Power of the PUNCH

Power of the PUNCH

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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