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We often think about self defense in terms of a single opponent, but, as anyone who has ever been "jumped" knows, real world situations can easily include multiple opponents.

  • Are there systems particularly well suited to multiple opponents?

Answers ideally would include some detail on systems that adapt well to multiple opponent situations, on how choice of techniques and the way they are applied might differ from single opponent scenarios.

Because this is a broad question with many valid answers, a formally accepted answer should discuss the basic strategic principles and adaptation, with examples from striking, grappling and potentially even weapons systems.


Note: Although multiple attacker defense can be considered non-viable, there are historical examples, both empty hand and with weapons. Of Five Rings specifically discusses multiple opponent strategy, and it's a reasonable assumption that advice was based on experience. It is assumed that success in the endeavor would require some kind of definitive advantage, including, but not restricted to, sufficient size or skill differential. I've personally seen two street fights in which a single fighter prevailed against at least three.

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Just wanted to preface this, I've been sparring since around age 6, and all testings require a 1v2 to 1v5 versus the national team members, so please take what I say with a grain of salt.

Whenever you're attacked on the street, your first priority should be getting out of there. Most attacks can be random, after provoking some drunk guy, but practice fight avoidance.

Have you ever been punched in the nose? That hurts. Keeping this in mind, punch to the nose, knee, groin, throat, stomach, or solar plexus. Keep your fists curled tight and use your knuckles. Please don't break your hand. Run and call for help (obviously) but in cases you can't, or really feel like ending up in the police station or with a black eye, here's what you can do.

  1. Keep moving. Rotate, and watch your back. Don't get too close for too long, or you'll probably just get knocked in the back of the head and end up with a concussion.

  2. In cases you have height/weight/speed advantage, try to use one of them as a human shield.

  3. Avoid hitting them until you assess their threat level. Two drunk guys have a low threat level. Three guys who each weight a hundred pounds more than you and have guns are high threat.

  4. As far as weapons go, I learned numchuks and staff, and if you really want, bring batons or numchuks to a street fight.

  5. Above people are talking about those getting a crazed look in their eyes. Stay calm and focused, any trained martial artist should be able to fend off the crazed guys.

  6. You read the psychological stuff above, right? So keep that in mind, I got jumped by three guys at night and just ended up with punch to the nose, ducked behind the other while the third tried to hit me, and went back to my hotel. I'm 5'2 (that's stretching it) and I don't have a lot of muscle. Speed is more important than heavy punches that can get intercepted. Use wrist locks accordingly.

  7. But, in truth, just run. Punch and run, kick and run, getting away is your number one priority.

Goodluck!

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  • One of the reasons I raised the question is I've been in a situation where a companion was incapacitated and retreat was not an option. That was, luckily, a single attacker situation, but it might not have been.
    – DukeZhou
    May 13 at 2:36
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Steve's answer raises a bunch of good points which already cover a lot what I would have to say on martial arts as well, so I would like to have this answer to be understood as complementary.

About multiple opponents in martial arts

Generally, martial arts rarely train multi-opponent situations. Aikido does so on higher levels, but as already said, this is rather about tai-sabaki for evasion and strategic positioning rather than actual engagement.

There are a few systems which to train multi-opponent situations with full contact under pressure.

Some jiu jitsu schools do have this as "randori" form with multiple attackers so that you never know from where and how (including weapons) you are attacked, even as part of higher belt gradings. That is great for training attention, positioning, and doing techniques under stress without prior notice. But as far as I have encountered that kind of test, people never attack coordinated but still one after another there. So quite unrealistic.

A bit higher up the scale of realism, Krav Maga (good schools, not McDojo style) adds constant stress and attacks with pads, kicks and fists from all sides (if you let them) plus above-described attacks with grappling and weapons. This makes you realise that you really cannot win, only hope to survive long enough. If you make it three minutes, you're a real badass.

The same probably applies to all viable self-defence systems.

How to train

Generally, if you want to be able to handle these situations, you have to train them. Full contact, without body armor (maybe head), under stress, no holds barred. When adding weapons, cushioned bats, shock knives and soft air guns should be used - no serious injuries, but you will feel mistakes nevertheless. If you ever did that, you realise that there is no magical key to win. It is a lot about attentiveness, movement, positioning, and distance. Sometimes, you can grab someone and use them as a shield. You can use any object as an obstacle. But it wears you out fast physically and mentally, no matter how well-trained you are.

The psychology of street fights

As often in street fights, psychology is a major factor: Finish the first encounters fast and brutally, don't let them see any pain or doubt, focus on those who seem to be group-leaders, and maybe the rest will run rather that get their ass kicked as well, or at least hesitate long enough to open up an opportunity for a run or finishing them off.

Assessing the amount of intent is very important in order to choose appropriate means and, maybe more importantly, targets. Street fights are all about a display of power, so one should use the least severe means necessary to unambiguously make clear that you are more powerful than they are. This begins with body language. Calmness, relaxation, focus, absolute sovereignty is what one should show.

Basically, if the situation is really threatening your physical health, you have to incite fear in the group, so once the fight begins - which you should only do if you know it is inevitable - tearing (ears and piercings bleed like hell if torn out), biting, screaming, scratching...if they believe you are a devil/dragon, most aggressors keep distance. The particular technique does not matter here. If you do a elbow, grab/ear-rip, knee, elbow combo and finish the boss in two seconds, fine. If you throw in one fluid attack and break their hip (and maybe arm for good measure) so that they scream in pain, great either. But you have to be fast and mobile either way, so do never engage for more than, say, two seconds. Otherwise, you will be cornered and attacked from behind.

Still, if you have two or more equally trained opponents between them who coordinate and attack with the intention to hurt you, there is no way you can do anything except running. Playing safe is no shame. And there is only so much you can do if they have real intent to hurt you personally as opposed to like to be violent and hit random people.

Another important psychological aspect is that even if you are the superior fighter and could more or less easily dispatch them in hand-to-hand, do never corner opponents to the point were they feel they cannot escape! The reason is twofold: Firstly, you will activate the full hormonal reaction, which gives them far higher strength and pain tolerance than normal. Secondly, even if they would not do so in normal circumstances, if they get the chance, they will use lethal force out of sheer fear (weapons, mostly). Thus, you make them a more serious threat without need. Thing is, in many countries this would legally count as self-defence in their favour since you used excessive violence and went beyond reasonable force.

Real world example: There has been an encounter here in Berlin, Germany where a full-contact karate competitor was attacked by a group of ten. He dispatched five fast and brutally. The rest ran. He ran behind and cornered one guy. This guy only then pulled a gun and shot him lethally. Even though the gun and carrying it was illegal, it was judged as appropriate self-defence (rightfully so, my two years of studying law tell me), so the guy was only sentenced for illegal gun possession and attempted robbery.

On using weapons

Having a jo makes things considerably easier if you know how to use it, bats or knives don't help much. But you don't walk around with a 6ft staff all the time. And as soon as you are circled and they are trained and want to get you, you're still done. Generally, the above points about psychology apply here as well: If you use weapons, you both seem less of a deamon (more insecure, normal) and make the use of lethal force on their side more probable. Looking very cold-blooded with a gun in your hand counting people (by aiming) you can get down before having to reload (given that is allowed in your place) does help to intimidate people as well. A good, but again not exactly viable (due to it being forbidden to carry it in most places) choice of weapon would be a sharp sword, since it is good for distance, fast enough, and intimidating/dangerous.

Weapons are the point where the difference between martial arts and self-defence becomes most obvious, IMHO. Most of the martial arts weapons training is either useless because you are not carrying these weapons (it is WAR - thus martial arts - where you always carry weapons proper, not civil life), or because it is a step of escalation one would rarely take, or the techniques are actually only effective in a specific ruleset or situation, eg. a single opponent with the same weapon (think Kali).

Summary

Hit fast, hard, and brutally. Target those most intent/powerful first in order to break down their morale and chain of power. Keep moving. Use obstacles (people can be obstacles as well, especially frightened offenders). Do not corner people. Don't let yourself be cornered. Do not use weapons (unless your local law allows to shoot all attackers before they can do anything and you know you can pull that feat off maybe). If you get the chance, always choose to get the hell out of there before anything else. One never knows what will happen and a single mistake/hit may end your health or your life. Only life itself is worth risking one's life in the streets, no property, "honour", or pride is.

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  • Good answer. My main comment is that the varieties of conflict and opponents is quite broad. Even in the street what you tend to see is mayhem, as opposed to coordinated attacks. Alcohol also often is factor with people who attack other people. This answer assumes a worst case of disciplined attack by multiple opponents in good condition, with training. It also ignores the psychological element. So my only current critique might be insufficient dimensionality.
    – DukeZhou
    Apr 29 at 0:13
  • To give you an example of what I mean, I was jumped by two attackers with more mass when I was 18. My only martial practice at that time was 1000 pushups & sit-ups per day. Although they ultimately prevailed, I was quite difficult to contend with, even without training. My mistake was allowing the bigger one to get me into a full nelson, such that the other could take free shots. But he was stupid and went for the face, not the body, such that I could roll my head and the punches weren't connecting. (They were also drunk;)
    – DukeZhou
    Apr 29 at 0:14
  • I was only eventually felled by being spun into a straight right to the face, and was back on my feet before they could exploit it. It ultimately ended in a standoff. Today, after 30 years of training, I would be able to dispatch those two without breaking a sweat in a variety of ways, and I only consider myself a mediocre fighter.
    – DukeZhou
    Apr 29 at 0:15
  • That's fair, although I do have a whole paragraph on psychology. And yes, street is mayhem. But drunk people don't necessarily make things easier due to pain tolerance and less predictability of movement and escalation. Apr 29 at 4:54
  • @DukeZhou Two is handable to some extent, but as I see it, more than two is what most people mean by "multi-opponent". And even if they are drunk, they instinctively coordinate to some extent, at least down to circling and attacking simultaneously. Apr 29 at 9:03
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The bagua strategy outline for fighting multiple opponents:

  1. Fight standing up.
  2. Always move, forwardish. Your back is hardest to defend, and against multiple opponents it is not possible to always face all opponents. Make it more difficult by not presenting a stationary target. Don't expect to be able to stand in one place and turn around without getting hit.
  3. Engage an opponent and move on within seconds. Once you make contact, you are either moving to the outside and behind where they cannot defend, creating significant separation by pushing away, or hazarding closing to the inside. At close range with options to strike, elbow, kick, and throw, the fight with this opponent should be over in a few seconds, one way or the other.
  4. Use opponents' bodies to your create separation with other opponents. Push, knock, or throw them into each other.

Against a single opponent, you can afford to back up, and you do not need to hazard pressing to the inside without advantage.

Obviously, there are no guarantees in life and having a strategy does not mean you can implement it successfully.

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  • The Chinese internal aphorism is "When a practitioner see's a street brawl, the tai chi student makes a wide circle around it, the pakua practitioner proceeds directly through it, never getting struck, and the hsing-yi practitioner rolls up their sleeves and thinks 'practice!'"
    – DukeZhou
    Apr 28 at 23:59
  • Aikido also seem to do a lot of multi-opponent work. Excellent answer! Can I ask, could one adapt judo strategy in a similar manner, say against 2 or 3 random knuckleheads, probably drunk?
    – DukeZhou
    Apr 29 at 0:20
  • Are you asking whether judo has a strategy for for multiple opponents? Or whether you can implement a bagua strategy with judo?
    – mattm
    Apr 29 at 4:05
  • I guess either or both, based on your inclination. I have high confidence in your knowledge of Judo and martial arts in general.
    – DukeZhou
    May 10 at 0:27
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    @DukeZhou In my understanding, Judo has no explicit strategy for multiple opponents, so I won't write a separate answer. The element that would help a bagua-like strategy is its training of quick throws immediately upon contact from standing, in contrast to points-based boxing, for example, where protracted engagements are fine. Where judo alone runs into problems is when the other person can stall, which is not as much of an issue if you can hit the other person as well.
    – mattm
    May 11 at 21:44
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The question asks if there are martial arts that do better at multiple opponent fights than other martial arts.

My simple answer is: No.

The more nuanced answer is: There is some truth in what many martial arts teach for multiple attacker situations, but it's generally unrealistic and not very practical. I'll explain why in a moment.

It's hard enough fighting one person. Most of the time, even trained martial artists, black belts, come out poorly in actual street fights involving just a single opponent. The idea that they're going to be so good at fighting that they can essentially take on 2, 3, 4, or more opponents at the same time is ludicrous. If any martial artist thinks their martial art does this well, they are delusional.

I recently saw an interesting take on this in the video I link to below by a guy (Christopher Hein) who came to realize that his Aikido doesn't generally work as a fighting art, but as a way of actively avoiding the fight. He's an interesting guy. He spent years trying to prove Aikido can work as a fighting art, putting it to the test, and ending up losing a lot. Then he had a full contact fight at a Dog Brothers meet-up, and he found something in Aikido that seemed to work for him when he was using a Jo staff. He thought about it and had an epiphany of sorts about the true nature of Aikido.

He argues that the way to deal with multiple attackers is to avoid having to square up and trade punches, avoid having to grab on to each other, and avoid having to wrestle. The more time you're spending engaging one opponent, the less able you are to deal with the other opponents. So his strategy is to engage only to the point where he can neutralize the attack, break it off, and get some distance. He also makes the argument that it's ridiculous to think you can take on multiple attackers without a weapon.

See if you can follow his theory on this 20 minute video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=On5uSjhy7Sw

He makes the multiple opponent argument in particular between 9:20 and 12:00.

Christopher Hein's argument is about as plausible as I've ever encountered for a claim of dealing better with multiple opponents than other styles.

He admits that his Aikido style is not good as a fighting art. He's applying it in a kind of middle ground between fight and flight. He calls it the "negotiation" stage. The goal is to just stop the fight from happening in the first place. He calls it getting back to the point at which you can have a "conversation" with your opponent.

The main argument against this is that you still need to know how to fight when that doesn't work. And he admits it on video that when it turns into a boxing match or a wrestling match, his style simply doesn't apply in that context. So you better train in boxing and wrestling separately.

Whereas Brazilian Jiujitsu people generally argue: If the goal is to remain mobile in order to defend against multiple attackers, who's better equipped to break out of a hold or avoid going to the ground: people who don't know grappling, or people who do? The answer is that people who train in styles with live, fully resisting opponents such as BJJ will be the best at remaining mobile if they don't want others to grapple with them. Those that don't do this kind of training are often defenseless when it happens for real.

And so I expect that an Aikidoka who doesn't practice with live, fully resisting opponents is not going to be able to apply Christopher Hein's strategy very well. That's because the first time someone attempts to square up and punch or take them down, they're going to be in unfamiliar territory and won't be able to apply Aikido techniques without getting caught. Which is why Christopher Hein actually does do live, resistance based training to put things to the test as part of his own flavor of Aikido.

And I would extend this to any martial art trying to utilize the same strategy. It will require a lot of practice with fully resisting partners.

The only problem with styles like BJJ and such (with live, fully resisting partners) is that if sports-based training is the focus, they might reflexively do something that makes them more vulnerable in a street fight as they may forget that what they do for sport may not be optimal for the street and multiple attacker scenarios.

So I would take all of what was just said and conclude: You can practice this active fight avoidance method from the Aikido guy above by adapting it as a strategy in whatever martial art you know. But do so with fully resisting partners. And at the same time, train in something like BJJ, Muay Thai, or MMA for when things go wrong. You still need to know how to fight when avoidance doesn't work. And before all of that, carry a weapon. Without a weapon, even the best trained martial artists usually end up losing in multiple attacker situations.

Hope that helps.

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  • A legit tai chi master related a similar story—attacked by a truckload of workers and just fended them off until they got tired. This particular master has the best hsing-yi focusing I've ever seen, but he must have felt escalating was unnecessary or counter-productive, since the attackers were not trained martial artists.
    – DukeZhou
    Apr 29 at 0:24
  • @DukeZhou I think we've all (or a lot of us) have experienced similar things, even with just a single opponent. You can dodge, redirect, dissolve, and so on. Your goal isn't to win but to stalemate. It works for a while. You just hope that during that time your opponent gives up or tires. Sometimes it works. Apr 29 at 0:30
  • The variety of scenarios which could occur regarding multiple attackers are greatly varied. In my experience, people who start fights are often fueled by alcohol, so already at a disadvantage. I expect coordinated attacks by multiple opponents with training are the rarest scenario, outside of nightclub bouncing, when the bouncers mob the attacker together. Could you possibly adapt this answer to acknowledge the full potential dimensionality of the subject? Assuming attackers with skill and training is too limited a scope.
    – DukeZhou
    Apr 29 at 0:34
  • @DukeZhou What I implied is that it's not very reliable. It can work if your opponents aren't really bent on coming after you. Because, in my experience, you can avoid for only so long before the guy decides you're not getting away, runs your down, grabs you, and won't let you go. That's what I expect would happen if you stay there long enough trying to dodge. But who knows, maybe given the right set of circumstances, that guy will not pursue, and the situation will deescalate on its own. That's optimal. Just not very likely. If your goal is to slip and run away, that's fine to try first. Apr 29 at 0:44
  • Avoidance and potentially flight is always recommended as the first strategy! (It seems as though only mostly young men see standing and fighting as a matter of honor, myself included in previous decades;) But, for instance, I've seen guys turn fit, determined attackers around just per the crazy look in their eye and body language. There is even a strategy of conveying acknowledgement that you may not prevail, but you're taking at least one of them to the hospital with you. Merely the way one holds a beer bottle or a pool cue can signal this.(It's a minimax strategy you also see in nature.)
    – DukeZhou
    Apr 29 at 0:52
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I was always taught Tongbeiquan (通背拳) is effective for multi-opponent situations, although the wiki only mentions two person sparring.

"Tong Bei" is considered exotic, even in Chinese wushu because the techniques are highly unique, distinct from the contemporary core of Shaolin (here "northern boxing") and Hun Ga ("southern boxing") and internal, although like Mantis, Tong Bei can be a mix of internal or external.

The name can mean "Long Armed Ape", which connotes the characteristic movements—big, wheeling strikes with the forearms, arms fully extended. The art contains special toughening exercises for forearms and other body parts, in that much of the training involves slapping one's own body as opposed to not expressing the power of the strikes against a target.)

A classic Tong Bei form is demonstrated here by Xu Dezheng.

The form includes running. A single combination of blows can include three quick 180 direction changes. Many movements involve quick succession of strikes in multiple directions.

My favorite strike from a variant of the linked video is a dual front and back extended groin strike—the front strike with the back of the hook hand, and the back strike with the fingers of the hook hand, applied with a level change, practiced as a deep lunge that puts on knee on the ground, although in sparring one avoids the deep lunge.

  • Tongbeiquan forms include simultaneous strikes in two directions, extensive quick direction changes, running, and the flailing strikes would have utility in a mob situation.

If you have watched the video you'll understand why Tong Bei is considered exotic, and only a few masters pursue the style exclusively. However it has many useful techniques that can be incorporated with other styles in free sparring, and provides excellent stance and waist training, even including silk reeling strikes and counters.

Note: There are many videoa circulating of traditional Shaolin Fist labeled as Tongbeiquan.

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