The myth of 90 percent of fights end up on the ground

Just recently, somebody asked Marc MacYoung a question on his Facebook page. I think is still relevant, even though the answer has been known for some time. The question was:

Have you ever researched, or seen research, regarding data about the number of fights (where weapons are not involved) that end up “on the ground.”

This immediately brings to mind the “ninety percent of all fights end up on the ground” myth. Before we get to Marc’s answer, some background on the origin of this myth. First of, where does it come from.

 

The myth of 90 percent of fights end up on the ground

As far as I know, it was Rorion Gracie who started claiming this back in the late 1980’s. A Google search gave me this article (originally published in Playboy of all places…) from 1989. This was before UFC 1 and the Gracies weren’t as well known as they are now. Neither was Brazilian Ju Jitsu. In fact, if you opened up a martial arts magazine back then, there was still a lot of traditional martial arts in there, along with lots of Jeet Kune Do. People were writing about trapping, the different ranges and so on. There was very little on ground-grappling or striking on the ground.

There is a lot more to how it all went down (an interesting article right here) but Rorion seems to have been primarily looking to promote his family’s style when he claimed that ninety percent of all fights go to the ground. The angle he played seems to have been something along the lines of:

  • 90 percent of all fights eventually end up on the ground according to an LAPD study.
  • Gracie Ju Jitsu specializes in ground fighting and we have a proven track record.
  • Therefor, Gracie Ju Jitsu is the best system for fighting.

A few years after that original article, UFC 1 came along, Royce Gracie won and that brought ground grappling and MMA in the limelight. The Gracies fared well in the twenty years since then, to put it mildly.

During those two decades, that 90% quote got tossed around all over the place until it eventually became accepted as a fact by the average martial artist, in particular by the BJJ or MMA practitioners. It even came to the point that if you questioned this “fact”, you were labeled a stupid traditionalist who didn’t know what real fighting was. Unfortunately, there are some problems with that quote.

 

Why is this a myth?

The first problem is that the logic doesn’t hold up.

One of the key problems we all have nowadays is that we are bombarded in the media with “studies” and “statistics” that supposedly prove all sorts of things. At least, that’s what’s implied when you read those kinds of articles. The issue is this:

Correlation does not imply causation

This is a classical mistake scientists are warned about and one they should always strive to avoid. Just because one factor is correlated to another, doesn’t mean it causes it.¬† Or to put it in relevant terms:

Just because 90% of the fights go to the ground and Gracie ju jitsu focuses on fighting on the ground, doesn’t mean it’s the best system for fighting.

The logic just doesn’t hold up, even though it seems to at first glance. The burden of proof lies with whoever poses a theory and Rorion used the LAPD study for this. Unfortunately, that study proves no such thing.

The myth of 90 percent of fights go to the ground Rorion Gracie

Rorion Gracie

The second problem is that Rorion misinterpreted the LAPD study he is quoting. Maybe he didn’t read it completely. Maybe he misunderstood it. Maybe he did it on purpose. Who knows? Either way, it doesn’t matter as he kept on using this study as proof of his theory about the superiority of his family style.

Unfortunately, the study doesn’t support his claim at all. This is where Marc’s post comes in. Before you read on, please read the entire post. Don’t just skip ahead but read the whole thing (I know it’s long) because Marc explains in detail why the LAPD study does not prove what Rorion said about fights and therefor why his theory about the importance of BJJ is not entirely accurate (note, I didn’t say it was entirely wrong either…)

If you have invested a lot of time and energy in BJJ or MMA, you might have a knee-jerk reaction of “Bullshit!” while reading and I totally understand why you would feel that way. But that doesn’t mean Marc is wrong…

 

What I disagree with

I do partly disagree with Marc when he says this:

You will, however, encounter grapplers who take you there intentionally. Granted not as many as back when BJJ was the latest cat’s ass. But they are still out there.

I think there are way more people nowadays who think going to the ground in the street is a good idea than ten years ago, when MMA really shot to fame. In particular in the US where the UFC is one of the biggest sports around. Here’s my theory (totally unscientific, just my opinion which could very much be wrong):

We now have an entire generation that grew up watching MMA as the dominant combat sport.

60, 70 years ago, the dominant combat sport was boxing. What young men thought of as “fighting” was often primarily inspired by boxing. Throughout the years, Asian martial arts got added to the mix and changed that view. In the last two decades, MMA (and BJJ) have been front and center in all the media when it comes to fighting. As a result, a lot of kids grew up thinking that this is how you should fight.

Then they get into trouble and have a couple low-level fights (schoolyard brawls, neighborhood pissing contests, ego-driven dust-ups, etc.) in which they use MMA techniques (trained or otherwise) and strategies. To a degree, these will work for them and reinforce the pattern. To all the onlookers, this reinforces the idea that this is how you should fight. This behaviour repeats itself and gets ingrained into a large part of the population.

Unless these guys get into serious trouble (murder, robbery, assault, etc.) or go to the ground against multiple opponents, they will not learn that there are kinds of violence and situations where BJJ is not the answer but the one thing you should absolutely avoid. To them, their kind of fighting is the real thing (which it is, all their fights prove this) but they fail to see that their experiences don’t encompass the whole spectrum of violence. But as most people don’t come into contact with those other kinds of violence, they don’t know any better and think their experience applies across the board.

 

Where does my theory come from?

From¬† two decades of meeting those kids, teaching them both in my class and privately, seeing ad nauseam what’s written on the internet and what’s “taught” on Youtube and in other videos. But also from looking at as much CCTV or other footage of actual fights as possible: in the last decade, I’ve seen a huge rise in MMA techniques in street fights.

Some fighters were clearly trained, a lot of others seemed to have had either a little bit of training or they tried to mimic what they saw in the Octagon. Some were successful, others were not. But what was the most apparent was a tendency to consciously use ground grappling: fighters intentionally went for dominant positions.

Before the UFC got big, I hardly ever saw that. Now I see it more and more.

 

Another factor I think is important is that there have never been more MMA gyms and schools. More and more (mostly) young guys take up the sport as their first introduction to martial arts and fighting. Just like several decades ago, they used to take up boxing if they wanted to learn to fight. So more and more men grow up with MMA as their primary source of instruction for all their fighting.

 

Like I said, this is in no way a scientific theory. This is me sharing my experiences with you, giving you my opinion based on what I saw, read and heard in the last ten years. Which doesn’t mean I’m right, I could be way off. But I believe there may be some validity to the theory, which is why I still train in sports grappling and ground techniques. I firmly believe you should at least have a solid base in ground grappling as taught in modern MMA. Not to fight like them, but to understand how they fight and know what to do about it. Just like I believe you have to spend some time boxing and doing muay Thai:

  • You haven’t been punched until you’ve been hit by a boxer.
  • You haven’t been kicked until you’ve been kicked by a nak Muay.

Those arts excel at these techniques, just like BJJ excels at ground grappling. However, that doesn’t mean their techniques apply across the board. Try training on a slippery surface with techniques from boxing, muay thai and BJJ. For an example of that, here’s some training I did a few years ago:

You can read more about how and why I did this in the second part of my training on a slippery surface post. As you can see, changing one factor (the surface) changes everything. I very much recommend you give it a try too: go out and train on ice, in the snow, on wet grass, etc. You’ll definitely change the way you view how techniques that work great in the gym or dojo can be used outside of that context.

 

Conclusion

Like I’ve written about ad nauseam: context is king. It determines which tools you should use. Or like a good friend of mine would say: stay on mission. Know what your goal is and use the appropriate tool to achieve it. Meaning:

  • If your goal is competition, then you train differently than for self-defense.
  • If your goal is to choke people or tap them out on the mat, then you train differently than if you want to learn how to get up right away after you end up on the ground in the street.

Determine your goal first and only then pick your tools. Regardless of how good other tools are for other goals, if they don’t help you for that particular job, they’re not a good match for you then and there. I believe the same is true for all fighting arts: determine first and foremost why you train and then pick the system(s) that helps you achieve that goal.

While you go through the selection process for that system, beware the marketing hype and unproven theories (including all of mine). Think things through and do your own research so you can at the very least be comfortable with your choice.

After all, it’s your butt on the line.

 

 

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Comments

  1. recently took a look at GRACIE SELF DEFENSE .Not one ground technique all stand up and the staement is also made “the ground is a bad place to be on todays mean streets”

    • I haven’t seen that so I can’t comment on the product. That said, they said and implied just the opposite for a very long time…

      • Thanks for the article Mr Demeere.

        I train at Gracie Barra, and stand-up self defense is part of every class, however, it is true that striking does not get the full-speed live sparring treatment the ground techniques do. I believe this is because you just can’t do full speed sparring with strikes as safely and easily as ground. BJJ’s contribution is the resurrection of some old techniques and a training system that incorporates a huge amount of live training with technique development. You can go full speed with only a cup and a mouth guard and no closed head injuries. I think this produces ground fighters at a higher level than some other systems produce stand-up at and this training bias produces changes that filter down to the street.

        It certainly does not mean that going to the ground is always a good idea if you have a choice.

        • Hi Ryan,

          Thanks for stopping by. Could you elaborate on your last sentence in the paragraph? Because that’s a pretty sweeping statement you’re making about Bjj vs striking systems and I’m not quite sure what your intent is.

          • Sure Wim – my last sentence is a disclaimer, I meant to imply that, although BJJ has a uniquely effective method of training on the ground, that does not mean going to the ground is always a good move, even for a BJJ practitioner. Its an obvious point for people on this post, but perhaps not for other grapplers.

  2. Good call there Mr. DeMEERE! (Don’t know if “Welcome Back Kotter” got over there).

    When I wrote that, I was thinking about the guy taking you down to the ground as his first/opening move.

    This was common with folks who trained in just BJJ back in the day. But now — and I find this to be delicious irony — grappling has become to MMA like DOS has to Windows. Originally the basis on which Windows operated on, Windows basically ‘absorbed’ DOS and ate it alive.

    But the MMA trained fighter on his feet whose first instinct in a clinch is to take you is very much a modern reality. So you’re right, the longer a confrontation lasts, the more likely a clinch is to occur … and if that is the guy’s training, he’ll try to take you there.

    • Had to look up WBK, I don’t think it ever aired here (and also can’t believe John Travolta was ever that young. :-))

  3. Thanks for the post.
    Just wanted to add to your observation about seeing fights on CCTV etc. I to have observed the MMA nature of what you see, regardless of training or lack of, across ages and genders. As you say, the pervasiveness of it in society has changed how people approach fights, or what they think a fight should be.
    JW

    • Thanks for stopping by Jonathan.
      MMA has been creeping into movies and TV shows too for the last decade or so. So that’s probably also a factor. You can hardly see a fight scene or an action movie without some grappling and BJJ-like moves in it.

  4. It was a long read ….
    But worthwile!!!
    First:
    I live in the Netherlands and over here Kick Boxing is still the most popular fighting system. Allthough MMA is gaining ground.
    Second:
    There’s a nice You Tube movie from Paul Vunak: “Head, Elbow, Knees.” We should concentrate ourself more on those tools in this MMA era?
    Third:
    We might rephrase the original idea/sentence in: “helping someone to the ground will end the fight in approximately 90% off the times?!” In order to give it a more realistic sound?

    • Hi Ruben,

      1) The Netherlands was one of the pioneering countries for kickboxing and muay Thai so you guys have a very strong tradition there. The US had full contact karate as kickboxing, skipped kickboxing moistly and just as muay Thai started gaining ground, MMA came along. So it’s normal IMO that there’s a difference.
      2) Why limit yourself to just those three tools? Like a three-year old kid, I want all the tools! :-)
      3) Which is what the vast majority of traditional arts aim for and IMO it still applies today re. self-defense.

      • Hi Wim,
        Yes, you'[re right.
        A three-year old kid knows already that when you are in a clinch – or preferably a short moment beforhand – then only you’re short distance attilery cane be applied.

  5. Wrote an article on this phenomenon for my website after spending a decade or so deconstructing this myth:
    http://cbd.atspace.com/articles/90percentmyth/90percentmyth.html

  6. Charles James says:

    Great post, thanks.

  7. Great post, Wim.

    The core reason (to my understanding) why mma & bjj guys seem to go all ape-shit when you tell them that the ground is not their friend when engaged in self defense is the same reason that they levy against TMA guys when they say that stand-up game is not a complete system of fighting: no one wants to be told that they just spent 10 years mastering something that wont help them when they need it.

    The whole thing reminds me of an old George Carlin line, “Ever notice how everyone else’s ‘stuff’ is ‘shit’ and your ‘shit’ is ‘stuff’?”.

    • Yep. I’m blanking on the term right now but there’s a concept in psychology that describes this: the longer people go into a certain direction in their thought process and beliefs, the harder it becomes to give them up or even acknowledge information that doesn’t contradicts them. I call it mental inertia.

  8. Huh the FB link to Marc’s post does not work for me. Do you need to be FB friends with him to see it? Has he posted it on his website, perhaps?

  9. Wim,
    This a great post and goes along with what I see as a Police Officer. We go to the ground as a result of effecting an arrest and placing the suspect in cuffs, to control the situation. I am not sure if you have seen this article by Chris LeBlanc – Going to the Ground: Lessons from Law Enforcement – but it gives a few stats on this topic. Here is a link, http://ejmas.com/jnc/2007jnc/jncart_Leblanc_0701.html , if that helps.

    Michael Rosenbaum in his ebook Comprehensive Karate, addresses this issue on page 87, saying in part “…the first person going to the ground is usually the first to be killed. This maxim is thousands of years old and is found in all systems designed for mortal combat, from the ancient Greeks to the United States Marine Corp Martial Arts program. While we can yet stand we remain viable human beings. When we can no longer stand we are wounded or dead.”

    As a DT instructor in our department I/We do not advocate going to the ground as you are now outnumbered, cannot see effectively to respond to additional threats and cannot control the situation. And most of our guys would be out of their element not to mention to out of shape to be effective, sad to say.

    I did not see the comment from Marc on his FB page so I hope I have not restated what he may have shared. In any case thanks for you insights!

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I read the article by Chris LeBlanc a while ago when somebody pointed it out to me. Good stuff. It clearly demonstrates why Rorion’s claim just isn’t true.

      I agree with Mr. Rosenbaum: when your life is on the line (which you should assume it is every time you have to defend yourself outside of a competitive event), going to the ground is the last thing you want to do. I believe this is just as relevant for LEOs like you say. I think BJJ is great but it’s a very specific tool that shines in a very specific context.

  10. https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=6JRDBBfvTIw
    Interesting clip relating to why you don’t want to go to the ground….

    • Well, it depends on who you mean. The LEO takes it to the ground because for cuffing a resisting perp, that’s very often the right way to go. It’s not always easy (as you see in this video) but it is easier than running after a guy who tries to run away or fight you all the time.
      For the other guy, it was just stupid. That said, fighting a police officer who arrests you is by definition a bad idea. So let’s just say his life decisions are severely lacking regardless of his tactical decisions…

  11. It wasn’t a criticism of the policeman, rather that with the crowd getting more active and vocal, things may have been bad if the back had not arrived when it did or the crowd had escalated things up?
    Best

    • Ah, got it, thanks.
      Unfortunately, the officer doesn’t have much choice. Cuffing works best when the suspect is pushed against a solid object. If there is no resistance, a wall or car (like with the woman) works fine. But as soon as he starts fighting, it is very often more practical for the officer to take the guy down and use the ground for leverage/control. The downside is indeed that bystanders become a potential danger. Barring working in teams, there really is no solution for that. Other than shooting or tasering suspects. But then people would be up in arms against the “fascist police”…

  12. It also shows why the choice is to get the suspect down on their front, being on the back gives to many opportunities for fighting back/resisting.
    Best