Fighting and controlling aggression

Many neurological studies of boxers seem to have focused on sustained damage to the brain after a fighter has taken numerous hits to the head. While these studies are of great of significance, I think an equally important study would seek to determine how well fighters can control aggressive impulses. Controlling aggression is of extreme importance, and many styles attempt to discipline their fighters with this very tenant, after all, if aggression is not tempered in a fight with a worthy opponent, it puts the fighter at a disadvantage.

A person’s behavioral repertoire is engrained in their procedural memory, and so whether a person has spent years riding a bike, skiing, skateboarding or spelunking, the gradual fine-tuning of the actions that lead to an increased skill level (this is no doubt limited to the person’s biology) is also responsible for corresponding and subtle neurological changes. If a fighter has had to practice self-control, especially in the face of a fight, it is hard to imagine the brain not neurologically incorporating this into memory; many fighters have realized this in the sense that their style “becomes” them. The more you drill a particular response in the face of a particular stimulus, the more likely you are to elicit that response in the face of future occurrences of the same stimulus.

Fighting isn’t just a sequence of elicited responses, however. Fighters are continually strategizing and planning their moves. This necessitates an increased amount of activity in the frontal lobes, but begs the question, how much of controlling aggression is strategy? Is simply picking the right moment to throw a punch the same as controlling aggression, or is controlling aggression more about keeping rage and frustration in check? How wide is the gap between a violent outburst and a sparring session?

These are the kinds of questions I would like to explore.

2 thoughts on “Fighting and controlling aggression

  1. hellca

    In my opinion, choosing the right moment to throw a punch, and other similar scenarios are not the same as controlling aggression. John Koppenhaver (now known as Warmachine) is an mma fighter who has spent time in prison, and is currently in prison for offences directly related to him not controlling his aggression – he injured a bouncer, and hurt numerous people at a party – however, I would not say he is a particularly aggressive fighter in the cage though. Another similar example is Rampage Jackson.

    I am interested, do you train martial arts?


  2. Jack P Post author

    I trained in Wing Chun Kung Fu for about 6 years from my mid teens to early twenties. Before that I had practiced Judo, but I’ve always been a martial arts fan, and now a boxing fan (I still debate whether boxing is a martial art or not). I am now studying neuroscience and exploring aggression in fighters and martial artists, partly because one of the many claims made by these schools is that they help to discipline you and put you in control in potentially aggressive situations.

    Aggression has been broken down into instrumental and reactive aggression; instrumental is when you successfully plan and strategize and achieve a goal by using aggression, and reactive aggression is when your body is so “jacked up” in the face of a threat – breathing fast, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, and your only option is to fight (these clearly overlap). I ask the question, “Is simply picking the right moment to throw a punch the same as controlling aggression?” because it seems you’re in control, meaning that you haven’t become reactively aggressive, but you’re still instrumentally aggressive, because you’re planning to land a hard punch to your opponent’s jaw.

    One thing that really opened my eyes was a blog by the neuroscientist Sam Harris ( This blog contains two videos; one where a Japanese Aikido master is with his students, and another when the master is fighting a non-student. It appears that the master has simply trained his students in some kind of dance where he does not even touch them to take them down, but when faced by a non-student, this master gets a rude awakening.

    It is my opinion that self-defense needs to be re-evaluated. It is often the case that self defense is confronting violence and using violence back at your aggressor to neutralize the severity of their attack (not a magic series of moves where you put them on the floor – maybe a minority of these cases, but unlikely). The more you train in self-defense, too, the more likely the law will not allow you a “self defense” case if you are put on trial for defending yourself, because you are deemed more in control – the more in control you are, the more you knew how to hurt your aggressor – which isn’t as defensible.

    That’s my two cents, anyway. Thank you for the MMA references. It’s always interesting to study these kinds of fighters.



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