It should not come as too much of a shock to anyone that as a disabled woman, I am not a cage fighter, a professional boxer or any other kind of combat sport contestant. Nor am I the kind of person who goes out looking to have boxing matches or sparring contests with members of the public. Furthermore, I don't really see it as my job to train up other people to be combat sports contestants.
I am, first and foremost, interested in self-defense and the defense of others in real-life hostile encounters. For me this is the true purpose of my martial training - I focus on what some might call "village defense arts". Whatever it may have become in terms of form demonstrations and push hands contests, Taijiquan started out as just such an art. Chen Fake is said to have killed the head of the notorious Red Spear Gang armed with only a staff while defending his village.
Now it may come as a genuine surprise to many who are enamored of the modern forms of gladiatorial combat that in the field of real life violence, conditions are usually quite different from cage fights or boxing matches.
In a combat sport, both fighters have the same aim. Both are intent on beating the other guy or girl to a pulp, or on forcing their opponent into a submission. For the record, submission holds are something I've never seen used in any actual fight. They would be far too risky in an environment where another attacker could kick you at any moment and no referee is standing by to protest that the fight is over once you let go. Real fights are never played by set rules with permissible and illegal techniques. Real fights are never played for points.
Another essential difference between a sporting contest and a real life assault is that in the ring, both combatants have chosen to be there and both have trained thoroughly for the event. Neither will have any element of surprise, any significant psychological advantage or disadvantage (at least when compared to a attacker and victim scenario,) and the fight will often turn into a slug-fest of who has the most stamina, cardiovascular fitness and resilience to blows. In particular, a boxing match will be a contest of who's head can endure the most damage from multiple punches that have been deadened by use of boxing gloves.
N.B. In this article, I intend to draw a little on some of my own real life combative experiences to explain my perspective. Before I continue, I should point out that I am aware that I run a very strong risk of criticism by writing such an article at all. I know that many martial artists see referring to one's own life experiences as taboo, since they will protest they have no EVIDENCE that your experiences are true. This is true, in fact they have no hard evidence for anything I write - but this position is hardly unique in any walk of life. My students can make up their own minds about my combat skills and the knowledge I have to impart. I can only ask that people read this article with an open mind and consider my words on their own merits to see if there is anything here they may be able to put to use in their own training. The reader is entirely at liberty to dismiss the rest and believe or disbelieve in my authority to speak about such things as they see fit. For those who doubt my references to personal experiences of dangerous encounters, I must ask them to try to remember that thinking is more productive than doubt and the truth is the truth whoever says it. Rather than trying to prove myself, which I really can't do through the computer screen, I'll ask instead that they simply imagine that someone who they are prepared to believe in wrote the article instead. I am never going to launch a cage-fighting career to prove that my knowledge is valid: quite aside from the fact that I am only prepared to hurt people when it is absolutely necessary, I have way too many health issues. And with that out of the way, I'll continue.
In all of the real violent encounters in which I have taken part, the two warring sides have had completely different victory conditions. If a man tries to kick another man repeatedly in the head until all breath and life have left his body and, after trying unsuccessfully to warn him off, you grapple him to the ground, your aims are really quite different from his. When I found myself in this situation, I had to resort to grinding the man's nose into the road, while cars screeched to a halt and pipped their horns. At this point he broke free and ran away shouting obscenities. No matter, my job had been done. My friend, who would otherwise now be dead, was safe. I had no interest in harming his attacker any more than was necessary to bring about that conclusion.
If a group of four men set out to bottle another man as a racially motivated hate crime and you intervene by jumping in and thrusting a staff just short of their faces, causing them to scatter, the ringleader throwing down his bottle and hurriedly escaping, again, your aims are quite different from theirs.
When I did this, my intent was quite different from theirs. They were set on entirely needless violence while I sought only to prevent it. Here, a surprising show of strength was enough to make them think twice. They were looking to outnumber their victim by four to one (actually they were five if you include their staffordshire bull terrier). With my staff, I evened the odds to an unacceptable level of danger for them. I should explain that the reason I was carrying a staff was that I had just come from teaching a class. I was wearing my Kung Fu suit too, which hopefully added to the element of surprise. At any rate, they were not expecting a female Kung Fu vigilante to foil their plans outside a supermarket late at night.
Now there have been many other encounters: I once defended my friend from an unprovoked violent drunk assault and on another occasion I fended off a man who was trying to grab her bag. I have chased a man from a house, and had to barricade another house, several times against a drug-fuelled mentally ill man who was capable of being highly destructive to property and / or person. I have defended myself from a strangler by using the nearest available weapon. I have escaped from two kidnappers intent on making me choose my method of execution. I chose instead to escape, my mission being solely to run away, get to safety and call the police. Because I was successful, I am here to write articles such as this one.
For each actual physical encounter I have had numerous more where I have had to de-escalate, deter, intimidate or otherwise out-psyche a potentially dangerous assailant and again, each situation was unique, making the assailant's intentions and my own mission brief different each time.
The time a man decided to wave a knife around under the noses of me and my friend, it proved to be effective enough simply to show no fear at all. He was looking for a fear reaction that he could exploit and I refused to comply. I didn't even look at him as I walked away, making it clear to him that whatever he may have thought, he posed me no threat at all. Had I read the situation wrongly, my tactic could have proved fatal. As it was, I read the situation correctly and could not have been happier with the outcome. Appearing more than a little shocked, he commented to my friend that I was very "determined" as we parted company.
Several other similar encounters spring to mind where a frank statement from me that I was aware of the other person's plan to intimidate me or someone else, along with making them aware that such intimidation tactics were not going to work, proved to be enough to prevent a potentially nasty event. Once their plans were out in the open, they were actually pushed into a defensive position where they felt as though they had to try to convince me and any spectators that they meant me no harm at all. Job done.
On a similar occasion, I once managed to convince a drug-fuelled man making threats that deep down in his heart, he didn't really want to hurt me. While others were very concerned for my safety that night, I read the situation correctly and I was right - he didn't really want to hurt me, he only thought he did and I convinced him he was wrong. Some hostile encounters just require you to take charge of them.
I once walked with my brother through the middle of a gang of twenty-one skinheads who would seriously have quite happily attacked either one of us - they'd attacked my friends and I on many occasions - but again, neither one of us showed any fear. Rather like the Red Sea, the skinheads parted, forming two walls on each side that my brother and I calmly walked through the middle of. We knew we were tooled up, and by that stage my brother had fought for himself enough of a reputation to make every individual assailant think twice. They knew that he had defeated two of their strongest troublemakers at once in a previous fight. Obviously they'd have been able to overpower us fairly quickly if they'd decided to, but evidently none of them wanted to be amongst the the first one or two to go down before they'd managed to overwhelm us. On that night, each and every individual must have decided that self-preservation was more important than beating us up. And so it was revealed that a gang is really only as strong as the individuals comprising it.
Years later it would be my turn to rely on my reputation as a potentially vicious fighter to prevent others from being beaten up, but with or without a formidable reputation, it can often be enough to simply stand up to bullies without flinching. When they can see no weakness, they may well decide not to risk it. It may not be necessary to convince them that you'd win the encounter, only that you have little regard for theirs or your own safety when fully committed to the act of giving them a lifelong reminder not to judge a book by its cover. You don't actually need to be a psychopath to create the impression that you might be.
Different Battle-zones, Different Weapons
If we see combat sports as the be all and end all of violence and as the only real purpose of martial training, we get locked into a false mindset whereby we expect both combatants to have the same brief. If we are not combat sport stars we should not imagine that our fights will be like chess matches or cage fights, where both sides share the same goal. Many real life battles, just like many wartime missions have had quite unique and often rather one-sided goals whereby at any one time, only one side is truly in active aggression mode and the other party will content themselves with escaping with their lives until they've had chance to re-group and decide what to do next.
Now I dare say there will be some people reading this article whose experience of violence is a lot more like a boxing match or a cage fight. I know that there are young men out there who go out drinking fairly often and actually rather enjoy the odd punch up as a bit of rough and tumble male bonding. I know what boys (and increasingly girls) are like.
I grew up in a rough town and have lived in several rough city and semi-rural neighborhoods. Make no mistake - violence and murder are not the sole prerogatives of the city dweller - weapons and killings had become fairly commonplace in my large semi-rural home town many years before the obvious recent escalation of knife and gun culture in our urban centres.
I know too that there are also professional bouncers who quite enjoy their job - I know because I had an uncle who worked the door and was considered to be the toughest man in town, which he was for a while. I have a punk cousin who used to box and a heavy metal loving brother who got into a serious amount of scraps. I've been in more street fights myself than most people would consider to be appropriate or even believable. Fair to say, my family was generally one that others avoided or else picked fights with.
Now the people who enjoy violence might see their battles as more of an equal battle to see who can batter the living daylights out of their opponent first. But I dare say that for the average person who prefers to avoid trouble where possible, martial training is undertaken in order to feel (and genuinely be) safer on the street. Their aim is to protect themselves and their families if the need arises. Similarly, for the police custody officer or the night watchman martial student, combat isn't typically about causing as much damage to the enemy as they possibly can.
If you are this latter kind of martial artist, your fighting skills need to reflect that fact. The de-escalation, negotiation and other psychological skills you'll need more often than your fists, obviously need to be quite different, but so do your physical skills. A real life or death encounter is often about seizing the element of surprise, perhaps after lulling the attacker into a false sense of security, if your attempts to deter them completely have proved unsuccessful. No boxer is going to be surprised when a fellow boxer tries to hit him.
I think everyone reading this should agree, that these situations require quite different skills than a sporting contest where both assailants are going nowhere and both are intent on getting as many blows as they can past the other's guard. For a start you need to develop good reflexes so that you can move second and arrive first, should a sudden violent attack be launched against you. When you have made a successful attack, you can escape if that is the best thing to do. Alternatively against someone who is highly dangerous, you might need to seize that opportunity to finish the fight in as few seconds as you possibly can. In such a situation, you should not break contact again until the fight is over. Concepts I was taught were to hit and keep on hitting, or to at the very least "follow on with three more strikes" - don't assume that one blow will be enough. That said, it will only be too apparent when one blow has been enough and you should normally aim to leave an encounter at that.
When you do fire into action, you need to move suddenly and explosively without delay. Your attack needs to be absolutely direct without any winding up or telegraphing of your movements. Your attack must be decisive, accurate and powerful enough to do the required amount of damage. You need to maximise your strengths by developing whole-body connected power and by obtaining a tactically superior position while at the same time minimising your opponent's strengths. Strike to vulnerable targets at optimal angles. If your opponent is bigger than you, don't give him time to use those advantages. Superior reach is only an advantage while an attacker has you at arms length. Once inside the guard of a bigger foe, a small martial artist may actually be better placed to cause damage - limbs can be too long as well as too short for combat range, so choose the range that puts you at your best advantage.
In addition to reflexes, tactical and analytical skills, you need to develop your perception skills to read the opponent's body language and facial expression so that you know when an attack is coming. You must also be able to totally mask such intentions in your own demeanour.
By all means train your martial arts for whatever you need them for, but do not confuse these quite different goals. I am not saying for a moment that boxing matches do not require great skill, but combat sports, civilian street survival, police and army careers are not all the same thing and although these situations require some skills that can be considered to be transferrable, they contain many more that are not. Apprehension, restraint, escape and destruction are all quite different from each other. Another crucial consideration is that while most combat sports involve one-on-one fights with fairly evenly matched opponents, real life attackers frequently outnumber their chosen victims, as well as often being physically larger than them. And while voluntarily taking an opponent to the ground in a submission hold might work in the ring, it would almost certainly spell your defeat in a group encounter.
Real life encounters frequently require you to be far more vicious than anything you can safely simulate in a martial arts class, a boxing ring or on a video and martial training must seek to simulate such things in non-literal ways at times.
Things you can never really train on another person is a real eye strike, eye gouge or a windpipe hit or crush, but you may be able to simulate the precision required to execute such techniques by use of pads, bags and other targets. Remember that in a real fight you will be reliant on the skills you have honed, so if you need to strike to a vulnerable target you do not want to spend all of your time point-scoring at unrealistic distances during your training. Again, real fights are not won on points.
When training with a partner, always train both in range and on target, you don't have to strike with the same level of speed or force as you would have to if your life truly depended on it and you can make use of body armour and gloves, but be precise. Don't waste opportunities when training with another person - make sure each and every application finds its real-life desired target, thereby continually improving your targeting accuracy.
Supplement this training by striking at full speed to something like a hanging paper target with eyes drawn on to it. Strike with sufficient shocking impact to tear the paper rather than just making it swing away from your hand. Attach the top of the target (only) to the top of a doorframe. Make sure you can really target an eye with a one knuckle punch when you are sparring, but remember that in real life, you would have to perform a gouge with the fingertip and supplement your solo training accordingly.
Man Or Animal?
One final thing I want to say is that when adrenaline is flowing and you know your life depends on your combat skills, time slows down a great deal. Lots of people these days are into trying to access some distant reptile or primal animal part of their psyche, in the belief that real fights are completely detached from your analytical mind. But such unthinking parts of ourselves, if they truly exist, are not as adaptable, intelligent or compassionate as our own human psyches. Experience tells me that you will have a remarkable amount of time to think and plan when the need arises. Your body will have to rely on its trained skills, but your brain will be telling it what to do and when. With this in mind, it is important to make your training considered and adaptable too.
I do not consider disciplines such as hypnosis, NLP, CBT or meditation to be necessary or even desirable in order to develop the right mindset. I think that all is required to develop your martial intelligence is to think martially. Remain open to the experiences of others, even when their words surprise you. Thoroughly assess your training aims and practice diligently and realistically, recognising the differences between all of those things that are different.
Train up your strengths, but pay much greater attention to overcoming your weaknesses. Instead of just relying on intuitive abilities, develop new skills to the stage that they become intuitive. Martial training is a multi-faceted discipline with a broad range of different complimentary physical, psychological, tactical and intellectual skills. Spar if you wish, but that's not all there is. Apply techniques slowly and carefully - strikes, kicks, throws, defenses, evasions, sweeps, locks, escapes, angles, optimum force vectors, weapons, disarms ... Training at different intensities allows you to work on and polish the different details you will need to bring together in battle. Optimal movement must be practiced with patience and precision as well as at full throttle. Dissect and analyse, do partner drills, solo movement exercises, forms, footwork drills, self-defense scenarios and role-play... Develop functional flexibility, fitness, reflexes, tactics, strength, perception, accuracy, combat psychology, powerful movement, sensitivity and adaptability... Combine existing and new skills to make a synergistic whole.
Remember that martial training combines craft and science as well as artistry. Don't limit yourself.
Zorya is the head teacher of the Martial Tai Chi Association.
She can be reached at:
has several series of VCDs and DVDs, all available through
For more of Joanna Zorya's articles on this site ...