Fighting Motives: Life, Death and Humiliation

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

The number of traditional martial arts techniques which have been written off as ineffectual, but which are now reappearing in mixed martial arts bouts, is growing by the day.

Just last week we saw Jon Jones demonstrate a traditional ju-jitsu shoulder lock from within the clinch. The overhook americana or ude garami was always a cool technique in self defence demonstrations, but it was never thought that someone would pull it off so effectively on a resisting, world class mixed martial artist.

It was a technique developed with one purpose, self defence, but Jones applied it in a competitive, sporting environment.

Similarly, a few years back, Shinya Aoki applied a classical winding armlock or waki gatame with great affect.

Here's Jigoro Kano, a jujitsu expert and the father of judo, demonstrating the same technique.

And here is Kyuzo Mifune demonstrating it in his master work The Canon of Judo.

How Techniques are Developed

There are two main variables which affect the applicability and development of techniques. The first is how they are practised. Training without a resisting opponent and against unrealistic, lazy attacks like the stepping punch of karate or zombie-like lunge that is common in aikido is just training the mechanics of a technique, without being able to actually manufacture or recognize the opportunity. The more you work with an opponent who will counter and deny your techniques, the further down the path you can go and develop further techniques and strategies.

The second variable is the intention of the technique. Certain techniques are much more suited to certain situations than others. While you have heard a thousand times “real kung fu / karate / aikido / capoeira / river dance is too dangerous for MMA.” A lot of the time it is just complaining and excuse making, but there is truth in some cases.

A finger lock or eye gouge could save your life, but both are banned in MMA because they are disproportionately effective and rapidly damage athletes. And I'm not saying they shouldn't be banned—I don't want fighters to have two or three fights before their hands and eyes are so busted up that they have to retire.

While some traditional martial arts techniques are illegal in MMA, plenty are not and just haven't been utilized yet. Hell, there's plenty of techniques prevalent even in amateur wrestling which haven't found their way to mainstream MMA yet. But when you have a world class mixed martial artist, training with other world class fighters every day, and creating opportunities to apply these techniques, pleasant surprises come fast.

Today (and in the follow up part of this series) I want to talk less about mixed martial arts applications, and more about the catalysts which spur martial arts to develop in specific directions. The impetuses for the development of new techniques. In the traditional martial arts world there have been methods for use on the battlefield, for arresting rowdy drunkards, for protecting oneself from banditry, for protecting others and even for situations as specific as fighting on uneven ground or at night.

Every culture has it's own fighting traditions, but their intention determines which techniques are prevalent within these systems.

Life and Death in Jujitsu

The first catalyst for development is perhaps the greatest spur to creativity: fear of death.

In a street fight or a scuffle outside the bar someone could die, but it's rarely the objective of any party involved. You don't square up and swing punches if you genuinely want to kill someone. No, we're talking about martial arts in the context of warfare. As the Cold War demonstrated—nothing forces advancements in science as fast as war.

Let us not forget that martial arts are traditionally arts for war. Miyamoto Musashi, the great Japanese swordsman, lists use of the musket and horsemanship as martial arts. It could be said that any method taught to soldiers is a martial method.

One of the most important arts to our modern day MMA was jujutsu (“the soft art”), a traditional Japanese fighting method. Before evolving into judo and Brazilian jiu jitsu, jujitsu was considered a battlefield martial art and it was the property of the samurai, the warrior class of feudal Japan.

Brilliant action scenes in movies have us convinced that battles involving swords and armour are about running from opponent to opponent, slashing them, and moving on as they fall. Of course, a katana can take your arm or head off, but then what would be the point of wearing all that restrictive armour if you were just going to get sliced in half by the first blow regardless?

No, battles between armoured infantry were ugly events anywhere in the world. Swinging a sword at someone in plate armour causes the sword to act more as a slightly pointed bat. While Japanese armour was lighter than full plate armour, it was still an extra 50-60lbs slowing the movement of whoever was wearing it, and combined with the wearer's own sword, it provided good protection.

No matter what armour is worn, some areas cannot be protected as fully, normally where the body must articulate. Stabbing underneath the armpits, or down inside the breastplate (you remember, like in Game of Thrones) are nice ways to circumvent armour. And the helmet (in addition to significantly reducing the wearer's field of vision) can be used as an effective handle for neck breaks—something as relevant in jujitsu as it was to the S.A.S in the Second World War—but how do you get someone into position to do those things?

Well, armour weighs a good deal, and even if it allows you to move relatively freely, you will never be called agile while wearing it. If you get knocked down while wearing armour, you aren't getting up quick. Consequently throwing became a huge deal to the samurai. Ju-jitsu, in addition to it's many traditional arm locks and disarming techniques, deals largely with throwing the opponent to the floor for this reason.

Miyamoto Musashi in his Book of Five Rings (which I reference a lot, you should have picked it up for a couple of dollars by now) mentioned at length the entangling of or sticking to an opponent off of a blocked blow. He also articulated his belief in striking the opponent with the shoulder while sticking to their sword. If it was commonplace to stick to an opponent's sword after blocking a strike, throwing techniques would certainly be possible from that position. You know that after the punches have missed in a fight it goes to some form of clinch—it's not hard to see the same happening with swords and armor.

Ju-jitsu and Aiki-jitsu also focus a great deal on counters to wrist grabs. This seems silly when you consider it as a modern person in self defence situations—the most common grabs are almost always the lapels (to anchor and punch) or throat—but when you think about jujutsu's origins with the military it seems a lot more likely.

Grab someone's lapels when they go for their short sword and you get disembowelled. Grab their wrist and you can halt the drawing of their sword while you go for your own. Because of the wearing of the short sword (the wazikashi), the wrist grab was a more commonplace concern than it would be for you or me down the pub or in the club, where the lapel grab or two handed push to “hold my back, bro!” posturing are far more commonplace.

And so, responses to what seems an uncommon attack to us seem a lot more reasonable when placed into historical and cultural context.

To see the life and death principle motivating martial arts today, one need only look at the streamlined close quarters combat systems of armed forces around the globe. Perhaps the most well known is the Israeli method of Krav Maga. Krav Maga concerns itself largely with unarmed defences against armed opponents (just as Jujitsu did) but with more live training practices than traditional jujitsu which, like all traditional martial arts, became incredibly formalized over time.

An interesting point which many Japanese jujitsu styles and aikido also focus on is that of the classical restraints. In judo, which developed from jujitsu through the focus on live sparring (the theme of the next article in this series) pinning positions are more akin to those we recognize today under the “side control” or “100 kilos” name. The classical jujitsu pin, however, is extending the opponent's arm along the floor with pressure on the triceps. By bringing the near knee onto the triceps the near hand can be freed to strike the back of the opponent's head.

Against an untrained opponent who doesn't know to keep his arms in, this position can be a neat thing to know.

From Gozo Shioda's 'Total Aikido'

But this brings us on to our next catalyst for creativity in the martial arts.

Arresting Technique

A second motive which has shaped martial arts development around the globe is the idea of arresting technique or the “come-along”. Policing has never been easy, and even if you are carrying a sword or gun, it cannot be your first response to a belligerent drunkard, or a youth who has pinched someone's purse and is trying to run. Consequently controlling techniques using reasonable force had to be developed.

In the modern era “reasonable force” is under constant scrutiny, and policing techniques tend to steer well clear of actually hurting the target. Perhaps the most recognizable arresting technique is the hammerlock. This is so well known that it is often called a “police armlock”. It is simply a shoulder lock where the arm is taken up the back and then pulled away from the spine to create pressure. If you can get an adversary's hand up their back in this fashion and press them against something—like a wall or a bar—it can be very difficult for them to do much.

Two applications from Rex Applegate's Kill or Get Killed

The hammerlock was actually a great deal more popular in the days of catch wrestling around Wigan. Changes in the grappling meta have seen it largely disappear, but it's still applicable if you're a good grappler and know it's there. I'm sure in a decade or so some technique will be rediscovered for which the hammerlock is the perfect counter. The development of the game works like this, in questions and answers.

Mario Sperry used to love the “one armed man” guard pass into a hammerlock. Indeed, in his excellent DVD series he recounts using this technique from inside the closed guard to win a tournament final in 1997.

Inside closed guard, Sperry passes the opponent's right arm under the latter's back. Sperry now holds his opponent's right hand with his own right.

Sperry brings his left hand over to catch the opponent's right hand with his left again. Notice he is using the now illegal four fingers inside grip. Finishing the submission from here is unlikely, but the opponent has stunted offence as Sperry moves to open the guard.

From Mario Sperry's Master Series

Shinya Aoki (appearing in this article for a second time), was able to hit a hammerlock from a similar arm behind the back guard pass. Another case of a classical technique being adapted and applied in a competitive environment.

In Chinese kung fu (I will use the most common name but it is variously called chuan fa, quanfa and numerous other things), there is a sub-branch of technique known as chin na. Chin na is translated as “seizing and controlling” and, for the most part, it does just that. For instance, in 1936, Liu Jin Sheng wrote a manual for the Zhejiang police force detailing arresting techniques called Chin Na Fa. This manual detailed dozens of simple and effective arresting techniques which probably wouldn't be permissible in most civilized nations today.

The U.S. Colonel, Rex Applegate, in hismaster work Kill or Get Killed, wrote of two types of arresting technique. There are those which “restrain by inflicting pain or the threat of pain”, and those which “destroy balance or dignity”. The techniques in Chin Na Fa and in chin na in general fit mainly into the former category. Certainly, nothing makes a man think twice about fighting as getting a hold on one of his fingers, his hair, or fish hooking him.

It is never good to pretend that techniques are unique to a particular martial art, however. In Chin Na Fa the aforementioned hammerlock makes an appearance.

As well as “Pressing on the Celestial Drum”, which we call the Full Nelson.

To give you an idea of the power of the Full Nelson as a restraining technique, the name comes from Admiral Nelson, a British naval commander who was elevated almost to the status of a deity in public opinion during his life. To “put the Nelson” on someone was to utterly dominate them. It is banned in amateur wrestling because of the pressure placed on the neck, but there is no better way to escort a drunk out of a bar and know that they can't swing at you or anyone else.

Counters and recounters to the Full Nelson appear in jujitsu and Chinese and Okinawan forms (normally involving seizing fingers) and should serve to highlight that it really is a big deal. Its applicability to MMA is obviously limited, there are better things to be doing from the back if you want to finish someone, but Rich Clementi let Melvin Guillard flail around and tire himself out in one from back control for a while before finishing with a rear naked choke.

You might be wondering what Rex Applegate meant by “destroy dignity” in an arrest hold. Here's what he had to say...

“Grasp the short hairs on the base of the neck[...]men are more susceptible to this than women.”

“A drunken man or woman can usually be handled by using the thumb and forefinger to grab the lower lip. By pinching hard and twisting, as the pull is made, the victim will come along.”

Clearly we live in different times, but Applegate's four hundred page magnum opus covers everything from quick drawing a firearm, to crowd control and riot policing, to hand to hand combat and come-alongs. As it's freely available all over the internet, there's no excuse for you not to have it. There's something for everyone from the gun nerd to the martial artist, do yourself a favour and read it. Besides, no-one wants to be fumbling around on google looking for makeshift restraining techniques while the mood is rapidly cooling—that's walking around knowledge!

Colonel Rex even includes some vital points. I don't believe in pressure points in the energy meridian, ki / chi one touch knockout sense, but the existence of vital points which is undeniable. Aim your punch at the temples or jaw and it will have more effect than a punch to the skull. And the floating ribs and solar plexus will hurt more readily than the abdomen. Equally, if you stick your fingers into certain parts of people, it'll hurt.

Here's one of Applegate's notes on the matter.

And Liu Jin Shang demonstrating the same concept.

Applegate stresses, however, that no arresting technique exists which will permanently subdue an opponent who is determined to escape. He explains that even the most painful holds involve threatening to break a limb, but depending on the level of desperation, a broken limb can be endured to facilitate escape. He too, is a fan of using a control position to rabbit punch a struggling opponent into unconsciousness if he will not submit to the hold.


The motivations for development in technique and strategy change over time. For instance, Judo—while it produces better rounded athletes than traditional jujitsu, and teaches it's students to deal with resistance far better—lacks some of the considerations for combative safety that traditional jujitsu holds as principles. In judo, a competitor will follow through as hard as he can to get a throw, even if he must dive with it. In armour or on concrete, where others are around and happy to kick your head in, remaining standing while the opponent falls is of the greatest importance.

Circumstances change, we don't live in tumultuous feudal hamlets, and martial arts change with the times. Even our beloved mixed martial arts began as a style versus style challenge to advertise the effectiveness of Brazilian jiu jitsu. Now it is about individuals and teams who are out to learn all they can, not act as stylistic representatives.

Be on the look out for part two, where we will talk about the development of martial arts for self defence, the defence of others, and as a competitive sport.


Pick up Jack's e-books Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking from his blog, Fights Gone By. Jack can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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