I wonder whether we should always avoid using a headlock (even if we have a chance to use) in a real attack.

The hands of the 'headlocked' person would be free to pull a knife, or any other weapon.

  • 1
    What exactly would you be using the headlock to do? Mar 20 '14 at 20:45
  • Immobilize a thief? Choke a rapist? Mar 20 '14 at 21:11
  • 3
    Which headlock? Choking or non-choking? There's the side headlock, the front-facing guillotine, the standing rear-naked choke, the Thai clinch, the half-nelson, the full-nelson, the arm triangle, the D'arce choke, the two-handed lapel choke from the front, the neck crank, etc. Mar 20 '14 at 23:07
  • @SteveWeigand: one where the defendant can moves his hands to pull a knife and attack you. I suppose choking variants are more efficient against very aggressive attackers. Mar 20 '14 at 23:52

There are two things to keep in mind regarding headlocks. First, most "headlocks" aren't actually controlling the head, or don't just control the head. They're usually controlling one or more shoulders and other limbs at the same time. Second, they're almost always not the end, but are instead used as a transition to a more dominant position (except maybe choke submissions which I'll mention at the end).

Take the standing Side Headlock, for example. I assume that's what you're thinking of. This is where you come around to the side of and slightly behind your opponent, both of you are then facing forward, you then reach around from the back to the side of his neck, with your free hand you reach in front of his neck to grab onto your other hand and form a lock around his neck, and then you pull his head down to your side with him bent over. The ending position has you both facing the same direction, but he's standing bent over to the side of you with most of his body behind you, and his head is tucked in between your elbow joint and the side of your body.

This is a type of thing you see from schoolyard bullies a lot. He's bigger than you, and he has a tight hold on your neck. You can't slip your head out easily. And if you wriggle around, he'll just squeeze tighter. The bully is able to just drag you around with him anywhere.

But while most martial arts have defenses for this technique, almost none of them will actually encourage anyone to use this technique on someone. Why? Because while it might control the head, it does nothing to control the shoulders, arms, and legs. With those free, it allows many good defenses. And yes, on the street, if you do this to someone who has a knife in his pocket, they are free to grab that knife and use it on you. It's a lousy technique to use. So don't do it!

Instead, consider the same bent-over position where you have him in a side headlock, but this time you slip your second arm (the one further away from your opponent) under his closest arm when you form the lock. You now have control over his shoulder and therefore the arm that's closest to you. You then transition immediately as you form that lock, corkscrewing his shoulders counter-clockwise until you've taken him down to the ground with the side of his face and opposite shoulder pressing against the ground. Then you transition to a knee-on-back position while maintaining control over his arm (you will probably let go of his head at this point). From here, if he's still not under control, you can go into a rear-naked choke while maintaining control of his shoulder, and you make sure his opposite arm is pinned against the floor by leaning towards it. Or you go into an armbar on the ground. If he squirmed out of it mid-way while you're taking things down in the first place, you can allow it to happen and just go to the top mount position as he's turning to face you on the way down. From top mount position, you have control over his arms and are blocking them from grabbing anything in his pockets. At no point throughout this exchange has he been able to reach into his pocket to grab that knife.

That's a much more realistic and practical way of looking at headlocks. Notice what I originally said applies here. First, you're not just controlling the head. You're also controlling the shoulders and actually all 4 limbs from the very beginning. Second, you're not just standing there with a headlock. You're transitioning immediately to something else. The headlock in this case is just a way of getting leverage so that you can take him down. It's not held very long.

There are also submission chokes. I'm not lumping those into the same category as headlocks, though. Some submission chokes such as the guillotine do end the fight and aren't just used as a transition to a better position. And if you think you can reach into your pocket while someone has a proper guillotine choke on you, you're in for a surprise. Give it a try. Many BJJ schools will let you do this as an experiment. It's very enlightening when you feel it for yourself. Know this about the standing guillotine: 1) It is easy to pull guard and turn it into a more controlled ground-based guillotine where his legs and feet can block your arms from reaching into your pockets. 2) He won't just pull straight up on your neck, he will also turn his arm diagonally outwards, along with his entire body moving to that same side. This has the effect of taking his body out of range of your opposite arm. 3) You won't be able to see your pockets from this position. 4) You almost certainly won't be able to open up a knife with both hands (it has to be single-handed operation, like a switch blade or a butterfly knife, which again you can't see). 5) You have about one or two seconds of time before your trachea pops, you start to pass out, or your vertebrae crack. 6) If you somehow manage to actually get that knife out, he can just transition to a rear-naked choke while pinning the shoulder of the arm that has the knife.

Obviously every situation is going to be unique. If you have a situation in mind, you should post that to another question.

  • 1
    This is a nice summary of how a seemingly substandard technique can make sense in a given position. Mar 21 '14 at 12:15

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