Thursday, May 17, 2012

Grappling vs. Striking or The Perils of Punching...

This post was originally going to be called Grappling vs. Striking.  Now it's sort of 'morphed' into a combination of two topics.  As often happens, the process of writing takes on a life of it's own, and a vague idea or point that's been bouncing around in the back of my head starts to come into focus. 

So, for the purpose of this next paragraph making sense, imagine the title was

'Grappling vs. Striking'

What’s better for self-defense?  Type this question into Google and you’ll find a plethora of opinions on the topic.  People have very strong opinions on the matter.

Of course, both have advantages and disadvantages.  It is also important to note that neither type of art exists in isolation of the other.  There are no ‘only’ striking arts, nor are the ‘just’ grappling arts which have no striking whatsoever.

I would consider Jiu Jitsu more a grappling/locking art, and Karate more of a striking art, for example.  Of course, Jiu Jitsu has a robust set of punches, kicks and various other strikes, and Karate has a whole bunch of locks, takedowns, some throws or body drops, etc.

It’s the thought behind it, or the purpose of it, that can differentiate the two types of arts somewhat.  What is the goal of the action?  The intended outcome?  The focus?

For the most part, I operate in the ‘in-close’ range.  I like to have my hands on ya.  This is the area where Jiu Jitsu people work best.  As such, many of my strikes and kicks are used to ‘get it’.  They are a means to an end.  The goal is to create an opening to move in and finish the encounter. 

This isn’t to suggest that I don’t hope that my strike or kick doesn’t end the fight.  Quite the opposite.  I’d love to end one with a well placed strike.  I just don’t assume that’s going to happen.  I don't train thinking striking is my end game.  I also don’t assume that my first in-close technique is guaranteed to work either.  I just have more options from the inside, options that work for me.

A talented striker is a formidable opponent.  Those who study primarily striking arts can get very very good at what they do.  That’s why I do my best not to strike with a striker, box with a boxer etc.

The goal for most strikers is to end the fight using strikes, usually punches.  If they are too focused on this as the end goal, they may be limiting their options.  If they train solely to strike, if the strikes aren't working, ore they get injured, all they have to fall back on is more strikes.  And if strikes aren't working, confidence drops and hesitation sneaks in.  And hesitation can be disastrous.  

Which brings me to my net point.

The Perils of Punching

Punching, while always an important part of my training, has some risks that should be examined.

One of the first things I learned about striking with the hands was the hard-to-soft rule.  If you are striking a hard surface, use a soft strike (meaning open hand).  If you are striking a soft surface, use a hard strike (closed fist).  So, head = hard, so use open hand.  Stomach = soft, so use closed fist.

Not only is this more effective (in general), it also stops you from breaking your hands.  Many a pugilist has broken their hands delivering a strike.  The fist can be a powerful thing, but it can also be quite fragile.

Another factor that must be considered if you like to spend a lot of time in striking range is:

The DFL Factor

DFL stands for dumb f’n luck.  From my experience, if the encounter isn’t ended at the outset within the first blow or two, the advantage given to the experienced striker seems to dwindle and the longer it goes, the higher the chance of the DFL factor kicking in.  The inexperienced striker, often throwing erratic and wild swings, increases their chances of getting in a ‘lucky’ swing and taking out the more experienced combatant. 

Also, successful street knockouts or ‘fight enders’, are not too common.  They do happen, of course, but often even a trained fighter o' the fists can’t drop their opponent, even if they completely outclass them with their fighting ability.

Check out the following video which I feel illustrates my point nicely.  I pulled this off one of Brett’s posts at his blog Kyokushin Karate Blog.  His post here.

Clearly the security officer had some serious striking experience.  He did a beautiful block near the start and outclassed the other guy in all his combinations.  The other guy was wildly swinging away and should have been dropped near the start, but that didn’t happen.  The fight just kept going on. 

Now, there’s no way to know for sure what would have happened if the fight had not been interrupted, but DFL may very well have reared it’s ugly head.  Or not.  Who knows?  My point is that the fight continued for an uncomfortable amount of time.  The longer any fight goes, the greater the chance of something unanticipated happening.  (Like having your gun grabbed, but thats' a topic for another day)

You drastically increase your chances of prevailing in a violent encounter if you can end it quickly.  You also greatly reduce the chances of being seriously injured.

Most no-rules street fights don’t end with good clean strikes.  In fact, most people’s striking skill degrades rapidly when engaged in a real violent encounter.  There seems to be a return to a more desperate style of swinging seen in non-trained fighters.   

When the stakes are high and the adrenaline is coursing through their veins, all but the most disciplined fighters will revert to a more instinctual, basic style of full arm swinging strikes.  I suspect this is ingrained in us on a deeper animal level. Interestingly, it's also the way young children hit, before they 'learn' how to strike.  

I watched a video where a giant boxer decided he didn’t want to be arrested and fought with an officer, a man about half his size.  The struggle went around the police car, the two disengaged, and reengaged, the officer tried using non-lethal use of force options, the big boxer chased him around, the officer shot him...  What stuck me was how quickly the profession boxer's strikes went from focused and tight to messy and looping.  And how it went to grabbing and tackling.  The real stress of no rules combat made him revert back to a simpler, more gross motor skill-based style of attack.

Here's the video, I gave it the preface as it's only playing intermittently.  

Real fights get messy.  When the swing-fest ends, bodies get close, people usually get grabbed.  Many go to the ground, but not always in the way some ground fighting and BJJ players might have you believe.

It’s for this reason that I’m a proponent of moving in.  If I use a strike, it’s usually to achieve this goal.  My strikes will most often be part of my ‘crashing in’ theory on combat entry.  

If I’m against a talented striker, I’ll cover up as much as I can to reduce my chances of getting knocked out.  Then I’ll crash in, using my elbows, forearms, knees or head, or a combination thereof, to get to the inside.  From there I’ll go to work on whatever target presents itself.  Usually a joint lock, sometimes short strikes, sometimes take downs or throws etc.  The entry strikes are meant to disrupt the incoming attack, change the attackers mindset, and to overwhelm their senses temporarily.  

There are, of course, risks to this approach as well, like, err, getting knocked out.  

They are measured risks, though, and they're ones I'm willing to take.  This method also works extremely well for situations when you are spontaneously attacked.  For those times you may have registered an incoming attack or threat, but there hasn't been enough time to identify exactly what kind of attack it is. Sort of your best 'one size fits most' type of scenario.

So there you have it, a bit of a two-for-one special.  I'll never stop training in punching, but I strive to have every technique I practice open up a series of options.  I never want to rely on just one type of training style.  Everything you do should:

1. Reduce your chances of injury
2. Improve your position
3. Worsen their position

Clearly, the best techniques do all three.  Does engaging in a strike-fest accomplish these goals?  That's the question we should be asking ourselves, the measuring stick we need to use.  And this doesn't just apply to striking, it's a test that should be applied to all our martial training.

Food for thought.  

I'd also like to welcome my new followers.  I hope I don't disappoint.  Thanks for joining me on my journey.


  1. I think you're right about some strikers focusing purely on striking, but I think the same is true of some grapplers too. I've sparred with BJJ and GR-style wrestlers, and seen them completely miss strike opportunities in favor of a complicated lock or hold, that doesn't always succeed. Like strikers who get overly focused on fancy kicks, some grapplers get too enamored of tying their opponent into a pretzel, rather than defeating them.

    I also think the debate needs to expand from "Striking vs Grappling" to "Striking vs Grappling vs Ground fighting." It's been said by a lot of people that rolling around on the ground is a bad idea in a bar fight, as your opponent's friends are likely to kick you in the head. Same goes for nearly any self defense situation, or even the battlefield.

    My experience is more in the Western traditions, but going back to European unarmed combat of the Middle Ages, they focused on standing grappling, with striking and ground fighting as secondary skills. Granted, their art was based on the assumptions of battlefield use, with plenty of edged weapons in play, and an opponent likely wearing some form of armor, even if just a padded jacket and helmet. So they focused on standing joint locks, throws, etc. Basic, close-in "put your hands on ya" techniques which cause damage regardless of armor, and don't tie you up on the ground. But even carried forward into the modern day, those kinds of techniques have seemed most effective in self-defense.

    Jiu jitsu comes from parallel origins, as a battlefield technique against armed and armored foes, which I think is why it's so effective, compared to things like modern (sport) wrestling and modern (sport) striking. It's the standing grappling, mixed with striking and ground fighting, rather than focusing on one or the other.

  2. Great post! You make some great points. Just like to point out though that the striking seen in those videos was boxing and did not resemble striking arts like karate one iota! There was no targeted vital point striking, no tai sabaki, no attempt to control the opponent, no use of low kicks, no attempt to sweep or unbalance. Unlike boxing, karate is about much more than punching. These videos just show that sport MA does not prepare you for a street fight.

    You say that you prefer to use striking to disrupt and then get in close to use other techniques. This is the same in karate - we aim to disrupt the attack with strikes (generally open hand ones and/or low kicks) and seize control using in-close techniques, they are just different to the techniques you use. Long range kicks and punches have their place but mainly in the sports arena. Just wanted to correct any misconception people may have about karate. Otherwise I think you and I are on the same page ;-)

    1. Heh heh, always the stalwart defender. ^_^

  3. Great article, Journeyman. And thanks for the link.

    I learned the hard-soft rule back in my Combat Hapkido days. We NEVER hit the face with anything but open hand strikes.

    Good points on messy fighting, too. Spend enough time watching these videos and you see the truth in the axiom, "Everyone has a plan, until they get hit".

  4. Sorry all for the late response to your comments.


    I agree. It’s a bad habit to focus too much on any range of combat. It’s great to specialize in an area, but a mistake to solely focus on it. The good-natured joke I had heard was about the BJJ knife defense. If presented with a knife, throw yourself on to your back immediately…

    Combat is unpredictable; you must be able to exploit whatever weakness or opportunity that is presented.

    You need to have skills in all ranges. I don’t think ground fighting is the best options, for many reasons, including the ones you’ve raised. That doesn’t mean that I don’t train in that range. To ignore it would be a great mistake as well. The focus of my ground training, typically, is to get up, to not engage in that range with a skilled ground fighter.

    One of the things that appeal to me about Jiu Jitsu is its ‘tested-in-battle’ origins. The fact that many of the techniques were developed to be used against armoured and armed foes is a strong point. They were created to negate many of the advantages extra padding or strength normally provide.

    Interestingly, most systems of ‘street defense’ or reality based systems seem to incorporate concepts and techniques that I classify as Jiu Jitsu.

    Thanks for the comments.


    Very true, the videos do show mainly boxing. Compared with other martial arts, it can be said that boxing focuses solely on striking, on punching. The fact that even those skills, the ones worked on exclusively, can degrade so quickly is one of the points I wanted to make.

    I had used the Jiu Jitsu vs. Karate only as a broad example of what I meant between a grappling art (as opposed to ground fighting) and a harder, more percussive style such as Karate.

    As you know, some styles of Karate employ the “One strike, one kill” type of philosophy. This can be problematic if there’s not enough thought of what comes next if it doesn’t work.

    You are most correct that good Karate contains a lot more than just punches and kicks. Many of the same concepts I go on about, such as the ones you mentioned, are employed by karateka, albeit in a slightly different way. For enlightened practitioners of different arts, I like to think that we’re all trying to go to the same place; we’re just using different ways to get there.

    Thanks for the comments.


    My pleasure, thanks for finding the video.

    Your quote is bang on.

  5. In your reply to Sue you wrote, "As you know, some styles of Karate employ the “One strike, one kill” type of philosophy."

    This philosophy, as I understand, was introduced largely (if not entirely) by Gichin Funakoshi in his efforts to localize that "southern-bumpkin fighting style called Karate" to mainland Japan. I believe it was intended to connect a Karate strike with the Samurai notion of "One cut, one kill".

    All that is to say I don't believe Funakoshi meant for any schools to take such a phrase literally; but instead to emphasize the importance of focus.


  6. I tend to interpret the 'one strike, one kill' philosophy as the purpose of karate is to attempt to shut down ('kill') an attack after only one strike (or grab) has been delivered, i.e don't let your attacker have the opportunity to hit you twice. I don't interpret it as I have to shut down ('kill') the attack with a single strike.

  7. Brett,

    Thanks for the background. It’s interesting that you mentioned the connection to the Samurai concept of ‘one cut, one kill’ and focus.

    The Samurai accepted their own deaths before ever entering into combat. By doing so, they no longer feared it. Removing fear prevented hesitation, and hesitation most often lead to death in battle. Tentative sword attacks rarely were successful against a fully committed one. This complete and utter focus on the task at hand is what made them such fearsome warriors. It’s an interesting mindset, some of which can no doubt be applied to variety of martial arts, including Karate.

    So, from a focus perspective, I think the connection is very valuable. Even with proper focus, a serious mind and commitment, we must still be cognizant of the fact that it is unlikely that a single attack will end a violent encounter successfully in today’s day and age.

    If focus and commitment is what people take away from the ‘One strike, One kill’ mantra, that’s great and that's valuable. Not all schools, from what I’ve seen, interpret it this way. Some, even the ones that like to engage in (near) full contact sparring, do so in a point sparring method. One good hit and the action is stopped. Then it is started again.

    Self defense drills rarely move beyond one response/technique/strike. The technique may be solid and viable, but there seems to be little thought of “What next?” or “What if?”

    This is by no means confined to Karate, by the way. I’ve had this same discussion about a variety of martial arts, including my own.


    I like your take on the philosophy. I think, just from this discussion, we can see that it is interpreted in different ways by different people. I like your take on ‘killing’ the attackers’ delivery system, or balance, or confidence, or commitment.

    Depending on how you look at it, ‘One strike, One kill’ can be either a boost to your focus, training, and mindset, or it can limit your options if you take it too literally, or without proper context.

    Thank you both for adding to the discussion.