Self-Defense

The Structure of Self Defense, Part 1 Standing Zones

The term ‘martial art’ is broad and nebulous.  It includes everything from meditative arts like Tàijíquán to the highly specialized sport techniques of modern Brazilian Jiujitsu.  Tai Chi and sport BJJ (read: BJJ that is good at winning in a competition settting) are good for their respective purposes, but are not enough for someone whose goal is to become able to defend themselves in a real situation.

While jiujitsu starts on the ground, most of our daily lives are spent standing.  Accordingly, it is likely that any conflict will arise when one or both of the participants are standing.  Thus, part one of this series will deal with standing zones.

In order to apply jiujitsu to self defense, one must understand the concept of ‘zones.’  The concept is more broadly applicable to all of jiujitsu; whether one is inside or outside of a particular zone dictates what sort of options are available.  From a self-defense perspective these zones will serve as guidance for how to protect oneself against dynamic threats.  More than simply telling people what to do from a myriad of different positions, using zone theory will permit individuals to employ techniques that are appropriate for the zone they are in.  If one is able to recognize that they are not in the zone they feel most comfortable, they can take steps to advance or retreat to that zone.


Perhaps one day I’ll figure out what the Gracie’s or others call these zones, until then I’m going to improvise and try to have the names be both short but also helpful.

*A note on terminology:  I will use the word ‘safe’ below to refer to situations where one must remain attentive and could possibly be in mortal peril.  The term is being used relationally.  Clearly one would be safest outside of a conflict where another person wishes to harm you, but in that situation one does not need to employ self defense techniques.

Standing Zones

  1. Safely very far away: you are standing and your attacker is standing, separated by a distance of more than 20 feet.  Even if they move to attack you as fast as they can, you have ample time (which measured in seconds is in fact very brief) to react.  This reaction can be to stand and fight or to flee.
  2. Safely far away: you and your attacker are standing, separated by enough space such that neither of you can hit one another with a punch or kick, but not much further than that.  This distance is an important distance to be able to judge and maintain.  If an argument is becoming heated, one should seek to obtain this distance to prevent a sucker punch from taking you unaware.  While too close to run away, this distance will allow you to respond to a rushing attacker (by sprawling, or over-wrapping a thrown punch) or even to rapidly move in to take your opponent down.
  3. Danger zone:

    While Kenny Loggins’s likes to be in the Danger Zone, it is a  poor choice for the rest of us.  This is close enough that a thrown punch can hit you without your attacker having to close any distance.  While it is possible to remain in this zone as a situation is escalating, one must be extremely vigilant or escalate the situation first.  Waiting for your opponent to strike first here is a mistake. While having hands up in a fighting stance is a good way to initiate a fight that may have otherwise been able to be defused, one should have their hands in the “worried-wringing” position and be ready to bring the arms up to defend.  Another option is the “placating gesture,” where one’s hands are outstretched as though you are a pantomime

  4. Improved Danger Zone:  This zone is one step closer than the ‘danger zone,’ and that single step changes it meaningfully.  No longer can your opponent hit you with a jab or cross – the distance is awkwardly close.  They are now basically limited to a hook.  You, the jiujitsu player, have alternative strikes like the cacháçon, elbow or headbutt in addition to the clinch and associated takedowns.  Like the ‘danger zone’ one must have their hands up.  The “worried-wringing” position is a good option as it allows you to elbow your opponent if the need arises.  This position is good for solving the conflict by escalating the conflict yourself.  The modified Cobra Kai motto applies here:

    Strike hard, strike fast, strike first.

  5. Standing Clinch / Safely close:  This zone is when you have grabbed your opponent with a clinch.  Their ability to attack you at this point is very much reduced and the probability that the fight will end up on the ground becomes very high at this point.  It is possible that your opponent has initiated this zone, and in that case your priority will be to secure your base.  Once you’ve ensured that you will not be picked up and tossed on your head (a fairly sure way to lose) you can deal with the way they are grabbing you as the grips merit.  Breaking away from the grip and retreating is an option that will need to be considered, but there is a strong argument to be made for bringing the fight to the ground where your superior grappling ability will mitigate any physical advantages your opponent may have over you (for instance, being stronger and faster than you).

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