Self-Defense

The Structure of Self-Defense, Part 2 Fighting on the Ground

While Part One of this series dealt with standing ‘zones’ of self-defense, this article will address what happens when you end up on the ground.

Why do fights end up on the ground?

If you are 6’8 and have physique that Homer would have sung praises to you might think to yourself that fighting on the ground is literally and figuratively beneath you.  But being prepared to fight from the ground is a vital skill for the physically imposing as well as those of us with slighter builds for a very simple reason:

Usually fights end up on the ground because someone falls down.

It should be obvious, but when you’re worried about being hit in the face you pay a little less attention to your surroundings and have an easier time falling down a curb, tripping on a chair, etc.  Further, if someone hits you unexpectedly you might find yourself on the ground dealing with a very unpleasant situation.

Ok.  So you’re on the ground, either because you tripped or because you were hit by a sucker punch when you turned to wave the bouncer over.  What happens now?

Hopefully you landed well.  Jiu-jitsu (as well as other martial arts like Judo) will teach you how to do that.  Articulated most simply, when you fall backwards, land with your back like a spoon, rounded and with your chin tucked to your chest.  Don’t reach backwards but instead land with your arms outstretched to your sides, increasing the surface area that your body weight is impacting over.

Let’s assume you landed well.  What can your attacker do now?

  1. Jump on top of you, landing in the mountFrom here they can throw punches at you and you have little to no capability to return strikes.  This is a very bad place to be, and can rapidly turn fatal as successive strikes cause your head to bounce off of whatever unforgiving ground is underneath your head.
  2. Jump into your guard.  This isn’t far fetched as most people don’t recognize the guard as a position of danger and so might think they are pressing their advantage even as they put themselves in a sub-optimal position.  Much like the mount, they are in a position to throw strikes that count be potentially devastating.  However, even a little time spent doing jiu-jitsu will show that this is in fact far superior to the bottom of the mount.
  3. Stand over/next to you and kick or punch you.  The biggest concern here is that they transition from this position to the mount, or perhaps kick you somewhere vital.  Striking a prone body from standing is relatively awkward, and as you’ll see is fairly easy to prevent.

Other options exist, but they are either unlikely (your attacker jumping onto sidebody) or improve your situation (your attacker being arrested by the plain-clothed police officer standing behind him) so we will focus on these three.

Your attacker is mounted on you:

This is a dire emergency.  You need to know what to do, and you need to do it quickly and efficiently.  You will need to bring your hands in front of your face while simultaneously keeping your attacker lower on your body.  When your opponent chambers a punch you will explosively bridge your hips up (called an ‘upa’), preventing them from being able to land their strike.  Immediately after bridging your hips, you will (ideally) secure one of their arms and legs (each on the same side of their body) and roll them to that side.  This takes you out of the mount and into their guard, and while the fight is by no means resolved – you are in far less danger than you were just a few seconds ago.  This escape is known as the upa or hip bump escape.

The other self-defense escape to know is the shrimp escape (sometimes known as hip escape), which will move you from being mounted to having your attacker in your guard.  It is important because it works very well when the upa escape does not work, and can be used very successfully in sequence with the upa escape.

Your attacker is in your guard

This is about the best case scenario you can hope for (outside of someone intervening before your attacker can do anything more).

Part three of this series will examine what to do from inside your guard from a self defense perspective.  For now, the most important details to remember are:

  • Lock your guard!  Don’t be lazy and rely on your attackers forward momentum to keep them inside your guard.
  • Break their posture.  If they can lean back they can either throw a punch or begin to open your legs to pass your guard.  There are many ways to break posture, but universal to all of the methods is to use both your arms and your legs.  The guard is strong because you have four limbs against your opponents two – but this advantage only helps if you use it!
  • Survive.  Don’t try a risky sweep or submission unless you have no other choice.  Unless you are in a fight in the middle of the woods, it is likely that you merely have to survive until a passerby discovers the fight (and ideally intervenes, but that is the subject of a future article).

Your opponent stands over to strike you

This is surprisingly easy to defend if you know how.  Distance management is key.  Keep your attacker away by kicking their lead knee or pushing off their hip.  If they bend over too aggressively don’t be afraid to kick them in the face.  Keep your back curved up like a spoon (to reduce surface area) and swivel to keep them in front of you.

Ideally the conflict will resolve when your opponent realizes the futility of their efforts (possible, but not necessarily likely), the help you’ve been calling out for arrives, or you are able to do a technical stand-up and flee.


Ultimately, while there are nearly infinite ways that a fight can unfold, they tend to develop along fairly consistent lines.  Your attacker could use sidemount or knee-on-belly, or they could adopt a Shaolin Kung-Fu fighting stance, but these are less likely than the mount, the guard, or attacking from standing.  At a later time (Part Four perhaps?) I’ll deal with self-defense from positions like these, but for now this hopefully serves as a primer for why one needs to learn jiu-jitsu for self-defense.

Something I haven’t yet discussed, but that is important is that fighting on the ground is an equalizer.  It will help you mitigate differences in height, weight, and physical conditioning.  Fighting from your feet means that both you and your attacker are on equal terms.  If you are on the mount or if your attacker is in your guard then the fight is no longer on equal terms but is instead skewed in your favor.

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