The sucker punch, and how to defend yourself against it

The problem underpinning all of this, is that if someone is close enough, they can punch you before you have time to react. This is more important than any other variable. As long as they are capable of throwing with enough speed and power (and many are), they can knock you out. You need to take steps to manage the situation before it reaches this point.

The Foundation

If you maintain situational awareness and behave appropriately, you will avoid the vast majority of situations which end in violence in the first place. Negotiate, compromise, de-escalate, avoid, exhaust all options. The rest of this post is about how the sucker punch works, and how we can respond in the moments preceding and at initiation of the punch.

There are two main types of sucker punch:

  1. Observed – victim is watching the attacker
  2. Blind side attack

In a confrontation, do everything you can to avoid a blind side attack, as this leaves you with zero ability to defend yourself. If you take your eyes off someone for even a short moment, they can quickly cover quite a large distance to hit you. If there are multiple people involved, it’s impossible to watch both in front and behind yourself at the same time.

I can’t teach you people skills – rely on your own understanding of human behaviour to identify threats. If you feel that someone wants to punch you, they probably do, and you should act appropriately.

We can’t simply maintain a safe distance at all times with all people. Doing this makes most social interactions extremely awkward. But when your gut tells you that something is wrong, listen to it and be mentally primed for violence.

Some people respond to confrontations with different levels of denial, and this affects reaction time significantly. You need every split second you can get. Sure, act like you aren’t scared of them, be confident or whatever. But don’t try to demonstrate that you are not intimidated by allowing them to close the distance. Don’t convince yourself that they would never hit you, or don’t have the balls to do it. Find a way to maintain a safe distance, because at this range they can hit you before you have time to react.

Once the gap is closed, you MUST act first. At minimum, re-establish a safe distance. Use of force may be appropriate, such as clinching, takedowns, or strikes such as punch, headbutt, elbow. At close range, the first to act gets a free shot. At a safe distance, you will at least have a chance to read their movement and react/counter. Proximity matters more than anything else.

The Fence

“The fence” is a staple In the martial arts and self defense world and often discussed, but poorly understood. When demonstrated it usually looks like a palm up, bladed stance, and is described as a way to have your hands in a position ready to defend yourself should the opponent attempt to strike. It is designed to be non-aggressive in appearance to prevent escalation, and communicate to observers (including phones/CCTV) that you are not the bad guy.

These ideas are all accurate, but they are NOT the main purpose of the fence, which is to maintain awareness of the proximity of your opponent. The core function of the fence is to establish a boundary, so that you can take action if it is breached. The name itself is a metaphor, referring to the fence around a property which might not stop people coming in, but it lets both the trespasser and the land owner know that a breach has occurred and consequences may follow.

In fact, you can use the fence even if you don’t have your hands up at all, keeping them at your waist in a neutral posture. As long as you’re keeping track of their position and behaviour and have a plan of action if they get too close, you’re using the fence.

Pre-emptive Check

The pre-emptive check is where we make physical contact prior to the actual *fight*, to check their movement should they start throwing a punch or someone else. Often, this will look like a C-grip at the elbow or contact with upper arms/shoulders. This is hopefully done in a way which does not escalate the situation, but be warned that some people will increase their aggression when you make any physical contact. Indeed, the stereotypical “fence” stance itself has become fairly well known these days, and some people may interpret it as a challenge regardless of your intentions.

Stages Of The Attack

1. Pre Attack Indicators

There are many lists of specific signs that someone is about to attack you, for example clenched fist, verbal looping, pacing, clenched jaw etc. While many people will exhibit these behaviours immediately before attack, some will exhibit none. You need to take in the totality of the situation you’re in and make a judgement. Trust your gut, be alert and get ready for the punch.

2. Initiation

Initiation is the very beginning of the physical attack, but this is the stage where we cannot discern between an attack and any other innocuous movement such as quickly raising the hand to scratch the head. If you were in the middle of a fight, you’d read this and take action – creating distance, using head movement, tightening guard and so on. If the attack is real, this is the last chance you have to make someone happen. If you are already too close, it won’t matter what you try. This is why we need to act earlier.

3. Discernible Attack

This is the point where we can confidently identify a real attack. For example, what began as a rotation of the shoulders is now a clenched fight travelling toward our face. It’s now far too late.

The problem is, many of us think that we need to wait until this moment, when we can see the actual attack happening before we make a decision and take action. Another unfortunate reality is that people will judge your decisions after the fact, expecting to see an obvious attack. Often, your choice is between suffering the consequences of the physical attack and the consequences of the justice system and/or court of public opinion.

Having said all this: if the first punch doesn’t end the encounter, you’ll still need all the other skills demanded by fighting; e.g. head movement, footwork, strikes, grappling. This takes time and effort in the gym. There is no shortcut here.

If you would like to see this explained in more details with real examples, or you’re not quite sold on the concepts I’ve introduced here, I’ve made 24 minutes of video covering the subject.

The Sucker Punch – Part One

Click the image to watch on Youtube, or click here to watch on

The Sucker Punch – Part Two

Click the image to watch on Youtube, or click here to watch the video on

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