Should You Punch First in Street Fights?

Street fights… if ever there was a form of fighting to avoid, this would be it. Why? Because street fights are generally no-holds barred, anything-goes deals which can, and do get out of hand very, very quickly.

man and boy throwing punches

These situations can be very intimidating but there’s a common question that you hear when these types of scenarios come up in conversation. Should you punch first?

Yes, you should probably punch first in a street fight. If you have no way out of a situation and a fight’s going to break out regardless of how you try to avoid it; it’s a good idea to hit first and hit hard to give yourself an edge in the confrontation.

The Myth about Striking First

There is an idea that you can’t strike first; you have to wait for your opponent to make the first move. This is all well and good – you don’t want to hurt anyone – but it can also get you hurt when your opponent blindsides you. This idea is also incorrect.

Contrary to popular belief, there is legal precedent stating that, under certain conditions, striking first is perfectly legal in a self-defense situation.

The key is reasonable doubt. You have to be able to persuade the legal system that what you did was the only thing that a reasonable person could do in your situation.

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Breaking Down a Confrontation

I’m sure we’ve all heard of unprovoked attacks by animals and/or people, right? In my mind, there’s no such thing.

A fight/confrontation doesn’t normally come out of nowhere, there has to be some sort of trigger – something that happened to light the proverbial fuse.

Now, keep in mind, I said these things don’t ‘normally’ happen without some sort of trigger. There are cases where people will just be looking for a fight for no reason at all.

So, if we’re not dealing with a crazy person who just attacks you because they can, how do we break down a confrontation. Well, I like to think there are three phases to every confrontation:

  1. Verbal
  2. Physical
  3. Legal

Phase 01: Verbal

The verbal phase is all the yelling, shoving, and profanity that occurs before the fists start flying. This is usually the starting point, and as long as you’re at this point, you can de-escalate the situation – something you should always try to do.

Phase 02: Physical

You’ve tried de-escalating the situation and avoiding trouble, it hasn’t worked. The fight has gone from being verbal to being physical. Kicking, punching, biting, etc. etc.

This is where you have to be careful that you don’t go beyond what’s considered reasonable when it comes to the use of force.

Phase 03: Legal

This is where the proverbial meat and potatoes are when it comes to fighting and/or self-defense. You have to be able to, if the case ends up in court, justify your actions to lawyers and/or law enforcement.

This means you have to comply with the legal standard of self-defense in your state/country – makes sense, right?

Self-defense in South Africa is a part of the English common law principle of private defense. This is defined as the defense of oneself, one’s interests, and/or the interests of others.

The requirement of self-defense is met by a violent/threatening, unlawful attack which is against your interests, and that you tried to stop that attack. Defensive actions must be necessary and aimed at your attacker.

The force used, and this is important all over the world in self-defense cases, the force used MUST be reasonable in relation to the attack.

If/when in court is that the amount of force you use can be turned around and used against you – this is especially true if you have some or other martial arts experience.

Now, there are instances of a gray area of sorts when it comes to specific cases (i.e. sexual assault) which are more traumatic than others. In these cases, charges may not be filed; One example of this is the case of Lion Mama.

Now, the USA has a few different self-defense laws – many of which will vary from state to state. This can make things a bit more…complicated than they need to be.

Duty to Retreat: A General Rule

One law that you’ll find pretty much everywhere is the ‘duty to retreat’ law. This requires you to attempt a getaway of sorts – avoid the confrontation by trying to escape first.

If you can’t get away – maybe you’re cornered or restrained – then use of force is considered acceptable to prevent bodily injury. Some of the states which have a duty to retreat law/policy in place are:

  • Arkansas
  • New York
  • Wisconsin
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Iowa
  • Nebraska

Some states will have duty to retreat laws and what’s known as ‘stand your ground’ laws – which sort of cancel each other out.

Stand Your Ground

The stand your ground law is simple enough: you are allowed to use force without first attempting a retreat.

Now, that doesn’t mean that duty to retreat isn’t present; some states still require an attempted retreat to occur but that’s mostly in cases pertaining to the use of deadly force. Some states that have good stand your ground laws include:

Oftentimes, a person who lives in a state with ‘stand your ground’ laws can avoid a trial altogether with a self-defense claim providing immunity from prosecution.

Castle Doctrine

Castle doctrine is like stand your ground laws, but is limited to your property/domain.

The idea is that if you’re in your home or place of employment you shouldn’t have to retreat to safety and so use of force to prevent injury and/or death is justified.

Favorable castle doctrine laws can be found in several states including:

  • Arizona
  • Alaska
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Georgia
  • Iowa
  • Connecticut

Now, like the stand your ground and duty to retreat laws, the castle doctrine laws will vary from state to state so that’s something to keep in mind.

Why Would You Punch First?

So, if it’s legal in some instances to punch first, why hesitate? Well, Dr. Mark Phillips of the YouTube channel Fight Science said it best:

Most people are good people, and they don’t want to hit first during a violent encounter. This could be because they’re scared of the other person or maybe they don’t want to get into legal trouble.

Dr. Mark Phillips

The main legal component to striking first in a fight is, as previously mentioned, reasonableness.

You have to be able to convince a jury that your actions were unavoidable and necessary for your own safety. There are a few other bits and pieces to it but that’s the main thing. Now, why would you punch first?

To quote Mike Tyson:

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

Mike Tyson

Punching first can throw your would-be attacker off guard and give you an edge in the fight. It also gives you a way – albeit a rather forceful one – to persuade them to go away.

You don’t want to be punched, so you punch them first to gain the advantage and, hopefully, get away relatively unscathed.


So, let’s recap, shall we?

  • Yes, you probably should punch first in a street fight, just don’t go overboard.
  • Striking first gives you an edge in the fight.
  • Striking first is allowed under specific circumstances provided you can persuade a jury (if it comes to that) that what you did was unavoidable and necessary for your safety.
  • The legal aspect of a confrontation is crucial.

I don’t know of anyone who would relish the idea of getting into a street fight. We all like to think we can handle it until it happens and then we don’t know what to do.

With that in mind, don’t get into street fights. It’s not worth it, all you’re going to do is cause yourself more headaches than necessary. If, for whatever reason, you do end up in a street fight, try to end it as quickly and cleanly as possible.

That’s all from me for now, thanks for reading and, as always, take care and stay safe. I’ll see you for the next one.

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