Tag Archives: fight scene advice

Unusual Martial Art: Street Fighting

Street fighters are self-trained combatants. Usually we’re talking about poor kids, who’ve been forced to learn how to fight for their own safety. If your character’s growing up in dystopic slums (either in the future or in the modern third world), without access to any formalized hand to hand training, then you’re probably going to end up with a street fighter.

Street fighters tend to adopt a highly aggressive, improvised, and very brutal, style. They’ll use whatever techniques they’ve seen and managed to copy and place a premium on ending the fight as quickly as possible for their own survival. A lot of techniques from the Only Unfair Fight post are conceptually very at home in a street fighter’s repertoire.

Because of the prevalence of television, a lot of modern street fighters have incorporated bits from both wrestling and prize fighting. For an example: the entire collection of “backyard wrestling” videos sold in the States a decade ago were an example of street fighting (to an extent) and where that kind of combat can go horribly wrong.

It’s important to keep in mind that the major element here is “self-trained”. Street fighters are amateurs, plain and simple. While brutal styles like Muay Thai and various varieties of MMA may seem like they have a lot in common with a street fighter, they don’t. Combat isn’t really a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps and be a self-made man” kind of sport, so there are a lot of detriments that come with using street fighting for your character.

The first problem that street fighters suffer from is a lack control. They’ve never been asked to develop the kind of physical control martial artists are drilled in. This may not sound so bad at first, until we remember that the only lesson these combatants have ever learned is that the person who hits the hardest, fastest, wins. Street fighters version of combat is essentially flailing. It’s the twelve year old child on the street trying to do a pirouette compared to a professional ballerina. Because street fighters have never learned to control, their ability to moderate their techniques is severely limited. This means moves that come from martial arts, including wrestling, that place a premium on the fighters’ safety, become much more dangerous for both combatants even when it’s just a backyard practice match.

So, why is this bad? Some of you may be wondering, but if they strike hard and fast, always hit as hard as they can, why is this detrimental? It should make them stronger, right?

Wrong.

Hand to hand combat is not about physical strength, it’s actually about technique and making the most of your opponent’s body mechanics. A street fighter only ever learns that strength means victory, they only learn to strike hard and that’s it. But what happens when they come into contact with someone who is prepared to take the hit? Street fighting is very simple, so most street fighters have no concept of defense and they fail to grasp the underlying principles behind the techniques and how those all feed together into a cohesive whole. See below:

Street fighters lack the ability to chain attacks; this is a conditioning issue. In the beginning of almost any training, most martial arts place a focus, early on, with katas (though, they’ll mix the terminology up a bit). Katas are a specific sequence of strikes. The point here isn’t to actually train a combat sequence. Katas are singularly worthless for that, the point is to train the combatant to move from one technique to another. This can, in some cases, take years of drilling before a combatant will move smoothly from one technique to another in a fight. Because of the self taught element, street fighters don’t do this. In fact, most don’t even see the need for it or understand why they should. They might be able to follow up on a strike, but that’s it. The eight strike rule? Yeah, that’s out the window.

(Michi Note: For example, in Tae Kwan Do, the first set of moves a student learns in their first lesson is the double punch and the front kick. In a thirty minute lesson with an instructor, they are taught first to punch, then they are asked to put both those punches together, so that immediately after one they do the other. Instead of a one, it becomes a one two. Then, we teach them the front kick if they grasp the concept quickly in the first fifteen minutes. By the end of the lesson the goal is to have the student, even one as young as five years old, performing a complete combo for their parents: slide front kick then double punch. Even from the first lesson, the focus is on conditioning the body to move easily from one technique to the next without thinking.)

This difference in approach is one of the main reasons why street fighters are harder to train in conventional martial arts. This difficulty comes out of two competing bits of psychology: the first is that street fighters think they already know how to fight, they don’t. They have a harder time ejecting the ways they’ve learned, in favor of the much slower, more methodical, approach of traditional martial arts training. They feel like they know this, because they’re looking at the techniques not the connections between them. When you combine this with the attitude that self taught fighters have, of their techniques being good enough, it’s almost impossible to shift them over to a traditional style.

Street fighters will get utterly taken apart by trained martial artists. Whatever else we say, martial arts are about using physics and physiology to outmaneuver and disable opponents. Every trained martial artist is going to a solid grasp of at least one of these things, and any good one will have a very solid understanding of both. Against a street fighter with neither, this is an insurmountable advantage.

Street fighters will make rookie mistakes that can cost them, even when they have more practical fighting experience than the martial artist. This ties back into the previous issues, but one major one is that street fighters are more likely to end up on the ground in a fight. While this is going to get its own article in the future, the short version is the ground is the last place you want your combatant. Unless they’ve specifically trained to fight there (and some martial artists are), going to the ground is a good way to get your character killed.

(Michi Note: I was once told, in a seminar, by an experienced MMA fighter that the ground is the last place you want to go in a real fight, even if you are trained. Concrete is very hard, you risk a break in the fall and you put yourself much closer to a head injury by getting close to the pavement. The ground is a last resort and a bad place to be, because most of the advantages a shorter fighter has while standing vanish. The ground is one of the few places in combat where height and weight really matter. Where a larger opponent has all the advantages in weight, reach, and the help of gravity, for women, the ground is the kiss of death. A female street fighter might not know that, because she can use her lower center of gravity to easily knock over her opponents and stomp them. But it’ll catch up with her sooner or later. On that subject: this is why it’s important, for you women and men out there who are looking for a self-defense program to find one that starts you standing, then works the ground. Find one that will give you the necessary tools to back out of a bad situation before the guy or girl is already on top of you.)

If you understand the limitations, street fighting can be an excellent choice for your character, especially in a dystopic or authoritarian setting, if your character is outside the system and used to looking after themselves (and possibly others), without being able to rely on anyone else to guide them, then this becomes a really likely style. This also overlaps with gangs, and even in a modern context, if you’re looking at gang members, then this is the hand to hand style they’re most likely to be using.

It’s important to remember that street fighters aren’t stupid, they can be very intelligent, and they need to be adaptable to make the style work at all. They are, however, untrained and that’s their biggest weakness.

-Starke

Michi: On female street fighters

Female street fighters won’t and can’t rely on brute strength, they may think that they are, but they’re not. Female fighters base their ability to fight off making use of a smaller, more compact body to generate greater momentum through the strength in their legs and using their lower center of gravity to knock over larger opponents. Female street fighters won’t linger at the back of the pack, they’ll be aggressive and throw themselves straight into the fray with an attitude more akin to a wild animal than a trained fighter. Since they’ll mostly be used to fighting larger, male opponents, they’ll probably start by striking or grabbing low to the stomach, balls, and knees. Their goal is going to revolve around knocking over their opponent and putting them in a prone position on the ground so that they can be annihilated easily. Expect them to fight dirty.

Despite that, they won’t kick. Street fighters are primarily hands only. Kicking requires a different level of body coordination and training, which they lack. Even if they try and master some basics, those basics will be wrong and more likely to get them hurt. If you want your character to kick, then it’s a traditional martial art for you.

Female street fighters will be harder than their male counterparts, especially if they live in a male dominated society. If you want to write a street fighter, make a study of gang psychology specifically to understand the attitudes behind it. The difference in approaches between trained and untrained fighters are vast, so make sure you understand both before layering character traits on top of them.

Fight Write: Art, Sport, Subdual, and Lethality

In this post, I’m going to break Martial Arts down into four subcategories: Art, Sport, Subdual, and Lethality. These are general distinctions that relate to the practitioner’s outlook and what they’re training for as opposed to the styles themselves. The reason behind why someone is training and what they are being trained to do is actually much more important than what the style or techniques were originally intended for.

Styles evolve and change over time, the effective ones stay and the ineffective ones go as combat itself evolves. A good place to study up on rapid martial evolution is in the history of Europe, where the countries were in near constant war over a limited set of highly valuable resources. European combat evolved and changed quickly and constantly because it was necessary to for the different countries to keep themselves from being conquered by their neighbors. There was a nearly constant discarding of any traditional forms for something more practical to the times. This is part of why it’s important to study the cultural background of any MA you look at, no matter where it’s from, and compare that to what you need from it. Styles change with the cultures they’re part of, even ones that were imported from elsewhere. The techniques themselves are more easily ingrained by body and mind than the philosophy that spawned them.

Usually when talking about Martial Arts, you see the styles broken down into hard and soft, hard is an aggressive straightforward style like Karate and soft is an inward, philosophical style that revolves around not subduing your opponent, but allowing your opponent to subdue themselves through “gentle” redirection. We leave the term gentle open to negotiation depending on both viewer and outlook, sometimes there is nothing soft about a soft style. For reference: Chinese Tai Chi and Japanese Aikido are two of the more recognizable soft styles. Personally, we find this terminology to be misleading, because it does not cover all the myriad of ways these two cross over as the different styles influence one another through cross-contamination.

No Martial Artist exists in a vacuum, they are constantly influenced by their fights, their opponents, their training, and their own philosophy regarding their fighting and fighting in general. Every MA has an outlook and a personal philosophy, even if their philosophy is just that having a one is unnecessary.

It’s also important to note that hard and soft relate to Asian Martial Arts, more specifically to those from China, Japan, and Korea. These Martial Arts are intensely tied up within their own cultural traditions and because any discussion of this terminology generally revolves around Eastern philosophies, the terms do not relate well to Western MAs like boxing, fencing, M.A.P., Systema, Krav Maga, and Sambo or South American MAs like Capoeira, all of which come with a very specific outlook relating to their own country of origin. It also doesn’t function well with outside understanding of forms like Ninjutsu, Judo, and Jiu-jutsu that incorporate both hard and soft movements respectively. Some would say that Jiu-Jutsu is just the hard version of Aikido and some would not, this is why this distinction gets sticky.

Not just that, says the well-informed author, but didn’t the Marines appropriate a great many techniques from Judo and Chin Na during their time stationed in Japan and China as they developed M.A.P.?

Indeed they did, but it’s important to remember that the Marines don’t care about the outlook or the cultural philosophy that provided the basis for those techniques. While they may share their techniques with other styles, the way the Marines condition and train soldiers to use them bears almost no similarity to the original intention.

Martial Styles represent the culture that surrounds them, so let’s break it down into something simpler.

Art: Art is for a practitioner with a spiritual outlook. Many Martial Arts masters fall into this category, regardless of style. It’s the study of the body, the spirit, and the mind and developing those connections through meditation and intensive training. This outlook is a lifestyle that involves constant self-improvement and introspection. Its intention is non-combative, though the practitioner can also train for that. Aikido and Tai-Chi can fall into this category (though a practitioner can land in other categories too), but this can also include any Chinese MA from Shaolin to Wushu, or any MA where the training focus is on self, on beauty, and perfection.

Common Artistic/Spiritual Martial Arts:

Tai Chi (China), Aikido (Japan), Capoeira (Brazil), Kalari (India), Kyudo (Japan), Wushu Kung Fu (China), Karate (Japan), etc

Sport: This is the Martial Artist who trains primarily for the arena, whether that’s professional prize fighting, death matches, or the Olympics. The trainee is prepared around a certain set of rules of what they can and cannot do. Authors who wish to write these characters will have to study up on the specific rules behind the intended training. This should be self-explanatory, but it can get confusing when the same Martial Arts like Sambo, Muay Thai, and Krav Maga fall under this label and the Lethal one. The difference is not in the techniques, but the type of preparation the trainee receives from their instructor. Someone who trains for matches does not do so with the likelihood of death as an immediate part of the equation. While they know it may happen, they also know it’ll probably be accidental or a result of their (or their opponent’s) stupidity. Actively murdering an opponent in the ring is detrimental to most fighters’ careers.

I also include work out Martial Arts in this list.

If you want to write Gladiators, it’s important to remember that Gladiators themselves are an investment of time and money on the part of their benefactor. Death matches are uncommon not because people don’t want to see it (there are more than a few who would watch), but because the number of people out there who will come back again and again to watch their favorites participate next week outnumber them. The tournament officials can’t earn money off a dead or crippled gladiator, even when there are more than enough eager replacements. When modern MMA first began, they tried the “Anything Goes but Death” mind set. They learned quickly that it wasn’t worth it on a financial level. Professional Gladiator deaths in Ancient Rome were actually pretty uncommon for the same reason. Always follow the money, it’ll usually lead you to the right place.

Common Sport Martial Arts:

Boxing (America/Europe), Kickboxing (America/Europe), Savate (France), MMA (Mixed Bag), Sambo (Russia), Judo (Japan), Muay Thai (Thailand), Tae Kwon Do (Korea), Karate (Japan), Pancratium/Mu Tau (Greece), Capoeira (Brazil), Krav Maga (MMA), etc.

Subdual: This is the outlook that focuses on subduing the opponent over killing them. These Martial Arts often focus on joint locks, throws, pressure points, and breaks over general striking, some of them are designed around easy understanding and application; others take much longer to learn. It’s important to remember that the outlook of these practitioners is to injure their opponent just enough to stop them, while they may be prepared to kill, this is not their primary objective nor the goal.

Common Subdual Martial Arts:

Aiki-Jutsu (Japan), Jujutsu (Japan), Tai Chi (China), Chin Na (China), Sambo (Russia), Hapkido (Korea, Korean Law Enforcement), American Law Enforcement Hand to Hand (America), American Law Enforcement Self-Defense (The style taught to civilians in HtH), General Self-Defense (Multiple Non-Military Strains of above MAs), Brazilian Jujutsu (Brazil), Krav Maga Self-Defense, etc.

Lethality: Almost all martial styles were originally lethal ones and with the right training most can be again, but this is about outlook. The practitioner of one of these styles is someone who has been trained to kill, this is their primary objective. So, these are the martial arts that are designed specifically around killing the opponent as quickly as possible. They are the most actively combative of all the different Martial Arts and have suffered the least from degradation into the above sport styles. These are all killing styles and if you choose any of them for your character, it’s important that you understand what that means. There’s nothing worse than a dissonance between a practitioner and their style, especially given what it says about what they were trained to do. A character that practices any of these is trained to kill, full stop. They may be able to restrain themselves, but killing quickly and efficiently once threatened or on command will be the first instinctual reaction. Most of these will be Martial Styles practiced by the Military and Special Forces divisions from around the world.

Common Lethal Martial Arts:

M.A.P. (Marines), Krav Maga (Israeli Defense Force), Sambo (Spetznaz), Systema (The System, Spetznaz), Pentjak Silat (Indonesia), Ninjutsu (Japan), Military Strain Self-Defense, etc.

Always remember: your character’s Martial Art is a reflection of who they are and depending on the background you choose to give them, a part of that will be non-negotiable if they are to be believable. I’ve experienced some training in a Lethal MA (Ninjutsu) and these are very different styles when compared to the rest of the above in both utility and purpose. So please, prepare yourself appropriately.

Fight Write: The Points Where Weapons Become Useless

Springing to his feet, he bent his bow powerfully and drove his last shaft point-blank at a great hairy shape that soared up at his throat. The arrow was a flying beam of moonlight that flashed onward with but a blur in its course, the were-beast plunged convulsively in midair and crashed headlong, shot through and through.

Then, the rest were on him, in a nightmare rush of blazing eyes and dripping fangs. His fiercely driven sword shore the first asunder; then the desperate impact of the others bore him down. He crushed a narrow skull with the pommel of his hilt, feeling the bone splinter and blood and brains gush over his hand; then, dropping the sword, useless at such deadly close quarters, he caught the throats of the two horrors which were ripping and tearing at him in silent fury.

The Queen of the Black Coast by Robert E. Howard

If you’ve never read anything from Conan: The Barbarian by Robert E. Howard, then shame on you. When it comes to Sword and Sorcery, Howard is still the giant in the genre and the second father of modern fantasy. Honestly, when it comes to fight scenes, Howard is still the man.

Anyway, I’m not posting the above quote here just to fangirl or because the above is really well written. It is, but it illustrates an important point about weapons combat and your characters.

Notice how Conan starts with the bow and when his enemies get into sword range, he discards it. This is because the weapon has now become useless and it will be a detrimental to him to hold onto it, the same is true for the sword, once his enemies get inside its guard. Once his sword is gone, he grapples with his fists and the melee becomes more desperate.

This is a reality to combat that holds true for all weapons and all melee strikes. When I was training in Tae Kwon Do, my instructors referred to these spaces around the body as “hot zones”.

For example: with a roundhouse kick, the opponent needed to be in range of the length of the leg between the foot and shin for the kick to be effective.  If the opponent has gotten close enough that they are above the knee when the leg is extended, then it’s no good. Or alternately, if the opponent was within grabbing distance of the throat and we were nose to nose, a punch was useless and it was time to go to an elbow, a knee, or into a grapple. Most modern handguns are only useful between the ranges of 10 to 50 feet, anywhere closer than that and you can’t aim.

Every weapon has a different hot zone and a point where in truly close quarters they are no longer useful, it requires a fair amount of research to determine when that is.

As with everything regarding writing, the more you know, the better your character will be and the better the fight scene you’ll write.

Tip: How do you know when the actor in the show is an inexperienced fighter?

You watch their feet.

Hollywood Action Movies can fake a lot of things when it comes to actors and combat. The one thing they can’t is footwork.

You want your character to be an experienced fighter? Learn to watch the feet.