Do All Fights Go To The Ground?

Do All Fights Go To The Ground? The simply answer to this is no! Contrary to the urban myth made popular by a certain segment of the martial art community, all fights don’t go to the ground, and one has to ask truthfully would you even want too?

Much of the fights used to showcase, “You see fights go to the ground” stemmed from fights that took place against two opponents. I am still waiting to see a convincing argument, and examples where going to the ground is a viable strategy when you are outnumbered, and have to deal with multiple attackers. Not withstanding fighting on a padded floor in a gym, or somewhere out on the beach, is not the same as rolling around on the street, dodging cars, broken glass, or needles from junkies. Added to that, in many of these cases strikes were used to open up an opportunity for a submission to take place. To claim that the win was purely based on submission alone, is an overstatement ( or better still good marketing spin).

I think a more realistic way to approach this question of ‘to go to the ground or not’ — should be based on,

Pre-Fight Context (that’s assuming there is one): Is this one-on-one and do I know that for sure? Can you ever really ever know that in advance? Are there multiple threats from potential opponents? Is the situation about to unfold truly self-preservation, or is it a potential ego fight?

Situational (in-fight or ambush, its when the fight is on): Am I winning the fight standing up? Did I land up on the ground in a fight either on purpose or by accident? Am I losing on the ground, and is there a way to get back to my feet? Am I losing on my feet, is there a way to take it to the ground or does context suggest doing so would be a bad idea because four people are attacking me at the same time? Are there weapons now involved?

Reality: No one who truly seeks to protect themselves wants to get into a fight unless there is no other option. Reality of the street dictates that weapons are always a concern (even if they are not immediately in play), there is often more than one person involved (even if it started off one-on-one), and position dictates ones ability to remove oneself quickly from harm (what happens if you on the ground and you are on the bottom? You find you can’t get up, you are stuck, and the more time you spend there, the more time things can turn in the favour of the attacker). This is all outside of taking into account your actual skill level on the ground, and not to mention have you actually spent anytime training your ground skills in a realistic manner that approximates a street encounter? (most ground schools don’t – I am sorry you just cannot rely solely on sport jiu-jitsu for self-preservation).

*When being on the ground can be your worst nightmare.

Its Up and Down

Not all fights go to the ground, just like not all fights are standing. It’s largely dependent as pointed out earlier on situation, and how that situation then unfolds (and it will change). The reality of self-preservation is one has to be adaptable. You cannot have one single overarching strategy and hope that this will always be your saviour. Back to my favourite saying, “If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail”. Obviously everything isn’t a nail, and I am not sure about you, a hammer isn’t very handy if you have to strategically cut a piece of wood (smashing it to pieces sure.LOL).

As a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Black Belt myself, I don’t want to go to the ground in self-preservation. It is not that I don’t trust or believe in my jiu-jitsu, but rather my belief in the reality of fighting out on the street is stronger. I have seen (and been involved) in fights that quickly go south. One moment you can be winning, the next minute losing. Your objective is always to survive, and when it comes to survival, the situation unfolding right in front of you will dictate your next move ( not your style).

Let me give you an example. I was working in a club. A group of bikers rocked up, and immediately we could see there was going to be trouble. Not even an hour later, they were throwing stuff around in the bar, and harassing other patrons. As the doorman we had to intervene. After a lot of pushing and shoving we finally got them to the entrance, where they all proceeded to hold their ground. The leader turned to me and said, “me and you asshole, one-on-one, if you beat me we leave right now, if not we take the club.” I pulled my jacket off and it was on. I stepped in, threw two perfectly placed punches to his face, he collapses, I stepped in to finish him off, and out of desperation he Rugby tackled me and I found myself lying on the floor with him in my guard. Thinking the other doorman would have my back, I immediately began to work on submitting him. Not even a second in, I felt two hard blows to my head. Unable to manage the crowd, the other doorman lost control and this guys mates seeing him in trouble decided to play soccer with my head. Being on the ground right then and their was no longer a viable option, so I worked to escape, while trying to protect myself. Long story short, I got back to my feet, eliminated all threats that surrounded me using my standing up game, and I went home that night with a broken nose, two cracked ribs, and a concussion.

The lesson that night is three fold. Context drives ones immediate response, but the situation is not fixed, its fluid and WILL change. What started off as one-on-one, became a multiple attack. Had it stayed one-on-one, I likely would have won that fight with a submission, but because of now having to deal with multiple attacks, staying their meant losing ( or worse hospital). I didn’t know it would turn into a multiple attack when it started, and this is the reality, your strategic game in surviving an assault has to be adaptable (and you better hope you have trained to be just that).

*From my Saturday Jits class, Where We make sure we focus on self-preservation training.

The Up And Down of Fight Success

I train to be proficient in self preservation no matter if it is standing or on the ground. I train to keep the fight standing and prevent being taken down, just as much as I train to take a threat down if needed. I train to win the fight on the ground, but I also train how to get off my back and away from the ground if I need too. When it comes to self-preservation my number one priority is to survive (not to look good), which means I am always looking for a way out of the violent situation I may find myself in. I simply don’t want to stick around longer than I need too.

Survival is not a style, a dogma, or some propaganda to further ones selling of a martial art system — it predates all styles. Self preservation is simply not about the ego. That night when I got called out, I stepped up because it was my job, but also because my ego was on the line. In hindsight there may have been a better way to have handled that situation. I fought because of my ego, and to be frank, threw my life to the wind. If I was really seeing it as self-preservation, I am certain I could have found another way out of the situation. Had I not known how to fight, I may have found myself in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. The only reason these guys stopped fighting, is because I made them stop. Ultimately I left ‘bouncing’ because after being shot at (and surviving it), I decided my life was worth more than $50 a night — now that’s true self preservation.

I had to stop lying to myself and believing the lies of others. All fights don’t go to the ground. Sport style jiu jitsu is not the same as the street. While sport jiu jitsu gives you the confident base in ones ground skills and movement proficiency — one has to know what can and cannot be successfully used from that ‘base’ in a potential life and death fight. Yes in that world beyond the nicely padded mats of the Dojo. Anyone for example who does an inverted guard on me in the street is simply going to get punched really hard in the face.

Knowing which ground positions and strategies are viable for self-preservation is key, and cannot be learned just rolling for points. For example, in a self-preservation environment, a knee ride (or my modification I call a pavement knee ride) is a VERY effective method for both controlling an opponent and ending the fight.Where did I learn this? By actually having someone try to hit me, while I attempt to apply my jiu-jitsu.

A knee ride affords the user the opportunity to,

  • Be aware of environment. You can look around you and see what is happening or coming at you.
  • You are free to move. You can relinquish the knee ride if you have to. For example you see four guys running at you with clubs.
  • You can chose to use the knee ride to restrain the opponent without actually hurting him (that irritating drunk dude at a wedding), or you can use strikes to finish the opponent off and work for a submission if you need too.

*Example of a Pavement Knee Ride in Action

Free rolling is crucial for self-preservation success. As noted earlier, it will help you achieve movement literacy, and give you a good measure of pressure, that will help with your stress inoculation for self-preservation. But to do this only, without considering what it feels like when someone strikes you, or to not use strikes to set up your own submissions is to lose in my opinion at least 70% of our ability to actually defend yourself. Better still try use your grappling against three to four people. Even if you eliminate the strikes and just try to grapple three people at the same time, who are only grappling you back, you will quickly realise how limited your options are. Not to mention while your focus is on submitting one person you have two other people trying to submit you simultaneously (now imagine throwing strikes and or weapons into the mix).


Ground skills are an absolute must if you are serious about self-preservation (I would never suggest otherwise). But the truth is not all fights go, or have to go to the ground, and to be pragmatic in most self-preservation situations where your life is on the line, you likely don’t want to go to the ground. Escaping the situation and having the ability to run is far more important. With that said, if somehow you land up on the ground, and have no choice but to work through that situation not having any ground skills means you are dead in the water.

You don’t have spend all your time either in self-preservation mode. I don’t. But to not seriously consider, and train for the inevitable, is not only irresponsible on the part of the person teaching ground skills, but puts his or her clients at risk, who naively believe (and trust) that what they are being taught on the soft padded jiu-jitsu mat will simply translate ‘as is’ to the violent, unpredictable, life and death realm of self-preservation.


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  1. Reality bites! Met an awesome Muay Thai instructor yesterday, when he found out that I’m originally from Manila he asked if I do Kali – unfortunately the answer is “no”, but growing up in Manila have given me plenty of opportunity to be at the receiving end of it – so I can at least attest to its effectiveness 🙂 Can’t imagine being on the ground with one guy and have another guy doing a “YYZ solo” with a pair of Kali on my head. Awesome article Rodney. Another myth busted!