Sunday, 25 September 2011

Groin Strikes, eye gouges, and other maiming techniques in self defense

Groin kick
The groin kick
Kicking a man in the groin will usually cause a lot of pain. It is certainly effective in combat, but it's not a martial panacea.

You may have heard this before: "Training in a martial art like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is useless for self defense, because you can just attack their groin or gouge their eyes - game over".

These techniques are almost universally banned in sports, which is taken by some to mean that in reality, martial arts like BJJ are ineffective in situations outside the ring where there are no rules. I believe this view is misguided.

BJJ mount
The Mount, a dominant position for the fighter on top
There is a common saying in BJJ schools: position before submission. It's a fundamental tenet of the style.

Those of us who train BJJ spend a lot of time learning how to improve our position. From a dominant position we can attack and control our opponent, while it is very difficult for them to do the same to us from an inferior position.

Note that position before submission does not mean improving and maintaining position is more important than actually finishing the fight - defeating the opponent is always paramount.  But in order to win, putting ourselves at a great advantage by taking up a position such as the mount will greatly increase our chances of winning. Victory from a bad position is very difficult indeed.

When we add striking to the ground game, exactly the same principle applies. We should strive to achieve a dominant position if we want to employ the most effective strikes: it's position before striking. Doesn't quite have the same ring to it, but whatever.

Many people think that a groin grab would nullify all this. But again, we need to remember: position before groin attack. Watch Keith Hackney establish side control and cause some "discomfort" with a groin attack on Joe Son at UFC 4, way back when groin strikes were permitted:

Now, I can imagine some who may watch that video and say that Joe Son could have eye-gouged Keith. But they'd be forgetting our principle - from a dominant position, it's easier to eye gouge too. From side control, Keith would be better able to control Joe and eye gouge him, rather than the other way around. Quite simply, those who are better at establishing a dominant position on the ground are better able to apply any kind of technique.

When inventing techniques for self defense, people tend to get a little groin-crazy and at times will substitute more effective techniques for something which may be less effective in reality because there is a blind belief that going for the gonads is a lot easier and more devastating than it really is. A good example is the video below:

It's actually quite difficult to access the groin with a decent strike from that position. There are much more effective ways to bring someone down for a reversal. Also, pulling the hair in the way they've demonstrated allows the top fighter to post an arm out during the roll, which is the most common way of countering it.

Here is an interesting video where Rorion Gracie fights a Hapkido instructor who attempts to grab his groin twice from an inferior position (Rorion's comment about BJJ being the only style to effectively address ground fighting is just typical Gracie self-promotion, you can disregard that):

And an amusing little experiment where a young man bravely puts his balls on the line in the name of science:

One more video about balls for you. Draculino expresses his opinion about groin attacks and positional strategy.

Yuki Nakai, Japanese BJJ legend
Yuki Nakai
Apart from forgetting about position and the tendency of some to substitute more effective techniques for less effective ones, there is another problem. Even when you do apply an eye or groin attack successfully, your opponent may not be instantly finished.

In 1995, Yuki Nakai entered an MMA knockout tournament, and his first opponent was Gerard Gordeau. Gerard illegally eye gouged Yuki, which left him permanently blind in his right eye. Yuki continued to fight and won by heel hook in the fourth round.

His next opponent that night was Craig Pittman, an american wrestler with a 100 pound weight advantage. Yuki won via armbar.

In the third and final bout, Yuki fought BJJ legend Rickson Gracie and lost at 6:22 in the first round via rear naked choke.

The reason I've been using the word maim in the first place, is because by that I mean something which causes an injury which may or may not be serious, but doesn't necessarily incapacitate your opponent. There is no guarantee that maiming will end a fight.

But please make sure you read this part carefully - There's nothing wrong with maiming per se.

In fact, many techniques from styles such as Judo, Sambo, BJJ and catch wrestling are maiming techniques too: an armbar when executed to completion is no longer a submission (where one fighter gives up before serious injury and the fight stops). It actually results in a broken or dislocated arm - congrats, you've just maimed your opponent.

Also, in the same way Yuki fought on with a damaged eye, a fighter with a badly damaged limb can sometimes continue fighting. Forrest Griffin broke his arm in an MMA fight, only to come back and win by knockout. Randy couture did the same thing vs Gabriel Gonzaga. There is a long list of such instances.

So why use maiming techniques at all if the enemy may happily fight on and defeat you? Well, now you're fighting someone with an injury. Obviously, this may help you gain the upper hand in a real fight. There's no reason a submission fighter has to stop after the first break - you may break their other arm, gouge their eyes and break their legs, too.

Maiming isn't the end goal (that is, in the typical street fight or self defense situation we usually imagine). It simply helps us towards incapacitating our opponent, or at least making them give up. If it is too difficult to finish them off immediately, the next best option may be to "soften them up" with injuries until it's possible to apply a finishing technique.

It's a common strategy in combat sports. One may have to break down the other fighter for a number of rounds before scoring a knockout or submission. Ideally, the fight would be over as fast as possible. But we don't always have that luxury against a similarly skilled opponent.

I've focused mostly on grappling. What about striking? Could you just kick a Muay Thai fighter in the nuts to nullify everything they have learned such as timing, judgment of distance, ability to read body movements to predict their opponent's next move, power, speed, mental and physical toughness, conditioning, feints, combinations? Or maybe they'll be better at kicking the groin than someone who has only kicked a stationary pad at groin height in their training?

OK, one more testicle video. This is yours truly copping a massive knee which lifted me off the ground and bent my groin guard inside out. I dropped to the ground partly because it hurt a lot, but more because I was scared that my testicles had been crushed. I wanted to make sure that everything was OK down there. I was a little slower after returning to the match, but what bothered me more at the time was the fact that I hurt my ankle when a kick landed with my toes. Skip to the 5 minute mark if you want to see the knee.

Remember, I'm not saying groin strikes or eye gouges are ineffective. I'm saying they need to be considered from a broader strategic perspective. Despite what some may have you believe, testicles are not the answer to every martial problem from every position in every situation.

UPDATE: This article has been published on Bullshido and there is some interesting discussion in the comments section.


  1. Excellent article

  2. Nice article, you make a lot of good,reasonable points. Only one thing i would like to comment on, and it is that although you don't dismiss groin attacks as ineffective you kind of downplay HOW effective they are. Your groin is the single most vulnerable part of your body. So much so that there should be techniques that concentrate solely on striking your groin just as much as focusing attacks to the head.

    1. Sure, just don't make the mistake of thinking "GROIN GROIN GROIN" when you should be focusing on escaping the mount for example.

      Talking in terms of "the single most vulnerable part of the body" can be a red herring I think. There are a lot of things that can hurt and incapacitate someone, and it varies from individual to individual and situation to situation. I say you have to work with the cards you've been dealt.