Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ground fighting: do we really need it?

     For quite some time now there has been an ever growing trend in the martial arts to incorporate ground fighting techniques into training programs everywhere. From the UFC dominance by Brazilian jujutsu fighters in its early years, to the US Army modeling their latest Combatives system on BJJ, to the rise of MMA as the "hot" thing to do... martial arts practitioners everywhere hold many of these systems as the most "realistic" and "complete" self defense systems available. Many of these claim their superiority by the amount of fights won in a ring or match by their exponents, or how effective they have shown to be against one on one encounters. The effectiveness of "traditional" martial arts and their teaching methods are disregarded as ineffective, antiquated and time consuming. How are we to consider the claims made by both groups?

MMA knockouts of 2010

Brazilian jujutsu vs karate

From the Bubishi, note several grappling techniques

     My own martial experience has been primarily on stand up systems (TKD and Isshin ryu karate, gung fu,  aikido and defensive tactics) which rely on percussion techniques (strike/punch/kick) along with some joint locking and throws. Ground work consisted mainly on how to disengage as quickly as possible and stand up to continue the fight. Even during aikido training the emphasis was to use ukemi (falling and tumbling drills) to survive throws without incurring injury, even at fast speed.

     Yoshinkan aikido ukemi drills

     I have always known my ground fighting ability is very limited and unsophisticated by "modern" standards; elbows, knees, groin grabs and biting will not win any contest where rules are involved although they might save me on the street. Furthermore, my size and natural sense of balance has always made it hard for others to unbalance or throw me. Of course, that worked quite well against people not specifically trained to bring one down into the ground and take the offensive while there.  The couple times I tangled with someone skilled (a college level wrestler one time, a judo nidan on another) I was totally out of my element, and even though I could delay a takedown, it was only a matter of time before I was off my feet.

     The focus of my training for most of my life, especially during the years I worked corporate security, was to restrain and hold a person if necessary, or take them out if not.  Remaining mobile was paramount, what with the possibility of multiple attackers, weapons, having to protect another person, etc.  Going to ground was a big no-no in my strategic outlook, and it still is.  There is a big difference between knowing how to win a ground fight where it's only you and an opponent; on the street, where others might get involved, the ground could be littered with glass or debris and knives and sticks are being used I do not want to remain in one spot for any length of time. My #1 rule for the moment when your awareness has failed you and physical confrontation is imminent: mobility is LIFE. Whether to gain higher terrain, find an escape route or keep several guys to get a hold on you, you must be able to move, and unless you are very adept at chinese dog boxing (a specialized ground fighting style) being on the ground precludes all those options. 

     Gou Quan (Dog Boxing)

      That being said, my recent training in jujutsu has brought an appreciation for the usefulness of ground fighting skills, especially in one-on-one situations where a person might surprise you and manage to get you down to the floor.  I still prefer to do my fighting standing, but the chance of being thrown is always present whether you face an irate drunkard or a trained MMA practitioner. Jujutsu has many techniques for controlling and throwing a person, as well as locks and chokes to be applied while on the ground. I would recommend the Kodokan Judo Goshin Jutsu form as a staple of a short self defense program, along with some training to regain the initiative if thrown down so as to escape or control an attacker. For law enforcement officers ground techniques can allow control of a suspect without unduly injuring him/her while avoiding legal repercussions and excessive force accusations.  Same for anyone who has to deal with altercations of a one-on-one nature, whether in a hospital, a bar, or correctional facilities.  

    The problem is, how much do we need ground fighting skills? How do we determine what degree of proficiency is needed to accomplish our ends?  In my case, being that I do not work in an environment where I find my physical persona attacked on a regular basis, to invest a lot of time gaining superlative skill at fighting on the ground is not a necessity.  Rather, it is a sort of academic pursuit, learning for the sake of learning and improving current skills and adding new ones.  I might have learned new ways to defend myself on the ground, but I have not trained long enough to unseat behavior learned over several decades and if caught unawares I would most likely revert to rapid fire knees and elbows to get some damage in so I can regain a standing position. Being that I am no longer restrained by the necessity of controlling someone without causing excessive damage (not that it is ok to hurt someone if you are a civilian, but if you work in the protection or security field the liability issues add a new level of complexity to everything) the need for highly specialized knowledge of ground fighting is not as important as it might have once been.  

Jujutsu in the old days, keeping it simple

     What about civilian self defense?  So many statistics have been mentioned on just how many fights end up on the ground, it is hard to determine exactly what kind of fights were involved in these. Were they drunken brawls, robberies or assaults? Were there only two persons involved, or many? Putting the numbers aside, the requirements for civilian defense are very different than those of law enforcement or protective personnel.  A civilian is concerned with getting away unharmed, and all tactics, strategies and training should focus on this as the main goal.  Most people will not have the time or inclination to spend a lot of time learning (or retaining for that matter) any overly complicated techniques. What looks so awesome on the octagon can be utterly impossible for someone to do when taken by surprise... 

Krav Maga has the right idea IMO when it comes to ground fighting

     Simple and direct techniques, easily learned and retained with a modicum of training should be the core of civilian defense systems.  Ground fighting techniques that should be a part of such a system would include how to maintain a top mount position as well as getting to it from disadvantageous ones such as being on the bottom or with your back taken; elbow and knee strikes to create space to gain your footing and run; front and rear naked chokes (only if one opponent is involved, don't hang around someone's neck when others are coming for you); some  leg and arm lock techniques for controlling or disabling a person so they cannot follow you easily as you make your escape. Groin grabs, eye gouges,spitting and biting, all the dirty but goodies... weapons like knives being part of the mix. Always thinking of the worst possible scenario... because that is just what you might get.  

     Jujutsu has immensely improved my defensive skills, not so much in a technical sense (too short a time training to be any good) but in the way I see how throws, locks and submissions both standing and on the ground should be incorporated with my self defense training and needs.  By being more cognizant of proper use of ground fighting within a street self defense scenario I can concentrate on what works best, rather than spend my training time on things more suited for a ring or the mat.  No matter what martial discipline you choose to study, cross training can only help improve your abilities and chances at survival; it is critical however that whatever you incorporate to your bag of tricks doesn't end up playing tricks on you... and leave you on the ground in a world of hurt. 


  1. Fantastic article Jo - says a lot of things I wished I'd said!

    1. Thank you Dan, appreciate the support! :-)