This is an article I wrote for Black Belt Magazine and it got published in the January 2009 issue. I edited it a bit to make it more blog-friendly and cut it down in size. As always, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section.
“From mixed martial arts to the street: Practical grappling skills for real-life self defense”
The first Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993 started a revolution in martial arts competitions: Very few techniques were prohibited:
- Vicious elbows to the face.
- Joint locks carried out to the fullest.
- Strikes to the back of the head
- Even kicking a downed opponent.
But the biggest upset was the fact that having a ground game and solid grappling skills proved an absolute necessity to leave the Octagon a winner. The Gracie family proved the effectiveness of its ju-jitsu ground techniques by placing one of their lightest fighters (Royce Gracie weighed a whopping 175 lbs.) against primarily heavyweight opponents. More often than not he managed to submit or choke out his opponents with an almost disheartening ease.
Nowadays, MMA competitors no longer fear the ground and are well-rounded professional athletes. They are masters of full-power striking techniques, grappling, groundwork, and most of all, they flow effortlessly from the one to the other when the situation demands it. This makes them formidable opponents and places MMA as one of the most well-rounded combat arts in the world.
The sport itself also changed; it turned into a multi-million dollar industry, eclipsing boxing and other martial arts in popularity. With the increased public awareness came a rise in misconceptions about not only the sport but martial arts and violence in general. The cage is viewed by many practitioners as the ultimate proving grounds for martial art styles. They argue that if exponents of any given system cannot beat an opponent in the cage or Octagon, then that system is worthless. They reason that MMAs have proven they can take down anyone fighting solely with traditional martial arts and then beat or submit them with ground fighting. The seemingly obvious conclusion is that the Mixed Martial Artist is the ultimate fighter in both the cage and the street. But is this statement true?
To a certain extent, it most certainly is:
- Mixed Martial artists are comfortable fighting at punching and kicking range as well as clinching and stand-up grappling. This places them on equal footing with striking arts like karate, taekwondo or grappling arts like judo and wrestling.
- But their specialty is taking the fight to the floor and working from there until an opponent is knocked out or submitted.
This makes MMAs one of the most effective systems for unarmed dueling. But unarmed dueling categorizes only a fraction of all violent encounters in today’s world. There is a much wider variety of situations in which fighting skills are needed:
- Multiple-opponent attacks
- Armed aggression
- Violent assault
In most of these environments, taking the fight to the floor is not the best solution. The strategies and techniques that work so well in the Octagon can get you injured or killed in the street. This doesn’t mean they are useless for self-defense, on the contrary. It does mean you need to adapt your training to the viciousness of the pavement arena.
When you fight in the cage, you concentrate on the opponent in front of you; there are no other dangers or distractions. However, street crime routinely involves multiple attackers. They usually hide their numbers by making you focus on one aggressor while the other ambushes you from behind. It doesn’t matter how well you can fight in a competition; if you get clobbered over the back of the head with a tire iron, you go down. Or the attacker might only reveal his presence after you successfully took the first aggressor to the ground. While you feel ecstatic about gaining the mount position on him and are about to do some “ground & pound”, you don’t see the second man about to tear into you.
The problem is that there are no good techniques (grappling or otherwise) against multiple opponents once you hit the ground. If you willingly go to the ground in the street and ignore the danger of multiple opponents, you might discover that no amount of MMA training prepares you for defending against a viscous beating like this one. Notice how it starts out as one-on-one but as soon as the opportunity arises, a second attacker moves in. Ones the fight goes to the ground, it doesn’t take long to finish.
You can avoid all this by:
- Being aware of your surroundings and making it a habit to register the people around you wherever you go.
- If you spot a tough guy scoping you out, immediately assume he’s not alone and look for his accomplice.
- This tactic applies in spades whenever a stranger approaches you: Before he can reach you, sneak a quick peek behind you to spot anyone closing in.
- If you can’t prevent the encounter and have to defend yourself, step away from your aggressor as soon as he’s down and do a 360° scan to make sure you are safe.
- Do not go to the ground in the street, unless you absolutely have no other choice.
Once a fight is taken to the ground in the Octagon, it turns into a contest of physical abilities quickly. Unless a competitor places a joint lock or submission exactly right and at blinding speed, he has to struggle to reach a dominant position from which he can finish it off. This takes a considerable amount of pure strength; a physical attribute the average man has the advantage of over a woman. This places women at a distinct tactical disadvantage on the floor. For instance, violent rape often occurs with the perpetrator pinning his female victim on the ground with his bodyweight and superior strength. Unless the woman has superior grappling skills, her attacker’s strength prevents her from getting back on her feet.
Effective women’s self-defense courses do cover the ground game but they take a different approach from mixed martial arts: instead of trying to beat or submit the attacker, they create opportunities to escape from the ground and get back up again as soon as possible. They use techniques that are not allowed in most MMA tournaments: attacking the eyes, throat, and groin, breaking fingers, biting, or even clawing and ripping skin off. These techniques are meant to disorient and injure the attacker long enough for the woman to get him off of her and escape to safety. Under virtually no circumstances should women try to prolong the fight on the ground by going for a submission or chokehold.
Take a look at this video of Rich Dimitri teaching a women’s self defense class. The “fights” start at 8min.10
The goal for a woman is not to “beat” a male attacker. The goal is to get up and away. Submitting the attacker by means of ground & pound, arm bar or choke is never the primary objective. Getting up and away is clearly the best option.
In MMA tournaments a joint lock or choke hold rarely works instantly. Competitors transition from one technique to the other for several minutes (or much longer) to finish the fight and often the fighter who appears to be in a difficult position manages to reverse the situation in his favor. In a street confrontation, a fight often takes less than just one minute, sometimes it’s even less than ten seconds.
Usually one side gains the advantage over the other in the first few seconds and then exploits it to incapacitate his opponent. This makes time a critical component for ground fighting in the street; the faster you end the fight, the less chance of something going wrong:
- There are no breaks to catch your breath between rounds or a referee to let you recover from an illegal blow.
- You might just get tired before your attacker does and be unable to finish him off.
This means the safest strategy in the street is to incapacitate the attacker in matter of seconds once you hit the floor:
- Instead of struggling for a dominant position that only prolongs the fight, try to get back on your feet before your aggressor does. This always gives you the option to run away if you find yourself facing a stronger opponent or if he brought his friends along to send you to the hospital.
- If you do find an opening for a grappling technique, you might actually have to break or dislocate a joint before you effectively stop your attacker. Don’t expect him to tap out or if he does, respect the tap. He might decide to come at you again but this time with much more determination and viciousness.
- Most of all you need to focus your training towards quick execution and decision making. That means going for the joint lock with the intent to end the fight in an instant but also the alertness to abandon that same technique if it doesn’t work right off the bat. At that point in time, instead of continuing to grapple on the floor, try to get away from your opponent before he can hurt you.
Watch this fight. One punch and it’s over:
The days of Roman gladiators butchering each other with swords and other weapons for the entertainment of the people are fortunately in the past. In today’s arena, MMA fighters take each other on with empty hands. But things are different on the street: Criminals, thugs and violent drunks can and will use weapons to end a fight in their favor. This especially applies to ground fighting. As mentioned above, it usually takes time to choke somebody out or break the joint of a resisting opponent. If your attacker gets to his knife or firearm before you can render him harmless, your chances of survival drop considerably.
U.S. Marines currently train in ground fighting too, but do so with a specific mindset: they assume their enemy is always armed, regardless of the situation or environment. To instill this mindset, drill instructors place a stun gun in the pockets of some soldiers when they practice ground grappling. This forces recruits to control their opponent and try to finish the fight quickly. If they don’t, the stun gun (symbolizing a knife or firearm) gives them a shocking reminder of how real-life fighting can turn deadly in a matter of seconds.
You can train in the same way by:
- Practicing ground fighting in street clothes and incorporating training knives and guns in the sparring sessions. Alternate bouts with both you and your partner armed and then just one of you, practicing both the offensive and defensive aspects.
- Find ways to quickly draw your training weapon before your partner can finish a choke hold or joint lock on you, but also work on preventing him from doing the same.
- In either case, your goal is to get up and away from your armed opponent without delay.
- The other side of this coin is preventing him from disarming you. Conventional stand-up weapon retention techniques don’t work as well on the ground, forcing you to adapt them for the ground.
Here’s an example of a knife attack going to the ground. It looks like a fairly typical ground fight at first, until the knife comes out. Regular competitive MMA ground techniques and strategies work against you here.
Self-defense regulations vary from one country to the other and even from state to state. Though there is no single set of laws that is universally applicable across the globe, most justice systems have two essential components: duty to escape and proportionate defense:
- In layman’s terms, you have to avoid a physical altercation if that is at all possible. If not, then you are only allowed enough use of force to allow your escape and no more.
- The second concept obligates you to take into account the level of aggression: if an unarmed attacker slaps you in the shoulder, you are not allowed to shoot him until you run out of ammo. The defensive actions you use must be proportionate to his attacking techniques.
Though different legal systems interpret and apply these ideas in a variety of ways, they are consistently present.
As a mixed martial artist you can find yourself in legal trouble real fast even though you might be justified in defending yourself. It’s hard to argue self defense when witnesses swear they saw you take your attacker down and then rain a flurry of elbow strikes to his face, continuing long after he fell unconscious. Or you might do a perfect throw on an aggressive drunk, pound away at his face for a while and then perform an arm bar that snaps his elbow clean. When he sues you for all you’re worth, his lawyer will have a field day painting you as a violent thug who crippled a helpless victim. Odds are good he’ll win the case and ruin you financially or send you to prison.
These are just two examples of how things can go wrong but there are many more. MMA competition training is first and foremost a dueling environment. Self-defense is an entirely different animal and the legal system doesn’t forgive you for not distinguishing between the two. So when you train ground techniques for self-protection, do so with the goal of ending the fight fast so you can get up and escape.
MMAs are perhaps the most spectacular and entertaining fighting arts of our time. They’re also a great way to get in top physical shape while improving both your health and self-esteem. But whenever you want to use them for self-defense there are certain parameters to take into account. Overall, this is more a matter of having the right mindset than a technical issue. Train to understand the differences between the cage and the street and then adapt your skills accordingly. Hopefully, you can then continue to live a safe and rewarding life in the knowledge that your fighting skills will be there for you when needed.
UPDATE: Here’s Part Two of this article.