Just like sh*t, violence happens. It tends to come at the worst times, in locations you thought were safe and from people you might not expect to be the provocateurs. It could be at home, work, or your local supermarket — you just never know. When it comes to defending yourself and those you love, it’s all on you. Although our tax dollars pay for law enforcement to keep the peace, it’d be foolhardy to expect law enforcement to be there instantly when violence erupts and you need them the most. When it comes to self-protection, a smart person learns from their own experiences, and a truly wise one learns from the experiences of others. With this in mind, we dug deep into our list of experts to assemble a panel of “been-there-done-that” kind of badassery.

These experts may surprise you with their answers. Some statements were elegant in their simplicity, while others were downright brilliant. You’ll recognize three common recommendations: get the knowledge, get the training, and be aware of the laws in your area. Our panel consists of Jared Wihongi, a SWAT operator, head of Pekiti Tirsia Tactical, and combatives instructor to law enforcement and military agencies around the world; Hakim Isler, Iraq War veteran with Army Special Operations, holder of multiple black belts, and certified bodyguard; Michael Janich, lifelong martial artist, co-host of Outdoor Channel’s The Best Defense, creator of Martial Blade Concepts, and a U.S. Army veteran who served at the National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and Joint Casualty Resolution Center; and George Kelakos, lifelong martial artist, attorney, and managing director of Kelakos Advisors LLC.

Lessons Learned Through Violence

RECOIL OFFGRID: Share with our readers a violent encounter from your past.

Wihongi: I’ve been in violent physical encounters several times throughout my life. The most memorable have been in my adulthood, working professionally as a nightclub bouncer in Hawaii while attending university, and during my 19 years of experience in law enforcement (including both full-time and reserve duty). One that stands out was during my early exploration of martial arts and their application. I was training Kali, Muay Thai, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at the same time I was working as a bouncer in Honolulu, and frequently had opportunities to put skills I was training into practice. One particular night, a large fight broke out between a group of patrons in the club and the bouncers working the floor. I went from the door where I was working to help the bouncers expel the violators, and ended up in an altercation with one of them. Even though I always mentally prepared to only use elbows, knees, and other “hard weapons,” I ended up hitting him a few times with my fists before I entered into a clinch and took him to the ground with a hip toss. I held onto him in a cross-body position until I was helped to usher him out.

Isler: I’ve been in several altercations in my life. The one that sticks out the most is when I was a teenager. It started because two high school seniors manipulated me and another freshman into believing that we were enemies so that we would fight for their entertainment. After the heavy manipulation, we met in a parking lot near the school. The kid grabbed me, and I punched him in the face twice. Out of shock, he pushed me away and I tripped over my own foot, hit my head on a car, and then on the concrete, which knocked me out.

Hakim Isler, To-Shin Do Ninjutsu head Instructor at Elevo Dynamics.

The next thing I remember, I was surrounded by my friends and was bleeding badly from a big knot on my head. I had to go the hospital and could not lay on the back of my head for weeks. I ended up smashing my opponent’s nose and causing severe bleeding, which is why he didn’t stomp on me while I was out. Most people considered me the winner of the fight, but I didn’t feel like a winner, considering I had to deal with a concussion and a swollen mass on my head.

Janich: While living and working in Asia, I was involved in a number of incidents in which I had to defend myself with unarmed physical skills, and a couple of incidents in which I drew a weapon to defuse the situation.

Martial Blade Concepts owner Michael Janich teaching self-defense techniques; photo courtesy Martial Blade Concepts.

Kelakos: While living in Israel, two friends and I were surrounded and harassed by a dozen older boys who threatened to beat us up. I drew my sheathed knife — I carried a knife from the age of 9 — and we covered our escape by throwing stones at them. I’ve been attacked with broken bottles and bats by multiple assailants (I solved that problem by taking a broken bottle from the alpha and holding it to his throat); by someone who flashed a concealed handgun (problem solved when I quickly put my hand on his weapon, pressed it against his body, and put a finger in his throat); by a perp who attempted to carjack me (he threw a brick at my driver-side window, and I proceeded to drag him down the road for a few feet while keeping his hand tangled in my steering wheel); and several attempts to rob or attack me by various perps who threatened me with a knife or stick weapons (I relieved each of their weapons to defuse the situations).

What are your takeaways from these fights?

Wihongi: First, a broken bone in my hand from punches to the violator’s head. Although I mentally prepared to not use my fists, training kicked in under stress and I used what I was commonly training at that time. Second, when we hit the ground after the hip toss, I received a large laceration to my arm from broken glass on the ground. Environmental factors caused considerable injuries to me with the technique I used. This, coupled with the broken bone in my hand, put me out of training for a couple of months and limited my work. And third, while holding the violator on the ground, for a couple of minutes I felt very vulnerable in a crowded environment where several people were nearby, and I didn’t know who his friends were. My visual and auditory awareness were also obscured due to the nightclub music and strobe lights. I felt very vulnerable to third party intervention — and I was.

Above: Tiga Tactics owners Conrad Bui and Patrick Vuong teaching at the Academy of Combative Defense and Fitness (ADF). Photo courtesy Tiga Tactics.

Isler: Be mindful of whom you allow into your mind. Read clearly the motives of those who are feeding you information. And no one ever really wins a fight.

Janich: These incidents taught me that when it’s time to act, do so with commitment and intent. Carrying a weapon and having the ability to use it effectively also give you a tremendous advantage.

Kelakos: The important lessons learned were first, I was not “present” and my mind was elsewhere. Second, I could have taken steps to avoid the conflict, like running, or avoiding the conflict initially, but didn’t. I didn’t sense the potential for danger because I wasn’t in the moment. Third, I’ve since learned to scan and be aware of what’s going on around me and what people are doing around me. I now rely on my instincts more in sensing my surroundings. I constantly practice my ability to scan my surroundings with peripheral vision. Lastly, I’ve learned to stay calm and relaxed so that I might flow through and manage conflict. As a part of my current job, I practice all these principles and techniques during cross-border business negotiations.

General Self-Defense Tips

What advice do you give to your students in regards to self-protection?

Wihongi: The violent encounter you’ll always survive is the one you’ve been able to avoid. Next, martial arts conditioning, or attribute development, is as important as learning techniques. This includes, but is not limited to, speed and power development, timing, and precision.

Isler: The advice I always give my students is that in any altercation there’s always a before, during, and after. What could you have done to avoid the situation? If the situation is upon you, then what can you do to defuse it and keep it from escalating? If the situation is happening, what can you do to stop it with measured response? While responding, what can you do to ensure the image you’re projecting is one of intent to the aggressor, but defense to bystanders? When family is involved, it’s important to remember to teach them what to do so that everyone has a game plan. Defending when you have a young child is a very tough, dynamic role, so playing how you would handle different scenarios is of great value. Lastly, what actions happen after an altercation? Do you run, call the cops, or enlist help? Also, know how to articulate your actions.

Janich: First, understand that physical skills are a last resort, and the ultimate goal is always to go home safe. You can’t change the world, only your reaction to it, so make your brain smarter than your ego and do everything possible to avoid conflict. Second, understand and work with the body you have. Although you should do your best to develop physical endurance, strength, and stamina, ultimately, you will have to fight with the body and physical attributes you have when the attack happens, so be realistic and cultivate a personalized system that meets your needs and individual capabilities. Most importantly, you don’t have to fight like me or anyone else — you just have to fight well. Although studying organized systems of martial arts is good, for real personal protection, focus on the skills and tactics that work best for you. The individual is always more important than the system. With all due respect to traditional martial arts and sport-oriented systems, if you’re not getting practical, usable self-defense skills from an instructor, move on. It’s a free country.

Above: See our feature “So You Want to Be the Karate Kid or Cobra Kai?” in Issue 27 about selecting a martial arts discipline. Photo courtesy Tiga Tactics.

Kelakos: I’m not an “in the box” kind of person so I’ll answer the question in this manner: Be in the present, use common sense, and when you sense danger, extricate yourself from the situation if you can. Naturally, I encourage people I meet to study practical self-defense for a variety of reasons. I often use this hypothetical situation in my conflict management training — you just arrived on a train at Grand Central Station and plan to walk to a meeting. You’re carrying a briefcase, or a purse and a briefcase. Before you begin your walk, ask yourself a few questions: Should I use my smartphone while walking to my destination? What am I thinking about as I walk there? Am I carrying items in both hands, and am I really prepared for the unexpected?

Tools & Force Multipliers

What do you recommend our readers carry for self-protection?

Wihongi: I recommend people carry a weapon that provides the highest level of protection and is within the bounds of their local laws. If that’s a weapon commonly considered as deadly force, then people should also consider carrying a less-lethal force option. However, there are two things that should be taken into consideration. How likely are you to keep the chosen weapon(s) accessible on a regular basis? If convenience of carry starts to become an issue, it’s likely you’ll eventually start to leave that weapon at home. Have you trained with the weapon you choose to carry? Being armed is not necessarily being prepared, and I always recommend people get training from a credible source.

Isler: I always recommend one medium- to long-range projectile weapon (such as pepper foam or spray) and one short-range weapon (such as a kubaton/pocket-stick or knife). I tend to recommend the less-lethal options if you’re out and more-lethal options if you’re home, since laws can be difficult to navigate when it comes to self-defense with a deadly weapon. I always highly recommend getting training — if you carry anything, you should get trained on how to deploy and use it under duress.

Above: Pekiti tirsia kali practitioner Jared Wihongi trains self-defense against blunt and edged weapons. Photos courtesy Michael Leukel.

Janich: Weapon carry is very much a matter of legality and personal commitment. In addition to doing your homework on the laws in your area to determine what’s legal, you should also do some serious soul-searching to make sure your commitment is consistent with the weapons — or potential weapons — you carry. For example, if you carry a knife with even the thought of using it as a self-defense weapon, you must understand what that entails and be mentally and physically prepared for that reality. The only way to do that is to actually train diligently in its use. The one item I believe everyone should carry is a tactical flashlight, which reminds you to be aware (especially at night), can be used to blind a threat from a safe distance, and can be used as an improvised striking weapon. Carrying a flashlight also gets people used to the commitment necessary to carry a weapon religiously and make it part of your lifestyle. Best of all, a flashlight can go with you virtually everywhere — including environments that prohibit other weapons.

Kelakos: This isn’t an easy question to answer. What’s the context? If you’re an operative in hostile environments, you might want to carry a concealed firearm and a backup blade (I prefer fixed blades to folders, but I always travel with a small folder). I travel for work in Asia and often find myself in sketchy environments. Where permissible under local law, I carry a small folding knife that I can pass off as a utility knife. Where carrying a knife might present a problem with local laws, such as in China, I just carry a few pens. I always carry ballpoint pens. If you take my conflict management course, you might also start carrying a cheap folding umbrella when heading into an urban environment.

Potential Legal Issues

Are there any legal pitfalls our readers need to be aware of in terms of defending themselves and their loved ones?

Wihongi: The intricacies of force in defense of person or property will differ from place to place, but a few common-sense rules can help you err on the side of caution. One is to always consider the imminence of unlawful force being threatened or perpetrated against you or those you feel a duty to protect. Your defensive actions must adjust as the imminence of that threat increases or decreases. Second is to only ever use force that can be considered reasonable and proportional. Is your force response reasonable considering the level of threat you perceive that you’re facing? For example, deadly force should only be used or threatened if you perceive that your life (or that of someone you feel a duty to protect) is in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury. Third, is your force response completely necessary, or could you have avoided the situation? For example, could you have left the location to avoid the necessity for a force response, or did you somehow instigate the attack?

Isler: Always be aware that in our modern day, you can be bright and right, but still be considered wrong in the eyes of a courtroom. Never assume that because you feel you had to defend yourself that others will perceive it that same way. Know the laws in the areas you frequent and understand how to operate effectively within those boundaries.

Janich: Self-defense is all about the judicious, reasonable use of force. If you use physical force to defend yourself, your actions may very well be legally scrutinized, so they must be justified. This is where the techniques of many traditional martial arts can lead you astray, as they are often battlefield-oriented, not self-defense-oriented. For example, in the Filipino martial arts, many counter-knife techniques involve disarming the attacker and immediately using his own knife against him. In the eyes of the law, as soon as you’ve disarmed the weapon, you’ve most likely ended the threat to your life. Using a knife against a now-unarmed attacker is therefore not justified and immediately makes you guilty of assault with a deadly weapon and potentially attempted murder. As the saying goes, “you will fight the way you train,” so make sure your training is consistent with the principles of lawful self-defense.

George Kelakos teaches disarming techniques to students.

Kelakos: I’m a lawyer, but not a criminal lawyer, so this isn’t legal advice. However, let me try to provide you with responses from a common-sense perspective and from a person who spends more than half of his time traveling and working in countries outside the U.S. First, be aware of local laws. Note that in the U.S., there is no “right” of self-defense. It’s a privilege and depending on your actions, you could be prosecuted for assault and battery (or worse) if you use a weapon (or wield one) at the wrong time or in the wrong situation — and even if you manage to duck the criminal charges, you could still face a civil lawsuit.


Second, use common sense. Carrying a knife or firearm may save your life or help you avoid an unpleasant situation, but balance that with the burden of carrying a weapon. I would add that you should rely on your most important weapon: your brain. If you’re threatened by a drunk thug in a bar, just walk out. If he puts his hands on you, brush his hands off and walk away. I would suggest that you use the minimum amount of force to respond to situations like this and be sure that your actions and demeanor convey to the observers that you did all you can to avoid the situation. If you’re in a conflict situation and law enforcement shows up, remember that anything you say could be used against you. Better to stay silent and request to speak to an attorney. Laws vary in the U.S. For instance, you might have more leeway in a “stand your ground” jurisdiction. Still, better to use the minimum amount of force needed.

I teach my martial arts students to evade and avoid conflict, but if necessary, intercept, disrupt, and neutralize — in one beat, if possible. If you post videos where you demonstrate disarm techniques or responses to blade attacks, just remember: If you find yourself in a courtroom as a defendant in a criminal case or a civil lawsuit, your social media postings could come back to haunt you. Full disclosure, I’ve not researched this issue as I have no experience as a criminal lawyer, but I would expect that a trained martial artist would come under greater scrutiny in a courtroom setting. Lastly, if you teach or practice violent responses to attacks and you use these techniques in a real-world situation, there could be consequences. I encourage my brothers and sisters in the martial arts world to balance their martial arts practice with conflict management training. Consider taking negotiation or mediation training courses. Again, you may avoid being prosecuted for defending yourself against the perp, but beware of the civil law consequences of putting a perp in a hospital.


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