The Three Levels of Combat

The Three Levels of Combat

My eternal quest to find the parallels between real fighting and video games will go on for as long as I live because I have to compensate for my lack of skill and talent in both. My unwillingness to dedicate a significant amount of time in practicing either of them is equaled by my overwhelming need to seem knowledgeable and insightful by bridging the gap between them in increasingly convoluted ways. Let’s now talk about the three levels of combat.

The one common theme in both real fighting and fighting games is the belief that you need to have lightning-quick reactions in order to be good at either of them. This is not entirely false as you certainly need to be able to react to incoming attacks with relative ease to be able to fight competently. However, only reacting is actually a problem as it’s like playing chess without seeing more than one move ahead, which means you may be falling into the hands of a superior opponent. Only reacting means you don’t have foresight.

Beginners may not see right away what’s wrong with the approach of reacting to whatever is in the moment and not thinking further. However, if you’ve watched elite-level fighters seemingly dodge bullets and counter with precision or elite-level fighting game players pull miracles out of impossible odds, then you must know that those highlights were not only due to quick reactions, but also tons of preparation that result in skills akin to psychic abilities to the untrained eye.

I was inspired to write this blog post thanks to this video by the YouTube channel hard2hurt. Yes, I’m a fan of the bald, short, bearded, white guy deliberately pissing armchair coaches off with his hot takes.

Table of Contents

I. The Reactionary Gap
A. What is the Reactionary Gap?
B. Closing the Reactionary Gap
C. Common Applications of Reactionary Gap Concept

II. The Three Levels of Combat
A. Level 0: Ignoring
B. Level 1: Reacting
C. Level 2: Predicting
D. Level 3: Controlling

III. Conclusion
A. Level -1: Being an Idiot
B. Future Content: Going Up and Down the Levels
C. Future Content: The Concept Applied to Other Fields

EDIT(26OCT2022@8:45AM): I changed the name for level 3 from “forcing and baiting” to “controlling” as it describes both while also adding even more dimension. When you’re able to control your opponent’s thoughts and actions, as well as your environment, you can do so much more.

The Reactionary Gap

Before we get into the three levels of combat, let’s first talk about the elephant in the room, which is the naive belief of reactions being everything in fighting. You might as well fight in the dark since reactions alone can’t help you improve past swinging wildly into the wind and loudly blurting out “Where the hell did that come from?” every time you get countered for your troubles.

Do you know why there are a lot of so-called fake martial arts? Do you know why styles like aikido have become laughing stocks in recent decades? That’s because of the reactionary gap.

When you throw a leading attack, which is an attack you initiate first, you only go through three steps at most to do it — you see what you want to attack, your brain signals the body to attack, and then your body attacks.

But when you’re reacting, you have to go through four steps — you see an attack coming, your brain processes that input, your brain then signals the body to react, and then your body has to make the appropriate reaction to the incoming attack.

Here’s a video illustrating the concept of the reactionary gap with a knife attack, which gets even harder in close range. The demonstration starts at around 2:10.

Here’s another video that explains the concept in a more relatable context. This is an example of a demonstration that a lot of beginners tend to get from competent instructors. The demonstration and teaching method is just as important as the concept itself.

If you have to react to an attack, you’re already too slow. If you have to think, you’re already too late. The reactionary gap is one of the fundamental concepts in combat and is the reason why only defending and reacting is ill-advised when you find yourself in a real fight. It’s like thinking you’re Steven Seagal in Hard to Kill, but end up being that guy who gets knocked out in a WorldStarHipHop video.

Closing the Reactionary Gap

A good way to close that gap is knowing what kind of attack is headed your way in advance so you won’t have to think about it further and your body already knows how to react. That’s what training and preparation is for. That’s why fighters hit mitts and spar. It’s not just strengthening the body, but also sharpening the mind.

That’s also why pro fighters study their opponents’ past fights. With enough time and effort put into preparation and study, all that training and knowledge becomes embedded in the body as muscle memory, thus helping to close the reactionary gap. Of course, that edge can dull over time unless properly maintained. It’s still a perishable skill, after all.

This concept was taught to me over fifteen years ago when I formally started my martial arts training in Jeet Kune Do, and it still applies to this day as I try to pass off as a fight analyst. Understanding the reactionary gap is crucial to knowing whether something related to fighting is for real or absolutely bunk.

Common Application of Reactionary Gap Concept

If you search “reactionary gap” on Google, you’ll see that the concept is taught widely in police training. That makes sense since they have to deal with it every single day on the beat. Most dangerous engagements happen within 0-6 feet, so they have to make sure they gain control of the situation as much as possible while there’s a threat of a suspect drawing a weapon, attacking from behind, or so on.

Police Training Illustration of the Reactionary Gap

There’s also the idea of the “21-foot rule,” a common talking point in self-defense circles. It states that if someone armed with a gun is not at least 21 feet away from a knife attacker, the former wouldn’t be able to draw the gun in time to shoot the latter who’s running at them. Twenty-one feet isn’t as far away as you’d think it is, and it can be sprinted in less than a couple of seconds.

There have been quite a few attempts to test or debunk the 21-foot rule as a myth, but it’s mostly down to technicalities like whether the limit is exactly 21 feet, if the gunman has the gun already drawn or not, and so on. The 21-foot rule has pervaded throughout police, military, and self-defense training for decades; you can even find training videos from decades ago illustrating the concept.

Here’s a video I remember well that sought to test the 21-foot rule by having a knife expert (well-known FMA instructor) and a gun expert (actual operator, name withheld) exchange notes.

Since the police take it very seriously, it stands to reason that civilians who fancy themselves as martial artists and “self-defense experts” do as well. However, with styles like aikido, systema, classical wing chun kung fu, and so on still pervasive in traditional martial arts circles, it doesn’t look like it gets taken seriously enough.

I can keep talking about how “bullshido” keeps being sold even in this day and age, so I’ll leave that for another blog post. Unfortunately, that’s just how it is in martial arts. Much of the sorcery and superstition that gets peddled around by these charlatans is focused around being able to overcome and make irrelevant the reactionary gap through their style and training methods, which often involves no sparring or pressure testing.

The Three Levels of Combat

This is a concept that focuses on how a fighter addresses a resisting opponent. The main source of difficulty in fighting is how the opponent has the objective of hurting or neutralizing you, and it’s assumed that you have the same objective towards them as well. This dynamic informs the actions and decisions taken during a fight.

One fighter may want to passively neutralize the other, while the other desires to maim or kill. If your approach doesn’t correspond with theirs, it may not yield the desirable results.

Level 0: Ignoring

Let’s start off with the stupidest thing you can do in fighting, which is ignoring attacks. You visualize yourself as a tank, you believe you’re a tank, you take an attack like a tank, and you proceed to fight like a tank with a hole blown through it.

If it was a punch to the face, you may be a bit loopy if you have a granite chin or completely unconscious if you have a glass chin. If it was a knife, you’re bleeding on the sidewalk in front of a store with an irate owner who now has to make sure he’s not implicated in your murder.

This is what you do if you have never even so much as thought about any form of self-defense other than carrying a stun gun, pepper spray, or some other product that promises a one-size-fits-all solution to prevent being mugged, violated, or killed.

If your first destination for self-defense solutions is Amazon,, or some other online shopping site, then you’re likely at this level.

There are rare cases when you may deliberately ignore attacks simply to prove a point, to serve as catharsis for a frustrated individual, or simply because you’re looking to get hurt because you’re a masochist. In that case, that’s not a fight at all — a fight is only a fight if two people are in physical conflict. I mention that because that also involves ignoring attacks.

Level 1: Reacting

Most beginners start here. They don’t have much experience yet with combat, so they’re still getting used to having attacks coming at them. When they try to initiate their own attacks, they’re defended and resisted against. Then when the other guy fires back, they react to that attack, usually by blocking or moving away.

As explained with the reactionary gap, it’s a lot slower to react than to initiate. That means if you have to wait for something to come at you, you’re already likely to be too slow.

But let’s say you’re a cracked 17-year-old spaz gifted with lightning-quick reactions. You’re an absolute killer in Apex Legends and you can catch flies in mid-air with toothpicks. Even then, you’d be a lot faster initiating than reacting since you still have to process more information in reacting compared to initiating.

Moreover, you can actually do better by becoming more unpredictable by being non-telegraphic with your attacks and playing with broken rhythm. That then leads to the next level of combat.

When you first learn how to fight from competent instructors, they train you to have the correct reactions by teaching you the counters for each type of attack. You learn the cross counter against a jab, the inside slip left hook, and so on.

Level 2: Predicting

The next level is reached when you’ve attained proficiency in combat through sparring and fighting experience. You’ve become “defensively responsible”, which means you’re able to reliably not get hit. That’s the first proper step to learning how to fight — while offense is like walking and running, defense is learning how to stand up straight.

Over time, you’ll become more relaxed in the midst of pressure. You’re able to deal with the live energy of an opponent who’s trying to take your head off. You’re no longer flinching with every attack coming your way. Once you’ve become comfortable with that, you can then start reacting more quickly and efficiently. You then start seeing your opponent’s patterns.

With more experience, you’ll become more privy to the common patterns with different kinds of opponents. You can then figure out how to react against those patterns, and that’s when you’re able to predict their attacks. Knowing beforehand what they’re about to do before they do it lets you close that reactionary gap because you’re no longer just reacting — you’re predicting.

Level 3: Controlling

With even more sparring and fighting experience, you’re now able to react efficiently and predict your opponents’ movements and attacks with ease. Sparring becomes more fun, fighting feels like another day in the office, but they still excite you every time you glove up and go.

As you start to hit the proverbial “10,000 hours” with your martial arts practice, you then climb closer to the highest level of combat.

You can control your opponent through various ways, but the objective remains the same. You’re looking to make your opponent move the way you want them to and having them walk into your own attacks. Doing so not only lets you minimize damage done to you, but you also multiply the damage you do to them while also expending less energy.

Control allows you to limit your opponent’s options and force them to commit mistakes, like zugzwang in chess. It also allows you to bait them into attacking a certain way that you can then counter. Both avenues allow you to increase your chances of victory while also making you more efficient.

In Jeet Kune Do, you have progressive indirect attack (PIA) and attack by drawing (ABD) — two out of the five ways of attack according to Tao of Jeet Kune Do, being the hardest ones to master. They’re the most difficult because one forces and the other baits.

PIA is feinting to make an opponent defend one way while you attack a different spot, while ABD is baiting them to attack a certain way in order for you to land a specific counter.

A simple example of PIA is to attack the same area twice in a row, then switch it up in the third. You can throw a left hook to the head, then throw it again to the head, and then feint yet another left hook to the head — likely making the opponent overreact by raising their guard high — before throwing it to the liver.

A simple example of ABD is to drop your guard to expose your head. Perhaps you even lean in to entice your opponent to throw a punch right to your face. When you see the punch initiate, you then pull back, make the punch miss, and throw the counter. I encountered this in sparring as early as way back in 2007 when I first started training.

Since I refuse to link the most popular Jeet Kune Do videos illustrating these ideas, namely those by the notorious conman Dan Lok, here instead is a video by fight analyst Jack Slack explaining an adjacent concept of the three initiatives.

In order to land a successful delayed or simultaneous counter (and beyond that, interception), you’re no longer just reacting to their attacks or predicting their next move. You’re making them do certain things you want them to do, which you can then easily counter against. If you can practically mind control your opponent with a combination of prescience and subterfuge, you’re likely not just brawling or dancing around in there.

Combat mastery includes mastering your opponent, and nothing lets you do that more than practically playing them like a fiddle while expending as little energy as possible.


There’s also level -1, which is the person who doesn’t know what they’re doing. As the Mark Twain quote goes, “The best swordsman does not fear the second best swordsman; he fears the worst swordsman because there’s no telling what that idiot is going to do.” That’s why you can never underestimate your opponent since you can always get caught, especially by someone who doesn’t play by the same rules as you.

When it comes to fighting against someone you can’t predict or control, then you have to go back to the first level, which is reacting. That goes to show that even if the first level is said to be the lowest, it’s also not made irrelevant by your attainment of higher levels. If you’re unable to predict, force, or bait your opponent, then you’ll have to react to whatever they’re doing; or better yet, pre-emptively get to them before they get to you, either with an attack or through diplomatic means.  

I was going to add a part about the three levels of combat applied to other fields, but I’ll leave that for another blog post since I’ve already sat on this for far too long. I’ll end this here for now, but this is not the last blog post I’ll write on this subject. I find this particular topic quite interesting, and I would like to dive more into it in the foreseeable future.

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