Fighting Motives: The Mighty Thumb

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC

Readers of my column will know that I have always been fascinated by the animal kingdom. Particularly the means by which animals hunt and battle for mates.

As a martial artist, I have also long been intrigued by the use of animals for inspiration. Often, when thinking about strategy and tactics, we overcomplicate fights into combinations and set ups, when the objectives are very simply laid out by our animal brethren.

A bull fights to flank an opposing male and gore his side. A mongoose seeks to draw a cobra into lashing out, then pulls away and strikes down on the back of the snake's head. A cougar cannot hope to jump on a porcupine, but it will happily tear one of the porcupine's legs to ribbons until it falls like a three-legged table, exposing its underside.

Taking angles / flanking, drawing and countering, and “touching the corner” / attrition of the legs all demonstrated with brutal simplicity. I can harp on about a principle a dozen times and it might not click until you see it happen in nature. Why? There's no pretense, no distractions, and almost invariably it is a matter of life and death.

So the great question is, in a world of stronger, better equipped competitors, how did humans come to rule? Our hefty brains, communal living, and problem solving ability certainly have something to do with it. But the facet which has allowed us to carry out our planetary coup is that innocuous digit dangling, fragile and alone, from the side of your hand.

The opposable thumb has allowed us to use tools, play instruments and swing weapons. The sword, the gun, the ICBM, none of them would exist or even be useful if we were stumbling around trying to pick things up in our teeth and between our elbows.

The Fragile Thumb

But here's the thing—a bull's horns are pretty substantial, most antlers are well attached, and while claws and teeth break, they're more likely to come off in something they've already punctured. A few pounds of pressure in the right place and your thumb can be rendered completely useless. Hell, catch it in a gi the wrong way, or fall a little off-kilter and you'll do it to yourself.

A little while in martial arts and you'll pick up all manner of pub tricks. One of my favorite little chin na holds is a basic thumb compression. Simply ask your mark for his hand, catch his thumb in your palm (across your body, as if shaking hands), and force the upper segment and lower segment closer together as if you were using grippers. A neat trick to make grown men scream like little girls, and maybe win a bag of pork scratchings, but a pretty difficult position to get to with an alert, resisting opponent.

A similar thumb compression, in this case shown with the same side hand. Go and try it on a friend, they'll love it.

Another classical chin na technique, which I have no idea how you would get into position to apply, is the so called “splitting a fist”. Wherein you catch your opponent's clenched fist and slam your palm down the side of it, attempting to take his thumb with you. If you doubt that would hurt, make a fist and see how far you can pull your thumb towards you—the joint doesn't have much give.

As I said, I have no idea how you'd apply that, though with the more aggressive grip breaking coming into play in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (Marcelo Garcia is always talking about “hitting” the gripping hand), I suppose you could try to sneak it in as you strip a collar grip, if you're an extremely dirty grappler. And there are plenty out there, the kind of guys who will drop their knee onto your hand and hope for an injury if you take a poorly placed pant grip.

But broken thumbs are a pretty routine occurrence in combat sports. Connect with the inside of the fist rather than the knuckles and you've got a great chance of busting yourself up. Fedor Emelinaneko repeatedly took time out in his prime to heal up his broken thumbs. It's made worse by the fact that many boxers never actually learn to make a proper fist, because most of their work is done in gloves.

If you can find any footage of Muhammad Ali making a fist without gloves on and you'll notice that his thumb just dangles on the side. Where someone who has done a bit of bag work without gloves knows to wrap their thumb over their fingers to ball their hand as much as possible, the boxing glove (particularly the newer, tethered types) prevent the use of a proper fist.

No, the thumb is for gripping and holding, it doesn't seem well suited to a striker's needs. And some grapplers even prefer to use a monkey grip (without the thumb) whenever possible, feeling it is more powerful. But there is hidden power in the thumb, a power that defies the fragile nature and limited size of the digit. One which has led to various Chinese martial arts traditions naming it “The Mighty Thumb”.

The Mighty Thumb

I'll stress that we're going to enter the murky realms of foul play here. Contain your moral outrage and remember that firstly, we're talking about fighting in general more than we are talking about combat sports, and secondly, there is—whether you like it or not—a tremendous skill to cheating and not getting disqualified. If you garner a reputation as a dirty fighter and still don't have a DQ loss on your record, you're doing something clever. What we're talking about today are sleazy, deplorable moves, but pretending they don't exist won't make them go away.

I mentioned that modern boxing gloves deny a fighter the opportunity to clench a proper fist. That is because the thumb is no longer free to bind over the top. Why is that? Because boxers kept jamming their thumbs into each others' eyes. It's a classic and for good reason—it's really, really hard to detect. If you're planting your hands all over a guy's face anyway, there's no way to tell if your thumb snuck in. 

It's also really easy because, if you have a normal level of proprioception, all you need do is find the side of your opponent's face with your palm, and you'll know where their eye is. Jake Shields couldn't land a clean blow on Georges St. Pierre, found his eyeball a good few times though.

If you're gouging often enough to make it into multiple photographs, you're cheating a lot.

Furthermore, a fighter doesn't need to fish around and try to properly gouge his opponent's eye, he can flick his thumb quickly across the surface of the eye and the effects will stay with his opponent for perhaps the next minute or two. It was a doddle to get away with in boxing (still is in MMA), and it gave a fighter a good five seconds of teeing off on an incredulous opponent, then another ten or so seconds while they covered up and tried to clear their vision.

From my favorite authority on fighting like a psychopath, Champ Thomas. Just sliding the hand down the side of the face with the thumb out.

If anyone remembers Don Frye's unspectacular debut in PRIDE FC, he won a bout against Gilbert Yvel via disqualification as Yvel repeatedly fought of takedowns by handling Don Frye's face as if it were a bowling ball. Frye, god bless him, put up with it for a while, before responding with a cheeky head butt or two. But here's the point, it's ludicrously difficult to tell if a fighter is thumbing even if he is doing it with alarming frequency. At the time the announcers didn't understand why Frye had backed into the corner wincing, or why he was shouting to the referee.

Think about how often you see these positions. All that needs to happen is for the fighter to decide he wants to get his thumb gooey.

Until they caught a glance at Frye's face after the first break.

The examples of famous fights seemingly changed by thumbing the eye are numerous. Roberto Duran was famously accused of thumbing Davey Moore's eye, I can't make it out watching the film, but Moore's eye swells up like nothing you've ever seen before. And Ernie Terrell famously accused Muhammad Ali of not only thumbing his eye, but dragging his eye along the ropes in a clinch during the famous “What's my name?” fight.

A far less commonly seen dirty tactic, but one which is equally unpleasant, is the idea of thumbing a cut. To see this in action, watch Ricardo Arona's destruction of Kazushi Sakuraba. Arona was doing wonderful work with his knees and opened numerous cuts on Saku's face, before he found himself in his favoute stalling position, the guard. From here, Arona laid on Sakuraba—which wasn't unusual for Arona—but began digging his thumb into the cuts on Sakuraba's face in order to widen them. It's definitely not a fight for those with a weak constitution.

But The Mighty Thumb has always been more of an all-in fighting idea, something for life or death struggles. If something is banned from competition, it is almost always because it is disproportionately effective, or would rapidly ruin the health of fighters. Thumbing the eye in life or death situations has always had a ton of applications.

Most of us know that the headlock isn't all it's cracked up to be. Carnival wrestlers even used to give opponents the headlock if they felt like letting the match drag on a while, the man performing the headlock feels in control, but really he's just giving his opponent his back and the chance at a trip or a suplex. Not to mention burning out his arms.

I once met an old boy from Wigan, the home of the legendary Snake Pit gym, who repeated that piece of familiar knowledge but added that it's a little different in an all-in fight. You only need set your weight for a moment while holding a headlock and you can sneak a thumb into the opponent's eye or nose and start “encouraging” them to comply. His point was that once your thumb is in, folks are a lot more reluctant to start trying to lift or trip you. Fighting and competing are two very, very different things.

Most Goju-ryu karate groups practice the traditional squat into sumo stance (Shiko-dachi) and thumbs to the eyes technique when a throw has been completed. This was the classical method taught by Chojun Miyagi, the founder of the school.

Miyagi, in black, teaches a class. The right hand pair are performing the classical Goju squat-and-gouge.

Again, landing with the hands on the opponent's face is just a great position to continue working from, the thumbs are right in the eyes already and the head may be held, bringing the back of the skull to be bashed against the ground. Not nice stuff to talk about but it certainly fulfills that promise, disproportionately effective.

Sticking with Okinawan masters there is an old story about Chotoku Kyan, founder of no style but influence on many, being challenged to a fight by an accomplished judoka. Stripping down to his underwear before the bout to avoid the grips of the judoka, Kyan stomped on his man's foot in a clinch, worked his thumb into the cheek of the distracted judoka and used the resulting fish hook to drive his man to the ground and make him submit. Fish hooking is a dangerous business, but once you have your finger or thumb clear of the teeth, you're pretty much guaranteed to have a good degree of control over your attacker.

In keeping with Kyan and thumbs, of the few photographs existing of him, one depicts him teaching this technique. A caught kick or grabbed leg is countered by leaning in and catching the opponent's head, working the thumbs into his eyes again. Almost identical to the technique which Yvel used to fight off the takedown—raising the opponent's head by the eyes—a hundred or so years earlier.

Going to Extremes

But one style of Okinawan karate has elevated the thumb into something else. The Uechi-ryu school of karate is perhaps the harshest in terms of body conditioning, and focuses on development and mastery of the spear hand, toe kicks, and use of the thumb knuckle—the boshiken.

When Genki Sudo, who had kickboxed against Masato and Albert Kraus, retired from MMA competition, he visited Okinawa and spent some time with Uechi-ryu karateka there. Reportedly, Sudo asked to take a light toe kick to the abdomen and was dropped to the floor by a soft kick from an old timer.

Smaller points of connection mean, of course, higher pressure. The problem has never been that toe kicks and finger thrusts couldn't work, it's that you basically have to selectively wreck your joints to get your fingers or toes hard enough to do anything useful against any target which isn't the testes.

Obviously combat testing the effectiveness of something like the boshiken is going to be nearly impossible, but one cannot help being impressed by men like Kyohide Shinjo who, at advanced age, can strike with their thumb knuckle with a force that would break most of us if we attempted it.

The Boshiken, if you've ever injured your thumb this will probably make you wince.

But the thumb is not going to be all that helpful to most as a striking surface. Though as a pressing, scraping, gouging tool? It's hard to beat. You have heard that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, every single man alive can be turned into a punching bag by a well-placed thumb across the eye. And it's worryingly easy to sneak into professional fights, we are just lucky that the majority of fighters are above that. 

Pick up Jack Slack's ebooks at his blog Fights Gone ByJack can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.


Check out these related stories:

Fighting Motives: How Rules Change Styles

Fighting Motives: Life, Death and Humiliation

Fighting Motives: The Kingdom with No Weapons

Fighting Motives: Broken Weapons and the Search for Alternatives