For the past 20 years, I've been fortunate to pick the brains of renowned martial artists and street fighters, many of whom I wrote about in the pages of Black Belt. One of the most impressive people I've met is an Englishman named John Skillen. His real-world skills and exploits are the stuff of legend. The experience he's accumulated while dealing with volatile situations makes him an ideal person from whom martial artists can glean practical self-defense insights.
John Skillen began his martial journey as a teenage hooligan who'd pick fights with anyone who offended him. With each battle came victory, and with each victory came additional street cred. He quickly learned that he was capable of beating the best doormen — called bouncers in the United States. After 10 years of such incidents, a nightclub manager with an if-you-can't-beat-'em-hire-'em mentality asked Skillen if he wanted to work for him. He accepted, marking the beginning of his transition from bad guy to good guy.
To polish his street skills, John Skillen studied lau gar kung fu, judo, boxing, kickboxing, and Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling. He earned a place on the British Judo Council's national squad and won an individual championship title in the sport. He also trained with renowned self-defense instructors Peter Consterdine and Geoff Thompson.
During his two decades as a doorman at some of the roughest nightclubs in the United Kingdom, Skillen engaged in countless battles — and prevailed in them all, knocking out most of his adversaries and severely injuring a few. Then he abruptly abandoned the nightclub scene and opened a martial arts and fitness center to teach people how to defend themselves — which is where this article comes in.
Before the First Shot
When it comes to self-defense, John Skillen says your primary goal should be to develop your awareness and assessment skills so you can avoid hostile situations in the first place. In plain English: Use your eyes and ears to constantly survey the environment and identify threats. At the same time, key in on potential escape routes and watch for the deployment of hidden weapons.
When avoidance isn't possible, Skillen recommends verbal de-escalation. Be firm but polite, always giving your adversary an honorable way out. If that fails, you can try being aggressive, psyching him out until his own fear overcomes him. Skillen relates an example of the latter strategy:
"Whilst working the door, I was approached by a gang of seven men, all intoxicated with various substances. One of those substances was obvious by the men's size and rage—anabolic steroids! They were intimidating and highly aggressive. I was prepared for their arrival as I had been forewarned. The leader immediately exploded into a tirade of verbal violence. With bulging eyes and spit frothing at his mouth, he threatened to kill anyone who tried to stop him from entering the venue. He used names of reputable fighters to bolster his threat.
"I stood my ground, and when he finished, I used the adrenaline he fed me to empower my own aggressive verbal counterattack. There was a silent standoff. Seconds passed, and with a frustrated scream, he turned and fled with his gang, unable to carry out his threat."
War of Words
If the aforementioned options fail or if you deem them unviable, use deception and surprise to strike pre-emptively. John Skillen says you can feign cowardice and compliance to lull an adversary into overconfidence. That can create a window of opportunity to hit first.
"During one of the many times I was challenged, I used the cowardice ploy," Skillen says. "A man, 6-foot-4 and heavily built, called me out for a match fight. The rules of the street applied: a battle to be the last man standing, no seconds, no ref. I walked away as if leaving the scene in silence—as if I was scared. As I did so, the giant reveled in his momentary glory. 'That's it, walk away,' he said. 'I always knew you were a coward!'
"On that phrase, I took a breath and used the adrenaline surge the giant had excited within my body to turbo-boost my aggression. I turned and paced toward him, then sent him sprawling to his knees with a single pre-emptive whipping left hook. It was the shock of the unexpected happening that caused his downfall."
Lest he be thought the aggressor, Skillen clarifies the circumstances: "I couldn't walk away; I had to fight him, or the situation between us would have become one of the hunter and hunted with me being the prey."
The physical facet of John Skillen's defense starts with hand positions that serve as a protective barrier and range gauge. He refers to them as "fences," borrowing a term coined by fellow doorman Geoff Thompson. Skillen augments his fences with either a natural-looking square-on stance or a slightly angled staggered "social stance." When coupled with body language that's deceptively passive or aggressive, depending on the situation, the positions arm you with a variety of options you can use to pre-emptively attack, if necessary.
When it comes to targeting, Skillen says go for the head. Specifically, aim for the jaw; no matter how big or strong an assailant may be, a good shot to it is the most effective and efficient way to render him unconscious. Other prime targets are the side of the face and the forehead. Second-tier choices include the neck (for chokes and strangles), the groin (for kicks and punches) and the eyes (to inflict pain so you can free yourself and get back on your feet).
Are you ready for the shocker? Skillen says all other targets, particularly on the body, are worthless in most situations. Why? Because they're frequently protected—by heavy clothing, well-conditioned muscles, or the ability to move or cover up enough to mitigate the damage you were hoping to inflict.
And forget about aiming for the knees, he says. They're practically worthless as targets because the timing required and opportunity needed to adversely affect them are difficult to set up.
Down for the Count
In terms of offense, John Skillen says the hands are king. He advocates using boxing-based straight punches and hooks because they, along with the power slap (a hooklike strike performed with the palm), are the most effective and efficient strikes for the real world. Caveat: Don't waste time and energy throwing light, flicky shots. The longer a fight goes on, the greater your risk of injury and defeat. Always hit with full power to end the altercation as quickly as possible, he says.
One of his favorite tactics entails launching a pre-emptive salvo of four alternating hook punches delivered in rapid succession. Skillen has used the combination numerous times, so he knows how devastating it is. The first punch usually will be enough to KO your foe, but a second or third one might be required. The fourth punch, he says, is just insurance.
Speaking of knockouts, he says it's best if you augment your power with the element of surprise. Top it off by cultivating your ability to strike accurately without hesitation, even when you're throwing the first blow.
Alternative tools: The ex-doorman also thinks highly of uppercuts and overhand punches but in a more limited capacity than straights and hook punches. You can use the uppercut as a pre-emptive shot or as a counter to a head-butt attempt, he says, and you can use overhand punches to bombard an enemy and finish him off.
Prescription for Pain
For hard-core street defense, John Skillen advocates only four leg techniques: the front kick, round kick, soccer kick and heel stomp. Aim your front kick at your foe's groin. Use your round kick only when he's in a low position—for example, when he's bent over after you just front-kicked him in the groin. Blast your soccer kick and heel stomp into his head, torso, knees or ankles after he's been knocked down, assuming he continues to present a threat.
The head butt is the primary weapon of many fighters, particularly in the United Kingdom, and even though Skillen has used it successfully, he says the risk-to-reward ratio makes it a secondary technique. Sure, it can be devastating, but an improperly delivered shot can injure you as badly. Several of his friends have knocked themselves out and/or been severely lacerated while attempting it, he says. Reserve any forehead-to-forehead action for situations in which you're on the ground or your hands are tied.
In most standing situations, forget elbow strikes, he says. They may look impressive on the heavy bag, but rarely will they work in a real fight because the proximity you need to use them effectively is fleeting, so much so that a miss will put you in an awkward position that may be difficult to recover from. And even when you connect, they often fail to do much damage other than break the skin.
It's primarily on the ground where elbows shine, he says. When you're horizontal, the elbow becomes an efficient tool for battering an adversary into submission or unconsciousness. The reason is simple: Whenever the ground serves as a stabilizing platform, it allows elbow strikes to land with more potency.
Biting is valuable in a ground fight, John Skillen says, because it can buy you time to free yourself from an otherwise inescapable grappling hold. Although you can target any part of your adversary's body that's sensitive, consider the nose the primary target. A chomp on the beak will elicit serious pain—and fear that it might be bitten off. Forget the ear, he advises, because an adrenalized enemy will continue to fight even after he's lost one.
Spitting can serve as a diversionary tactic to give you an opening to initiate or resume your attack, he says. Pinching, however, does nothing productive. Likewise, scratching will have minimal effect on an attacker—but it will leave identifying marks on him and collect DNA residue under your fingernails, both of which can help in the aftermath of a crime.
Hair pulling probably won't stop an assault, but the hair can serve as a handle to control a thug while you unleash punches, kicks and knee thrusts. Fish-hooking is of limited usefulness, he says, because of the risk of having your finger bitten.
One unconventional technique Skillen finds effective in street fights is the throat grab. He says it works well offensively and defensively, as a stand-up restraining hold, as a prelude to a knockout shot, and as a handle for smashing the skull into a door or wall. To apply it, grab your opponent's windpipe with a C-grip (four fingers on one side and thumb on the other) using your dominant hand. Simultaneously control the back of his head or arm with your other hand. Complete the technique by digging your fingers and thumb around the windpipe while pressing upward.
A number of widely practiced techniques are too iffy for the average person to rely on in a street fight, John Skillen says. They include sport-grappling techniques of any kind, throws, jumping kicks and any technique that requires you to turn your back to your opponent. Why? Because those moves put you in a vulnerable position.
In accord with his keep-it-simple philosophy, fakes, feints and drawing techniques should be avoided because they're impractical in combat. They're just too complicated to pull off when you're under the effects of adrenaline, he says. Faking is best accomplished using deceptive dialogue and body language during the pre-fight phase of a confrontation.
Closing sound bite: To maximize your ability to defend yourself, start with an attitude of "I'm willing to do anything and everything to protect myself and my loved ones." Couple that with the techniques and strategies described in this article, and you'll have the best possible foundation for self-defense. After that, Skillen says, it's just a matter of practicing until they become second nature.
About the author: Lito Angeles is a Southern California-based police officer and MMA/self-defense instructor. To order his book Fight Night! The Thinking Fan's Guide to Mixed Martial Arts, go here now.
What about the hammerfist, the fave of MMA fighters? How useful is it on the street?
"Overrated for pre-emptive self-defense," John Skillen says. When standing, he prefers boxing-style punches and the power slap because they're far more surgical and effective.
The primary functionality of the hammerfist, he insists, is when you need a transition to fight back to your feet or when you need to use ground and pound to end a fight on the floor.
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