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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 multiple attackers.

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 multi-opponents.

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.

While 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 sides.

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.

Indomitable Spirit

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 yourself.

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.

Remember 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 directions.

  • 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' bravado.

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 is immobile.

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 away.

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 humbled.

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 areas.

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.

Part 1: Interfering With And Avoiding An Impending Attack
Part 2 Principles & Tactics
Part 3 Maneuvering For Advantage: Basics

Part 4 Maneuvering For Advantage: Putting it all together
Part 5:Maneuvering For Advantage: More Scenarios


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 Health Inform.


To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

self-defense, martial arts, street fighting, karate, multiple attackers, empty hand defense, indomitable Spirit, awareness, Roy Suenaka, kata, pressure points, fight, fighting


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