"GOING TO THE GROUND" AND SELF-DEFENSE
"95% of fights end up on the ground." It's an adage that entered the martial lexicon in the 1990s with the rise of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and grappling arts. At best, it's a cautionary tale for those who place undue reliance on an unrealistic skillset (e.g. martial artists who believe they are too fast/balanced/strong to end up on the ground). But at worst, it's patronizing pedantry, the sort of moralizing fable told by senior martial artists to scare their students into wrestling.
Whether you encountered that statistic in an eye-opening or eye-rolling moment, there is still some truth to it. And as with many statistics, there is also some warpage. Here are some more accurate figures: "95% of grapplers believe that 95% of fights end up on the ground", or "95% of fights might possibly end up on the ground (maybe...)". You never hear those in your intro-to-groundfighting lessons. Twain would have a lot to say about all these numbers, and it's our responsibility as critical consumers of martial wisdom to assess its credibility. For starters, we can look to where the statistic originated.
Regardless of the actual number of non-police confrontations that end up on the ground, it cannot be doubted that some fights have at least the potential to end up with one or more parties on the ground. Everyone has either heard a story, or shamefully watched a YouTube video, of a brawl that ended with all parties involved in a pile on the ground. But we have also heard tell (seen video) of dozens of other attacks, whether sucker punches, bear hugs, chokes, tackles, groin kicks, and others. So from a self-defense perspective, that makes groundfighting no more or less likely than any other technique that we prepare for. If we don't know with certainty to expect it, we still train for it in the event that it happens, whether that chance is 95% of 5%.
|Multiple attacker "groundfighting"|
That's why self-defense ground techniques emphasize quick escape instead of careful positional sparring or intricate submissions. That doesn't mean we don't care about the different wrestling positions or the many locks and chokes from ground systems. It just means that our priority is always to escape. If that is unattainable, it is to disable an opponent and then to escape. The techniques in this article emphasize the escape part of the gameplan.
THE ATTACK: THE MOUNT
|A mount in an MMA fight|
Although you can still use your arms to defend yourself and throw punches, this is still a terrible position. With an attacker's weight on your chest, especially if they are bigger, you won't be able to move at all. You can try to block punches thrown at your face, but you can't effectively dodge or parry them. Your head and body will also probably be on concrete, asphalt, or some other hard and abrasive surface. Any whiplash from the punch can send your head slamming into the ground, which can result in bruising or bleeding to the brain, unconsciousness, or outright death. Even if we ignore the damage from strikes, your opponent also has a commanding wrestling position that they can use to control your limbs and body. As for striking back, you don't have the angle, the reach, or the momentum to deliver your power. No matter your age, gender, or skill level, there are few worse positions you can be.
Both escapes in this article come from Haganah, the self-defense system I trained in, and Brazilian Jujitsu, a grappling system renowned for its effectiveness. In both defenses, the techniques are Jujitsu techniques at their core, slightly modified for self-defense purposes. For the most part, they work regardless of the size and strength differences between an attacker and their victim, but extreme differences can always be difficult to overcome no matter how skilled you are.
Note that a number of images in this article are taken from competitive fights. Although my focus remains self-defense, professional MMA or BJJ bouts have much clearer photography and positioning than street brawls. It's a lot easier to see the movements in high resolution pictures than in grainy security footage.
FIRST ESCAPE: "HIGH MOUNT"
|Upright attacker (red gloves) mounting a |
downed defender (blue gloves)
Escape summary: Grab opponent's neck and limbs so they can't hit you or maintain balance. Use a hip pop to roll them onto their back. Cause damage, open up their legs, and stand up safely.
- Protect your head
Use your hands and forearms to shield your head from incoming blows. Don't parry the strikes one-for-one. Just shield up and get ready to start the next step. Even the toughest martial artists can get knocked out by an unlucky hit, and self-defense assumes that you (like me) are far from the toughest. You can't stay in this defensive posture for long, and you will likely eat some hits anyway. But you want to immediately minimize damage for the first second or two while you set yourself up for the next step.
- Don't let opponent slide onto your chest
Jab your elbow tips down into the opponent's thighs if they try and slide up to your chest. Use your legs and hips to scoot away from their advance, keeping them over your stomach. If an opponent can reposition his weight on your chest, wedging his knees into your armpits, you won't be able to engage your arms. You might still be able to use body mechanics to roll them off, but you won't be able to protect your head from strikes. Our self-defense priority is survival, and opening up your head to a ground and pound beatdown is a bad survival strategy.
- Shoot up, wrap opponent's head with your right arm, pull down
When your opponent draws his hand back to strike, shoot up with your right arm over your attacker's left shoulder. Keep your other hand by your face for protection. Secure the back of their head, like a koala bear going for a ride on his parent's stomach. Yank down on their head, combining your arm strength and weight to drag their head down. Fall back down while wrapping their head tight into your upper chest.
- Use your left leg to hook your opponent's right foot
With your opponent's head secured by your right arm, use your left foot to hook their right ankle (the ankle opposite the arm you used to grab the head). You want ankle-to-ankle contact, flexing the top of your foot into your shin to create the hook that prevents their ankle from sliding out. Think of pulling your toes up into your shin, like you are stretching your calf; that's the hooking position you want. For people who are less flexible and/or those who need additional power, grab your ankle/shin with your left hand and pull into your leg. The added power all but guarantees that you complete the hook. Trap the opponent's ankle between your hip/rear and your own leg and sit down on it, pushing your weight into their pinned limb.
- Overhook the attacker's right arm with your left arm
Your opponent's right arm will either be still trying to strike you, or will be planted on the ground next to you trying to push himself up. Aim your left arm 90 degrees away from your body, as if the arm is doing a snow-angel. Scoop it in, reaching between your attacker's arm and body into your own chest. Your opponent's lower forearm will be in the crook of your elbow as you pull it in tight to your body. Grab your own shirt for added strength.
- Pull attacker in tight, maintaining all holds and hooks
Tug attacker's head down into your upper body and clench their hooked arm to your side. Keep their ankle pinned to your body. If an opponent "posts" those body parts out to the side, extending them to the ground to keep balance, you won't be able to complete the critical next steps.
- Pop hips to your right (opponent's left) to unbalance them
Hip bridge movement
- Pop hips hard to your left (opponent's right) to roll them
Having unbalanced the attacker, now bridge hard and strong to the left. With their limbs hooked, they won't be able to extend arm or leg to stabilize and prevent the roll. They will roll onto their back with you on top of them. Your legs won't be straddling the opponent as theirs were on top of you moments before; it isn't a direct reversal of the position. Rather, your body will be between their legs. In grappling terms, your opponent could lock their legs together around your ribs and place you in "guard", but that is still a much better position than being mounted moments before.
The key with this hip bridge into a roll is pinning the ankle and arm. If you don't pin these, your attacker can just prop them on the ground and brace himself, preventing the roll. Once you lock them in, however, it's his abdominal muscles versus your entire body weight, and that's an unfair contest for even a much smaller defender.
SECOND ESCAPE: "LOW MOUNT"
|Mounted attacker (blue) wrapping arm|
around downed defender's head (white)
Escape summary: Remember that you only need to use this escape if the opponent's arms are near/grabbing your head. For the most part, this escape is identical to the previous except in how you secure the arm. In the first escape, you overhooked the arm into your body. In this escape, your arm reaches up to your head and traps the opponent's grabbing arm against your skull and neck (shown below). Then execute the roll and safely stand.
- Protect head, don't let opponent slide too high
As in the last escape, you need to guard your head and prevent your opponent from climbing up on you. Even though your opponent is low and trying to clench your head, you can still take damage from their free hand and elbow, not to mention headbutts or even bites. And if your opponent slides too high and gets their knees in your armpits, you will lose their use and have a tough time defending yourself from blows.
- Wrap your arm around opponent's neck (arm opposite of their grabbing side)
Even though your opponent is lying on top of you, you don't want him to have the option of sitting up and regaining striking posture. If your opponent is wrapping your head with his left arm on your right side, you will use your own left arm to reach up and secure his head.
- Hook attacker's ankle on the side of their wrapping arm
As in the previous escape, hook the opponent's ankle into your body. Make sure you lock the ankle on the side of the body that is getting wrapped. As before, you can assist the hook with your hand if need be, sitting on the appendage to prevent the opponent from wriggling free.
- Reach up to head with same-side hand and pin same-side hand to your head
Defender (blue) reaches hand up under
his head to pin attacker's (white) arm
The image to the right illustrates this position. This is the critical difference between the upright full mount escape and the grabbing one. Your attacker's arm is under your head squeezing at the back of your neck. Let's assume they are using their left arm on your right side. Take your right hand and bring it under your head like you are combing your hair, starting at the ear and dragging your hand to the back of your head. As you perform this motion, your forearm and bicep will come into contact with their wrapping arm. Keep your hand under your head and squeeze your bent arm tight into your head, pinning their arm next to you. This is how we prevent the attacker from posting that arm out when they are about to be rolled.
Why not just overhook the arm? You can't reach it if it is under you head. Even if you can start to get a grip, you won't have the leverage to really secure it, especially if your opponent is bigger and/or stronger. You also can't just reach up and try to grab it without also wedging your hand under your neck. You won't have enough strength to keep that arm pinned if the opponent sees what is happening and starts to struggle free.
- (OPTIONAL: Push other hand into opponent's hip to assist hip pops)
Because your opponent has decided to lie flat instead of sitting upright, you might not need to trap their head close to your body. If they insist on squeezing and staying low, then you don't need to hold on. Also, once you trap their arm it will be hard for them to sit upright. Unwrap your arm from their neck and, instead, reach down and press your palm into their hip joint. As you execute the rolling hip pop in the next step, apply pressure with your hand to assist the movement. This gives you more power which can be helpful given how much more weight the opponent has in this attack by pressing down into your chest.
- Pop hips to (1) unbalance and then to (2) roll attacker to back
Having secured your two hooks, both on the same side, you can now execute the hip bridge to unbalance your opponent in one direction before rolling them in the other. Safely stand, whether by escaping their guard or just causing damage until they can't pursue or hinder your flight.
Training grappling moves is, at least for me, easier than training the standup ones. In effect, both you and your partner are just lying around using dead weight while the active defender executes the technique. It feels more relaxed unlike, say, a standing choke or punching combo. When you are ready to increase the strength and speed you can gradually transition to that higher level. With that general point in mind, here are some training tips for practicing the techniques. Although I'm no expert on grappling, these are some drilling pointers that have worked for me:
- GO SLOW
Anyone who has taken a class with me (or any of my teachers, whether in Tae Kwon Do, Haganah, or BJJ) knows that this is always the first and foremost piece of training advice. Everyone, myself included, wants to start training fast. After all, it's not as if your attacker will slow down for you in a real encounter. So why not start fast and train "realistically"? Simply put, you need to build your muscle memory gradually and incrementally increase the speed. If your slow execution of the move is sloppy, your fast execution will be downright ineffective. You build perfect technique through repetition, and you perform repetitions with calm deliberation. Moreover, if you go slow, you can't muscle a technique with momentum. This teaches you to use mechanics and not muscle (more on that in a second). All of that helps you learn the move the right way early on so you can properly replicate it later.
- USE BODY MECHANICS: DON'T MUSCLE
Stronger martial artists have a lot of advantages, but one huge disadvantage is that they tend to rely on that strength and not on learning technique. That's fine if your gym is full of people weaker than you or at your own strength. But as the saying goes, "there's always a bigger fish." Attackers tend to pick on weaker targets, or at least those they perceive as weaker, so even a strong guy would probably be attacked by someone stronger. If you relied on muscle to execute the move in class, you won't be able to apply the technical mechanics when you need to move a bigger guy. This is particularly important in grappling when it is easy to use muscle and mass as a substitute for finesse.
- TRAIN AGAINST DIFFERENT SIZED PARTNERS
Every martial arts class has a variety of different body types, shapes, and sizes. You want to train against all of them because the escapes will feel different in every case. Wrestling really accentuates those differences because of your proximity. But different bodies will also have some core similarities, which is just as important for proper technique replication. By considering both similarities and differences, you will learn what parts of the escapes don't change and what parts need to be modified.
- TRY IT WITHOUT USING ONE ARM OR LEG; SIMULATE INJURIES
Injuries happen, especially in violent encounters. Perhaps you got pushed down and snapped your wrist in breaking the fall, had your foot smashed by a heavy-soled boot, had your bicep slashed open by a knife, or any other grisly scenario. Any of those scenarios could precede the execution of this technique outside of the gym. For obvious reasons, we can't really replicate the conditions of those injuries in our training space, but we can exclude arms and legs to simulate that injury. This is particularly relevant in self-defense groundfighting; if you are on the ground with a guy on top of you, chances are good that you messed up somewhere and that might have resulted in a major injury that you now need to fight through. Closing your eyes or working while blindfolded also simulates an injury to your head, whether something getting thrown in your eyes or just a major blow.
As usual, stay safe, and as many self-defense practitioners have said before me, may you never have to use the moves that we train together.