To win a fight, know your range and your tools

Inside or straight elbow strike Inside or straight elbow strike

By Wael Abdelgawad

A friend and former student asked me today about preset striking sequences with multiple strikes. He said his son was learning MMA and had a habit of striking only once and disengaging.

I do know and practice a few multiple strike sequences with as many as twenty strikes, but those are just for fun. For the most part I teach students to focus on fighting ranges, the tools available in each range and the progression from long range to the ground.

Of course some street assaults happen unexpectedly and instantly at close range. But often, fights follow a typical progression: long range, medium range, close range and then the ground. This often happens in a chaotic, out-of-control fashion. Two men approach one another, trade insults and maybe shoves, they exchange wild punches, one grabs the other (usually the one who is losing does the grabbing), they fall to the ground, one ends up on top and beats the other.

Close quarters fighting.

Close quarters fighting.

What we want to do as martial artists is take control of this process. Of course our first duty is to avoid conflict. But that’s not always possible. If we have to fight, we want to run the thing from start to finish like a song we’ve sung a thousand times.

The way we “run it” is by learning the tools available at each range, and practicing them until they require no thought.

For example at longer range you have basic kick combinations like front kick-side kick, or low roundhouse-high roundhouse, or side kick-turning back kick.

At medium range you have typical hand striking combos like punch-backfist, or jab-cross-hook, or eye jab-palm strike. Note that these are typically short, rapid combinations, with three or four strikes delivered in one to two seconds at most.

At close range there are many effective elbow striking combinations, such as inside elbow – outside elbow, rising elbow – inside elbow, or descending elbow – forearm strike to the neck. We also have our knee strikes at this range. Typical targets are the groin, inner thigh or knee, outer thigh or knee, and face (bringing the head down to meet the knee).

These are just examples. There are of course hundreds or even thousands of kicking and striking combinations, including the more exotic strikes found in some arts. One of my favorite “exotic” striking combinations is the bent wrist, using the end of the forearm bone to strike underneath the chin, followed by the bird’s beak, bringing the tips of all the fingers together into a point and jabbing into the eye. These two strikes flow together in a combo, and might be followed by a rising elbow strike, a grab to the back of the neck, then a straight elbow. (R bent wrist, R bird’s beak, L rising elbow, L grab to neck, R straight elbow). From there I might throw a L punch to the neck, catch the head with my other hand, and deliver a L hammerfist to the back of the neck. That’s a fight finisher, but if he’s still standing I’ll follow with a takedown.

From close range we always proceed to the takedown. The possibilities are endless and include sweeps, reaps, judo throws, joint locks or breaks, kicks to the knees, head manipulation, or simple hand throws or drags.

Once the attacker is on the ground we select a finish appropriate to the situation. We can stomp – I favor ankle stomps, which shatter the ankle and prevent the attacker from rising – or we can follow him down and strike from a crouching position. Law enforcement or security officers might want to pin the attacker and search him.

In the end, if you were to add it up, you might find that you hit the attacker twenty times or more, but it’s not a pre-determined striking sequence. Rather, you are familiar with the variety of tools available at each range and you flow smoothly and instantly from one to the next, ending with the attacker on the ground, incapacitated. If the attacker blocks your strike or stops your takedown, you flow instantly to something else, often using what he has given you.

Becoming familiar with these tools and the flow from long range to finish is just a matter of practice. In my case it took almost ten years of constant practice to get to a point where I can instantly see the possibilities in a given range or position. But I’m an explorer, studying many arts and weapons at the same time. In a way that slows my progress on the journey to “no-mind”, because I’m constantly in acquisition mode, rather than practicing the same tools over and over.

I suspect a student could reach the same level of proficiency in only two or three years if he limited himself to a smaller number of tools. That’s what MMA schools do, and it works for many fighters. At longer range they might know only the front kick and roundhouse kick. At medium range there are some successful MMA fighters who literally know nothing but jab, cross and hook. Vitor Belfort didn’t even have that – he’d just throw a straight blast again and again, crushing his opponents with sheer energy and power. At close range an MMA fighter might have only an elbow strike or two, and at grappling range a lot of guys stick with one particular takedown, whether the outside leg hook, the single leg throw or the double leg. On the ground you get specialists who once again might know only one technique – reclining arm bar, triangle choke, kimura or whatever – but they know it well and can hit it again and again.

So yes, this works for some MMA guys but usually only up to a point. If you have only one takedown tool and you come up against an opponent who is immune to that tool, you’re in trouble. What we see with the MMA greats – the guys who win championship belts and hold them for years – is that they possess a huge number of tools at every range. Think Anderson Silva or George St. Pierre. These guys have been practicing martial arts their entire adult lives and are still constantly studying, acquiring new tools. They can dominate at any range.

Go to class, put in the time, and eventually you’ll find that you can move in and out of ranges like a shark, knowing just what to do at each stage.

Wael Abdelgawad, Founder
Hammerhead Hapkido

1 Comment

  1. I try to encourage my students to think in terms of ranges and tools, rather than techniques. Tools are mix and match. Tools are adaptable. Techniques, not so much.

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