Common Myths and Reality Ground Fighting

My academic background is in psychology, so I take statistics pretty seriously. When martial artists come up with statistics, such as 95% of street fights go to the ground, I want to know a few things first, such as: what is the definition of a street fight, what is the definition of “going to ground”, what was the sample size of the study, who was the control group and which individual, group or organization undertook this research (and under what conditions). 95% is very conclusive statistic. Yes, I know I am behaving like a pretentious idiot however martial artists – and I include self-defense instructors and practitioners in this – are the masters at making blanket, unsubstantiated statements, without any using any actual facts to back them up. It may seem obvious that 95% of real-life conflicts go to the ground, but is this actually the case? I have been training martial arts since I was a kid, and so I've heard a lot of “statistics” and absolute/categorical truths, be bandied around concerning what real life violence actually looks like.
How many times, have you heard a reality based self-defense instructor, glibly trot out the line "high kicks don’t work on the street"? Don’t take this to mean that I’m advocating high kicks for basic self-defense, however you might want to google or read something about Terry O’Neil (a Liverpool Bouncer), before you accept and start to believe that high kicks don’t work – I believe most things, including groundwork and high kicks have their place in real-life conflicts, and it’s about understanding where they fit in which is important, rather than stating that they are either obsolete or the only truth/way. I once had an interesting debate in Israel, with a European Krav Maga Instructor, who told me in no uncertain terms that a certain technique I was demonstrating would never, ever work. Though I didn't press the point, the technique was something that had proved effective for me on a number of occasions. There are opinions, there are experiences and there are made up statistics.

When instructors limit themselves by buying into statements, such as high kicks don’t work on the street, or 95% of street fights go to the ground, or this and that technique won’t/can’t work for whatever imagined reason, they are limiting and restricting their understanding to their personal knowledge, ideas and experiences. The martial arts are full of conjecture and opinions, but these don’t necessarily represent the truth or reality. So if we take the subject of ground fighting actually, what in reality does it actually look like, and what works and what doesn't?
For one thing a fight, which ends up and continues on the ground, has very little resemblance to a UFC or MMA fight. In most real-life confrontations, those involved don’t have any martial or fighting skills, and therefore don’t really know how to fight on the ground, and so if one person does get knocked down, the other(s) is more likely to remain standing – a position they are used to being in - rather than following them down to the floor. From this position they can easily stomp and kick their disadvantaged opponent, rather than losing their position of dominance and joining them on the ground. The only reason(s) an individual has to follow somebody to ground, is if the is the only way for them to continue their assault, such as to rape/sexually assault their victim, or if the environment they are in forces them, to go to “ground” e.g. they assault somebody getting out of a car, and end up pushing them on to the back seat, and in the confined space they have to fight on the “ground” etc. I try and avoid using the term “street fight”, when describing real-life violence, as it puts a landscape and environment in our heads, which may not be realistic for the situations we find ourselves in – our back may not be against the pavement/sidewalk, when we are taken to ground, but pushed up against seating, tables and other surfaces.
reality ground fighting
If your reality based groundwork, is solely practiced on an even surface, with ample room to move, you are not replicating reality. I have seen many instructors teaching groups such as women, ground-fighting, without taking into account, the situations and environments in which women are statistically likely to be sexually assaulted. Most rapes, are committed by somebody the victim knows, in their home or somebody else’s. These assaults may happen, from positions where the victim is sitting next to their aggressor on a couch/sofa or similar, and they end up getting pushed down in to the sofa as part of the assault, and thus find themselves fighting from their back whilst pressed into the seating – effectively fighting on the ground. In such a position there simply isn't the room, to perform many of the traditional escapes, sweeps and overturns that work so well on the mats and in open space. I don’t know the exact square footage of the Octagon or Boxing Ring, in which MMA contests are held, however I do know it exceeds the floor space of most pub/club bathrooms in establishments where I’ve worked. Rolling on a hard surface in a confined space (where there are urinals and stalls) is a very different experience, to grappling on a large, open mat area. If you think you have a good ground game that easily translates to real-life confrontations, try and roll/grapple in a confined space, and see what does and doesn't work for you; at the same time gain an understanding of how you may need to modify some of your techniques to get them to work in a confined space. If your school has a cage, practice performing your ground techniques whilst pressed into the wall.
One of the situations in which fights regularly end up on the ground, is when you have to deal with multiple assailants; especially if you are fighting in a confined space. Sheer weight of numbers can force you to the ground. How you go to ground in such situations is extremely important. Regardless of the relevance of the statistic that 95% of fights go to ground, it is probably safe to assume that 95% of fights start from standing – this means that there is a dimension of a real-life fight that goes to ground, where there is a transitional phase between stand up fighting and ground fighting. This phase needs to be trained both against individual, and multiple assailants i.e. what can you do to try and stay on your feet, what can you do to better your position etc. as well as training how to deal with multiple aggressors when you are on the ground.

Whether most fights do end up on the ground or not, I have no idea – I just don’t possess the information to say that they do or don’t. In my experience they don’t, but I acknowledge that experience by nature is limited and in fact they may. What I do know is a statistic like 95% is in all probability made up, has no actual foundation, and as such shouldn't be presented as fact. When we look at reality based groundwork, we have to accept that it has to deal with assaults from standing assailants as well as those who may choose to follow us to ground, along with working in confined spaces and environments.  

About the Author:
Gershon Ben Keren has been training in Krav Maga since 1994 in both Israel and Europe. He holds a 3rd Degree Black Belt in Krav Maga in Israel, where he also received his teaching certification. He has been trained by some of the IDF's (Israeli Defense Forces) most experienced and respected Krav Maga instructors. In December 2011, he was inducted into the "Museum of Israeli Martial Arts" at the Israeli Martial Arts Center in Herzilya. He has taught Krav Maga to civilians, security personnel, law enforcement agencies, and to members of elite military units and Special Forces. He also holds a 2nd Degree Black Belt in Judo and has won regional and national titles in Judo tournaments.

He has a Master's Degree in Psychology, with particular reference to violence and aggressive behavior, and incorporates this knowledge into the reality based self-defense training that he provides. He lives and teaches Krav Maga in Boston, running Krav Maga Yashir Boston.

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