Tn any situation whether it is in the safety of home watching TV or in the heat of a firefight, we all respond to instinctual triggers. This is not referring to the fight or flight mechanism that is initiated under threat of danger, but something even more simple and basic.

The instinctual triggers do not need danger to be initiated.  Just as touching a hot stove produces a reflex reaction whether you are in danger or not, these instinctual or reflexive reactions happen any time they are triggered.

In terms of Defensive Tactics, or hand-to-hand combat, knowing how you are going to react when triggered and conversely, how to trigger these reactions in an opponent, allows you to use them to your advantage.

The premise of this article is to discuss events that are taking place just prior to and during an attack, not the events leading up to the attack. These are things that are going on during the fight. How you stay out of it or prevent the fight, is another subject altogether.


This response is universal throughout nature and is common to almost all bipedal animals and to most 4-legged animals that spend time upright on their hind legs.  This is actually a very complex mechanism. It is the core premise around which the Emerson Combat System is largely based.

Any time the true startle response is triggered, the human body reacts as follows:

  • The legs flex and the knees bend slightly to “spring Load” your stance for

     immediate movement.

  • The stomach muscles tighten and contract to protect the midsection.
  • The shoulders contract inward and hunch up like you’re doing a shrug—to protect the neck and frontal midline.
  • The hand and arms come up in front and the elbows contract inward.
  • The fingers splay and extend and finish in a position about mid-face level to also protect the eyes and neck area.

This response actually provides a natural fighting stance and gives the human being a good base from which to launch an attack, a strike, or a defense against an attack.

As the one who is usually not initiating the attack, you should practice going from a relaxed stance, jumping into or “startling” into the stance that I have just described. In our training courses we call it the Universal Fighting Stance.  Familiarize yourself with this spring–loaded stance and practice immediately launching a kick, punch, or strike out of this stance as you become more and more familiar with the natural balance and power that it provides. Do not be overly concerned with where your feet are—you’ll know if you’re balanced—and whether or not your right or left foot is forward.  In a spontaneous attack you may be in the middle of a step and have no control over “right lead or left lead.” You must always try to protect your gun side, but in the case of a real blind side attack, you don’t get to choose—at least at first.

There’s not a lot to say about this reaction in terms of the bad guy except that he will react this way, too, if the response is triggered in him. Just be aware that it provides pretty good natural frontal protection. If for instance you are going to strike him with a baton, it is probably more likely to succeed if the strike is from the side—say to the leg—rather than directly up the middle.


Any time you take away someone’s balance and he starts to fall or perceive that he is falling, he will try to recover his balance or break his fall. How does this apply to an attack scenario? Well, let’s say for example that a 285 lb drunken biker has gotten the drop on you and is whaling” away on you. Let’s say that he is throwing haymakers and you’ve gone into a defensive posture, “the cover” in boxing terms. How do you break the momentum of his attack? Let me give you several examples. In this instance, getting away (always choice #1) is not available.

You could dive in and grab his legs, (both are the best, one will do), and execute a double or single leg take down. You could lunge in and grab him around the waist, spinning violently to either side while pulling him down, or you could just try and defend against those punches and take a severe beating in the process.  There are dozens of ways to take another person off his feet. These could be any of the following: trips, throws, sweeps, reaps, pickups, or just a plain old football tackle. The results will always be the same in. The punching will stop. And now, since the bad guy will either be trying to stop you from taking him down, or breaking his fall, should you succeed, you will have broken his momentum and forced him to react to you. This now gives you the opportunity to wrest control of the situation. He will not allow his head or face to be planted into the concrete without trying to break his fall. This same principle applies when someone has grabbed you in a death grip, bear hug, or by the uniform. When that bad guy feels himself headed towards the blacktop, his grip will loosen.


Human beings need eyesight to survive as a species.  There is a huge portion of the brain dedicated to processing visual stimuli.  There is a large portion of our survival mechanism devoted to protecting the eyes. Remember the startle response.

If you are attacked, let’s say grabbed from behind and picked up for example, if possible attack the eyes with your fingers or any object, poking, stabbing, clawing etc. It will have a profound effect on the bad guy.  He will have to protect his eyes. Think of it like this. You might let me punch you hard in the shoulder. Would you let me, ever so lightly, just flick you in the eye? I won’t even hit both eyes, just one. All you have to do is get at the eyes. If the bad guy has you bent backwards over the hood of your car in a strangle hold, and you can get a finger into his eyes, I guarantee you will be able to escape. The eyes are a soft target and no one, no matter how big can take a poke in the eyes (barring psychotic drugs) and still fight effectively. Imagine someone jabbing at your eyes with a ballpoint pen. Do you think you’re going to be trying to execute a wristlock or are you going to stop that pen from putting your eye out? It’s so effective, yet very seldom used. The reason is that we are not dirty fighters and eye gouging is the ultimate in dirty fighting. Even in a fight to protect your daughter’s honor you wouldn’t hesitate to break the guy’s arm—but would you put his eye out? We, the good guys just don’t think like that. I want you to be aware of this point, though. Not every poke in the eye puts someone’s eye out. If it did, there would be a huge amount of one–eyed basketball players out there.  However, if you’ve ever been poked in the eye, it stops you dead in your tracks until your vision recovers. Just striking towards the eyes without contacting them will produce a strong reaction in the opponent, often times enough to loosen a grip. If you do hit the eye, it’s even better.


How long can you hold your breath? One minute? Two minutes? Maybe three? All right now, give me a 50-yard sprint, get back here and give me 25 pushups.  Now how long can you hold your breath, ten seconds, fifteen seconds, twenty seconds? By the time you get to ten seconds, each second seems like a minute.  Have you ever been in a near drowning situation? I have twice, once in an ice filled river and once in massive breakers off the California coast. I am here to tell you that there is nothing that creates the overwhelming panic and fear that being unable to take a breath causes. Because this is so primal a reaction, you can use it to great effect against an adversary. For example, you are in a wrestling match with an adversary and he has you clamped in a headlock where, because of his superior size or strength you are unable to escape. If you are able to reach around and cup your hand over his nose and mouth, you will elicit a reaction.  You don’t even need to run him out of breath. Just having something over the nose and mouth that interferes with breathing will cause him to weaken his hold, maybe cause him to break it if you have a good seal. Have someone cup their hand over your nose and mouth to experience how uncomfortable the feeling is. The first thing you want to do is just reach up and get that hand off your face.

You will elicit the same reaction by grabbing or encircling someone’s throat and neck. When you start to execute a choke or strangle by putting your arm around an opponent’s neck, you will start to get a reaction from him. If you succeed in getting the choke inserted and you get a seal on him, you will definitely get a reaction. Typically, he will reach up with both hands and try to pry your arm away. Unless he is a trained fighter, used to grappling, he will lose his offensive capability altogether and become completely defensive trying to prevent the choke. Once again he is now reacting to you and this means you have broken his offensive momentum. He is no longer attacking.


There is a curious but real phenomenon that occurs whenever a person has a weapon in his hand. If the bad guy has a club in his hand, he will swing, throwing the same strike over and over again.  In fact in most fights, real fights, a person will often throw the same punch, say a right cross, (his dominant hand) over and over again. Now I know all the martial arts guys will say, “I’d be throwing kicks, punches, elbows and I’d be striking with the club.  Well, I’m here to tell you that even “trained” fighters fall prey to this.  I’ve been involved in the fight game for 32 years in boxing, wrestling, jiu jitsu, Jeet Kune Do, and I’ve trained a lot of fighters. The hardest thing to teach a novice boxer is to throw combinations.  He just wants to throw one punch at a time over and over again.  I can take almost any student in class, put him in a sparring match and stick a rubber knife in his hand and guess what? No more kicks, no more punches, no head butts, no elbows, just the knife strike over and over again.

How can you make this work to your advantage? Well, thankfully most bad guys, even street fighters are not trained technicians and though they may have their tricks (usually getting in a sucker punch first) they are going to fall prey to this phenomenon almost every time.  So if he’s going to punch you it will be with his right hand at least 85% of the time, since 85% of the population is right handed. If he has a weapon in his hand, 99% of the time it is held in his dominant hand. That is where the strike will come from. Further, having a weapon in his hand, it will be the same strike with that weapon, over and over again. Not high, then low, not to the legs, then to the head. Just the same over hand strike over and over again. He will not be throwing knees, elbows, punches, and kick combinations. Now, knowing this allows you to predict quite well what he’s going to do in advance. This gives you a tremendous advantage in defending and/or countering his attack.

Conversely, being aware of this phenomenon, you need to train using ALL of your “weapons”: punches, knees, kicks, elbows, etc., if you are the one with a weapon in your hand. One of the drills I put our students through is one in which I give them a weapon and only allow them to use their off hand. This drill along with a number of other sparring drills I’ve developed forces them out of the one weapon mindset and gets them to use all of the capabilities and “weapons” they have at their disposal.

In conclusion, these instinctive triggers do not represent techniques, and are not devastating or disabling in singular applications. However the key to surviving a violent attack is to avoid or preempt if possible. If not possible,/ then to absorb the initial attack with the least damage to yourself and then immediately turn the tables so that the attacker is reacting to you and not you to him. This sounds great on paper, but in reality it is seldom by the book and is definitely not easy.  You need to rely on all of your training, your skills and your wits to save your skin. Any fight is a game of chance and the way to win is to stack the odds in your favor. Being aware of and using these triggers is one of the tools that you can use along with all of your other training. It is a good way to keep some aces up your sleeve.


Copyright © 2016 Ernest Emerson

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