InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives Apr 2002
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Combat Poseur: How to Spot a Virtual Tough Guy

By Phil Elmore

Copyright © Phil Elmore 2002. All rights reserved.

Author's Note: Although this article was inspired by actual postings on public web forums, the suspected Virtual Tough Guy(s) in question have not been identified. There is no need to be inhumane about this, after all.
In some cases I have paraphrased or altered the quotes for the sake of context or spelling, or to better illustrate my point. It's also entirely possible that the original posters are completely earnest and honest -- but this does not change the fact that the italicized quotes I have included illustrate perfectly the warning signs I describe.

The Internet is a wonderful tool for the sharing and acquiring of knowledge on any number of subjects, and the martial arts, self-defense, and general "combatives" are no exception. There are many quality web sites and discussion forums available to the student of self-defense looking to learn while whiling away a few sedentary hours. Unfortunately, self-defense and the martial arts attract a particular breed of fraud in vast and limitless numbers, namely the Virtual Tough Guy (VTG). The VTG is:

What is important to the VTG, however, is that you be impressed with how very cool he is. More tenacious than a mall ninja, more impervious to reality than a mail-order Navy SEAL, the VTG needs you to acknowledge what a bad-ass he is. To accomplish this, he uses a variety of intellectually dishonest tools. Among these are: Fortunately, the average Web denizen can learn to spot the VTG's warning signs, and take with his posts the appropriate number of grains of salt.


Major Warning Signs

While these warning signs are by no means inclusive, and should not be used as the basis for an immediate declaration of VTG status when exhibited by a specific Internet forum participant, any individual who exhibits more than one or two of these signs should be viewed with skepticism and even suspicion. Chances are, he's a VTG -- and even if the information he imparts is not tactically, physically, or logistically unsound, he's using you to gratify his ego. Who wants to be used? Who enjoys condescension and pretense?

Look at Me, Look at Me

The VTG likes to start things off quickly, so he'll introduce himself to a forum by telling everyone things he assumes they must know, since obviously everyone is interested in his personal style and statistics. No one has asked, but the VTG is more than happy to march in and announce his credentials to those assembled.

Hi, I'm new here! Let me give you a little background. I'm 6', 215lbs, and built like a He-Man action figure. I'm old enough to have some experience, but too young to feel it yet.


The Mean Streets

The VTG invariably hails from a tough life on "the street," where he accumulated the majority of his deadly fighting experience. Often he will claim to be a former Bad Guy of some type, perhaps making references to the terrible temper he once possessed over which he's now managed to gain control. Much as half the Christians one meets in America Online's Christian chat rooms claim to be reformed Occultists, VTGs quite often claim to be criminals, thugs, and gang bangers who've seen the light. Of course, their brutish pasts would make such folk People With Whom You'd Best Not Trifle -- and that's what VTGs want you to think.

I used to be a real street punk, man. I was the kind of Bad Guy a lot of you are talking about defending yourselves against. I've matured a bit, and grown out of it, but I still remember what it was like to fight for fun. Over the years I picked a lot up from experience. Metal shows, brawls, and street fights over everything from girlfriends to articles of clothing. I studied a few martial arts, but mostly reading, and watching demonstrations. As for practice, I've sparred pretty much constantly for the last 15 years with whomever I happened to hang out with. I've had every style I've heard of used on me, and found out what works on them. I also compare notes a lot with my sparring partners.

Unverifiable Style

A known, quantifiable style is the mortal enemy of the VTG. Most self-defense and martial arts enthusiasts are familiar with the specifics of a variety of known styles and techniques. Thus if the VTG were to construct his fictitious background from these, his lack of real knowledge would quickly become obvious, and posters who tried to pin him down would be able to talk him into a corner from which he could not escape.

As a result, the VTG only rarely admits to a specific style background -- and if he does, the more obscure the style, the better. He may claim to have been taught by a single individual, a Wise Old Asian Master to rival the legendary greats of ancient Japan or China. Most often, though, he'll just tell you that his personal style is an eclectic mix of things he's picked up in his travels. For a lot of genuine martial artists and self-defense enthusiasts, this is true -- but VTGs only very rarely will be able to point to specific component styles. One in a thousand VTGs can try to explain how certain techniques from component styles would work together, but this, too, is rare.

I am not formally trained, but I have a lot of experience. This has evolved into my own personal self-defense style. Right off, I will point out that that is exactly what it is. A last resort survival method when I can't avoid a fight. I say this because I can't point to a style, and say "That's what I do." Most of you guys can pick karate, aikido, or wushu out of a lineup, and know where to look up the rest. This will just give you some idea of where I'm coming from. As always, it works for me, but your results may vary.

Those Who Can't Do...

With great regularity, VTGs will admit -- sometimes reluctantly -- that they also teach martial arts or self-defense. It's all very informal, of course, but the VTG wants you to know that he has helped others along the path of the true warrior. He is that good, after all -- why wouldn't someone with such skills impart them to willing students?

(Another variation on this theme is comprised of Scientific VTGs. Scientifics will claim to have performed some extensive and lengthy period of research into a given topic, and will make up facts and figures based on this personal and unverifiable body of evidence.)

In rare cases, VTGs will actually claim to be paid instructors actively teaching self-defense or the martial arts in some physical location. They normally will be very circumspect about this, for obvious reasons.

I've informally taught self-defense, but rather than teaching a system of dances, I basically show people how to develop their own skills. This is lumped under training, because I learn a lot teaching. I also pick up a lot from them, who generally know this or that in the other style.

Itís Only a Flesh Wound

Your average VTG has been there and done that, man. He's been shot, he's been stabbed, he's been cut. He's won countless fights and lost a few, too.

I've been in a lot of fights, and defended myself from all kinds of weapons. I've been shot once, stabbed once, and cut countless times.


I Don't Want to Brag, ButÖ

The VTG will tell you he's not bragging, perhaps even tell you he doesn't want to discuss his past. All the while he's doing this, he hopes you will want to know. And of course he is bragging, but his boasts are hidden behind a shield of false modesty.

Though I lack formal training, I have enough experience to beat some who do. I'm not bragging here. Just trying to get us all on the same frequency.

Questionable Information

The average VTG loves to be the center of attention, and he wants you to believe he's an expert. To that end he's constantly telling you what he thinks he knows. The problem is that he's basically ignorant -- and, as a result, he'll contradict himself. Apart from contradictions, he'll often dispense information that's just plain false or based on misconceptions. When this happens, other forum members are quick to smell blood.

You know, it doesn't take much to be lethal with a knife. It's lethal for you, so if you can manage not to cut yourself, and put it into the other guy, you win...

...I carry a knife, but it's primarily a tool. I will use it on someone in self-defense, but it's not my primary choice. My reasons are varied, but in short, a knife is very lethal, but lacks "stopping power".

Me Too, Me Too

A VTG can't stand it when he has nothing to add, fictitious or otherwise, to a conversation. As a result, the VTG often will chime in simply to agree with what's being said. This, by itself, doesn't really raise red flags, but often the VTG will behave as if he has discovered something new, when in fact he is simply restating the opinions of other participants in a discussion.

Yeah, I've done that. Oh, I agree. Yeah, that squares with my experience. Mmm, yes, I've taught that one to friends and had it used on me as well.


Can I Lick That Shoe, Sir?

A suspicious moderator is the bane of VTGs. The smart VTG knows this, and will do his best to ingratiate himself with those who have power and influence. The VTG knows that many moderators and administrators, being human, are susceptible to having their egos stroked. What he may not know is that some moderators see straight through this technique -- and feel nothing but contempt for it.

Wow! I wish I'd written that. That's one of the best quotes I've ever heard.


Legends in Their Own Minds

A VTG can't help but create fanciful stories that are increasingly over the top. As a result, he will describe behavior so absurd as to border on self-parody. This is easily spotted, and sometimes sounds the beginning of the spiral of self-destruction that is a VTG who has been caught in his web of tall tales.

Fighting with pool cues, eh? I've done that, but if memory serves, my technique was closer to Florentine sword and dagger. The lighter pointy end forward, and low to parry, and nice heavy end high to strike with. Of course, I couldn't cut, or stab, so the strikes where a lot less linear. It may sound kind of unorthodox, but I was outnumbered, so I wanted to put on as much show as I could.



Virtual Tough Guys are a minor nuisance. At least, they would seem so -- except that some people might take what they say seriously. Those who see through their facades become increasingly impatient with the utter hogwash spewed by VTGs, too, which ultimately decreases legitimate participants' enjoyment of a discussion. However, by keeping the warning signs in mind, you may be able to spot a VTG before he uses you (and those people whose virtual company you enjoy) to gratify his need for attention.

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About the Author

Phil Elmore is a technical writer, SciFi nerd, martial arts hobbyist, and edged weapons enthusiast living in New York State. He also fancies himself a comedian. His personal web page is

InYo Apr 2002