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Understand the three phases of combat

This is an excerpt from Mastering Jujitsu by Renzo Gracie & John Danaher.

Experience has shown unequivocally that single combat can be effectively divided into three principal phases. These phases are divided by the degree of body contact and control that the two combatants have over each other, and they have proven to be the most important factors in determining the behavior and tactics of the two fighters in the course of a fight.

If neither fighter has any body contact or grip on the other, then the two fighters are free to move as they please. They will move, strike, evade, and shoot toward their opponent at will, since nothing constrains their movement. We can refer to this first phase of combat as the free-movement phase, since its greatest feature is precisely the freedom of movement enjoyed by both fighters.

The moment the two fighters get a grip on each other, however, the nature of the fight changes. Once body contact and grip is established, the movement of one fighter is constrained by the other. They are no longer free to move about as they please, but they must now take into account the movement, grip, and body position of each other so that they can decide how to move and act. This second phase of combat is referred to as the clinch, a term commonly used in all combat styles to refer to a situation where two fighters have a tight, controlling grip on each other in a standing position that severely constrains movement.

The third major phase of fighting occurs when a fight goes to the ground. This phase happens in almost every serious fight, especially once a fight enters the clinch phase. This third phase is called ground combat, and it is entirely different from the first two phases (as so many people have regrettably discovered at their own expense). Skill on the ground has repeatedly been shown to be the most important factor in determining success in MMA competition. Even those fighters who prefer the other phases of combat must know enough ground-fighting technique to survive and regain their footing. So much for the three distinct phases of combat. At this point, we must go on to see exactly how knowledge of these three phases can be used to overcome and defeat an opponent.

The crucial idea in the phases of combat theory is that of taking an opponent into a phase in which he is least skilled, relative to your own skills. As a fighter, I would stand the greatest chance of success when I take my opponent into a phase of combat in which I am more skilled than he is. For instance, if I can keep a fight on the ground (my strength), then it would not matter if my opponent were a far better boxer, since boxing skill is of little value on the ground.

The key is to determine the phase of combat in which you have the greatest skill advantage and to endeavor to keep the fight in that phase. The fact that most people are by nature weak in ground combat has created a natural bias toward ground combat on the part of jujitsu fighters. However, if two skilled jujitsu ground fighters meet each other in combat, the one who is stronger in the standing position would be well advised to keep the fight there, since that is where he has the greatest skill advantage.

Consider an analogy: Ordinarily, we would not think of a 13-year-old girl as having any chance of victory in single, unarmed combat with the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. But what if circumstances changed and the fight were to take place in the ocean? Say you learn that the girl is a national swimming champion and that the boxer cannot swim and is terrified of water. Who would you bet on now? Clearly, the fight is entirely different when the overall context of the fight is changed in this way. This is exactly what happens when the theory of phases of combat is put into operation. By taking the fight into a phase or context where my opponent is weaker than I am, I can negate his strengths and exploit his weaknesses. So then, let us clearly divide and describe the three phases of combat.

Free-Movement Phase

The free-movement phase is where all MMA matches and many street fights begin, with both fighters on their feet, with no grip on each other. The lack of contact and grip allows them to move freely—hence, the name. Such freedom of movement allows fast footwork, shooting, and striking; it is unsurprising that these skills are the most important in this phase of the fight.

Standing Clinch

Once a fight begins, it almost always goes into a clinch. Interestingly, most street fights begin in a clinch (rather than free movement), with grabbing, shoving, and holding. The fact that the fighters hold each other restricts their movement. A distinct set of skills is required to do well in the standing clinch position, and these skills are different from those required in the free-movement phase. The skills that are crucial in this phase of combat include attaining and breaking a grip; off-balancing an opponent and keeping one's own balance and posture; striking in the clinch; takedowns appropriate to clinch fighting; standing submissions; and so on.

Ground Combat

Almost no fights begin in this phase; however, they almost always end up there. Going to the ground totally changes the nature of the fight. Movement in a supine position is very different from movement in a standing position, and it requires extensive training before it becomes natural. Great control is possible on the ground because bodyweight and the ground itself can be used to pin an opponent and confine his movements. This makes possible the use of many highly efficient submission holds. The key skills in ground combat are the application of submission holds, the ability to work your way out of inferior positions, and the skill to move into increasingly dominating positions.

Theory of Phases of Combat

  1. Unarmed, single combat can be divided into three main phases. Each phase can be differentiated from the others by the degree of body contact and by the control the two fighters have on each other.
  2. The nature of combat in each phase is distinct from the other phases. Each phase has a different set of skills appropriate to it. This means that it is possible (in fact, likely) that a fighter will be highly skilled in one phase, but weak in the others.
  3. Fighters can develop skills that allow themselves to take a fight into a phase in which they are strong and the opponents are weak, and thus they can maintain control of the fight.
  4. Taking a fight into a phase of combat where one fighter has a higher skill level than the other creates a great imbalance between the two fighters, and it greatly increases the probability of victory for the fighter who can dominate in that phase of combat.

This is an excerpt from Mastering Jujitsu.

More Excerpts From Mastering Jujitsu