In any kind of street combat, fighting on the ground for an extended period can put you in a world of hurt. Although grappling has proved its effectiveness in controlled environments such as the dojo and the cage, it’s very different on the street—for several reasons. First, you can grapple with only one person at a time, which means you commit yourself to a single threat. Obviously, that exposes you to any additional threats that may exist. Second, grappling occupies both your hands. If you’re a police officer carrying a gun, knife or Taser, that can pose a weapon-retention problem. While you’re using your hands to control the attacker, he can let go with one hand, remove your weapon from your belt and use it against you. (Many times I’ve overseen drills in which cops have role-played suspects and arresting officers, and the officers’ guns were removed without their knowing it way too often.) Third, grappling is not combat-efficient. It requires you to expend tremendous amounts of energy. Rolling around on the ground with an assailant for two minutes depletes far more of your reserves than engaging in a stand-up fight of the same duration—which doesn’t even take into account the fact that the average stand-up fight lasts far less than two minutes. With all that said, many law-enforcement and civilian street altercations wind up on the ground—as many as 90 percent, it’s been claimed. If you do down and choose to stay there, you run a high risk of losing should it turn out to be a multi-threat environment. For that reason, it’s essential to become familiar with anti-grappling and ground fighting techniques, as well as the most popular offensive moves, so you’ll have a better understanding of your opponent’s strategies and tactics.

Ground Fighting Tip #1: Drop the Combat Sports Mindset

The self-defense system known as Controlled FORCE is designed to fit the needs of law-enforcement officers. As such, it views ground fighting from a combat perspective instead of a sport perspective. The differences are obvious: Practitioners of martial sports like Brazilian jiu-jitsu, wrestling and judo need not worry about groin strikes, eye gouges or dynamic pressure on their joints. Their goal is to work toward a pin or submission while fending off their opponent’s “fair” techniques. In contrast, your goal in the real world is to protect your vital areas, get to your feet and neutralize the threat using any tool that’s available. The first lesson: Dump that combat sports mindset right now. Forget about those submissions. In a violent situation, your goal is to work toward an outside position to minimize your opponent’s attack zone and increase your ability to gain control of him or to disengage and change tactics. Controlled FORCE accomplishes this by teaching counterstrike drills that combine protecting techniques and disruption techniques that will prepare you to rapidly recover and regain control when a fight goes beyond the initial surprise attack. If the assailant is too close for you to use other control techniques, you can rely on hand techniques and body locks to gain an advantageous position. During Self-Defense Training: Although your main goal should be to remain standing, you must be prepared to fight on the ground. Again, your objective is not to get comfortable there but to learn effective techniques for fending off the attack, minimizing damage and getting back to your feet. Spar with that in mind.

Ground Fighting Tip #2: Employ a Collapsing Defense

Controlled FORCE advocates an approach called “collapsing defense.” If you go down, you should establish a ground-defense safety zone and keep the assailant at bay by attacking his feet and shins while he remains standing. As he closes the gap, assume an active position from which you can shift from side to side with one leg ready to kick and your free hand ready to protect your face. That orientation is intended to create distance so you can get back on your feet or transition to other defensive tools. If you’re in law enforcement, practice this while wearing a holster and training firearm so you can draw your weapon. Once you land on the ground, you must remember that your opponent can present a knife, gun or other weapon. At that point, you can use your firearm and engage him with deadly force. During Self-Defense Training: If you carry a gun, make sure you practice drawing it from a seated or grounded position. Keep the muzzle pointed away from your body. After you simulate shooting, your opponent should continue his attack in some repetitions of the drill to keep you from developing a mindset in which he always stops after being shot.

Ground Fighting Tip #3: Regain Control

If the assailant breaches your defenses and gets close enough to start throwing punches, you can integrate skills taught in Controlled FORCE’s counterstrike drills. If he becomes frustrated with your defenses and tries to stand up to overtake you, use leverage techniques to shift his momentum so you can maneuver into a dominant position. If he manages to defeat all your preliminary defenses, you’re in a fight for your life. You must focus on regaining a position of advantage and re-establishing situational control. During Self-Defense Training: Make sure your ground-fighting drills start with you in a bad position. That forces you to switch into survival mode. Controlled FORCE teaches a drill in which you start on the ground while your opponent grabs your holstered weapon. You have 30 seconds to retain your side arm and gain a position of advantage. After 30 seconds, a second attacker jumps in. After another 30 seconds, a third attacker joins the melee. The drill drives home the importance of getting to your feet as quickly as possible. Don’t focus on grappling with one opponent, or you’ll pay the price.

Ground Fighting Tip #4: Protect Your Face

To further enhance your ground survivability, devise drills that place you in the worst possible predicament—for example, you’re mounted and your foe is working toward an even better position. Your first mission should be to prevent him from landing a blow to your face. Constantly move your head and use your arms as barriers in front of your face. At the same time, continue moving your body, especially your hips, to keep him off-balance. During Self-Defense Training: Lie on your back and have your partner straddle you in the mount with one knee off the ground. The drill begins the moment he drops his other knee—that way, you won’t program yourself to feel comfortable when you’re mounted. He then initiates a series of punches aimed at your face. (If he’s not wearing boxing gloves, make sure he knows that he’s supposed to miss, but also be sure you’re on a mat so he doesn’t break his hand if he hits the floor.) While moving and protecting your head, scoot your body upward (in the direction of your head) and squirm from side to side as if you’re doing side abdominal crunches. The movement will force him to focus on trying to keep his balance instead of bashing in your face.

Ground Fighting Tip #5: Get to Your Feet

Your next step in a fight is to get your attacker off you—preferably by bucking him off with your hips. If he’s experienced at ground fighting, the task might prove difficult, in which case a groin strike can distract him long enough to break his balance. Once he’s displaced, get back to your feet and transition to better tools such as head strikes or a weapon. During Self-Defense Training:Start with your partner mounted on you. After you protect your face and move up and side to side, thrust your hips upward at a 45-degree angle toward either of your shoulders. Avoid bucking him in the direction of your head because he might end up with his knees in your armpits, which can pin your arms in a useless position. If you buck him partway off and he braces himself by posting an arm, wrap the limb with your arm and trap his ankle with your foot. Then roll him in the direction of the trap. You’re now in position to apply a Controlled FORCE Mechanical Advantage Control Hold and roll him off. All the MACH techniques are designed to function in a variety of positions, which means there are fewer techniques you must learn. Even though he’s been thrown off, you might find yourself in his guard. Don’t stop moving. Unleash a series of groin strikes and pry his legs apart with your elbows digging into his inner thighs, then scramble to your feet. During Self-Defense Training: Make sure you do this drill—and all the others—while wearing your duty belt and a holstered training firearm. Otherwise, you run the risk of creeping back toward sport training. Instruct your partner to go for your gun when the opportunity presents itself. If possible, arrange for another partner to serve as a second attacker.

Ground Fighting Tip #6: Prepare for Stress

Adding stressors can make any training more realistic. A stressor is a condition that has the potential to distract or limit you, thus making the drills more challenging. They include:
  • Training on gravel, in a stairwell or in a narrow hallway
  • Doing calisthenics or a 15-second sprint beforehand to simulate a foot pursuit
  • Partially obscuring your vision with a blindfold or goggles covered with tape
  • Turning down the lights to simulate a night fight.
The bottom line is to keep the drills as realistic and challenging as possible so you’ll be better prepared to deal with an altercation that goes to the ground. Short review: The concepts that must be hammered into your brain are the need to protect yourself, the benefits of constantly moving, the need to retain your weapon and the urgency of getting back to your feet. (Tony Cortina is a Southern California-based combatives instructor and law-enforcement officer with 14 years of experience, 10 of which have been with his unit’s SWAT team.)
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"Unlike karate training outside a combat zone," Cpt. Yoon explained, "it is important here that the troops be able to turn their techniques into devastating, bone-crushing blows. There is no place for mild strikes in combat when a VC is trying to push a bayonet into your stomach."

For that reason, the compound is peppered with makiwara punching boards, and the Korean Tigers spend much time conditioning the weapons of taekwondo. Also, throughout Vietnam there are plenty of sandbags, which are used to protect all kinds of constructions. They make excellent striking bags for a karateman.

The next unit in the schedule is to display free fighting. The commander again explains that this form of fighting is used to test the Tigers' skills against one another rather than to demonstrate the actual methods of close-quarters combat, as a fight on the battlefield is nearly always over in an instant.

The sparring matches are exhibitions of technique and control. Perhaps the only recognizable difference between these and matches held in tournaments is the consistent power the soldiers put behind their blows and their concentration on hard taekwondo techniques rather than elusive ones.

Against Weapons

At last, a final group prepares to show what happens when an unarmed Tiger meets a VC with a knife or a bayonet fixed to his AK-47 rifle. Two pairs of soldiers stride to the center of the hard-dirt arena, face the commander and render a snappy salute. Then they fall into a four-man square and await orders.

Sgt. Lee barks a command, and the best of the best explode into action. One gladiator leaps for a knife that has been thrown into the arena. He jams it, hard, at another, who violently kicks the striking hand and jumps shoulder height, scissoring the attacker's neck and tumbling him forward onto the unyielding ground with a crash. The knife spins away.

Meanwhile, another black belt catches a rifle with a fixed bayonet that is thrown to him from the sidelines. With a guttural shout, he lunges for his opponent. The defender spins to the left, brings his knee sharply inward against the weapon and rolls the attacker onto his own shoulder while tearing at his windpipe. It's over in seconds.

The couples repeat the performance again and again, smashing full tilt against each other. Every time, the attacker thrusts hard with his weapon. It's just less than miraculous that the practice doesn't turn into a blood bath.

Korean Budomen

Initiated as the Capital Infantry Division, the Tiger Division was activated on June 20, 1949, in Seoul with the mission of providing security for the capital. It was charged with additional security of the 38th parallel in Ongjin in September of the same year. When the Korean War began on June 25, 1950, the division began to prove itself in heavy fighting during battles at Ahn-kang and Kyung-joo along the defense line of the Nakdong River in the southeastern part of the country.

Following the successful Inchon landing by Gen. Douglas MacArthur's forces, the division penetrated deep into the North across the 38th parallel, overrunning enemy strongholds and advancing close to the Korea-Manchuria border. As their ability became recognized, the division was committed repeatedly and saw the armistice signed while fighting at the front in the spring of 1952. They captured more than 9,920 enemy, killed more than 91,000 and seized more than 31,000 weapons. As a result of their valor, the division was awarded five ROK Presidential Citations and a U.S. Presidential Citation, an ROK National Assembly award and 42 other plaudits.

After the armistice, the division had already been dubbed with the Tiger laurel and was deployed along the front line of the central part of the Korea DMZ. They remained under continued training and constant combat readiness.

Upon approval of the National Assembly, the division was directed to combat in the Republic of Vietnam on August 20, 1965. Three separate elements arrived at Qui Nhon on November 1 after four weeks of preliminary training. That month, it received its tactical area of responsibility, which consisted of 1,400 square kilometers in Binh Dinh Province in central Vietnam. The division's general mission objectives are to protect travel routes, military installations and facilities within its TAOR and to assist the Republic of Vietnam in its pacification plan by eliminating Viet Cong in the area and helping the people rebuild their destroyed homes.

Since 1965, the Tiger Division has stabilized security within their area to an impressive degree. The TAOR itself has expanded from 1,400 to 3,800 square kilometers. As of mid-June, the Tigers had killed more than 9,000 enemy, captured nearly 3,000 and counted 4,500 defectors, as well as seizing nearly 4,000 weapons.

All this leaves little room for doubt about whom historians will count as the true elite of Vietnam combat. In the ranks of the VC and the NVA, mention of these ferocious Koreans brings shudders to the comrades. Even as he fights those from North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, the Tigerman knows that he has full command of his body and his mind. When he's faced with hand-to-hand combat, he need not rely only on the ferocity of his rifle to equalize the score. He can hammer out punches with machine-gun rapidity or swing a full-flogging kick with sufficient force to gain the advantage. When a man is trained in karate, or to be more specific, taekwondo, he's ahead of the game and the Viet Cong, that crap-shooting armada of insurgent forces, and the crack North Vietnamese troops who come to do battle. They know full well that the Tigers with their taekwondo as well as armaments are tough to beat.

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The roots of taekwondo are in Korea, and for the ROK GIs who enter the Tiger ranks, the intensive routine of training in the martial art is strictly par for the course. No doubt every Tigerman hopes to use his martial arts training sometime in a tournament as well as he does in combat. That's the dream of every GI in the ROK division.

The Tigers, under Maj. Gen. Lew Pyong Hyon and with taekwondo's Capt. Yoon, have been making headlines throughout the world. They are the only troops, it's been said, who fight fire with fire, who use guerrilla techniques and ambush techniques in much the same manner as the Viet Cong. In a war such as this — where the boundary lines are questionable, where there is no front line and where your neighbor can turn into your enemy — such techniques are indispensable. Thanks to the hand-to-hand techniques and the combat-karate emphasis of this militia, the odds are clearly shaping up in the Tiger Division's ledger. Thanks to taekwondo, the Tigers are smashing the enemy with no holds barred and, if anyone doubts it, plenty of contact!

Read Part 1 of this article here.

text by Jack E. Swift

(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)

Scene: A group of soldiers is gathered for a bull session. The subject under discussion is the Tiger Division of the Korean army. The soldiers are engrossed. One, a lean, tanned GI, pushes back his beret, squints into the darkness and looks out to see a mountain of burning embers.

"We were on recon operations in southern Binh Dinh Province," he explains. "One night, we caught the sounds of a skirmish. My squad leader held up his hand and when he smiled, we knew we were in for some action. As we approached the area, we were a little surprised that there was no small-arms fire, but we could hear a lot of guys yelling.

"When we got there, it was an unbelievable sight. Here were those Korean troops in close-quarters combat with what must have been superior forces, as there were [Viet Cong soldiers] all over the place. I've never seen so many broken necks and caved-in ribs in my life. We helped clean up what was left."

So goes the legend, and just in case you're casting a cynical eye as to the Tiger Division's aptitude in the use of martial arts, the record speaks for itself. If there was ever a primer on combat karate, these troops would write it. In two grueling periods daily, every troop in the Tiger Division trains in the taekwondo method, the official karate of Korea.

At one time, there were many factions, but in the past year or so, they've all been absorbed by the International Taekwon-Do Federation, with its headquarters in Seoul. In fact, with the Koreans, and even in many areas in Vietnam, taekwondo is synonymous with karate. Numerous Vietnamese do not even understand the word "karate" — but mention taekwondo and their faces light up with recognition.

Way of Life

At Qui Nhon, division headquarters, visitors are surprised to see sparkling white uniforms — and a sea of black belts — virtually in the middle of a combat zone. While on actual operations away from their base, the Tigers work out in field gear, but at the training center, everyone wears a gi and keeps it as immaculate as any other military uniform.

On the left side of the gi, each person wears the proud division emblem of a roaring tiger. On the other side, if he's an instructor, the soldier wears a black insignia of a fist with white dots above indicating how many degrees of black-belt rank he holds.

Commander of the massive taekwondo corps of the Tiger Division is Capt. Yoon Dong Ho, himself a third dan. But the rugged, intelligent captain is no armchair commander. He's on hand daily at the dirt arena, watching the troops go through their paces and often teaching a special class of officers.

Capt. Yoon is responsible for the official taekwondo training of more than 15,000 Tiger troops in Vietnam. Although popular belief holds otherwise, there are actually more than 200 black-belt holders in the Tiger ranks. Of them, three are fourth dan, 29 are third dan, 57 are second dan and 115 are first dan. There are roughly 600 red belts and 2,300 blue belts, as well as 9,000 troops holding degrees of white belt. Approximately 2,900 men recently began their training in Vietnam. Many of these, of course, already hold rank they won in Korea.


Each element of the Tiger infantry arriving in Vietnam goes through intensive schooling at Qui Nhon. The 26th of these classes began in July, to run just over a month. The sessions lead off with classical techniques under the direct supervision of Sgt. Jun Jae Gun, head taekwondo instructor for the Meng Ho in Vietnam. Sgt. Jun, one of the division's tough trio of fourth degrees, displays a certificate signed by Gen. Choi Hong Hi, International Taekwon-Do Federation president.

When a trooper is promoted in Vietnam, however, he's awarded a military certificate of training by his supplement company commander, who acts as a representative of Lt. Col. Jai Chun Ko, division field commander. All promotions are recognized by the federation. In cases of promotion to the higher grades, however, special recognition is often meted out. For example, Sgt. Kim Duk Ki was recently awarded his third dan by Lt. Gen. Chae Myung Shin, field headquarters commander for all ROK Forces in Vietnam.

"The major objective of our formal taekwondo classes," asserted Cpt. Yoon, "is to take the minds of our troops and replace civilian thinking with military spirit and fierceness. 'Tiger' is the nickname the division has been tagged with because of the fierce nature we have demonstrated in combat. We intend to live up to it."

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Cpt. Yoon reinforced that statement with an impromptu demonstration of his own favorite techniques. Choosing a brawny trooper with a bayonet, the captain rushed him, parrying the weapon with an onslaught of power strikes with the elbow, palm, heel and fist. He ended with a forearm strike to the windpipe, which he explained is effective when one wants to silence the enemy quickly.

Key elements in hand-to-hand combat, the commander explained, are attacking the weapon directly or the hand that holds it while simultaneously attacking the most vulnerable spot within reach, then pressing the assault to keep the enemy off-balance while finishing him.

Field Testing

Stressing physical fitness in preparation for the application of these techniques, Cpt. Yoon said his troops rely heavily on powerful, smashing blows against the smaller Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Communists. He explained that the enemies are often undernourished because of their long treks from the North and therefore may fall easily under a strong attack.

"One particular situation where we encounter hand-to-hand fighting," Cpt. Yoon said, "is when the VC hide in bunkers and Tiger patrols do not have heavy weapons available to blow [the bunkers] apart. In such a case, the troops simply go in after them. The VC stand little chance against my men in close-quarters fighting."

In addition to the training of their own infantry, Tiger taekwondo instructors teach U.S. and Republic of Vietnam soldiers, as well as other Allied Forces infantry soldiers. Presently, some 1,250 Vietnamese and 150 U.S. soldiers are being taught by the Tigers at Qui Nhon alone. At other installations throughout South Vietnam, the Koreans teach their art to Allied Forces and Vietnamese civilians of both sexes and all ages.

There are scores of Korean black belts who are not members of the Tiger Division but who teach taekwondo to the local troopers and civilians. Many of these men belong to the larger White Horse Division. Especially in populated places such as the Tan Son Nhut Air Base–Saigon area, taekwondo has become as popular as baseball is to Americans. Today, self-defense is serious business to the Vietnamese, as no one knows when a VC terrorist squad will break into his home.

The Tiger Lair

Several miles away from the main training area on the Qui Nhon Air Base where the new arrivals hold classes, the Tiger instructors have their own compound, carved out of the verdant Vietnam countryside. Bordered on two sides by mountains and banked by the South China Sea, the encampment nestles into a serene and clean-smelling natural cradle, somehow out of place amidst the turmoil of war. The site has never been successfully attacked, and no one remembers the last time even a single mortar landed within the perimeter.

The perimeter itself is defined by roll upon roll of barbed wire, machine-gun posts and sandbag-reinforced bunkers. When not actually leading class, the instructors perform most of their military duties wearing their gi, often barebacked in the all-pervading heat. Somehow it doesn't seem quite right to see a fierce fighting man carting pails of water for the makeshift shower or spreading rolls of concertina wire — until you recall how budo masters of ancient times made their charges perform menial tasks before they would be accepted. Perhaps this accounts in part for their dedication and the respectful attitude the troops invariably display.

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Cpt. Yoon decides to review the instructors' training methods, so he has the select corps organize into a squadron to demonstrate their prowess. Sgt. Lee Jin Ho, whose official title is post instructor, leads the formation. They fall swiftly into ranks. The commander steps forward and receives the squadron's salute, then turns the command over to Sgt. Ho.

At a signal, the Tigers break ranks and rush into new formations with precision reminiscent of the Roman legions. The first squad is directed to show taekwondo forms. They snap through the kata in coordinated pairs, demonstrating the adroitness that can only come from military discipline. The forms are technically the same as classical Korean karate but are executed with the confident power of soldiers who have seen what their stuff can do to a man.

The next group forms behind a line of boards, bricks and tiles. Stacks of four and five bricks, up to 15 tiles and four 1-inch boards lie before them. The unit is called to attention, salutes again and assumes a ready posture. Sgt. Lee barks a command, and a dozen heads, hands and fists smash into the solid objects. Not a single one remains unbroken.

Read Part 2 here.

text by Jack E. Swift

(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)

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