Are There Rules in Fisticuffs?

Despite the many promises made by Hollywood movies, fisticuffs are almost never ballet exercises of controlled violence, after which the winner leaves, rubbing his bruised knuckles and looking like a tough bastard. These are usually horrific random encounters in which untrained, usually drunken fighters spin around until their friends tear them apart and the bouncer pushes them to the side of the road.



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But do fisticuffs have rules? Should fisticuffs have rules? Is there an agreed set of standards for how much violence is excessive violence and how much is sufficient?

First rule of Fight Club : fight is stupid.

It doesn’t matter what Tyler Durden says; There is only one ironclad rule of fistfighting: don’t engage in fisticuffs. Trained martial artists and your mom agree. Avoid situations where violence is possible. If you find yourself in this situation, back off. Run away. Tell the hall attendant. Do your best to get out of this, because going to jail, getting injured, or even dying over a parking space or a spilled drink is extremely stupid.

Without saying that, let’s talk about the rules and expectations if you do get into a fight. The closest we have to a codified set of rules is the laws that apply to street fighting (see below), but in the informal realm there are competing philosophies regarding the rules of street fighting.

Philosophy 1: There are no rules in fisticuffs

Some argue that once the hands are thrown, all politeness is gone and you should immediately get down to eye gouging, crotch shots, chokeholds, and concealed weapons. This is one of the guiding principles of Krav Maga, a form of self-defense training that emphasizes ending a fight as quickly and efficiently as possible by targeting the most vulnerable part of your opponent’s body. Krav Maga practitioners learn various techniques that can cripple or kill opponents, even if they cannot fully master these techniques in the sense of full contact so as not to risk killing their sparring partners.

The problem with fighting without rules lies in assessing the appropriate response. Krav Maga was developed by Imi Lichtenfeld as a method of protecting Jews from Nazi militias in 1930s Czechoslovakia, so he prepared for life-and-death hand-to-hand combat. A casual bar fight rarely gets to this level – are you really willing to permanently cripple or kill some asshole who shoots you cheaply in a bar?

Instead of fighting to the death in most fistfights, a couple of drunken dudes stick out their chests until someone swings. They both roll around on the floor for a while until the bouncer interrupts them and kicks everyone out. This is not a situation where anyone should use potentially lethal force for both moral and legal reasons.

Philosophy 2: You shouldn’t fight dirty

Since most fights are “random” physical brawls in which no one wants anyone else to die, are there any rules? May be. Of course, there is no coherent set of procedures for street fighting, but like any group, “people who fight all the time” can develop a set of norms over time. These norms state that certain types of tactics in combat should not be used by noble people. It could be escalation using weapons or other people to help, or it could be the types of attacks that are more likely to cause serious injury. These forbidden moves seem like things you can’t do in a mixed martial arts match:

  • No headbutts.
  • No pile drivers.
  • No punches to the groin.
  • No gouging eyes.
  • No bites.
  • No fishing.
  • No “elbow 12-6”, that is: do not put your elbow directly on the opponent.
  • No manipulation of small joints, that is: Do not try to break someone’s fingers.
  • No blows to the back of the head or spine.
  • No stomping or football kicks on a fallen opponent.
  • Don’t keep hitting someone who is incapacitated or has given up for some other reason. (In MMA this would be provided by the referee. In real life, I guess, the fighter’s own sense of restraint.)

It seems odd that we would expect anyone to follow a set of rules in combat, but there are plenty of precedents. For example, duels: duels to resolve personal disputes date back to medieval Europe and continued until the 1900s. They were highly ritualized, practiced only among the wealthy, and usually did not fight to the death. The “seconds” of the duelists were available mainly to try to resolve the conflict without a duel. (Sometimes it didn’t work and people died—check out the famous musical about Hamilton, Alexander—but the effort was made.)

What we can learn about fisticuffs from World War I trench fighting

While dueling rules have been agreed upon by both parties, even without clear guidelines, rules for win-win combat can emerge organically. During World War I , for example, a “live and let live” code developed among soldiers fighting each other in trench warfare. To the dismay of commanders on both sides, if left to their own devices, soldiers often developed rules of equal reciprocity for attacks, signals of mutual ceasefires, and even displays of military prowess meant to symbolically represent attacks so that no real attack was needed. German snipers, for example, reportedly fired until they blew a hole in the wall, as if to say, “That could have been your skull.”

Fight only with those you know well

If you know the culture and norms of the person you’re fighting, then unwritten rules may apply, but to most of us, that seems like a far-fetched scenario. Fisticuffs are rare enough in 2022 America that most of us haven’t developed a set of norms for how they should be fought.

Since we can no longer challenge people to duels with pistols or swords, and many of us don’t fight as often, we already know what is expected of us, we stay with lassie-faire, everything goes in the situation in which it is possible. it doesn’t matter how you perceive the rules, as long as you are dependent on your opponent ‘s interpretation of what is acceptable. Even if you’re going to stick to Queensbury’s rules, your opponent might decide to pull the knife or have his buddies intervene if he starts to lose.

Under this set of circumstances, the “anything is possible” style can be seen as the best choice (other than not fighting at all) for “winning” or simply reducing the chances of getting seriously injured. But this may not be the way the law sees it.

The real “rules” of fisticuffs are determined by law

In the states of Washington and Texas, a mutual fight is not against the law, if nothing is violated, the peace is not violated, and a police officer watches the fight. Within this framework, the police will not intervene unless one of the parties declares that they no longer want to fight, or if she is seriously injured. Mutual fighting is explicitly prohibited in Oregon, unless it is a licensed fight such as a boxing or wrestling match.

In the rest of the United States, this is a mixed bag. Obviously, in most places, boxing or wrestling matches are legal under the right conditions, but fisticuffs are, for all reasonable reasons, illegal. The law usually doesn’t explicitly state that fighting is a crime, but if you strike, you’ve probably committed an assault and probably disturbed the peace, and you can be charged with vandalism for bashing someone’s head in. window or kill if they die from it.

However, as a rule, you are allowed to defend yourself against physical violence with the use of force. In some places and under some circumstances, you can even use physical force if you feel threatened. However, as a general rule, the strength you use to protect yourself should be within reason. How this works, since your case in court will depend on many variables, but in general, if someone hits you in a bar and you stab them in the heart, it will be difficult to prove that it was “self-defense”.

Whether following the unwritten rules of combat (e.g. testifying “I stopped kicking him when I saw he was unconscious”) will elicit the judge’s sympathy when it comes time to decide how long your sentence is, depends on the judge. But I wouldn’t count on it. “I showed restraint” could be met with “well, why didn’t you show restraint before you struck?”

So you really shouldn’t fight

For all reasonable intent and purpose, there are no rules in fighting a stranger, because you can only control what you do. Engaging in a fight can result in injury or death, and even if you win, you may be arrested and jailed. The likelihood of one or all of these disadvantages is high if you decide to engage in a fistfight, so it’s hardly worth it. (Besides, unless you hang out with a bunch of immature 12-year-olds, that won’t impress anyone either.)


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