In any kind of street combat, fighting on the ground for an extended period can put you in a world of hurt. Although grappling has proved its effectiveness in controlled environments such as the dojo and the cage, it’s very different on the street—for several reasons. First, you can grapple with only one person at a time, which means you commit yourself to a single threat. Obviously, that exposes you to any additional threats that may exist.
Second, grappling occupies both your hands. If you’re a police officer carrying a gun, knife or Taser, that can pose a weapon-retention problem. While you’re using your hands to control the attacker, he can let go with one hand, remove your weapon from your belt and use it against you. (Many times I’ve overseen drills in which cops have role-played suspects and arresting officers, and the officers’ guns were removed without their knowing it way too often.)
Third, grappling is not combat-efficient. It requires you to expend tremendous amounts of energy. Rolling around on the ground with an assailant for two minutes depletes far more of your reserves than engaging in a stand-up fight of the same duration—which doesn’t even take into account the fact that the average stand-up fight lasts far less than two minutes.
With all that said, many law-enforcement and civilian street altercations wind up on the ground—as many as 90 percent, it’s been claimed. If you do down and choose to stay there, you run a high risk of losing should it turn out to be a multi-threat environment. For that reason, it’s essential to become familiar with anti-grappling and ground fighting techniques, as well as the most popular offensive moves, so you’ll have a better understanding of your opponent’s strategies and tactics.
Ground Fighting Tip #1: Drop the Combat Sports Mindset
The self-defense system known as Controlled FORCE is designed to fit the needs of law-enforcement officers. As such, it views ground fighting from a combat perspective instead of a sport perspective. The differences are obvious: Practitioners of martial sports like Brazilian jiu-jitsu, wrestling and judo need not worry about groin strikes, eye gouges or dynamic pressure on their joints. Their goal is to work toward a pin or submission while fending off their opponent’s “fair” techniques. In contrast, your goal in the real world is to protect your vital areas, get to your feet and neutralize the threat using any tool that’s available.
The first lesson: Dump that combat sports mindset right now. Forget about those submissions. In a violent situation, your goal is to work toward an outside position to minimize your opponent’s attack zone and increase your ability to gain control of him or to disengage and change tactics. Controlled FORCE accomplishes this by teaching counterstrike drills that combine protecting techniques and disruption techniques that will prepare you to rapidly recover and regain control when a fight goes beyond the initial surprise attack. If the assailant is too close for you to use other control techniques, you can rely on hand techniques and body locks to gain an advantageous position.
During Self-Defense Training: Although your main goal should be to remain standing, you must be prepared to fight on the ground. Again, your objective is not to get comfortable there but to learn effective techniques for fending off the attack, minimizing damage and getting back to your feet. Spar with that in mind.
Ground Fighting Tip #2: Employ a Collapsing Defense
Controlled FORCE advocates an approach called “collapsing defense.” If you go down, you should establish a ground-defense safety zone and keep the assailant at bay by attacking his feet and shins while he remains standing. As he closes the gap, assume an active position from which you can shift from side to side with one leg ready to kick and your free hand ready to protect your face. That orientation is intended to create distance so you can get back on your feet or transition to other defensive tools.
If you’re in law enforcement, practice this while wearing a holster and training firearm so you can draw your weapon. Once you land on the ground, you must remember that your opponent can present a knife, gun or other weapon. At that point, you can use your firearm and engage him with deadly force.
During Self-Defense Training: If you carry a gun, make sure you practice drawing it from a seated or grounded position. Keep the muzzle pointed away from your body. After you simulate shooting, your opponent should continue his attack in some repetitions of the drill to keep you from developing a mindset in which he always stops after being shot.
Ground Fighting Tip #3: Regain Control
If the assailant breaches your defenses and gets close enough to start throwing punches, you can integrate skills taught in Controlled FORCE’s counterstrike drills. If he becomes frustrated with your defenses and tries to stand up to overtake you, use leverage techniques to shift his momentum so you can maneuver into a dominant position. If he manages to defeat all your preliminary defenses, you’re in a fight for your life. You must focus on regaining a position of advantage and re-establishing situational control.
During Self-Defense Training: Make sure your ground-fighting drills start with you in a bad position. That forces you to switch into survival mode. Controlled FORCE teaches a drill in which you start on the ground while your opponent grabs your holstered weapon. You have 30 seconds to retain your side arm and gain a position of advantage. After 30 seconds, a second attacker jumps in. After another 30 seconds, a third attacker joins the melee. The drill drives home the importance of getting to your feet as quickly as possible. Don’t focus on grappling with one opponent, or you’ll pay the price.
Ground Fighting Tip #4: Protect Your Face
To further enhance your ground survivability, devise drills that place you in the worst possible predicament—for example, you’re mounted and your foe is working toward an even better position. Your first mission should be to prevent him from landing a blow to your face. Constantly move your head and use your arms as barriers in front of your face. At the same time, continue moving your body, especially your hips, to keep him off-balance.
During Self-Defense Training: Lie on your back and have your partner straddle you in the mount with one knee off the ground. The drill begins the moment he drops his other knee—that way, you won’t program yourself to feel comfortable when you’re mounted. He then initiates a series of punches aimed at your face. (If he’s not wearing boxing gloves, make sure he knows that he’s supposed to miss, but also be sure you’re on a mat so he doesn’t break his hand if he hits the floor.)
While moving and protecting your head, scoot your body upward (in the direction of your head) and squirm from side to side as if you’re doing side abdominal crunches. The movement will force him to focus on trying to keep his balance instead of bashing in your face.
Ground Fighting Tip #5: Get to Your Feet
Your next step in a fight is to get your attacker off you—preferably by bucking him off with your hips. If he’s experienced at ground fighting, the task might prove difficult, in which case a groin strike can distract him long enough to break his balance. Once he’s displaced, get back to your feet and transition to better tools such as head strikes or a weapon.
During Self-Defense Training:Start with your partner mounted on you. After you protect your face and move up and side to side, thrust your hips upward at a 45-degree angle toward either of your shoulders. Avoid bucking him in the direction of your head because he might end up with his knees in your armpits, which can pin your arms in a useless position.
If you buck him partway off and he braces himself by posting an arm, wrap the limb with your arm and trap his ankle with your foot. Then roll him in the direction of the trap. You’re now in position to apply a Controlled FORCE Mechanical Advantage Control Hold and roll him off. All the MACH techniques are designed to function in a variety of positions, which means there are fewer techniques you must learn.
Even though he’s been thrown off, you might find yourself in his guard. Don’t stop moving. Unleash a series of groin strikes and pry his legs apart with your elbows digging into his inner thighs, then scramble to your feet.
During Self-Defense Training: Make sure you do this drill—and all the others—while wearing your duty belt and a holstered training firearm. Otherwise, you run the risk of creeping back toward sport training. Instruct your partner to go for your gun when the opportunity presents itself. If possible, arrange for another partner to serve as a second attacker.
Ground Fighting Tip #6: Prepare for Stress
Adding stressors can make any training more realistic. A stressor is a condition that has the potential to distract or limit you, thus making the drills more challenging. They include:
- Training on gravel, in a stairwell or in a narrow hallway
- Doing calisthenics or a 15-second sprint beforehand to simulate a foot pursuit
- Partially obscuring your vision with a blindfold or goggles covered with tape
- Turning down the lights to simulate a night fight.
The bottom line is to keep the drills as realistic and challenging as possible so you’ll be better prepared to deal with an altercation that goes to the ground. Short review: The concepts that must be hammered into your brain are the need to protect yourself, the benefits of constantly moving, the need to retain your weapon and the urgency of getting back to your feet.
(Tony Cortina is a Southern California-based combatives instructor and law-enforcement officer with 14 years of experience, 10 of which have been with his unit’s SWAT team.)