In any unsolicited violent or aggressive event our primary aim is to remove ourselves (and others if we feel responsible for them) from danger of bodily harm. The aim is not to ‘win a fight’ for this is not consensual violence; in most cases therefore (excluding for example threats on the doorstep of our own property) we are endeavouring to create an exit.
There are different means by which different groups of instructors approach this, particularly in the case of multiple threats or assailants. To a large extent the approaches they advocate will be coloured by their own training or personal experience and the nature of experience within the circles with whom they associate and study. A significant determining factor in the viewpoint of that circle will be the main training methodology employed, for you get good at what you train for (and base your conclusions on how it has worked), and the environments in which they have had to utilise such tactics.
To escape from a situation we need space to run/barge or walk through, created by the absence or inability/disinclination of prior threats to engage or stop us.
If there is no current attack (i.e. no-one is currently holding or trying to hit you) then you have space and can exit. If an attack is in process (in other words someone is currently holding you, hitting you, both of those, or standing so close and posing a direct threat of attack and an obstruction to escape) then you have to deal with that in order to exit.
Space is created by the freedom to move, which in turn is created by the sufficient removal of the threat of grabbing/striking/ and potentially chasing.
So now this boils down to the manner of engagement. How you make that space to escape and crucially how to reduce the risk of being attacked by others while you do so.
Space to escape in conflict is created by knocking another person back or down in a manner that they cannot easily resume the fight or block the exit or give chase. It is the desired end result, but not necessarily the starting or mid position.
The majority of non-consensual violent situations where you have to strike a person to make an exit will start close, the proximity being the key factor to determine both the use of force and the blocking of your escape routes. As a result most initial engagements will initiate with close range tactics. You will therefore predominantly initially engage at close range. This is not something that you are likely to be able to choose – the first person you engage with is almost certainly going to be at close quarters to you.
If you are lucky and you act first and you land a good strike (because you have trained to hit pads hard and you have fewer psychological barriers/inhibitions because you have also hit people in training rather than just pads), then you may have created the opportunity and space/time to escape. This might be because there was only one threat, or it might be because the other threats are too far away to impede your escape, both in terms of distance and in terms of time. Time and reaction time are huge factors.
It is no surprise that the person who waits to act is at a disadvantage. When a person acts and moves decisively others (whether hit by them or not) have to react to them. This is frequently seen in physical immobility in my Sim Days (and CCTV or mobile phone footage) – you can literally see on the feedback videos the OO of the OODA loop (Observe Orientate Decide Act) – while the person with the initiative seems to be constantly in DA – other people stand like statues for seconds as the action moves past them, unaware of how much time is passing (something often missing from regular training drills because the expectation of the other persons actions is greater). This has proved true even when I have given people in scenario simulations what seem to be overwhelming odds against them – a lot of the people aren’t in the situation at the same time because they are playing catch up. They aren’t being nice and taking turns, they are trying to catch up with what is happening.
But what if having engaged the first person (at the probable close range that prompted the need for action) there are other threats moving to engage (because you have not dropped that person in a time span quicker than their orientation and decision to act), or other threats so close that they have to be engaged to clear your escape?
This presents two potential types of situation.
1. You are currently still engaged at close range with one person (the first person you tried to go past/through who initiated the escape attempt through their physical and verbal actions), and others are trying to get to you. You are therefore trying to finish one close range engagement while others are moving to hit you or actively trying to hit you. You are fighting close range. You have no distance. This may only last a second before that person falls back and makes space, but you are still proximate to them.
2. You have just got past one person (or knocked them far enough away from you to present an immediate threat) and now you are either about to strike another person (or are on the receiving end of a strike from another person) with potentially further people about to engage. It is the starting position of that other person, the speed of the other person’s movement towards you and their speed of reorientation to your actions that determines their proximity (distance) and thus your tactics. As a result in this situation you will either
a) have close proximity forced upon you – you are fighting close range again, or
b) you move into them (potentially with a bridging distance tactic like a kick or a superman punch) to hit them to clear your escape route – you are fighting long range briefly for that moment if it creates an escape route. If it does not, and they do not fall back at all, you will end up closing and creating that escape space in a flurry or strikes at close range, or you may have space (if they have been knocked back but still pose a threat impediment to actual escape) to strike with a long range tactic again. All the time trying to create space to exit safely.
Three very important dynamics immediately present themselves from what I have described above. The first is that continuous movement is key – other people have to be reacting to you; if you wait or get held up then you can get swarmed regardless of whether you are trying to keep people at a leg’s length or you are touching them. The second is that this isn’t chess – this is all happening in a few chaotic seconds (as you hopefully access your training), and people take time to observe orientate decide and act on your movements. The third is that close range is likely to be forced upon you at some point in time unless you make the decision to hit very early to make an escape route – and that is something rare indeed.
So there are long range engagement options and short range options, but is one best for training and is one more appropriate?
To state the obvious, you get good at what you train for. If you predominantly train a close range repertoire but then ‘bolt on’ a long range approach ‘in case of multiples’ then your bolt on is likely to snap off under pressure. You will work best at what you predominantly train to do. If you predominantly train a long range repertoire, then once the combative space for that is created that will give you the optimum results. People will generally advise what has worked for them and what has worked for them will often be determined by what they have predominantly trained. What they advise is also determined by their memory of events and their interpretation of events.
At all the times the aim is to knock back/drop a person or persons as quickly as possible so that you can take the first opportunity to escape. You are trying to exit. You are not planning to try and take on every threat one at a time.
While you are engaged at close range you can get grabbed by the person you are hitting, but you also have the ability to hit them very hard (just as with longer range hits). If you know how to hit in combinations with redundancies this should not be a protracted event – it should be over and space to escape created before others can orientate to you. An advantage of this temporary position is that the close proximity of the other person closes off more angles of attack by others orientating towards you – often they have to try and flank rather than move in directly and that gives precious moments to finish and exit. Fighting at close range does not mean you are static – it just means you stay close to someone while you are hitting them, they may be falling back with you moving forward throughout that. A disadvantage of being close to someone is that should all your hits be unsuccessful and you get tied up holding or clinching with the other person for a few seconds, then your back is vulnerable to being grabbed by those chasing after you.
While you are engaged at a longer range you have a greater ability to employ your arms and legs to strike at any angle. You are freer to move than at close quarters because you are not moving the body of another person with you as you hit. At the same time you are more open to direct attack from every angle by other people precisely because of your ‘distance’. The distance also creates a greater reactionary gap for other people to avoid your defensive exit-attempting strikes, thus potentially prolonging an event and lowering your odds of escape. If you are close enough to punch someone then they are also close enough to grab you, so unless you plan to exit a situation in a whirlwind of kicks the idea that grabbing is just a close range danger is misguided.
I advocate using close range tactics to create the distance I need to make an escape. That’s partly because I feel most comfortable with my ability to successfully and safely eliminate a threat at that proximity, it’s partly because that is where I expect to find myself in the first place, and it’s partly where I expect to be if I fail to remove the initial obstacle as quickly as I would like. It is also related to the fact that the majority of my training is focused on close range habitual acts of violence (HAOV). This focus is not going to stop me pushing or throwing a front kick or a low shin kick if I have to get past a second person and they happen to be that far away, because I also train to use those tactics. I weight my training for what I believe are the most probable things, multiple person events being less likely than single person events (both in general and in accordance with my lifestyle).
The truth is that the distinction between long range and short range tactics in a multiple person encounter is an illusion, and the idea that you get to choose your tactics (or maintain a distance/range) is largely an illusion too, a case of the brain reconstructing events favourably after an event. An event may seem like an eternity but it is actually seconds, seconds in which many people will be standing still as they try to process what is happening through an adrenal fog. The range you engage ‘the first person’ will be the range at which you have decided to ‘go’. It is highly probable that that will be close range. If you have then made the space to escape then you will do so. If you do not, if there is an impediment, then you will attempt to engage that impediment at the range it presents in order to escape.
Train hard, try it, and remember that contact (and surprise) changes everything – make sure you mimic its effects.