Close Combat, Hand To Hand,
World War II, Self Defense
Mixed Martial Arts and Beyond
By Damian Ross
The Self Defense Company
Close combat or “Combatives” comes from the root word COMBAT – “to fight in direct contact”, “active fighting between enemies”, “any fight or struggle”.
What is the singular glaring absence in the above definition? Notice it? There is absolutely no mention of Fairbairn, Applegate, Biddle, World War II, Sykes, O’Neill or anyone else for that matter. Furthermore, there is no mention of any particular style, Jiu-Jitsu, Boxing, Savate or any member of the Gracie family. No mention of the Punic Wars or the Spartans. No mention of any techniques, Juji-Gatame, a smashing overhand right, an edge of hand blow, or even a good old kick in the ass!
What’s the point?!?
There are no specifics that define what is or isn’t so-called “Combatives”, Close Combat, Self Defense, Martial Arts, Hand to Hand or Whatever else people are calling it these days! So why do so many people feel such an overriding need to “define” combatives into a narrow scope of limited methodology?
Now anyone how thinks of world war II era hand to hand puts it into that “Fairbairn stuff”. A few months ago this same guy (or girl) thought Fairbairn was what you got when you had too much sun and Applegate was the entrance to an orchard!
Now everybody who is an “expert” in self defense is also and authority on combatives.
Well what exactly are you an expert at? I’m not sure even “they” really don’t even know.
This document won’t presume to speak for anyone else that uses this term “combatives”. Actually I wouldn’t want to! All it can do is offer a CORRECT semantic observation based on HISTORICAL FACT on what encompasses my study, training and understanding of so-called “combatives”.
The Roots of Close Combat, Self Defense and Mixed Martial Arts
If you really do your research you will see that even in manuals describing man to man combat that are centuries old, there exists a very comprehensive survey and presentations of many forms of armed and unarmed combat. You will find a vast array of weapon skills and “unarmed” combat that is a diverse mix of “techniques”.
Before the use of London Prize Ring rules and the Marquis of Queensbury, “pugilists” used and relied on a great number of different grappling, striking, kicking and gouging methods.
Ancient Greek Pankration was a combined system of “all powers” combat.
The original Koryu Bujutsu fighting systems of the Samurai included a comprehensive catalog of both armed and unarmed skills. The unarmed combatives of the Japanese Bushi also DIDN’T limit scope or method. Grappling was stressed when that was the best method of gaining tactical superiority. Striking, kicking and even biting was resorted to when that was deemed the most appropriate method.
The Chinese have always maintained fully robust systems of combat that included all manner of striking, punching, kicking, throwing, strangling and joint-locking.
Original Okinawan Te (Ti) included percussion methods as well as “tegumi” and “tuite”. Punch his lungs out if that did the job best. Kick his gonads out the top of his head if THAT worked best or grapple him into submission and control or grapple him into a spine lock and neck break.
No matter what culture or style, when it came to real fighting it was whatever was called for and whatever GOT THE JOB AT HAND DONE, PERIOD!
The 19th century saw many methods of “combined” self-defense systems develop in the West (READ: Mixed Martial Arts.)
The French combined elements of Chausson/Savate (Basque Zipota as well) with Boxe Anglaise, Parisian Lutte, and even the “new” Japanese Jiu-Jitsu.
The British did the same. The “BARTITSU” of Barton-Wright is a classic example. In the United States a number of self defense methods became available to the public that combined methods from Boxing and Wrestling. EVEN before any organized mixed martial arts systems were presented, men who fought even for sport used virtually ANY device to insure victory. Just read Elliot J. Gorn.
The Twentieth century saw even more “mixed” martial art combat systems. (It didn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to figure out that in a real fight ANYTHING goes.) Any and ALL manner of grappling, throttling, kicking, kneeing, butting, biting, punching, gouging, stomping and whatever other methods of mayhem could be employed were all “FAIR” when “fair” meant the difference between life or death and it certainly didn’t just end at “unarmed” fighting!
A gentleman of the day who beset upon by a rough and tumble “footpad” on a lonely and desolate backstreet would feel perfectly justified in running said “footpad” through and through again with his sword cane or bashing his brains in with a “lifesaver” even when the highwayman wasn’t even armed with a lowly brickbat. What’s that old saying? All’s fair in love and war. Often it’s not a matter of whose “right”, but simply whose LEFT!
This is the soul of combatives or self defense for self preservation is clear, pure and simple. Whatever WORKS BEST at the time! A mixture of varied fighting skills, a “mixed” fighting system, what a NOVEL IDEA!
Systematic Self Defense in the Industrial Age
The advent of World War I (the war to END all wars) brought warfare into a new and foreboding era of man to man killing and slaughter. Air power, mechanized warfare, chemical warfare and the general widespread use of machine guns changed the face of battle almost completely.
The static and stagnant lines created by entrenched warfare demanded new and innovative tactics and strategies. Among these was the advent of “raiding” parties.
Small groups of lightly armed men who ventured out into “no man’s land” behind enemy lines for the purpose of recon, probing, intelligence, prisoner grabs, and psychological demoralization missions. The nature of fighting under these conditions became popularized as trench warfare. This was close-in, knife to belly, hand to hand combat.
For this all manner of expedient, purpose designed and improvised close-combat weaponry was developed and deployed.
While technological advances were being made in all other forms of warfare, this particularly nasty and vicious man to man fighting reverted to the most barbaric, primitive and bloody “methods” imaginable. Despite these changes in technology, one solitary fact remained that in the end it was STILL man against man in a desperate, brutal and deadly struggle for survival. Just as it has been since Cain slew Abel and how it will be until the last two humans left on earth clench fists or seize stones in raging anger during the final melee of the Apocalypse. When it comes to hand to hand combat, NOTHING CHANGES!
Fostered by this fact, most military forces researched, developed and implemented fairly comprehensive and rigorous training methods specific to close-combat and trench fighting. The bayonet, the knife (especially the trench knife) and hand to hand combat became prime training doctrines along with advancements in general physical conditioning and battle preparation.
Unarmed hand to hand methods were drawn from any and ALL sources of man to man combat. Boxing, wrestling, savate, jiujitsu, and any number of rough and tumble, gouge and kick back alley tactics were employed. Those charged with the task of developing such training programs were well aware of the fact that no one single approach to combat was sufficient in real man to man kill or be killed battle!
Punching, kicking, striking, butting, stomping, biting, gouging, throwing, tripping, choking, strangling, bone breaking and the use of any and all weapons of close combat expediency were stressed!
The foregoing should satisfy and fulfill anyone’s definition of mixed martial arts tactics and techniques (even though Muay Thai or more accurately Siamese boxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu were not included).
But to be fair, there are English language books circa the late 1920’s and 30’s that detail Siamese boxing quite well. One manual details the favorite attacks of Siamese style boxers as being directed at the liver with brutal kicks and at the throat while grasping the hair with one hand and smashing the throat with the other fist (gloves were NOT worn at this time). One should note: the liver attack was lethal in many cases because of the widespread epidemic of malaria which left the liver swollen and distended. Deaths occurred frequently in these matches and were considered just a routine hazard of the “trade”.
Proven Self Defense to the People
The years after WWI saw an increase in self defense “systems” designed for and marketed to the average citizen. Law Enforcement organizations also began to pay more attention to this area of training. This was part of a movement to increase the professionalism of law enforcement personnel in general. Virtually all of these systems advocated an all-around well-balanced approach to personal combat.
Elements of boxing, wrestling, foot-fighting and jiu-jitsu were put together in a toolbox of personal self defense tactics. The mixing of different martial art styles became quite popular. Even methods that relied primarily on western boxing and wrestling maneuvers acknowledged that a well rounded combatant must be able to both strike effectively as well as grapple.
Other methods of self defense touted “jiu-jitsu” as the singular answer to personal attack and defense. The reason is because most Japanese methods for self defense already included a comprehensive system of blows, strikes, kicks and grappling methods.
You should also know that it’s difficult to pin down a style of jiu-jitsu because during this period any method of Japanese self defense was given this moniker. Combine this with an influx of Japanese immigrants and emissaries promoting judo, their culture and the individual’s personal training and experience, it is impossible to determine a specific style or “ryu”. Add to that the Japanese effort to promote Judo above all of these methods, most of the older systems became outdated and lost. From the early 1900’s forward most English manuals and books refer to these systems as jiu-jitsu, jujutsu or judo.
It would be VERY good to remember here, that for all the “talk” about W.E. Fairbairn, during this period the Shanghai Municipal Police academy trained their recruits in boxing, wrestling and jiu-jitsu! One veteran of the Shanghai Municipal Police put it, “Our training in this area was a MIXED BAG of physical skills.”
There was virtually no “authority” or “expert” in this field who did not advocate a “MIX” of striking, kicking and grappling either as a combined “method” or as found singularly as in “real” Japanese jiu-jitsu.
When it was “for all the marbles” no one would be as short-sighted as to negate any and all possible methods of attack and defense. As far as reality training goes, jiu-jitsu (NOT Kodokan Judo) “free practice” or randori of this period allowed virtually anything. This included atemi (striking) to all kyusho (vital) points, including the testicles, base of skull etc. The only “advisement” was NOT to hit so HARD as to KILL your training partner, SAVE that for “matches” against OTHER jiu-jitsu schools!!!
Which Martial Art is the Best?
Only in the arena of sporting combat did this division of method, pitting one against another become a somewhat popular past time. Matching wrestlers against boxers, either of the two against jiu-jitsu men, or savate fighters against boxers (Biddle fought in such a match while in Paris). These matches were done under a constantly varying set of rules so that it became virtually impossible to ever really determine what “method” or martial art was superior. Even then, as some sportswriters of the time pointed out, what did ANY of this have to do with REAL fighting when NO rules applied?
Even the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano’s nephew got involved in promoting these types of matches between western boxers and native Japanese Judoka. They were called “JU-KENTO”.“Ju” as in Judo and Jujutsu and “Kento”as in fist-fighting.
Even Choki Motobu when asked if his Kempo-Karate was “superior” to boxing (after his Knock Out of a western style pugilist) said that in order for his “method” to be used against a boxer specialized training specific for that type of match would have to be undertaken.
Judoka interested in these JU-KENTO bouts sought out specific instruction in just how to make Judo work against boxing. An entire book on this subject was published in Japan in the early 30’s. It is of the utmost importance to remember that all of these bouts had strict rules and regulations of engagement! Few if any of these mandates would have had much bearing on what one could do in a real pier-six back alley brawl. As an example: Judoka (Judo practitioners) were almost always forbidden to use any methods of atemi waza (striking, punching, kicking, butting and smashing). However, Judo experts of the time have advocated often and in their writings that atemi would be the MOST preferable method of attack and defense in a serious engagement.
The bottom line here is simply this: for use in a REAL violent assault NO ONE, but an utter FOOL, would suggest an attitude or method approaching anything LESS than that of an all-in, “anything goes” doctrine. In regards to deciding which martial art is best: NOTHING was ever, or could ever be, conclusively proven to be superior to anything else. At one time or another any of these various “methods” had both big and impressive WINS and equally impressive FAILURES.
The Question is: What makes effective Self Defense, Close Combat or Combatives? The point, I am sure, will be missed by some but it must be emphasized that these conclusions are based on historical fact and is accurate in substance and detail. This is an objective view of combatives and NOT a subjective opinion or personal “definition” designed to fill an agenda of one sort or another. The definition came first, the training came second!
Self Defense in the Modern Age
The Battle of Britain began in early July 1940. England was isolated, cut off and alone. The miracle retreat from Dunkirk and the German “Blitzkrieg” across Europe, including the crushing tactical defeat of the famed French “Maginot Line” proved the Third Reich war machine to be virtually unstoppable. Hitler’s plan for the invasion of England, named “Operation Sea Lion” was a daily focal point of danger and concern for the British.
Dunkirk had decimated the British forces and moral was at an all time low. Two recently returned veterans of British colonial rule in Shanghai, China approached the War Office and offered their services at this desperate time. William Ewart Fairbairn, retired as a ranking officer of the Shanghai Municipal Police force and his partner Eric Anthony Sykes, a private arms dealer who served as a volunteer in the Shanghai Municipal Police and where he headed the sniper unit of the famed Shanghai Riot Squad, promised the War Office that their training and methods could in short order make “any one man the equal of ten”.
After the debacle at Dunkirk this was a most important and dramatic statement. Initially dismissed, these two men went on to prove the veracity of their words and convinced the power that be as to absolute effectiveness of their methods. If that meant that an over middle aged W.E. Fairbairn had to place several young bucks in the hospital to prove his point in an impromptu, but extremely realistic “demonstration”, so be it. Those who “tested” Sykes fared NO better. So the methods that these men had developed during decades of very dangerous work in Shanghai now became a highly valued and integral part of training for all British forces and Special Operations personnel.
The attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 coupled with the Imperial Japanese military’s coordinated assault on all American and British forces across the Pacific Rim pulled the United States firmly in this world wide conflagration. The United States was now fully at war with the Axis forces. Fairbairn, who was now in Canada, assigned to the infamous “Camp X” where he along with “unarmed combat” George de Relwyskow, a BRAZILIAN JUDO/JUJUTSU EXPERT, and Colonel Carl Eifler was ALREADY undergoing training here, was ordered to assist the U.S. government agency known as the “The Office of the Coordinator of Intelligence” the precursor of the OSS.
Eric Anthony Sykes remained in England and found the need for his services in great demand. He also found himself working under the auspice of the British covert force known as the Special Operations Executive.
The history of these men from the early days of Shanghai, up to and through the war years is an entire story unto itself and beyond the scope of this article. However it must be clearly understood that the contribution of these men had a profound effect and influence on close-combat methods, tactics, and techniques for decades after the war (Despite the often heard “argument” that we have somehow “evolved” beyond these methods.) They were however, certainly not the only experts involved in this field! One of many examples would be A.J. Drexel-Biddle who studied and trained extensively in boxing, savate, jiu-jitsu, swordplay, knife-fighting and various bayonet methods.
As the United States geared up for war, a major factor began to be publicized. Both here and in Australia, the press made a great deal about the superiority of the Japanese fighting man. Part of this was, to be sure, rooted in fact.
The Battle of Port Arthur, the turning point in the Russo-Japanese war, several decades earlier, had shown the world the tenacity and ferocity of the Japanese soldier, particularly in the area of close-in man to man combat. Much was made of the large Russian soldier finding abject defeat at the hands of his smaller Japanese adversary when engaged in hand to hand combat (hence a very obvious need for the creation of Sambo). It was here that Japanese Jiu-jitsu was given world-wide attention and notoriety in this regard. The Japanese conduct and performance of the war in China also demonstrated to the world a seemingly invincible and unstoppable force. Japan was a force that was brutal and deadly in the extreme.
As a result, much attention was given over to the training of United States and Allied forces in methods of personal self defense that would enable the average soldier to meet the Japanese fighting man on a somewhat equal footing. Every branch of the Armed Services began an intensive physical training program designed to meet these needs. Much of the expert instruction needed, particularly in the arena of close-quarters man to man combat, came from the civilian quarter as it still does today.
Men with tremendous and varied life-long experience in all forms of martial arts and self defense were tapped to create training programs that would give the Allied soldier sufficient means by which to engage their enemies at close-quarters. The Axis did the same of course, Japan being the obvious factor in this regard, but even Adolf Hitler proclaimed the absolute need for boxing and jiu-jitsu in German military training as it imparted courage and daring the average soldier to close with his enemy!
In the United States there were a plethora of varied methods and training systems. Any attempt to narrowly define the methods extant in this era is complete ignorance and foolishness! Though the contribution of Lt. Colonel Fairbairn is great, as is the influence of Colonel Applegate, there were dznes upon dozens of different close-quarters battle systems developed. From wrestling, boxing, savate, judo, jiu-jitsu, Chinese boxing, and even football and rugby methods were not only drawn upon, but entire self defense systems were advocated based on these individual methods. It may come as a surprise to many, but here in the Unites States, even Japanese Karate was used and found to be effective!
The Development of a Fast and Effective Self Defense Training System
The same problems still exists today, many unarmed combat courses are highly complex and technical. They are rooted in the favored methods of the men tasked with their creation. Wrestlers tend to rely on that method, Judo and Brazilian Jujitsu men on that system, Boxers on their expertise and so on and so on. Each method also can claim stunning success in actual combat! True after action reports showed that ALL of these methods had merit and COULD be used effectively in the rigors and stress of real battle.
However, as the war progressed two major factors began to influence and change these training protocols. One was the fact that more and more men from all sorts of varied backgrounds being were drafted into military service, the other was that as demands for more and more replacement troops began to rise the amount of training time became by necessity reduced and limited.
The approach that seemed most feasible and useful was one that combined the best or the most effective, efficient and quickly learned methods as well as those most well RETAINED! The rudiment basics of boxing and wrestling were made part of an overall general physical conditioning program and unarmed combat became a specialized block of instruction.
These courses in unarmed combat, hand to hand combat, combat judo and so forth again sought to COMBINE the most advantageous holds, throws, trips, locks, strangles, blows, strikes and kicks from all the varied methods available. The only truly limiting factor here was the time element.
Other considerations were also important. The O’Neill (another Shanghai veteran and ranking Judo Black Belt) method is a classic example of a system specifically tailored for both the training environment available as well as the nature of the combat engagement expected. There were even attempts made to instruct the military in actual Koryu (old school) Jujutsu systems here in the United States, however the most effective systems still sought to mix all the varied martial arts.
As the war progressed, more and more after action intelligence gathered from the reality of actual battle helped shape and determine training priorities. Many methods of close-combat began to be trimmed down to those fundamentals that proved most effective overall and most applicable to all trainees across a wide and varied spectrum of physical attributes and skill.
Col. Rex Applegate was perhaps the most vocal of these advocates owing to his exposure in the INFANTRY JOURNAL and the publishing of “KILL or GET KILLED”. He was not without his critics, as was Fairbairn.
Some courses were so short in duration that they involved ONLY SEVERAL HOURS of instruction. Others were quite involved and very complete in their syllabus content. Many are familiar with the Navy V-5 programs and the training at Fort Benning, but lesser known is the very extensive training at places like Fort Meade and at the Hawaii Jungle Warfare complex. Here at these locations conducted a very complete and mixed program of martial arts was taught. From the CIC training center in Chicago to the Army training camps in Colorado, from Parris Island to the Ranger/Commando schools in the Hawaiian Islands, from the training bases in England prior to D-Day to the “Killing” school in Palestine, the METHODS taught ran the full gamut of man to man tooth and nail close quarters combat. From the complex to the “instinctive kill” (a method designed to take full advantage of so-called natural “animal” killing instinct). ALL these methods, systems and approaches FALL under the definition of COMBATIVES! Even the OSS personnel training at Area B were shown the methods of SIAMESE boxing (read Muay Thai), western boxing, wrestling/grappling, French “foot-fighting”(including Assaut Vite savate), Indian Varma-adi/Varmannie, Chinese boxing, “Roman” boxing, Japanese Judo/Jujutsu and Karate, Siamese boxing, Burmese boxing-Bando, western fencing, Filipino edged weapons and any and all systems (including almost every weapon known to man) deemed effective in dispatching one’s enemies to the hereafter were studied, researched, implemented and trained! One WWII era United States hand to hand combat manual even makes reference to Indonesian methods!
This is the TRUE DEFINITION of SELF DEFENSE and COMBATIVES! This is the legacy of The Self Defense Company, Tekkenryu Jujutsu and The Self Defense Company Professional Instructors. Those who need to “pigeon hole” others into the box of only doing World War II combatives, well, applying the above definition based on the TRUE historical RECORD, then YES! We do follow the LEGACY of WORLD WAR TWO “COMBATIVES”!
The purpose of The Self Defense Company is to continue to teach and train the FASTEST, most EFFECTIVE and EFFICIENT means self defense to anyone regardless of experience, size, man or woman. No one should one without the means and the resources to protect themselves and their loved ones from harm.
1. Your assailant is armed.
Even though you may not see a weapon, that doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist. Martial arts train you to master separate techniques for weapon attacks and another set of techniques for unarmed attacks. While in THEORY this sounds like a good idea, in REALITY it will get you a spot on the medical examiner’s slab faster than you can say “CSI”.
In low light conditions that punch may be a stab, how can you tell the difference? According to the Department of Justice Uniform Crime Report, in over 80% of criminals arrested in connection to a violent crime a weapon was present. The Self Defense Training System trains you to react in a way that takes armed and unarmed situations into consideration 100% of the time.
2. Your assailant intends to kill you or cause you serious injury.
Don’t hope that your attacker is not going to hurt you. Most predators will try to take EVERYTHING they can if given the chance. Never trust your attacker, no matter how persuasive they may be. Once you “let them in the door” you’re life is on their hands. In addition, most criminals are repeat offender, nearly 85% of them have spent some time in the criminal justice system. Martial arts teach you to wait for your attacker to escalate the attack, the Self Defense Training Sysem trains you to end the assault immediately.
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3. Your assailant has “friends”.
Your attacker wants to stack the odds in his favor. More times than not he will have help. Unfortunately you won’t know it’s a multiple attacker situation BEFORE its too late. Martial arts teach you different tactics for single and multiple attackers. The Self Defense Training System gives you only tactics that work against both single and multiple threats at the same time!
4. You will be attacked when you’re injured.
Criminals, like predators attack targets of opportunity. If you appear to be weak or distracted you have a greater chance of being targeted. You must prepare yourself for those times when you’ re not at your best. Martial arts require athleticism, tremendous strength and coordination. How many times have you missed class because you were sick, injured or out of shape? Well we have a rule at the Self Defense Company: If you can leave your house, you better be able to save your own skin! won’t do you any good when you’re not at your peak.
5. Your assailant will be twice your size.
Tigers don’t eat other tigers. They choose smaller and weaker animals. Chances are your attacker will be larger and stronger than you. Professional athletes don’t get mugged, regular people do. Martial arts try to accomplish this be teaching you complicated techniques that take years to master. The Self Defense Training System only uses core, gross motor skills that target medically proven weaknesses on the human anatomy. So it doesn’t matter how big or strong he is, you’ll drop him like a sack of potatoes!
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6. You will have to fight in the worst possible environment.
The training room is nice, it is smooth, has a matted floor and plenty of space, but its not reality. Outside there’s pavement, rocks, tree stumps, snow, ice and sand. No matter where you move, inside or out, you can’t walk 10 feet in any direction without bumping or tripping over something. Martial arts are designed to work in the ring or a matted area designed for safety. The Self Defense Training System trains you to move in a way that takes any and every possible environment into consideration.
7. The fight is NEVER over.
Don’t assume because he’s down, he’s out. After the initial confrontation, when your adrenaline subsides, you are the most vulnerable. While you’re admiring your handy work, thinking he is going to leave, he may be securing a weapon or his friends have decided to give him a hand (or a knife). Martial arts teach you to “fight fair” by instilling rules and etiquette. While this may be good for the kids, it has no place in the kill or be killed world of self defense. The Self Defense Training System prepares you to keep focus after the initial assault and shows you exactly what to do when you THINK the fight is over.
8. You will miss your target…a lot.
Martial arts make you believe that every shot hits it target. In the real world you sometimes slip, your attacker moves and you will miss. The Self Defense Training System instills you with the attitude of “keep fighting until the threat has stopped” by training you in lethal combinations and dynamic tactics.
In the real world you do not stop when you score a point or get your partner a tap out. You must train and prepare to go far beyond the tap. You don;t get points for style and there is no justice. In the street, it’s not a matter of who is right, only who is left!
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I remember the early days in the Karate class were you would stand in front of your partner, adjust your distance accordingly and wait for that little nod of the head to show they are ready, a split second later he would lunge forward delivering a straight arm punch for you to step back and block, a split second later he would take another step forward delivering another straight arm punch for you to step back and block again, then he would come at you one more time, stepping forward and bringing a third straight arm punch, only this time you stepped off to one side, blocked the punch and then very swiftly delivered a counter strike your partner with a reverse punch to his kidneys … KIAI, job done. I guess way back then many of the people who trained in that same class must have imagined things like this: they’re walking down a street late at night when a mugger jumps out of the nowhere and demands their money. Picturing himself as the hero, the Karate man remembers those very same karate sanbon kumite, and drops into his fighting stance, and blocking the attackers best punches before he counters and makes his attacker wish he had have picked on someone else.
The more likely scenario: our well-trained person is stumbling down a dark street, either drunk from a great night out, or just cold and distracted. He sees a shadowy figure step out from a shop doorway, but before he can even get his hands up, someone grabs him from behind. His legs are knocked out from under him and he wakes up on the street, battered and bruised after a good kicking, without his wallet or phone.
What is this all about?
They say knowledge is power, I for one don’t agree with that, I believe it is what you do with the knowledge that makes it powerful, I can only provide you with a comprehensive program to prepare you to survive an attack on the street. While being in the right kind of shape will certainly improve your odds of survival, actually taking time to practice self-defense strategies and techniques is essential, and the concepts in on this page are meant to support a self-defense program. In my experience, most self-defense classes tend to neglect the fitness of their participants. Combat sports are, as the name implies, sports, and thus physical conditioning is usually incorporated into the training. Self-defense, on the other hand, requires a deep and involved study of a much wider variety of situations and attacks, so time for fitness and conditioning is much more difficult to incorporate.
Self-Defense vs. Combat Sports
There are few similarities between a real street fight and any kind of combat sport. Thai Boxing, Judo, Mixed Martial Arts, Olympic Tae Kwon Do, all of these has the following traits in common when it comes to fighting:
a) You know who your attacker is, their size relative to you, and possibly even their fighting habits and experience
b) You know when the fight will happen, and you know the environment
c) You know the number of attackers
d) There are rules preventing serious injury or death
e) You are wearing protective gear, not just to avoid injury, but to allow you to hit harder without fear of breaking your hand.
f) Your attacker is not trying to kill you, or even to injure you. They are trying to win. (Tempers and egos do sometimes play a part in these fights)
g) Nobody else will get hurt during the fight.
h) You know the environment and the arena.
i) You know the duration of the fight.
In contrast, an attack on your way back to your car has none of these rules. In addition, there are certain assumptions you should always have regarding an attack:
a) The attacker wants your property, your body, or your life. They will threaten your safety accordingly.
b) Your attacker will have some advantage–size, numbers, a weapon–and/or you will be at a disadvantage–isolated, lost, confused, sick, drunk, and injured, etc.
c) You will most certainly be surprised.
d) You will be seriously injured, even if you win.
These assumptions don’t apply to social fights, like a good old night club fight, but even they can very quickly escalate. A common scenario is two guys ‘taking it outside’ to settle some difference, only to have the fight escalate to a lethal encounter when the loser won’t go down quietly and grabs a weapon or his friends jump in as tempers flare.
Please note, this isn’t meant to diminish the exceptional people out there who excel at combat sports, nor should it be taken to suggest that they can’t hold their own in a real attack. It is simply to point out that the fitness requirements of winning a boxing match and those of surviving an attack are very, very different, on the street and should be trained for with that in mind.
The Elements of an Attack
To get a better idea of what you need to accomplish to survive an attack on your property or your life, let’s look at the elements of this kind of scenario.
Most self-defense scenarios last only for a few seconds, from the initial contact to one of the combatants being incapacitated or escaping. However the flip side is that in very rare situations these fights can last up to a couple of minutes.
The attacker always has the advantage. Since the attacker initiates the fight, they would not do so unless they perceived that they had an advantage. It is possible that they are mistaken – you may have a concealed weapon, but if an attacker makes a mistake in choosing a target (and survives it); they usually learn very quickly how to screen their future targets.
For the most part, attackers are cautious. They risk arrest and serious injury if they choose the wrong target, which is one that will put up a fight, take too long to drop, or cause a loud and noticeable disturbance. If someone chooses to attack you, you should assume they have a very good chance of winning, and if there is no apparent reason for their confidence, you can bet there is something you don’t know. Their advantage can be in the form of back-up, a weapon, or size. This is why self-defense classes teach their students to always assume the attacker has a weapon, even if it’s not visible, and to always be looking out for the attacker’s friends. One notable exception to this is attackers who are on drugs or are drunk. In these cases, they are still a serious threat because certain drugs dampen or eliminate pain sensations.
Unlike a sport fight, the goal of a self-defense scenario is to protect your life and escape. It is not to defeat the attacker. That’s not to say taking your attacker down, or even killing him isn’t the most efficient and effective way to protect your own life, but it isn’t the primary goal. If the opportunity to run presents itself, you should always take it. In some cases, the safety of a loved one may also be at stake. Generally, property can be sacrificed, but some people may decide that risking their life for the contents of their wallet is worthwhile. That is a personal decision you will have to make for yourself, and which may vary depending on the situation.
You should always assume that you could die or be permanently injured. Even when an attacker doesn’t intend to kill you, they have little concern for your safety or well-being and might simply kill you accidentally. Considering how easy it is to crack your skull on a pavement, it doesn’t take much more than a bad fall to end things. If you are cut or shot and left unconscious, you could simply bleed to death. In short, you can die, and should assume it is a very real possibility.
Requirements for Surviving
Knowing all that, what do you need to be able to do to survive an attack?
You must be able to go all out for a least 30 seconds to 2 minutes. You don’t have to last twelve rounds, so the fight usually goes to the person who can inflict the most damage in the shortest amount of time. If you knock someone out cold in the first 5 seconds, which saves you 25 seconds in which you could have been killed.
You must be able to stay on your feet while being attacked. The quickest way to lose a fight is to end up on the ground. Remember the attacker’s mates? As soon as you’re down, they will be playing football with your head. Getting back up is very difficult under these circumstances.
You must be able to run. There is no substitute for this, absolutely none what so ever. You can do your cardio workouts in the gym on a rowing machine or a bike, but if you are training to protect your life, you need to be able to sprint 80m and then run a fairly fast half mile…after a fight.
In terms of fitness, here are the benchmarks:
1. Extremely intense cardio-activity for 30 seconds followed by an 80m sprint and 800m jog. You should be able to operate near or at your maximum heart rate for 1-2 minutes.
2. Good coordination and balance to stay on your feet, probably the best way to ensure your survival.
3. Muscles that can generate a lot of explosive power in short bursts. Think throwing or Olympic weightlifting instead of power lifting.
4. Exceptional core stability and strength to protect vital organs and postural integrity while your hands are protecting your head.
5. Durability in the form of supple joints and the ability to absorb shock, whether from falls or hits. Muscle helps here, but so does flexibility and mobility.
6. Ability to hit small targets accurately and quickly. Your targets in an attack are eyes, throat, and groin.
What you don’t need:
1. Endurance. Beyond the ability to run a short distance to escape, you won’t need to go for very long. Training intervals can be longer, but only if they assist short-term performance.
2. Strength beyond a certain point. Your attacker will almost certainly be stronger than you, and getting into a contest of strength is a sure-fire way to lose. Be strong enough to maintain your body’s integrity, and then focus on power and speed, and don’t ever rely on your strength to win a fight. A small woman can learn to generate enough explosive power that her strikes crush an attacker’s windpipe without being able to bench her bodyweight. It’s not about big strong muscles.
The basic training methods for strength and conditioning program designed to improve survivability in a self-defense scenario will follow the following criteria.
Mimic the real movements as closely as possible, your training should be as close to the actual requirements of the scenario as possible. This means that short circuits using kick shields and punching bags are a great way to improve cardiovascular capacity for a fight.
Training for Toughness
One of the distinguishing features of an effective self-defense conditioning program is that it takes into account the fighter’s toughness, both mental and physical. Mental toughness is the ability to perform well under less-than-ideal circumstances without losing focus or intensity. Physical toughness is also called resilience, and is simply the ability to absorb shock without sustaining permanent damage.
Training Techniques for Mental Toughness
Training for mental toughness requires that you train in uncomfortable situations. The classic example of this is from the movie Rocky IV. We see Rocky turn down state off the art training facilities for some log cabin in the middle of nowhere in despicable weather.
I love training outdoors; some of the best classes I have ever conducted have been in local parks, low lighting, and uneven ground along with unpredictable weather. It’s just perfect, no mugger it will ever attack you in your gym so he won’t hurt himself on the four inch mats. If at all possible, commit to training at an outdoor location on a regular basis. Simply going for a jog, rain or shine, can do wonders for your ability to tolerate environmental stress. You will be subjected to rain, mud, snow, sleet, cold, heat, and variations of all of those. The important thing is to learn to function when the environment dose not wan’t to cooperate. Also, try to train on surfaces other than flat. Even a grassy field has lumps and divots and worse traction to challenge your balance and foot placement. The ability to adjust for unusual terrain can save you in a fight.
In my Combat training we made use of a special kind of exercise called a stress drill or sometime known as the pressure drill. These were not especially physically taxing, but were socially uncomfortable because they involved other people trying to touch you or even grabbing you. If you have access to a training group, consider implementing these into your training:
Example Drill: Several people surround you making a circle, the instructor gives each person a number, except the one in the middle, and the object of the exercise is to be aware of your surroundings and your personnel space. The instructor calls out random numbers in quick fire succession, example one, four, three, five, eight, each time the student on the outer cycle hears there number they walk forward in a straight line and try and touch the person in the middle, If you the one in the middle your job is to be aware of someone entering your personnel space, and avoid any contact by side stepping there approach. More advanced versions allow a successful attacker to grab the player in the middle, who must then use a defense technique to force an escape.
Balance is the ability to control your center of gravity. It is essential for surviving a fight because the surest way to lose a real fight is to end up on the ground where your attackers can easily surround you and play football with your head.
The statistic is often cited as a reason to master grappling technique and forgo stand-up fight training. This number is a myth. Nowadays, we have a generation of people raised on MMA as the dominant combat sport, in which many fights do go to ground, because in MMA, you can safely drag your opponent to the ground without making things worse for you if you know how to grapple. In real life, even a skilled grappler would want to avoid going to ground in the street because they would be rolling on concrete, often with uneven terrain and debris, there is no rule against striking (or biting), and you cannot effectively control spacing or arrangement of multiple attackers. If you’re on the ground, it means you can’t run when the chance presents itself.
Balance helps you stay off the ground because it allows you to manage your center of gravity effectively, even when you are in compromising positions. It encompasses more than just the ability to walk across a narrow or unstable surface, but also includes the ability to move over and around obstacles while maintaining control of your center of gravity, to rise from the ground or maneuver low to the ground without actually falling, and recovering stable footing when you are tripped or fall over.
Balance is also essential for force transfer. By keeping your center of gravity where you want it, you make sure all the power of your legs goes into your strikes rather than keeping your on your feet.
Hand-eye coordination is especially useful for fighters because we use our hands to defend ourselves and respond with attacks. Martial artists have always known the value of fast hands, and have developed numerous drills to develop this skill. The boxing speed bag is the classic and perhaps the best for the specific conditioning fighters benefit from.
Throwing and catching drills are great for hand eye coordination.
Basic: Simply toss and catch and object between you and one or more partners. The object can be anything, but unusual objects provide more of a challenge. Objects that require you to adjust your grip to catch it in a specific way, sticks or poles, training knives that could spin in the air or pieces of cloth are examples of these. Catch with one or both hands.
In the context of a fight, power means the ability to generate a lot of force in a very short amount of time, as opposed to maximal force generation. Think about the difference between a short, powerful punch as opposed to a slow push. The push may have more weight (force) behind it, but it is delivered slowly and so causes no damage. The punch, on the other hand, might just be a jab with very little bodyweight behind it, but if it is done fast, it will still hurt and might break a nose.
Power is important because most street fights are over as soon as one party gets a good solid hit in, causing the other fighter to stagger or leave an opening that allows a finishing attack (if the initial hit wasn’t) or an escape. Real fights don’t allow for long drawn out exchanges of blows. Conserving energy is useless.
Power obviously relies somewhat on sheer strength, aka muscle tension, but it is more reliant on neurological activation. For this reason, power training is different than strength training. The classic illustration is once again the difference between power lifting and Olympic weightlifting.
Non-weight-bearing exercises for power development include jumps for height or distance, and depth jumps. Since power in a fight is transmitted from the hips to the arms, drills to develop power in the arms should be focused on this hip-to-extremity transfer; clapping pushups are not as useful as heavy push presses or medicine ball throws.
The ideal training methods that emphasize this hip-to-extremity power development are Olympic lifting and kettle bell. Olympic lifting, allowing for higher weights on a barbell held by both hands, develops a deeper foundation of power development, and kettle bells allow you to train unilaterally, the way you’d use your limbs in a fight: one at a time.
Pretty much any of the traditional kettle bell movements will be applicable here, but the Primary movement pattern is the clean and press.
Running is a necessary skill. You can’t get around this. In most fitness training regimens, running is lumped in with biking, jump rope, or swimming as generic cardio, but from a self-defense standpoint, running is treated as a specific skill that needs to be developed.
This is because the primary goal of a self-defense situation is to escape danger and it is easier to run from danger than to neutralize it with violence. The best strategy in a fight is to run away from it, and if you can run fast enough, your attacker may never even lay a hand on you.
Failing that, protect your vitals, fight back enough to create space, and then run away. Unless you are the attacker with the goal of killing or injuring your target, sticking around to “finish the job” is a waste of your energy, brings down legal culpability, and increases the risk of further serious injury.
So learn how to run and how to run fast.
Luckily, running in the context of self-defense is very short-duration. Half a mile is the longest you’d ever have to run in most cases to reach the safety of a populated and well-lit area or to simply lose an attacker.
The beginning stage of your escape from danger will take the form of a sprint as you seek to put as much distance between your attacker and yourself.
Singles (40-80 yards): Set up a marker 40-80 yards out and run as hard and as fast as you can to it. Rest for 60-90 seconds, and repeat 3-10 times.
Intervals (400m, 800m, or distance with interspersed sprints): Interval training is a staple of effective conditioning programs because it teaches the body to maintain a high output of energy for a defined time period, recover quickly, and then do it again. This closely mimics the cardiovascular demands of a fight, in which you will go all out for 30 seconds to 2 minutes and then run away.
Measure out your distance (400m or 800m. A running track is 400m long). There are two ways to run intervals: pick a pace and try to maintain it over all the intervals you are planning to run, or try to run each interval as fast as possible. Both are useful. Do 3-10 intervals with 60-120 seconds of rest.
Interval training is a popular form of programming because it allows trainees to get a lot of movements into a short workout. It is useful for real-world self-defense as well because it trains the body to transition from one kind of activity to another with minimal rest in between.
A good example of interval training would be 30 seconds each of five exercises, with the whole cycle repeated five times, with no rest between individual exercises. Variations might include rest after each cycle is completed.
An effective self-defense program should utilize scenario training to allow the trainee to exercise his skills in the context of a complex situation. That is different from scenario simulations in the context of a conditioning program.
Most fights contain a series of complex movement patterns performed in a kind of sequence. You might encounter an attacker, wrestle for a moment, sprint away, become cornered, fight with strikes, and then run and escape.
Simulating the fitness demands in that kind of scenario might look something like this:
1. Medicine Ball pick up & drop
2. 30 seconds of sit ups with striking into focus mitts
3. 30 second cover & fight drill
4. 50m sprint
5. 30 free style striking into kick shield or focus mitts
6. 400m run
Training Programs & Basic Structure
The basic structure of a fight conditioning program follows the general rules of any good exercise program. It starts with a warm-up meant to prepare the body for exertion by priming the muscles and nervous system, transitions into the main phase of the workout, and finishes with a cool down, stretch, or rehab session to aid recovery. The main phase of the workout is itself divided into three parts: a technical part, a strength/power skill, and a conditioning segment, done in that order to allow you to get the most out of body systems before performance tapers off. Fine motor control fatigues first, followed by maximal muscle activation, and followed by actual muscle fatigue.
The beginner workout published on the older posts is ideal for the new student or someone who is returning to physical activity after a long period of inactivity. It can also be used as a pre-training workout before a martial arts class.
It is can be performed in a more controlled environment, such as a gym, or home workout area, however taking it all outdoors where terrain and climate change would add an additional challenge.
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