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I have often heard people make the claim that most of the time, two people who are fighting each other will naturally clinch and wrestle, and then shortly fall over. That is to say that there is a high likelihood that any fight between two people will soon became a ground-fight.

My question is whether or not this is true. However I would be more interested if some kind of evidence could be used to back up this assertion. I don't know what kind of evidence might exist for this; perhaps police reports or something, or perhaps some actual experiments have been conducted, or perhaps we can look at UFC statistics.

If there is no evidence, what reasons are there to think that fights usually end up on the ground?

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Great question. This claim is originally based on specific people (the Gracies) citing specific studies (by the LAPD as I recall). I have notes/links on my other computer and will see what I can put together later. There's a broader claim, separate from that specific one, but that would be harder to prove. (This is one area where using MMA results would, in my mind, be misguided.) –  Dave Liepmann Aug 8 '12 at 13:53
    
I disagree about using MMA results being misguided. You can look at what happens when fighter A wants to keep the fight standing and fighter B wants to take the fight to the ground (fighter B gets his wish, absent strong wrestling skills for fighter A). You also see what happens when both fighters have a standup skill set and wish to (ostensibly) keep the fight standing. The moment it goes south for one of them, they take the fight to the ground so they can win. –  Robin Ashe Aug 8 '12 at 18:45
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@RobinAshe Good point; I should've been more specific. Statistics on the frequency of the fight going to the ground in MMA aren't very useful with regards to real-life scenarios for a number of reasons. As you note, the mechanisms one can see in MMA are absolutely golden and should be taken to heart. –  Dave Liepmann Aug 8 '12 at 19:05
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@DaveLiepmann Still though, while looking at MMA fights alone is a problem, the fact that frequency of going to the ground in an MMA fight is consistent with frequency of going to the ground in a street fight/assault is still quite telling. A lot of fights between untrained opponents hit the ground, again with 'most' being 51% or more, most fights do go to the ground. –  Robin Ashe Aug 8 '12 at 19:08
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Really, any evidence we can get our hands on would be illuminating. In the answer, it gives us a study of security camera footage and breaks down the number of fights which "go to the ground." This might not be robust enough to generalise to all the situations we might face, but it's still useful evidence. –  jhsowter Aug 10 '12 at 1:41

7 Answers 7

up vote 19 down vote accepted

The likely study

Chris Leblanc's 2007 article in the Journal of Non-lethal Combatives argues strongly that the claim "most fights go to the ground" originates with the Gracie family, famous for popularizing Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a groundfighting art. I vaguely recall seeing Rorion and Helio repeating this claim in video, but cannot produce an example at this time. The claim is certainly widespread in mixed martial arts circles, particularly among Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners.

Leblanc argues further that the Gracies are referencing a specific LAPD study:

In 1991, Sergeant Dossey, an exercise physiologist with the LAPD, completed a comparative study of use of force incidents reported by LAPD for the year 1988. Sergeant Dossey looked at all 5,617 use of force incident narratives written by officers in 1988, and devised a method for codifying the information contained and analyzing it for what they identified as dominant altercation patterns. The study was replicated in 1992 by LAPD’s Training Review committee.

Notice that already, the study deviates from what one would normally consider "all fights". These are police/civilian use-of-force incidents, not civilian/civilian altercations or military/military violence. This distinction becomes clear when Leblanc excerpts the results:

Five scenario patterns accounted for 95% of the altercations...

  • Subject pulls away from an officer’s attempt to control the subject’s arm...
  • Subject attempts to punch or kick the officer...
  • Subject refuses to assume a searching position...
  • Subject flees and officer pursues...
  • Subject takes a combative posture, but does not attempt to strike the officer

Those are very distinct from common civilian self-defense scenarios, such as conflicts of ego, domestic violence, rape, road rage, murder, robbery, or kidnapping. Leblanc's summary of the study should put the nail in the coffin of the idea that the LAPD study has any relationship to a BJJ or wrestling-related claim that "95% of fights go to the ground" or "all fights end up on the ground":

The report concluded: “Nearly two thirds of the 1988 altercations (62%) ended with the officer and subject on the ground with the officer applying a joint lock and handcuffing the subject.” Given this, it is better put that the LAPD data says when officers physically fought with suspects (versus simply encountering minor resistance or non-compliance which required a minor use of force, but did not escalate into an altercation), 95% of the time those fights took one of five patterns, and 62% of those five types of altercations ended up with the officer and subject on the ground with the officer locking and handcuffing the suspect.

So if the Gracies are citing a particular study, and if the one Leblanc found is that study, they're pretty obviously dead wrong, or at least misrepresenting an unrelated set of statistics.

If, however, the Gracies (or anyone else) are just saying that generally fights go to the ground, or that a different study or set of evidence shows that most fights go to the ground, then the question is still open.

Other studies

Self-defence blog reviews a study (available in e-book):

Bakari Akil II (Ph.D), who is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Middle Georgia College and a no-gi Brazilian Jiu Jitsu martial artist, conducted a study to find out what percentage of fights go to the ground. He viewed hours of CCTV footage examining a variety of street fights looking for patterns in the violence. In summary the study discovered the following:

  • 42% of fights ended up with both people on the ground while 72% ended with at least one person on the ground.
  • Where at least one person was grounded 57% went down due to a throw or a take down, 7% were pushed, 35% from being punched and 1% were downed from a kick.
  • The person who hit the ground first lost the fight 57% of the time, while 33% were a draw (no discernable winner) and 8% went on to win the fight. These figures were reversed for those who hit the ground second or stayed standing.

Restricting one's research to closed-circuit-TV-captured fights puts a major restriction on the type of altercations captured, but this is a good start. We see fairly convincingly that throws and groundwork happen with frequency in unscripted fights. We can also conclude that we want to be the ones doing the throwing, and that if we do end up on the ground, we want to be able to respond effectively.

The conclusion I think one should draw from this study, and from similar surveys of street fights and instances of violence, is that the clinch (standing grappling) should take up the majority of one's self-defense training. Ground grappling, striking, and come-along joint locks should have a place as well, but the clinch is where most fights either end up naturally. (One can also initiate a clinch easily if it does not.) The clinch is also the place where it is decided if someone goes to the ground, and if so, which participant it will be.

More text of the study is available at judoforum.

Define "fight"

You asked, "what reasons are there to think that fights usually end up on the ground?" The "usually" clause is what's tripping us up. Without somehow collecting data from violence of all causes--which is an absurdly long list--we're simply lost. We simply cannot make any evidence-based conclusions without data, and I don't think the data currently exists.

There are two ways to proceed once we realize that we don't have the information we want.

  1. We can do the best we can by watching street fights on YouTube, studying patterns in mixed martial arts contests, putting on a mouthpiece and sparring as close to "no rules" as possible with people we trust, and collecting anecdotal data from our friends and coaches. This is an empirical approach.
  2. We can reason about how a variety of violent scenarios would play out. This is a theoretical approach.

As Kant noted(1), empiricism and idealism (theory) are both fundamentally flawed. We need to use (and recognize the drawbacks) of both. Theorizing about fights is good, but we should inform ourselves as well as possible before doing so.

Violence in our lives is not restricted to a few moments of brawling in the bar, nor to knife fights to the death in dark alleys. In evaluating the need for ground fighting skills, we also must take into account situations of...

  • de-escalation, where we might need to wrestle with, say, a friend or a teenager without harming them
  • sexual violence, where one might expect grappling to be more relevant than striking
  • being taken by surprise, or our striking or clinch skills failing us, leaving us on the ground despite our best efforts

Whether or not we conclude that ground-fighting happens in most fights, we cannot determine where the fight will happen. This is true even if we are skilled at a non-sparring art, or some form of striking--note how frequent clinches occur in boxing, or how frequently who people who want to punch each other in a brawl will fall to the ground together. Fights are chaotic.

This should, of course, be considered alongside broader questions about the goals of one's training. One's training time might be allocated differently depending on whether you are training for basic self-defense, or for comprehensive self-defense, or for self-improvement, military training, or another purpose.

(1) A serviceable summary of my point: "Kant responded to his predecessors by arguing against the Empiricists that the mind is not a blank slate that is written upon by the empirical world, and by rejecting the Rationalists’ notion that pure, a priori knowledge of a mind-independent world was possible. Reason itself is structured with forms of experience and categories that give a phenomenal and logical structure to any possible object of empirical experience."

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You should really never ever be taken down. Train well and hell if it still don't work you should keep your martial art but adopt better grab defence.

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When I hear this, I think "most streetfights", not MMA or LEO fights. In that context, it has been my experience that, yes, most fights do end up on the ground.

Most people aren't trained fighters and its just not likely that two people are going to stand at range firing off strikes. What tends to happen is that either someone lands a hard blow sending the other person to the ground, or they close the distance and end up doing some rudimentary form of take-down (usually closely resembling an American football tackle), or clinching and wrestling each other to the ground.

Obviously this is highly anecdotal and doesn't take into account regional differences, the backgrounds of the people fighting, etc etc etc but that has been my experience.

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A friend of mine noted that a remarkable number of barfights in Japan led to two drunk men vigorously trying to osotogari each other. –  Dave Liepmann Dec 5 '12 at 22:53
    
Haha that's awesome –  kekekela Dec 6 '12 at 1:39
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From my experience as a bouncer, most times when someone is hit, they immediately either flee or try to clinch. From there, they stumble and fall. –  Thomas Denmark Uylenbroek Jan 22 at 5:18

The bottom line is that people are only barely suited for upright bipedal locomotion, are generally top-heavy, and clumsy. This means we fall over. Falling over rates will increase when being beaten or trying to avoid being beaten. People also tend to hold, out of instinct, which makes staying upright a pain.

I'd suspect most fights don't end up in police reports, too.

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-1. See The Body in Motion: Its Evolution and Design by Theodore Dimon‌​. Humans have evolved to be upright bipedal. Normal humans have a centre of mass in the same place as the geometric centre (just below the navel) and therefore cannot be "top heavy". –  Sardathrion Nov 20 '12 at 8:05
    
@Sardathrion Yes, we have, and we're not particularly good at it. Most peoples' awareness of where they are in space is poor at best. And here in New Jersey, the people that tend to get in to fights tend towards top-heavy. Also, bodies in fights tend to flail, most of that flailing occurs on the top half, providing energy well above both COG and COM, further making it even worse. -1 all ya' want, but we suck at staying upright in fights. –  Dave Newton Nov 20 '12 at 10:05
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It hasn't been enough for a downvote, but I've always disagreed with the idea that humans don't stand so well. Wrestling a resisting opponent to the ground is hard. –  Dave Liepmann Nov 21 '12 at 16:25
    
@Dave Liepmann -- Probably in most cases, but I'm hoping to make it look easy at NAGA tomorrow :D –  kekekela Dec 7 '12 at 16:07

A lot of the sources from which people draw that "most fights go to the ground" are fatally flawed in one way or another.

UFC fights are not like real world engagements. Your priorities in a UFC fight are to win the mutual engagement, your priority in a real world engagement is frequently to not be there as expeditiously as possible (at least if you are practicing self defense).

The LAPD data involved law enforcement officers in a state with a three strikes law where the "end of the fight" parameters, goals, and priorities are very, very different from self defense situations. In a self defense situation, your goal is to get away. In an encounter with a law enforcement officer the officer's goal is generally not to escape the scene, but to subdue to the individual in question, which may very well involve going to the ground as a matter of training. You can look at Going to the Ground: Lessons from Law Enforcement (a blog post) which takes a look at some of the data for the LAPD (I don't have a link to the original studies).

It's also important to reflect that what happens to get to the ground in a real world situation is not necessarily equivalent to what people think of when they talk about this in the context of ground fighting. As I saw pointed out once: "just because someone–especially the loser–ended up on the ground, doesn't mean that the fight ended up there." A fight can be either over or functionally over (someone not inclined to continue) and end up with someone on the ground, without the "fight" part of the fight continuing.

I don't know that there is good data on this out there that I would trust for evaluating self defense scenarios. More subjectively, however, the US Marines have this to say on the topic:

Marines should avoid being on the ground during a close combat situation because the battlefield may be covered with debris and there is an increased risk of injury. However, many close combat situations involve fighting on the ground. The priority in a ground fight is for Marines to get back on their feet as quickly as possible.

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Nice answer; that might be the source I was thinking of... –  Dave Liepmann Aug 8 '12 at 17:48
    
Though honestly it blows my mind that the Marines teach the armbar from mount in that document. In my mind it's one of the worst options in the contexts Marines would likely be in, with the goals they would likely have. –  Dave Liepmann Aug 8 '12 at 17:52
    
@DaveLiepmann Why is that? –  AlexQueue Feb 11 at 0:04
    
@AlexQueue The short answer: it abandons dominant position. Long answer: If I'm on top of mount I can strike, move us both where I want, attack with chokes, get up and leave, or pin their arms reliably. If I go for the armbar, I'm laying on my back vulnerable to 3rd party attacks and I can't easily stand up. If the armbar fails, it's even worse: I'm on bottom, my opponent can strike and move us both around, and both of us have a legitimate chance of pinning the other's arms. I love that armbar, it's one of my best moves, but it's a terrible choice for military applications. –  Dave Liepmann Feb 11 at 8:50

The issue you could encounter with police data is that LEO's will often take the person to the ground as a control measure (depending on the situation).

Could a fight go to the ground? Yup, this is why as part of self-defense training everyone should know tactics to try to keep the fight standing (going to the ground against multiple opponents is generally not a good choice), how to perform a tactical standup from the ground, and what are the common attacks from the ground and what are the counters. I'm one that prefers the striking arts but still do some practicing from the ground. Most people are surprised as to how much power you can still deliver with a strike from the ground.

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If we consider most fights to be 51% or more of fights, and we're looking at what happens in MMA fights (UFC, Pride, every other promotion out there), then yeah, there's evidence that most fights hit the ground. In fact I'd put it more at over 80% than over 50%, but I'm not exactly keen on trawling through a few thousand fights to figure out exactly where it is. If you want stats for fights going into a clinch, I'd say it's upwards of 95% (just try finding a single boxing match in which there isn't a single clinch).

You could also look at a collection of fight videos on video sites that make light of people's misfortune (I'd rather not even name them, and certainly won't link).

I can say with 100% certainty, that it is more likely for a fight to hit the ground than for it to stay standing the whole time. How likely depends on the skills and the goals of the people involved in the fight - outside of competition I prefer not to have my fights escalate, and prefer to negotiate an end to it in the clinch. In competition certain fighters have had significant success keeping their fights standing most of the time - which required deliberate effort and training to be able to do it.

It gets a bit murky when you look at how much time of a fight is spent on the ground, as some fights have some brief moments of ground fighting while mostly standing back up, or the ground component is the tail end of the fight.

As for the reason for asking this question, I would presume that it would inform someone on what they might want to focus on training. For that, ground fighting is most definitely prevalent enough that if you're concerned about getting into a fight at all, you should be concerned about that fight going to the ground, and should learn how to fight on the ground.

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+1, especially for the last paragraph. –  Dave Liepmann Aug 8 '12 at 22:28
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+1 Why has this post been down-voted? –  The Wudang Kid Dec 6 '13 at 14:56

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