Jack Sparrow: That's not much incentive for me to fight fair, then, is it?
Some fights have rules. Most don't. However, a lot of people will still fight as though there are rules.
The Combat Pragmatist is a character who is defined by their willingness to do anything in a fight to win.
This typically applies to "real" fights where there's actually something at stake that's more important than a cash prize, a trophy, or a title belt, and usually not professional fights in a controlled environment where safeguards are in place to prevent one side from suffering too much damage and where one can be disqualified for not abiding by the rules. In such settings, the Combat Pragmatist is an unsympathetic character (usually the main antagonist) who shows through their ruthlessness that they honor nothing — not their opponents, not the sport and its customs, not the tournament's sacred history — but winning, and tends to believe that there's no such thing as a "dirty" fight if your goal is to survive.
These characters are characterized by an extensive knowledge of tactics others may consider "dirty" fighting or just by a willingness to use those tactics to achieve their goal, often against more "honorable" opponents (i.e. Genre Blind ones). They are likely to think of any adherence to rules or sporting combat as Honor Before Reason.
They do not suffer from a Complexity Addiction, are never afraid to use a Mundane Solution (nor do they need it to be pointed out to them), never assume that the other person will fight "honorably", have no interest in handicapping themselves, don't care if their opponent is a worthy one, and will not hesitate to Kick Them While They Are Down. They almost always have their weapon of choice either on them or near them at all times, and possibly a spare or two: knives and daggers are an especially popular choice for such characters due to their light weight and ease of concealment. But if caught without their weapons, they're willing to use absolutely anything as a weapon and only resort to Good Old Fisticuffs if there's no weapon nearby.
They will not hesitate to use a Dangerous Forbidden Technique. They have no compunction about hurting a child. Or about attacking someone from behind. Or throwing sand in their eyes. Or pulling down their pants (or flipping up their skirts if dealing with women or a kilt-wearing man). Or the "Hey, You!" Haymaker. Or biting them. Or using Weighted Gloves. Or a Groin Attack. Or hitting the other guy upside the head with the hilt of their sword. Or pretending to surrender. Or... well, you get the idea. However, there can be different levels of this. Even those who don't believe in fighting fair may still have lines they won't cross, such as refusing to kill or not hurting anyone who's not already part of the fight.
Often overlaps with the No-Nonsense Nemesis, Anti Heroes, and especially Ninja. They almost never allow honor or sentiment to cloud their judgement, will usually take measures to avoid setbacks, or betrayal. Sometimes Weak, but Skilled or Too Clever by Half, though the truly pragmatic former will constantly seek to increase their power level and hence advantage over their enemies. It can look like Confusion Fu in practice — but it almost always isn't. If The Unfettered fights, then they'll be one of these. In a video game, don't expect them to be above using a Cheese Strategy to win.
This can be an Establishing Character Moment. It can also be divisive, both among the audience and In-Universe, due to Moral Myopia — the hero is a resourceful badass, while the villain is just a dirty cheater. This can lead to instances of Black-and-Gray Morality, showing that the hero and the villain aren't so different, and the difference between someone being a terrorist or a freedom fighter. For heroes, it's possible for these tactics, if extreme enough, to lead to What the Hell, Hero? moments or claims of If You Kill Him, You Will Be Just Like Him!, sometimes resulting in responses of I Did What I Had to Do, and in extreme cases, can be a metaphor for Slowly Slipping Into Evil that represents the start or conclusion of a Face–Heel Turn. Escalation can also be an issue, as someone who previously fought "honourably" may now decide that The Gloves Come Off and demonstrate a willingness to go to much, much darker depths.
Villains can also be pragmatic, though it usually takes on a different form. Villains being normal Combat Pragmatists is usually averted, or at least not played out completely straight, as it can possibly even lead to them being victorious. If they are, it means they avert Bond Villain Stupidity and actually kill the hero instead of having dinner with them. Depending on the context, using these tactics can be their Kick the Dog moment or even their crossing of the Moral Event Horizon.
Characters are often deliberately not put into this trope due to Rule of Cool. If everyone took this approach to combat who could, key characters would be dead or defeated too soon and the story would be over a little too quickly. Plus, it's often just way cooler to show off more complicated tactics than simple ones. Additionally, Moral Guardians and Media Watchdogs sometimes make having this type of character difficult by ensuring that they can't do certain actions. On the other hand, when drawn-out straight fights are impractical, excitement can be created by Genre Shift away from pure action to espionage, planning, intrigue and the thrill of the hunt, with clever heroes and villains alike who avoid the Idiot Ball and unnecessary flash, and any open violence being quick and decisive. However, this can come as "Cheating in a fight with no rules is not cheating" and "If you want to defeat the bad guys, you don't have to fight fair with them". War Crime Subverts Heroism is a related trope.
On occasion, a Badass Teacher or Cynical Mentor will be this when teaching their mentee to fight, particularly if the mentee is inexperienced, is being trained to literally fight for their life, or at some other extreme disadvantage to 'honorable' opponents. This is more common in literature where fighting is more realistic, so it's harder to downplay a blow received and it's difficult to describe an 'honorable' fight where a disadvantaged opponent would realistically win.
Can occur with Limited Window of Vulnerability when the pragmatic solution is to kill someone or something very quickly while they're vulnerable. This is very often the case, for the more smarter and opportunistic Fragile Speedsters. After all, what they may lack in force and raw power, they can certainly improvise and do it swiftly to outwit the opposition at least.
Curiously enough, those of Grey-and-Gray Morality would be the best example here. These characters shrewdly see the good and bad in pretty much every concept. On one hand maybe sending that criminal to prison is the right thing, but will they really repent their crimes? This kind of contemplation is very common for characters/themes like these, that to say good is right and evil is wrong entirely is not an absolute.
Not to be confused with Why Don't You Just Shoot Him? (although often is a subversion of that trope).
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- Real Life
- A commercial in Geico's "rhetorical question" ad campaign tested the question of whether the pen is mightier than the sword. A skilled ninja shows off his sword skills, and his opponent uses a pen to sign for a package containing a taser, which he immediately uses on the ninja.
- In Coraline, a quick-thinking Coraline defeats the Other Mother by throwing her own ally, the Cat, at her face. Note that the Cat was not in on this plan.
- The Incredibles:
- Frozone can use his ice powers in many ways. When Frozone first joins the fight against the Omnidroid v.10 in the first The Incredibles, he immediately attempts to freeze the tentacle joints attaching them to the main body to limit its mobility and ability to attack. Sadly, it doesn't work, and the robot tosses him onto a nearby car.
- In the sequel Incredibles 2, Evelyn gains a significant advantage over Elastigirl by bouncing her around the airplane cabin with erratic piloting. She also reduces the oxygen throughout the plane, causing Elastigirl to suffer from hypoxia, making it hard for her to fight back.
- Lord Shen, the Big Bad of Kung Fu Panda 2, knows that he is too weak to defeat his opponents and conquer China with kung fu alone. So he uses cannons instead. As well as fight with knives. This is evident when he uses the weapon instead of facing Master Thundering Rhino in a kung fu fight which he knows he cannot win. It's specifically mentioned that Master Thundering Rhino's "Horn Defense" is impervious to any attack, and we see it when he casually blocks all of Shen's thrown knives with his horn. Naturally, Shen's not going to fight fair.
- In Scooby-Doo! and the Samurai Sword, Miyumi explains her martial arts school's philosophy thusly: "In order to win, you must be willing to do what your opponent is not willing to do." Considering this is a Scooby-Doo movie, that amounts to pulling off Daphne's headband so her bangs obscure her vision, rather than anything dirtier, but Daphne still considers it a dirty trick and an unfair victory.
- Up: Subverted. Muntz starts the fight between him and Carl with a claymore, but eventually stops to grab a lever action shotgun. Which is rather odd considering the movie's audience.
- In the climax Wizards, Avatar and Blackwolf appear to building up to an epic Wizard Duel. However, Avatar then simply pulls a pistol and shoots Blackwolf instead.
- Lone Wolf, compared to most High Fantasy heroes. Several Kai disciplines emphasize camouflage and sneaking around, and Lone Wolf has no qualms against Dressing as the Enemy. Attacking by surprise, or against an unarmed or wounded opponent, is advantageous and encouraged. The effects of his psychic attacks, when described, are clearly to cause pain. The Kai Lord ethic seems to be "whatever gets the job done," and Lone Wolf makes use of psychic powers, spells, magitek, bow and arrows, even poison on occasion, as well as Darklord weapons, without hesitation. Only the vilest black magic items are out of bounds, and that's more because they are likely Artifacts of Death than anything else.
- Vocaloid's Hikyou Sentai Urotander.
"Yes, by every means possible, we go for the win."
- In Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue", the title character seeks revenge on his estranged father for his awful name. Sue's had to fight his whole life through to defend himself from mockery, and has become a tough combat pragmatist as a result. When Sue finds his dad, they get into an epic brawl, and Sue describes his father as kicking like a mule and biting like a crocodile. Both Sue and his dad are examples.
- In the Royal Guardsmen's "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron" this is how the fight between Snoopy and the Red Baron ends: after being shot down in their first fight Snoopy gets a new plane and challenges the Red Baron to another fight, the Baron laughs... Then notices that Snoopy got him in sight while he was laughing, at which point "Snoopy fired once, and he fired twice/And that Bloody Red Baron went spinning out of sight".
- The Bible:
- Two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi ended up slaughtering all the men of a city because their prince had raped their sister. How did they achieve this? By telling the men they would let the prince marry their sister if all the men of the city agreed to be circumcised. That took all the fighting men out of commission, and their conquest of the city was incredibly easy. Their father Jacob, however, hated this and told them this only made more trouble than practicality for them for them in the long run, because now all the Canaanite tribes viewed them as enemies and would turn against them.
- It has been argued that the story of David and Goliath is less about the triumph of faith over brawn, and more about taking a deadly ranged weapon like a sling to a knife fight. Also David then beheaded Goliath with his own sword, just to be sure.
- Rym of the podcast Geek Nights has repeatedly stated he is one. People still vote for him in political games, anyway.
"YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME!"
- This is the Rudo-Luchador's schtick. They tend to be stronger, and play dirtier than the Technico-Luchador.
- Tommy Dreamer's nickname is "The Innovator of Violence" thanks to his ability to improvise during hardcore matches.
- Ric Flair's nickname is "The Dirtiest Player in the Game" thanks to his talent at Groin Attacks, eye pokes, distractions, etc.
- Everyone in Darwin's Soldiers fights dirty but Dr. Kerzach probably fights the dirtiest.
- Destroy the Godmodder: A meta example: pionoplayer and aegis have both gotten into trouble for finding and abusing loopholes in the rules to gain advantage over other players.
- In The Gamer's Alliance, several heroes and villains fight dirty whenever they can; very few characters actually try to fight in a gentlemanly manner.
- Darth Apparatus from The Gungan Council, a Sith, has thrown sand in eyes, used blasters, and bombs in order to win in a universe where his comrades will use only the Force and their lightsabers.
- In Dead End, "Baby-Face" Martin teaches Tommy that "fair and square" is no way to win a fight.
- Invoked by Ben in Death of a Salesman. "Never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You'll never get out of the jungle that way."
- Evgeny Shvarts has a play called The Dragon. When the titular dragon is challenged to combat by the protagonist, he wants to just incinerate him first, but is reminded that there is a document he signed preventing that (the dragon claims he wrote it when he was "a naïve, sentimental, inexperienced youth", but the threat to reveal he is afraid to fight fair is enough for the battle to happen on more even terms).
- In his DVD-R Hell riff of the Winnie the Pooh video "Too Smart For Strangers", Brad Jones' advice for children dealing with 'strangers' is for the child to 'Go for the nuts'.
- In Epic Rap Battles of History, Darth Vader is a rapping version. He ends his fights with Hitler by (in order) freezing him in carbonite, dropping him into a rancor pit, and slicing him in half with his lightsaber.
- The Spoony Experiment:
- Spoony once told the story of his Star Wars RPG character that killed Sith with a number of dirty tricks. Things like flamethrowers, shotguns, and rigging his ship with explosives.
- A convention D&D game guest-starring Linkara and Mike "The Birdman" Dodd had Spoony's character grab a glass during dinner, shatter it and put the shards in his satchel. When the party is beset upon by a big, hulking brute of a monster later on, Spoony just throws GLASS IN ITS EYES.
- When he finished his review of Final Fantasy XIII, when Snow came to fight him, after assuring him that he would fight fairly, he immediately opened fire with automatic firearms. When that doesn't work, Spoony ultimately wins by ripping his throat out with his bare hands.
- When a Headless attacked him after one of his Ultima reviews, Spoony claimed that Linkara would probably be all "I AM A MAN!" and fight him like a man. Then Spoony kicks the Headless in the crotch, and remarks that he on the other hand fights like a dirty bastard.
- In Suburban Knights, the Channel Awesome crew tries to play along the fantasy scenario, only using (fake) swords. But when the Cloaks use a machine gun, Angry Joe uses his gun. And in a climactic battle, Linkara goes "screw this" before dropping his sword and grabbing his gun, and while Joe is using his SMG again, Obscurus Lupa grabs a spare and starts shooting as well.