I have decided to begin a series of articles discussing my perspectives on ground-fighting. Although I have mentioned the following points on the dangers of going to ground in a self-defence situation in previous articles, I feel it would be good to cover them again as a refresher in the first installment of this series. Please note that my analysis of ground-fighting is done from the perspective of a self-defence situation and not from a sporting perspective.
What is Ground-Fighting?
First of all, what do I mean by ground-work or ground-fighting? I broadly define ground-work as any fighting done from a prone position, i.e., not on your feet. When most martial artists or sports-fighters think of ground-work, they think primarily of grappling, locks and holds. This perspective has been heavily influenced by the big grappling systems such as Western Wrestling, Judo, Jiu-jitsu and BJJ.

Of course, the reality is that striking can work just as effectively on the ground as well. The ground is not solely the province of grappling systems. Likewise, grappling (including locks and holds) can also be applied in a stand-up fighting response. There are many systems which are based on stand-up application of locks and holds. Our system of Chi-Na techniques is a good example. Systems like Krav Maga also contain many stand-up grappling techniques.

What are some of the advantages of using Ground-Fighting in a self-defence situation?

Advantage number 1: Lock-down.
Due to inherent limitations on mobility while prone, it is easier to lock an opponent into various types of damaging, pain submission or sleeper holds. When faced with a single, unarmed opponent, I would argue that a ground-based wrestling approach is possibly the most efficient way of neutralising the threat because of the speed with which an opponent can be neutralised by getting them into a hold. Pure reliance on a striking system against a single, unarmed opponent can take precious time in a self-defence situation if the striking is not strategic and effective.

A lock or hold also limits the retaliation that you could face from an opponent due to the control that can be exercised over your aggressor. In addition to and as a result of this greater level of control over an opponent, there are more options for less-than-lethal or less damaging interventions than pure reliance on striking. Striking on its own is a very damaging response to an opponent’s aggression. It can result in serious injury or death to an opponent.

Advantage number 2: Rock Bottom.
I remember watching a Two Ronnies skit once which had someone stating, “Nothing’s impossible!” to which an old vagrant replied, “It is impossible for a worm to fall over!” Although going to ground is not the best approach to take in a self-defence situation for reasons I will discuss later, once you’re on the ground there is no real danger of further falling. This inherent stability can make certain attacks more viable and less risky, such as kicking. Because it is easier to reference the ground when directing force from a prone position, attacks can be more powerful as well.

Advantage number 3: It happens.
What is often touted by adherents of ground fighting systems is the old proverb: “Most fights end up on the ground.” This is presented as a logical reason for concentrating on ground-work instead of stand-up fighting. Following this logic, it would make sense that since most knife fights end up with someone getting cut and losing blood, it would make good sense to get cut in exchange for a successful disarm. Sure, the odds are high that someone defending themselves against a knife-wielding attacker will indeed get cut, but it makes no sense to train ourselves to use approaches that are going to place us at significant risk by purposefully taking a cut. In the same way, it makes no sense to place ourselves in unnecessary danger by purposefully taking a fight to ground. Nevertheless, it does happen. People do fall over or are taken down. While the logic behind choosing a ground-fighting system because “Most fights end up on the ground.” is not quite sound, fights do often end up on the ground. It is thus a good idea to have a well-trained ground-fighting response for this eventuality.

What are the disadvantages of using Ground-Work in a self-defence situation?

Disadvantage number 1: Rules.
While all of the big grappling systems can very easily be employed in a self-defence situation if practiced for self-defence, they are not often practiced as self-defence systems. They are predominantly practiced and taught for use within sports competition fighting. This may seem like a minor detail, but as they say, the devil’s in the details. This constitutes my first observation regarding competitive fighting systems in general.

All competitive fighting has rule-sets associated with it. These rules dictate how a system gets used. For instance, if practitioners of System A train predominantly to participate in a particular competition which introduces a rule making small joint locks illegal, it is unlikely that the practitioners of System A will continue to practice small joint locks. The reason they will most likely stop practicing small joint locks is because practicing something repeatedly with intention is the basis of building a subconscious fighting response and training their fighters to subconsciously use a move which will disqualify them is not going to rack up the wins. This approach may be fine in a competitive situation because everyone is fighting in accordance with the rules. It may not be fine in a self-defence situation where it is unlikely that an attacker will be fighting in accordance with any rule-set at all.

Disadvantage number 2: Immobility
While various types of grappling have always been part of holistic combat systems historically and in the present day, specifically going to ground has an inherent problem. Loss of mobility. Regardless of a practitioner’s skill in ground movement, it is highly unlikely that they will be able to move as quickly or effectively on the ground as they can while on their feet. This makes escape from a bad situation difficult. You will notice that the remaining disadvantages are all to a greater or lesser degree products of the degradation of mobility while on the ground.

Disadvantage number 3: The Unknown.
A self-defence situation is an unknown event. There are generally too many variables that can potentially come into play to claim that the event will occur in a predictable fashion. As such, it is best to keep as many options open in terms of how you can engage with the situation as possible without committing to something that is going to tie you down and limit you to only one approach. Remaining on your feet and mobile certainly leaves more options available than going to ground. What may appear to be a single, unarmed threat can quickly turn into a mob armed with makeshift weapons.

Disadvantage number 4: Mobs
Due to the inherent degradation of mobility as mentioned above, a practitioner’s ability to engage with multiple opponents during a mob attack is also degraded. Mobility while facing multiple opponents is critical because time is one of the resources that must be very effectively managed while facing multiple threats. As mentioned earlier, grappling is possibly the most efficient way of neutralising a single, unarmed opponent. This has a drawback because generally it requires full commitment of the grappler to his or her opponent. There is very little scope for changing focus to engage with more than one threat unless the grappling is more instantaneous to cause damage instead of continuous over a period of time to submission.

Striking can allow an opponent to deal with more than one opponent because the engagement in a strike is instantaneous instead of continuous. If the practitioner is properly trained to make good tactical use of their environment, a striking approach may be superior when facing multiple opponents.

Another key danger of being on the ground while exposed to a mob of attackers is exposure to kicks. Kicks are not employed by most attackers because it requires skill and stability to effectively use kicks in combat. Once you are on the ground, however, you will face kicks from most any standing attacker because of the ease with which these low kicks and stamps can be executed against a prone target.

Disadvantage number 5: Weapons
Although weapons pose a terrible threat whether a practitioner is standing or on the ground, facing a weapon while on the ground comes with an increase in risk due once again to mobility reduction. While on their feet, a practitioner can use range to good tactical effect to minimize risk until they engineer an opportunity to close in and neutralise the threat. It is far harder to do this on the ground. A small, hidden blade, for instance, can spell the end of even an experienced ground-fighter.

Disadvantage number 6: Skill VS raw strength
There is an old observation regarding fighting skill. In a fight between two equally skilled opponents, the stronger will most likely win. This observation is no truer than in a ground-fighting grappling situation. If you go to ground with someone who is stronger than you, you had better be very sure that your skill is significantly greater or you will most likely lose the fight. You’re unlikely to be able to get away from a stronger opponent once committed to the ground.

I have seen some practitioners of ground-fighting on social media recently who are seeking to transition into the self-defence industry. They make great claims about how well their systems stand up in self-defence situations. They prove this with a series of demonstrations. These demonstrations only really prove that they themselves are skilled fighters. What it does not show is the performance of the average student who passes through their self-defence system. The average self-defence student only attends a self-defence course for a relatively short period of time.

Of course, the average student will be exactly that in terms of fighting skill. Very average. My thoughts on this is that it is a better approach to teach short-duration self-defence students the broad principles of a survival mindset, situational awareness, self-awareness and situational avoidance rather than any physical intervention techniques. If physical intervention techniques are to be taught, striking is preferable because it will at least allow an average student to use hit-and-run tactics. Remain mobile and hopefully disengage from the situation and get away safely. This kind of hit-and-run approach can allow a physically weaker practitioner to successfully survive an encounter with a stronger opponent.

Based on my experience and the advantages and disadvantages of ground-fighting as noted above, I would not recommend purposefully going to ground in a self-defence situation. Remain mobile and on your feet. Use grappling or striking or a combination of the two as dictated by the situation until it is resolved or you have fled to a safe location but remain on your feet. If you find that going to ground is unavoidable, use your ground-fighting techniques to engineer an opportunity to get back onto your feet as soon as possible.

Future articles in this series will tackle the technical issues of tactics and strategies for use in a ground-fighting environment, defensive postures, striking, grappling, mobility training and transitioning from ground to standing. As a final note, we should understand how to fight on the ground. We should not fear the ground but we should respect it and its associated risks.

Written by SiFu Lester Walters, Head of the Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia.