Two Chinese men stare at each other in an ancient courtyard. They are motionless, their eyes relaxed yet intensely focused. Their bodies are like iron sculptures — each muscle specifically conditioned for the martial art its owner has mastered.
After some time, one man finally offers his palm, turned upward toward his adversary. The other man nods his head and bows, then bursts into his favorite form, which he has perfected after thousands of hours of practice. He finishes, then motions toward the first warrior. That man bows and begins his own incredible barrage of prearranged kicks, punches, sweeps and flips. He finishes and bows again. Each man looks deeply into the eyes of the other, satisfied with the display of skill he just witnessed.
With that, the challenge match begins.
Welcome to the Future
In the past, martial arts encounters were often formalized events. One practitioner would challenge another to test his skill against the best possible opponent. Ideally, the challenges were meant not to destroy the opponent but to test one's own abilities and self-knowledge.
Today, matches such as those are rare. Unfortunately, fights most often take place on the street, where there are no rules and there is rarely only one opponent. Furthermore, they seldom involve purely hand-to-hand combat. In gang fights, muggings and sexual assaults, honor is extinct.
Such are the times in which we live, and the martial arts we practice for self-defense should be in tune with them. Yet there is much we can learn from the masters of the past. We can draw from our martial ancestors' understanding and mold their principles of combat to meet our present needs — just as they once did in their own lifetime. Ancient or not, a strategy that fits our modern way of living is needed by all of us.
It is true that many encounters end up on the ground, and therefore it is important to possess ground-fighting skills. However, the ground — replete with concrete, asphalt, rocks, broken glass and whatever — is the last place you want to end up. That's especially true when more than one opponent is involved. If you commit yourself to locking up and going to the ground with one person, what's to prevent the other pack members from pouncing on you?
Furthermore, tackling an opponent or grabbing his arm or leg requires you to reach forward. That movement makes you vulnerable to being taken off-balance. If you lose your balance, you lose your ability to move. If you lose your ability to move, you cannot position yourself correctly to execute your strategy. So, if at all possible, you need to stay on your feet to retain your mobility and balance, for you must have both to successfully deal with a group of attackers.
Traditional wing chun kung fu as taught by Black Belt Hall of Fame member William Cheung includes eight principles and strategies for dealing with multiple opponents. Over the years they have proved effective in numerous life-and-death struggles. Before you can use those teachings on the street, however, you must first understand how the art deals with a single opponent.
One on One
If you begin at what wing chun practitioners call the before-contact distance — where the opponent has to move to reach you — your primary source of information is your eyes. You can use them to track the elbow or knee of the nearest threat, be it a hand or a foot. When he hits, kicks, grabs, pushes or moves, his elbow or knee will also move. If your eyes are properly trained, they will detect the path and relative commitment of the attack.
You then reach out with a technique to intercept the attack. Your visual and contact reflexes are now in operation. The interception is intended to deflect the opponent's strike or grab away from its target — not to stop it — and to feel the direction his force is heading. Your next move is to step off the path of that force, moving away from his non-attacking side. Finally, you jam and control the elbow of the committed arm as you counterattack.
In the end, you have shut down the attacking limb at the elbow and positioned yourself away from the opposite side—which can still hit, grab and block. This process is called "controlling the blind side." Once you have achieved the blind-side position, you must strive to maintain it until the threat is nullified. You want to be able to continually counterattack the opponent from a position in which he cannot effectively attack or reach you.
The Needs of the Many
In traditional wing chun, what's true for fighting one person is also true for fighting many. In effect, you must control the group's blind side just as you must control that of the solo attacker. However, when you move to the blind side of one person, you do not just move away from that person's opposite arm/threat; you keep away from more than one opponent.
You must not allow the attackers to surround or flank you. If they do, the number of threats you must be wary of begins to multiply rapidly: Facing two opponents means defending against four arms and four legs, facing three opponents means defending against six arms and six legs, and so forth. Therefore, you need to decrease the number of threats by moving to the group's blind side and "stacking" the opponents away from you. You can also use the opponent with whom you are in contact as a shield against the others. It is imperative that you allow the smallest number of people — and limbs — to reach you at any one time.
Up in Arms
In addition to having to contend with multiple attackers, it is more than likely that you will have to deal with weapons during a mass attack. Bullies and predators are usually cowards, and they will hide behind the "safety" of a weapon (and other cowards) to muster the strength they need to do their dirty work.
It is helpful to divide weapons into two categories: edged and blunt. (Firearms constitute a third category, but the strategy for dealing with them is simple: Run.) When facing a blunt or edged weapon, your first objective is to get out of the situation as quickly as you can. If escape is not possible, find something you can use as a weapon and/or a shield against the opponent's weapon. If neither course of action is possible, you are in the worst-case scenario: unarmed against a weapon.
Edged weapons — knives, machetes, axes, etc. — may be the most frightening of all because they are easy to obtain and often easy to conceal. You may not see the blade of a knife until after you feel it. Therefore, to protect yourself you must examine some principles to use against knife-wielding attackers.
The first thing you should remember when squaring off against a knife is to not put your guard up. That may sound strange, but think about it: If you put your hands out in front of you, you make it even easier for the assailant to cut you because you present him with a close target that has vulnerable nerves and blood vessels in it. Instead, raise your hands near your shoulders with your palms facing forward. This position will keep you neutral and ready without offering the opponent an easy target. It will also open up the center of your body and entice him to attack — which is exactly what you want.
The best way to defend yourself against a knife attack is to control the hand that holds it. The best way to get hold of that hand is to get the opponent to commit to an attack, especially a stab or thrust. (Unfortunately, against a good knife fighter, that may be difficult to do.) As the opponent commits, quickly remove yourself from the path of the attack and take control of the wrist of the hand that holds the blade. Keep the weapon as far from you as possible while you move the arm up and across or down and across your body. At the same time, position yourself on his blind side. To finish the confrontation, drive the attacking limb to the ground and pin it there, thus holding his body facedown.
If it is not possible to drive the arm to the ground because of the other opponents, you can finish by breaking the arm. That will keep you free to execute the blind-side strategy and may dislodge the weapon from his hand.
When facing a blunt weapon — a stick, baseball bat, club, etc. — your strategy should initially be the opposite of what you would use against an edged weapon. Rather than waiting for the opponent to commit to his attack, you should move in immediately and jam the weapon at its base. That will take away the reach advantage of the implement and allow you to deal with the threat before it reaches full velocity. Your next objective is to grab the weapon with a relatively wide grip and wrench it out of the attacker's hands. You now have possession of the weapon and can use it against the other opponents.
If you cannot get inside the first armed opponent's attack in time, do the opposite: Jump away. Distance is your best friend at this point. The instant the weapon passes by you, drive forward and jam it before he can initiate a second attack. Finish by using the strategy described above.
If you cannot achieve either of the aforementioned goals, you may have to actually block the weapon. When doing that, use only blocks that will deflect the force of the attack. Never attempt to stop a stick or bat by meeting it head-on with your arm. Always reach out to the weapon; then, as you step out of its path, guide it away from its target with your arms. That will prevent your limbs from absorbing 100 percent of the impact.
To be effective, you must practice all the principles and strategies described above. They need to be digested and assimilated into your reflexes so deeply that they flow out as soon as your brain recognizes an attack. On the street, things happen too quickly to allow you the luxury of being able to think about what to do. Ultimately, there is still no substitute for the ancient practice of practicing.
Remember that it's a strange and crazy world out there. Enjoy it but stay awake. Being aware of your environment is the first and most important step toward staying safe on the streets. Feel the energy around you. Tune in to your surroundings wherever you go. Let your mind point out anything that doesn't feel right. Keep as much distance as you can between yourself and a potentially threatening situation. Ultimately you will be able to stop trouble before it starts—and let the predators go hungry.
About the author: Eric Oram has taught wing chun for 15 years. The founder of the Los Angeles Traditional Wing Chun Kung Fu Academy, he is also an actor, fight choreographer, musician and freelance writer.