother" – and my wife "wouldn't have thanked me for it".

Rather, each case must be determined according to its own circumstances. Are there situations where I would pre-emptively strike with all my might and in such a manner as to permanently disable or kill? Yes – I can imagine quite a few. But this doesn't mean that the next time I'm accosted by some young men, this scenario is likely. In my experience with criminal law, it just isn't.

As a further example of "wu-wei in action" I must point you to the blog post of my good friend and colleague Jo Roman, relating his recent experience on a train. It was his post that prompted me to write this essay in the first place!

Talking about public transport incidents, note also this charming story.

The two-pronged test for your actions

So what would I have done had the 2 trouble-causers not been deterred from violence via "mentalism" (a concept which I'll be discussing soon in a martial context)? Well, depending on what they did, I might well have had to do something physical. What would that be? Put simply:
    I would try to do that which was reasonably necessary.
That, and no more. It is important to note the term "reasonably necessary". There are 2 components to this term: necessity and reasonableness.

What I did would have to be necessary in the sense that it was an act clearly taken in defence and for no other reason. Pre-emptively striking someone always faces this potential obstacle: how can you satisfy a jury that your pre-emptive strike was calculated to deter an inevitable attack and was accordingly necessary? Sometimes it is clear from the circumstances. But in most people's violent "wish-fulfilment fantasies" I suspect that it isn't.

A video in which I think pre-emption is clearly a case of self-defence. Note however that the karate instructor is quite obviously about to be physically attacked (there is no doubt at all from the precedeing events/words) and note also that he does no more than is necessary to the pimp (a simple, single, seiyruto uchi or "ox jaw strike" - a traditional eastern martial technique I plan to showcase in an article later on).

Secondly, what I did would have to be reasonable in the sense that it was proportionate to the threat. Gouging a young alpha male's eye out or biting off his nose just because he'd said some insulting remarks would not be in any sense excusable, never mind legally. (In terms of the latter, I remember one bar room brawl where one fellow did exactly that – and he was the one we were prosecuting.)
As you can probably tell, this test doesn't yield exact results. It is always highly dependent on the circumstances. What is reasonable or necessary in one instance might not be in another. In other words, you can't plug your scenario into the test and get a formula for action.

Civilian arts techniques contemplate everything from pain submissions, which work in fairly low-aggression/adrenaline environments, to the nastiest, most drastic tactics - simply because they cover the widest possible field. Yes, those drastic measures such as eye gouges are options, but the circumstances in which you can and should use those options are going to be very limited by reference to this test.

The "reactive" vs. "proactive" nature of civilian defence

It is because of this 2 pronged test for civilian defence that the tactics (as opposed to the techniques/skills and conditioning) of the cage, where attack is the very aim, are (generally speaking) unsuited to civilian defence. While this is especially true of the first punch (where pre-empting is very problematic) it also extends to the rest of the confrontation.

Violence enacted in a civilian defence context is, and always has been (at least in the modern era), seen as necessary and reasonable only if it is enacted as a response. In other words, civilian defence is required by law to be inherently reactive - not proactive - at least in the sense of "permissible attack".

Now there are cases where pre-emption or some other "proactivity" is going to be justified; as I said, I can imagine more than a few cases. Sadly, most of them are, once again, straight out of a B-grade movie. The scenarios you are likely to encounter in real life are far more subtle and complex than "I'm holding your wife and kids hostage and I'll kill them unless you get in that cage and fight to the death with Attila." They are far more subtle and complex than a deranged criminal who, despite having his firearm taken from him, doggedly insists on trying to kill you anyway (even as he is bleeding to death on the ground, his bloodied hands creeping for the poker while your back is turned as you tend to your shocked family).

Back to Lloyd Irvin

If we go back to Lloyd Irvin for a moment, I'm fairly certain that after he disarmed his attacker, he didn't break the guy's neck, then stalk the rest of the gang through the house, taking each one out systematically so that by the time the police arrived they said: "Did you leave anything for us?"

We can laugh at this fantasy and even indulge it in idle moments but we can't confuse it with reality. Because at the moment he did the disarm and during the succeeding events, Lloyd wasn't a BJJ practitioner, martial arts teacher, or practitioner of more than 3 decades. He was a husband. And a father. He was a civilian. He certainly wasn't Rambo/Chuck Norris/[insert lethal killer here].

I don't know exactly what happened to Lloyd after he disarmed his attacker, but I do know this: he's not in jail and they aren't making a Hollywood movie out of it. I suspect the attacker capitulated (or Lloyd made him capitulate). Or Lloyd let him and the other attackers escape. I don't know. All I know is that the latter (letting the attackers go) isn't quite so "daft" as it might seem. My brother ended up letting his intruders go after they emptied their pockets. Another friend of mine who fought savagely with a home invader ended up hitting (and being hit) with a hammer. Eventually when there was a pause, he pointed to the exit and the criminal ran. It seems the criminal had only stayed to fight because he'd become disoriented and thought my friend was blocking his only exit. The criminal was later identified from the blood splattered on my friend's lounge room wall, and then arrested, charged and convicted.

[By contrast, I recall a case where a man detained and tied up a burglar. When the police arrived it was clear that the home owner had given the burglar quite a sustained beating. While the home owner wasn't prosecuted, he did however have his house mysteriously burnt down though some months later...]

Letting a criminal go in such a case might not be consistent with Hollywood endings. But it is far more consistent with what people do and, more importantly, what they sometimes ought to do in the interests of safety, the law and basic common sense.

The "proactive" vs. "reactive" nature of cage fighting

Sport fighting is, by contrast, inherently proactive in the sense of "permissible attack" - not reactive. In the cage your whole purpose is to "beat" your opponent. You can't "let him go" and you can't "run away" either. That is totally contrary to the very concept.

Rather, your main purpose in the ring is to hurt your opponent – within the confines of the rules, of course. Whatever the rules are, they don't affect your proactivity. You must go out and try to punch/kick/submit your opponent. It is, by definition, your objective.

As I have discussed, some "proactivity" is going to be allowed in civilian defence, but when this involves "pre-empting" an attack with your own, you're always going to be treading a very fine and dangerous line. In the end, a "pre-emptive attack" of the kind justifiable in civilian defence is a world away from that seen in cage fighting.

The necessity of learning reactive skills

Learning how to be "reactive" - and how to do it successfully - is diametrically opposed to cage/ring craft. And yet it is exactly what the law (and our prevailing ethical/moral standards) require for civilian defence. This is not to say that cage fighters aren't effective against civilian attackers - to the contrary! It's just that if you want to stay out of jail, you have to have a very different mindset in a civilian defence context. And this mindset principally affects how and when you can attack (and how and when you can't).

In this article I have given the example of Lloyd Irvin's home invasion. In my previous article I discussed how Guy Mezger clearly shifted his own approach significantly from that used in the cage when defending a woman from her partner. His entire approach (reacting, only doing as much as he had to do, etc.) was not only legally but ethically/morally defensible (especially when you consider that he could have literally destroyed his attacker the first time). I salute him.

And in this article I wish to give a special salute to Lloyd Irvin, not only for his courageous and effective defence of his family, but also for his inspiring words of wisdom. If you watch one Youtube video this year, let it be this one.


I have previously argued strenuously against "attack-centric" methodologies and their inappropriateness for civilian defence. However my previous essays (eg. my most recent one and my articles on "Surviving the surprise attack" and "The flinch reflex") have been based on the limitations of such methodologies in developing the skills necessary for civilian defence.

In this essay I have tried to explain that ethical/moral, legal and logical factors play an equally important part in making "attack-centric" methodologies inappropriate in many civilian defence scenarios.

In future articles I hope to address specific reactive skills – skills that are spectacularly unsuited to cage tactics but which are intended for a civilian context. To those who still argue that reactive skills "don't work" remember Lloyd's and Guy's examples. And try to think outside the narrow confines of your own (flawed) assumptions about what happens in the "real world".

Whatever your martial art or system, I sincerely hope you never have to use these or any other defence methods. But if you do, I counsel you to remember the dual tenets: let your actions be limited to what is necessary and what is reasonable in the circumstances. Don't confuse Hollywood fantasy for real life. I certainly never saw cases that remotely resembled such fantasy. Lloyd Irvin's and Guy Mezger's are pretty much as close as it gets.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic