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Ground Grappling On The Battlefield

Ground Grappling on the Battlefield and in the Arena

 By Michael Rosenbaum

Wrestling is one of the oldest forms of pugilism known and has been practiced since prehistoric times. Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings show ground-grappling scenes dating back to 2050 B.C., while in China, records of wrestling date back to the Chou dynasty, 122-255 B.C. Similarly, the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan), written in A.D. 720, tell of the chikara kurabe, wrestling contests which later influenced the development of yori kumi-uchi, a grappling art used by samurai dressed in armor.

          Today due to the widespread popularity of ground grappling, the statement “all fights end up on the ground” has become a popular mantra within the fighting arts community. And while this is often true for those who specialize in grappling, it does not always apply where the soldier or law enforcement officer is concerned, or even the civilian engaged in realistic self-defense training. This is due to broken terrain, body armor, weapons, multiple opponents and unit cohesion all of which require combatants to engage their enemy in a manner different than that found in the arena.

          In modern vocabulary Martial Arts is a term used generically to describe all forms of pugilism regardless if they are of eastern or western heritage, sport or self-defense, armed or unarmed. Hence the performance and training objectives which once separated mortal combat from combative sport have become blurred and battlefield systems used by warriors like the Japanese Samurai and Greek Hoplite are now considered the same as those of the combat athlete.

          When defining the term Martial Arts, long time judoka and retired marine, Donn F. Draeger, wrote. “Genuine martial arts are always designed and practiced as weapons arts; any portion of training regimens devoted to “unarmed” combat is always, at the very best, secondary in nature and based, paradoxically enough, upon the use of weapons.  Moreover, martial arts are primarily designed to operate on natural terrain and under any climatic conditions. Martial arts are also carefully designed with the concept that combatants will normally wear armor, howsoever sparingly the protective devices worn may be.  Another feature unique to martial arts is that they are composed of a wide range of weapons skills and do not permit specialization in a single weapon.” 

          Before the invention of firearms, warfare was fought hand-to-hand and with a variety of weapons ranging from the bow and arrow to the crossbow, halberd, sword, spear and axe. The ancient professional of arms- Greek Hoplite, Roman Legionary, Medieval Knight or Japanese Samurai- relied on their weapons first and engaged in empty-handed fighting only as a last resort. Likewise, in societies where ownership of weapons was commonplace, more emphasis was placed on the use of weapons for self-defense than empty-handed fighting. Despite this strong emphasis, combative sports such as boxing and wrestling were no strangers to the early professional of arms nor was it uncommon to find both styles of combat being practiced then, as it is today. Therefore a relationship does exist between the two types of combat, but its true nature is often ignored.

The Greek Hoplite

A superb example of the martial arts/ combative sports relationship, are the fighting arts of ancient Greece. On the battlefield the Greek Hoplite wore a bronze helmet, cuirass and greaves and carried a shield which in some instances weighed 20 lbs, if not more. He also welded a long spear as his primary weapon and carried a short sword for use in close quarters combat.  All told the Hoplites’ arms and armor weighed as much as 70 pounds.

          Hoplite warfare made extensive use of the Phalanx formation, which was a unit of men arranged in ranks eight abreast and twelve deep, who marched into combat shoulder to shoulder. Group cohesion was essential for it was only by staying together in a close-knit formation that the Hoplites could use their shields to protect one-another and employ their spears in a massed wall. Charles Boutell wrote about the Hoplite spear wall that, “In the time of Polybius the length of the pike was twenty-one or twenty-four feet: so that in the phalanx formation the pikes of the front rank projected at least sixteen feet in advance of the line; while those of the second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth ranks severally projected about thirteen, ten, seven, four and two feet: and so the head of each file presented to the enemy the points of six leveled pikes, each one of them about three feet in advance of the next series.” Therefore one did not just simply reach out and grapple with the enemy during battle, for to do so would have meant certain death.

          During the course of battle, any Hoplite who fell and didn’t immediately regain their feet would have been trampled to death, or else killed by a spear or sword thrust as the battle raged over them. And while Plutarch felt that some wrestling skills did transfer to the battlefield- especially in the first ranks where grabbing, tripping and unbalancing were commonplace- grappling in armor can prove to be a very cumbersome, if not impossible, due to the weight involved and limitations imposed on the fighter’s range of motion. Hence the reason why ground grappling techniques used in the arena would have reduced effectiveness on the battlefield.

          To stay a foot was to stay alive and when the Hoplite grappled during combat it was for two basic reasons: to position the enemy so that the Hoplite could strike a vital area, or the Hoplite had lost his own weapon and was wrestling away the enemy’s. Therefore retaining group cohesion and keeping one’s weapon were considered primary survival skills during battle, while grappling was viewed as an auxiliary form of combat. Nevertheless, off the battlefield wrestling was considered a form of recreation and a means for enhancing the Hoplite’s war fighting skills.

Combative Sports

          Boxing, wrestling and pankration were popular combative sports in ancient Greece, but the one most favored was wrestling because of space and safety concerns. Wrestlers didn’t need a large area to practice in, nor did they have to worry about life threatening injuries as was the case in boxing and pankration. H.A. Harris observed about the Greeks love of wrestling that, “Palaestras or wrestling schools abounded in Greek cities from the sixth century B.C. to the end of the Roman imperial epoch.  By a curious convention which we learn from Plutarch, these were used only for wrestling and the pankration, not for boxing, training for which was done in the gymnasium. A young Greek joined one of the palaestras in his city, as today he would join a club, and spent much of his spare time there; his friends knew where to find him.  Plato in the Symposium gives us a charming picture of the middle-aged Socrates and the young Alcibiades at one of these palaestras often engaging in wrestling bouts with one another as naturally as today they would have a round of golf or play a set of tennis together.”

          Of the three combative sports, wrestling and pankration both used grappling and many fighters thought the most effective way to defeat an opponent was by subduing them on the ground. Therefore wrestlers penned their opponents while pankratists used a combination of holds and strikes to achieve victory.

          Physical strength and martial prowess are gained through combative sports training and were traits Greek society valued greatly. In fact it can be stated that one of the cornerstones upon which the Hoplites’ martial skills rested was combative sports. As Erich Segal wrote, “We find further evidence of the gravity with which the Greeks regarded their “games” in the etymology of our words “athlete” and “athletics.” They stem from the Greek athlos, which could mean a contest taking place in a stadium or on a battlefield.”

          Competitions were often brutal affairs in which limbs were broken, teeth were knocked out and lives were lost. Pankration had two standing rules; no biting and no gouging the eyes and even these were ignored. However, despite the brutality involved, the Greeks made a distinction between martial arts and combative sports and their respective forms of grappling. For as Michael Polikoff wrote about the Theban general Epaminondas, “he told his troops to winter in camp, not the city, in order to make a strong impression on the enemy when seen exercising with weaponry and wrestling. Yet for all his use of wrestling training (nowhere do we hear of competition), he admonished his city in order to enjoy peace for a long time, the citizens had to practice in the war camps, not in the palaestra.” Therefore rules and techniques common to the arena would have been modified, or else completely shunned during battle.

Modern Demands

           Although Hoplite warfare has been obsolete for many centuries, the division between combative sports and martial arts still exists today where mortal combat is concerned. Unlike his Hoplite counterpart, the modern infantry man’s primary weapon is an assault rifle and this alone places combat outside hands reach, even at close quarters. Body armor is also worn, by both soldiers and law enforcement officers, in addition to a variety of equipment which can hinder movement, especially while fighting on the ground.

          When grappling does occur on today’s battlefield, or within the realm of a law enforcement officer’s duties, the objectives remain the same. End the conflict quickly, stay afoot and maintain control of one’s weapon, just as the ancient hoplite did. James Altieri, a member of the 1st Ranger Battalion during World War II, gave a first hand account of battlefield grappling when he wrote. “Before I knew it I found myself in a deep slit trench, wedged in face to face with an Italian soldier. He was just as surprised as I was. He just stood there for a long moment transfixed. My rifle was still in my hand but the trench was too narrow for me to bring it to my hip and fire. In that flashinglong second of indecision I nearly panicked.  Then I remembered my Commando knife snugly sheafed around my right leg.  Almost mechanically I released my grip on my rifle, reached down, gripped the handle of the knife, then with a lightning thrust, brought it up with all my strength into his stomach. “Mamma mia” he cried. “Momma mia.” I felt hot blood spurt all over my right arm as I pulled the knife out, then rammed it home again and again.” Mr. Alteris reaction was not aesthetic or complicated, but of a simple and deadly nature.

Combat and Combative sports

          Firearms, small unit tactics, artillery fire, tasers and riot control formations usually prove more effective for killing or controlling an opponent than does empty-handed fighting. However, despite their auxiliary role, combative sports such as Judo and Brazilian Jujitsu are used to facilitate hand-to-hand combat training within the military and law enforcement communities. In most instances though, modifications are required so that the professional of arms can accomplish their mission without engaging in a prolonged ground-grappling match. For while the combat athlete intentionally wants to ground grapple, the LEO only desires for their opponent to be on the ground. This is because prolonged ground grappling hampers mobility, increases one’s chances of being overcome by multiple opponents, and reduces the use of firearms.

Similarly, where the military is concerned, the built in safety features found in most combative sports, such as where one can and cannot strike, constant gripping of the judo gi, no weapons, biting or gouging, are replaced by much harsher techniques, or as Major Dan Fairbairn stated. “This is war, not sport. Your aim is to kill your opponent as soon as possible. A prisoner is generally a handicap and a source of danger, particularly if you are without weapons. So forget the term ‘foul methods’… ‘Foul methods’ so-called, help you to kill quickly.  Attack your opponent’s weakest points, therefore. He will attack yours if he gets the chance.”

          Fairbairn’s attitude is neither displayed, nor allowed, in the sporting arena today, but it is the premeditated intention to kill one’s opponent that separates mortal combat from combative sport.

          To a large degree the difference between martial arts/mortal combat and combative sports/competition is a theoretical problem or else ignored completely within the fighting arts community, as are the grappling strategies associated with each type of combat. However for the professional of arms, or even the civil practitioner engaged in realistic self-defense training, all grappling is not the same. Nor, are all fighting arts intended for the same purpose.


Michael Rosenbaum has been training in karate since 1976. He is a former paratrooper and the author of: Kata and The Transmission of Knowledge in Traditional Martial Arts.



Suggested Reading:

The Spearheadersby James Altieri

Classical Bujutsuby Donn F. Draeger

Hoplos Vol.3, No.1 Feb 1981by Donn F. Draeger

Judo Formal Techniquesby Donn F. Draeger and Tadao Otaki

The Western Way of Warby Victor Davis Hanson

Greek Athletes and Athleticsby H.A. Harris

Combat Sports in the Ancient Worldby Michael B. Poliakoff

Arms & Armor of the Greeks by A.M. Snodgrass

Camp Xby David Stafford