In a couple of articles in the past few months I’ve written about perhaps the most fundamental rule of aikido – ma-ai. The basic gist of this idea is that you never let someone within arm’s reach of you without beginning to act. If you let them build a base of support within arm’s reach then they can attack faster than you can respond. I demonstrated this with the funny Trinity video as well as the Emil Boztepe video. Here is a video of a guy playing with some aikido throws and one of the things I was most impressed with was his skill at maintaining the encounter distance, forcing uke to leap at him. Before nearly every encounter there is at least a little retreat, forcing uke to commit.
But in a book I was reading recently, Mastering Jujitsu by Renzo Gracie and John Danaher, the authors made the impressive point that in all the history of UFC, no fighter of any style had ever been able to control the encounter distance in order to remain standing and separated against an opponent intent on taking the conflict to the ground. In other words, if either fighter wants to go to the ground then that is where the conflict will take place regardless of the other fighter’s skill or intent to maintain ma-ai. To me, this further implies that no fighter has ever been able to prevent an opponent that intent on clinching, since a standing clinch is mostly prerequisite to a throw/takedown.
But Gracie & Donaher’s observation works both ways in a self-defense situation. Consider this interview in which he talks about covering the hands and strategically retreating (two tactics that are commonly against the rules or simply impossible in ring-fighting). Gracie and Donaher suggests (albeit in a round-about way) that it is virtually impossible to stop an aikidoka from covering (a type of clinch) and retreating per the above interview. Indeed, we have found covering and retreating (what I call aiki brush-off) to be a spectacularly effective strategy in randori against judoka, modern-arnis guys, and other aikidoka. In fact, one of my students told us a story just last night about reflexively brushing off an attacker on the street and sailing him 8-10 feet.
The bottom line: you can’t engage the enemy and control the encounter distance both at the same time. In order to control the encounter distance you have to be actively and strategically retreating (i.e. aiki brush-off). If you can do this while covering hands to damp out the attacker’s potential to hurt you, you can learn to be very effective in self-defense very quickly.