How it stacks up agains 3 other go-to responses to an attack

In hand-to-hand combat, you face a constant and undeniable danger. Among other injuries, you can sustain broken bones, torn cartilage and ruptured organs. You also can be knocked unconscious or killed.Over the millennia, various cultures have developed their own techniques and strategies for dealing with such threats. One of the most pervasive is punching. That's the case because in most unarmed encounters, a properly thrown punch is the most efficient and effective tool a martial artist can use.


While engaged in battle, your objective is to remove the threat as quickly as possible. No responsible martial artist would suggest that killing an attacker is the optimal solution, but people do get killed in street fights, and if your life is on the line, dispatching a violent criminal may be the best option for threat elimination.

The second best option is rendering the assailant unconscious. The third best is immobilization (broken leg, shattered kneecap, etc.). The fourth best is dishing out so much hurt that the person retreats. The fifth best is temporary immobilization, which affords you sufficient time to escape.

Before you select any of these options for use in a self-defense situation, however, you must consider the three criteria of efficiency: the time it will take to administer the technique to full effect, the energy you will expend doing so and the situation you'll be left in should the technique fail.

I call that third criterion the defaulting scenario because it's the position you end up in if your technique doesn't function as intended. This is very important, but it's often overlooked because people tend to focus on how well their move will work in a fight. This fails to take into account three possible outcomes: Your opponent dodges your strike, he blocks your strike, or he weathers the technique and the two of you become entangled.

I mention all these possibilities because I'm about to argue that a punch is often the best way to effect any of the five options for threat removal. Furthermore, if your punch fails, you'll be left in better hands, pun intended, than you would if you had tried one of the other techniques discussed here. Those other techniques, which were chosen for the sake of comparison, are quite common in the martial arts: kicking, choking and eye gouging.

Before I begin, it must be acknowledged that proper punching is not as natural as some martial artists think. Developing a good fist strike requires a fair amount of technical instruction and physical training. But once you invest the time needed to ingrain the correct mechanics and condition your fists and shoulders, you'll have a punch that flies fast, hits hard and leaves you relatively safe in the event of a shortfall. Such a blow, delivered to the jaw, the temple or the occipital region of an opponent's skull, can do serious damage, including a knockout that instantly eliminates the threat.

When a kick fails, it leaves you in a more vulnerable position. Often, you're standing on one leg momentarily while you struggle to regain your balance.


No one, including this writer, would advise any martial artist to forgo learning kicks for use in self-defense. Leg techniques are more powerful and have greater range than hand techniques. Furthermore, the best strikers know how to blend kicks with punches to form seamless combinations. That said, when it comes to threat removal, kicks fall short according to the aforementioned three criteria of efficiency.

My observations result from the fact that, with the exception of leg kicks, a kick is fairly easy for an opponent to detect. Therefore, a kick is typically harder to land and has a higher rate of failure. And when a kick fails, it leaves you in a more vulnerable position. Often, you're standing on one leg momentarily while you struggle to regain your balance. At that moment, you're more susceptible to being knocked down by a strike or taken down with a throw. In contrast, if your punch misses, you still have both feet on the ground.

If your kick is blocked, you're also left off-balance. Making matters worse, you're at risk of injuring your foot or leg the moment it impacts the blocking tool. Of course, the same risk is present when your punch is blocked, but it's better to injure a hand than a foot in a fight. Why? Because if you hurt a hand, you still can punch and grab with the other one. But if you hurt a foot, you probably won't be able to kick with your other foot/leg because that action will entail posting on the injured limb. What's more, an injured foot/leg also makes it difficult to maneuver for a punch, move out of the way of a strike and run away if you need to.

The likelihood of a punch being caught midthrow is not very high, assuming it's executed correctly. However, a good grappler can catch even a fast kick that's aimed at a target higher than knee level. Additionally, if you find yourself being grabbed by the arm, you'll still have two feet under you, which facilitates throwing a punch with your free hand and wrestling the captured arm away. In contrast, if your kick is caught, it will leave you standing on one leg while your foe has the other leg tucked under his armpit. This is not good at all.

Final kick comment: If your opponent has your kicking leg trapped, forget about countering with a fancy technique that entails jumping and then kicking with your free leg. It will work only against an inexperienced, extremely fatigued or totally untrained opponent. Against anyone else, it will land you on your back. And despite the success Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners enjoy when they find their foe in their guard in a match, in a street fight, your back is the last place you want to be, mostly because said foe might have friends nearby.


When you're seeking to render an opponent unconsciousness, chokes are a great option. They're easy to learn, and opportunities to use them while grappling are numerous and frequent. All martial artists who are interested in self-defense should master basic grappling, which includes choking techniques. However, you shouldn't let the success of chokes in MMA competition convince you that they're always the best choice in self-defense. In reality, there are multiple reasons why punching is superior on the street.

As mentioned above, despite the effectiveness of grappling in some one-on-one encounters, street fights seldom unfold with a balance of power. Although it's true that most fights end up on the ground, that doesn't mean it's where you should choose to be. When you're on the ground, you have no idea who's going to step up and stomp on your head. This is especially true when you're lying on your back, trying to effect a choke. Yes, some chokes can be executed while standing, but the majority are finished when both parties are horizontal.

Another monkey wrench is introduced when you consider that a choke requires more time and a relatively large amount of energy to complete. It's widely taught that even the best choke takes at least four seconds to render a person unconscious. Meanwhile, a perfect punch can do the same in the blink of an eye.

And if your chosen choke fails? Well, you've spent a fair amount of time and energy on something that didn't work, and your opponent is very close to you — perhaps even on top of you — raining down blows. Not good.

A popular adage holds that the best way to beat a striker is to grapple with him. The reverse is also worth remembering: The best way to beat a grappler is to strike him. And when it comes to striking, punches are faster, safer and more useful from a greater variety of positions than any other technique.

An eye gouge won't necessarily remove the threat. Its purpose is to create space and time for you to escape by interfering with your attacker's vision.


An eye gouge is simple to execute and quick to take effect. Capable of blinding an opponent, the technique can be administered by anyone, regardless of age, gender or body size — which makes it a staple in most self-defense courses. But it's not perfect, especially when compared to a punch.

Yes, it takes time and effort to develop an effective punch, but the same can be said of the eye gouge. While a gouge may seem so basic that anyone can learn it in five minutes, it will require regular drilling for speed, timing and accuracy.

If an eye gouge fails to achieve the desired effect, the defaulting scenarios are less than desirable compared to the punch. With the gouge, your hand will be open, whereas with a punch, it will be in a closed fist, which is comparatively safer. That stems from the fact that if the attacker evades the gouge by ducking — the most common way to avoid a strike — you're likely to jam your fingers into his forehead. If he blocks the gouge with his hands, you run the risk of having your fingers grabbed. With your fingers in his grasp, you won't be able to escape and, even worse, you might suffer some broken digits. The latter will make it hard to throw an effective punch or apply an effective choke.

Furthermore, an eye gouge won't necessarily remove the threat. Its purpose is to create space and time for you to escape by interfering with your attacker's vision, but the technique won't put him to sleep. You may still have to close the gap to accomplish that — unless you're carrying a defensive weapon like pepper spray, which I recommend. A gouge can result in permanent blindness, but in most cases, it only blinds the person temporarily. And if you're in a clinch, an eye gouge won't guarantee your escape while a knockout will.

Additionally, the eyes present much smaller targets than do the zones that are typically punched (the jaw, temple, ribs, kidneys and solar plexus, among others). For this reason, accuracy with the eye gouge is more difficult to achieve in comparison to the punch.


By no means is punching the be-all and end-all of self-defense. A good martial artist strives to master a variety of strategies, techniques and delivery methods with the goal of being able to choose the right one for any situation in a heartbeat.It is my opinion, however, that based on the achievable outcomes versus the rates of failure and taking into consideration the defaulting scenarios that are probable if failure occurs, punching is the superior self-defense tool in most situations. Clearly, it can remove a threat with greater efficiency and safety than kicks, chokes and eye gouges.Surely, this is why karate, taekwondo, Western boxing, muay Thai, savate and numerous other martial arts emphasize the punch as a primary component of self-defense. It's why your training should emphasize it, as well.
Tommy Cowan has studied the martial arts for more than 20 years. He's competed in taekwondo, wrestling and MMA, and he's worked as an MMA journalist. Born in California, he recently completed his master's degree at the University of Amsterdam.The

Option to Run

In a life-threatening situation — which any street fight can morph into in a split second — there's no shame in running. While this option is often the first one that's suggested by self-defense instructors, especially if the defender is unarmed and facing a weapon, I rank its value in hand-to-hand combat low. This stems from the three criteria for efficiency outlined in this article.

There are, however, other reasons. Unless you're a good runner, it's likely that an attacker who wants to catch you will manage to do just that. Furthermore, if you don't have knowledge of the area you're in, panic might cause you to run into a dead-end alley — in which case you'd better have the skills to defend yourself.

I'm not arguing that running should always be avoided, for there are many situations in which it's the best option. However, in terms of threat removal, it ranks at the bottom of the list, in part because of the aforementioned possibility that a quick sprint can lead you in a direction that has no exit and because it likely will boost the confidence of your attacker. And, as any experienced fighter will attest, confidence is key.

If running is your preferred option, consider preceding your escape attempt with a little physical damage. A quick strike is a fine way to increase the odds that your getaway will be successful, and a punch, of course, is a great choice in such circumstances, both because of the injury it can inflict and because it will leave your attacker with doubts about whether it would be a good idea to pursue you.

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In the martial arts, we voluntarily subject ourselves to conflict in a training environment so we can transcend conflict in the real world. After all, we wouldn't knowingly train in a style that makes us weaker or worsens our position. The irony of all this is that we don't want to fight our opponent. We prefer to work with what an opponent gives us to turn the tide in our favor, to resolve the situation effectively and efficiently.The Japanese have a word for this: sabaki. It means to work with energy efficiently. When we train with the sabaki mindset, we receive our opponent's attack, almost as a gift. Doing so requires less physical effort and frees up our mental operating system so it can determine the most efficient solution to the conflict.In this essay, I will present a brief history of sabaki, as well as break down the sabaki method using Miyamoto Musashi's five elements

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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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