Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Techniques: Underhand Knife Defense

This is the knife disarm that I am most comfortable teaching. We will be working on it this Saturday in class. I don't know if it works against an actual knife. I have never faced a knife. But I can get it to work at high speeds under high stress in drills without getting gutted by training blade or sharpie marker (the latter being a good tool to help simulate cuts and stabs). That counts for something in the uncertain world of self-defense. My training partners and students can also get it to work, even when their opponent doesn't "give them" the move (to give someone a technique is to artificially weaken an attack so as to help your partner get the technique). My own teacher vouches for it, as do his fellow instructors in our system. None of those reasons alone make the technique work, but all together, they give stronger than average evidence as to its effectiveness.

An underhand stab. The tip of the knife is aimed at your stomach, groin, thigh, oblique, etc. This attack starts low from your foe's hip, his pocket, or whipped out from behind his back. It is prison shanking and a barroom stab, a move used by both punk teenagers and cartel assassins. The attack is fast and you probably won't see the hand, let alone the knife that it is carrying. Your assailant might step in and attack from less than a foot away. They might grab your shirt or arm or back with their free hand, so as to prevent escape and drive your body into their blade.

  1. There is never just one stab. The defense must not only block the first attack, but also remain strong against subsequent strikes. 
  2. Underhand stabs start close. Your defense must work even if the attacker is directly in your face, less than a foot away. 
  3. You will not know how long the knife is (or even if it is a knife at all), so your defense must be workable against both long and short weapons.
This is the underhand stab defense that I practice in my Haganah class at Rhodes Fusion Fitness. It is similar to most other Israeli martial-art defenses in the same category, but by no means representative of all. Like with every technique, there are some excellent points to it, and some that might be lacking.
Also, advance apologies: This explanation should really have a photo accompaniment, which would lessen the need for such lengthy descriptions.
  1. The instant you see a flash of movement, bend your torso forward, suck in your stomach, and shoot your rear out. Your feet should hop back slightly to increase the distance between the blade tip and your gut. This technique is called "hollowing out". It capitalizes on the natural instinct that humans have when a low attack gets aimed at your belly. You want to create as much space as possible in as little time as possible. You can test the reflex easily; just have a friend try and poke your stomach with a pen. 
  2. As you hollow out your stomach, execute a low block with your forearm to the enemy forearm. When blocking, your upper arm should be perpendicular to your body, and your forearm should be parallel to your chest. It does not matter which forearm you use, nor does it matter which side your opponent is stabbing from. Anatomically, you want your ulna slamming into your opponent's radius.Press your weight into the arm, but be sure to remain on balance.
  3. This low block stops the stabbing arm. Make sure that your block is always parallel to your chest (and your forearm to the ground). If your arm bends, the knife can slide into your body and a strong opponent can blast right through.
    (Note: I like this particular block because it is reflexive (you naturally want to reach out with an arm and stop the attack) and because it is sturdy against that first move. My worry, however, is that the block is weak against multiple strikes. When the opponent stabs repeatedly at your core, there is nothing preventing him from winding back up and striking again. You CAN fall into your arm if he withdraws it, but there are other grabs you can use to flat out jam the arm from stabbing at all.)
  4. With your opposite hand, strike to the opponent's groin. Your own strike should be much like the underhand stab itself, albeit with fist, open palm, or blade of hand instead of knife tip. The strike's goal is to distract, to cause pain enough for the opponent to slow their attack.
    (NOTE: I am sometimes skeptical of this particular step. If the opponent is a) wearing groin protection, b) wearing thick or baggy pants, or c) intoxicated, adrenalized, and/or otherwise committed to the attack, then the simple groin strike might not work (yes, some bad guys go out and rob with cups on). A better strike would cause actual damage, not just discomfort; perhaps to the neck or a joint? Something to think about.)
  5. Before or after your groin strike, your opponent will almost assuredly pull the knife back for another stab (if they don't, the move is actually easier). This is one reason it is so important you press your weight into the blocking arm. As he withdraws for a subsequent attack, you must fall in to the arm and the attacker's chest. Your chest will slam into theirs, although it is less a strike and more a function of forward momentum. To be more precise, your right side will press into the opponent's left side (or your left into their right). This is just a function of where their knife is; whatever side it is on is the side that you will be focusing on.  
  6. IMPORTANT: Be sure that your forearm remains in contact with your opponent's forearm. Your blocking arm still remains a barrier between his knife and your skin. 
  7. As you fall in, your blocking arm needs to shift into a position from which you can secure the enemy's knife appendage. You will sweep it upwards slightly, pressing forearm into forearm, until you can comfortably engage your elbow. At that point, clamp the opponent's arm in between your forearm muscle and your bicep. Imagine doing a bicep curl, and insert the enemy arm in between your curling motion. Take your hand, still on the blocking side, and grab a fistful of tricep and skin. Your arm should be clamping from midway up his forearm (at your elbow joint) to his mid-tricep (at your hand). It should appear as if you poise your arm in preparation for the pledge of allegiance, except with the enemy limb locked up inside your curl.
    (NOTE: For shorter martial artists, or against opponent's with burlier arms, you can forego the grabbing of skin and muscle. Instead, lock your hand around your shirt to provide the necessary securing leverage. HOLD TIGHT.)
  8. Jam your opposite elbow into the opponent's neck, with your hand clutching to their back collar. Stretch the opponent out using the elbow to press their neck away and the clamping arm to pull in the opposite direction. 
  9. Knee the attacker once in the thigh, the groin, or the ribs, whatever target presents itself. Do not knee repeatedly; you are holding onto their knife arm and you need to disengage before they start to wrestle it back. 
  10. Stomp on the top of their foot with your own. Press down with your weight, making sure that your toes are pointed outside of your body. 
  11. Throw your opponent forward with intent to land them on their back. Your foot prevents them from stepping back to regain balance, ensuring that they stumble. Use your elbow, the one planted in your opponent's neck, to strike them backwards. Simultaneously, use the clamping arm to throw away the attacker's knife hand. Do not just release the arm; the attacker can still slash at you on his way to the ground. Push it away with force to complete the disengage. 
Writing out the steps is a lot harder than demonstrating them. The move is mostly reflexive, with your body undergoing motions that it would naturally want to use anyway. Hollowing out the stomach and blocking with the forearm are instinctual responses to low attacks. Falling into the body to counter subsequent stabs is similarly reflexive. Techniques that make use of natural instincts are always better than those which do not, and in that sense, this disarm is one of my favorites.
As noted above, however, there are some parts to it that I don't like. The groin slap is particularly problematic because it does not always disable and, even worse, it doesn't work from both sides. If the stab comes from the attacker's right (the defender's left), it works fine. If it comes from the right, the groin strike gets tangled in the stabbing arm. You can stab yourself or knock the assailant's arm into your body. There is a modification to make it work, but I would rather have one move that covers all low angles; the attack is so fast that I would not have time to figure out which move I need to do.

  1. Practice slow.
  2. Train at a realistic distance. This attack comes from less than a foot away. If you aren't accustomed to the closeness of the stab, you will freeze if it ever happens. 
  3. Test your grips and locks at every step of the drill. It is easy to loosen up in practice, but in reality, that leads to a blade getting drawn across your chest or arm.
  4. Have your partner go for multiple stabs. Whether they stab two times or twelve times, the defense is the same. You block, you strike, and you fall in with the withdrawn stabbing arm. 
  5. Train the block to work no matter what side the stab comes from. Have your partner come up to you with a knife behind their back. When they stab, you will execute the same block regardless of their attacking side. This builds up the reflex.

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