Five Animal Fighting Theory

Shaolin Five Animals

by Punisher

Punisher: Five Animal Fighting Theory

Five Animal Fighting Theory

By me, Punisher


This article is an entry-level explanation of the fighting theory taught by my instructor, Trevor Haines, as interpreted by myself. I do not pretend to speak for my entire dojo, or Mr. Haines, and it is quite possible my interpretation of the theory may not be fully shared by my fellow students or my instructor. Although the name and some of the principles are influenced by the famed “Five Animals of Shaolin”, it does not claim to be an exact, or even accurate, portrayal of the Shaolin style of fighting. Nor does it claim to be completely original, or the only “correct” way to interpret fighting, or use the animals as metaphors for combat and strategy. It IS a comprehensive view of fighting as a whole, and was used to correctly predict the outcome of several of the first UFCs.

Part One: The Animal Order

The basis of the first part of the theory is that there is no one supreme form or style of combat. The theory divides combat strategy into five different categories and assigns an animal/element to act as a metaphor for each one. The structure is such that of the game “Rock, Scissors, Paper” with each strategy/animal having inherent strengths over another, as well limitations when facing a particular strategy/animal. The goal is to get people to be more well rounded, and at least examine, if not adopt methods of fighting that may differ from their own. What follows is a brief explanation of each animal and the theory and strategies involved. As stated before, no animal is considered to be superior over all others, and the order discussed is purely arbitrary.

Animal: Dragon
Element: Fire
Strong Against: Tiger
Weak Against: Leopard
Summary: Going with the flow and Sucking ’em In, Spitting ’em Out
Strategy: The Dragon is a primarily defensive animal and the strategy of the Dragon deals with the yielding to and redirection of committed force. While the element associated with the Dragon is Fire, for reasons that will be discussed later, the properties of the Dragon and similar of that of air, yielding to and flowing around anything that passes through it. The simplest application of Dragon strategy is to just get the hell out of the way, that is moving off of the line your opponent is attacking on. More refined, and risky, uses of Dragon strategy involve purposely leaving and opening and moving just enough to appear to be just out of reach of your attacker, thus giving him the illusion of impending success and the encouragement to continue his committed action. This continuation of the action is what allows the offensive side of the to Dragon manifest itself by either redirecting that energy in a different direction or exaggerating the original path of travel. This is often done with a push, sweep, or throw. The two aspects of the Dragon are like opposite poles of a magnet, one side draws energy in, often increasing in intensity as it draws near, while other repels that energy causing to fly away with an equal or greater force than was originally used to bring it close. Aikido is an example of a style that is known to often employ Dragon strategy. The Dragon is not self-propagating, meaning it requires the committed action of your opponent to be viable. The Dragon defeats the Tiger buy using the Tiger’s committed force against itself, but is defeated by the Leopard because of the absence of the committed action that sustains it.

Animal: Tiger
Element: Metal
Strong Against: Crane
Weak Against: Dragon
Summary: One Hit, One Kill
Strategy: The opposite of the Dragon, the Tiger is all about offense, strong offense. Tiger strategy emphasizes the proper sudden use of extreme committed force and importance of body structure and alignment. Simple forms of the Tiger included the brawler, who swings a wide haymaker at your head, intended solely to remove it from your body, but not all Tigers are wild and undisciplined. A trained Tiger can still move with tremendous committed force and remain on balance and in control of his body. The Tiger’s goals are to explode forward with your entire body when advancing and to cause the maximum damage possible with each individual strike. The Tiger subscribes to the “Freight Train” theory, meaning that once the opponent starts to retreat, he is in essence “stuck on the tracks” and will continue to retreat until he hits something or something hits him. The Tiger takes this opportunity to pour on the steam and increase his attack until he overcomes and mows down his opponent. The defense of the Tiger is just as offensive. Preferring to meet force with force the defensive Tiger’s motto is “Every block is a strike.” When attacked with a roundhouse punch, the Tiger will launch his arm like a Patriot Missile, with the intention of attacking the offending weapon and rendering it useless, or better yet use a committed, aligned counter attack, allowing the opponent’s choice of a circular motion to prompt a straight counter, resulting in the opponent impaling himself on the strike like and outreached sword or spear. The Tiger defeats the Crane by exploding through its pitiful attempts to keep distant, but is fooled by the elusiveness of the Dragon.

Animal: Crane
Element: Wood
Strong Against: Snake
Weak Against: Tiger
Summary: Play Keep Away
Strategy: As you have probably guessed, the Crane is another defensive animal. The main goal of the Crane is to maintain or increase the distance between you and your attacker, reasoning that if he can’t touch you, he can’t hurt you. One way to accomplish this is the full extension of the limbs during combat for long-range striking, particularly with your longest weapons, your legs. This is accompanied by the positioning of the body in such a way that the defensive weapon, your foot, is as far as possible away from the your vital targets, i.e. leaning backward. This puts a stress on balance and kicking. The Crane responds to short-range combat by unleashing a flurry of short-reaching but powerful strikes, such as knees and elbows. This flurry is intended to create enough breathing room for a quick escape, while NOT extending the limbs, in order to prevent the attacker from grappling. The two sides of the Crane are reminiscent of a magnificent bird unfurling its wings to display their span, and the sight of a farmer trying to catch and hold on to a chicken that doesn’t want to become dinner. The Crane defeats the Snake by staying out of reach of its fangs and fluttering away when the Snake tries to wrap around it. The Crane’s tendency to move directly away from an incoming threat makes it easy prey for the Tiger.

Animal: Snake
Element: Earth
Strong Against: Leopard
Weak Against: Crane
Summary: Poke `em and Choke ’em
Strategy: The Snake is “middle child” of the Five Animal Fighting Theory and in a way is the most diverse. The Snake can be offensive or defensive, and uses both striking and grappling. The striking aspect, or viper, part of the Snake is like the Tiger, in that it seeks to cause the most damage possible with a single strike, but instead of using the brute force of the Tiger the Snake stresses targeting and weaponry to deliver a focused strike to a vital, and usually small, area, to get the most bang for the buck. Because of the focus on targeting and weaponry the strike is often a straight, piercing action in which a limb moves forward but the body does not. This allows the Snake to be direct and quick while limiting his vulnerability to counter attack. This obviously has benefits in both offense and defense, allowing for a quick preemptive strike or a sudden, devastating counter. The grappling, or constrictor, aspect of the Snake is just as versatile. This part of the Snake is about assuming a position of control that allows you to put “The Big Squeeze” on your opponent. This is clearly seen when people are rolling around on the ground trying to secure a lock, hold, or choke. There is a constant offensive/defensive dynamic there where each party is trying executing their technique while at the same time preventing their opponent from doing the same. This dynamic occurs in other forms of combat, but the close proximity and constant contact blurs the lines and brings this to its highest level. This necessitates the Snake to be very focused and not easily distracted by his opponent, while remaining sensitive to where his body is and what is being done to it. The constricting aspect of the snake can be use defensively at a distance by trapping and tying up an attacking limb or riding the limb back to its source. The Snake defeats the Leopard by either delivering an encounter ending strike before sustaining too much damage, or by constricting around the Leopard and taking away its constant motion. The Snake is ineffective against the Crane, because it can’t close the distance to employ its techniques.

Animal: Leopard
Element: Water
Strong Against: Dragon
Weak Against: Snake
Summary: Float like a Butterfly, Sting Like 1,000 Bees or Speed Kills
Strategy: Like the Tiger, the Leopard is an offensive animal. The Leopard uses speed and angulation to bury his opponent in a multitude of attacks that seemingly hit all at the same time, or at least in a nonstop rapid-fire barrage. The fact that each individual attack is much weaker than someone using Tiger is balanced with the thought that the effect of the actions combined simultaneously is greater than the sum of the effects felt if each action were separate. It is also thought that by using Leopard, you refrain from putting all your eggs in one basket and if you miss with one strike it’s no big deal because there are 100 more on the way. Leopard strategy deals with more than just being physically fast, by going further to acknowledge that speed is relative. The Leopard increases its apparent, or perceived, speed by attacking on different and often obscure angles. The phrase “He came out of nowhere” is often combined “It all happened so fast”. A skilled fighter using Leopard will use both hands and feet to attack multiple targets at once using every possible linear and circular path, up, down, left, and right, snapping out and darting back only be sent out again on another route. The intended result is an opponent that can’t defend everywhere at once and instead just freezes and does nothing. This is part of the defensive strategy of the Leopard, as well as not staying in one place for longer than a blink of an eye and using shifting body movements and footwork to both evade and set up the next wave of strikes. In actuality, the defense of the Leopard is a secondary byproduct of its overwhelming, ever-changing application of offense. Because the Leopard does not commit itself to any one action, it can make a yummy treat out of the Dragon. The Leopard’s reliance on multiple attacks and constant motion make it vulnerable to the vital strike and grappling attributes of the Snake.

What I have just described is the “animal” or controlling order of combat. The “animals” are theoretical extremes, and there is no martial art or action that I know of that is 100% Tiger, or 100% Snake. Often single arts have taken bits and pieces of several “animals” to make their style more effective. For example, American Kenpo if primarily Leopard strategy with some vital Snake mixed in and Aikido uses the yielding of the Dragon and the locking and sensitivity of the constricting Snake. The list goes on and on. It is not uncommon for a fighter to change “animals” as a fight progresses. Strikers often start out overly defensive, or least are unwilling to commit the full force of their blows early in a fight, instead relying of fast, noncommittal techniques and maintaining a distance while looking for a weakness, a combination of Crane and Leopard. After a certain amount of “feeling out”, the striker may switch to more of a Tiger. This switch takes time and good grappling styles that combine the grappling of the Snake and the committed charge of the Tiger to close the distance can take advantage of this. This was illustrated by the dominance of Royce Gracie in the early UFCs. Even simple actions can be broken down into separate “animal” components. For example the act of slipping a punch and using your opponent’s momentum to add to the force of your simultaneous counter is an amalgamation of Dragon defense and Tiger offense.

Part 2: The Elemental Order

The second part of Five Animal Fighting Theory deals with how to use the controlling, or animal, order in combat and is called the creative, or elemental, order. While the elements associated with the animals are consistent with the controlling order, (Metal chops Wood, Water extinguishes Fire, Earth dams Water, etc…) the elemental order states that the destruction of one element, or failure of a one strategy, gives raise to another. The basis behind theory is that you only have power, or control, over your own actions, and can not rely on your opponent to have less skill than you in any given area. You need to be adaptable. This all boils down to, if what you are doing isn’t working, you need to switch strategies, and the elemental order is a mnemonic device that helps you chose what to try next. Here is a brief description of the elemental/creative order. I’ll warn you ahead of time, some of these aren’t really scientifically accurate, and remind you they are just ways to remember the theory.

Fire begets Earth
Analogy: As fire burns it makes ashes, or earth.
Example: If your trying Dragon strategy and getting hurt, try something Snake-like

Earth begets Metal
Analogy: The destruction of the earth through mining produces metal.
Example: If you’re trying to grapple but can’t get close because you opponent is always running away (Crane), charge him (Tiger).

Metal begets Water
Analogy: This one is the hardest to swallow if you have a scientific mind. The story is that ancient people got the whole thing about water rusting metal backward. Someone saw droplets of condensation form on some metal due to a temperature change and assumed the water came from inside the metal. They then decided that since metal was plunged repeatedly into water during forging to harden it, that this “dehydration” of the metal was a sign of it’s weakening, i.e. rust. So the claim is that ancient swordsman oiled their blades and kept them in scabbards not to keep water out, but to keep the water “within” the blade inside. Sounds like complete bullshido to me, and may be 100% false, but like it said, it’s only meant to help you remember.
Example: If you’re stumbling around off balance because you’re trying to kill the guy with one blow (Tiger), take it down a notch and switch to quick, less committal strikes (Leopard).

Water begets Wood
Analogy: This one is a lot easier to follow. As Water is absorbed by the roots, Wood grows.
Example: If you your quick movements (Leopard) are being tied up in a clinch, break free and create some distance (Crane).

Wood begets Fire
Analogy: Another no-brainer. The theory is people thought that Fire was contained inside of Wood and that as Wood was destroyed Fire sprung forth. Whatever. Bottom line, Wood makes Fire.
Example: You’re retreating straight back (Crane) and your opponent is quickly gaining on you, get of the line, to step the side, and let him run past you (Dragon) and into something else.


The animal order describes what works against what in combat. It only takes into account strategy, and assumes that all other factors like skill level, physical attributes, and luck are equal. Certainly a highly skilled, physically robust Crane can defeat an old and toothless Tiger. It is possible for styles to clash outside the order, for example a Leopard can fight a Tiger or a Crane, but in these cases neither side is thought to have a strong strategic advantage over the other. Here is a quick review of the controlling animal order:

Dragons eat Tigers, Tigers eat Cranes, Cranes eat Snakes, Snakes eat Leopards, and Leopards eat Dragons.

The elemental order is a way to apply the animal order in combat, or “What to do when your ass is being kicked.” If the strategy you are employing that the time is working out just fine, there is no need to change, just keep doing what your doing. But, if your opponent is beating you at your own game, or is using a strategy that is advantageous over yours, the elemental order supplies a method that will hopefully give you a strategic advantage and turn things around. Here is a quick review of the creative elemental order.

Fire makes Earth, Earth makes Metal, Metal makes Water (I know, I know), Water makes Wood, and Wood Makes Fire.


Five Animal Fighting Theory is just that, a theory. It is not meant to be cold, hard fact and if it doesn’t organize your thoughts and help you in the gym, don’t use it. While the benefits of cross training are well known and widely accepted, it is frankly impossible to perfect at everything, and it is documented an attempt to cross train in several different areas will hamper your ability to become truly great in one. In addition, reality dictates that a fighter’s methods are going to be predispositioned by both his body type and personal preferences, and even my instructor admits that the training at his dojo is not 100% in accordance with the theory, citing his lack of experience in grappling and the lack of the inclusion a of highly refined ground game in our training. It is important to note that groundwork is excluded not because he feels it is inferior or irrelevant, but because he is aware of his limitations and deems himself unqualified to teach it. He does encourage interested students to seek outside instruction and bring back that knowledge and share it with others. He often reminds us that everyone has inherent strengths and weaknesses and that in a combat situation it is almost always to your benefit to go with what you are strongest. Unless, you’re opponent is better in that area than you, that is. In that case, you better have a back up plan, even if it is just good health coverage.

Added: March 1st 2004