Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Controlling the encounter distance

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.


  1. Years ago, when What's-his-name Goldberg and his "spear" move was all the rage in pro wrestling, I pointed out to my son that the move was impossible to carry out on a target who refused to be engaged. I had him try, repeatedly, to "spear" me, and of course, as long as I had room to maneuver, there was no way on earth he could do it.

    I've never bought into the idea that fights will inevitably wind up on the ground. I don't care if one of the participants is determined to take the fight there or not. It all depends on who is fighting and exactly what the situation is. The UFC matches don't strike me as being a statistically valid sample for that sort of thing, for the simple reason that their rules--I looked them up once, there are plenty--eliminate all the things that a person might effectively use to avoid going to the ground. No small joint manipulation. No this. No that. No nothing that a middle-aged man--like yours truly--is going to haul out of his store of guile and craft to survive an encounter with a much younger and stronger adversary.

    I know an awful lot of people disagree with me, but I just don't see the point of using UFC-style matches as a gauge of what's effective. Fortunately, this is one of those areas in life where their disagreement doesn't cost me anything and won't keep me up at night, and I trust they feel the same.

    I recommended Windsong Dojo to a co-worker of mine who lives in OKC, by the way, and told her to tell 'em that the recommendation ultimately came from you.

  2. No, you're exactly right. It's darn hard to engage someone who is actively trying to disengage and doing it smartly. That was my whole point there.

    Sure, within UFC/MMA/grappling rules, or virtually any ring-fighting ruleset, the fight always ends on the ground because it is either not possible or it is against the rules to retreat and cover. UFC _is_ a really tough fight simulation but it's a long way from street.

    Thanks for the referral. I know if I lived in OKC that Windsong is where I'd be playing. She ought to find some great people there doing some great martial arts.

  3. "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."

    Well, you never know, maybe this attacker is one of the 100 who can strike fast and close the distance very fast so that you can't "read his intentions" while you reatreating.

    I think you should start to consider another possibility like for example: "What if...?!

  4. Ha! Youre right! How about this, "What if I'm ambushed by three ninja with sniper rifles in my sleep?"

  5. three ninja.. Yeah, that was good one Pat! :)


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