12 Fighting Principles to Help You Succeed

I had been training 7 years in Chinese Martial Arts and had no real idea how to fight. I developed a few fighting tricks along the way to get by; that I paid for dearly with many hits to the head and body - I was young, single, adventurous, and didn't really mind the abuse - but I lacked a serious understanding of how to apply anything I had been learning in forms, or drills, to fighting. 

I had zero understanding of why things were taking place when I was sparring/fighting. How did I get hit? Where should I be moving, not moving? How to stand, hold my arms, targets to aim for to maximize destructive capabilities? Nothing. 

Eventually, I came across my Mantis Boxing Sifu (Tony Puyot). It's a long story of how we met, and better left for another day, but suffice to say, I learned more about fighting in the first 15 minutes of meeting him, than I had in seven years of 6 to 7 days/week of training. I had plenty of good training over the years, and truth be told, had I not experienced those things, I would have had no idea the treasure I was then given.

My greatest fear with my own students is...that they will not appreciate what I share here with you, and with them in class. That they take these principles for granted, gloss over them, or do not take the time to read/study. Using these tools, my Sifu built me and my stand-up game.

It is not impossible to fix things in fighting, and if we do the work, great things will happen.

Many of these principles, are things he shared with me, and I am in turn sharing with you. One thing that drove me nuts as I was learning martial arts was, and if you are reading this, likely you too, was not having any diagnostics to fix things. Knowing why we are getting hit, then being able to apply a principle to fix it, is so fundamentally significant, important, and downright $%#&*$% awesome, it changes the playing field on an epic level. 

These 12 Principles will lay a foundation for you to improve from. Enjoy.

1. Root

Rooting is an essential part of everything you do when fighting. If you are unbalanced, too upright, and disconnected from the earth, then you will be on the verge of falling over, ineffective in your fighting, 

How to Root

Lengthen your stance and drop your pelvis closer to the ground by bending the knees. This will assist in stability and not falling down or being rocked when blocking, striking, or being pushed/pressed.

Everything comes with a price in fighting. In order to gain one advantage, you must give up another. It’s the nature of the beast. There are three heights you can use in your stances: High, Mid, Low, and each has it’s pros and cons.

High Stance

A high stance does not mean you have to sacrifice your rooting. Bend your knees slightly and drop your weight. Keep your body weight on the balls of your feet for maximum stability/mobility. I’ll explain that further in a moment. This stance should be used when you are trying to A) get in and out quickly on an opponent. B) are still outside Critical Distance (see
Range Principle). C) in need of an escape with faster footwork to get away from your opponent and create space.

Mid Stance

A mid level stance is the best of both worlds. You have a bit more stability without completely compromising mobility. You cannot move as quickly as in a high stance, but you are fairly functional. This is a good stance to use once you have passed ‘Critical Distance’ (see Range), or are in mid range and engaged in striking.

Low Stance

A low stances are great for digging in. Once you have moved into close range, drop your stance for the best stability. Think about wrestlers. Mobility is severely decreased here but once you are in grappling range you are extremely vulnerable to throws, shoots, and takedowns, 
so a lower entrenched stance is a must.

Balls of the feet - keep the weight centered on the ball of the foot. Flat footed means you can’t move quickly. <HINT>Catching an opponent flat footed is a good opportunity for an offensive attack. The heel should be light but not overly high off the ground; an inch or so. Keep your weight off the toes as they are meant to balance, stabilize, and propel, not support your weight full time.

2. Speed/Power

Three traits that give one fighter an edge over another fighter, but don’t necessarily decide the victor.

Note: Height, and arm/leg reach are also significant factors. These are discussed in other areas of training. Speed and Power have a more important role to play in the training process which is why they are discussed here.

Speed

Some are faster than others. He/she who hits first, can gain quite an advantage in a fight if they know what to do. Someone distracted by the first punch or two, will have trouble defending against the next 3 to 5 punches in a solid combination.

Power

Some people are bigger than others, some are stronger than others even without being bigger. Power is another attribute that can vastly affect a fight. If someone hits harder than the person they are fighting, it could mean the end quickly without a good defense/fighting strategy.

Removed for Training

When training, one should keep the speed low for learning and fast for
testing. This will reduce stress and reliance on natural attributes that can unlevel the playing field.

These attributes will come back into play during sparring sessions where you are testing your skills. Power is difficult to remove but staying light and learning proper technique will make a stronger fighter even better. You already have the strength...

For a more detailed look at speed affecting our training, and how to maximize our training time, check out my article/video 'Speed Kills' with Master Andre 'Dedeco' Almeida.

 

Connecting Principles: Focus, Emotional Control

3. Guard

Guard principle, also known as 'One In/One Out' defines proper defensive positioning of the hands and arms. A good guard position reduces the number of available targets that we present to an opponent. It also protects us while we are striking.

The effective use of the Guard Hand while blocking, can maximize our defense and create stronger blocks. If our blocks are solid, and we are confident in our defense, this then allows us to focus on counter-offensive action. We must return our nonstriking hand to the guard position while our other arm is extended for blocking.

During striking, we always move the other hand back to a defensive position (one hand out, one hand in). If we extend two arms simultaneously (two out), we will not be able to block our opponent's counter-strike.

Notice one hand is back while the other is striking.

Notice one hand is back while the other is striking.


The Guard Defined

With our body in a bladed position (see Blading under #8 Centerline Principle), our hands naturally stagger one in front of the other. This allows us to gain range on our opponent with our lead hand; making it easier to reach them with an initial strike (why boxers usually begin their combinations with a jab/lead hand strike).

This 'bladed' position also protects our centerline from attacks to some of the ‘Effective Strike’ targets that would otherwise be left open if we faced off with our opponent in a squared up position (see Door Principle).

Details:

  • Arms are straight up and down. Do not let your elbows wing outwards. They stay in so they can protect the ribs and maximize the strength of the arms.
     
  • Be sure that you are not cocking your wrists, which will mask incorrect forearm alignment and slow the arms down. It will also cause the upper block to collapse and fail.
     
  • Line your hands up with your opponent's shoulders (from over our shoulder, not from our line of sight). If our hands are too close together, we open up targets on the outside where we are anatomically weak. If our hands are too far apart, it will be difficult to block strikes to the center and our delayed response will cause us to get hit. Shoulder width is a good spot.
     
  • The height of the hands is determined by A) the height of your opponent, B) the range to your opponent, and C) where you can comfortably keep them so they can react quickly against incoming blows.

    Hold your hands up to roughly the eyebrow level of your opponent (with fingers relaxed but straight). If you do not hold your hands up high enough, you will not be able to block upper strikes effectively. If you hold your hands up too high, you will expose body targets and weaken your arms.

    Taller - against same size, and taller opponents, we want out fingertips, when the hands are open, to be eyebrow height. Never higher. If we try to hold the hands higher, the blood flow to the arms slows, and our arms quickly become fatigued. Once they reach this state, blocks will be slow, and prone to failure. Slipping and ducking will become the crutch to keep from getting hit.

    Smaller - versus smaller opponents, our hands can drop so the fingertips are around the height of the cheekbones, no lower than the lips is a good rule of thumb. If we are bigger than our adversary, the lower doors are going to be more accessible to them, and we will be vulnerable. Dropping the hands slightly will allow the lower blocks to intercept in time. 

    Inside - once inside critical distance (see Range Principle) it is imperative that our hands be in the aforementioned positions. If we are lazy and let our hands drop, we'll be wide open for strikes, and our blocks will no longer function properly.

    Outside - when we are disengaged and outside the range of our opponent's longest weapon, then, and only then, can we allow the hands to drop. This can be a vital tool to help early on when we lack the strength to hold our arms in position, or when we have reached a fatigue level where we no longer have much energy. If inside, get to the the outside position before dropping the arms to rest.

NOTE: You can always compliment your blocks with slipping and ducking later on, but it is good to hone your blocks to the highest degree so you know they are dependable when needed.

Connecting Principles: Zone, Door, Range

4. Zone


The body is divided into 9 sections (see diagram 1) called zones. These zones help define a system of where your hand should and should not be while fighting.

Zone Principle can be divided into offensive and defensive categories. Practitioners should only learn defensive side first, then later add the offensive. In order to effectively defend as many doors (potential openings for opponent to hit you see 'Door' principle) as possible your hands should not pass between more than 2 zones.


**assumes the student understands 'Basic Fighting Position' taught in the first level.

  • Left hand covers left side. Right hand covers right side. Either can go into the center zones.
  • Never cross more than 2 zones (includes the one you are currently in).

Example: Right hand is in top left quadrant in diagram 1. Opponent throws a round kick at lower right quadrant. The right hand would have to cross 2 zones to get there and is therefore out of position
and unable to return to the top left quadrant to defend the the open door which is now available for opponent to strike.

Diagram 1

Diagram 1

Zone Defense Drills

3 way random blocking - slow, medium, fast.
Once the rules are understood then minor adjustments or exceptions to the above rules apply.

In order to cross to the middle zone to defend the groin against a strike coming from below (scraping fist or palm), you should change the height of your zones. In other words crouch lower in your stance.

In order to cross to the low zone to defend a kick to the leg, you should change the height of your zones. The only time you should do this is to affect a throw by grabbing opponents leg, or to neutralize an opponent shooting for your legs. Otherwise, never bring your hands down to the
lower zones.

5. Door


'Closing Door' is the principle of keeping as many doors closed as possible while fighting. Doors are openings for strikes and kicks to walk through. This principle is heavily connected to Guard Principle. A proper guard will close down many open doors.

Elbows In

Keeping the elbows in allows for the ribs to stay protected and the upper block to function with proper strength. 

Hands in line with Shoulders

Forces opponent to go around or inside your arms to hit you. Also
assists the upper block in having the strength to function. Liability When striking you naturally open doors. To minimize the potential negative effects of this be sure to apply zone, guard, blading.

Neutral Position

This is the position you want to work from early on against an opponent. Your feet are lined up with their feet. When they circle, you match. When you have a bladed stance (see Centerline Principle), and move to match their stance, you neutralize advantages they may gain from angles.

This increases the effectiveness of our blocking system, and shuts down
access to certain vulnerable targets. This is worked heavily in Mirror Drill.

6. Rule of Three


The rule of three states that the first two strikes can be effectively neutralized by even a somewhat unskilled opponent. We all have two hands. You punch with two arms, they block with two arms.

A less skilled opponent however, will not return their first blocking hand to the correct guard position, and will thus have created a hole in their defense, i.e. what we call an open door. On our third strike, therefore, we will have a higher probability to penetrate their guard and land a strike.

This is why we practice combinations containing at least three strikes.
A more skilled opponent will be able to block more than three strikes in a row. Over time, your objective is to string more and more punches together so that eventually your opponent will make a mistake and be out of position. At which point you can capitalize on the open door.

The more skill, the higher the number of strikes to open doors without the use of more advanced tactics. However, the converse also applies to the aggressor; the more punches you string together, the more likely that you will fail to guard correctly and be unable to block your opponent's counter (see Guard for decreasing this risk).

7. Random Striking


Changing Levels


Changing levels refers to varying the targets of your punches between the head, body, groin, and legs, to avoid predictability and confuse the opponent’s defenses. The lower skilled fighter will typically focus on the head for psychological reasons, and because it takes a little more practice to locate effective targets on the body.

Head-focused striking is easier for an opponent to block with their hands up. He or she knows where the punches are going, and they do not have to travel far to block them if they simply put their hands up in a defensive posture.

The less skilled fighter will not be able to block shots to the body effectively; even if they do block the lower shot, they will probably not return to correct guard position and will be open for a head shot.

By intermixing high and low shots during combinations, the opponent is forced to move up and down with different blocks, increasing the difficulty of the defense and increasing the likelihood they will violate 'Zone Defense' and open those 'Closed Doors'. This type of variation is what leads to holes, or doors, in the opponent’s defense and is the foundation for ‘Effective Striking’ principle.

Vary Target

Vary Targets is used in conjunction with 'Rule of Three' and 'Changing Levels' to confuse your opponent and lure them out of position with their blocking arms, thus opening doors. When applying this, use combinations that change not only from high to low, low to high, but outside to inside, inside to outside.

The key is to mix up the targets so the opponent doesn't know where the next strike will land.

8. Centerline

Centerline Principle is protecting your centerline by blading and circling so you do not end up square to your opponent.

Squared Up

The body is turned facing toward opponent giving each arm equal striking range and strength. Vulnerabilities are - increased access to effective strike targets such as groin, solar plexus, liver, bladder, and stomach. Allows opponent to use ‘Three Up the Middle’ on you (see below).

Blading

The body is turned to a 45 degree angle (shoulders and hips) to deflect punches from vital targets, facilitate a 1 in and 1 out with the arms, help with rooting, create a smaller target.

Deficiencies with this stance - decreased power with the lead hand. What you lose, you gain in defense of vulnerable targets.

Three Up the Middle

When an opponent is square to you and their arms are up, fire a 3 punch
combination up the middle changing levels, and you will hit them with at least 1, if not all 3 strikes.

The Female Paradox

After training women alongside men over the years, it became abundantly clear to me that the female body makes it extremely difficult to maintain the bladed body position. The rear arm becomes very difficult to keep in a good position for offense/defense due to the anatomy of a female versus a male. 

You will have to adjust the position and fight square to your opponent. This will make you vulnerable in some areas, but you will have to compensate with your defense to keep those doors closed (range manipulation, slipping, evading, etc.). 

9. Range

Range is absolutely crucial in fighting. It means the difference in getting hit or not, blocks working properly, elbow and knee strikes going live, grappling, clinches, etc. Paying attention to and
learning range can make you a highly effective fighter, offensively, or defensively.

Critical Distance

The line that separates you from being hit or not being hit by your opponent. Critical Distance is determined by the range just outside the reach of your opponents longest weapon their rear leg.

Ranges

  • Long Range is the range outside critical distance or right on the edge of it. It is where there is no fight, or the beginning of a fight where someone uses a bridging tactic to enter the circle.
  • Mid Range is where the fight takes place, and where you want to spend most of your time training. Kicks, punches, some knees, are all open game here. Some grabbing and seizing will take place at this range as well.
  • Close Range is the stand-up grappling range. Close range is extremely important; where you need to change your blocks, have a good shoot defense, know the clinches (neck, body, mantis holds), and grips or how to defend against them. Throws, trips, and takedowns are in play. Elbows and knees are in play.

Bridging

Bridging is an art in and of itself. When you pass critical distance on the offensive, your opponent has the advantage. While you are focused on moving in and striking or attempting a takedown, they are just waiting and watching for an opening to hit you or counter your takedown.
Later you will learn more indepth bridging tactics (double kick, flying knee, superman punch, fakes, feints, etc.).

For now, focus on using your long range weapons (kicks) when closing
distance. If you are inside ‘Critical Distance’ and you aren’t striking, grappling, kicking, clinching, throwing, then you are in trouble and waiting to get hit.

Changing Gears

Remember...when the range changes, you have to adapt your guard, and your offense accordingly. If you disengage the clinch, but maintain grips/hooks with your arms, and change the stance back to mid-range, expect to be kicked by your opponent as you are now in range. 

The same goes for hanging out inside critical distance without taking action. Once inside, you must be either - striking, kicking, kneeing, or shooting for a takedown. Otherwise, you are a prime target for your opponent who is sitting on defense waiting for the moment to strike.

10. Focus Principle

Focus Principle is how we neutralize our opponents speed so we are able to block their punches in time. When your opponent is within striking range you are reacting to their action, so you are always behind.

Using your peripheral vision to counter your opponents speed while maximizing your reflex time for blocking is what focus principle comes down to. By all accounts you seem superhuman after you learn to do this. When you stare at a punch coming at your face and then try to block it, you will fail and get hit in the face. If you are looking offline
and seeing the punch with your peripheral vision, you will have the reaction time to block it. 

Maintaining focus principle while fighting is another story. One must attempt to stay in focus principle when on the defensive, ignoring the motion of their opponent, and getting back to peripheral vision after getting hit. To do this, we cross our eyes and uncross them quickly to get
back into focus, or rather, out of focus.

11. Effective Strike

Effective Strike (Xiao Da), is the Mantis Boxing principle of striking to vital targets, or targets that have more destructive impact than other areas of the body. This is a common concept in many styles of martial arts.

For an in-depth expose on Xiao Da, click the button to read my article from the Journal of Seven Star Praying Mantis Boxing.

12. Emotional Control

The final principle is ‘Emotional Control’. This is an often sought after, and rarely attained, side effect from martial arts training. We envision the wise old master sitting quietly in meditation only to turn into a verifiable badass the moment the movie needs an action star.

What we don’t see is the detail that emotional control doesn’t come without sparring/fighting, and yet, it doesn’t come with sparring/fighting either. It really comes from proper training and constant diligence in applying that training.

Being hit is a very emotional act for many people. For others, the act of hitting someone else is emotional. If someone studies martial arts but never spars, they will never know what it is like to function under that stress until it is too late. 

You can read a more detailed article on this important principle by clicking the button below.

A note regarding 3 Way Blocking

We use a blocking system known as 3 Way Blocking. It consists of Upper Blocks, Middle Blocks, and Lower Blocks and allows you to cover all ‘Zones’ while keeping ‘Doors’ closed. I highly recommend using the following 3 Way Blocking System to work from when using/applying these principles.

This blocking system is the best I have found for martial arts/fighting. Work from here and later you will “break the rules” and apply even better defensive options that you find in martial arts.

Take the mystery out of learning to block punches. This 3 way blocking drill from Mantis Boxing can teach you how to block, and some basic principles to adhere to. This video highlights the drill for a complete beginner. Once this is mastered, more detail and complexity is added to ensure success.