Fighting and MMA culture have become wildly popular over the last ten years. What initially started out as little more than a mix between professional wrestling and a street fight, is now a multi-billion dollar industry. This in turn, has attracted thousands of amateurs into MMA gyms in the hopes of learning techniques to help them feel confident, and able to handle themselves in a fight. It also makes them mistakenly think they can wear very douchy clothes, but that is besides the point.
While I am a fan of anything that gets people off their asses, I believe that these folks are missing out on the number one, most important factor that will allow them to win in any fight, being physically stronger.
Now, before we dive nerd style into this topic, I would like to get a few disclaimers out there. I am not an expert in fighting, nor do I claim to be one. I have had several years of martial arts experience, when I was younger, and can break a pine board like nobody’s business. I have also learned the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program and I have participated in defensive tactics training during the police academy. I say this to point out that I am knowledgable in the basics of fighting and have in fact been punched before, which I recommend to anyone. It really brings things into focus, or out of focus depending on where you get hit.
For much of our evolutionary history, physical confrontations have been a reality in our lives. Cavemen had a much more physical life than we do now. Often they fought off predators or fought amongst themselves for scarce resources (or not depending on how tough the guy looked). As a result, humans are very adept at gauging fighting ability in other humans. A study conducted by the University of Santa Barbara, California, found that both men and women could accurately gauge a man’s fighting ability just by showing them a picture of their head or body. This in turn, was almost perfectly correlated to their upper body strength, measured on exercise machines. They also ran a version of this study, trying to discover if their lower body strength could be correlated to fighting ability. They were unable to find any such correlation. Now this is not to say that lower body strength does not matter in a fight. It simply means this is not a factor that humans use to predict fighting ability.
Another study, in the journal of Aggressive Behavior, noted that the width of a males face was highly correlated to both their longevity and success in professional UFC fighting. In the study, they used computer generated images of successful fighters and unsuccessful fighters averaged together into a composite face. They then asked people to rate how tough they would be in a fight, or how likely they would be to win. Take a look at the images, I bet you can pick the winners too.
The composites on the left are the most experienced MMA fighters; in the second pair, the left image is an average of the widest faces of MMA fighters. Needless to say, both pairs of left images were picked as the toughest and mostly likely to win, which in fact they were.
I can tell you, anecdotally, that upper body strength is a relevant factor in fighting. My last assignment in the Marine Corps was with an Infantry Battalion, as a weapons platoon commander. Now let me be the first to say, if there is any place on earth that is close to a cave man existence, it is in a Marine Infantry Unit. I had about 45 Marines under my command, ranging from fresh faced 18 year olds, to a few older 22-24 year old corporals and sergeants. At that time I was 25 and in pretty good shape.
As you might imagine, PT was a daily requirement, and it ranged from running, to hiking, to weightlifting and calisthenics, depending on what my NCO’s wanted to do with their Marines. On Friday’s, however, we oftentimes would ground fight against the other platoons. These platoons were referred to as line platoons, as they were MOS 0311 line infantryman. My platoon were infantryman as well, but they did different jobs. They were machine gunners, mortarmen, or assault men. All of these jobs require carrying heavier weapon systems and more gear than a line grunt. This tends to attract bigger stronger Marines to these MOS’s in their earlier training. So naturally, when we fought other platoons, we would generally kick the shit out of them.
The rules were, you had to stay on your knees and no striking the face. You stayed in until you were submitted. Pretty quickly we noticed that our size and strength allowed us to use a variety of tactics to our benefit. Our usual strategy would be to get the strongest guys to try and wrap up two or more of the other teams Marines, then the rest of our platoon could quickly tag team any of the other weaker Marines.
I specifically remember one day, right after we had a bunch of fresh Marines from enlisted infantry school. These kids were young, skinny and mean. However, that was the only thing they had going for them, they hadn’t spent years out in the fleet, or on deployment, lifting (a common pastime, as anyone that has ever been on deployment can tell you), like our other marines. On this day, we employed our favorite tactic, wrapping up as many of the other teams Marines as we could. I remember grabbing one of these new Marines by the collar, in full mount, trying to choke him out. One of his other fresh faced friends jumped on my back, trying to help him, at the same time taking advantage of the only time you were allowed to try and kick an Officer’s ass.
Modestly, I’ll say I had a fairly healthy strength advantage over those two. I grabbed the one below me and started to slam him multiple times to the ground by his collar, while simultaneously holding the other’s arm down to give me some slack around my neck. I knew I couldn’t really do anything to the kid on my back, but I also knew there was no way he could tighten his arm more, since I could pull it away from my neck with relative ease. This stalemate was solved after a minute or so with the help of one of my Marines. He took the guy from my back and submitted him while I finished with the one beneath me. I’d been strangling him Homer Simpson style (he was making Bart noises the entire time).
This isn’t show and tell, the reason I tell you this is to point out how strength allowed me to succeed. I’ve had my ass kicked plenty of times. I’ve been put in arm bars, choked out and had the wind knocked out of me. I am at best a mediocre fighter, but I do have one thing going for me. I’m stronger than about 98% of the population (that 2% is still an unfortunately large number of people though,get it, get it?) . Generally speaking there are only two reasons I have lost a fight; one, my opponent was stronger than me, or two, they had a tremendous skill advantage.
It can’t be overstated, skill in fighting is incredibly important, but it is not the most important factor. Anecdotally, I would estimate that for every 20% increase in strength, you would need about 40% more skill to overcome it. If I were to fight Ronda Rousey, she would quickly kick my ass, even though I am probably twice as strong as her. There are few fighters on the planet with more skill. Luckily for me, there are very few Ronda Rousey’s walking around on the street. Most folks are fairly weak, eat like shit, and sit on their asses too much.
For you readers out there, I would recommend you familiarize yourselves with the basics of fighting, striking, blocking, and grappling. Once you understand these basics, and learn not to panic when someone’s trying to punch your lights out, you will have received most of the benefit from fight training. You should, of course, try to maintain these skills or improve them, but you should always emphasize absolute strength training. I have never heard anyone say that they would be better off if they weren’t so damn strong.