The Way of the Tortoise: The Role of Turning Fetal in a Fight

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Artwork by Grimoire

Once upon a time, when we had nothing better to discuss, martial artists argued over lineages and the minute details of basic form. Trumping up and down the dojo doing basics and seething with rage at every other style was the standard. One particular disagreement between karateka was around the method of turning at the end of each march of basic techniques. Shotokan, Wado-ryu and others believed that the back foot should move across behind the karateka and the body should be turned around towards the imagined opponent. Here the foot furthest from the imagined opponent is the pivot and the moving foot must travel through the space in which the opponent should be standing.

Goju-ryu and Uechi-ryu stylists believed that the foot closest to the imagined attacker should be the pivot and furthest foot should perform the stepping.

When the Internet came along you could hop online and read pages of stylists defending their lineage's method of turning as if it was their own idea to defend. The underlying concern is reasonable though: being attacked from behind is a worst-case scenario in self defense and the back position is the most vulnerable in professional fighting.

Many systems of combat sports banned the turning of the back altogether due to the thought—in that culture or system—that it was a sign of cowardice or tactical suicide in a real fight. Turning away is a foul in boxing, for instance and in some forms of glima, traditional European wrestling, showing the back to your foe at any point sees you disqualified. Yet the human instinct when under fire is to turn away or to or go fetal. Perhaps that is the mind's desire to protect the center line and the vital organs but in various systems of fighting around the world the value of turning the back as a bait, a defense, or a method of generating power have been explored to a great depth.  So let us embark on a study of the back and the power of the cower. Not the traditional back position, with both hooks in, but of instances where the opponent is allowed to attack the back.

1. Turning Correctly

Allowing your opponent to get behind you means you messed up. Probably pretty badly. In combat sports no one is going to punch you in the back of the head from behind because that is illegal and the referee should notice. What gets fighters hurt is the blind turn to face. Put yourself in that position: you aren't just going to let someone stand out of your line of fire and throw blows at you, you are going to turn to face them. The problem is that when you pivot on one foot, you can't transfer your weight into your blows or defend yourself well. Hence the expression “keep turning him!” which you will hear shouted from corners. Three famous examples off the top of my head: Ronda Rousey versus Holly Holm, Josh Thomson vs Yves Edwards and Chris Hordecki vs Anthony Njokuani. The first two saw fighters trying to turn and face from a chest to back position, the last saw a fighter getting back to his feet and attempting to jog back out into space before turning to face.

How do you spin to face someone correctly then? You step as deeply as you can away from them and across yourself—setting yourself up to turn as far away from the opponent as possible—and then pivot on the lead foot as you draw the back foot up towards you. This is one of the few times in martial arts that stepping across yourself is permissible because it takes some distance out of the pivot. The method isn't guaranteed to work but if you let a guy attack you from behind you don't get to complain that there's no one hundred percent bulletproof transition to facing. You can't see what the opponent is doing so guards and head movement are on the dangerous side. The only reliable defense from a striking stand point that you have when someone is behind you is to create distance and attempt to turn in as they are trying to close it.

A cheeky Hector Camacho sneaks around behind his opponent and punches him blind.

This is an area where striking and wrestling share concepts. With the rules of wrestling you don't get a choice and you have to learn to start with someone behind you from the referee's position. There are many options for the bottom man from this base position, some of which we'll examine in a minute when we begin talking about the back as a shell. In his 1973 book Systematic Wrestling, Ray Carson outlined his coaching method and referred to a study that he performed during various national championships: recording not only the frequency of each successful escape or reversal by the bottom man but also the frequency with which each failure saw the bottom man concede points by getting turned to his shoulders. Carson's conclusion was that while a great number of techniques worked from the knees, those techniques which took the bottom man's scapula furthest from the floor were the least likely to see him pinned. “The smart wrestler will, therefore, come up off the mat as often as possible.”

Some form of wrist control is crucial in a stand up it is the sole means of keeping the opponent from simply body locking the standing man or shooting on his legs. The feet are kept staggered and one foot is stepped forward deep across the wrestler before he turns and withdraws the trailing leg, all while controlling the wrist. Most often the turning wrestler is coached to turn low in anticipation of a shot from his opponent. The great John Smith considers this pivot almost identical to a hip heist and refers to it as that. Carson's explanation has the turning man grabbing four fingers instead of the wrist in the way that is legal in jiu jitsu and grappling tournaments but still somehow frequently upsets people.

Smith performing his pivot.

Whether wrestling or striking it is the same principle: step deep across yourself and withdraw the trailing leg as you turn. In perhaps the most famous example in mixed martial arts history, Jose Aldo demonstrated a perfect break from a back body lock with exactly the same footwork and capitalized with a knee as Chad Mendes immediately shot for his hips.

So that is the art of recovering from the worst position in a fight but it makes you wonder why the most base human instinct is to curl into a ball and turn the back when under attack.

2. The Back as a Shell

You have probably seen a professional wrestler take a shot with a folding chair across the back. You will of course have seen a man turn fetal after he has been knocked senseless by a big punch in a fight. It makes sense: the back is a large, muscular surface which does not have so many easily reachable organs as the front of the body, while the head can be tucked down behind the shoulders and covered with the arms. Basic Jiu Jitsu credo says “don't turn your back”, but many have found that often getting to the knees and assuming the 'turtle' position is preferable to fighting from flat on the mat. While the turtle is rarely going to be favored over guard it has several advantages over the bottom of side control.

Firstly, the fighter is not taking his opponent's weight on his ribs and lungs or face, which can really take a toll over a fifteen or twenty five minute fight. Instead he bares the load across the dome of his back and through his knees, elbows and head into the mat. The fighter has space underneath himself which he can use to roll and is also in a position where he can threaten to stand up at any time. If the top fighter does not have a hook in with one of his feet or a seatbelt grip on the upper body he is going to struggle to completely control the turtled man so a good turtle player can create a situation where the top man is struggling to stay balanced and keep his weight on the turtle, and at any moment granby roll back to guard. Normally this results in either trapping the top player in full guard or kicking him away and beginning to stand up.

For examples of how tough it can be to actually attack the turtle of a top-level turtle player, one need only look to Eduardo Telles. Telles has spent years mastering the turtle and while it is not always the most competition effective tactic he has the ability to confuse even the brightest of grapplers. Telles' matches against Keenan Cornelius are largely Cornelius passing Telles' guard, Telles showing him the turtle, and Cornelius doing little until they end up back in the guard. But against opponents less outstanding than Cornelius, Telles has been able to hit heaps of sweeps and the occasional knee bar.

Here Telles' left hand grabs his opponent's left pant leg and his right hand grabs his opponent's sleeve, eliminating his ability to post out.

In Nick Diaz's bout with Georges St. Pierre the challenger sought to avoid a flat guard and rolled to the turtle. From there Diaz was able to avoid much of the damage that he would have taken while flat on his back. This was largely due to the rules in the UFC forbidding knees to the head of a downed opponent. Diaz threatened to roll through into what Ryan Hall calls a Hippoplatamus several times throughout that bout:

But the main product of the positional choice was that Diaz could repeatedly work his way back up to his hands and feet and force St. Pierre to move around him, occasionally escaping as St. Pierre transitioned to a front headlock or tried to drag him back to the mat.

If the top man gets overzealous in holding the turtle can become a far more effective sweeping position. The arm roll is a reversal from either the turtle or the wrestler's base which essentially means creating space and attempting to roll when the opponent's arm can be trapped deep around the waist or under the arm. It is the top man's elbow getting dragged underneath the rolling man which dictates whether or not he's going over. Here's Tommy Heyes of the legendary Snake Pit in Wigan demonstrating one variation:

Here Nate Marquardt is able to force a scramble with an arm roll against Kelvin Gastelum. This allows him to recover guard.

Ray Carson believed that granbies, arm rolls and switches were good but should all be tried during or after a stand up. The main concern was taking the scapula as far from the mat as possible to avoid the possibility of a pin. Here is Justin Gaethje demonstrating an arm roll off of a jiu jitsu style technical stand up.

While elevation—being up on the hands or even on the feet—is good in giving the rolling fighter space to roll through, Telles has had success performing arm rolls from down on his elbows in the turtle. Against Rener Gracie, Telles used his hands to fan out his own collar from the turtle in repeated attempts to make Gracie commit to a grip, before arm rolling him for the sweep.

It is easy to understand how a fighter could get overeager and fall victim to an arm roll or some other turtle sweep against a relaxed and more experienced opponent. The back is an appetizing target and most learn to pounce on it when they see it. This brings us to a subtler trait, the role the back can serve as bait.

3. The Back as an Invitation

Exposing the back as a grappler can be a neat trick but let us first look at strikers. While turning the back is technically illegal in boxing Jersey Joe Walcott made use of the strategy to draw out and knock down the more methodical Joe Louis. Walcott performed what is called the Walcott shuffle, in which his lead foot was brought back and across himself, before his rear foot stepped back out into stance. With both feet pointing in the wrong direction, Walcott walked away from his opponent on a diagonal so that he could just turn his head enough to watch them.  Putting himself at such a clear disadvantage with no stance and no hope of getting a punch out as the opponent came in, Walcott begged opponents to step in on him.

Joe Louis, the textbook forward moving fighter, pounced on these clues of weakness and was baffled when Walcott was able to drop away and sway back with right hands.

Walcott would also use cross steps, putting him into positions from which a fighter could not traditionally box in order to draw opponents towards him.

In MMA this cross step is far more valuable. Bellator's Emmanuel Newton often spends long portions of fights cross stepping in the hope of a lunge from his man so that he can finish his turn and land a backfist. In boxing this was called a pivot blow and was a trick of Slack the Norfolk Butcher until it was outlawed. Newton's fight with Joey Beltran consisted of him pacing the cage with his back to the fence and stepping across himself until he could catch Beltran on the spin.

You will see a few fighters turn through with backfists after missing kicks. When a round kick misses or a hook kick comes in too close, the kicker gives up a dominant angle to his opponent without the opponent having to move to get it. To see this in action watch any of Buakaw's fights as he picks off kicks, drags them past him and lands blows on his helpless opponent. Alternatively go and read about angles in Finding the Art. Great knockouts have come off of parried or missed kicks because it is so tricky for a fighter to guard himself from that angle. Cung Le made use of both the lead leg hook kick and side kick and when either was parried or glanced off a guard his back was exposed. Rather than attempting to recover his leg, Le would almost always turn into a backfist. If it landed he had recovered the offensive and if it didn't the opponent was either covering up or too far away to capitalize as Le returned to position. Here are a couple against Wanderlei Silva and Frank Shamrock:

Paul Felder picked up just the third spinning backfist knockout in UFC history from a similar position of what seemed like disadvantage after a knee was knocked off line.

Notice how Castillo, attempting to push the advantage, opens up and swings with no thought for defense.

Returning to the grappling perspective: Kazushi Sakuraba's great MMA career owes to his choice to give up his back. Everyone he fought he showed his back to and they would always rush to grab hold of a bodylock. He'd work to separate the wrists and attack with a kimura or a sumi-gaeshi throw. Every damn time.

Often Sakuraba would jimmy his head between the top and second ropes in the PRIDE ring just to keep it between his back and the opponent's chest and hinder them further from attempting to catch a quick choke while he worked his craft.

Today Jeff Glover is proving the value of the back as bait. In his 2012 match against Caio Terra, Glover turned his back in an attempt to draw a charge from Terra but it did not work as well as hoped. In their rematch at Metamoris, Terra attempted the same trick against Glover. Finally against Baret Yoshida, Glover was able to take advantage of a dive at his back and attempt a leg entanglement in the early going.

In that bout Glover repeatedly demonstrated his 'donkey guard', jumping upside down closed guard and then dropping to attack the legs. It's the same predicament in grappling as it is in striking, if someone shows you a glaring opening and you know that they are too good to do it by mistake, it puts you in a strange and distrusting place.

But aside from the role of the back as a defense and as bait, there is one other key reason a fighter might choose to turn away and that is for the generation of power.

4. Showing the Back for Power

You need only compare the wheel kick with the hook kick to see how much power a turn can add to a technique.

But often the turn itself does not add as much power as you would think. A spinning back kick or a turning side kick does benefit in force from a turn or spin, but not nearly as much as a wheel kick does. It is worth returning to Jack Dempsey's idea of punching purity—the most powerful blows are when the weight of the body is moving in the same way as the blow. On a wheel kick the body is rotating and the strike is circular. On a back kick or turning side kick the body is rotating but the strike is linear.

The main value that many overlook in the turning of those two techniques is to actually present the opportunity to throw a back kick (which is obviously impossible when facing an opponent) or a side kick with the rear leg. Back kicking or 'mule kicking' is such a powerful motion that it can even be delivered with some force when the turn is a jumping pivot and little power is derived from the floor at all.

The old Chuck Norris special.

You can throw a side kick with the rear leg off the bat as Rose Namajunas does but its awkward, rushed and often lacks power because the rear knee has to come up into a chamber all the way past the center line before the kick. Anything short of that results in a flicking out of the leg and a loss of power.

Here Dennis Siver demonstrates a beautiful turning kick to the midsection. Note how far Siver's kick is able to travel and the force with which it connects. Compare it to the straight side kick of Rose Namajunas and you can see why side kicks from the rear leg are most often of the turning kind.

It is also worth noting that a good fighter is always looking to achieve an angle and can run himself into position for a back kick. Many of the best back kicks, wheel kicks and spinning backfists come as a fighter realizes that the opponent has circled too far past his lead foot and commits to meeting them half way by turning his back. Here is a textbook example from Jon Jones who went to the back kick a number of times against the mobile Alexander Gustafsson.

Turning the back can also be used to generate force in a grappling sense. Some of the most forceful throws you will see performed in combat sports require the fighter to expose his back. You will see the highest level judoka and the white belt running through the exact same turning footwork over and over again to move through a position of weakness and into one of great strength as fluidly as possible. The trademark shoulder and hip throws of judo involve turning the back and getting the center of gravity below the opponent's, using the hips or back as a fulcrum. Here, for instance, is my all time favorite drop shoulder throw:

It is solid gripping and timing which keeps turning throws from being as dangerous as the idea might seem. Ronda Rousey's career has been built around harai-goshi and while she has experienced the danger of control on a couple of occasions against Liz Carmouche and Holly Holm, the vast majority of the time Rousey is in the driving seat.

Count how many times Karo Parysan turns his back to his opponents in this highlight:

When you watch fighters doing it right you understand the value of turning throws but even good throwers get it wrong sometimes. Hayato Sakurai's failed throw against Takanori Gomi against the ropes saw him give up back mount and be punched into a daze.

The act of turning to attempt a throw often forces an opponent to set his weight against it and this can be used to land free blows and disengage. Fedor Emelianenko famously stunned Mirko Filipovic like this and just the other day Neil Seery caught Kyoji Horiguchi in the same way.

A final example of using the turning of the body to generate power comes in the form of a choke. The baseball choke has fast turned into the wild right hand of the Brazilian jiu jitsu world as it catches top notch grapplers and ends the bout quickly. Named because the collar of the gi is gripped with one hand palm down and one palm up like a baseball bat, the choke can be used from the top very effectively but has become famous for leaving aggressive guard passers unconscious as they overlook the grips in the heat of the moment. Turning the back in this choke draws the elbows in and tightens the choke. Magid Hage who has made a name for himself in competition with the technique: his most famous choke being against Clark Gracie. Hage set his grips as Gracie was in his guard and turned belly down as Gracie drove through and mounted him.

Hage performed the same choke as Zak Maxwell passed his guard and looked to be attempting an armbar before he realized how tight the choke was going on.

Even in a more orthodox attempt at the choke from the top of half guard Hage immediately turns his back when his opponent recovers guard and we are again treated to the sight of a black belt tapping out while on an opponent's back.

Behind you is the worst place that an opponent can be and everyone is born knowing that. It is part of the fighting knowledge which comes as instinct. But the corresponding instinct to turn the back to damage can be used effectively in the form of the turtle and the shoulder roll is really just a refined application of the fetal position we are all born in and return to under great duress. The instinct of an opponent to treat any sign of the back as weakness can be used to draw lunges and over commitments, and the mutually understood danger in turning the back can be used to the advantage of the fighter who wants to sneak in a throw or a back kick just as right hand leads and so called “sucker's punches” still catch out top flight boxers if they aren't ready for them.

Pick up Jack's new kindle book, Finding the Art, or find him at his blog, Fights Gone By.