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Grappling: Fact and Fiction

By: Lawrence Eng

JPEG of Billy Riley

A free-flowing continuum

Billy Riley (left), founder of the "Snake Pit" gym, legendary submission wrestler, skilled in the use of "hooks", trainer of champions. Click on name or picture for an interview with Karl Gotch, who trained under Riley.

Jiu-jitsu, Judo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Sambo, Greco-Roman wrestling, pankration, freestyle wrestling, Shuia Chiao, Chin Na, Aikido, Aikijutsu, Hapkido, Turkish wrestling, Mongolian wrestling, Catch-as-Catch-Can, Dumog, Shootwrestling, Hooking, etc.--if you haven't noticed, these are all grappling styles in one way or another, each style having its good and bad points. Even though some of these styles have dissimilar goals, when you compare their techniques, you will find they are more similar than they are different. Why is this?

Grappling is not about styles. It is a continuum. All forms of combat should be viewed as a continuum of falsifiable (testable) facts, not highly specific and dogmatic "truths." Styles are only human abstractions, bringing some of these facts together and presenting them in a manner easily understood and learned by individuals. Don't be deceived! No abstraction, no matter how detailed, can ever encompass the continuum of facts which dicate combat. Any system or style that claims to have all the answers to every situation, has the techniques that will allow you to take out any attacker, or claims to be "complete," is lying to you or deceiving itself. It's easy to believe your own lies when those lies make you think you're invincible.

Some schools of martial thought have become so encompassed and enraptured in their abstractions, they have forgotten to think of combat as a continuum. They've been conditioned to believe that life can be reduced to a set of convenient abstractions. Sorry folks. It doesn't work that way. Abstractions are limited. Thought experiments can get you only so far. Life (and combat, and grappling) is far more complicated than that.

Attitude adjustment

"Okay, I've read my Tao of Jeet Kune Do*, The Art of War**, and The Book of Five Rings***. This is old news to me," you might be saying. What does this have to do with grappling? Plenty. You can take and learn from any fighting style, but it's your attitude that is important. When you're learning how to grapple, you have to have the right attitude, and that's an attitude of self-reliance. You have to find out the facts by yourself, by self-study and by experimentation, because your instructor won't be able to hand you the truths. It isn't possible for him to do so. He can guide you, but ultimately, you must depend on yourself. You really have to learn and question--not just mimic your instructors--and find out the facts by getting on the mat, gym floor, concrete, whatever. You'll find that the truth isn't as clear cut as some people would have you believe--if it were, all you'd have to do is buy some expensive video tapes to become an expert fighter.


JPEG of Masahiko Kimura (right) Masahiko Kimura, 7th Dan, one of Japan's greatest judoka, defeated Helio Gracie in Brazil, became a professional wrestler. Click on name or picture for more on Kimura.

When you're on the mat, you shouldn't be doing judo, you shouldn't be doing BJJ--you should be expressing yourself naturally. You might be using techniques from judo and BJJ, but you aren't limited to them or by them. I'm writing this in English, and I am expressing myself, but I am not limited to English. English is not the only language that exists nor the only one I know. If I want to express myself more fully, I might seek to learn another language. The point being: Even though you might use techniques found in a certain style, you are not limited to that style's techniques. The style is just an abstraction. To express yourself fully, transcend style and all such artificial limitations. Tao of Jeet Kune Do, remember? It isn't just a bunch of funny stick figures plus Eastern philosophy.

So what does this mean in terms of training? In order to train as comprehensively as possible, your ideal personal curriculum might consist of ground positions favored in BJJ, armlocks and chokes from judo, takedowns from western wrestling, leglocks from shootwrestling and sambo, wristlocks from hapkido, etc. You should also learn why the various techniques work--there's nothing magical about them, after all. Like I've been saying, the styles aren't so important. We take the facts that we know (minus as many unnecessary abstractions as possible) and apply those facts to the way we express ourselves combatively.

We're combat scientists, not priests

JPEG of Ad Santel Ad Santel (left), superb submission wrestler, challenged several Kodokan judoka in Japan and won, legendary for his unparalleled knowledge of "hooks." Click on name or picture for an article (about Japanese professional wrestling) featuring a prominent section on Ad Santel.

We take a scientific approach to fighting, not a religious one. We don't adhere to dogma. Our theories are based upon observation(s), and they might even be true most of the time, but we never consider them absolute truths. "Big deal, so what? In the end, you'll still do things more or less the same." In the long run, that's not true. Attitude. We must always be ready and willing to discard (or at least modify) our theories if we test them and find out they are wrong. Otherwise, we get stuck in our own abstractions again, ignoring reality.

Truth can never be proven absolutely, just as theories can never be proven absolutely. Provisionally correct theories are either strong or weak, depending on the amount and quality of evidence available. We can only get close to the truth by determining what is false.

Dynamic processes and a final Bruce Lee plug

We are all students. We are all learning. We constantly revise our fighting methods and we are never stagnant. We're not just willing to learn something new--putting ego and tradition aside, we're also willing to give up what we know if we find that something else works better. That's how science works. Eventually, through trial and error, we get closer to the truth. That's why Bruce Lee was so important. He was the first martial artist/scientist/philosopher to really get people to listen to him.

A sampling of reality?

Below is a list of thoughts I've compiled regarding ground grappling. (Special thanks to Jared Cooper, Mason Chang, James Kao, Kevin Rodriguez, Roman Lobkovsky, and the hardcore Teagle guys--Will Kabat-Zinn and Aaron Perez-Dapple).

A Ground Grappling Primer

Click here for a text (non-HTML) version.

Some of these are simple and self-explanatory. Some of them you won't understand without an explanation. The items are in the order I thought of them. Feel free to modify as necessary--what works for me may not work for you and vice versa.

  1. Technique is more important than strength. Leverage replaces the need for brute strength.
  2. Superior position is more important than submission holds. Superior position = hip control. Where the head goes, the body will follow. Where the body goes, the head will follow.
  3. Transitioning between positions is vital. Most of grappling is spent in transition. Do not transition needlessly.
  4. Do not apply submissions until your position is secure.
  5. For offense, space between you and your opponent is bad, unless you are deliberately creating space to set up a technique.
  6. For defense, space between you and your opponent is good, unless you are being set up for a technique.
  7. Keep your knees high; reduce your effective surface area.
  8. Don't give up your back. Face your opponent. Control the centerline.
  9. If you are applying a submission hold and don't have enough leverage, create the necessary leverage! Be imaginative!
  10. Your body should be relaxed. Do not use more energy than is necessary.
  11. Control your breathing. Preserve your energy.
  12. Even though the body is relaxed, the mind should be tight and focused.
  13. The ground can be your ally, but it can also be your enemy.
  14. Beware of multiple attackers, hidden weapons, eye gouging, biting, and other strikes.
  15. Don't forget to strike, apply pressure point attacks, eye gouge, and bite your opponent if necessary.
  16. Do not be afraid to give up on a failing technique. Move on!
  17. To grapple, use your whole body. Be sensitive.
  18. When in a neutral position, do not commit until you are reasonably sure that you can gain the advantage without putting yourself in danger. Immobilize your opponent as best as possible.
  19. Avoid risky techniques that could put you in danger.
  20. Avoid techniques that are too complicated to pull off in a real fight.
  21. Surprise is good.
  22. Manipulate the movements of your opponent by using feints.
  23. Give your opponent an apparent opening and he will take it.
  24. Do not rush needlessly. Give yourself time to rest and simultaneously tire out your opponent by putting your weight on him.
  25. Do not be too slow. You can't win by pinning your opponent. In a prolonged encounter, your opponent is more likely to escape and/or his friends might show up.
  26. Practice with people larger, smaller, and the same size as you.
  27. Practice with people better, worse, and the same level as you.
  28. Practice with all types of fighters. Learn how to shoot on (and clinch with) all of them.
  29. Learning other aspects of fighting will improve your ground game.
  30. Shadow-wrestling is a valuable training tool.
  31. It's not good to grapple in a multiple attacker situation.
  32. If you're going to the ground, it's best to have a few friends around to back you up.
  33. Don't be afraid to tap out in practice. Avoid senseless injuries. Leave your ego at the door.
  34. On the street, tapping out might not be an option for either you or your opponent. Remember that.
  35. It's better to let yourself down than to be taken down.
  36. Learn as many submission holds as possible, but concentrate on the basic ones.
  37. Condition yourself physically and mentally. Grappling is an exhausting activity.
  38. Practice while wearing different types of clothing (with gi, without gi, summer street clothes, winter street clothes, etc.).
  39. Practice on all types of surfaces (mats, hardwood, concrete, sand, grass, snow, etc.).
  40. Help your training partners get better. Better training partners, in turn, will help you get better.

If you have comments, additions, suggestions, criticisms, etc. send e-mail to le15@cornell.edu

*Tao of Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee
**The Art of War by Sun Tzu
***The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi
Photographs courtesy of Hisaharu Tanabe and The Great Hisa's Puroresu Dojo
[The original draft of this document was written for the Shaolin Kung Fu Association at Cornell (SKFAC) and its members on October 25th, 1996.]

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Last updated on October 7th, 2000
Lawrence Eng