Do most fights end up on the ground?

by Ryan Gregory, February 21st, 2012

If you’ve spent any time in the martial arts, you will have heard discussions about which is the best, often in the context of real self-defence application. Name a martial art, and someone will be all too eager to tell you why it is not useful on “the street”. As often as not, the discussion will include the well-known assertion that most real fights end up on the ground. There might even be an impressive statistic attached to the claim, like 80%, 90%, or even 95% of fights end up on the floor. Arts like karate therefore are inferior, it is argued, because they focus on strikes and blocks instead of takedowns and grappling.

As we say in science, strong claims require strong evidence. I was therefore intrigued to learn that this well known “fact” about street violence not only has been greatly exaggerrated but also was based on inappropriate data to begin with. It seems that the claim that 90% of fights end up on the ground comes from a 1991 report by the LAPD. The problem is, the number wasn’t 90% and it wasn’t about street fights. It was about the frequency with which police officers engaged in physical confrontations with suspects, and how often this ended with both the arresting officer and the suspect on the ground. The data from the LAPD study and other law enforcement statistics were discussed in an article in the Journal of Non-Lethal Combatives in 2007 by Chris LeBlanc. As LeBlanc wrote,

“The LAPD study does not show that “90% of fights go to the ground.” Instead, the LAPD study shows that 95% of altercations took on one of five familiar patterns (with which any street cop will be intimately familiar). It also shows that of that 95%, 62% ended up with both the officer and the suspect grappling on the ground.

Obviously, being professionally charged with restraining someone versus being primarily focused on escaping an attack will change the dynamic of a confrontation after the initial engagement. This is why I believe police in an arrest situation are more likely than a citizen in a self-defense situation to stay on the ground during a physical encounter.”

This last statement is important, because regardless of the number in the original study, these statistics are not really relevant to the kind of situation most martial artists envision when they make the claim.

The likelihood of engaging in combat on the ground in “street fights” is more difficult to assess, because the participants generally do not file a written report afterward. However, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner (and communications professor) Bakari Akil took an interesting approach to quantifying this. He established search criteria and used content analysis to evaluate 300 fights that had been filmed and posted on YouTube. His results were presented in a brief document that is available for purchase from Amazon. I won’t spill all the details, but here are some highlights:

– Both fighters went to the ground in only 42% of the fights. (At least one ended up on the ground in 72% of the fights). It bears noting that most of these fights probably did not involve a martial artist. Someone with training in karate would be expected to attempt to end the fight quickly before it ever went to the ground, which may not be the case for untrained combatants.

– Of the fighters who ended up on the ground, 57% got there by virtue of a throw, a trip, or by being pulled to the ground. 35% of them headed groundward as a result of a punch. So, even if most fights do not, in fact, end up on the ground, developing skills in stopping throws, trips, and other takedowns is a good idea. Striking is one way to prevent takedowns like this, but many karate students also train in various grappling techniques that are relevant in this situation.

– Perhaps the most important result of this analysis is that you really don’t want to be the one who goes to the ground first. If you do, the odds are that you will lose (59%) or at best will struggle to a draw (33%).

To summarize, there is little data to support the claim that both fighters will end up on the ground most of the time (let alone 95% of the time). In fact, it seems like most fights do not end with both participants on the ground, but if someone does end up there you definitely want it to be the other guy. Training in grappling is a useful thing to do, but this is best spent focusing on stopping takedowns or escaping when pinned under an attacker. Going to the ground on purpose is not a good idea, especially if there are multiple opponents.  Training in striking arts like karate can be useful for ending a fight before it ever goes to the ground, but this should include realistic practice for combat against attackers who do not use martial arts techniques.

If you do end up in a conflict situation, it is best to stay on your feet — that makes it much easier to walk away.

Comments (2)

[…] Except, they don’t. […]

[…] I agree. And yes, the “99.99% of fights go to the ground!” internet statistic is complete nonsense. But, even though it makes sense to start out fighting standing up and at your comfortable striking […]

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