Wise martial artists train to survive a close encounter on the street. Proving the superiority of their style in a street fight is not their primary concern.

Last night as I waited for the bus, I was hassled by a man who was “interviewing" robbery candidates. (In the past month alone, 35 muggings took place at bus stops in my section of Baltimore.) After missing my second bus there, I walked through a drug-infested neighborhood where two drunken construction workers — cruising for trouble in a pickup — threatened me.

This morning, an angry young man who was pacing impatiently outside a rehab clinic scanned my hands and belt line, then attempted to make hard eye contact. When I passed him, he rose and turned to follow, but he stopped when I looked over my shoulder and shifted the bag I was carrying into my left hand.

Photo by Rick Hustead

Each of these fleeting encounters had the potential to escalate into the physical dimension. In fact, most of the fights I've been in were preceded by similar situations. However, each encounter described above was readily defused with the appropriate body language. Those opportunities for mayhem did not turn into contests between me and a potential antagonist. Instead, they were struggles between my rational mind and the egomaniac within.

It is unfortunate that the ego of most trained fighters, which is often exemplified by their attachment to their martial art, yearns for expression in such situations. I have trained with enough sensei and sifu to know that many capable martial artists secretly yearn for such an opportunity to prove the utility of their art at the expense of some cretin who desperately deserves to be their proving ground.

However, those who manage to find such opportunities through risky employment — such as bouncing and law-enforcement — soon lose their curiosity. Also, those who are regularly exposed to such situations outside the context of an authority role never cease to dread the possible entry of personal violence into their daily life. In any case, peril soon loses its romance.

The key to boosting long-term personal security in dangerous places is to avoid planting or nourishing the seeds of bad intentions. Not doing vigilante work in a gang-infested city is No. 1 on my list. No. 2 is not accepting the slurred threats of a drunk as a true indication of intent to do harm.

Shutting up a tormentor with a punch combination — while his huge friend lumbers around their truck — may sound like fun, but jail cells and emergency rooms await the winners and losers of such altercations. Also, the level of success that trained fighters are taught to seek in combat could easily plant within the mind of an attacker the seeds of true bad intentions, which might turn him into an enemy who is willing to settle the score with a screwdriver, a gun or the grill of his truck.

As trained martial artists, we must abandon the glorification of “winning" a street fight if we are to achieve real peace of mind. I, for one, have yet to achieve this goal. On a bad night, I might have escalated one of the encounters described above. I have set this goal because — at only 35 years of age — I am beginning to have a hard time handling the adrenaline rush that accompanies a spontaneous confrontation.

The last situation I permitted to escalate into the physical realm resulted in a rush that left me too weak to effectively do my work. That spunky little hormone known as adrenaline had enabled me to prevail over my antagonist, but when I returned home 16 hours later, I was still too weak to speak audibly.

That led to my study of the dynamics of personal violence, specifically to identify the point at which threat and hostility crystallize into serious intent. That line still appears blurred, but the characteristics of the dangerous attacker are quite clear.

Photo by Thomas Sanders

An untrained person who challenges you to a stand-up fight or who “faces off" with you for a physical contest is not a serious threat. If, for some reason, you find yourself unable — or unwilling — to decline such mutual combat with an untrained person, all you really need are the three basic skills of the combat athlete: the ability to strike effectively with your lead hand, the ability to utilize lateral movement to avoid a clinch and the ability to splay against a takedown.

The criminal is scenario-dependent. To reliably “score" the number of victims necessary to support his drug habit, he must do one of two things. The first is conduct an ambush based on previous observations of the target's patterned behavior. The second is approach a fixed target (such as a person waiting for a ride) and conduct an “interview" according to a practiced pattern, the course of which will determine — and possibly set up — a successful attack.

The robbery-motivated attacker is best foiled by closing his window of opportunity through avoidance tactics like walking instead of waiting for a bus; pacing, as if your ride is late, instead of standing; carrying something in your hand; or varying your arrival time and parking place. Combat with this type of attacker is often successful — but almost always discouraged. A friend of mine who is not a trained fighter recently managed to fend off two armed muggers, but how can he know whether they were HIV or hepatitis-C positive?

The criminal's approach tactics include panhandling, bumming a cigarette and asking for directions or the time. This is intended to measure the target's timidity, distract him and keep his hands busy. To avoid falling into the criminal's trap, do not stand in the open or against a wall. Putting your back to a light pole or mailbox is better. That protects your back against a secondary attacker and gives you an obstacle with which you can frustrate frontal attacks.

When subject to approach tactics, step away, speak with authority and scan your surroundings for accomplices while engaging the primary attacker in minimal conversation. Shift any burdens, such as a briefcase or bag of groceries, to the arm closest to your assailant, preferably to your weak side. Persistent “interviewers" can often be frustrated when you use a curb to shift your position to a higher or lower level. Getting close to traffic — and even walking down the center line of the street — should shake off all but the drunken and the deranged.

Personal assaults resulting from grudges, arguments, jealousy, envy, hatred and so on tend to be brutal. They are often, but not always, related to alcohol use, and they usually begin with a sucker punch. Real-life assailants are far more effective than most martial arts teachers would have you believe. I've sustained worse injuries while dealing with unskilled but experienced fighters than while facing trained fighters. Although every violent incident is unique, it is useful to note some general tendencies of the different types of attackers:

• The tall, untrained fighter feels a need to dominate. That urge can result in an attempt to control the situation through slapping, pushing, grabbing and pinning — a head against a wall, for instance — with his lead hand. He is less likely to “hook" his punches than is a shorter man. He is also more likely to finish a prone opponent with a stomping attack, as tall men are generally uncomfortable on the ground. Overall, experienced tall fighters tend to exhibit more versatility and less bad intent than their shorter counterparts.

• The short, untrained fighter is a well of bad intentions, motivated by an intense urge to injure his larger antagonist — usually with a vicious hook to the head. He is more likely to punch with both hands than is a taller man. Fear of a larger man often ensures a ruthless attempt to finish the encounter by maiming an immobilized opponent with gouges, bites, head butts, jump-stomping and the use of improvised weapons. Expect him to work harder than a bigger man. Ground-fighting with a stocky person who is motivated by hatred is not a lot of fun.

• The group is dependent on cohesion, in much the same way that the criminal is dependent on an advantageous situation. The key to dealing with a group is the ability to affect its unity. There are plenty of competing theories for accomplishing this objective, and debating their merits is beyond the scope of this post. However, keep in mind that the application of such theories will be messier than their study.

• The hitter is a rare version of a type of attacker who has had enough success to formulate a recipe for doing business. He is more dangerous than most highly skilled fighters — and some prizefighters — and often has a background in scholastic contact sports. Only those willing to plant and nurture the seeds of bad intent — by stiffing their bookmaker, for instance — are likely to be ambushed by such a person.

To better understand the mentality of this type, watch videos of David “Tank" Abbott's early matches in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Mike Tyson's post-prison bouts and any Paul Varelans UFC fight. These are all examples of undisciplined, undertrained fighters who nevertheless retain the ability to bully many of the world's best. Conversely, Marco Ruas and Evander Holyfield demonstrate the character and skill required to deal with an experienced brute.

Photo by Rick Hustead

The term “street fighting" is a misnomer. I've fought on road surfaces only twice in my life. The most dangerous thing on the road is an 80-year-old woman in a Buick. Criminals respect traffic if nothing else. That's why it pays to consider the other types of surfaces on which you could fight.

On grass, mulch, gravel and especially sand, you can forget power-hitting. Instead, expect to end up on the ground. Wood, painted concrete, steel and tile floors should be considered “fast" boxing surfaces. If you and your attacker go down, these surfaces are tolerable but bruising.

Concrete and asphalt offer enough traction for power-hitting. They are also hard enough to crack a skull and abrasive enough to tear flesh from bone. Experienced fighters know that pavement can be deadly.

Remember that going to the ground is not always the rule. That perception persists because martial artists rely on bouncers, cops and practitioners of combat sports as sources. My attackers have included amateur wrestlers and professional criminals. Two out of 12 fights went to the ground — but none stayed there.

Combat-sport events are a necessary distortion of reality. Sports require rules, and every rule takes combat a step away from its raw form. The most influential rule is the fighting surface, which further distorts the contest in favor of styles suited to that environment. Professional boxers sometimes make purse concessions to get an advantageous ring configuration. Remember that the terrain on which a battle is fought is far more than a variable; it literally sets the stage.

Style-vs.-style arguments are an empty obsession when it comes to surviving real violence. Would you compare an apple to an orange to determine the flavor of an avocado? The most troubling aspect of this obsession is the value that eclectic martial artists place on their perceived ability to defeat traditionalists and athletes. Fumio Demura and Roy Jones Jr. are not among your potential attackers.

Winning a street fight is an adolescent notion at odds with practical self-defense. This ethos of winning is often reflected in the use of hyped terminology like “shatter," “destroy" and “blast." In reality, victory is a perception. As an adult, I've never been defeated by an attacker, yet I cannot claim to have “won" a single real fight. A referee never stepped onto a parking lot or loading dock to raise my hand in victory. People who consistently “win" real fights all have one thing in common: They enjoy hurting people.

Survival is good enough for me.

Story by James LaFond

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"Unlike karate training outside a combat zone," Cpt. Yoon explained, "it is important here that the troops be able to turn their techniques into devastating, bone-crushing blows. There is no place for mild strikes in combat when a VC is trying to push a bayonet into your stomach."

For that reason, the compound is peppered with makiwara punching boards, and the Korean Tigers spend much time conditioning the weapons of taekwondo. Also, throughout Vietnam there are plenty of sandbags, which are used to protect all kinds of constructions. They make excellent striking bags for a karateman.

The next unit in the schedule is to display free fighting. The commander again explains that this form of fighting is used to test the Tigers' skills against one another rather than to demonstrate the actual methods of close-quarters combat, as a fight on the battlefield is nearly always over in an instant.

The sparring matches are exhibitions of technique and control. Perhaps the only recognizable difference between these and matches held in tournaments is the consistent power the soldiers put behind their blows and their concentration on hard taekwondo techniques rather than elusive ones.

Against Weapons

At last, a final group prepares to show what happens when an unarmed Tiger meets a VC with a knife or a bayonet fixed to his AK-47 rifle. Two pairs of soldiers stride to the center of the hard-dirt arena, face the commander and render a snappy salute. Then they fall into a four-man square and await orders.

Sgt. Lee barks a command, and the best of the best explode into action. One gladiator leaps for a knife that has been thrown into the arena. He jams it, hard, at another, who violently kicks the striking hand and jumps shoulder height, scissoring the attacker's neck and tumbling him forward onto the unyielding ground with a crash. The knife spins away.

Meanwhile, another black belt catches a rifle with a fixed bayonet that is thrown to him from the sidelines. With a guttural shout, he lunges for his opponent. The defender spins to the left, brings his knee sharply inward against the weapon and rolls the attacker onto his own shoulder while tearing at his windpipe. It's over in seconds.

The couples repeat the performance again and again, smashing full tilt against each other. Every time, the attacker thrusts hard with his weapon. It's just less than miraculous that the practice doesn't turn into a blood bath.

Korean Budomen

Initiated as the Capital Infantry Division, the Tiger Division was activated on June 20, 1949, in Seoul with the mission of providing security for the capital. It was charged with additional security of the 38th parallel in Ongjin in September of the same year. When the Korean War began on June 25, 1950, the division began to prove itself in heavy fighting during battles at Ahn-kang and Kyung-joo along the defense line of the Nakdong River in the southeastern part of the country.

Following the successful Inchon landing by Gen. Douglas MacArthur's forces, the division penetrated deep into the North across the 38th parallel, overrunning enemy strongholds and advancing close to the Korea-Manchuria border. As their ability became recognized, the division was committed repeatedly and saw the armistice signed while fighting at the front in the spring of 1952. They captured more than 9,920 enemy, killed more than 91,000 and seized more than 31,000 weapons. As a result of their valor, the division was awarded five ROK Presidential Citations and a U.S. Presidential Citation, an ROK National Assembly award and 42 other plaudits.

After the armistice, the division had already been dubbed with the Tiger laurel and was deployed along the front line of the central part of the Korea DMZ. They remained under continued training and constant combat readiness.

Upon approval of the National Assembly, the division was directed to combat in the Republic of Vietnam on August 20, 1965. Three separate elements arrived at Qui Nhon on November 1 after four weeks of preliminary training. That month, it received its tactical area of responsibility, which consisted of 1,400 square kilometers in Binh Dinh Province in central Vietnam. The division's general mission objectives are to protect travel routes, military installations and facilities within its TAOR and to assist the Republic of Vietnam in its pacification plan by eliminating Viet Cong in the area and helping the people rebuild their destroyed homes.

Since 1965, the Tiger Division has stabilized security within their area to an impressive degree. The TAOR itself has expanded from 1,400 to 3,800 square kilometers. As of mid-June, the Tigers had killed more than 9,000 enemy, captured nearly 3,000 and counted 4,500 defectors, as well as seizing nearly 4,000 weapons.

All this leaves little room for doubt about whom historians will count as the true elite of Vietnam combat. In the ranks of the VC and the NVA, mention of these ferocious Koreans brings shudders to the comrades. Even as he fights those from North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, the Tigerman knows that he has full command of his body and his mind. When he's faced with hand-to-hand combat, he need not rely only on the ferocity of his rifle to equalize the score. He can hammer out punches with machine-gun rapidity or swing a full-flogging kick with sufficient force to gain the advantage. When a man is trained in karate, or to be more specific, taekwondo, he's ahead of the game and the Viet Cong, that crap-shooting armada of insurgent forces, and the crack North Vietnamese troops who come to do battle. They know full well that the Tigers with their taekwondo as well as armaments are tough to beat.

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The roots of taekwondo are in Korea, and for the ROK GIs who enter the Tiger ranks, the intensive routine of training in the martial art is strictly par for the course. No doubt every Tigerman hopes to use his martial arts training sometime in a tournament as well as he does in combat. That's the dream of every GI in the ROK division.

The Tigers, under Maj. Gen. Lew Pyong Hyon and with taekwondo's Capt. Yoon, have been making headlines throughout the world. They are the only troops, it's been said, who fight fire with fire, who use guerrilla techniques and ambush techniques in much the same manner as the Viet Cong. In a war such as this — where the boundary lines are questionable, where there is no front line and where your neighbor can turn into your enemy — such techniques are indispensable. Thanks to the hand-to-hand techniques and the combat-karate emphasis of this militia, the odds are clearly shaping up in the Tiger Division's ledger. Thanks to taekwondo, the Tigers are smashing the enemy with no holds barred and, if anyone doubts it, plenty of contact!

Read Part 1 of this article here.

text by Jack E. Swift

(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)

Scene: A group of soldiers is gathered for a bull session. The subject under discussion is the Tiger Division of the Korean army. The soldiers are engrossed. One, a lean, tanned GI, pushes back his beret, squints into the darkness and looks out to see a mountain of burning embers.

"We were on recon operations in southern Binh Dinh Province," he explains. "One night, we caught the sounds of a skirmish. My squad leader held up his hand and when he smiled, we knew we were in for some action. As we approached the area, we were a little surprised that there was no small-arms fire, but we could hear a lot of guys yelling.

"When we got there, it was an unbelievable sight. Here were those Korean troops in close-quarters combat with what must have been superior forces, as there were [Viet Cong soldiers] all over the place. I've never seen so many broken necks and caved-in ribs in my life. We helped clean up what was left."

So goes the legend, and just in case you're casting a cynical eye as to the Tiger Division's aptitude in the use of martial arts, the record speaks for itself. If there was ever a primer on combat karate, these troops would write it. In two grueling periods daily, every troop in the Tiger Division trains in the taekwondo method, the official karate of Korea.

At one time, there were many factions, but in the past year or so, they've all been absorbed by the International Taekwon-Do Federation, with its headquarters in Seoul. In fact, with the Koreans, and even in many areas in Vietnam, taekwondo is synonymous with karate. Numerous Vietnamese do not even understand the word "karate" — but mention taekwondo and their faces light up with recognition.

Way of Life

At Qui Nhon, division headquarters, visitors are surprised to see sparkling white uniforms — and a sea of black belts — virtually in the middle of a combat zone. While on actual operations away from their base, the Tigers work out in field gear, but at the training center, everyone wears a gi and keeps it as immaculate as any other military uniform.

On the left side of the gi, each person wears the proud division emblem of a roaring tiger. On the other side, if he's an instructor, the soldier wears a black insignia of a fist with white dots above indicating how many degrees of black-belt rank he holds.

Commander of the massive taekwondo corps of the Tiger Division is Capt. Yoon Dong Ho, himself a third dan. But the rugged, intelligent captain is no armchair commander. He's on hand daily at the dirt arena, watching the troops go through their paces and often teaching a special class of officers.

Capt. Yoon is responsible for the official taekwondo training of more than 15,000 Tiger troops in Vietnam. Although popular belief holds otherwise, there are actually more than 200 black-belt holders in the Tiger ranks. Of them, three are fourth dan, 29 are third dan, 57 are second dan and 115 are first dan. There are roughly 600 red belts and 2,300 blue belts, as well as 9,000 troops holding degrees of white belt. Approximately 2,900 men recently began their training in Vietnam. Many of these, of course, already hold rank they won in Korea.


Each element of the Tiger infantry arriving in Vietnam goes through intensive schooling at Qui Nhon. The 26th of these classes began in July, to run just over a month. The sessions lead off with classical techniques under the direct supervision of Sgt. Jun Jae Gun, head taekwondo instructor for the Meng Ho in Vietnam. Sgt. Jun, one of the division's tough trio of fourth degrees, displays a certificate signed by Gen. Choi Hong Hi, International Taekwon-Do Federation president.

When a trooper is promoted in Vietnam, however, he's awarded a military certificate of training by his supplement company commander, who acts as a representative of Lt. Col. Jai Chun Ko, division field commander. All promotions are recognized by the federation. In cases of promotion to the higher grades, however, special recognition is often meted out. For example, Sgt. Kim Duk Ki was recently awarded his third dan by Lt. Gen. Chae Myung Shin, field headquarters commander for all ROK Forces in Vietnam.

"The major objective of our formal taekwondo classes," asserted Cpt. Yoon, "is to take the minds of our troops and replace civilian thinking with military spirit and fierceness. 'Tiger' is the nickname the division has been tagged with because of the fierce nature we have demonstrated in combat. We intend to live up to it."

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Cpt. Yoon reinforced that statement with an impromptu demonstration of his own favorite techniques. Choosing a brawny trooper with a bayonet, the captain rushed him, parrying the weapon with an onslaught of power strikes with the elbow, palm, heel and fist. He ended with a forearm strike to the windpipe, which he explained is effective when one wants to silence the enemy quickly.

Key elements in hand-to-hand combat, the commander explained, are attacking the weapon directly or the hand that holds it while simultaneously attacking the most vulnerable spot within reach, then pressing the assault to keep the enemy off-balance while finishing him.

Field Testing

Stressing physical fitness in preparation for the application of these techniques, Cpt. Yoon said his troops rely heavily on powerful, smashing blows against the smaller Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Communists. He explained that the enemies are often undernourished because of their long treks from the North and therefore may fall easily under a strong attack.

"One particular situation where we encounter hand-to-hand fighting," Cpt. Yoon said, "is when the VC hide in bunkers and Tiger patrols do not have heavy weapons available to blow [the bunkers] apart. In such a case, the troops simply go in after them. The VC stand little chance against my men in close-quarters fighting."

In addition to the training of their own infantry, Tiger taekwondo instructors teach U.S. and Republic of Vietnam soldiers, as well as other Allied Forces infantry soldiers. Presently, some 1,250 Vietnamese and 150 U.S. soldiers are being taught by the Tigers at Qui Nhon alone. At other installations throughout South Vietnam, the Koreans teach their art to Allied Forces and Vietnamese civilians of both sexes and all ages.

There are scores of Korean black belts who are not members of the Tiger Division but who teach taekwondo to the local troopers and civilians. Many of these men belong to the larger White Horse Division. Especially in populated places such as the Tan Son Nhut Air Base–Saigon area, taekwondo has become as popular as baseball is to Americans. Today, self-defense is serious business to the Vietnamese, as no one knows when a VC terrorist squad will break into his home.

The Tiger Lair

Several miles away from the main training area on the Qui Nhon Air Base where the new arrivals hold classes, the Tiger instructors have their own compound, carved out of the verdant Vietnam countryside. Bordered on two sides by mountains and banked by the South China Sea, the encampment nestles into a serene and clean-smelling natural cradle, somehow out of place amidst the turmoil of war. The site has never been successfully attacked, and no one remembers the last time even a single mortar landed within the perimeter.

The perimeter itself is defined by roll upon roll of barbed wire, machine-gun posts and sandbag-reinforced bunkers. When not actually leading class, the instructors perform most of their military duties wearing their gi, often barebacked in the all-pervading heat. Somehow it doesn't seem quite right to see a fierce fighting man carting pails of water for the makeshift shower or spreading rolls of concertina wire — until you recall how budo masters of ancient times made their charges perform menial tasks before they would be accepted. Perhaps this accounts in part for their dedication and the respectful attitude the troops invariably display.

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Cpt. Yoon decides to review the instructors' training methods, so he has the select corps organize into a squadron to demonstrate their prowess. Sgt. Lee Jin Ho, whose official title is post instructor, leads the formation. They fall swiftly into ranks. The commander steps forward and receives the squadron's salute, then turns the command over to Sgt. Ho.

At a signal, the Tigers break ranks and rush into new formations with precision reminiscent of the Roman legions. The first squad is directed to show taekwondo forms. They snap through the kata in coordinated pairs, demonstrating the adroitness that can only come from military discipline. The forms are technically the same as classical Korean karate but are executed with the confident power of soldiers who have seen what their stuff can do to a man.

The next group forms behind a line of boards, bricks and tiles. Stacks of four and five bricks, up to 15 tiles and four 1-inch boards lie before them. The unit is called to attention, salutes again and assumes a ready posture. Sgt. Lee barks a command, and a dozen heads, hands and fists smash into the solid objects. Not a single one remains unbroken.

Read Part 2 here.

text by Jack E. Swift

(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)

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