By Iain Abernethy
In recent years grappling has become very popular. Grappling is also increasingly being portrayed as a panacea for all ills. Although grappling has an important role to play when defending yourself, it is important to understand that grappling is not something you should actively seek out in live situations. It can take time to grapple an opponent into submission, whereas a well placed strike can end a fight in a split second. Most fights will begin at punching range and it is here that you should try to bring the fight quickly to an end. Before we go on to discuss how this may be achieved, I feel it is important to remind ourselves that avoiding the fight in the first place is by far the most desirable outcome.
Gichin Funakoshi (Karate-Do Kyohan) wrote, "The secret principle of martial arts is not vanquishing the attacker but resolving to avoid an encounter before its occurrence. To become the object of an attack is an indication that there was an opening in one's guard and the important thing is to be on guard at all times." This is sound advice, when adults fight the outcome can go well beyond black eyes and fat lips, there can be very serious medical and legal consequences. There is nothing to gain and everything to lose by getting needlessly involved in fights. Sun-Tzu in the classic text 'The Art of War' states, "Achieving victory in every battle is not absolute perfection, neutralising an adversary's forces without battle is absolute perfection." We must be constantly aware of our surroundings and should an undesirable situation develop we can attempt to avoid it all together. We should park our cars in well lit areas, avoid isolated places, keep valuables out of sight, travel with the car doors locked, avoid suspicious looking people and situations, walk towards oncoming traffic, keep away from aggressive individuals or groups, do not stop to talk to strangers etc. We should be constantly 'switched on'. In this way it may be possible to avoid an attack altogether, and if we can't then at least the element of surprise is lost to our assailant.
If there is no way to avoid the confrontation then the primary strategy should be to 'stun and run'. You should strike the assailant without warning and whilst they are disorientated you should take the opportunity to escape. In a real fight you must never allow your attacker to gain the initiative, there is simply far too much at stake. If you are facing multiple opponents then your initial strike is even more important. It is impossible to fight more than one person at a time; however, if your first strike should disable one of your assailants then your chances of survival will be improved. You should practice your favourite punching range strike be it a right hook, knife hand, palm heel etc. from a 'no guard' position so that when you are sure an attack is imminent you can unleash that strike, without warning to your opponent, and then make good your escape. It is very important to practice strikes from natural stance with no guard because it is from here that you will need to be able to generate power in real situations. Moving yourself into a 'stance' or raising your hands into a guard will warn the opponent that a strike is imminent and as a result greatly reduce the effect of the blow. It is also vitally important to strike on your assailant's preparation to attack and not wait until you have actually been struck to begin protecting yourself!
It does not take a psychic to see when an attack is about to commence. Your assailant is likely to do a number of the following when their verbal aggression is about to escalate to the physical. Look for a change in skin colour, rapid breathing, an aggressive facial expression or stare, a clenching or shaking of the fists, pointing or pushing, a change in voice tone or pattern, excessive swearing, insults or challenges. All of the previous physical cues are caused by the increase in adrenaline and aggression levels that occur before an attack commences. Be aware that some assailants may appear to be very friendly at first in order to lull you into a false sense of security. When initially approached be prepared for the potential switch from friendly to aggressive behaviour as a means to frighten you and make you more likely to comply with your assailant's requests. Always try to defuse the situation by appearing to remain calm. If your attacker continues to become more aggressive, despite your attempts to pacify them, then continue to keep a sufficient distance to prevent yourself from being easily grabbed or struck.
When you are sure that your assailant is going to attack, you should continue to act in a passive manner so that they will drop their mental guard, believing you to be in their control. You should then strike a weak point with as much ferocity as possible. For those of you who feel that this is a somewhat 'underhand' tactic, I will inform you that Gichin Funakoshi (Founder of Shotokan Karate) recommend exactly the same approach. Gichin Funakoshi (Karate-Do Kyohan) wrote, "When there are no avenues of escape or one is caught even before any attempt to escape can be made, then for the first time the use of self-defence techniques should be considered. Even at times like these, do not show any intention of attacking, but first let the attacker become careless. At that time attack him concentrating one's whole strength in one blow to a vital point and in the moment of surprise, escape and seek shelter and help."
Always endeavour to defuse the situation and if that is not possible then try to use the amount of force needed to ensure your safety and no more. You would be legally and morally in the wrong if you continued to strike your opponent after they no longer posed a threat. Having said that, your safety must come first so be equally sure not to 'under do it'. Always escape the instant it is safe to do so. Your assailant may also have accomplices that you were not previously aware of. Don't give them the opportunity to finish what their friend started.
If you have one well practised technique to use at the onset of an attack this will remove decision-making whilst under stress and hence help you to respond without unnecessary hesitation. Stun your assailant then escape, it is in this way that you should try to conduct self-defence situations and not get dragged into long drawn out battles. If our aim is to end fights with one well placed strike that connects without warning, why do we need to concern ourselves with any other techniques? The answer is simple - in case that one technique should fail. If your initial strike should not be successful or escape is still not an option. Then knowledge of close range fighting and grappling is a must. In real fights a few punches get thrown and if none are successful the fight quickly collapses into grappling / ground fighting. The back and forth motion of a boxing match or karate tournament is rarely seen in the street. Close range fighting differs from all other ranges in that once the fight gets close in, it is impossible to move back out to a more comfortable range. If your opponent was out punching you, it might be possible for you to back up slightly into kicking range. However, if your opponent is out grappling you moving back to punching range will be impossible due to the opponent's grip keeping you in close. This is the main reason why skill at close range is an absolute must. You must also be familiar with grappling and ground fighting in practice in order to avoid the panic and exhaustion that close range fighting can impart to those who are unfamiliar with it.
Close range fighting includes both striking and grappling and it is important to use the right method at the right time. When an opponent makes their initial grip, it is not your aim to become involved in a long drawn out wrestling match. The more time you spend entangled with an opponent, the more time their un-entangled colleagues will have to repeatedly strike you. In today's society, one on one fights are the exception rather than the rule. Once the initial grip is made, you should use your free limbs to strike the opponent. Remember, when grappling starts, it does not mean it is time to stop striking. As previously mentioned, it can take time to grapple an opponent into submission, but a barrage of focused and well placed strikes can end the fight far quicker. The karate masters of old understood this well. A great many of the grappling techniques contained within kata, free limbs and position opponents so that decisive strikes can take place. However, if you have no grappling skills you will find it extremely difficult to strike your opponent due to your limbs being tied up. Remember grappling is to be avoided if at all possible. This is especially true of ground fighting. Your aim when you go to the ground is to regain your feet as quickly as possible; it is not your aim to use all kinds of locks and holds in order to impress any spectators. Ground fighting holds and locks do have their place, but the more time you spend on the floor the more time your attacker's friends and accomplices will have to kick and punch you.
If going to the floor cannot be avoided, try to ensure that your opponent goes down with you. The best way to achieve this is once you feel that you have lost your balance, pull the opponent in towards you and spin so that you land on top. If this is not possible then grab the hair, clothing, anything at all, in order to make sure that you do not land alone. If the worst happens and your opponent remains upright, turn onto your side and cover your groin with your thigh. Pivot on your hip using your hands and lower leg to turn so that your feet are towards the assailant. Use your top leg to kick out at the opponent's shins and groin. If you can gain sufficient space, get up in a way that keeps your head away from your opponent. In all honesty, if you go to the ground alone your chances of getting back up are not good. Whenever you find yourself on the floor, either on your own or with your opponent, you must do everything you can to get to your feet as quickly as possible.
There are a number of significant differences in the way that people grapple for sport and the way people grapple to survive. The majority of grappling competitions do not allow striking. Sport grappling is always one on one whereas real fights tend not to be. In real situations we are not trying to get a win by 'submission' or pin. Originally the locking techniques were used to destroy the function of joints, not to take the joints to their limit in order to get the opponent to tap out. In a real fight your opponent may surrender only to regain their desire to fight the instant the lock or strangle is released; no referee will be there to ensure fair play. Techniques that work well in the Dojo on a willing partner may not work as well on an uncooperative assailant. Perspiration, spilt beer or even blood can make getting the grip required for many locks impossible. Any technique that relies upon your opponent's clothing will also prove difficult if they are wearing flimsy items such as a T-shirt. We must also not forget that many techniques that are outlawed in competition are the norm in a street fight e.g. biting and hair pulling. A major difference is the use of weapons. A technique that will control an unarmed opponent may still allow you to be stabbed by an armed one. The effects of drink, drugs and adrenaline on your opponent's pain threshold must also be taken into consideration.
Knowing how to grapple is vital if you wish to be able to defend yourself in real situations. However, it is important to understand that there are dangers involved and that grappling alone will not provide all the answers. Hopefully this article will have given you some things to think about when studying grappling and close range fighting. Thanks for taking the time to read this article. I sincerely hope that you found it useful.
This article has been reproduced with the permission of Iain Abernethy
Visit his website www.iainabernethy.com where you can read more articles and purchase copies of his books and dvds.
Iain Abernethy has been involved in the martial arts since childhood. Iain holds the rank of 5th Dan with both the British Combat Association (one of the world's leading groups for close-quarter combat, self-protection and practical martial arts) and Karate England (the official governing body for Karate in England). Iain regularly writes for the UK’s leading martial arts magazines, he has written a number of critically acclaimed books on the practical application of traditional martial arts and he is a member of the "Combat Hall of Fame".