I remember being a 1st kyu brown belt in Japanese karate back in the late 1980s. I was to be evaluated for my first black belt very soon. I was steeped in the detail of techniques, training intensity, and constant pressure of a student rising to his first dan promotion. I vividly recall my pride in ability. I felt I could fight off any attack, win any fight, and deliver ikken hissatsu: to kill with a single punch. I would talk to my buddies at the dojo and we’d discuss what we’d do in a real fight. >One of us would say,“I’d drive his eyeball into his brain with an ippon nukite uchi!” The other would respond,“Yeah? I’d explode his kidney with a yoko geri then smash his nose into his brain with a bear claw strike!!”
Thinking of this years later, it’s almost as funny and unlikely as Brick Tamland stabbing a guy in the heart with a trident in Anchorman. Was I skilled in fighting or just good at karate? Was I too deep in one system of fighting to understand my general fighting abilities? Of course I couldn’t fend off any attack, win any fight, or deliver a killing blow. The irony is that deep skill in one fighting art and the lack of perspective about what you don’t know can lead to a dangerous general assumption that you are a good fighter. This is called parallax error, or an inability to see the real picture due to the participant’s point of view.
As we fast forward to the 2010s, it seems nostalgic and quaint that karate once dominated the self-defense landscape. Today, we are so much more advanced, aren’t we? We know the ground is where all fights end up, or at least that’s what the brochure said. Wake up: the problem with karate students in the 1980s is likely to be present with students of grappling sports today. Are we good fighters, or just good grapplers?
Today, I have a successful gym with a bunch of students who love to grapple, obsess over their matches, and count down the hours to their next training session. They are competitive and intense grapplers who are generally moving up the ranks as they make their way toward mastery. The problem is that, like karateka from the ‘80s, most grapplers today really don’t know how to fight. The good ones own the ground, but many aren’t consistently working on rounding out their fighting skills. I’ve wondered why 4 out of 5 grapplers never really learn the full set of skills to call them a fighter. Sure, these grapplers can thrive and enjoy all the beauty there is to find in BJJ, but don’t make the mistake of considering them fighters.
Making a Grappler into a Fighter
Grapplers that want to know how to fight should find time to work on these skills with their training partners. The list is ordered as a progression from most fundamental (simple) to most advanced (challenging).
- Foot work, evasion, feinting, guarding, and blocking skills to avoid strikes
- Working strikes! Punching, kicking, elbows, and knees
- Take-downs against a resisting opponent
- Take-downs against an opponent throwing punches and kicks
- Defending strikes from the clinch (blocks, underhooks, takedowns)
- Completing takedowns against a wall or corner
- Controlling and positioning to throw strikes from a variety of ground positions
- Standup boxing “flow” work – low intensity at first – to get accustomed to getting hit and get a different type of cardio workout
- Fighting against a wall or in a corner
- Fighting near obstacles: walls, furniture, people
- Fighting to get out from under a ground and pound attack
- Fighting 2 attackers from standing: positioning and exit
- Fighting to get up from the ground with multiple attackers are standing above you
- Weapons defense (sticks, knives, guns)
Notice that “fighting” doesn’t show up until the bottom half of the list. In my MMA program at Austin Jiu-Jitsu, we spent over a year working on the top half of the list, just to build the basic skills needed to get to the real fighting drills. Yes, the above drills are a part of many established and successful martial arts systems: Muay Thai, Jeet Kune Do, krav maga, kali, escrima, and boxing. But keep in mind the passion grapplers have for grappling. They want to be a part of a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and submission grappling program. As a by-product of all their hard work, time, and money spent, they also expect to know how to fight. A fight isn’t just a ground battle, and to be a fighter doesn’t just mean you know how to triangle choke someone. You must drill fighting scenarios that put you into a fight mentality and you have to do it often enough and with enough intensity that the training creates correct responses in a real fight situation. Without opportunity to train for real fighting, we aren’t creating real fighters. I’m happy that many BJJ schools are creating MMA programs to help blend other fighting skills into their students and to finally correct this parallax error. Grappling students: take advantage of these opportunities. Learn how to fight!