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Updated: Jul 1, 2019

One of the most common attacks in a street fight against an untrained person is the wide, swinging punch to the head. In boxing this is called headhunting. The guy is trying to end the fight quickly, no doubt. And I think that we have a natural inclination to think of the head and face as the primary target, and this inclination is enhanced when there’s an adrenaline rush. The adrenaline dump into your blood stream is a natural defense mechanism of the body; it’s preparing you for whatever threat you’re facing. But the downside is that it also inhibits more complex thinking, your reactions, and your memory. Even your vision is refocused by the adrenaline dump. The point is that if an untrained person already has a natural inclination to strike at your head and face, this is going to be enhanced by their adrenaline. And it may be further enhanced by alcohol or drug use on their part.

Make no mistake: the wild swinging punch to the head is extremely dangerous, whether the guy is trained or not. It doesn’t take any training to throw a punch like this, and it can ruin your day if it lands cleanly.

So how do we handle this?

First, you have to practice staying calm and you have to practice seeing strikes come at you. These things go together. If you’re used to seeing punches and kicks and elbows and things coming at you and you can move and defend and stay relatively calm, you’re in much better shape for protecting yourself. On the other hand, if you’re uncomfortable with these things, you’re going to flinch, close your eyes, turn the wrong way to avoid the strike, or move the wrong way. And you’ll likely be hit and then your defense—what little there was—will be quickly overwhelmed. Remember, the other guy isn’t going to just throw one punch and stand back and admire his work; if he’s enraged enough to throw a wild head shot, he’s likely going to keep coming at you aggressively. So practice staying calm and seeing punches and kicks. A good exercise for this is just to have a partner stand in front of you and throw light punches to the head and body, while you use movement (inside and outside slips, duck-unders, fades), deflections, blocks, and catches to defend. Do a couple five minute rounds several times a week and you’ll find that you can see the punches sooner and more clearly, and they’ll look “slower” to you. You’ll also notice that you’re becoming calmer, because you’re used to seeing it over and over. You won’t flinch as much. Make sure to practice proper breathing too, so you don’t get winded.

Second, you can “short circuit” the other guy’s attack. There’s a number of ways to do this, but all of them involve attacking as the wild head punch is being thrown. Obviously you need to practice seeing this attack and remaining calm as mentioned in the first recommendation above. But any attack, by definition, presents an opening. So if the guy is throwing a wild head punch, you can quickly punch, kick, elbow—whatever is appropriate—AS their attack is in progress. You’ve heard me call this “moving WITHIN the attack”, and you can move within any attack, whether the other guy is trying to punch you in the head or if he’s trying to throw you with an O Soto Gari. You can “move within” the attack by gauging the guy’s timing, seeing the opening, and moving quickly into your own attack. And remember, you are not limited to striking, either— you can simply ignore the head punch, change levels, and take him down with a Morote Gari (double leg takedown) or move into a Safe Clinch or any number of other things, depending on what shapes you see. But the bottom line is that “short circuiting” the other guy’s attack takes advantage of the fact that he’s committed to an attack and unable to defend certain things. But again, you must practice “seeing” the punches and remaining calm.

One final thought...I’ve seen fights where a guy was throwing headhunter punches and then leaning way back as the other guy responded with a head punch of his own. If the other guy is leaning way back like this because he thinks it’s a good way to defend a head punch, he’s committing a very basic error of putting his weight back on his heels. You cannot move effectively when your weight is back on your heels. Should you have an opponent doing this, the obvious attack would be toward the guy’s mid-section or legs. Leg kicks, kicks or punches to the mid-section are effective. Or simply take him down. You can also easily set up a guy who is doing this by throwing some feints toward the head first.

Try to work on getting used to stuff coming at you. Work on remaining calm and keep your eyes on the other guy. Feel what they’re doing. Practice this—the more you do it the better you get and the calmer you’ll be. And—here’s the most important part of all of this--the calmer person is the one who prevails far more often. If your mind is calm, you can often find your way out of a fight and avoid it altogether, which is a win for everyone. It’s the person who gives in to their fear or anger that is blinded by it.

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