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Continuum of violence, levels of force
2012. Photo by Hoang Do., At Grapplers Inc.

You never want to go to the ground in a street fight!

You may have heard that sort of thing before, if you’ve ever heard anyone discussing or dismissing the values of various martial arts for the purpose of self defence:

  1. BJJ¹ is great for competition, but it relies too much on the rules. In a real fight there are no rules.
  2. BJJ may work one on one, but grappling won’t work against multiple opponents.
  3. Going to the ground is the last thing you want to do in a real fight. It’s a sure way to get stomped by the assailant’s friends.

There are various quick dismissals of some of these (and similar points). For example, dirty fighting isn’t the magic bullet some imagine; ball grabbing isn’t so easy and trying to punch someone in the groin, if they know a bit of grappling, is not very effective. And the history of MMA and the UFC empirically and convincingly taught us that while a complete martial artist must be competent in all three phases of unarmed combat—free-moving standup, clinch, and ground—still the reality is that grapplers almost always seem to defeat strikers if the latter have not trained in wrestling/grappling enough to learn some takedown defence. In modern MMA, of course, everybody is more rounded and a grappler with no striking won’t last long, but this is precisely because even the strikers who prefer to keep the fight standing have learned enough grappling to remain standing or defend and disentangle themselves and get back to their feet.

As for multiple attackers, well, if you’re outnumbered you’ll probably lose no matter what you do. I agree that keep moving, don’t get trapped, and don’t go to the ground is good advice, but I think clinching and quickly throwing is pretty effective too, and in a real multiple-opponent fight it seems absurdly optimistic to assume that things will always go your way and you’ll never get grabbed and taken down against your will. Grapplers have the advantage of knowing how to get to a top position, disentangle themselves, and stand back up. Still, one-on-several fighting is a losing proposition regardless of what you do. And in one-on-one situations—the situations you have any realistic chance of winning—grappling works just fine. (In that classic bugbear of a violent rapist assaulting a lone woman—actually a small percentage of rapes—BJJ², with its highly developed guard and techniques for variously choking or breaking an opponent who is trapped between your legs—seems so well-suited that it might be custom made.)

But all that is by the way. The truly puzzling thing about all this is the assumption—sometimes tacit and sometimes explicit—that “real world self defence” comes in precisely one variety: Life-or-death combat against an enemy with mortal intent and against whom lethal force is justified. (Sometimes this is codified in that reliable old false dichotomy: It’s better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.) Furthermore, every multiple opponent fight is assumed to consist of the hypothetical protagonist being outnumbered. (Perhaps the exponents of these street-lethal martial systems just don’t tend to be out among friends. One might facetiously ask why.)

In reality, I’ve never been in a really serious fight, and probably you haven’t either. The last time I was in a “real” fight it was on the schoolground. Perhaps you’ve been in a barroom brawl or some retrospectively stupid ego fight. These are not fights where lethal force is justified. It may be trivially true that it’s better to be judged by twelve than carried by six, but all things considered it might be better to swallow your ego and back down, or even take a few bumps and bruises and four stitches in the ER, than to spend two years in prison and acquire a criminal record.

The reality is that different violent situations require different levels of force and different kinds of violence. Here, I would argue that grappling arts like BJJ are inherently superior to striking arts, because while boxing is an excellent martial art and combat sport, and a very effective way of defending yourself should it come to it (especially if you have at least rudimentary grappling skills in case someone eats a punch and bulls his way into a clinch), it simply does not have a continuum of force that allows you to gently control a situation. It’s perfectly legitimate when used against the hypothetical psychotic attacker, but wildly inappropriate when your usually-pleasant friend gets rowdy and drunk at a party. Punching someone is fair if they are trying to punch you first, but if somebody is pushing shoving you and gearing up to a fight, perhaps it’s wiser to just trip them up, take them down in a controlled fashion, and place them in a pin until they calm down.

Furthermore, it’s simply not true that every conceivable “street fight” involves you being outnumbered. If some truly heinous asshole assaults you outside a club, would you rather break his teeth and gouge his eyes out with some (hypothetically effective) Krav Maga, or place him in a loose guillotine and wait until the bouncers (or the cops) come and drag him away? Both approaches protect you from violence; only one of them protects you from legal consequences of using excessive force.

And of course it’s not like BJJ lacks responses to situations where greater levels of force are necessary. If my life were truly on the line I wouldn’t try to go for a gentle takedown and a pin; I’d go for the hardest takedown I could muster—maybe a hard double-leg, or perhaps a throw inherited from judo such as harai goshi or uchi mata; and slamming someone down on pavement is certainly no less effective than punching them in the face. (It’s true that BJJ players tend to be much weaker on takedowns than judoka or wrestlers, but we still have more training than the average untrained schmoe. If the schmoe in question is not in fact unskilled and possesses enough grappling skills to block takedowns, well, then you’d better have some grappling know-how to counter his!) We learn control positions and pins, but we also learn joint locks that can put limbs out of commission, and best of all, chokes and strangles that can rapidly render an assailant unconscious more reliably than any other technique. (It would take another minute or two of strangling after the point of unconsciousness before death sets in, so it’s unlikely to happen accidentally. Compared to concussion-inducing strikes, or joint locks, chokes are relatively low-risk methods of putting people out of commission.)

I’m not trying to paint BJJ as a be-all, end-all system of self defence here. For my more complete thoughts on that subject see this post, but in brief I think that unarmed combat is a final and rather poor line of self defence, after avoidance, negotiation, escape, and armed defence in that approximate order. I also don’t wish to elevate BJJ over other grappling arts such as judo, wrestling, or SAMBO, which all have different strengths and weaknesses but are all fantastic. Nor do I mean to devalue striking: A complete martial artist should be able to handle himself both standing (freely or in the clinch) and on the ground. MMA, not grappling, is where the martial arts reach their peak in applicability for unarmed one-on-one combat (though rulesets such as Daiko Juko/Kudo, sanda/sanshou, combat SAMBO, and similar are also very excellent). What I do think is that grappling is an essential part, and that if you’re self defence oriented and can choose only one part (which would be unfortunate), grappling is in fact more important than striking. I also think that a lot of criticisms are weak and unfounded and deserve to be deflated.

In summary, whenever you hear somebody say that you never want to go to the ground in a real fight, don’t just nod in instinctive agreement with common wisdom, but instead stop and recognise that

  1. …in the highly unfortunate circumstances where you are compelled to use force in self defence, context matters;
  2. …whenever milder levels of force are called for—restraint rather than incapacitation—grappling offers far more options than any amount of striking
  3. …grapplers learn to fight on the ground and off their backs, but are not limited or required to, as takedowns are vital parts of the game and e.g. BJJ has a strongly developed strategy for getting to the top and a dominant position;
  4. …many of the horror scenarios designed to point out the folly of grappling—say, multiple attackers or weapons—are scenarios you’re unlikely to win anyway, and it may be more sensible to consider the value of different approaches for scenarios where any approach is workable.

As an example, here’s cell phone footage of a drunk man accosting renowned grappler Ryan Hall in a restaurant and being forcibly subdued without a single punch thrown and without causing injury.

¹ I use BJJ as an example because it’s particularly prone to this kind of criticism and because it’s the art I myself practice and am most familiar with, but it applies pretty much equally to judo, sport SAMBO, submission grappling, Greco-Roman, freestyle, or collegiate wrestling, and so on.

² This is an exception to ¹.

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