The famous Japanese swordsman Myomoto Musashi wrote: "To learn the sword play the guitar." That's an odd sounding recommendation, but one that apparently sustained Musashi through hundreds of duels. Musashi's training tip is one way of stating the basic principle that one discipline can translate to another.
But is that true of martial arts and true street combat?
Mixed martial arts or MMA, submission grappling, and jiu-jitsu are sports with rules, time periods, and officials governing the action. And generally speaking, no one is going to shoot or stab you during such bouts. So they should not be confused with the real-life combat situations that you face daily as law enforcement officers.
There are, however, principles from combat sports that can be implemented in on-duty combat situations. Among the most fundamental fighting basics to carry with you from the arena to the job are stance, range, and proper control of your opponent.
As a mixed martial arts fighter, the number one rule I learned from my teachers Eddie Yoshimura and Duane Sharp is that in combat sports you "protect yourself at all times."
A good fighting stance is important when dealing with the public, as well. Whenever you encounter someone with even the slightest possibility of violent behavior, assume basic foot and hand positions.
Stand with your feet approximately shoulder width apart, with your lead foot pointed at your prospective opponent. Your rear foot should point away from your opponent at a 45-degree angle and with your big toe even with the heel of your lead foot. Your rear foot should be the same side that is your strong side. So if you are right handed, your right foot should be the rear foot in your stance.
In sport fighting this strong side/rear side arrangement is to maximize power when striking or attempting a takedown. Keeping your strong side away from an opponent is even more important in law enforcement since that is where your sidearm will be. Keeping your knees slightly bent can prevent them from being locked and allow you to squat slightly to change levels quickly if necessary.
Whether you are actively engaged or merely having a discussion with a person of interest, always move the foot that is in the direction of your movement first. If you move backward, move your rear foot first. If you are moving to the right, move the right foot first. Sounds simple doesn't it?
Yet most of the knockdowns in professional fighting result when one of the combatants strays from this basic principle. The fighters crossed their feet, had too narrow or too wide a stance, or turned both feet away form their opponents. The reason these are the foot positions of almost every fighting sport is because they maximize your balance and power for both defensive and offensive movements.
Watch Your Hands
A corollary to protecting yourself is the old adage "always keep your hands up." Whether striking, going for a takedown, or on the ground defending against submissions, the optimal hand and arm positions are the same.
Your elbows should be tucked along your ribcage to protect your body. Your hands should be up in front of your face, high enough to protect your neck and jaw but low enough to allow you to see clearly. This classic guard up position is effective, but not subtle.
It's relatively easy to move your feet into a good combat position without overtly declaring that you are preparing for a fight. Obviously you can't walk up to every encounter that hasn't turned overtly violent in a "put up your dukes" position. What you can do is talk with your hands.
The moment that you feel at all unsure about the direction an interview will go, raise your hands and gesture with them at about chin height to put them in a fight-ready position without being unduly threatening. Then if the "sucker punch" comes, you are ready for it.[PAGEBREAK]
Drop Your Chin
When we talk about your stance, it is a good idea to drop your chin slightly while interacting with a subject. This allows your shoulders and arms to protect you from the all too common initial wide punch aimed at your chin.
Whether changing levels to duck a blow, lowering your hips to initiate a takedown, or preparing for an uppercut or strike to the body, avoid allowing your head to extend beyond your knees or feet. Otherwise, both your balance and your ability to generate power in any technique will be compromised, leaving you vulnerable to uppercuts, knees, soccer style kicks, and overhand blows to the back of the head.
If you find yourself bent over and looking at the ground, immediately correct your position. Just light pressure to the crown of your head in this position and you are either flat on your face or on your hands and knees. Proper posture in a good fighting stance will keep you out of that predicament no matter where you are.
Range is a concern. The long-range confrontation is where combat sport and law enforcement differ most. Long range in sport requires either movement to close the distance, kicking techniques or, if you have a reach advantage, using the classic jab. You are too far away to attempt a takedown without telegraphing your intent.
In law enforcement, long range use of weapons in a violent situation is probably optimal. Kicking on the street should be limited to low strikes to the thigh and even then it can be a risky move. The higher the kick, the greater the likelihood of a slip or an opponent's successful counter.
Medium range-where you and your opponent are within arm's reach of each other-has the greatest number of options and dangers. You can trade blows, change levels and grab your opponent's hips and legs to get a takedown, and close to try for a throw. But remember all of this can happen to you, too.
Using your weapon at this range may make you vulnerable to a gun grab. While the element of a firearm, blade, or blunt weapon is radically different than sport combat, some principles remain the same.
Control of the center line, which means having your feet and arms positioned inside your opponent's arms and foot stance, allows you to land and block blows, prepare to grab your opponent's torso with "double under hooks," and move the line of fire, arc of blade slash, or radius of the club to the outside of your own centerline or torso. This technique is effective against opponents who favor wide strikes.[PAGEBREAK]
Blocking Weapon Strikes
If you're up against a person who is stabbing forward in a piston-like motion with an edged weapon, it is similar to an opponent who throws straight punches. Lateral movement to the outside of your opponent is an effective tactic for both situations.
Gun disarms are a whole discipline in and of themselves and require enormous practice. Getting into position to employ them can be performed with the same techniques you find in the ring or on the mat.
An issue frequently overlooked in gun disarm techniques is the focus and strength of grip on the weapon. Disarming techniques targeting the grip may have difficulty succeeding because both you and the subject put all your focus on one target. There is an alternate path borrowing from sport fighting that can help.
In muay thai kickboxing it is called "low, low, high" or attacking the leg with two kicks to bring down your opponent's guard and throwing the third kick high at your opponent's head. In boxing, we say "kill the body and the head must die," meaning a body attack will open up the other fighter's head for blows. In a situation where there is a fight for a gun, multiple foot stomps, head butts, or knees to the leg may draw focus away from the weapon grip for that one second that allows the disarm to be completed.
Up Close and Personal
Close range is closely tied in with proper control of your opponent. To some degree, at close range you are in the eye (the calm area) of the storm. It is hard for your opponent to get off punches, kicks, gunshots, slashes, or bat blows. In MMA, grabbing the head with both hands and using knees or throwing elbow strikes to the face are often the techniques of choice at this range.
For law enforcement officers, the two-handed Thai clinch has a huge drawback. It allows the assailant access to your weapon. It is critical in close range to maintain control of your opponent to avoid being disarmed, taking unnecessary damage, and/or allowing him or her to escape.
The three points of control in upper body grappling are the head, elbow, and hip. Control of two out of three of these points on your opponent means he is going where you want him. But there is a major adjustment that you have to make as a sidearm carrying cop when facing an opponent.
When engaging at close range, a strong strategy is for you to have wrist control of your opponent's weapon side arm. Put your arm inside your opponent's arm, then wrap it around your opponent's torso with the elbow flared high underneath the opponent's elbow to prevent him or her from reaching your weapon. Keeping your forehead pressed tightly underneath or against the side of your opponent's jaw in this position allows you even greater control of her movement and reduces the chance of random biting. There are a number of takedowns that can be pulled off from this position. It will allow you to control the opponent relatively safely until you advance your position or help arrives.
Weapons, multiple opponents, and the lethal nature of street confrontations separate them greatly from sport fights.
But just like Musashi's samurai who learned music to understand swordsmanship, rigorous training in the techniques of combat sports can greatly enhance your ability to survive and prevail in the real-life conflicts that you face as part of our work.
Joe Fiorentino is a deputy with the Cook County (Ill.) Sheriff's Office and a certified defensive tactics instructor who lives in Chicago. He's also a Shidokan Black Belt who's been inducted into the United States Martial Arts Hall of Fame.