Ringcraft For The Street

(Gershon - Mon 26th Oct)

It is possible to have the strongest punch on the planet, and never be able to land it with any force in a real-life violent encounter; not because it lacks power and/or commitment but because the person who is the intended target has not been positioned so that they receive the full impact of the strike. This is something I see a lot of in sparring; a person believes that they are in a good position to throw a kick or a punch but haven’t checked or taken into account whether the person they are sparring with will be able to evade, block, check or ride the strike. It is not enough for you to be in a good position to throw a strike, your partner has to also be in a disadvantaged position to receive it – if you want it to have maximum effect. I repeat it a lot in regular self-defense classes, as well as in sparring classes, as it applies to both, “Whoever controls the movement of the fight, controls the fight.” For your striking to have maximum effectiveness, you need to be able to position your assailant (or sparring partner), in their least optimal position. In reality based self-defense training, this often gets forgotten and overlooked, as students are simply encouraged to strike their attacker with full power and commitment and “ignore” or not take into account how the individual they are trying to punch or kick is positioned.

There are two basic positions you want to try and put an assailant in: either stable or unstable. If you are trying to move your attacker either to push them back, or to throw them, you need to make their structure unstable. If you want them to absorb the full force of a punch or kick, you need to stabilize them, so that none or little of your force/energy is wasted or transferred into movement e.g. if you are delivering a front kick to someone who is moving backwards, because they are unstable, much of your power will be transferred and added to their backwards movement – if the person has transferred their weight forward and is rooted and stable, the full force of the kick will be absorbed by them. When people are in unstable positions, the effect of a strike will be different. If the front kick is used as a counter to someone throwing a roundhouse kick, where they are standing on one leg i.e. in an unstable position, the kick is likely to knock them over; it creates movement, rather than absorption.

This can be a difficult concept and idea for people who only practice their striking statically on pads. A lot of people in the Krav Maga and reality based self-defense community practice their striking against a pad-holder who is static; somebody who has already been positioned to absorb the full power of the kicks and punches etc. The result is that the person practicing their strikes feels the full force of them, without learning how to reflect this is a real-life situation, by getting their assailant to be stabilized in a similar manner. Only training statically, means that you will never learn to control another person’s movement, and if you can’t do this you are relying on them to move into position for you, and for you by chance to throw a strike at this exact moment; it may happen for you but only by luck i.e. you get a lucky punch etc.

Not only do you have to be able to move people into positions that are disadvantageous to them, so that they are easily moved (if that is your goal), or so that they end up absorbing the full power of your strikes, but you also need to learn how to effectively strike when you are moving i.e. when you are in an unstable position. This flies contrary to the way many people practice their striking; the person holding the pads is stable, the person striking the pads is stable – although this can be a useful way to train striking, it’s not something that reflects the dynamism of a real-life violent encounter, where both parties are moving. If you can only generate power when you are static and stable, you may be found wanting when you find yourself having to strike when moving; either backwards or forwards etc. Striking with movement, and when moving, is an important skillset to have and develop. There are also types of strikes that lend themselves to movement in a way that others don’t, and having a mix of the two will round yourself out as a fighter.

To put it simply this skillset of being able to stabilize your opponent when striking, controlling their movement, and striking when moving is something that boxers understand very, very well; it’s their ring-craft. Whilst it can’t be replicated directly for real life encounters, the principles that these fighters use can be absorbed and transferred outside of the ring – a good boxer knows how to setup a punch to have maximum effect, and those of us whose interest is in reality based self-defense would do well to learn from them. We have to recognize that sometimes the effect of our strikes should result in movement rather than absorption, such as when we kick somebody to be able to disengage etc. however the principles are basically the opposite of those we’d use when stabilizing an assailant.

There are few moments when you can properly position yourself against a real-life attacker; one of these is in the pre-conflict phase, when you may still be engaged in some form of verbal exchange with your aggressor – most fights and violent encounters occur face-to-face, and are preceded by dialogue. This is the time when you can move yourself out of striking range, but still remain with in talking distance, and move yourself somewhat offline. This means that your assailant has to shift weight and close distance before they can assault you; two things that result in them moving from a stable position, to an unstable one (whilst they move) back to a stable one etc. Ensuring that they have to complete this process, means that you have an opportunity to strike them when moving, or when they sink their weight – and become stable again (after they’ve closed the distance). This is the ring-craft you have to develop for real-life situations. There are obviously situations in the fight where you want to control an aggressor’s movement to walk them on to your strikes but this is a much more “messy” type of situation. Forcing somebody to commit their weight at the initial moment of an attack, is cleaner and ends the confrontation quicker.

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The Myth of Striking

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 18th Oct)

People will often simplify self-defense to the point where it becomes so simplistic, it’s almost ridiculous. I hear this often when teaching women’s self-defense, where there’s a common misconception that an eye or groin strike will quickly end a fight, or immobilize an attacker, whilst these are useful strikes, they can be difficult to pull off in real-life, dynamic and fast-paced assaults e.g. if you lack the skills and attributes to create time and space to respond with such strikes, and can’t position yourself accordingly, you may not have the opportunity to hit these targets – or possibly with enough force, for them to be effective etc. I also hear a lot from the Combatives community that traditional martial arts have no value because they are too complicated, and are not direct enough; individuals who have obviously never experienced or sparred with a Kyokushin Karateka – the format of a Kyokushin contest may not resemble a street fight, but nobody could accuse this knock-down style of fighting of lacking directness and effectiveness; a punch is a punch, and a kick is a kick, and if you can do both well, you have some good tools for dealing with a real-life assault – you just need to be competent at using them in the format of a real-life violent encounter (this means learning another set of skills and attributes), and be prepared for them to not work.

The problem that we often face, when looking at simple solutions, is how simple? At what point does the desire for simplicity put us at risk? I would argue that only assuming one outcome to a response we make is too simplistic approach to self-defense e.g. assuming that when you hit an attacker, they will respond in a particular way, such as moving backwards etc. Having responses that only rely on striking can prove to be ineffective, if the attacker is drunk, drugged up, or so adrenalized that they are basically pain resistant. The definition of madness is trying the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result, and if the only tools in your arsenal are striking tools designed to inflict pain, then your simple approach may be bordering on the simplistic – and proved ineffective. It may be that your solutions will work in 80% of the situations you are likely to face, because 80% of the time people will respond in a particular way but if they don’t you need to be able to adapt, change and move on to other solutions. If you fail to recognize this, you may be found wanting when you face that one attacker in five, who doesn’t respond according to the way you drilled and trained. Don’t get me wrong I believe wholeheartedly in striking, and believe it to generally be the first go-to approach that you should adopt when dealing with violence, however you should not assume that it is a catch-all solution.

When you hit somebody, they may respond in a number of ways. I have seen numerous clips of instructors, making statements about when you hit somebody, they respond in a particular way, which will set you up to perform a technique. It would be better to say, “if” the person responds in a particular way then it is possible to do a particular combination, follow it up with a certain technique, rather than categorically state, that this is how they will respond. I have hit people who have moved back, who have ducked, who have tried to clinch me, and who have literally stood and laughed at me. Believing that striking someone will always cause somebody to react in a particular manner, even if the strike lands well, is a dangerous assumption to make; you have to be prepared for all the possible responses that you may face. Does this complicate things? Absolutely, but violence can be complicated, and there is no room in reality based self-defense for, “it should have worked”, and, “he didn’t respond how he should have” etc. Looking at the different possible responses somebody may have to being hit, shouldn’t take you into the land of the “what ifs” but it should get you thinking in a more open way about the effects of what you do.

Are there ways to improve the effectiveness of your striking, that can teach you when and how to strike more effectively and up your chances of having your strikes result in a particular outcome? Absolutely. This largely involves taking a “Traditional” martial arts approach to your training e.g. breaking down the components of a strike, developing your skills and abilities in each component, and testing them in a dynamic setting. If you have ever taken a traditional Karate class, this is largely the format of the class; you start with the basics (Kihon) and end with sparring (Kumite). At some point to improve on your striking this is the approach you will have to take; break the technique down and test it in a dynamic setting. However things shouldn’t stop there, you should also test your striking in a scenario based fashion, putting in some of the components that may be present in a real-life situation, such as reducing the starting distance between you and your assailant, starting with your back pushed against a wall, being crammed in with other people, standing on an uneven or slippery surface etc. You should also have your aggressor sometimes respond differently to the strikes.

Simple is good, but simple will often fail if it becomes simplistic. Striking is a great go-to solution but sometimes it is not enough – it is also a good option to go to when whatever else you are attempting doesn’t seem to be working e.g. a throw, a takedown, a choke or strangulation etc. – and you need to have other solutions available to you. The Combatives Community at some point have to acknowledge that Traditional Martial Arts training methods have a place, if a person’s skills and abilities are to improve. By the same token the Traditional Martial Arts Community needs to recognize that they need to test and train their techniques, in a scenario-based fashion, replicating the environments and conditions in which real-life violence occur. As with everything the truth lies somewhere in the middle.   

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What If

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 12th Oct)

One of the most common questions I get when teaching self-defense, is the “what if” question. This can be a frustrating question to an instructor who is wanting to keep a class focused, and on-track, with a particular point or technique that they are teaching. However the “what if” question, can give an instructor a great insight, into the mindset of the student who is asking it, and what particular needs that have to be addressed in their training to make them truly effective in a real-life situation.

Firstly “what if” questions shouldn’t be discouraged; in fact no student questions should ever be discouraged. I believe people learn best when they understand what they are learning, and the reasons behind it, rather than simply being told what to do without any explanation – and if you do explain the reasons behind a particular solution you are teaching you will get students asking questions, along with the “what if” ones e.g. but what if the gun you’ve just disarmed isn’t loaded? As an instructor you should have asked yourself a lot of these “what if” questions, before you teach or explain a situation or technique, and cover the most pertinent ones in your teaching e.g. what to do after a disarm regardless of whether the gun is loaded or not etc. Covering that point, also covers every point as to whether the firearm is operable or not.

One of the most dangerous places a “what if” question comes from, is where the student is looking at every reason why a technique or solution won’t work, and every reason why they shouldn’t perform that technique, and why they would be safer not acting in a situation rather than acting. This tends to happen with novice students and beginners rather than more experienced ones. It is possible to create a million and one reasons not to do something, whether it is doing your laundry, postponing doing a piece of work, or not attempting to disarm somebody of a knife or gun etc. Finding objections to doing something is extremely easy, and as “lazy” human beings we are expert at it. If I had a dollar for everybody who has told me that they believe it isn’t worth their time learning how to defend themselves because there are certain situations that are impossible to deal with e.g. a team of fifteen ISIS supporters, armed to the teeth, stealthily breaking into your house in the middle of night, and then waking you up at gun point etc. I might not be able to retire, but I’d be able to buy myself a top of the range GI. We can always create “what if” scenarios, in which everything we try and do, wouldn’t work or be prevented from working, however the more important question is why does someone want to create such a situation or scenario? I’m all for covering bases but this should be designed to empower me and convince me that I have a workable solution not the other way round.

For some people however, if they can “what if” a solution to the point where it doesn’t work, regardless of whether it is realistic or not, they have the excuse not to devote the time and effort to learning what they are being taught. When a beginner starts training their understanding of reality is usually pretty limited, being restricted to news reports, conversations with friends, and although people always deny it when pointed out, depictions of violence on TV shows and in films. This is not a good basis on which to create informed decisions, and ask “what if”, questions. A good example of this is assailants passing weapons from one hand to another, when their weapon hand/arm is controlled. Although I believe any solution should take this possibility into account, in reality few people do pass their weapon from one hand to another (unless they’ve had a certain level of training); most aggressors when attacking with a weapon are so weapon-centric, and in such an emotional state, that they are unable to consider moving the weapon to another hand – I have seen this with knives on more than one occasion; where somebody being attacked has managed to get control of the person’s arm, with both hands, and keep the knife away from them, whilst their attacker never thinks to pass the knife to their free hand etc. A student looking at how somebody might be able to change weapon hands, may ask a valid “what if” concerning this, without realizing that in an actual real-life situation, it is unlikely that when a technique is performed at speed, that puts pressure on the attacker (they are being punched, choked out, thrown etc.), and that deals with a weapon-centric attacker, it is unlikely and improbable that the weapon will be changed from one hand to the other. A demonstration of a technique in a studio, might not convey all of these things, and so the “what if” question although valid in that setting, is not valid for reality.

“What if”, questions if they come from the perspective of a person who doesn’t understand reality, and who wants to be given every excuse not to act in a particular situation are a dangerous thing. I always tell students that if they are in a situation where they are asking a lot of “what if” questions, they are more than likely fighting their fear system’s urge and desire for action, rather than just covering bases e.g. if somebody points a gun at you in a mugging scenario, and stays after you have handed over your wallet, there are probably not many “what if” questions to ask, as it is now time to be decisive and act. “What if” questions, when answered from a realistic perspective are great for erasing peripheral doubts, which is turn give students a confidence in the techniques and solutions that they are taught; which should make them more decisive.  

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Mass Shootings In The US Versus Knife Crime In The UK

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 5th Oct)

This blog article is in response to a “post” that is going around that is trying to draw a statistical comparison to mass shootings in the US and knife violence in the UK. The term/phrase comparing apples to oranges comes to mind. This short article looks at some of the differences between knife and gun violence in the UK and the US. It is not advocating for either gun or knife control/legislation, but instead looks at why such a comparison is flawed and unhelpful in dealing with either country’s issues.

Not all violence is the same; a mugger has different motivations, methods and behaviors to an abductor etc. Different cultures and countries have different problems with violence e.g. the UK has a serious problem with knife violence/crime, the US has a problem with mass shootings etc. The two are not comparable as they are very different, distinct and separate types of violence. Trying to argue that they are the same or comparing them does nothing to actually solving the problem of each e.g. a stabbing targets an individual, a mass shooting targets a group etc. and so both types of violence differ greatly. If you want to try and compare knife and gun crime, you would need to look at incidents where a gun was used against an individual, and incidents where a knife was involved etc. Violence against a group regardless of the weapon, is very different to violence that targets an individual. In this regard the US has to start looking as to the reasons why mass shootings are so prevalent in its culture, and not in others, where gun ownership maybe as high or higher i.e. why do individuals in the US feel the need to act violently towards their own communities and institutions in a way that isn’t replicated in other countries etc. and however people want to play the stats in reality it is hard to argue that mass shootings occur with the same frequency in other countries than they do in the U.S. Other countries, like the UK, have their own issues – such as knife violence – however the US needs to admit that it has a problem with mass shootings (individuals who want to act out violently against their own communities) before it even starts debating about gun control etc.

Guns and knives differ greatly both in what they can achieve/accomplish and the way in which they are used. A gun can be deployed at range against multiple targets, the same is not true of a knife, and because of this the types of violence, in which both are used differ greatly. With a gun there can be a level of disconnect between the shooter and their victim, in a way that is impossible with a knife – to stab somebody you have to physically connect with them, making it a much more “personal” type of violence. It is also very hard to turn a knife on yourself after committing a stabbing, and because of the one-on-one nature of knife crime, you are less likely to be in an emotional state to do so. To use a knife takes a different mental state to using a gun.

One of the popular myths that I regularly hear, is that the level of knife crime in the UK exists because of the lack of firearms i.e. if people had guns people wouldn’t be victims of knife crime – either people wouldn’t attack them because they feared getting shot, or the gun carrying target would shoot them before they were cut. This argument is flawed in so many regards, and shows a misunderstanding about how real life violence actually occurs. Most stabbings and incidents of violence, in the UK, where knives are involved occur between young people, many of them teenagers; individuals who would not be able to carry a firearm as a deterrent to such violence - under either US law, or previous UK laws. Also when you consider the nature of violent incidents, it is easier to draw a knife, conceal it, and then stab somebody than it is to do the same with a firearm – a small blade can be held in the hand much more discretely than a firearm, this means than an assailant with a knife is much more likely to have it drawn and ready than somebody with a firearm. When we look at action beating reaction, the person with a firearm is at a distinct disadvantage. If we want to fool ourselves into thinking that all violence happens at a range and distance when threats are easily identifiable, yes you will have time to draw a firearm. If we look at reality where attacks happen up close and personal, and with surprise, the person with the weapon already drawn has a distinct advantage. In real life violence the “superiority” of the weapon often counts for little. In short knife violence won’t and can’t be solved by guns. Like mass shootings the underlying reasons as to why people feel the need to carry knives need to be accepted and addressed.

So which is worse violence involving a knife or gun? This is often what such posts are trying to imply. Repetitive stab wounds will often cause more trauma and loss of blood than bullet wounds, and are more likely to be accurate in hitting/targeting center of mass – a knife requires less accuracy than a gun to have serious effects. Knives however generally target an individual; you are less likely to be stabbed as a bystander than shot as one. The rate at which a knife can kill is much less than a gun, meaning casualties are going to be fewer etc. but in short knife violence generally targets an individual than members of a group etc. which is the underlying reason why mass shootings and knife violence really can’t be compared.

Coming from the UK I have no issue accepting that by and large we are a more violent, and predisposed to violence, culture than the US – that is certainly my personal experience from living in both countries. It is easy to look at the way in which banning firearms worked in reducing mass shootings in the UK, and argue that this should be replicated in the US (something that isn’t practical and won’t happen). It is also easy from the US perspective to argue that the level of knife violence in the UK is as a result of the ban in firearms – something that doesn’t actually prove relevant when you look at the statistics from a demographic perspective (or when you consider a particular country in the UK, such as Scotland where knife violence has always been prevalent, both before and after the firearm ban). In short the UK needs to accept and deal with its problems, and the US needs to do the same. Pointing fingers, judging and trying to compare each other doesn’t help anyone: knife crime and gun crime are different both in their nature and regard to the cultures/countries in which they are committed.

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What Has MMA Ever Done For Us

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 4th Oct)

The first UFC fight took place on November 12th, 1993. That’s nearly 22 years ago. In its original format it looked to pit fighters from different martial arts against each other, regardless of weight category, to determine which the most effective martial art in a fight was. At its inception there were only a few rules, now there are hundreds. In the old days, fighters tended to have trained in one particular style, and supplement their training with that from other systems that specialized in areas that they didn’t (Mixed Martial Arts – MMA), now MMA has almost become a style of its own. In this blog article I want to look at what the past 20 years of the UFC, and the development of MMA, has taught the reality based self-defense (RBSD) community, and how it has influenced the way that RBSD is taught and practiced.

Many instructors who teach reality based self-defense have become threatened by the success and popularity of MMA, and have started to use the term in their advertising e.g. MMA for the street, illegal MMA etc. Some have even taken techniques they have seen in MMA matches, added a few gouges, bites and groin strikes and tried to market/sell what they’ve created as reality based self-defense, rather than looking at what actually happens in a real-life confrontation – and yes it is very different to a mixed martial arts fight – and base solutions on this. The Octagon (in which UFC fights take place) is 750 sq ft, of open floor/space, and is 30ft wide. What can occur/happen in this space between 2 combatants isn’t limited by space, obstacles and other people. This means fighters can find themselves in situations and positions that are virtually impossible to recreate in the real world e.g. imagine how different a UFC fight would look if it took place in a moving train carriage, or a crowded bar etc. Imagine how MMA would have evolved if instead of the Octagon its fighters, fought in a moving bus; how different would ground fighting look, when “ground” could mean fighting from your back, after being pushed down on to a row of seats, or how effective low kicks would be in such a confined space, and on a moving vehicle. As reality based self-defense instructors we can admire the fighting skills, of those who compete in MMA, but we would be wrong to assume that techniques used in these fights can be transferred to real-life situations, even if we just take some of the rules away and add some biting, gouging, and groin strikes etc. The environment in which UFC fights take place is designed so that professional fighters can do anything that is physically possible, however in real-life situations, the environments are not so forgiving and may prevent many UFC type techniques from either working or being applicable.

I practice/teach Krav Maga, which is a military system of fighting. I have been fortunate enough to have trained with some of the IDF’s top trainers, however I have to acknowledge that the environments they are training for, are very different to those that my students and I are trying to deal with. Military violence is not the same as the social violence, most of us are likely to face. When Dave Ashworth (someone who has served at the highest level) last came to Boston we talked about this. The extreme situations that he faced in both the Middle East and Northern Ireland were far more dramatic and serious than the situations I have faced working door/bar security, and yet the situations I have had to deal with are far more common, numerous and familiar to civilians than the ones he has faced. Can we learn from his experiences, and take away amazing lessons from them? Absolutely. However we have to translate them in order to make them relevant to us. We have to do the same with MMA techniques, and simply adding in “illegal” moves doesn’t cut it, they need to reflect our reality. We need to look to our realities when evolving what we teach rather than simply copying what MMA fighters and military trainers do.

One of the positive things that MMA has done for RBSD systems, is to show the importance of sparring as a training tool, and that individuals need to have strong physical skills, being able to punch and strike with power. MMA has knocked squarely on the head that self-defense is just about eye strikes and groin slaps, and that no real skills are necessary. It has always been one of my pet hates, that people involved in reality based self-defense will dismiss sparring as a training tool on the basis that sparring doesn’t resemble or reflect a street fight or real life confrontation. I agree that sparring isn’t an accurate reflection of what happens in reality, however it is a phenomenal tool for getting people to work and operate under pressure, and to experience what it is like to get hit in a controlled and safe manner. When people spar for the first time they soon realize the difference between the shock of getting hit, and the pain of getting hit; that it is the surprise element that is jarring rather than the physical pain – this is a great lesson to learn for reality based self-defense. Yes, the format of a sparring match looks nothing like a real-life assault, however MMA has shown the importance of being able to deal with someone who is coming for you at full tilt.

Another thing that MMA has woken the martial arts community up to, is the importance of fitness and conditioning. I believe that reality based self-defense comprises of three components: simple techniques, aggressive mindset and physical fitness. MMA has shown that conditioning plays a large part in a physical confrontation. Those athletes who compete in the UFC train both aerobically and anaerobically, they do cardio work and they lift weights. I have had people argue with me, that the reason I can do a lot of the Judo pick-ups that I like/employ, is because of the amount of weight training I do. To a certain extent they are right, though there is much more technique and subtlety in throwing than they can see. One of the reasons I can get the height on the pick-ups and lifts I do, is because of the resistance training I do. I don’t apologize for that because I train for it; I do speed work as well, but I also do strength training. MMA has shown the need for physical conditioning beyond martial arts practice and that is a great thing.

MMA is not reality; two competitors, who are willingly fighting, in a sterile environment, who know their opponents, and will be told when the fight (structured with rules and weight classes) will begin, are not reflecting reality. As those studying reality based self-defense, we need to stop getting caught up in the idea that our techniques should resemble or reflect MMA ones. At the same time we should acknowledge some of the training methods MMA practitioners use are productive and beneficial. It is time for those who teach RBSD to acknowledge the advantage that the skills and conditioning that MMA practitioners have are beneficial and don’t contradict what is required to survive a real life encounter.     

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