The danger of fists

The endless blathering out there about George Zimmerman’s verdict is really beginning to annoy me. I’ve grown up admiring those who make the effort to educate themselves and strive to say things they can back up with objective fact or considerable experience. I take umbrage to those who drone on endlessly when it’s abundantly clear that they haven’t the slightest damn clue what in blue hell they are talking about. Yet that seems to be the exact sort of person eager to show up on camera and run their fetid gums about the dynamics of the Zimmerman verdict. Their talking points spread like bad VD during spring break, showing up on forums and on facebook as people who don’t even understand the bare facts of the case parrot talking points they don’t even begin to comprehend.

While there are many annoying displays of ignorance, the most frustrating is this notion that Mr. Zimmerman’s use of a firearm to stop a “fistfight” was unjust. Firstly because that’s an inadequate description of what eye witnesses said about Mr. Zimmerman’s position in the fight, and secondly because it shows a second grader’s understanding of what it means to actually be in a fight on the street.

Most people out there have never been in a fight. I’m not talking about schoolyard stuff, because that doesn’t count. I get the impression that a lot of people offering their opinion on this have some Leave It to Beaver style schoolyard dustup in mind when they think about what a punch does, and they are relating that inadequate experience to what Mr. Zimmerman was facing that night. When I was in fifth or sixth grade I got into a schoolyard dustup with Dustin Carnay, a kid about half my size. He hit me two times in the face, and the blows were so weak it didn’t even register anything more than mild discomfort. After experiencing what passed for his fury, I didn’t even swing at the kid because it was pointless. I just shoved him down and walked away. Lots of people have similar experiences and I get the distinct impression they’re viewing the fight between Zimmerman and Martin in those terms.

That’s not how real fights work. Real punches don’t cause mild discomfort. They cause serious damage. Don’t believe me?


Here we see a suspect throwing a single punch by surprise (which is how most real fights start) that catches the officer square in the jaw. That punch was nothing like the punches Dustin landed on me. A solid punch landed to the jaw can drive the jawbone into the vagus nerve, shutting the lights out. Or it can simply cause the brain to smash violently against the skull, which can be sufficient to knock you unconscious or severely impair your ability to function for a brief time. When this happens the very next thing that occurs is, typically falling down…which in and of itself can cause problems:

In the incident in the video a drunk SWAT cop punched the victim one time. The punch seems to have knocked the victim unconscious, as he fell and his head bounced off of the concrete. When we fall and we’re able to process what’s happening, by reflex we try to protect our head. When we are knocked unconscious, it’s like a marionette puppet with the strings being cut, and the 20 pound weight at the top of our shoulders (namely our head) ends up impacting the ground with considerable force. The brain was already having a bad day from just the punch, and now being smashed against the cranium with even more velocity isn’t going to help matters. The victim in this video had a brain bleed and that put him into a coma for weeks…and he still isn’t recovered. From one punch.

Of course, in Zimmerman’s case it wasn’t one punch. It was several. Eye witness testimony said that Trayvon Martin had Zimmerman in a “mount”. This essentially means that he was on his knees, straddling Zimmerman’s torso. This has the effect of pinning Zimmerman to the ground. If you watch the first video you’ll note that after the police officer is knocked to the ground, her attacker immediately “mounts” her and begins raining blows down on her head. This is the most disadvantaged position you can be in. It is possible to get out of a mount if you have some skill…but even a skilled fighter can’t always escape a mount as any time spent watching MMA fights will tell you.

Note what happens when you watch an MMA fight where one fighter gets in a mount position and rains blows on his opponent:the referee steps in to stop the fight. Why? Because someone who is mounted and is unable to improve his position can end up with irreparable damage if it is not stopped. This is a standard safety practice in MMA competitions. If you watch enough MMA fight footage you will even see instances where fighters who have someone in a mount will stop on their own, knowing that the other fighter is done and not wishing to cause him any more injury than they already have. This doesn’t happen on the street. There’s no referee to stop the fight. It’s over only when the person who is throwing blows gives up or decides to move on to other methods of inflicting damage. In the first video of the police officer, her assailant stopped after he had caused her permanent injury…and then he tried to get her gun. Having already caused her brain trauma, he was going to try and finish the job by blowing her brains out with her own weapon. Right in front of his daughter, no less.

Police use of force policies treat an officer being knocked unconscious or mounted as lethal force events. Firstly because as we’ve shown it’s extremely easy for the officer to be gravely injured just by the ongoing assault of fists, but also because when the officer is seeing stars or unconscious the perp will often go for the officer’s weapon and use it to kill them. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, in 2011 three officers were killed with their own weapons and five of them had their weapons stolen from them. (Not even counting how many were injured in the same fashion but survived) Better holster design and better defensive tactics have helped reduce the number of officers who die every year after losing a physical confrontation and having their weapon stolen, but every year we still lose police officers because they end up on the losing end of a “fistfight” and then their gun gets taken from them.

Of course, suspects don’t need to use the officer’s weapon to kill. Take this 17 year old who murdered an El Paso police officer using his bare hands. The Cliff’s notes version is that the teenager threw a punch that caught the officer good, then tackled the officer driving him to the ground. Then the teenager mounted the police officer (just like you saw in the MMA video above) and rained down blows on the officer until he succeeded in dealing lethal damage to the officer’s brain. In the MMA ring, the mat isn’t exactly soft, but it has some give to it in order to prevent injury. On the street, it’s asphalt or concrete. There’s no give in concrete. Doubtlessly a contributing factor in the officer’s death was that the blows delivered by the criminal assailant were either bouncing his head off of the unyielding pavement or, even worse, delivered while his head was laying against the pavement, magnifying the force of the blows.  On a different section of the Uniform Crime Report we see that bare hands and feet have been responsible for the death of 4,028 people since 2007. To give you some idea of scale, that makes fists and feet a more popular instrument of lethal criminal violence than rifles and shotguns combined over the same period of time.

Now, perhaps, you have some understanding of why I want to pull my hair out every time I see some dunderhead on TV commenting on the use of a firearm in a “fistfight”. Even a little bit of effort can yield all sorts of information about how fights on the street work, why being mounted is so dangerous, how difficult it is to actually defend a weapon in that kind of situation, and just how much damage punches can actually do. This information is out there. I didn’t tap into any top secret sources, here…I used Google and Youtube. Minimal effort is required, and yet people aren’t even attempting it before blathering on about the topic.

I’m certainly not an expert on MMA or on the use of lethal force, but one need not be an expert to see how daft the commentary on this is. The bare facts are that eye witnesses said that Trayvon Martin was on top of Zimmerman in what they described as an “MMA style” mount, raining blows. The same eye witnesses said that Zimmerman was in this position for an extended period of time, almost a minute. As you can see from the video of the assault against the police officer and the MMA video, a lot of damage can be dealt in what sounds like a relatively short period of time.

I assure you that it doesn’t feel like a short period of time when you’re on the bottom of a mount losing a fight. In my first evolution in the ECQC course, I attended last year, I was mounted by my opponent who managed to pass my pathetic attempt at a “guard” (something I had only been exposed to about ten minutes before the evo) and had me laid out flat. Then he took my gun. I tried to defend it with the only arm I had free, but it was a fruitless endeavor. When I felt the muzzle of the pistol clear my waistband, even though I knew it wasn’t a real gun the amygdala response in my brain was plenty real. Unable to do anything useful to protect myself, unable to defend my gun from a snatch because of my inferior position, I was pretty much helpless…and the end result of that was taking a mag’s worth of sim rounds in my groin from point blank.

Having been on both the bottom and the top of a mounted situation, I’ve experienced both sides of it. Not enough to be an expert, mind you, but enough to have experienced the panic that sets in when you realize the other guy is able to do pretty much whatever he wants with you when you’re on the bottom. The sense of power that comes with realizing you’re completely dominating the guy you’ve got pinned to the ground when you’re on top. What seems like a bloody eternity on the bottom feels like you’ve only thrown one punch while you’re on top. In the last evo I participated in during ECQC I had my opponent flattened out with my left forearm across his throat, about to use his head (covered in a FIST helmet) to clear a malfunction so I could shoot him some more with his own gun when Craig called a stop. My opponent and I had probably been at it for a little more than a minute, but from my perspective it felt like I’d just started. It would have continued, too, had the instructor not called an end. Mr. Zimmerman didn’t have the benefit of a referee or instructor to call and end to the fight, or the comfort of knowing that the gun involved was fake. From his perspective, he was getting his head smashed against the concrete in a seemingly endless barrage, and there was a real gun involved. Witnesses said they heard Zimmerman calling out for help, and I can understand why. The panic and fear of being in that position is bad enough when it’s in a training environment, but it has to be bone-chilling when it’s all real.

Even under tightly controlled circumstances where I knew nobody was going to get killed, I experienced a bit of the panic and fear that comes along with being on the bottom of a mount. On the street, mounted by a stranger with my nose busted open and the back of my head bleeding from being bounced off the concrete and with no ability to stop it using empty hands, I’d resort to a weapon, too. So would police officers. So would anyone who was interested in not suffering debilitating brain damage. This might just be a clue as to why the police who initially did the investigation and the prosecutors who first looked at the case didn’t pursue charges. Police training deals with a police officer being mounted and beaten as a lethal force event, partially because of the damage that can be inflicted in that situation, and partly because of the danger of the officer’s weapon being stolen. When the police found eye witnesses that said Trayvon Martin had Zimmerman mounted and was raining blows, the use of the firearm was instantly understood.

Bare fists pose a far greater threat than the chattering classes seem to want to admit. The examples I’ve cited here are not unique, folks. There is plenty of dashcam video or surveillance video showing police officers and prison guards being knocked down, mounted, and beaten to the point of irreparable damage. Those talking about the phenomenon like it’s no big deal are ignorant, often willfully so.

Those who want to offer commentary about what level of force Mr. Zimmerman should or shouldn’t have used when he was on the bottom of a mount should, at a bare minimum, have had to actually been in that position in some fashion facing opposing will before they speak about it. If they haven’t then perhaps kindly suggest that they reconsider spewing uninformed nonsense on the topic. Maybe suggest that they go down to the local MMA gym and test their theories about what’s possible to do from the bottom of a mount. Then perhaps go find a neurologist and chat with them about brain injuries and the effects of having one’s head bounced off of the pavement.

You know…make the effort to test their assumptions. Someone who is unwilling to test their assumptions isn’t really worth listening to.




  1. Too, too bad that those who can’t see past a ‘poor boy being shot’ will never explore this enough to understand it. And when celebrities or our President declare that ‘It could have been me’, you have to ask how many people they’d taken to the ground, mounted, and continued to assault.

  2. In A Flame of Pure Fire, Roger Kahn’s Biography of Jack Dempsey, he writes about Dempsey’s days as a street fighter and Dempsey’s preference for the ring and its rules. Dempsey had no illusions about the dangers of a street fight.

  3. I agree with everything you wrote, and I have been trying to inform my knee-jerk, bandwagon-jumping, bleeding-heart friends about this. One correction, though: the man in the MMA ground and pound video does NOT have mount. The bottom guy has his legs wrapped around him, sort of in full guard, although he was too defenseless at that point to utilize it effectively. Full mount position is when the top man’s legs are above the bottom’s hips so they can’t use their legs to neutralize the top man’s movements. Nonetheless, this goes to show that even without perfect positioning, punches can do serious damage. That’s why fighters have to be medically cleared before each fight.

  4. As a former MMA fighter, I WOULD consider myself an expert on the subject, and let me tell you, YOUR ARTICLE WAS SPOT ON. Having the exceptionally fragile back of the head against PAVEMENT is NOT a situation you want to be in when a 17 year old young MAN is raining down punches from above. In fact, in american mixed martial arts rules, strikes to the back of the head will get you disqualified because there is so much danger to life. The young man wasn’t striking to the back of the head per say, but a limp neck being punched from above is going to strike the back of the head on the unforgiving pavement just as hard on the rebound.
    Any pundit calling this a “fistfight” would scared absolutely to death if placed in my mount (or any other mount by a person ranked blue belt in BJJ or above) taking punches on concrete. Im sure they’d be PRAYING for a gun after the first 4 or 5 shots (and I weighed 155 pounds soaking wet).

  5. I would like to add that hands and feet are such a significant weapon that they are one of the 5 or 6 weapons categories used by the FBI when reporting weapons used in homicides. (See the FBI’s Unified Crime Reports)

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