Defanging the Snake

The Science of Effective Fighting Explained

What would you do if someone suddenly threw a venomous snake at you — or any snake, for that matter? Instinctively, you'd jump back, right? This happens because most human beings have a deep-seated fear of being bitten and killed by snakes.

Now, take that same serpent and remove its fangs. If someone threw a fangless snake at you, would you jump? Maybe you would because of the fear of snakes we all share, but your fear of being bitten and envenomated would be greatly reduced. This is so because the snake is now essentially harmless.

We know that a snakebite can be lethal — or, at the very least, painful — and that the fear of dying from a bite automatically puts us in a state of fear, forces us to go on the defensive, and raises our blood pressure and adrenaline levels. However, a snake that cannot inject its venom is no longer a threat because its primary weapons are its fangs.


In some ways, humans in combat are snakelike. Whereas the snake has two fangs, we have five: two arms, two legs and a head. Our arms are capable of landing strikes, effecting grabs, delivering elbow smashes and sinking in chokes. Our legs can deliver kicks, knee strikes, stomps and sweeps. The head, of course, can incapacitate via a head butt, and the teeth can inflict pain via bites.

Also like the snake, humans can be defanged. This is accomplished through the use of "limb destructions," techniques that break a wrist, snap a finger, damage an elbow or dislocate a shoulder. If your opponent sustains a broken wrist in battle, he won't be able to strike you. The pain would be too great, and fear of further damage likely would cause him to avoid using the limb at all.

Similarly, a leg can be taken out of commission by dislocating the patella (kneecap), breaking the limb or hyperextending the knee to cause ligament and tendon damage. Other methods include damaging the ankle, fracturing the small bones of the instep, and cutting the tendons behind the knee or at the heel — all of which would make a leg attack virtually impossible.

Neutralizing the attack potential of the head is complicated by the fact that it's encased by the cranium, and striking that bone can cause injury to you. It's more efficient to target the side of the head or the temples, which are its weakest points.

There are other options. You can direct your defanging strike between the attacker's eyes. Or you can break the jaw, which incorporates a hinge joint that, once damaged, makes biting impossible and often causes a knockout at the same time.

Each weapon — or fang — that you take away from your opponent decreases his ability to fight effectively, thus increasing your chance of survival. That's why the practice of defanging is an art in and of itself. It's quick and effective no matter the size or skill level of the adversary.

We see the inadvertent effects of limb destructions in sports all the time. Witness the number of pro football players who have fallen on the field after a knee injury. Think of the pro boxers who have gotten knocked out from a well-placed strike to the jaw or side of the head. Although they're used to this type of punishment, they still go down. The effect a limb destruction will have on an untrained person will be even more severe.

Paul Vunak (left) faces off against his opponent.


As noted, the goal of attacking the limbs or other vital points on an assailant's body is to render his striking tools useless. When he attacks, trap his "fang" and disable it by breaking the elbow, snapping the finger, dislocating the shoulder, etc. Your aim is to methodically break him down to incapacitate, to immobilize or, if the situation warrants, to kill. There are three ways to accomplish this:• Make your attacker lose his concentration. If he stops thinking about striking you, he'll stop trying to strike you.• Interfere with his neuromuscular control of his body. If he has a bruised nerve or muscle in his forearm, he cannot effectively make a fist. That means he cannot strike you.• Destroy the integrity of his body. If his arm is broken, the extreme pain that accompanies the injury will prevent him from trying to hit you — whether he can form a fist or not.

Although it's not normally thought of when limb destruction is discussed, the clavicle, or collarbone, makes a very effective target. If one clavicle is broken, it will prevent both arms from functioning properly. That's because the pain that results from a fracture is so intense that trying to use even the opposite arm is excruciating. I know this from personal experience: In high school, I broke my right clavicle while playing football. I immediately discovered that both arms had become essentially useless. That's when I concluded that a well-placed hammerfist to an attacker's clavicle can destroy the integrity of his upper body.

Remember that the body is only as strong as its weakest link. In general, joints are weak because of the muscles, tendons and ligaments that are exposed. The knee, for example, is considered one of the strongest joints in the body, but it's known also to be one of the most vulnerable. Because it easily can be broken or dislocated by a strike from the inside, outside or front, it can be prevented from doing its job, which is to support the body's weight. That eliminates the person's mobility and may cause immediate incapacitation.


To be an effective destroyer of limbs, you must possess a mindset that allows you to break through intimidation and overcome the fear of injury, the fear of being defeated and the psychological effects that accompany breaking an attacker's arm, crushing an attacker's trachea or putting your finger into an attacker's eye.

Before you can do that, you must rid yourself of any sympathy or pity you may have for your opponent. Don't look at him as a human being; instead, see him as a target that must be destroyed.

Mike Tyson displayed this exact mindset in his career. At first, when he would approach the ring, fear flooded his mind — fear of his opponent, fear of losing, fear of disappointing his friends and fans. He said later that this was his way of giving respect to his opponent. Then he started seeing his adversary as a target invading his space, his ring, his world.

After that, Tyson would never lose eye contact with his opponent. His confidence was superior to his opponent's, and the result was knockout after knockout. Most of his bouts were won before he ever set foot in the ring. His opponents were scared to death by his reputation, fight record, power and demeanor.

The lesson for martial artists is that in a real fight, you can't stop to think about techniques. When you need to defang the snake, you must have an instant response that you can unleash even though you've turned off your conscious mind and switched on your animal instincts, which are part of what's often called the "reptilian brain."

When animals fight, they fight! They continue until one combatant is killed or backs off. There are no preplanned techniques or attacks. From their example, you learn the necessity of ridding yourself of fear, hesitation and the perceived need to choose a technique.

No matter what type of opponent you face, you must avoid playing that person's game. For example, if your foe is a grappler, don't go to the ground — unless, of course, you are also a grappler and know that your skills are superior to his. Always fight on your own terms using your own techniques. If he does take you to the ground, you have several options for defanging, including gouging his eyes and biting his neck. Even breaking his fingers is good because a grappler with broken digits is severely limited when it comes to effectiveness.

Val Riazanov (left) confronts the attacker.


Before the fight begins, your mind should function like a computer, quickly assessing vital targets, weak points and possible exit routes. If you find yourself facing a large, muscular opponent, think about which soft targets are available: eyes, throat, ears and so on. While not technically soft, the shins and knees are almost always unprotected and can result in an immediate defanging — as opposed to having your strikes be absorbed by muscle tissue and body mass.

While you're facing your opponent, never focus all your attention on a specific part of his body, even his eyes. The key is to look at him and see everything. You must see the whole forest and not just the trees. When you focus on a single point, you miss all the others. For example, while you fixate on his eyes, he might kick you in the shin. You must see all his weapons from head to toe and be ready to answer any weapon that's thrown at you — preferably with a defanging technique.

Once the attack begins, you should be two steps ahead of him — like you're playing chess rather than checkers. If you have to launch a pre-emptive strike, plan to follow up with more strikes to ensure a limb destruction or incapacitation, and until that happens, keep him off-balance (mentally and physically) and on the defensive.

Each strike — whether you happen to be defanging the snake or not at the time — should yield a high return. By this, I mean that each technique should do maximum damage. Recall the sage advice to punch "through" the target and not merely "to" it. Consider the following:

In the dojo, martial artists often practice one-step self-defense techniques while controlling their strikes and kicks so they don't hurt their partners. The problem with this type of training is that in a real fight, you'll tend to apply the amount of force that you've trained yourself to apply. In a real street fight, this can result in you executing a technique that could have defanged the snake but that doesn't because it lacked the requisite power. Full-contact fighters, MMA competitors and pro boxers tend to fare better in street fights because they don't fall victim to this training method.

The solution is to train as you will fight. If you want to be ready for a street fight, train for a street fight. Include full-force strikes and kicks — how to throw them and how to receive them. Note that many traditional martial artists may be skilled technicians, but when it comes to taking a punch, they're quick to get knocked out. You must develop your ability to take a punch, kick, elbow strike, knee and so on.

A person doesn't jump into a pool and expect not to get wet. Likewise, a boxer doesn't step into the ring and expect not to get hit. If, by chance, he doesn't get hit — maybe it's a good day — fine. But nine times out of 10, he will get hit, and he knows it. His key to being able to continue is being able to take a punch. Your key to being able to continue long enough to defang the snake lies in being able to take that punch, kick, elbow or knee that momentarily stands in your way.

As I always tell my clients, you must train to fight and fight to win.

Dr. Leonard C. Holifield is the president and founder of the International Academy of Executive Protection Agents, the Phalanx Training Academy and the Sikaron Karate Federation. In his 50-plus years of training, he's earned a 10th-degree black belt in karate, a sixth degree in hapkido and a third degree in judo. From 1987 to 1997, he served as the chief combatives instructor for the U.S. Army. For more information, visit

Introducing Martial Arts School Listings on Black Belt Mag!
Sign Up Now To Be One Of The First School Listed In Our Database.
Don't miss a single issue of the worlds largest magazine of martial arts.

Two-Time Black Belt Hall of Famer Hayward Nishioka has been campaigning for judo in the United States to harvest more shodans (1st degree black belts) Shodan literally means student. It's analogous to being a freshman in college. It's not the end but the beginning according to Jigoro Kano, the Founder of Judo.

A very dear friend and sensei of mine the late Allen Johnson, may he rest in peace made a home at Emerald City Judo. In Redmond, Washington.

Keep Reading Show less
Jackson Rudolph
Photo Courtesy: Century Martial Arts

Sport karate has been buzzing on the Black Belt Magazine platform recently with a live stream from the Pan American Internationals, a world tour event of the North American Sport Karate Association (NASKA), reaching over 6.3 million users on Facebook earlier this month. The millions of views and thousands of engagements show evident public appeal for the sport, but I have found that sport karate is heavily underrepresented in martial arts studios across America. Some of this is due to traditionalists who are set in their ways and never intend to accept sport karate, this article is not for those people. I believe that much of this issue is the result of martial arts instructors who have never heard of sport karate, don't think that they are capable of teaching it, or fear that tournaments could introduce a toxic environment for their students. However, I feel that the potential benefits of sport karate with regard to student retention far outweigh those concerns. I'll begin by describing these three key retention-boosting benefits, then provide some helpful resources for learning sport karate at the end of this article.

1. Meeting Student Expectations

Martial Arts Superhero

Photo Courtesy: HarperKids via

I started my journey in martial arts, in part, because I loved the cartoon series Samurai Jack. The generation before me may have started martial arts because of The Power Rangers, and before that it was the iconic martial arts movies of the 70's and 80's. Today, many students come to martial arts schools because they see their favorite super hero kicking and punching their way to victory in a Marvel or DC Comics film.

The funneling of super hero-loving kids to martial arts studios is great for the industry, but this source of inspiration presents the challenge of new students who expect to become the next Superman or Captain America through their training. Imagine if you were the eight-year-old girl who begged mom and dad for karate lessons after watching Black Widow, then you had to spend the first three months of your training learning how to do basic blocks, stances, and stand at attention. You would probably be pretty disappointed, and would decide to go play soccer or be a cheerleader with your friends from school.

I'm not saying that those foundational skills aren't important, they are essential to basic martial arts training. My point is that supplementing traditional curriculum with sport karate skills can be a valuable tool in meeting the expectations of those students who are anticipating superhero-level training. If they are already learning stances and punches, is there any harm in adding a leaping "superman punch" with a big kiai to make them feel like they just took down a big, bad villain?

The moves commonly used in extreme martial arts routines at sport karate tournaments for performance value, like the "superman punch", are often criticized by traditionalists in the comment section who proudly proclaim that it would never work on the streets. Maybe it won't, but it just might keep students coming back into your school so that they can learn the techniques that would actually be effective.

2. Curriculum Enrichment

Black Belt

Photo Courtesy:

Another period in which schools often lose students is right after they get their black belt. They may stick around for a little while so that they get to wear their new belt in class for a few months, but over time many of them fade away before climbing much higher in rank. I believe that this is frequently caused by a lack of satisfactory curriculum beyond first degree black belt. I have observed many martial arts schools that have a seemingly random black belt curriculum, in which the "black belt class" really just consists of whatever the head instructor feels like teaching that day. This lack of formatted curriculum quickly becomes repetitive and it is easy to see how students inevitably get bored.

Introducing a sport karate curriculum is an excellent way to provide a diverse program beyond the rank of black belt. This can be done in a variety of ways. Maybe your traditional style doesn't feature much weapons training, which would be a perfect opportunity to bring in sport karate-based training of the bo, nunchaku, kama, or sword. What if you don't want to steer away from traditional martial arts at all? Then maybe your students can have the opportunity to learn another style of martial arts (like Tae Kwon Do black belts learning a Goju-ryu style form) to use in tournaments. If you are more willing to try the extreme aspects of sport karate, those students could take their kicking skills to a new level by learning tricking. I haven't even mentioned point fighting yet, which introduces a multitude of new techniques and strategies for students to wrap their minds around.

Regardless of which element of sport karate is selected for your school, each of those examples could provide years of additional instructional content that will keep black belts intellectually and physically engaged in their training. We are taught as martial artists to always be students, forever seeking to learn as much as we can. Give your students the opportunity to keep learning through sport karate.

3. Prolonged Goal Setting

Jackson Rudolph Chuck Norris

Photo Courtesy: UFAF

The most common reason that students stop training in martial arts is because they achieved whatever goal they set out for in the beginning. Oftentimes this is obtaining a black belt, sometimes it is meeting a weight loss goal, and other times it might be gaining a baseline knowledge of self-defense. We try to combat this with the classic adage about "pursuing the unattainable goal of perfection" or preaching the "never give up attitude", but sometimes this just gets old. Some students need a clear, well-defined goal to continue sacrificing their time and money to come to class.

Once again, sport karate can solve this problem. Although a school does not have to participate in tournaments to use sport karate in their curriculum, much of the philosophy behind the techniques is designed to make a practical movement more visually appealing or optimize it for speed in a point fighting match. Therefore, it just makes sense to compete if you are teaching sport karate. The world of competition organically introduces a near-endless list of goals that could never be obtained within the walls of a single studio. Competitors can seek to win first place in their division, become ranked by some league or region, win a grand championship, get sponsored by a national team, become a world champion, compete on television, and so much more.

The two most common anti-tournament concerns I hear from school owners are fears that losing will make their students want to quit and the fear that if another school's students win, students might leave for the school across town. As for the worries about quitting after a loss, I believe this 100% comes down to culture. If students are appropriately taught to view losing as a source of motivation to train harder and improve their skills, it is hard to imagine a circumstance in which losing a tournament makes a student quit martial arts all together. Regarding the concern about losing students to another school, I have seen this extremely rarely in my fifteen years of competing in sport karate tournaments. The only times that I have seen this occur is when there is direct mistreatment of the student by the original instructor, such as the instructor threatening the student to only train with them and not seek private lessons. If the instructor handles the student and their parents professionally, I have never seen a student change schools simply because they lost a tournament.

In addition to the goal-setting benefits of competing in tournaments, I would be remiss to not mention the importance of the social relationships built through sport karate competition. Sharing the ring with other martial artists, going to dinner with them after the event, carpooling on the way home, and so many other aspects of competition are proven to foster lifelong friendships. These friendships will keep students coming back to continue their martial arts training even when times are tough, because they know that the next tournament is when they will get to see all of their best friends again.

Helpful Resources

Sport Karate University

Photo Courtesy: Black Belt Magazine

I could list dozens of more reasons that people should start training in sport karate. I firmly believe that this sport and style of martial arts has shaped me into the man that I am today, and I wish that every martial artist could experience the same blessings that I have. From a martial arts school owner's perspective, a sport karate curriculum could be your key to meeting students' expectations early on in their training, retaining those students after they achieve their black belt, and giving each of them a multitude of goals that will keep them in the martial arts for years to come. Here are some helpful links to start sport karate training or introduce it to your school:

Sport Karate University is probably the most diverse and cost-effective training tool to get started on the forms and weapons side of sport karate. I joined Sammy Smith in this project to provide world class training on bo, nunchaku, open forms, tricking, and more for as little as $29.99 for one program.

The Flow System is a more in-depth option that is a bit pricier for martial arts schools that want to go all-in on introducing a weapons program. I started the project with a complete bo curriculum, and Mackensi Emory was recruited to include a kama program as well.

Retention Based Sparring is an excellent program that was created by Team Paul Mitchell Executive Director and successful school owner Chris Rappold to help instructors teach sparring in a way that will keep students coming back. A world champion during his competitive career, he balances teaching techniques that really work in the ring with methods that make sparring a more inviting experience.

Adrenaline Action Design is a new product founded by Maguire and Jimmy Kane that directly introduces Hollywood stunt training into a martial arts curriculum. The featured instructors include actual stunt doubles who have performed in blockbuster movies, such as Caitlin Dechelle who doubled Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman. Their Adrenaline Worldwide website also has a membership that provides a ton of content for tricking and extreme weapons training.

There are plenty of other resources for learning sport karate and bringing it into your school, but these are some programs that I have intimate knowledge of and would recommend to anyone interested in this unique aspect of martial arts. I would also highly recommend hosting seminars with world champion competitors or taking private lessons to learn specific elements of sport karate. I encourage you to contact me personally on social media for recommendations. If you have already identified a notable competitor who you would like to train with, most of us are easily accessible via social media and are happy to spread sport karate to as many people as we can.

Bruce Lee museum Dickson Lee

An immersive feature in the revamped Bruce Lee exhibition in Hong Kong.

On what would have been Bruce Lee's 81st birthday Saturday, the Hong Kong Heritage Museum unveiled a new Lee exhibit which opened to the public on Sunday. Following on the heels of the museum's previous Bruce Lee exhibition, which ran from 2013 to 2020, the new exhibit, A Man Beyond the Ordinary: Bruce Lee, is slated to run until 2026.
Keep Reading Show less