There is a question that is on the minds of martial artists everywhere: What would you do if you had to go up against an MMA fighter? Not in the cage, but in a street attack. I have spoken to many martial artists about this, and I often get answers like “kick him in the groin”, or “finger jab to the eyes”. While there is validity to these responses, the next question should be, “Would you be able to actually apply those techniques when an MMA fighter is coming at you will all guns blazing?” My training for the last twelve years has been geared toward solving that riddle, and I would like to share some of my conclusions with you.I had the exceedingly good fortune to begin my formal martial arts training with legendary Sifu Dan Inosanto and Sifu Richard Bustillo at the original Jun Fan/Kali Academy back in 1980. Under the guidance of Sifu Inosanto, I expanded my training beyond Jun Fan Gung Fu (JKD) and the Filipino martial arts to include Muay Thai, Indonesian silat, and French savate, along with a smaller dose of many other traditional arts. In the late eighties, after fighting in several eskrima tournaments, I began stick fighting with a group of guys in a much more extreme manner. We later became known as the original Dog Brothers. These intense fighting experiences started to open my eyes to the reality of actual combat. I started BJJ in the early nineties, but it wasn’t until 1994 that my entire training world was turned upside down. That is the year that I met and started training with Egan Inoue in Hawaii. Since our initial meeting, Egan has become a world champion in BJJ and MMA. With Egan, everything was about combative drilling and sparring. As an athlete, Egan knew that we cannot go into a competition without thoroughly testing the techniques that we plan to use. This is even more important for street self-defense where there is no referee to save you. I eventually realized that this was just the scientific method applied to martial arts. An aviation scientist cannot just come up with a theory and incorporate it into his aircraft design, he must first test the theory under real world conditions, check the data, and make adjustments to the technology until he gets consistent, favorable results. It is the same for fighting. You must test the techniques in the fighting environment if you want to be able to rely upon those moves. Just because a maneuver works against a compliant partner does not mean that it will work against an aggressive attacker. Over the next fourteen years, I dove deep into BJJ and MMA, training hard with Egan and other world champions of the fighting sports. I have enjoyed the privilege of extensive training with the Machado brothers, Carlson Gracie Senior and his team, Randy Couture, Dennis Alexio, Baret Yoshida, Charuto Verissimo, Marcelo Garcia, and with many great coaches. But as much as I love and respect the sport training, I always had street self-defense on my mind. My goal in JKD Unlimited is not to take exceptional athletes and turn them into champions, but to help “normal” people who want to develop functional street self-defense skills. I also noticed that there are many “unsavory” individuals fighting and training in MMA today, which means that a modern day attacker may be a well-rounded fighter. This prompted me to prioritize training and teaching for self-defense, but in a manner that has not been exploited before. My diverse background has allowed me to develop a unique method to help the good guy martial artist beat a rogue MMA fighter in a street altercation. Here are a few of the principles. First, you have to train in a realistic manner. If you want to develop functional, reality-based fighting skills, then remember this: 80% of your skill development is due to HOW you train, and only 20% is due to WHAT you train. It is not technique accumulation that counts most, but skill development. If you don’t get used to the fighting environment, you will be lost when it is thrust upon you. Just as a person who only hits the heavy bag won’t be able to hold your own against a professional kickboxer, only doing techniques in the air or with a cooperative partner will not prepare you to handle an MMA fighter. I coined a phrase many years ago that still holds true: “If you want to learn how to fight, you have to practice fighting against someone who is fighting back!” No amount of static training will prepare you for the dynamics of an aggressive attacker. As BJJ luminary John Machado said so well, “No sparring, no miracles.” This is the first hurdle to overcome if you want to handle an MMA fighter. The fighter actually practices fighting in every training session. He may also hit pads, skip rope, and work on technique, but the majority of training time is spent in sparring. This gives him (or her) the timing and sensitivity necessary to apply fight ending techniques against a resisting opponent. To quote Aristotle, “What we must learn, we learn by doing.” Practicing techniques in a static environment will give you skill in the static environment. Only safe free-sparring against a resisting partner will develop skills necessary to prevail in the dynamic environment of a real fight. Second, you need to train in a complete manner similar to MMA fighters. If you don’t train the kickboxing, clinch, and ground ranges, you will have severe deficiencies in your defense. You must have the ability to kickbox, avoid takedowns, do takedowns, and grapple from the top or bottom positions. How many times have you seen an MMA fight where one person is a great striker and the other is a great grappler? If the striker cannot grapple well, he will be tentative in his striking for fear of being taken down. A grappler who cannot strike well will be destroyed by the striker who can avoid the takedown. If you want to be able to beat an MMA fighter, you need to develop skill in all of the ranges. Your sparring should span all distances, making transitions from your feet, to the ground, and back to your feet again. This gives you the benefit of being a complete fighter, one who is experienced in every position. Remember that a black belt striker with no grappling experience is quickly demoted to white belt when his back hits the ground. Don’t let that be you! The next step is to add your street oriented self-defense techniques into your sparring. You don’t just want to do MMA sparring, you want to train to have a distinct advantage in a real fight. Isn’t that what our training is for, to give ourselves an advantage against the bad guys? Then don’t play by the rules! Do your drilling and sparring with all of the “foul” tactics and techniques from your self-defense system. This requires control, good protective equipment, and great training partners. Adding groin strikes, throat grabs, bites, hair grabs, and even collar chokes will give you a great advantage over the sport-trained fighter. The truth is that MMA fighters don’t train to deal with the foul tactics, so they aren’t be prepared to defend against them. In fact, they actually train themselves to avoid those attacks, and this makes them vulnerable. If you play with your favorite self-defense techniques in sparring, you will develop the ability to use those portions of your arsenal which are not allowed in the cage sport. And that is where you will gain a great advantage. After sparring like this, you will find that you need to make important changes to a crucial element of fighting; your posture. In the kickboxing range, I have found it best to stick with the posture that Bruce Lee himself handed down. Keep the lead leg close to being in line with your rear leg, with your knee pointed slightly inward. This makes it much harder for your opponent to score a groin kick. One swift kick in the groin and you forget all of your technique, so protect yourself! The MMA fighter generally keeps a wider stance that is suitable for striking and for defending takedowns, but this leaves the groin open to attack. That is good for you! In the clinch, the posture issue is even more apparent. What happens when a fighter is pushed up against the cage? Both fighters adopt a very wide stance in order to provide greater stability and to prepare for takedown defense. But, they are both susceptible to being kneed in the groin, and it often happens accidentally during bouts. With street oriented clinch training, the self-defense fighter must adopt a clinch posture that not only protects against the knee, but also controls both of the opponent’s hands. Often in MMA, the fighters will be in the clinch, body to body, with one arm controlled and one arm free. Often, both fighters throw short punches to the side of the head or body. Not damaging in the cage, but imagine that your opponent’s free hand was striking or grabbing your groin. Very bad indeed! His (and your) hands are also free to gouge the eyes. In the clinch, we cannot leave the hands free. But we can use the MMA fighter’s sport specific training against him. He will usually leave at least one of your arms free as he controls your head. This allows your free hand to attack the groin. By training this in sparring, attacking and defending the groin shots will become second nature and you posture will change in order to defend these attacks. You may find uses for some of your traditional stances when you start sparring with the street tactics. One of my training partners, Sifu David Giomi, is also a kung fu expert and loves the traditional arts. He always gets a kick out of how my posture has evolved to resemble kung fu stances. One posture in particular that I have developed in the clinch looks amazing similar to a classical mantis kung fu posture. (See Choke photos) On the ground, your posture must change to account for the eye strikes, groin grabs, and head butts which are often available from the top position. With proper training, you will be able to get good posture and set up these moves from a dominant position. If you use a more sport oriented posture you may leave yourself open. A simple thing like keeping your knees together when working your guard can help defend against a punch to the groin. Since BJJ and MMA fighters don’t have to worry about that, the legs are often spread wide, especially when defending the guard pass. If you train correctly, you can use this to your advantage. A word of warning about relying on foul tactics; be careful about going for the eyes and groin if you are on the bottom in a bad position. Many martial artists without grappling experience think that they will just go for the eyes or groin if taken to the ground. When you spar with skilled partners, you will realize that trying for a groin strike from a bad position may actually make things even worse for you. Let’s say that you have not trained in grappling, you get into a fight against a rogue MMA fighter, and suddenly find yourself on the ground with him sitting on your chest. If you try to gouge his eyes, he will instinctively move away from your attempt while keeping the mount position. I can guarantee that he will not just magically fall off of you and run away, even if you do get him in the eyes. There is too much adrenaline flowing, and fighters are used to pain. The result of attacking from an inferior position without knowing a technical escape is that you now have given him a great idea. Now he will start attacking even more viciously from his superior position, and may even start gouging your eyes! This actually happened here in Honolulu in a street fight. One fighter tried to bite and claw his way out of a bad position, but the jiu jitsu fighter kept the top position and started gouging back. It wasn’t pretty. Use the groin and eye strikes from good positions, or to create an opening for you to escape from a bad position. If you don’t have functional ground training in the first place, the foul tactics are not going to help much, and may even escalate the violence against you. Here is my theorem in a nutshell: if an MMA fighter goes against a self-defense trained person with similar training and skill level, the street-oriented martial artist will usually come out on top. He uses tactics and techniques that the sport fighter is not prepared to defend. But the training has to be real in order to develop real fighting skill. Let me repeat my belief that “Reality Based” is 80% how you train, and only 20% what you train. You must train like a fighter to beat a fighter. If you safely include the street tactics in your sparring, you will develop functional, street specific skills that can be used under great stress. If you are out one night minding your own business and a belligerent punk with MMA training decides to pick you as his target, it will be your street specific, sparring-based training that will ensure your victory.
This article originally was published in Black Belt Magazine in June 2008.
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