Defanging the Snake:The Science of Effective Fighting

By Dr. Leonard C. Holifield, CPS, CGSP

In the field of executive protection, unarmed self defense tactics are a must for the protection agent. During your entire career as an EP agent you may never have to fire a single shot from your firearm, however it is almost certain that you will at some point have to get up-close and personal with someone who decides he doesn’t like your client very much. In cases like this, you should be prepared to meet the attack with not only effective self defense counter-measures but a sound understanding of the human body and the knowledge to end the attack quickly and effectively.

Enter Defanging the Snake:

Question: What would you do if someone suddenly threw a poisonous snake at you or any snake for that matter? Most sane people would jump back in fear of being bitten, right? Now take that same snake and break off his fangs. Would you now jump at having this fangless snake thrown at you now? Most likely not. This is because the snakes bite is now useless. We know that a snake’s bite can be lethal and the fear of dying from a snake bite automatically puts us on the defensive as it raises blood pressure and adrenaline.

However, a poisonous snake that cannot deliver his venom is in fact useless and ineffective to say the least. This is because a snake’s primary weapon is his fangs.
In regards to close quarter combat, humans are the same. Man has 5 primary fighting weapons or fangs: His two arms, two legs and his head. Each arm is capable of delivering strikes, grabbing, and choking, the legs can deliver powerful kicks, stomps, and sweeps, and the head is capable of delivering incapacitating head butts and bites.

As with the snake, man can be defanged as well. Man’s primary weapons are his arms/hands, so the focus should be on destroying these weapons and rendering them useless. We can accomplish this through “limb destruction” by breaking the wrist and/or fingers of the hand. We can also break the arm at the elbow or dislocate the shoulder. If your opponent has a broken wrist or fingers, he simply cannot make a fist, and he certainly can’t strike you, for the pain would be too great and his strike ineffective.

The legs can be neutralized by dislocating the patella or knee cap, breaking the leg at the knee joint or hyper-extending the knee causing extensive ligament and tendon damage, breaking the ankle or small bones of the instep and foot or cutting the Achilles tendon. The head itself contains the control center of the body, the brain, which is protected by the cranium or skull. The target point is not the skull itself, but the side of the head or temple area, the weakest point of the skull.

The jaw which operates on a hinge joint can easily be broken, making a bite from your opponent impossible and very capable of causing a knockout. Each weapon or fang that you take away from your opponent decreases his ability to fight effectively, thus increasing your chances of survival.  Defanging or Limb Destruction is an art in and of itself. It is quick and effective, no matter the size or skill level of your opponent; once the limbs are destroyed they become ineffective, through bone fracture, torn ligaments, bruised or torn muscle and nerve damage. How many pro football players have you seen go down on the field from a knee injury? Or a professional boxer get knocked out from a well placed strike to the jaw or side of the head?

These are professional athletes that are use to this type of punishment, yet they still go down.  The goal of attacking the limbs or other vital points of the body is to make your opponent or attacker stop what he is doing.

There are three ways to accomplish this:

1.    Make the attacker lose his concentration. If he stops thinking about striking you, he will stop trying to strike you.

2.    Interfere with Neuro-muscular control over his body. If he has a bruised nerve or muscle in his forearm, he cannot effectively make a fist, thus he cannot strike you.

3.    Destroy the integrity of his body. If his arm, wrist, fingers, hand or clavicle (collar bone) is broken, (because of the extreme pain associated with the injury) he won’t try to hit you whether he can form a fist or not.

The clavicle or collar bone is also a very effective target. If one clavicle is broken, both arms cannot function properly. The pain of a broken clavicle is so intense that trying to use the other arm is virtually impossible without increasing the pain ten-fold! I know this personal from experience, having broken my right clavicle playing football back in high school. Both arms become totally ineffective. A well placed hammer strike to the clavicle can fracture it, destroying the integrity of your opponent’s body.

The body is only as strong as its weakest link. Joints are generally weak. Held together by muscle, tendon and ligaments. The knee joint for example is considered one of the strongest joints in the body, yet one of the weakest. This is because the knee joints support most all of the body’s weight and therefore must be strong enough to support this weight, however the knee can be easily broken or dislocated by striking the knee from the inside, outside or the front, causing immediate incapacitation.

Before the confrontation begins, you should quickly assess your opponent, sizing him up for the tactics that you will employ. Notice the way he stands, his arm position, leg position, his size, his build, his confidence level, his focus (is he totally focused on you or is his mind and focus wandering), all of which can be assessed within a matter of seconds.

The Proper Mindset:

To be an effective fighter, you must posses a mindset that will allow you to break through intimidation, fear of injury, fear of being defeated and the psychological effect of actually breaking the bone of an arm, crushing a trachea or putting your finger through an eye-socket. Therefore you must first rid yourself of any deep seated sympathy or pity you may have for your opponent, your humanitarian side; and no longer look at your opponent as being human, but instead – a Target.

A target that must be destroyed. Mike Tyson displayed this same mindset in his fights. As Tyson approached the ring fear flooded his mind, fear of his opponent, fear of losing, fear of disappointing his friends and fans; this was Tyson’s way of giving respect to his opponent, however, as he got closer to the ring, his confidence surged, as he entered the ring, now sees his opponent as a “Target” invading his space, his ring, his world. He never loses eye contact with is opponent, his confidence superior to his opponents – the result – knockout! Most of Tyson’s fights were won before he ever stepped into the ring. Psychologically speaking, his opponents were scared to death due to Mike’s reputation, fight record, power, mindset and demeanor in the ring.

Assessing Your Target:

You should already have your opponent sized up before the first strike is thrown. Once the attack starts, you are already one to two steps ahead of him. Multiple follow-up strikes should be employed to ensure quick incapacitation, while keeping your opponent off balance (mentally and physically, and on the defense. As the confrontation starts to build, your mind is a high speed computer, quickly assessing vital targets, weak points and exit routes, if it becomes necessary for you to escape.

When facing your opponent, never focus in on any specific part of his body, this includes his eyes. When you focus on one single point, you miss all others. For example, while focusing on his eyes, he kicks you in the shin. The key here is to look at your opponent, and see everything. You must see the whole forest and not just the tree. You must see all of his weapons from head to toe, and be ready to answer any weapons being thrown at you.

Those who are skilled in combat do not become angered,
Those who are skilled at winning do not become afraid,
Thus the wise win before the fight, while the ignorant fight to win.

Dr. Holifield has over 40 years martial arts experience. He is the president and founder IAEPA and the Sikaron Karate Federation and holds black belts in Judo (3rd Dan), Hapkido (6th Dan) and Grandmaster rank of 10th Dan in Sikaron Karate. He is the former Chief Combatives Instructor to the United States Army and is featured in “Combative Masters of the 21st Century” Lulu Press.

  • Master Fred W. Waters Jr.

    Right on Dr. Holifield, this is a very good way to take out the attacker, win the fight before you fight.
    We have the same ideas on taking out an attacker. I use food as an example when I teach to show how I look at a person when going into the attack mode. You look at them and surgically remove them from your space. In other words they are like a cheap steak, before you can cook it and eat it you must tenderize the steak. You must take out all limbs and eyes to ensure that you will not be harmed. You have to break down your attacker piece by piece, because you cannot stuff a 20 once steak in your mouth and swallow it, you have to cut small pieces to eat it.
    Not to steal your thunder brother, but I like the real talk on self defense and your telling it the way it should be taught.

    Take care my friend, your friend up North.

    Master Fred W. Waters Jr.
    PO BOX 60365
    HARRISBURG, PA 17106
    717 657-8397

  • Six

    Well said Doc (Sensei)! Defang the snake and they are no longer dangerous. EP agents should take the time to learn the human body just like you study up on the laws in the states you are traveling to. Learn both vital points and pressure points. In traditional self defense you are often taught to stop the attack and run. Obviously we cannot leave our client so we must learn to be efficient in dealing with a motivated adversary. If you are not prepared to cause an injury as Doc points out you may not disrupt the motivation of the attacker. The body can withstand a lot of non specific trauma, but it doesn’t do well with focused aggression. It is often through pain compliance caused by injury that allows us to deal with larger, faster, stronger attackers. I have a very simple philosophy – put something hard on something soft. It doesn’t take much strength to break a finger, put a thumb in someone’s eye or crush a trachea (just make sure the action is consistent with the law). Disrupt the vision, disrupt breathing, or disrupt the balance. Any combination of the above is good for you and bad for him.

  • Nikida

    Well said gentlemen!
    Just to add on to all stated above. Netualize the threat! As stated by Prof Holifield. Take the legs take the fight. He’s no longer moble…he’s no longer a threat.
    Let me share with you all the secert of life…no breathe! No life! Good point Six disrupt the breathing…disrupt the balance of the attack or threat.
    Good point all well stated

    Nikida SSCPO-SJ1
    Second Shadow Close Protection Services

  • James Bednash

    Dr. Holifield,

    Outstanding article due to the fact you explained de fanging the snake does not work without having the proper mindset or “killer instinct”. I applaud your courage for making this statement in this era of political correctness.

    As you say, to think of your adversary as any thing more than a “target” in a high risk situation, is a recipe for diaster.


  • Alex

    Interesting article and hugely helpful in many ways. However, as a practicing filipino martial artist for 20 years, I’d like to shed some further light on this defang the snake concept, based on my personal experiences dealing with edged weapons, sticks and snakes.

    Firstly, it is often thrown about like a catchall technique that will solve all your problems. IT will if you get it right; then there is the felled weapon to consider: Is it duct taped to his hand? Do you miscalculate and slice your own arm? do you grab it? do you leave it? do his buddies grab itoff the ground? Do you knock him down and then he picks it up again? It is far more complex circumstance with other considerations.

    To use the Dr’s example of an actual serpent; well I have one as a pet, and if someone threw one at me as an attack, I would be mildly surprised but not unaccustomed to seeing it. I play combat games with mine and am used to seeing the body movements – and, even if it were ‘defanged (somehow) the sight of a mid-air twirling serpent would still make someone flinch. This analogy speaks to the concept of a stick or knife coming at you; it is almost impossible to ‘defang’ accurately in a spontaneous attack. If you try actual full contact stickfighting, youll see that, along with ‘disarms’ this is rare, and you shouldn’t go looking for it; if it happens, all the better.

    Not only is it near impossible to get close to the snake’s mouth (humans arm) to break out its teeth (disarm the weapon), it is still dangerous. My “harmless’ non venomous corn snake is about 4 feet long and it is still harrowing when he wraps himself around my wrist and squeezes. Larger constrictors have the capability of exerting pressure equal to that of a bus being parked on your chest, and, even more daunting, is that they can control that pressure, inches at a time. When I try and peel my snake’s tail off, he merely lets me do it…and squeezes elsewhere. It would be like a 120 lb weight being slowly rolled down from your bicep to your wrist. So you might be able to ‘snap off a fang’ but you’re still done. Plus its hard not be intimidated by those little black unmoving, unblinking, emotionless eyes.

    Like a human attack there are other limbs coming at you, its yet another thing to deal with; the defanging’ is merely a step in the evolution of the fight, not an end….with luck maybe it could be.

    Just my 2 cents.
    thanks all

  • Dr. L.C. Holifield

    Thank you Alex for your comments, however I would like to clarify something in regards to “Defanging” and its application to the human body. You mention near the end of your comment(s) “So you might be able to snap off a fang, but your still not done”
    On the contrary, I can guarantee you that once your right clavicle (collar bone) is broken, not only would the right arm (fang) be useless – the left arm (fang) would be useless as well. Being a snake owner yourself and being used to handling your snake as well as possibly other snakes, it is understandable that your “mindset” in dealing with a snake being thrown at you would be less threatening to (you), however, keep in mind that most people do not have snakes as pets and are not as comfortable around snakes as you are. Most people fear snakes as well as their bite. The defanging of the snake and its application to unarmed self defense is merely to illustrate the taking away of primary weapons. Eventhough a “fangless” snake may wrap his body around one’s arm and squeeze, a human (attacker) with a broken limb (defang) and severe nerve damage might find it difficult to push an “effective” attack. One another note, at the beginning of your 4th paragraph you mention that it is nearly impossible to get close to the “Human Arm” relating to the “Snakes Mouth”. Again let me comment – trying to break the fangs of a “striking” snake in relation to breaking the arm, fingers, or wrist of an attacking punch being throw at you are two completely different senarios. In short, for example, if I were in a fight situation, in order for my attacker to cause physical harm to me, he has to come to me. In order for him to strike me, he has to “give me” one of his weapons or fangs. When he does this, it will not be given back in the same condition it was before the attack. The limb (fang) will be destroyed. The art of Limb Destruction is simple, damage the limb (fang)to the point it is ineffective and useless. As other limbs and joints are destroyed or dislocated ie: legs, knees, hands, wrist, fingers, toes, feet, ankles, elbows, jaw and shoulder – the attacker on the receiving end loses his ability to effectively continue the fight without causing severe self inflicted pain and further damage to his limbs. End of Fight.

  • Doc Rogers

    Dr. Holifield, great article. I learned alot from it, Sir. Keep safe and God speed.



  • Ron

    I have to disagree about the defanged snake. If you put one in a jar and hold your hand to the jar, Almost anyone will move their hand regardless of the barrier. It is animal instinct set deep within your DNA. Fight or flight, most will choose flight in the animal kingdom, again it has the best possible conclusion unless they can catch you.

    To do the harm you are talking about, you would have to be in a life or death situation to start causing that kind of damage and be justified. In the ring it would not be tolerated.

    I can agree with these tactics in a life or death situation but most will never be in that position. Also if you are not already very well trained and practiced, you are not going to be breaking many bones.

    Growing up in street fighting there are other ways to even up the odds if you are in that kind of mortal combat. There are no fair fights under those circumstances. Much better to train yourself how almost anything can becoma a weapon.

    Now unless you are super bad, there is no way to judge a strangers capabilities. You would just be playing the odds at that point.

    I just don’t think there is anything practical in that defense to the average person. Just isn’t going to work as easily in a real life situation as it sounds. The other person is not going to sit there and let you take such clean shots unless they don’t know how to fight to begin with.

    If you want to survive a life or death situation, you want to gain all the advantage you can over the other person if you choose fight over flight.

    It may be good advice to a trained mortal combatant that can deliver the shots but in reality this scenario hardly ever exists.

    My BIL was the captain of the LSU karate team, he carries a gun. I asked him why he would carry a gun. His answer was, “there is always people badder then you, how can you know which ones they are”.

    I have seen some really tough people that would wreck anyone in the WEC. One guy, it took over a dozen cops with billy clubs to subdue. They never hurt him though. After they got him in a car. he kicked out the back window and they had to capture him all over again. In the end the cops were more damaged then he was.

    Real life is much different then what you describe.

  • Dr. L.C. Holifield

    Thank You Marion, Good to hear from you! Contact me sometime – lets talk.