25 February 2013

Book Review - When The Fight Goes To The Ground (Lori O'Connell)

Short Review: In her second book, Japanese jiu jitsu stylist Lori O’Connell has attempted to write a basic primer for self defence on the ground. She sensibly includes suggestions on where to find legal advice and notes that technique is just one part of a self defence encounter. Nevertheless, there is an explanation of common attacks and defences on the ground, though without the level of detail you would find in a comparable BJJ instructional. O’Connell’s background is mainly in Can-ryu, which unlike BJJ does not emphasise sparring and competition. Available to buy here (and in the UK, here)

Full Review: Last year, I was contacted by Lori O'Connell, who asked if I would be willing to review her new book. I first encountered her writing several years ago, over on her Jiu Jitsu Sensei blog (which has since moved to her club website). It isn't a site I regularly follow, given that I do not have a great deal of interest in semi-contact styles of jiu jitsu, but as far as I'm aware it is a popular blog. Unlike other instructional books I generally review, When The Fight Goes To The Ground is aimed entirely at the self defence audience, from a Japanese jiu jitsu perspective.

If I was looking to recommend a book for someone to read who wanted to learn about self defence, particularly if they are already involved in martial arts, then Rory Miller’s Meditations on Violence would probably be where I'd tell them to start. Although I'm not entirely convinced by the content, such as the section where he tries to justify the use of kata as a training methodology, it is still the most mature book on self defence I've read up until now.

This is partly because Miller does not try and teach you techniques, which he feels are not the key factor in self defence. Rather than techniques, Miller talks about elements like environment, the differences in types of violence (e.g., predatory violence compared to the ‘Monkey Dance’ of status posturing) and dealing with chemical affects.

For example, he has a pithy summary on martial arts techniques in self defence: "Of everything in this book, skill at fighting is the least likely to affect your survival in a sudden assault. It’s better to avoid than to run; better to run than to de-escalate; better to de-escalate than to fight; better to fight than to die." The pre-eminence of other factors beyond combative techniques is something O'Connell also acknowledges. As she puts it in her introduction:

The ground defense system in this book is NOT a complete system of self-protection. It covers only one aspect to be partnered with other strategies and defensive techniques, including soft skills like personal awareness, conflict avoidance, and de-escalation tactics, as well as hard/physical skills, such as stand-up striking, throws and takedowns, etc. Nevertheless, ground defense is an important skill to learn if one's goal is to have a well-rounded system of self-protection.

Of course, learning techniques for self defence is not pointless, as long as it not all you are doing. As 'M. Guthrie' puts it in his praise for Miller's book, "technique is important, no doubt, but any defense scenario is much more than a series of techniques thrown in a vacuum. This book will fill in those gaps - all the other stuff that goes along with it. And that is truly where the art of self-defense lies, outside of technique."

O'Connell's book is seeking to help teach you a series of techniques for a specific situation: as the title says, that situation is when the fight hits the ground. Generally speaking, when looking for a quality instructional on that topic, most people would go to Brazilian jiu jitsu. That is not to say that there are no other styles which can teach you equally good grappling: there are plenty of judoka with excellent newaza, or practitioners of SAMBO who are as adept as any BJJ black belt.

Miller makes another related point which I'll repeat here. "Most martial arts are just a piece of the puzzle. Technically, some practice striking, some throwing, some practice both. Some add grappling and others specialize there. A truly complete martial art would cover everything from talking to shooting, and more besides." The arts I just mentioned specialise in grappling and throwing. BJJ lacks striking and certainly doesn't cover shooting, not to mention those various 'soft skills' O'Connell mentions. It is far from the full picture when it comes to self defence.

However, BJJ is very good at its specific piece of the puzzle: grappling. This is largely because of something judo, SAMBO and BJJ have in common, which is the training methodology of full resistance. Full contact sparring and competition are integral parts of all three. O’Connell trains in a martial art called ‘Can-ryu jiu jitsu’, one of the many styles under the umbrella term 'Japanese jiu jitsu'. JJJ variants are often entirely different from Brazilian jiu jitsu (I talk about that more here), most notably in that they frequently lack that emphasis on full contact sparring and competition. At the same time, 'Japanese jiu jitsu' is a very broad term, so it also includes schools that do plenty of full-contact sparring. As a result, these schools may produce students just as capable as those from the average BJJ, judo or SAMBO school.

O’Connell’s knowledge of full-contact grappling styles, like BJJ, SAMBO, judo, wrestling and the like, is relatively limited. She began her cross-training with BJJ lessons twice a week for around six months, then due to her teaching schedule switched to privates once a week for a further four months. O'Connell then returned to BJJ classes once a week while also training in MMA two to three times a week for six months. She then dropped BJJ to focus on MMA for two and a half years, though still alongside her Can-ryu. This was with a view to competing, but unfortunately her manager was unable to secure a fight.

She provides some further details on her blog. This post from 2009 discussed her training with BJJ brown belt Jennifer Weintz, who also wrote a foreword for O'Connell's book (this boils down to "keep an open mind"). O'Connell has also been to a few Eddie Bravo seminars: whatever else you can say about 10th Planet, it certainly doesn't train compliantly (although citing Ari Bolden, as she does here, probably isn't going to win her many fans in the BJJ community, given his reputation). To her credit, O’Connell has also competed in a submission grappling tournament back in 2007.

In his foreword, the head of Can-ryu remembers how he asked O'Connell to "review our curriculum's existing ground defense techniques and see where improvements could be made." That could mean that O'Connell has a firm grasp of grappling and was therefore able to improve an already well-constructed syllabus. Alternatively, it might indicate that Can-ryu's curriculum was so limited in grappling that even somebody with little experience on the ground knew more than her peers. In terms of BJJ rank, she is currently a four stripe white belt.

It is therefore worth spending a bit of time on Can-ryu, as O'Connell's much more extensive training in that style is the central basis for her credibility as the author of an instructional grappling manual with a self defence focus. She is a 5th dan with well over a decade of experience in Japanese jiu jitsu. According to this site, Can-Ryu claims to descend from 'Kosen Judo', a common claim outside of BJJ. However, Kosen Judo is not a style, it is a rule-set practiced by several educational institutions in Japan: as far as I’m aware, you cannot learn 'Kosen Judo', in the same way you can’t learn K-1 or UFC. A more reasonable source for Can-ryu is Mikonosuke Kawaishii, who is referenced in that article as somebody who taught judo in France from 1935 onwards. By 1957, he had moved away from judo, calling what he taught 'Kawaishii Jiu Jitsu' instead.

Kawaishii Jiu Jitsu was apparently also available in the Netherlands, where Henk Jenssen learned the style. By 1958, Jenssen was teaching this form of jiu jitsu in Toronto at Frank Hatashita's club. One of Hatashita's judo students, Ronald Forrester, joined Jenssen's class and eventually became the head instructor in 1962. The article credits him with introducing striking and free sparring into the curriculum (if there was no free sparring until that time, then Kawaishii Jiu Jitsu must have diverged significantly from judo over the years), which ended up becoming known as the 'Canadian Jiu Jitsu System'.

It is here that Can-Ryu emerges, thanks to one of Forrester's students, Georges Sylvain. He opened his Sylvain Jiu Jitsu school in 1963, eventually coming up with the name 'Can-ryu Jiu Jitsu'. He was fond of pressure-points, generally seen as a very dubious area of martial arts, thanks to the exploits of figures like George Dillman. This site offers a longer biography of Sylvain. At the time it was written, Sylvain apparently had 15 years experience in the police force, as well as a background in full contact karate during the late '60s (very different from the average karate of today, which has been diluted largely due to commercial reasons). He also trained the well-known kickboxer Jean-Yves Theriault.

Can-ryu receives mixed reports on the internet. This Bullshido thread indicates that Can-ryu is entirely compliant, which would therefore cast serious doubt over its usefulness to anyone looking to improve their grappling. However, that is just one school of Can-ryu: since Sylvain’s day, the organisation has spread throughout Canada and split several times. O'Connell also told me that some Can-ryu schools do incorporate more competitive sparring into their training, though it is not full-contact in the sense of the typical BJJ, MMA or judo academy.

This all may go some way towards explaining why rather than the grappling techniques you might expect, O'Connell's new book frequently includes strikes to what she calls ‘vital targets’: eye gouging, biting, ‘finger whipping’ the groin, pinching and even squeezing ‘love handles’. As Gerard Gordeau demonstrated in his MMA fights with Royce Gracie and then Yuki Nakai, eye gouging and biting are not fight enders. He lost on both occasions despite blinding Nakai in one eye and leaving teeth marks on Gracie's ear.

O'Connell does not tell you to rely on such tactics, instead urging the reader to "keep in mind that attacks to vital targets that only cause pain [...] may not be enough against a pain-resistant attacker (i.e., somone who is drunk, high, enraged, etc)." She also recommends using the training methodologies of BJJ and other full contact grappling styles to improve your abilities on the ground, as well as the option of using 'weapons of opportunity' to try and even the odds.

Another significant drawback to eye gouges, groin strikes and the like is that due to the potential injury, they cannot be effectively practiced against resistance (unless you have training partners who, like Nakai, can handle being blinded). This means that it essentially becomes a matter of live action role play. Hence why O'Connell has to tell the reader to "be sure to play fair and respond appropriately to strikes that would have been effectively applied had your partner used full power."

This relates to a quote from Matt Thornton, who has written extensively and eloquently on the topic of ‘street’ versus ‘sport’ for many years. For example, in this series of articles from the SBGi website:

The street vs sport, BJJ has rules, grappling should include biting, hair pulling, etc, is a straw man. It's a tired and meaningless debate. It’s also the excuse that every master of DEAD martial arts from the traditional schools uses to explain his arts non effectiveness in a full contact environment. So anyone seeking to use this argument should be wary.

Let me be as clear as possible. I will borrow some of Dan Inosanto's terminology here, and yes Mr Inosanto is a black belt with the Machados, whom I consider some of the best GRAPPLING coaches in the world. (Try biting Rigan sometime, I worked it with him once and it sucks!).

You need to make a distinction between a "delivery system" and a sporting application of an art. As an example we will use a man I admire very much, Renzo Gracie. Renzo could see a bite, a foul tactic, a version of an armlock, from Silat, or White Crane, or Yellow Monkey Fever, etc etc, and probably be able to INTEGRATE and apply that move very quickly. Why? Because he already has such a strong base on the ground. He understands the positions, and he has a great delivery system. Compare that with say an Aikido stylist. He may see the same application for a bite, or a choke, etc, but never be able to effectively use it. Especially against a wrestler or another groundfighter. Why? Because he doesn't have that delivery system.

Given her background in a non-competitive style like Can-ryu, it is unsurprising that O'Connell goes on to make that distinction between ‘sport’ and ‘self defence’. O’Connell uses this argument to distinguish her training and her book from BJJ, a style she feels is designed for competition. That is an understandable assumption to make, as competition is very popular in BJJ. It also is not strictly true, as O'Connell acknowledges by mentioning BJJ's origins in the 1920s. Like most martial arts, BJJ was initially designed for self defence, following the same stiff, compliant drills as aikido and innumerable ‘traditional’ jiu jitsu styles. Competition against full resistance, pioneered by the vale tudo matches of the Gracie family, is what advanced BJJ beyond those dead patterns and made it effective in environments like the early Gracie Challenge matches, vale tudo and more recently mixed martial arts.

Self defence has continued to be a major aspect of BJJ in the present day, though not at every school. In keeping with O'Connell's argument, there are those within BJJ who feel that the style of BJJ used in competition has become too far removed from reality. They are therefore seeking to turn the art back to its original purpose (notably, they are almost all heavily focused on techniques, rather than the other, arguably more essential factors of self defence discussed by Miller). ‘Self defence’ is the founding principle of the Gracie Combatives program. It is a matter of pride for Relson Gracie and his black belts. Royce and Rickson Gracie both insist that black belts have a firm grasp of their self defence syllabus. It is also a central part of the curriculum at the largest organisation in BJJ, Gracie Barra.

Given everything I've said above, I had my reservations about a book on grappling by somebody who does not appear to have done a great deal of it herself. That said, O'Connell does have a number of positive aspects to her book. She attempts to provide some statistical background to grappling from a law enforcement perspective, listing her sources. She also discusses the legal ramifications, wisely avoiding giving legal advice herself and instead directs the reader towards relevant legislation, split by country.

Something else in favour of When The Fight Goes To The Ground is that there is an accompanying DVD, though this is definitely a proper book rather than the mooks (a cross between a magazine and a book especially popular in Japan, sometimes packaged with a DVD) I've reviewed in the past. The book itself is smaller by comparison to the typical BJJ instructional book, but has the same glossy paper with full colour photographs. Unfortunately, it can sometimes be hard to distinguish legs, as both O'Connell and her training partner wear black trousers.

O'Connell's opening introduction on the DVD cuts to clips rather than staying entirely focused on a talking head, which I liked. However, that talking head returned to introduce every technique, which wasn't necessary. I think it would have been more effective for her to make the same speech as a voiceover (which she does on occasion with other segments, but rarely), especially given that in most of the techniques there was no accompanying instructional audio anyway. The clips are all short, presumably because the DVD is intended as a visual aid for the book rather than a stand-alone instructional.

The technical content of the book starts with a discussion of what O'Connell calls 'body shifting', by which she means motions like shrimping and bridging, as well as keeping your legs in front of your attacker. There is a brief note at the end on adapting the techniques for law enforcement, which makes sense given the focus of the book. The chapter also includes a discussion of control on top, covering the major positions.

At this point, she gives the unusual advice to keep your hips higher than your chest when holding side control. In my experience, that actually makes it easier to escape the position due to the reduction in pressure. I always try to keep my hips as low as possible in side control to maximise my weight, though you could argue that in a self defence encounter the attacker probably isn't going to be trying to recover guard.

I'd also disagree with O'Connell that having both legs out means you can't control the hips. Sprawling back with both legs again helps to sink your hips and increase the pressure, which is why a number of BJJ instructors prefer it. To block their hips when using that side control variation, you would either use a hand by the near hip, or drop your own hip into theirs.

After the aforementioned discussion on strikes to 'vital targets', O'Connell progresses to breakfalls. As she notes, this is a paramount skill for general safety whether or not you train martial arts, as knowing how to fall can save you injury in numerous situations. I was surprised that O'Connell did not discuss what is called the 'technical stand-up' in BJJ, though it is used in the course of the DVD (but not described).

Strikes from the ground are examined in the next chapter, which has some similarities with the Gracie Barra Fundamentals curriculum, particularly kicking their leg while you are still on the ground. In the BJJ classes I've been to, that kick is used to create distance, after which you get to your feet using the technical stand-up. O'Connell (using a voiceover on the DVD), does this with a thai pad, but doesn't then move on to standing back up. Perhaps that is implicit, as she talks earlier about creating distance and returning to an upright position.

To defend from the ground O'Connell shows a technique which looks a bit like the basic double ankle grab sweep. O'Connell suggests either kicking into their groin and continuing to push to knock them over, or using your knee if you have longer legs. She also has some ideas on how you might try to block a kick to your head with your arms, then grab their leg and knock them over. It is very common for O'Connell to follow up with a strike, usually an elbow into the leg.

O'Connell's seventh chapter covers mount defence. She mainly uses the trap and roll, but on the DVD does not highlight the need to secure their wrist. Instead, she controls their elbow with both arms, which has the disadvantage of the attacker potentially being able to base out with their hand. She is perhaps aiming to do something similar to Roy Dean on Blue Belt Requirements, but it's an atypical grip.

Having said that, she does grip the wrist during her video demonstration of defending against a 'ground and pound', but this appears to be incidental as she again does not mention controlling the wrist in her written description. Instead, she advises that you control one of their arms at the elbow, "hugging it strongly to your hip". It is also difficult to see whether she traps the leg in the DVD, as it is only covered from a front angle. However, that detail is mentioned in the book. There is also some brief description of what looks like the elbow escape, but O'Connell's version relies more on strikes to try and make space rather than leverage.

Defending from the guard involves a lot of biting and growling (O'Connell feels that has psychological advantages). There is also a moment that reminded me of the punch block series from Gracie Combatives, but only stage three, rather than the set-up and details on keeping the opponent tight when in guard to prevent punches. The scissor sweep O'Connell uses here is a little difficult to see, because both she and her partner are wearing black trousers. That's a recurring problem throughout the book and especially the DVD: in instructional material, it is important that one person wears something light and the other something dark to make it easy to distinguish between them.

O'Connell also has techniques for escaping the back, which again features biting the wrist and growling, along with elbows to the groin. This also combines with some defences against headlocks, which would normally be grouped under side control: O'Connell shows how that might be applied from a face down position. Interestingly, she includes an unorthodox scenario where you're belly down and they are kneeling behind you.

Side control escapes have long been a favourite of mine, so I was intrigued how O'Connell would deal with that area of grappling. She starts off with scarf hold, then moves on to standard side control. Like O'Connell's elbow escape, she relies on strikes to open up space rather than leverage, in this case a shot to the groin. The attacker has one knee in and their hips high, which provides the opportunity to do so: as mentioned earlier, side control is more effective when the hips are low. O'Connell then immediately tries to kick her attacker away.

If both knees are in, O'Connell again tries to strike to make space. She then goes for an escape that is comparable to Roy Dean's spin out, which would be difficult to achieve without creating quite a lot of room first. Instead of spinning, she just reaches underneath to grab their far side and bridges, aiming to slip out that way. I would have expected the more typical bridging, framing and shrimping escapes, which tend to be the first options taught to beginner students.

There is then a section on how to defend against somebody controlling you from the guard, which is not something most people would expect in a self defence encounter. This doesn't involve a lot of finesse: to escape a closed guard if you have your head free, O'Connell recommends elbowing them then getting up. If they have pulled you down, she attacks the eyes and then does the same escape.

Against a skilled grappler, this is unlikely to succeed (as demonstrated in those early UFCs, where Royce Gracie was able to easily control his opponents off his back and avoid strikes). I'm also not sure if anybody other than an experienced grappler would try and use closed guard: O'Connell argues that the increasingly mainstream nature of the UFC might tempt even untrained attackers to give it a try.

The next few chapters cover submissions and their defences, divided into 'neck restraints' and 'joint locks'. First up is the triangle from guard (combining it with an armbar), then a triangle from mount, rolling back into a triangle from guard. She also covers the guillotine and finally a rear naked choke. In regards to joint locks, O'Connell chooses the armbar, kimura and americana, followed by some lower body attacks (sensibly warning about the dangers involved when training heel hooks). It's interesting that she uses BJJ terminology: nobody outside of BJJ or MMA would use 'kimura' or 'americana' to describe keylocks.

Two of the other variables that can be an element of self defence are weapons and multiple attackers. This is where some martial artists leap off into potentially dangerous realms of fantasy, including BJJ practitioners. In Royce Gracie’s book on self defence, he demonstrated both gun and knife disarms. I generally take any weapons disarms with a huge pinch of salt: I strongly doubt that I can react faster than a bullet or a knife if somebody has a weapon pressed against my ribs, particularly as the initiative is with the attacker. If I was going to train in weapons, I would look to something like the Dog Brothers. They try to apply the same training methodology of aliveness to weapons, in massive contrast to pretty much everybody else.

O’Connell does include some sections on defending against weapons on the ground, as well as multiple attackers, but she makes the key point that even if you become highly proficient at unarmed weapons defence, it is still something you should avoid relying upon. Here's what Matt Thornton has to say about weapons:

I do not dismiss the danger of blades. In fact I know just how dangerous they can be, and so does every other SBG Instructor. They are part of the curriculum, and they are addressed. But, I am very wary of people who talk about cutting arteries, and stabbing people in the guard, etc. Many times (not always) these people tend to be the kids that got picked on in school, lack a certain sense of self esteem, etc. I believe that people like this can be greatly helped through SPORTS. Whether it's boxing, wrestling, BJJ, Judo, NHB, etc. This type of athletic event can help someone like this gain real self esteem. But too often, instead of going down that route they I see them being drawn into the "streetfighting/ tactical" stuff. And I think this usually just increases their paranoia and fear, and eventually leads to anger.

This is why I think the sports paradigm is much healthier. The weaker members of our society are the ones that can use sports to improve their life the most. True self defense skills like awareness, maturity, lack of substance abuse, firearms, pepper spray, etc, can always be added. And should always be added. But the scared kids that get picked on are best helped through sports, and they are the ones I enjoy teaching the most because I have seen such a productive and great change that sports can bring to them

The last part of the book is on multiple attackers. Like weapons, it is incredibly difficult to muster any kind of adequate preparation for this scenario. O'Connell acknowledges this difficulty, describing the likely affects, such as tunnel vision and adrenaline. She closes off her book and DVD with a quick drill you could try, where two people hold pads to simulate multiple attackers (but again, as O'Connell states, it is really, really hard to come up with anything realistic).

O'Connell writes that in terms of her audience, she has three groups in mind: BJJ students interested in self defence, 'traditional' martial artists (which tends to refer to training methodology rather than age, given that wrestling and muay thai are millenia and centuries old respectively but not normally included in that group) intrigued by grappling and police officers. The first group is probably not going to be all that tempted by When The Fight Goes To The Ground, both because of O'Connell's lack of credentials in full-contact grappling and due to the market position of Gracie Combatives, which has been heavily publicised in the BJJ community since its release in 2009.

TMA students are a more likely target, although personally I would suggest that the best material for a student of something like aikido, JJJ or karate who wants to cross-train in something like BJJ is by Roy Dean, a judo, aikido, JJJ and BJJ black belt (specifically, his DVDs Art of the Wristlock and The White Belt Bible). Police officers would probably turn to Gracie Combatives as well, though the Gracie Academy has developed programs specifically for law enforcement (though I'm not sure if that is available on DVD).

When The Fight Goes To The Ground does have the advantage of being cheaper, at $12 rather than the $45 you would pay for Roy Dean's DVDs or the $119 it costs for Gracie Combatives (though both of those options are significantly longer than O'Connell's alternative). It might also appeal to those who prefer the quick reference of a book rather than having to load up a DVD. It would also of course be a useful supplement for any Can-ryu student looking to brush up on the groundfighting portion of their curriculum. Available to buy here (and in the UK, here)


  1. Rory Miller's got a great blog, too... you should check it out if you haven't yet.

    My Tai Chi teacher bought me "Meditations On Violence" as a gift. ;-)

    1. That would be an interesting read. I first heard about Miller when I used to post on Cyberkwoon ages ago, but researching this review prompted me to finally check out his book properly. :)

  2. http://chirontraining.blogspot.com/