Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Know your Enemy?

Know your Enemy?

If you’ve been practising martial arts for a while, you may well have came across the quote, “Know your enemy and know yourself, and in one-hundred battles you will never be defeated. If you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, the chances of winning and loosing are about equal. If you are ignorant of both the enemy and yourself, there is danger in every conflict.” This oft-recited quotation originates from the book “The Art of War” which was written by Sun Tzu around two and a half thousand years ago.

I take the quotation to mean that it is very important that you have an understanding of both your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, and your own. You can then formulate a strategy that ensures you can avoid your opponent’s strengths, whilst simultaneously attacking their weaknesses with your own strengths. So in order to decide which of our strengths we will use, we need to “know our enemy”. And I’d suggest that many martial artists are unsure – sometimes without realising it – who their enemy actually is!

If you were a pro-boxer, you’d know who your opponent was going to be months in advance. As part of your preparation for that fight, you’d study what they did well and how you could defend against it. You’d also study what weaknesses their personal style had, and how you could exploit those weaknesses. However, in a self-defence situation you are unlikely to know who your opponent is going to be until moments before, and that may be the first time you’ve ever laid eyes on that individual. So is it even possible to “know your enemy” in a self-defence situation?

Back in the days when I used to compete in karate competitions (before my studies of karate led me in other directions) I would have no idea who would be in my category until I actually arrived at the tournament. So you could say that I did not “know my enemy” on those occasions. Certainly I did not know them as individuals. I had no idea what their individual attributes were, but I did know a great deal about them! I knew they were all karateka and would have engaged in similar training to myself. I knew a great deal about their style (same as my own) and hence I had a good idea what techniques to expect. I knew what the rules were (well most of them!) so I had an idea of how they would actually fight. I knew how large they were (they were in my weight category). I knew what grades they were. I knew they’d be pumped full of adrenaline. I knew that they had a desire to win, or at the very least give a good account of themselves. And so on. All of this information could be used to help me formulate a workable plan of action. So although I didn’t know them as individuals, I knew them as a group. And in the absence of more detailed information, this is what I’d have to use to plan my training and strategy for that event.

We can know a great deal about the opponent simply because of the environment in which we find them. For example, if I’m entering a Judo tournament, then my opponent is very likely to be a Judoka! So I should train in a way that allows me to defeat Judoka. However, when martial artists discuss self-defence training, they often make an inadequate assessment of any potential opponent’s attributes! They don’t “know their enemy” and hence their training is not correctly focused.

If I were teaching a self-defence course and the first technique I taught was a defence against a spinning head-height hook kick, what would your response be? As an educated martial artist, I’d guess you’d be thinking, “This guy has no idea what he’s talking about! A real fight is nothing like a kung-fu movie! I mean what are the odds that an opponent is going to throw that at me in a real fight?! Shouldn’t we be doing something more practical?” All valid comments as far as I am concerned. If I were to concentrate on defending against such skilful kicks, it would suggest I’m assuming my “enemy” is likely to be a good kicker who uses kicks as his first option, and, as I’m sure you’ll agree, that is very unlikely in a self-defence situation. If I concentrated on such remote possibilities it would suggest I don’t “know my enemy”. In self-defence we are not likely to be fighting a skilled Taekwondo practitioner, but we are likely to face an experienced brawler.

Just like in the karate tournament we discussed earlier, the very fact that the opponent has sought out a real fight tells us one of two things; A: he’s an able brawler, or B: he thinks he is! Why else would he go looking for a fight? If it is case “B” then he may be in for a rude awakening, and will think differently next time. If it’s case “A” we have a far greater problem. Here comes the main message of this article; When martial artists train for self-defence they often incorrectly assume that an “able brawler” will act like an able practitioner of their own style! They don’t “know their enemy” and hence their training is incorrectly focused. Now this doesn’t apply to all martial artists, but it does apply to more than you may think. The real danger comes when people don’t realise it applies to them. Remember that we need to “know ourselves” also.

A good friend of mine was constantly getting into fights in his youth, none of which he lost. His whole combat system was, “I’d smack ‘em with my right. If they were still standing, I’d head-butt ‘em. And if they were still standing, I’d run off!” Now that may seem like an overly simple system to some, but it worked! It worked because it was so simple, and because he had actually experience of making it work. He had honed his “system” in actually confrontation. My friend was an “able brawler”; the type you’re more likely to face is a self-defence situation. He had absolutely no formal training, but he had a level of effectiveness that most martial artist long for. His experience and vicious application of a very simple strategy would make him more than a match for someone with many years formal training. And as martial artists, we don’t really like that idea! This is why we prefer to incorrectly assume that an “able brawler” will act like an able practitioner of our own style.

An obvious example is Karateka and Taekwondo practitioners practising their “self-defence techniques” against Karate / Taekwondo style lunging punches. This practice has been quite rightly criticised for its lack of practicality. Likewise, so would my “head height spinning hook kick” technique that we discussed earlier. The “able brawler” will not perform such techniques, because they lack formal training. In recent times, many martial artists have seen through “the emperor’s new clothes” and realised that many of their training methods are not practical. However, after realising this, many then promptly went out and ordered the emperor a brand new set! Sure, the “able brawler” is very unlikely to attack with Taekwondo kicks or Karate lunge punches, but he is also extremely unlikely to tackle you to the ground and lock your arm with Juji-Gatame! The opponent in a self-defence situation is just as unlikely to be a UFC competitor (or similar) as they are a Karate dan grade. Actually, now that I think about it, there are many more Karate dan grades that there are Mixed Martial Arts competitors, so you’re probably more likely to be attacked with a Karate lunge punch than you are a Juji-Gatame or similar submission hold! The point I’m trying to make is that many modern mixed martial arts practitioners make exactly the same mistake as many traditional martial artists; they incorrectly assume that an “able brawler” will act like an able practitioner of their own style. And just like the traditional martial artists, they don’t realise it!

Now there are certainly many modern and traditional martial artists whose methods are highly effective for self-protection, but there are just as many, if not more, who are unsure who the “enemy” is. How many “reality” based martial arts clubs do you know of that spend most of their training time on ground fighting counters? They have assumed that the enemy in a self-defence situation will be the skilled grapplers we see in competitions like the UFC (who are “not allowed” to bite, seize the groin etc.) This is every bit a wrong as the Taekwondo practitioner believing that self-defence is all about delivering kicks from ten feet away, or the Karateka believing that a street fight is all about reverse punches delivered from long range. Once again, they are all unsure who the “enemy” is.

The “enemy” in a self-defence situation will utilise vicious and simple methods, and it is these methods that we need to focus on in our self-defence training. There are certainly many other reasons to train; enjoyment, recreation, sport, physical fitness etc. But for the self-defence aspects of our arts, it is vicious simplicity that should be the order of the day. These simple techniques won’t be suitable for use against the “enemy” we face in competitive martial arts; they will either be banned or easily countered by practitioners with experience of the method. It’s a matter of taking Sun Tzu’s advice and “knowing our enemy”. We can then employ the correct strategy needed to ensure victory. What works really well against one “enemy”, won’t work at all against another.

The martial artists of the past fully understood this. As a karateka myself, one of my favourite quotations is that of Choki Motobu (who had hundreds of real fights and was rarely defeated) who said “The techniques of the kata were never developed to be used against a professional fighter, in an arena or on a battlefield. They were, however, most effective against someone who has no idea of the strategy being used to counter their aggressive behaviour.” Motobu knew his “enemy” (untrained brawlers) and he knew for which environment his techniques would prove successful, which is why he was so effective. It’s worth pointing out that Motobu is referring to the original techniques of the kata, and not the watered down ineffective applications most often taught today, but the point is very valid. It’s also worth pointing out that one of Motobu’s defeats was against a wrestler in a friendly challenge bout. Whilst he knew how to deal with the able brawlers of Okinawa’s red-light district, he did not know how to deal with the skilled grappling manoeuvres of the wrestler. He had the training and experience for dealing with one type of enemy, but not the skills for dealing with another type. A bit like the oft-recited tales of the martial arts champion who gets knocked-out by a drunk in a pub (but in reverse). They can defeat all comers when it comes to one type of “enemy”, but are at a complete loss with another.

The way to victory in a karate competition is different to what is needed in a judo tournament, is different to what a boxer needs to do, is different to what a mixed martial arts competitor needs, and all of them are different to what is needed in a self-defence. There may be some common ground, but there are many vital differences (in the same way that Tennis, Badminton and Squash all use “rackets”, but being a Tennis champion does not guarantee you’ll be any good at Squash). And the reason they are different is because the “enemy” is different! We need to “know our enemy”. It is only then that we can determine which of the methods and strategies at our disposal are valid for that situation. It is also all too easy to take our eye off the ball and begin training for the wrong “enemy”. We then fail to recognise which of our own skills and attributes are valid for that situation. And, as Sun Tzu said over two and a half thousand years ago, that means “there is danger in every conflict”.