Thursday, September 27, 2012

Techniques: Static Rear Headlock/Naked Choke Defense

With the rise of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and mixed martial art training, grappling techniques have become increasingly common in personal altercations. At an untrained glance, MMA fights are the closest thing to a street engagement that you can watch from the safety of your chair. People imagine that the average alley or barroom brawl is identical to a romp in the octagon, complete with gritty takedowns and manly ground and pound action. You don't need to be a combat veteran to tell that UFC broadcasts are woefully inadequate predictors of engagement realities (with weapons, clothing, outdoor surfaces, multiple attackers, weather conditions, and weight disparities all absent from the ring). But because UFC conforms to a vision of a street fight, attackers will still use MMA moves in combat. And in my experience, there is no move more popular or emblematic of this new fighting style than the rear naked choke.

Everyone has seen the move before. Stand behind your opponent and embrace their throat with the crook of your elbow. Lock in your choking side hand to the joint of your other arm. Pass that other arm behind the opponent's skull and press them deeper into the headlock. One arm pulls on the trachea, the other pushes their head deeper into the hold. For the martial artist, it is one of the scariest positions you can find yourself in, and one that demands a solid defense.

This particular technique won't work in your rolling sessions, but it will work when it matters most. It relies on the principal of "short circuiting"; causing intense pain to weaken an enemy's hold and give you an opportunity to break free. Yes, there are counters to the rear headlock that do not rely on strikes. Those 'defenses', however, are better suited to a jujitsu class than to a fight for your life. Moreover, many of them won't work against larger foes. Should you find yourself in such a position outside of your gym, you won't need to worry about partner preservation, safety, or athletic commission regulations. Your primary goal is to escape, and to get there, you need to cause damage. Anyone who attacks you outside of your gym with this choke is more than deserving of any injuries you inflict

Rear naked chokes are a venerable martial technique. Hercules used it to strangle the beast of Nemea. Knights and samurai learned it to dispatch armored foes in the event of a broken or lost sword. Native Americans 'counted crow' by choking out enemy sentries. Contemporary special forces use it as a quick, silent kill. Whatever its context, this headlock remains a devastating move that often works irrespective of size or strength. 8-10 seconds is long enough to render anyone unconscious, provided that you have actually cut off air/blood flow with your arm. Any longer and you risk permanent injury or death. A punch probably won't murder, unless its target falls on their head. The same goes for a tackle or kick. A choke like this, however, can easily deprive all oxygen and blood to a target's brain. The end result is permanent neurological damage. Or death.

An attacker who uses a rear naked chokes are more dangerous than those who just slug and mug. He thinks that he is tough, and he has the moves to try and prove it. Maybe he wrestled or grappled. Maybe he just watched too much UFC. Even worse, maybe he actually knows what he is doing. Whether he is well-trained or just plain violent, the choker is a dire threat above and beyond a simple brawler.

That 8-10 second period is your window of survival. If it closes, you will lose the fight. You might lose more, depending on your assailant's intent. While he chokes you, the attacker might try and drag you to another location or topple you to the ground. His pal might pummel you and reach for your wallet or waistband. But these dangers are secondary to strangulation. Do not envision an opponent who is roughly your weight and strength. Do not pretend that your neck muscles will be clenched in anticipation of the hold. Imagine a forearm as big as your thigh clamping around your neck like a junkyard car-compressor. Imagine a violent application of force that teeters you to your toes. You will be off balance and already gasping for air. You might very well see the black curtain start to intrude on your vision. It is under these disastrous circumstances that the defense must succeed.

  1. The rear naked choke requires the opponent to commit both arms to his attack. You won't have to worry (as much) about his other hands, unlike in other defenses. If he does only uses one arm, a more conventional headlock, the choke is itself less dangerous; he won't have the strength and leverage of a rear naked. We will assume he is using both arms for the choke. If he only uses one, the defense is identical, albeit easier.
  2. One attacker might hold you in the choke you while his partners come from the front. If you find yourself in such a gang-fight scenario, I first suggest that you reevaluate your weekend night plans. Second, and more importantly, always prioritize the choke. You can take blows to the front, but if you fall unconscious, you will have no more defensive options. 
  3. Your attacker might pull you backwards or take you to the ground after applying the choke. If that happens, your defense will change, but not so radically as to be dissimilar from this original form. This post assumes that you are not moving as they choke you. In a later technique article, I will go over the defense for the other two contingencies.
  4. This is a tough guy attack. Tough guys, or at least people who think they are tough guys, tend to be on the "built like a brick" side of the size spectrum. To simulate this reality, the smallest person in the self-defense class should be able to defend against the largest person. Train with unfair size differences in mind.
This is the Haganah version of the defense with a few modifications. I was taught to try and jam the choking arm as quickly as possible, preferably before it gets applied. In this defense, I assume that your opponent has already locked it in (or at least come close enough), adding in some back up steps to increase your safety. If you train for the worst possible scenario, your attacker can't surprise you. Another modification comes with the strike. In Haganah we train only a groin strike. You should at least have the option to throw elbows and stomps if needed, which I try and acknowledge here.

We will assume that your attacker has choked you with his right arm and is applying pressure to the back of your head with his left.
  1. You feel the arm encircle your throat. Maybe it gets locked in to the elbow. Maybe you have time to stop it. Either way, take both of your hands and reach up, grabbing hold of the choking forearm. Use a monkey grip, clamping down with just your four fingers and no thumb. One hand will be closer to their wrist, the other to their elbow. Your goal is to free your airway, just enough that you can breathe, and jam their hold. Even if you are have been rocking the Marine pullup challenge since you were 10, you probably won't be strong enough to flat out rip their arm off of your neck. You will, however, be able to exert enough leverage that they cannot squeeze tight enough for a proper choke.
  2. Squat into an athletic stance to preserve balance. It should be difficult for your attacker to push you forward or pull you down over your back. Remember the hot-feet drills you see in football practices, either from high school or movies about high school? That's roughly the stance you want to be in.
  3. As added insurance, turn your head to the left, AWAY from their choking arm elbow (Towards the hand of that arm). Tuck your chin under their forearm if you can. This further clears the airway and gives you literal breathing room.
    (Note: An objection to this step would be that it wastes time. So long as the rest of the move is executed at full speed, you shouldn't need extra airway safety. Especially with smaller defenders, and those who are unaccustomed to getting choked, the added precaution  increases their performance under stress without compromising the rest of the move. Even for more experienced students, it's nice to have extra options against particularly bulky attackers).
  4. With your right hand, keep a firm grasp on the attacker's upper forearm. Release the left hand, that which is closest to their wrist, and strike back at the attacker's groin. You can use an open-hand strike, a chop, or a closed backfist. I prefer the backfist because it has a smaller surface area, which gives your strike some piercing power against jeans and clothes.
    The goal of this strike is to cause damage and "short circuit" your attacker. If you just try and wrestle out of a headlock, the opponent will wrestle back. At best, that turns the escape into a grappling bout. At worst, you will waste energy and exhaust yourself into an even worse position. Especially if you are smaller than your enemy, chances are that he is the better wrestler, or at least bigger and stronger. The strike equalizes those disparities and gives you an extra second to work while he recovers from the hit. If the first strike does not provoke a physiological response, strike again.
    (Note: It is critical that you keep the right hand closer to his elbow when striking. Don't hold his arm at his wrist. If you do, you lose a lot of leverage and your attacker can just pull you over backwards.)
  5. Shrug up your right shoulder, pressing his choking arm against the side of your head. With your left foot, take a step backwards. This creates a gap between you and your attacker.
    (Note: The shrug is not meant to prevent an assailant from pulling his arm away. If he tugs it out of the choke, he has ended the defense for you. If, however, he wants to hold on and maintain his grip, the shrug keeps it trapped in a convenient position so you can spin into his body).
  6. Rotate towards your attacker, turning into his chest such that you face him. By shrugging your shoulder, you prevent an attacker from outmuscling your rotation. Once turned, bring up your right arm and slam your forearm into the side of his neck, grasping a fistful of the shirt on his back. Wedge that arm in tight against his carotid. With your left arm, simply curl it up and take hold of his right arm, pinning it between your forearm and our body. Grab just above his elbow joint and pull in tight. This locks out the elbow, inhibiting his mobility and strength. 
  7. From here there are a number of ways to end the engagement. The easiest: Throw a series of knees to his groin, ribs, and/or thighs and then push him out to the ground. Run, call the police, and get out of the area. There are other options, but this is probably the safest and most consistent.
Still working on those pictures. Thankfully, the first part of the defense doesn't require too much visualization. You feel the choke, you grab the forearm and jam the choke, you hold on with one hand, and you strike the groin with the other. All of this occurs while your opponent is still at your back. As to spinning into your attacker ,that's more a matter of martial preference than survival. You instead opt to throw a series of elbows and run. You could stomp down on their foot. You could kick back into their knee. You could even, with extensive drilling and practice, execute a hip or shoulder throw after you short-circuit with the groin strike. Steps 5-7 come down to preference, training, and objectives, and are thus subject to modification.

Overall, this is a critical defense in modern martial arts. Rear naked chokes are popular amongst the thugs and hoodlums most likely to start a fight. From a teaching perspective, the defense is also a great introduction to the concept of short-circuiting, an integral component of most self-defense techniques. It is the idea of guerrilla warfare as applied to micro-engagements. If your opponent is larger, stronger, or more skillful, you need to equalize your odds. Sometimes that means using a weapon. In this case, it means taking a "dirty" strike and capitalizing on the opening. Blows to the groin, the knee, the eyes, the neck, etc. are powerful tools to upset an enemy's composure and give yourself room to operate.

Remember that the ultimate test of a technique's feasibility is its effectiveness against larger attackers. My own teacher is roughly 6'3" and 220-230 lbs. If one of his students, say, one weighing in at a burly 120 lbs and a towering 5'2", can get the defense to work on him, that's a pretty solid technique. You will still need to train and program the muscle memory for a technique to work, but if the mechanics are there, then so are your chances for survival and escape.

  1. If you are the attacking partner (the one doing the choke), HONOR THE STRIKES. At full power, the groin hit will likely provoke a physiological response from your target. He will become nauseated, double over, and be in general discomfort. This pain allows you to do the rest of the escape without wrestling for it. Your partner might be tempted to "get cute" and start to wrestle around with you, as if the strike never happened. The whole point of that hit is to turn an attacker's attention away from the fight and to his pain. If you want to add in some extra damage to be safe, elbows and stomps can further guarantee you break free.
  2. One of the most important reflexes in the defense is bringing your hands up to jam the choking arm. The more the choke gets locked in, the harder it is to escape. Grabbing the forearm should become instinctual, at least with training. Develop that muscle memory through constant repetition and surprise attacks in class, the latter done under stress. For example, do a striking drill with your partner. While you work a combination on the pads, a second partner can come up behind you at random moments and clamp in the choke. Work the defense with special attention paid to the initial jamming grab. 
  3. Practice slow, steady, and smooth. Rear naked chokes are scary, even in the gym. When you feel your partner's arms close around your neck, adrenaline spikes (especially during stress drills). It is very tempting to speed up and react out of panic. Avoid this impulse. Train with deliberate slowness to counteract that temptation. A big part of any self-defense move is maintaining composure. Because rear naked chokes are so scary, it is even easier to lose that calm. 
  4. That said, learn what it feels like to execute the move against a struggling attacker. After you lock down their forearm, have your partner tug back, attempting to reapply the choke. This gives you practice in maintaining a grip. Generally, you can add as much resistance as you want to a technique so long as you don't lose precision and mechanics. If you start to get sloppy, scale it back a notch (or ten notches).

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