Startle Flinch and Muhammad Ali

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, without quite finding the proper way to express it. Luckily, fellow PDR Coach Jake Steinmann did it for me.

But that comes later.

An older gentleman started a conversation with me a few weeks ago and, after a bit, I told him that I was a self defense coach*.

It turns out he was a lifelong martial artist and K-1 competitor. We spoke about our different experiences, and I began to explain the SPEAR system to him, the notion that your body is genetically wired to flinch and the fastest, most effective way of defending yourself involves converting that flinch into combative action. But, being a lifelong traditional martial artist and, since I look like I’m 12, he decided to start lecturing me.

“I don’t flinch,” he began. “If someone attacks me, I block and counter simultaneously, instantly.”

And perhaps that’s true. I find it highly unlikely, but who knows? I certainly didn’t try to test it. So, after 40 years of training, maybe his instincts were so finely tuned that nothing ever surprised him. That raises the question of how anyone would ever get the chance to attack him in the first place, but is beside the point, I suppose.

The point is, most of us don’t have those instincts. Most of us get scared of things, and when we do, we flinch.

Here’s an article written by PDR Coach Jake Steinmann that just explores that point in an awesome way.  ”Because if Muhammad Ali can get ambushed, you can too. It’s as simple as that.”

*I prefer the word “coach” over “teacher” or “instructor”, as it seems to lead more naturally to the notion that we are all already fully capable of our own defense – we just need some practice.


Coach Blauer posted a fascinating video clip on Facebook of a conversation between Muhammad Ali and Freddie Starr. While the clip is worth watching just for the humor value, there’s also a wealth of useful information in here for those interested in personal protection/self-defense.

Physiology Rules
Look at the final movement of Starr’s routine, when he startles Ali (around 4:40). If you isolated just that movement, it looks very much like a boxer’s jab. A straight, linear blow directed at the head. It’s a blow that Ali has seen thousands, maybe millions of times before in the ring. And not only has he seen it, he’s parried, blocked, slipped, countered, and otherwise nullified it. So why was Freddie Starr, an actor with no particular knowledge or skill of boxing, able to make Ali react so violently to something he’d seen a thousand times before? Why didn’t Ali just slip, or bob-and-weave around the blow?

The answer lies in an understanding of how the human body-mind system works. All of Ali’s boxing skills, while undeniably impressive, are complex motor skills that require consent, preparation, and awareness to use. When those elements are lacking, the brain can’t and won’t access them. Instead, it defaults back to a primal startle flinch response designed to do one thing: protect the vital areas of the body at all costs.

That startle-flinch response is so powerful, so deeply ingrained, that it can override the training of one of the most skilled boxers ever to step into the ring. If Ali can be startled like that, doesn’t it follow that the rest of us could, particularly in a potentially violent confrontation, where the stakes are much higher, be startled in the same way?

This is the premise of the S.P.E.A.R. System–that physiology rules, and that we can use that physiology to our own benefit.

The Verbal Arsenal
There’s more going on here than just a validation of the startle-flinch response. There’s also some very interesting insights into the verbal aspect of confrontations as well.

Starr’s entire act here is, well, an act. Every word, every gesture is calculated to set Ali up for the final sucker punch. While Starr’s intentions are basically harmless (he’s just having fun clowning Ali), his methodology is not far different from that of a criminal seeking to ambush a potential victim.

Starr uses his story to draw Ali in, not only psychologically, but also physically. Watch as he tells the story; his voice lowers, causing Ali to lean closer to try and hear him. Starr leans closer in response, closing the distance between the two, which ultimately makes it easier for him to land his sucker punch. When Ali backs away at one point (intuitively sensing the danger, perhaps?), Starr carefully draws him back in, knowing that he’s already startled Ali once, and makes sure that Ali’s guard is back down before attacking.

Of course, this isn’t an ambush in a violent sense; Starr isn’t a criminal, and he didn’t hurt Ali at all. But the methodology that he uses is not so different from the one he might if he was trying to hurt Ali. And had he been trying, Ali would have started the fight from a very bad place.

In the Personal Defense Readiness System, we study and address these factors; not just the physical confrontation, but the verbal and psychological aspects as well. If you are seriously interested in self-defense, these elements must be present.

If Muhammad Ali can get ambushed, you can too. It’s as simple as that.


Find out more about about SPEAR and the PDR Team here.