Are There Rules in a Fistfight?

Are There Rules in a Fistfight?
Screenshot: Arthur/PBS, Fair Use

In spite of the many promises made by Hollywood movies, fistfights are almost never balletic exercises in controlled violence after which the winner walks away rubbing his bruised knuckles and looking like a badass. They’re usually terrifying, random encounters in which untrained, generally drunk combatants flail around until their friends pull them apart and the bouncer kicks them to the curb.

But do fistfights have rules? Should fistfights have rules? Is there an agreed-upon set of standards for how much violence is too much violence, and how much is just enough?

The first rule of Fight Club is that fighting is stupid

Never mind what Tyler Durden says; there is but one iron-clad rule of fist fighting: Do not get in a fistfight. Trained martial artists and your mum both agree on this. Avoid situations where there is likely to be violence. If you find yourself in such a situation, back down. Run away. Tell a hall monitor. Do whatever you can to get out of it, because going to jail, getting injured, or even dying over a parking space or a spilled drink is extremely stupid.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about what the rules and expectations are if you do get in a fistfight. The closest we have to a codified set of rules are the laws that apply to fighting in the streets (see below), but in the realm of the informal, there are competing philosophies as to the rules of street brawling.

Philosophy 1: There are no rules in a fistfight

Some maintain that once hands are thrown, all civility is gone, and you should go right for eye-gouges, crotch shots, strangleholds, and concealed weapons. This is one of the guiding principles behind Krav Maga, a form of self-defence training that emphasising finishing a fight as quickly and efficiently as possible by targeting the most vulnerable part of your opponent’s body. Practitioners of Krav Maga learn various techniques that could maim or kill opponents — even if they can’t totally train these techniques in a full-contact sense, lest they risk killing their sparring partners.

The problem with no-rules fighting is one of gauging appropriate response. Krav Maga was developed by Imi Lichtenfeld as a method to help protect Jews from Nazi militias in 1930s Czechoslovakia, so he was training for life-or-death hand-to-hand combat. A random bar fight rarely rises to that level — are you really ready to permanently injure or kill some arsehole who takes a cheap shot at you at a bar?

Instead of to-the-death combat, most fistfights involve a couple of drunk dudes puffing out their chests until someone takes a swing. They both roll around on the floor for a bit until a bouncer breaks it up and throws everyone out. This is not the kind of situation where anyone should be employing potentially deadly force, for both moral and legal reasons.

Philosophy 2: You shouldn’t fight dirty

Since most fights are “casual” physical altercations in which no one wants anyone else to die, are there rules? Maybe. There’s no codified set of procedures for street brawls, of course, but, like any group, “people who fight all the time” can develop a set of norms over time. These norms hold that certain kinds of tactics in a fight are not to be engaged in by honorable people. This could be escalating by using a weapon, or involving other people to help, or it could be kinds of attacks that are more likely to cause serious injury. These prohibited moves seem similar to the kinds of things you can’t do in a mixed martial arts match:

  • No headbutts.
  • No piledrivers.
  • No groin strikes.
  • No eye gouges.
  • No biting.
  • No fish-hooking.
  • No “12-6 elbow,” ie: Don’t bring your elbow straight down on an opponent.
  • No small joint manipulation, ie: Don’t try to break someone’s fingers.
  • No strikes to the back of the head or spine.
  • No stomps or soccer kicks to a downed opponent.
  • Don’t keep hitting someone who is incapacitated or otherwise has given up. (In MMA that would be enforced by a ref. In real life, by combatant’s own sense of restraint, I suppose.)

It seems strange that we would expect anyone to follow a set of rules when in a fight, but there are a ton of precedents. For instance, dueling: Duels to settle personal disputes date back to medieval Europe, and continued until the 1900s. They were highly ritualized, only practiced among the wealthy, and not usually fought to the death. The duelists’ “seconds” were on hand mainly to try to solve the conflict without the duel taking place. (Sometimes this didn’t work, and people died — see the famous musical about Hamilton, Alexander — but effort was made.)

What World War I trench warfare can teach us about fistfights

While the rules of a duel were agreed upon by both parties, even without explicit guidelines, mutually beneficially combat rules can come about organically. During World War I, for instance, a “live and let live” code developed among soldiers facing one another in trench warfare. To the consternation of commanders on both sides, if left to their own devices, soldiers often developed rules of equal reciprocity for attacks, signals for mutual cease-fires, and even displays of military prowess meant to symbolically represent attacks, so that no actual attack was needed. German snipers, for instance, reportedly fired until they’d cut a hole in walls, as if to say, “that could have been your skull.”

Only fight people you know really well

If you know the culture and norms of the person you’re fighting, then unwritten rules might apply, but this seems like a farfetched scenario for most of us. Fistfights are rare enough in 2022 that most of us haven’t developed a set of norms for how they should be conducted.

Since we can’t challenge people to duels with pistols or swords any more, and more of us don’t fight so often we already know what’s expected of us, we’re left with an lassie-faire, anything goes situation in which it doesn’t matter what you perceive the rules to be, as you’re at the mercy of your opponent’s interpretation of what’s acceptable. Even if you are going to keep to the Queensbury rules, your opponent might decide to pull out a knife, or have his buddies jump in if he starts losing.

Given this set of circumstances, an “anything goes” style could be seen as the best choice (besides not fighting in the first place) for “winning,” or just lowering your chance of serious injury. But that might not be how the law sees it.

The real “rules” of fistfights are determined by the law

In Washington State and Texas, mutual combat is not against the law, provided nothing gets broken, the peace isn’t disturbed, and the fight is overseen by a police officer. Within that framework, cops will not intervene unless one party indicates they no longer wish to fight or is seriously injured. In Oregon, mutual combat is explicitly illegal, unless it’s a licensed fight like a boxing or wrestling match.

In the rest of the United States, it’s a mixed bag. It’s obviously legal in most places to hold boxing matches or wrestling matches under the right conditions, but a fistfight is, for all reasonable purposes, illegal. The law doesn’t usually explicitly say the fight itself is a crime, but if you land a punch, you’ve probably committed assault, and you’ve probably disturbed the peace, and you could be charged with vandalism for smashing someone’s head through a window, or murder if they die from it.

You are, however, generally allowed to defend yourself against physical violence with force. In some places and in some circumstances, you can even use physical force if you feel threatened. Generally, though, the force you use to defend yourself has to be within reason. How that would work as far as making your case in court will involve many variables, but in general, if someone slaps you at a bar and you stab him in the heart, proving it was “self-defence” will be difficult.

Whether following unwritten fighting rules (maybe testifying “I stopped kicking him when I saw he was unconscious”) will elicit a judge’s sympathy when it’s time to decide on the length of your sentence will depend on the judge. But I wouldn’t count on it. “I showed restraint” could be met with “well, why didn’t you show restraint before you threw a punch?”

So you really shouldn’t get in a fight

For all reasonable intents and purposes, there are no rules in a fight against a stranger, because you can only control what you do. Engaging in a fight could get you injured or killed, and even if you win, you could be arrested and imprisoned. The possibility of one or all of these downsides occurring is high, should you choose to engage in a fistfight, so it’s really not likely to be worth it. (Also, unless you hang around with a bunch of immature 12-year-olds, no one is going to be impressed, either.)

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