(Edit from author: thank you for all the interest in this article. If you’d like to see more data driven articles on fighting and training, I had a new website called highpercentagemartialarts.com)
In a former life, I was a data analyst at a college. I spent a lot of time combing through huge databases for information. We grappled with big issues of why students drop out, when they are most at risk, etc. This job impressed upon me the fact that data is a powerful argument. I found that people’s assumptions about how our college worked were often completely wrong (one time, I had to explain to a department head that it was mathematically impossible for her students to graduate on time). Sometimes long-standing theories everyone just assumed were true, weren’t. To my frustration, when confronted with hard data that refuted their claims, many people just ignored them. Or worse, they would try and find holes in our data. Despite that, the research findings of our small, but vocal, team started to slowly influence policy decisions on campus. Ultimately, we had the truth on our side. The cold, hard numbers. For the people who never wanted anything to change, no amount of evidence would convince them. But for the people who understood that all organizations have to move forward, they listened.
It’s a trend that is well underway in industries across the world. Politics, Investing, Sports, Gaming, everyone is looking at the numbers.
Like many things, the martial arts seem to be a step behind. We were slow to adapt to the internet, social media, better payment, and student information systems. After all, martial arts predates all those things. We were here before them and we’ll be here after them. That’s often the attitude. In all my years of training on the mats, I’ve never heard anyone cite a legitimate study on fighting behavior. Because they don’t exist.
But they can and they should. The data is there, it just needs to be compiled. Despite us living in one of the safest times in American history, people are still getting in fights. And more than ever before, they are recording and posting them on the internet.
So I took an early pass at gaining some information on how street fights actually unfold. I wouldn’t consider my work scholarly since it isn’t peer-reviewed. But I would consider it far and away more comprehensive than what we have now. And much more verifiable than that one guy in the dojo who has “probably been in a hundred street fights.”
What I Did
I watched 154 fights on YouTube and entered each one into a spreadsheet. I probably watched close to 200, but I had to restart my experiment a few times as I fined tuned what information was worth gathering. As it turns out, fighting is incredibly chaotic and it was difficult to answer what I thought were basic questions. How long does a fight last? Well, that depends on how you define a “start” and “end” The first punch? The first push? How do you define a clinch? How do you define a knockout? For most of these questions I had to come up with a subjective, but reasonable, definition.
Why 154 fights? This is an important point: I basically stopped when it was clear that the data was not going to shift dramatically anymore. I would have loved to have kept going, but I have a day job, too.
All of the fights I entered were real fights, none of them were competitions. All of them had to have been recorded in their entirety. I recorded males and females roughly evenly. Most encounters were males versus males or females versus females. None of them involved on-duty law enforcement, just “normal” people getting in fights. Here were some of my big takeaways:
1) Fights often have no clear winner
Some readers will cringe at my use of the word “winner.” Of course on a deeper level, no one really wins in a fight. But I have to define it somehow. When your standing over your unconscious opponent, you’ve “won.”
The most surprising outcome in fighting seems to be no outcome at all. 48.4% of the fights ended indecisively. In most cases, people simply got tired and stopped of their own accord. Bystanders tend to allow fights to play out, but would often step in when there was a lull in the action.
In fact, it seems that fights that drag past just a handful of seconds are unlikely to end in a clear way. Most people seem to have the energy for one, explosive onslaught of punches. If that fails to end the fight, a second onslaught just won’t have the same power. Turns out, fighting really doesn’t solve much.
2) Knockouts happen in the first ten seconds or not at all
23% of the fights ended in a knockout (which I defined as a single blow that incapacitated a participant). What was interesting about these is that more than half, 64%, occurred in the first ten seconds. After that, there was a sharp decline, but people still “lost” fights by being overwhelmed by punches. This was very likely to happen within the ten to thirty-second mark. After that, the likelihood of an indecisive fight rose dramatically.
3) Women always clinch
For the most part, men and women go about fighting the same way, with one major exception. While 55% of all fights involved a clinch, a whopping 79% of female fighters engaged in clinching. The reason is simple:
Women have hair.
When people aren’t winging punches in fights, they are grabbing whatever they can get ahold of. Women almost always use each other’s hair as a handle to steady their aim and keep the punches coming. They will also commonly use these grips to snap their opponent’s posture over. They might even get them to the ground completely with a well-timed jerk of the hair.
Such a minor thing seems to dramatically influence the strategy with women fighters. If you’re a woman doing martial arts, I would give serious attention to this aspect.
4) Bystanders usually let fights go on
The good news is that only 26% of fights involved a third party getting involved. This means that most fights that started between two people, stayed between two people. The bad news is that when other people did get involved, it was more often than not (68% of the time) the classic “friend jumps in” to join in the fight.
And in terms of someone facing multiple assailants, it’s a mixed bag. Like most fights, 37% of them had no clear outcome. In 26%, the outnumbered person was incapacitated. In another 22%, the person escaped or fled.
But in only 11% of the cases of multiple attackers, was someone able to incapacitate any of his assailants.
The bottom line here is this, it’s highly unlikely you ever defeat multiple opponents. Run away instead.
5) Almost all fights will go to the ground and stay there
It’s an old cliche that “all fights go to the ground”. And basically, it’s true. Participants engaged in ground fighting 73% percent of the time. When you take out those ten-second knockouts that make up so many early finishes, the number jumps up to 83%.
What’s more, only 41% of grounded fighters were able to return to a standing position. Of those that did, more than half of them returned to the ground (57%).
In terms of outcomes, ground fighting has a major silver lining: violent knockouts drop dramatically on the ground, nearly by half. Only 29% of grounded fighters were knocked out or incapacitated by strikes. For standing fighters, that number jumped to 56%
The last thing worth mentioning is that 57% of the fights that went to the ground happened intentionally, meaning a participant made some sort of attempt at a takedown that worked. The rest was simply a result of people falling down.
6) No one uses “dirty fighting”
I was curious to see if I would witness “dirty fighting” techniques such as biting, groin strikes, fishhooking, etc.
Obviously, I did see a LOT of hair pulling among females. But as for the other things, not so much. Hair pulling aside, only 16% of the fights I recorded contained what I considered “dirty fighting” tactics. Interestingly, they were done by females about 80% of the time.
I read one time that males in our society tend to fight for dominance, and females tend to fight for survival. This generally seems to be the case when I observe fights. My theory is that men follow a loose set of rules when fighting in these “dominance fights” and seem to avoid certain tactics. Women do not.
I could be wrong on that but the bottom line is that dirty fighting is not common, especially among men.
What do you think? Have you seen any other research on fighting that you’d like to share? Or maybe you’ve been in a hundred street fights and would like to chime in? While you’re here, check out a related article on our site about Developing an Independent Mind in Martial Arts.
Also, if you like reading about martial arts and training, I have a book called The True Believers on Amazon. It’s about training in a martial arts school that became a pseudo-religious movement. It was some weird stuff.
[EDITORS NOTE: Another Martial Journal contributor has published a response article with his thoughts that can be read here.]