Everyone knows that any fighter can win or lose on any given day. There is even a saying among fighters that there is always someone bigger and better. No one can consistently predict the outcome of two fighters facing each other who possess equal skill.
The Navy SEALS have the same problem. Men of all sizes, body types and different skill sets wish to enter SEAL training. They too have a difficult time consistently predicting who will be able to complete the brutal course. There are plenty of times that physically stronger trainees fail to complete training while a smaller trainee succeeds.
So while fighters have varied skills, it seems something more is at play here. Something unseen is driving the success of winning fights of all kinds. I became intrigued by this notion that we really don't understand the underlying mechanism that wins fights. So I stepped out of the fight world mentality and into my academic world searching for answers.
When you academically review the mountains of literature, it seems scholars, generals and war historians have been writing about this issue consistently in different forms. Yet the core ideas have never been distilled into a digestible form for fighters, as the concepts must be teased from ancient wisdom. If you read Sun Tzu, Miyamoto Musashi, Bruce Lee, General George Patton, Carl von Clausewitz, Massad Ayoob, Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Cooper or ancient texts from the Chinese I Ching to even the Judeo-Christian Bible, the idea of what it takes to win is embedded in the philosophy of many texts for centuries. Over time you notice a common theme begins to emerge.
It seems winning fights share a common formula despite differences in fighter size, skill, training or even scale. When you understand this common thread it changes your outlook on fights forever.
Fortitude, Discipline, and Commitment
It seems fighters know what to do and how to do it. That's called technique. Techniques teach how a fight is won. But if you want to know why fights are won then you have to understand principles.
If fighters only learn technique, then they are simply training how to move their body. However, principles are what move a fighter's mind and soul. Principles like fortitude, discipline and commitment are at the very heart of winning. But there are more important reasons for learning principles than just winning a fight.
Because all fighters regardless of their purpose in fighting must employ the same basic principles such as fierceness, power and lethality to win, it takes broader principles such as honor and integrity in order to distinguish a warrior from a thug.
Knowing why to fight is as important as how to fight. Many times it is more important. Technique is simply an external skill. But principles are internal skill sets driven by motivation. So while technique is vitally important, the internal engine of principles drives winning.
Iraq had the fourth largest standing army in the world until the United States brought it quickly to its knees during the Gulf War. A supposedly strong Iraqi army should have been able to put up greater resistance even against the U.S. in those first few days of conflict. But the reason they didn't is that some experts believe Iraqi soldiers didn't have the will to fight. Many were conscripts and did not want to be fighting for a dictator.
Conversely, the Vietcong put up tremendous resistance in Vietnam despite stronger U.S. forces. The Vietcong had strong inner desires to repel foreign soldiers from their country and were unencumbered by the bureaucracy professional soldiers faced from other nations. Interestingly, their philosophy had much to do with their connection to being descendents of Confucius thought rather than simply Communist loyalties. After all, Ho Chi Minh and much of his staff were descendents of Confucian scholars but that's another story.
Unlike U.S. forces burdened with bureaucracy from Washington, the Vietnamese were moved by inner motivations without such restrictions. The warrior with fewer restrictions operates best. The guerrilla fighters had strong motivations and little bureaucracy.
This contrast in motivation repeats itself through history with the will to fight overriding other variables. Look no further than the Israeli Six-Day war. Many times, why armies are fighting are stronger predictors of success than how they fight. Understanding why you are fighting overpowers how to fight every time.
Originally trained as a biologist, it became apparent to me that a model referred to as the triune brain supports this thought that principles drive fights. The most external part of our brain is the cerebral neocortex and drives the ability to speak and engage in rational thought. Lower areas of the brain are responsible for emotion and referred to as the limbic system. But the most basic region of the brain is the basal ganglia, sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain. The most basic function of this lowest level of the brain is survival, aggression and instinct.
The middle part of the brain will sometimes lie to a fighter as it is based mostly on emotion and must have checks and balances with other parts of the brain. Winning involves utilizing the highest levels of our rational brain to reach deep into our most basic survival regions. Coupling the communication between these different parts of the brain without allowing one to completely override the other requires discipline and is a powerful skill. Tapping into the deepest part of our brain drives motivation, desire and behavior. We then rationalize and understand with more complex regions of our brains. Even with our middle brain that relies on emotion rather than linguistic components, we are able to feel if something isn't quite right. Techniques are complex skills that our outer brain understands. But the most primitive regions of our brain drive principles. Our inner brain drives behavior.
In 2006, the US Navy SEALS conducted a study titled, "Predictors of Success in Basic Underwater/SEAL (BUDS) Training." They were trying to solve this problem of predicting who could withstand the vigorous training, as external predictors were inconsistent. Researchers determined that one of the major predictors was mental toughness. Mental toughness was more accurate at predicting the successful completion of the most grueling training in the world than any other factor. It supported the cliché that it isn't the size of the dog in the fight, but the fight in the dog that counts.
Many other studies provided more supporting evidence regarding the importance of principles derived from mindset that experts had alluded to for centuries. Psychologist Angela Duckworth studied West Point cadets in 2004. She later wrote a book entitled, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, as a result of this research. She called the quality that determined success, grit. She found that grit trumps IQ and talent every time.
Even modern film depicts these same qualities needed to ultimately win fights. The Last Samurai, The Karate Kid, The Bourne Identity, Rudy, Star Wars and John Wick are just a few that depict the common theme of inner strength overcoming adversity.
Organizations from the CIA, US Marines to US Army Special Forces understand this view. I interviewed many of them. Groups like the Maori and Zulu also embody these warrior principles and have been feared fighters throughout time as a result.
In my book, Winning Fights: 12 Proven Principles for Winning on the street, in the ring, at life," I attempted to distill these findings. It isn't that they are novel insights. I simply attempt to codify thousands of years of writings, modern research, and interviews with warriors into a text that Kirkus Reviews calls, "A clear and strongly worded fighting manual in the long tradition of Sun Tzu." It is devoid of symbolic language common to ancient texts and even mixes modern day film, analogy and expert commentary for reference.
As a commissioner for a state boxing commission charged with writing the rules to insure the safety of combat sports such as mixed martial arts (MMA), I witness these principles in action at ringside. They are the same principles I pursued as a national martial arts competitor myself. Principles are simply a recurring theme defining who wins all types of conflict whether it is two fighters in a ring, lawyers arguing in a courtroom or armies facing each other on the field of battle.
Technique is important and technique is how fights are won. Good technique will create a good fighter.
But principles are why fights are won. Fighters who understand the difference become great.
Dr. Phillip Stephens is author of the book, "Winning Fights: 12 Proven Principles for Winning on the street, in the ring, at life." He is a black belt in Ketsugo Do Jujutsu with championship titles in self-defense tournament competition. He is a commissioner appointed to the North Carolina Boxing Commission, which regulates combat sports. Stephens practices emergency medicine as a physician assistant and holds a Doctorate in Health Science while teaching subjects such as research methodology and evidence based medicine at the university level.