It’s the stuff of countless action films…and your worst nightmare. You find yourself facing more than one attacker, trying to surround you…
But now things get even worse. They rush you and you find yourself on the ground grappling multiple opponents.
Is it really possible to grapple against multiple opponents in this sort of situation?
Grappling multiple attackers is definitely NOT recommended, even for expert grapplers. You’re so much better off either running or finding a weapon to arm yourself.
That being said, the choice may not be yours. If you get rushed and taken to the ground then yes, it is possible. But let’s be serious, the odds against multiple attackers on the ground are not good, especially if they’re also putting the boots to you at the same time.
Against odds like that in unarmed combat you need some sort of advantage. Most typically that means you either need to be a) much better on the ground technically, and/or b) much stronger and in much better shape than your attackers to have much of a chance.
I’ve grappled against multiple opponents several times (only in the dojo and fortunately not in the street). And let me tell you that it’s really hard and energy intensive. My rule of thumb is that it’s at least 4 times harder to grapple two people than it is to grapple just one person.
And that means that to survive against multiple opponents then it means that your skill level (or your conditioning) needs to be much, much higher than that of your attackers. If they’re roughly as knowledgeable in grappling as you are then you’re in big trouble.
Let’s say that the worst happens and you find yourself tussling on the ground with more than one attacker.
Forget about calmly stabilising the position and setting up to pass guard like you learned in BJJ class. In this situation there are really two main options…
- Disengage from the attackers, get off the ground, and then run away or arm yourself, and/or
- Use a submission to take out one of the attackers as brutally and efficiently as possible.
Let’s look at these options a little further…
Disengaging from your attackers and getting off the ground
Getting the hell out of Dodge when you’re facing more than one attacker is always a good idea. But since we’re talking about a scenario where you’re already on the ground, extricating yourself is much easier said than done.
Let me be super-clear about this: getting out of a grappling situation and getting back to your feet requires grappling skills.
Former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck ‘The Iceman’ Liddell was notoriously difficult to take down in the octagon. And if you did manage to take him down he would scoot towards a fence and shimmy up the wall until he was back on his feet.
Here’s why he could do that so consistently: he was a kickboxer, but was also division 1 wrestler in college. That meant his sprawling and grappling skills were refined in hours of difficult sparring against resisting opponents.
To get back to your feet against multiple attackers requires constant grip breaking and continuous standup attempts. But it also requires a high level of conditioning (because nothing is more exhausting than fighting multiple attackers), an awareness to defend against strikes as best you can, and the determination to keep on fighting no matter what.
Expect your first, second and third attempts to fail: for example, you might be able to free yourself from the grasp of one attacker and be halfway back to your feet only to be tackled down to the ground again by the second attacker. This is normal and to be expected. Keep going!
There are many different techniques for breaking grips and getting back to your feet, but the most important movement here is the technical standup. You may only get a very brief window of opportunity to stand up, so your standup movement better be fast when you get the chance to use it!
But knowing the various technique is NOT enough – you have to practice them, get your reps in, and then use them in sparring against resistance.
As Jocko Willing pointed out, in order to run away you need to be able to deal with an attacker grabbing you. That’s true whether you’re standing or on the ground, and it’s even more true when you’re dealing with multiple attackers. Break the grips, stand up, and get away – but you’ve got to learn jiu-jitsu to do that.
Taking Out One Attacker and Evening the Odds
Under some situations you may not be able to disengage and run away. Perhaps the two guys are too tightly locked onto you, or maybe you can’t run away without abandoning someone who is still on scene.
In this case your best bet is to take one of them out as quickly as possible, and then focus on the other guy.
(The fact that they’ve teamed up against you in the first place likely means that they’re cowards, and there’s nothing that changes a coward’s desire to fight like his buddy convulsing in pain on the ground and the fight going from 2-to-1 to 1-to-1.)
Here are two of the fastest moves you can use to take out an attacker. In both of these cases you’re not looking for the tap: you’re looking for the nap or the snap!
Recommended submission #1: the Rear Naked Choke
This works equally well on the ground, and standing. After all, you don’t want to end up on the ground here if you can avoid it.
If you can, choke your victim while keeping your victim between you and the second attacker. You use him as a human shield, protecting many vulnerable areas in your neck, groin, and torso. Once he’s unconscious, let him drop and take on your remaining attacker.
Here’s an old (but still good) tutorial I shot on the Rear Naked Choke.
It covers many of the nuances you’ll need to sink and tighten the choke against a quality opponent: in a self defense situation against someone without extensive grappling experience you’ll probably find that you can skip many of the steps and adjustments and go right to the choke!
Recommended submission #2: the Heel Hook
The heel hook is a great way to cripple one of your attackers and even up the odds. In most cases it’s faster than the choke, but the downside is that it’s harder to apply standing up. However, if you’re already entangled with your attackers and you see the opportunity then hit that heel hook hard and fast which will hopefully cripple one attacker.
He’ll be on the ground yelping, which will certainly not encourage his accomplice. Now you only have to worry about one guy.
Now this next bit is SUPER IMPORTANT!
To pull off a heel hook in the street, and especially in a multiple attacker scenario, you have to have trained it in sparring.
But this is complicated by the fact that you can really f**k up your training partner’s knee if you do them too hard in training. It takes very little pressure to tear the cruciate ligaments at the back of the knee with a heel hook, and often the damage occurs before your training partner feels any serious pain.
So train slowly and carefully, with good instruction and self restraint.
Of course in the street you want to do the exact opposite: hard and fast and RIIIIIIPPPPPP!!!
Here’s an intro to the heel hook to get you started.
Developing Multiple Attacker Skills in Sparring
As always, your best preparation here is sparring. That really is the secret sauce of martial preparedness.
First try boxing against two opponents. It will be exhausting because you’ll be constantly moving to the side so that you are only within range of one, but it will be excellent psychological (and physical) preparation.
Then try it grappling! But here it’s really important to have a referee. It is entirely possible that you’ll get so tied up that you’ll be unable to tap or speak loudly enough to be heard clearly. You need someone else watching this to make sure things stop before you get injured.
When I think of grappling against multiple attackers the image that comes to mind is that incredible scene from the Planet Earth documentary in which an iguana escapes a swarm of snakes. The iguana didn’t give up, and neither should you!
Grappling multiple attackers are a terrible situation, but it has been done successfully. If you keep your head on your shoulders, you can improve your odds considerably.