Surviving A Multi-Opponent Attack
Part 2: Principles & Tactics
by Christopher Caile
Editor's note: This is the second
of a series of articles exploring principles, tactics
and techniques that can be used when confronted with
A group attack is a chaotic nightmare of fear and
danger -- a flurry of fists and feet, sometimes weapons.
You can be killed, or severely hurt. To survive you
have to be mentally prepared. You have to know how
to take control -- interrupt the attack, move and
counter and create a whirlwind of pain and confusion.
Different martial arts may have different emphases,
approaches and sets of techniques, but at their root
they share many common principles of movement and
strategy which are discussed here. These
apply not only to one-on-one situations, but if abstracted
to a larger context, they can also be applied to fighting
While far from complete, below I have tried to summarize
some hard lessons learned over a lifetime. As just
words and ideas they are of little value. To make
them work you must train. Techniques and movement
must be practiced until they become natural to your
body and released from the mind.
When in graduate school in Washington DC in the late
1960s, I practiced karate in a sort of community dojo
shared by other teachers from a number of styles.
Most of us were there to continue our own training
rather than to teach beginners. In the group were
several police officers, and we soon found ourselves
practicing numerous scenarios defending against various
group attacks, with and without weapons. Interestingly
it was at this time that I began to explore and analyze
my karate kata (a mix of Shotokan and Goju-ryu) for
applications, strategy and principles. I still remember
being struck by the similarities between the two,
and how much the principles and strategies of fighting
multiple opponents are found in kata.
this article focuses on particular principles and
tactics used in multi-opponent attacks, if you are
a karate, taekowndo or kung fu student, look to your
kata too. With study you will begin to understand
how traditional kata work as a method of transmission
for many of the same ideas: spirit, commitment, quick
flurries of technique, pivoting and change in direction,
control, or throws of an opponent and many other strategies.
Many readers are already competent martial artists
and competitors. But two person practice fighting
is very different and actually often counterproductive
in a group confrontation. If you try to use the lessons
of one-on-one competition learned in karate, taekwondo
or kung fu, you might get lucky, but more probably
you will get hurt, possibly very hurt. You must practice
in situations where attackers don't take their turn,
and where you are faced with attacks from multiple
How you react and move depends, of course, also on
the environment and space available. Obviously, if
you are in an elevator, entrance way, on stairs or
in some other limited space area, you will react very
differently than in a wide open area. Also, don't
expect not to get hit. You can move way from many
attacks, duck under others, block, or jam, but you
will undoubtedly get hit. Learn how to absorb blows
by either moving with the technique or rolling off
them. Also, learn how to take a punch.
The cardinal principle in any group confrontation
or attack is spirit and believing you can win. Without
indomitable spirit, the belief you will win or escape
unhurt, you are psychologically bound -- so tied up
in fear, worry, insecurity, etc. that you will defeat
Most great martial artists of the past exhibited
this trait, Aikido's Morihei Usehiba, Judo's Jigoro
Kano, Daito-Ryu's Sokaku Takda and Kenjutsu (sword
arts), Miyamoto Musashi. The list is endless.
Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura (founder of World Seido Karate)
often talks about this -- how spirit should permeate
every movement, even the eyes. You
can see it in his kata, how he moves with liquid power,
tiger-like ferocity mixed with the fluid grace of
a dancer. He exhibits more than anyone I know how
kata can be used to train indomitable spirit and power.
Indomitable spirit can both deter an attack and sustain
you in battle. There are numerous tales in Japanese
folklore about its magic. There is no greater example
than the 16th century Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto
Musashi, who was undefeated in over 60 sword contests.
His indomitable spirit permeated every aspect of his
person -- the way he walked, stepped and even how
he rode a horse. It was so strong that to many it
took almost a physical form, something instantly recognizable.
For many would-be challengers, just the sight of him
made them faint of heart.
Killing With One Punch
There is an old karate maxim that states, "To
kill with one punch." Although interpretations
vary, the end result is that in action you should
put everything into your techniques. The bottom line
is that you must be fully committed in your actions.
Against multiple opponents, your movements must come
dramatically and powerfully, without hesitation. There
is no time for hesitation, faking or trying to figure
out or watch what all attackers are doing. In karate,
taekwondo or kung fu, this might be a great strategy
for deciphering an opponent's reactions or tendencies
in a one-on-one situation. But with multiple opponents
if you hesitate they will close around you like the
jaws of the shark. Too late. So, don't waste time.
Every second you lose, your opponents gain.
too, that attackers also are scared. They count on
intimidating you and mentally dominating the situation
with fear. Often an initial push is used to off balance
or disorient you, or an initial attack is used to
stun and immobilize. Instead, if you act powerfully
and committed against your attackers, you turn the
psychological table. They start thinking and questioning
their actions. See my article "'Yoi' & The
First Preparatory Moves Of Kata" currently on
the Magazine page of this site.
I am always struck by how some people while practicing
(karate, taekowndo and kung fu) free fighting score
phantom points by faintly reaching out to touch an
opponent. Judges in a contest may award a point, but
on the street such tactics will only draw smiles,
or worse get you really hurt.
Use Whatever Is Available
If you are in a room with lots of furniture, tables,
chairs, bar stools, etc., use them to your advantage.
If you are outside, the same can be said for cars,
trees, shrubs, etc. If it can be picked up, throw
it, use it as a barrier, a whip, or a weapon. If it
can be moved, position it in your favor. If it is
fixed, maneuver yourself. A fixed object can block
others, protect your back, or protect you from thrown
objects, even gun fire. If you have no improvised
weapons or no time to prepare, you can always shout,
kiai, or spit in an attacker's face to distract them.
And, if there is time, get an attacker to talk --
by making him think, you have slowed his reactions.
You have also bought yourself precious seconds.
Become Unpredictable & Disruptive
No great master, sifu or teacher can ever predict
how a group attack will unfold. In a group confrontation,
chaos and unpredictability reign supreme.
Become unpredictable yourself, so you don't
become an easy target, and so you can disrupt
others as you shift, change direction and move.
Kick out in one direction while you punch in another.
Become a flurry of committed mayhem -- in all
Don't stay focused in one direction or on one
opponent too long. At most, you have a second,
maybe a second and one half to deal with any one
attacker. Get is over wiyh fast, and as in karate
kata, change direction and move.
Use short flurries of close in techniques, and
keep low and balanced. Avoid long, stretched out
kicks or punches that waste time and can leave
you hanging and vulnerable.
Keep your weight distributed on both feet so
you can move easily in any direction. If you plant
your weight on one foot, or lift it waiting to
kick, or a leg or knee to block, you are momentarily
immobile and unbalanced.
Be aware of what is happening around you. This
is not practice freefighting against a single
opponent. This is different. It involves all 360
degrees around you and multiple opponents.
Severing The Head Of The Serpent
In a group confrontation, if you can first disable
or hurt the leader, or at least the first person who
attacks, you can sometimes end the confrontation before
it fully develops. It's like severing the head of
a serpent. The rest of the body may wiggle, but it
won't hurt you.
Disabling the leader is also a psychological strategy.
It creates doubt among the others. You are showing
he can't lead or protect them.
If surrounded on two sides and the front and you
don't know who the leader is, deal with the first
attacker, or become preemptive and move to deal with
an attacker on one side. This will be discussed in
detail in the following article.
Use Your New Friends
It's sometimes better initially to cause pain and
leave attackers standing than to knock them out. The
person you have just hurt can become a potent psychological
weapon. His screams or shouts of pain can act as a
deterrent. Seeing a buddy hurt, then hearing "You
have broken my arm" or "I can't see"
can have a very chilling effect on other attackers'
The attacker who is still standing can also be used
as a barrier or shield, or thrown into someone's legs
who is charging you. If a person is knocked out, he
Sometimes, however, your new friends are more than
an intimate gathering. The larger the group gets the
more emphasis you must place on moving yourself and
spinning and maneuvering others away from you.
Roy Suenaka Sensei, a 40+ year veteran of the art
(founder and head of Wadokai Aikido and my teacher)
tells a story of a youthful encounter where he and
two friends faced not a few antagonists, but a whole
crowd of 50 or more angry people trying to storm them.
In such situations, he notes, there is often little
time to do more than turn or redirect attacks (bumping
people into people) while continuing to move. You
must become a whirlwind of turns and motion.
If Caught, Don't Dance
If grabbed during a multi-person assault you are
put in immediate disadvantage because you are both
partially immobilized and limited in your ability
to move and avoid others. You can, however, pull,
push and maneuver the attacker off balance to use
the attacker as a barrier. But keep things short.
Moving around attached to each other for more than
a split second will only encourage others to cut in
on the dance. And, avoid at all costs going to ground.
Tangled up on the floor with another is trouble. You
become fish bait to the school of piranhas circling
around. The best advice is, don't be there, and if
you are, you better work fast and pray.
Remember, too, that the grabber is not always at
full advantage. He is often vulnerable too, especially
if he uses his two primary weapons, his arms, to grab
you. He also has to stand on at least one foot. Thus,
his weapons are limited, at best, to a fist or elbow
and maybe a knee or foot. And, if you spin or move
the attacker, he must use both legs to keep his stability.
Thus, you have taken away one potential weapon. Meanwhile,
you have at least nine basic weapons - your head,
elbows, fists, knees and feet. So the odds are in
your favor. But do it quickly. Others aren't standing
around watching. And, by now they may be very angry.
When grabbed or immobilized in some way the goal
is to maneuver the attacker and use that person as
a shield to block other attackers until you break
away. You can then, if the attacker is still standing,
use him again as a shield, or as an obstacle pushed
into another attacker's body, or across his feet,
to interrupt an attack. Even if you are in a headlock
there is still a lot you can do.
If you are grabbed and there is a punch coming,
deal with that first. Remember that you can still
move to maneuver your attacker.
If grabbed from behind or by both arms from people
on each side, look for a striker. Someone may
be lurking close by, intent on taking your face
off. Again, deal with an impending attack first
with a kick, counter, jam or strike. This gives
you a little time and the attacker you just disabled
by be blocking another's path to you.
If you are pulled or pushed you can control the
attack by moving with the attacking action. This
reflects the old judo concept of yielding, summarized
in the saying "pull when pushed, push when
pulled." In aikido this is rephrased, but
similar: "turn when pushed, enter when pulled."
By adding your action to your opponents', you
can control the attacker and his actions and end
in a location of advantage, at his side and outside
the attack. And by spinning the attacker his base
is destroyed and the attack will not be effective.
In judo this might end up in a throw; in aikido,
into a painful arm or body manipulation.
You can also create a controlled collision. Bump
into the person who grabbed you, use a head butt,
strike or elbow.
Using Your Whole Body
In multiple group attacks use all your weapons and
attack all those targets that are "off-limits"
in karate, taekwondo or kung fu fighting practice,
but are the everyday stuff of kata.
Here, as in kata, you are dealing with 360 degree
situations, attacks thrown and received from all sides,
plus the potential of weapons. Use all your striking
surfaces. They include the head/forehead, shoulders,
elbows, forearms, hands/fists, hips, knees, shins,
and feet. But you have to practice using them. You
become what you practice and if you don't practice
with these weapons they are lost to you.
Pick Your Targets
In the past one of the great hidden secrets of karate
as it developed in Okinawa was the understanding of
the body's vital points and when and how they would
be attacked. Long before karate arrived in Japan in
the early 20th century, other Japanese arts also included
the science of atemi (striking vital points), although
usually they were only taught to senior practitioners.
Very little of this knowledge, however, ever became
available to students in the West.
Recently, within the last ten to fifteen years, much
of this knowledge has been rediscovered. There are
now are books, videos and seminars on the most vulnerable
points on the body and how to attack them. You can
easily compile a short list that should suffice in
almost any situation.
Generally avoid striking or kicking heavily muscled
areas. In emotional confrontations against seasoned
attackers, a punch to the stomach, for example, does
little more than waste your time. Instead, aim at
more vulnerable targets. Add pulling, pushing, grabbing,
tripping, throwing, spinning, sweeping, catching of
legs or trapping, manipulation, and breaks of arm,
knee and other joints.
Two special classes of targets deserve special mention.
The first is areas that are very vulnerable, locations
where techniques,to be effective, don't require a
lot of power or strength behind them -- areas of the
face, neck, or side of the head, the throat, testicles,
etc., where even a quick light slap, strike, or jab
(as with fingers) can be effective from just inches
The second class of targets is at the other end of
the spectrum. There is an old Japanese saying: "If
you can destroy a person's weapons you destroy him."
This means your potential targets should include the
hands and feet of the attackers. This has always been
a primary concept in weapon arts, such as Japanese
kendo, or kenjutsu, and western fencing where the
target is often the wrist holding the sword.
In hand-to-hand combat the same spatial principle
is at work. Target an opponent's fists held up in
front of him, or any fist or foot striking out at
you. Since these targets are closer, you can be further
away. This means if a person is aiming at your head
or body, you can keep your distance, but still attack
his weapons. You gain distance and time of movement.
Roy Suenaka tells a story about when he studied karate
with Hohan Soken, the legendary Okinawan karate pioneer.
While studying at his home (where he had a dojo),
one day a youth arrived and knocked on the door to
challenge the aging (then in his 70's) legend. Only
after much provoking did Soken reluctantly take up
the challenge, if for no other reason than to educate
him. And it ended very quickly. Soken just stood in
front of the challenger, very relaxed. As the young
challenger threw the first punch, Soken deftly side
stepped and punched the punch, breaking the young
man's hand. His ego too, was, no doubt, also much
A Note On Practice
When practicing safety should always be your primary
prerequisite. One way to practice is to dress attackers
in heavy-duty protective armor. This way controlled
movements, counters and attacks can practiced without
worry of injury.
If you don't have safety equipment available you
can also practice in slow motion, but you have to
be careful because things tend to speed up and people
can get hurt. Here, avoid actual contact to vulnerable
You can also circle people around and practice defending
and moving against attackers from all sides. Again,
be very careful when targeting. Never make contact
unless the area aimed at is fully and heavily padded
or otherwise protected. Also, move. Fellow students
tend to wait their turn so you have to take the initiative
and move around them to make this type practice effective.
I: Interfering With And Avoiding An Impending Attack
Part 2 Principles & Tactics
3 Maneuvering For Advantage: Basics
4 Maneuvering For Advantage: Putting it all together
5:Maneuvering For Advantage: More Scenarios
Us Know Your Comments & Opinions On This Article
About the Author:
Christopher Caile is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief
of FightingArts.com. He has been a student of the
martial arts for over 40 years and holds a 6th degree
black belt in Seido Karate and has experience in judo,
aikido, diato-ryu, boxing and several Chinese fighting
arts. He is also a long-term student of one branch
of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qigong. He is a personal
disciple of the qi gong master and teacher of acupuncture
Dr. Zaiwan Shen (M.D., Ph.D.) and is Vice-President
of the DS International Chi Medicine Association.
In Buffalo, NY, he founded the Qi gong Healing Institute
and The Qi Medicine Association at the State University
of New York at Buffalo. He has also written on Qi
gong and other health topics in a national magazine,
the Holistic Health Journal and had been filmed for
a prospective PBS presentation on Alternative Medicine.
Recently he contributed a chapter on the subject to
an award winning book on alternative medicine, "Resources
Guide To Alternative Health" produced by
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