The Art of Unarmed Self Defense


Knoxville may not be Gotham City, but serious threats lurk nonetheless. As an extreme example, in 2007 Channon Christian, a 21-year-old UT senior, and Christopher Newsom, her 23-year-old boyfriend, were carjacked, abducted, and brutally murdered. Although horrific violence may be uncommon in East Tennessee, the unfortunate fact is that murder is not. In fact, there were more killings in 2017 than in any year since 1998.

The point is not that we should live in fear. Rather, we should do something to mitigate danger. We do this to some degree when we install security systems, when we are selective about what we share on social media, when we keep our data safe with strong, unique passcodes. But too often we are completely unprepared when it comes to securing our own, physical person. “We insure ourselves against floods, and fires, and being struck by lightning, things that are most likely not going to happen in our lives,” says Terry Bullman, a self-defense instructor and father of two. “But when it comes to personal safety, most people are going to be in a situation in their lives in which they are going to need to know how to defend themselves or a loved one.”

Bullman is a double black belt in Krav Maga, the self-defense system used by the Israeli military. He explains, “The first level of self-defense is awareness, and that’s a huge problem with today’s society in general.” True enough. Look around at you. Whether you’re in the office, at a coffee shop or (frighteningly) on the highway, it’s likely you’ll see people absorbed by phone screens. Bullman points to the news video of a man in a L.A. suburb who was so enveloped in his phone that he nearly walks directly into a wild bear. This lack of presence is pervasive, and it enables criminals. For instance, had more people been aware of their surroundings, how likely is it that James Shaw Jr.—armed with a rifle and naked save a jacket—could have walked into an urban Waffle House in the middle of the day and killed four people? Of course, victims are never to blame; but had they been more aware, they may not have been victims.

Since as long as I can remember, I’ve had the habit, when in public areas, of always placing myself where I can monitor what’s going on around me. Bullman refers to this as finding the “combat seat,” and explains that it’s not about being Superman or thinking that, regardless of what threats may befall you, you’ll be able to thwart them. Rather, it’s about awareness. “If something is going to happen, I just want to know first,” he says.

Awareness goes beyond picking the booth with the best view at your lunchtime spot. The idea redounds on what you do, when you do it, and how you do it. For instance, should you go out for a jog on the greenway at dusk all alone? No. You should take a friend or pick a less dangerous time or go run on a treadmill at the gym. But if you are going to do it anyway, at least leave one earbud out so you’ll know if someone is coming up behind you. Likewise, if you leave your car at the pump to go inside—whether to pay or buy something or use the restroom—make sure to lock your doors. Bullman adds that when he walks into a public place, he looks at each person. “I’m not being weird. I just scan the room. It’s not that you can’t relax and have a good time. It just becomes part of your nature, and you don’t even realize you’re doing it. But you’re not oblivious to things going on around you.”



Photo by Hobe Brunson

If awareness is the first principle of self-defense, the first rule of self-defense is “never go to a secondary location.” This means that, “Wherever you’re assaulted or attacked, you have to put up your defense there. If you go to a secondary location, you onlyhave a 5 percent chance of surviving.”

But how are you going to actually defend yourself? Many who take self-defense seriously simply go get a permit to carry a firearm. “It’s ridiculous,” says

Bullman. “Most of them don’t actually carry. And if they do, they don’t carry with one in the chamber and the safety off. It’s in their glove box, and the bullets are somewhere else. Or it’s in the bottom of their purse. I’m a huge proponent of carrying. I carry, but it’s not enough.”

Being in shape is a great start, but this alone is not going to give you the tools you need to defend yourself in a high stress, life-or-death situation. Although some people are natural fighters, most people would simply freeze if someone pulled a gun or a knife on them.

This is where a self-

defense system such as Krav Maga comes in. “One of the reasons Krav Maga is so awesome is that it is developed by the Israeli Military. In Israel, all of the women serve two years in the military, so the system has to work as well for females as it does for males.” This means that a 100-lb. women, if properly trained, can learn to defend herself against a person twice her size. Even kids can learn it. Bullman’s youngest son started when he was four years old. “And if I had a daughter,” he adds, “she would be a bad@$$, for sure.”

Photo by Hobe Brunson

Anyone can learn the basics, and these can change a person in tremendous ways. Take, for instance, a participant in a Krav Maga retreat that Bullman recently held in Costa Rica. She had never done any sort of martial art and would go “exploring” a lot, which he soon realized was code for hiding out in the woods and smoking cigarettes. “She’s maybe 5’1” and less than 100 lbs. By the end of the week she was sparring with me. It’s not like she became a cage fighter, but her whole demeanor changed.” Not only was she repelling attacks: a month after the retreat, her husband thanked Bullman and reported that she hadn’t smoked a cigarette since returning.

In order to be useful, self-defense training must do more than show you what to do in a hypothetical situation. Not only must you know the moves, but you must practice them under the intense pressure of your adrenaline-infused stress response. Bullman says “the best you’ll ever do in a real fight is probably worse than your worst day in the gym.” In one exercise, he pushes a student and instructs her to kick with whichever foot she can after regaining balance. He then repeats the exercise but first asks her to close her eyes. He warns her that he is about to push her—but he doesn’t. “I’ve had people fall forward in anticipation.” This is the body’s stress response kicking into high gear. If you’re unprepared, you’ll be incapable of handling yourself.

Incidentally, being physically and mentally prepared to defend yourself plays a massive role in preventing situations in which you might have to. Knowing that you can defend yourself changes how you carry yourself. It’s not about puffing your chest out and walking around like a penguin. Rather, knowing that you can defend yourself and your loved ones gives you an incredible feeling of peace and confidence. On the other hand, says Bullman, “Attackers and rapists know when someone is weak or meek or mild.” Vulnerability is visible to aggressors.

You should be prepared to do what you need to in order to survive. From Bullman’s perspective, this includes hitting first if necessary. “If the fight is inevitable, you start the fight. And you start the fight by putting your fingers in someone’s eyes or kicking them in the groin or punching them in the solar plexus—hitting them with something that gives you a chance to get away.”

This may indeed be a life-saver. On the other hand, it may increase your legal risk. Attorney T. Scott Jones concedes that “In the vast majority of confrontations, the person who swings first and swings hardest generally wins.” But he adds, “You’ve got to be careful. Is that self-defense? Words are never considered adequate provocation.” So, if someone cusses you out and you respond by hitting them, you’ve committed assault.

Of course, a jury must consider the context of the situation. “The standard used by juries is reasonable force,” explains Jones. “Say someone shoves you, or your spouse, or your brother. You can’t then pull out a gun and escalate the situation. That’s not reasonable self-defense.” Note, for instance, that a 300 lb. man is capable of restraining a 120-lb.-women. So, if 120 lb. women punches him and he responds by beating her up, that’s not reasonable self-defense.

Jones adds that whenever possible, “The prudent thing to do is to call the guys in blue who get paid to deal with this stuff.” But, “At the end of the day, it’s better to be tried by a jury of twelve of your peers than to be carried by six.”

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