This year marks the 20 year anniversary of the UFC. I personally believe Mixed Martial Arts in general and the UFC in particular have done a lot for the martial arts in terms of raising awareness and working hard to bring them into the mainstream. I know there are many people who disagree with this and it’s not my intention to try and convince you otherwise.
One of the obvious benefits to come from the UFC is the introduction of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and ground fighting to the martial arts population. While the same ground techniques that were showcased in the first few UFC matches (and many since then – eg the arm bar, RNC, triangle choke) are fundamental Judo ne-waza techniques, the notion of fighting on the ground, from one’s back was a foreign concept to those in striking based martial arts. The UFC changed that.
The fact that so many MMA fights ended up on the ground led to an explosion in interest in BJJ and ground grappling. Unfortunately, it also led to many misconceptions about self defence: one being that all – or most – street fights end up on the ground. The ingenious strategy of the Gracies in the early UFC of taking an opponent out of his comfort zone and to the ground into a position of strength for BJJ has been erroneously applied to the non-sporting context of street defence. Outcomes in sporting events are specific to that environment.
The Gracie’s purposely took the fight to the ground as part of their overall strategy. This is quite different from a fight naturally ending up on the ground. In fact, more recent UFC fights (ie the last 5 to 8 years) highlight the idea that a good take-down defence will prevent the fight ending up on the ground and two strikers will rarely end up fighting on the ground. In addition, the “real world” problem of obstacles such as walls and tables may actually prevent combatants from falling over rather than always facilitating it (there is no referee to stop you from holding the fence!).
Ok, so if I am correct that a fight will not automatically end up on the ground unless one or both combatants execute a takedown, then where does that leave ground fighting for self defence? Is it worth worrying about? After all, ground fighting doesn’t really make sense if there are multiple attackers or weapons involved. At this point, those who train no ground techniques at all get very excited and exclaim that it is a dumb idea to go to the ground and “we don’t train for the ground because we don’t get taken down”. Yes… good luck with that one. Training ground fighting and defensive techniques from the ground are immensely important. The fact that you don’t want something to happen doesn’t alter the fact that it may happen.
The risk management approach to martial arts and self defence
At this point you are probably thinking that I am contradicting myself – on one hand I am saying that fights don’t necessarily end up on the ground in street situations. On the other hand, I am saying they frequently (but not usually) end up on the ground, so we need to train for scenarios involving ground fighting (yes…. that was confusing for me too).
I look at this from a risk management point of view. In risk and threat assessment we consider two factors: the likelihood of an event occurring and the potential consequences of that event should it occur. The table below is a typical, albeit very basic, risk matrix:
From this table you can see that an event that has a medium likelihood of occurring but has a high potential impact is rated as being a “high” risk event. I would place a street defence situation ending up on the ground as being in this category. The occurrence of an assault for most of us is a low probability but high impact event that is rated as “Medium” risk. These ratings are also termed “threat levels”.
We need to train ground defence techniques (and weapon defences and multiple attacker scenarios) because the potential consequences of ending up on the ground in a street defence situation are quite severe. Any argument that uses frequency of an event without considering the consequences is really missing the point of self defence training in the first place. The whole basis of self defence training (note the difference with martial arts training) is to prepare for an unlikely, but potentially catastrophic, event.
What to train to prepare for the ground street defence secenario?
There are two aspects to this. Firstly, I think train whatever you enjoy training - be it ground grappling, kata or standup striking. That is, don’t get too hung up about what you should be doing – just be honest about what you are doing and why. Secondly, if you want to mitigate the risk of being on the ground in a street defence scenario (or any other scenario), then train specifically for that scenario. This means accounting for all those nasty little factors that are often cited as evidence for why going to the ground is a bad idea for self defence. These include, weapons on the ground, multiple attackers with one on the ground attacking you and others standing attacking, obstacles and groin strikes (and striking in general). Detractors of MMA and the UFC who state that it is not “real fighting” because there are no multiple attackers, weapons or groin strikes rarely or never train under those circumstances themselves. These are exactly the sort of scenarios that need to be trained in addition to one on one unarmed attacks.
If you train BJJ for sport and think you are training self defence, have your training partner throw a punch or pull a training knife every now and then to see how different it is. Pulling guard will never be the same again! You might not train like this all the time, but just be aware of the limitations of training only one aspect of a martial art.
Conversely, if you think you would just poke an attacker in the eye to stop the fight, actually train with a good ground grappler and gain an appreciation of how difficult this is. Both of you will benefit from the experience. It is possible to use eye pokes, but your skills and effectiveness with them will be enhanced if you understand different ground positions and have an appreciation of how to use them. But also consider that attacking the eye may not be quite the finishing technique you think it is and it may only be possible to induce a change in position. Training self defence ground grappling will enable you to capitalise on that positional change.
Transitions: you can’t get there from here.
Lastly, train escapes from all ground positions with all of the above in mind. Please note that this includes transitions from positions that are usually considered dominant in grappling competition – such as guard and the mount. For example you could transition from the guard (both top and bottom positions) to standing and from the top mount position to standing. Do these under multiple attacker situations and you will see that it is more difficult that you may think.
Similarly train to defend against transition techniques such as take-downs. If your primary defence to a double leg take down attempt is to strike the attacker in the spine before he gets to you, you possibly need to consider the effect of momentum (not to mention the pain numbing effects of alcohol, drugs, adrenalin and/or anger). Actually train it against a motivated attacking partner to see what other options you have.
The main point is: train as many scenarios as possible and the drill them all. Go easy at first and then increase the pace and resistance. Always train in a safe manner. This is a problem solving approach that works very well.
The debate of whether fights end up on the ground or whether it is a good idea to go to the ground really is quite pointless. We could discuss it and write about it for hours. Sadly there is fantasy and magical thinking on both sides of the fence. My suggested solution is to experiment and do the training in an honest, realistic and safe manner. Whenever you hear yourself say “Well if someone tried to do X on me, I would just do Y”, actually train that scenario and variations of it to see if Y is the awesome technique you think it is, or just another letter in the alphabet.