Biters vs. Fighters


People into the martial arts are always arguing over what would work in a real fight. This is due the fact that for most practitioners, the martial arts are strictly academic. In the shadow of the gun, it will always be so. With the present rise of Mixed Martial Arts, there’s been more talk about effectiveness – in the cage and on the mat. MMA is unquestionably producing the most effective full-contact fighters on the planet right now. However, that’s still not the street. It’s the closest perhaps, but there are still judges and rules. When push comes to submission hold, you can always tap out. In this way, even MMA is academic because it conforms to set rules and standards. On the street, there are no rules whatsoever. And there’s no way to simulate a ‘no rules’ scenario. Simulations abide by rules.

As Associate Publisher of Kung Fu Tai Chi, I’ve met my fair share of academic martial artists, MMA champs and self-proclaimed street fighters. Street fighters can be the trickiest to verify because a ‘no rule’ scenario is by its very nature, unregulated. It can be anything. Authenticity can be difficult to confirm. So my barometer is measured by how many times a ‘street’ fighter has experienced something completely outside the rules of any controlled contest. How many times have you been in a gang fight? How many times have you pulled a weapon? My favorite gauge is the move forbidden by every sport. How many times have you been bitten?

Far be it for me to claim to be a street fighter, but much to my embarrassment, I’ve been bitten several times. Perhaps this is why bites figure so highly in my measure – it elevates my personal street cred (it also alleviates some of my humiliation). Let me tell you – it sucks to get bit. I’ve been dominated while sparring plenty of times – knocked out even – but that’s nothing compared to the mortification of being bit. Bites are so visceral, so primal. It’s a vicious way to attack another human. There’s personal violation on an instinctual level. Their bone penetrates your flesh. Worst of all, the human mouth is filthy. A bite can cause a major avulsion that gets infected easily.

Why do I get bit so much? Well, I’m not as tasty as Twilight’s Bella, that’s for sure. As I mentioned in my book, Shaolin Trips, I do volunteer work for event medicine groups like Rock Med and Jah Med. We provide first aid at concerts, festivals and street fairs. We’ve even covered the occasional circus or truck pull. I supervise a team of psych specialists that handle combative patients. It’s usually ornery drunks but there’s the occasional bad acid trip or PCP freak out. Sometimes we must physically restrain the patient to keep them from being a danger to themselves or others. This is all under the supervision of a doctor, of course. Our psych crew is comprised of psychiatric technicians, medical professionals, street-smart veterans and a few very close kung fu brothers and sisters. For my martial siblings, it’s a healthy way for us to use our skills in a positive way. It’s also a challenging martial problem.

Regardless of a patient’s aggression towards us, the mission of our psych crew is to return him or her safely to their friends or family. Accordingly, my kung fu siblings must all limit their vocabulary of attacks to what is non-injurious. A percussive attack like a punch, kick, knee or elbow might defeat the opponent, but that would also defeat the purpose. Perhaps this is why there are no Muay Thai fighters on our psych crew so far. We don’t even use pain-inducing locks. Those might work well for law enforcement, but they just aren’t appropriate in a medical setting. All of those fancy tiger claw and crane beak strikes are off limits. The same goes for any MMA submission holds. You just can’t choke out a patient.

On the other hand, for our patients, anything is fair game. Heck, they are either intoxicated or psychotic – that embodies a ‘no rules’ scenario. Our psych crew has faced guns, knives, hatchets, rocks, bottles, projectile pukers, you name it. Street fights are not glamorous. I’ve been kicked, punched, spat upon, puked upon, peed upon, bled upon and bit. I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve been bit anymore. In this field, you quickly learn not to count that. Usually, I manage to deflect the bite before it actually causes injury. I’ve only been bit seriously twice. The first time was in the late 90s. The most recent (and hopefully last time) was in 2009. Both bites were on the back of my upper arm because the patient was being restrained on the ground by a team of helpers and that was what was closest to his mouth. You remember when you get bit badly. It’s a very surreal and scarring experience.

The First Time

The first time was during a sold-out series of several warm-up concerts culminating New Year’s Eve extravaganza. That patient came in on his own accord during one of the warm-up shows. He was from New York and confessed to have taken a lot of cocaine and LSD. A New Yorker on coke and acid is a bad mix. Regardless, when he arrived, he was completely lucid and honest. He was just feeling uneasy and wanted to be at our medical station for some reassurance, just in case.

After about an hour of calming conversation – talkdown as we call it – he said, “I think you all better hold me down.” The request surprised us because he seemed to have it together. He had kept his clothes on, wasn’t screaming, and could track a conversation fairly well. Nevertheless, we complied as it was the prudent thing to do.

It became one of those situations where the drugs turned a patient into the Incredible Hulk. I should mention here that this patient wasn’t very big, maybe 5’ 6” or less, and skinny, not at all what I would call muscular. When the drugs kicked in, it took six of our most skilled psych specialists to hold him down. We had him spread-eagled on his belly on the floor which was covered with padded mats. One person was restraining each limb, another controlling his hips and the sixth, protecting his head. That kid picked us all up several times. And one time, he wriggled, turned and bit me.

I have no memory of how we got to that position. It was like someone cut the film. We had him restrained. Then suddenly, his jaws were latched around my arm and my thumb was in his eye. Everything was happening in high-definition slow motion. I was slowly pressing my thumb deeper into his eye as I tried to remove my other arm from his mouth. I remember thinking ‘I never realized how far you can press your thumb into someone’s eye before it pops.’

Then, like Kwai Chang Caine, I had a flashback of my talkdown guru, Joel Williams, teaching me the countermove. Joel is a classic biker, a prison psychiatric nurse, and had taught me the bite-counter several times. I’ve taught it too. No martial arts master had ever shown me a bite-counter before. No one else has shown me one since. I’ve posed the bite scenario to many martial arts masters and they often give an incorrect response. That’s street fighting wisdom for you, and I’ll share that with you now.


When someone bites you, do NOT pull away. That’s the instinctive reaction but you must overcome it. When you pull away, it gives the biter a better opportunity to chomp off a chunk of flesh. Never pull away. Never let anyone else pull the biter away. If the biter pulls away, it is easier for the jaws snap shut and you will lose a chunk of flesh. You’ll be left with a nasty avulsion that is very difficult to heal. Don’t attempt to strike the biter either. That can aid pulling away, albeit indirectly. When struck, a biter will probably chomp down harder. Instead, push your body into the bite. That splits the jaw bone from the skull and smothers the biter so they have to loosen up. So don’t pull. Push. Push to choke the biter off you.

Now back to my story.

After coming back from the Master Joel’s bite-counter-flashback, I reversed took my thumb out of his eye and grabbed the back of his skull, pressing his face into my arm. He released and others got him back under control while I ran to the nurses. Being that it was New Year’s Eve, it was chilly so I had a few layers on: a T-shirt, a flannel shirt and an M-65 field jacket. Through all of that, the bite broke skin and left a scar that I carried for over a year. Make no mistake – jaw muscles are very strong and designed to tear flesh by countless millennia of evolution.

Unlike the martial arts, fighters don’t need to practice biting. You train your bite automatically every day when you eat. I’ve been working full-time for Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine since before the turn of the millennium, and I was a freelance writer for nearly decade prior to that. Only once have I seen a martial art that trained biting. In our Shaolin Special 2007, we published Xiang Xing Quan: Inspiration from the Animal Kingdom by Stephen Chew and Xu Dezheng. On page 58 of that article, there’s a demonstration of the technique. In the Dog Style form, there’s a moment when the practitioner kneels and pants like a dog. It’s comical, akin to clowning moves in monkey kung fu or passing out moves in drunken style. When Master Xu interpreted that move (at my request – I always ask for applications of overly dramatic moves in forms) he claimed it was a bite. Apparently, dog fighters do whatever it takes, including biting.

You don’t really have to practice the counter either. There’s no way to realistically simulate a biting scenario. There are no forms to recite, nor any drills that you can practice to prepare you. Once you understand the theory behind the counter, that’s all you need. Then you just hope that you’ll remember to apply it if the situation arises.

The Last Time (hopefully)

I wasn’t as lucky in 2009. That bite came in summer and it was teeth to flesh. Our psych crew had just finished this monstrous festival campout with Jah Med so we were all spent. Rock Med was covering a major psychedelic band playing a midweek show immediately after, so a few of us got home, took a shower, dumped our camping gear and headed to that show. We were spent. We had been at that previous festival for five days with little sleep.

There were three intense psychedelic reactions (IPR) that required restraint that night. The first was combative, but came down nicely once he was restrained and talked down. Nevertheless, it was exhausting as there weren’t many of us qualified to do restraint that night. Restraining someone can take a lot of energy. It was just the crew from the festival and like I said, we were already spent. The second was naked and captive in the security cell. The police had tazed him for being combative, to which he exclaimed “I’m gonna marry that b***h!”

The third was a youth who was completely tractable and was set up to leave with his friends by the end of the show. But just before going, he got really agitated and had to be restrained. In the scuffle as we gently took him down, one of my fellow volunteers accidentally kicked me in the head. I would blame him for that out of misplaced denial, but the truth is that accidents happen. We are a team. If anyone gets hurt on our crew, it’s the fault of the entire crew. I apologized for scapegoating him later. Being a psych counselor by trade, he totally understood and apologized for kicking me. In all honesty, it was more my fault than his. Yes, he did kick me in the head, but not too hard and it’s not like I haven’t been kicked in the head before (part and parcel for any career martial artist). It actually struck me as absurd so I laughed at it. And in that unguarded moment of laughter, the IPR wriggled loose and bit me on the right tricep.

My second bite wasn’t as bad because I pressed in immediately. That’s the benefit of experience. The bruising was caused more by me pressing into his jaw to open it than him chewing on my arm. At first I thought, “Dammit, not again!” and then immediately started pressing and pushing up on the cartilage under his nose. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been quite so calm. My dear kung fu brother, Dirty Hoel (and only other kung fu brothers really know why I call him that), was on it and helped pull me quickly out of the clinch. I hear people calling each other ‘brother’ in the martial world all the time, but here’s the true mark. Dirty Hoel always has my back and I always have his. And that’s on the street, in real combat situations.

Later, the IPRs friends said “Oh yeah. He bites.” Thanks a lot for the warning. It was a good one that left a nasty bruise, and the scar is still there. I was hoping it would fade over the summer but it hasn’t. Maybe next summer.

Doggie-style Biter versus MMA Fighter

So could a biter chew his or her way out of a rear naked choke? Remember the scene in Enter the Dragon where John Saxon’s character Roper is put into an armbar by Bolo Yeung’s character Bolo (Bruce Lee’s character was named Lee, so Bolo using his real name wasn’t too out of character). Roper bit his way out. We know the scene took several takes because it’s one of Enter the Dragon’s many bloopers. You can clearly see several of Roper’s bloody teeth marks already on Bolo’s pant leg in the close-up scene for the bite. But that’s the movies and that has little to do with reality.

It’s certainly possible that someone could bite their way out of a submission hold, but unless you’re a dog stylist, it’s not a sound tactic to advocate. The first time I was bit, I could have easily poked out that patient’s eye. I was almost there out of reflex. I am so grateful that my training gave me the presence of mind to change up my game, because I wouldn’t want to bear the karmic shrapnel of blinding someone, even if it was in self-defense. As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Here’s where I often have issues with the notion of street effective martial arts. As most martial artists have never been in an actual street fight, they picture it to be just like they see in the movies or in the cage. They only imagine duels to the death or to submission. That’s a very limited way to apply the arts because it’s seldom like that. To cite Enter the Dragon again, I’ve never had that opportunity to utter a cool line like “You have offended my family and you have offended the Shaolin Temple,” and then got to open a can of whoop ass on Mr. Han in a hall of mirrors. Real martial arts applications are much more mundane, like using your eagle claw training to open a stuck jar or your staff technique to push a broom. Even in real fights, you generally don’t fight to kill. To do so would be just plain psychotic.

When we practice martial arts, we practice for a whole wide world of possibilities. Some ridicule the traditional arts because they don’t work in specific scenarios like the ring or the street. However, there’s a vast spectrum of possible scenarios if you have an open mind and an open heart. It’s good to be skeptical, but it’s also prudent to be prepared.

When you live a martial life, your practice bleeds into everything. Even the mouth of a stranger when he bites you.

Inspire your students to be of good hearts. And keep them supplied with Tiger Claw gear.

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