Officers Facing a suspect schooled in MMA/Karate By Matthew Domyancic
By Bob Hubbard - 07-17-2009 12:23 AM

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Officers Facing a suspect schooled in MMA/Karate

By Matthew Domyancic

When you’re out on the streets, your personal safety (and that of your fellow officer) is always in mind. Will you be ready for the sudden attack? How will you defend yourself? For the law enforcement community, even as the popularity of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) skyrockets, it is yet another safety concern, creating more emotional baggage for recruits or incumbent officers. But is it valid? In this article we will look at some thoughts about facing a subject schooled in MMA, as well as the benefits the popularity of MMA offers to officers will ing to step up to the challenge.

Is a Mixed Martial Arts-trained subject more dangerous than any other bad guy?

In my experience, some of the worst street fights I’ve been in have been with skinny, crack-addicted hookers! But should we be concerned that legions of professionally-trained criminals are headed our way? The answer might surprise you. A “street fighter,” or anyone with the commitment to resist arrest or attack an officer in any context, should be treated as dangerous. Preparation time is most wisely spent on the probability of the types of resistance or attacks that could happen on the street. Limited training time should not be consumed with the infinite possibility of what the mind’s eye can create, whether it’s a finishing move from a UFC fight, or a complex Ninja move from a Bruce Lee film.

"Everything is possible, but not everything is probable. When you're training, train for what is 'probably' going to happen."
— Tony Blauer

Regardless of training background, most suspects who fight police officers — those I’ve experienced firsthand or viewed on dashboard cameras — go primal with haymaker punches, shoves, tackles, kicks, grabs, or caveman-type movements. The majority of officers I’ve worked with have plenty of other important tools to sharpen before creating an additional emotional hurdle concerning an encounter with a trained sport fighter.

It’s like stressing out over a game plan to move the ball against the defense of the S uper Bowl-winning Steelers, without mastering running, blocking, and tackling first. One needs to grasp — with a decent degree of proficiency — the fundamental skills of a sport with, and then progressively implement those skills while learning and understanding the tactics of offensive and defensive schemes. Once skills can be fluidly performed within the execution of the “X’s and O’s” of the game, players eventually don full pads and work toward executing plays at full speed.

The next step in the equation would be some scrimmages with local teams before making final game plans for the season opener. In law enforcement, I think we often fantasize about worst case scenarios, without becoming proficient at the basic fundamentals and understanding the “X’s and O’s” well enough. We may show officers a little game film, let them feel the helmet and shoulder pads, and maybe even try them on. Yet how often do we practice our runn ing, blocking, tacking, and offensive and defensive schemes in full pads scrimmages before sending officers to their potential “game day” on patrol?

"Good cops look for dangerous people in dangerous places, and therefore, are 'always' in danger."
— Tony Blauer

We cannot skip high school football camp and expect to go straight to the Super Bowl with any success, other than pure luck or divine intervention.

We may be getting ahead of ourselves here if we are imagining locking up gladiators straight from the “Octagon.” I believe our community still needs to focus on improving our foundational platform: warrior mindset, knowledge of the body and mind’s reaction to violent encounters, gross motor skills, executing skills related to the various tools on our belts (firearm, impact weapon, TASER, OC, handcuffs), physical fitness, and nutrition.

So, the question is: as an individual officer or an agency, have you mastered dealing with an aggressive primal attack of a haymaker punch, tackle, shove, grab, etc?

When was the last time you did non-scripted scenario training with some real physical contact and aggressiveness? If the answers are not convincing, start your training with this in mind, before you worry about a counter to a Kung Lee scissor kick takedown.

Police officers gain advantages from the popularity of MMA

Certainly, there may be more predictability in a trained MMA fighter to tip off an officer for a hands-on encounter. Officers can study MMA on TV or by going to classes, with the intent of practicing awareness of pre-contact cues and telegraphing. A trained fighter might end up giving away his or her training, taking a stance, making little gestures one could pick up, and essentially forewarning the officer. In this case, it might be time to call for backup and review tactics and use of force options in their head (Taser, OC, stick, even firearm) if it is someone an officer can articulate within a specific scenario would be appropriate.

What if a subject gave signals of being a trained fighter, was double the size of the officer, was perceivably in much better physical conditioning, and the closest back up was an hour away, at best? Worse yet, what if he goes for a gun grab…what would you do? What’s the scenario?

Look for clues

Within the same frame of mind, officers should stay conscious that someone was trained in MMA if they can pick up on pre-contact cues from body language, clothes, or personal knowledge gained from working that patrol area. To own and acknowledge that awareness is important.

Recognizing that a subject may have some degree of above-average physical conditioning might mean they are more of a pain if they want to play games while cuffs are being put on or if they start a grappling match. Do not let yourself get suckered into wanting to “grapple” or respond with a sport frame of mind or technical MMA moves. Yes, they may very well be dangerous, and be respectful of that, but be thankful i f they are advertising it or you detect it ahead of time. Good training will prepare you for this scenario.

It may induce more fear when you’re encountering a Tank Abbot on a domestic, or bar call where you had to take the subject into custody, than a Gracie. Not because of size or strength, but because of sheer attitude, unpredictability and aggressiveness. Tank was someone who liked to charge, taking ground, bringing the fight to the opponent. He may not have used a lot of moves or fine techniques, but they came fast and hard, beer gut and all. In the early days of the UFC, Tank was very popular due to that style and, if they were really street fights, he might have won more of them.

Continue with this example and imagine arriving on a call and recognizing a Gracie in a gi taking a grappling stance while you still have a good distance to prepare yourself.

I would much rather show up on a call with a red flag indicating there are subjects with some training, than have no awareness of a potential ambush from an experienced brawler.

Aside from learning awareness of pre-contact cues and telegraphed attacks, the popularity of MMA offers other benefits to police officers. If an officer is taking classes to study sport fighting, they also are sharpening their skills by more effectively getting in shape with MMA (versus going for a long jog, lollygagging it on a treadmill, or prancing on an elliptical at low intensity for an extended period of time). An officer can be physically and mentally inoculating themselves to the energy systems and exertion that in a real fight they may experience.

Getting used to physical contact and being in proximity to strangers is another area I see a training ne ed for with younger officers. Many new officers have little exposure to contact sports, and mentally getting used to some body-on-body contact with a live person would best be done in a training environment for the first few times. As well, getting physically comfortable and gaining awareness of our own bodies (and others) is beneficial in a more dynamic activity than most basic recruit training experiences.

Lastly, another major benefit to MMA training is that officers can explore various gross motor skills so that they may find a fit in their toolbox, allowing them to hone those skills for worst case scenarios. Be careful to continually stay aware of the difference between sport and street, and what one might be able to realistically pull off in full duty gear under stress. In other words: Don’t go men tally or physically grabbing for a screwdriver when you really need a hammer!

"You opponent is already dangerous, but don't imbue skills your opponent hasn't yet proven."
— Tony Blauer

Don’t underestimate someone’s past experience

A person who was a high school or college wrestler, football player, or hockey player is just as dangerous — maybe more so — than your run-of-the-mill, McDojo franchise school karate student.

MMA is a popular workout these days and that’s great, but it doesn’t mean these schools are churning out bad ass street fighters, or people who are sparring on a regular basis and used to violence and contact.

However, I’ve been around athletes who are used to contact and even when it’s not appropriate, welcome violence and physical confrontations. Same goes for a guy who started his life beating up other kids on the bus for milk money, or those who had to fight to survive in a tough neighborhood. Officers cannot get into a habit of stereotyping any potential subject they may face, nor can they have a perceived hierarchy that MMA trained individuals are their worst nightmare.

Don’t be scared

First off, it might be a good idea not to scare officers into some worst case scenario that the world is so much more dangerous because of MMA’s growing popularity. It’s not that officers must take a completely differ ent or new approach to mental and physical preparation. In essence, let’s not create more emotional baggage or negative mental blueprints of getting our asses kicked all over the place. There are more people in North America who defend themselves everyday with no formal training than those who may have formal training. In a similar sense, a street fight is a street fight not a sport fight, and anyone can be incredibly dangerous.

Use your training

An officer has to know their use of force policy, be familiar with their tools mentally, verbally, physically and tactically, as well as be proficient under stress with their equipment/gear. This means being honest with yourself about your capability and preparation. Instead of thinking we need an entirely new toolbox for an MMA-trained suspect, the law enforcement community needs to get back to the basics of being able to detect certain cues from subjects, attempting to defuse/gain cooperation, and being mentally prepared for the instances when we go “hands on.”

Also important is going through mental options that are tactically sound when facing anyone identified as a potentially serious threat. This requires being smart about back up, not trying to be a hero and getting into a sport fight with a bad guy, being familiar with deploying tools on the tool belt, and more. Mental preparation would include learning about the startle/flinch response and knowing how to convert it into something useful as the proper bridge to some gross motor skills, of which each individual officer may have an affection for or proficiency in their particular favorites.

Just like in football, one must start with the basics of learning how to run, block, and tackle. There are some fundamentals we may frequently gloss over as a profession.

For starters, we should take time to understand the mental and physiological aspects of fear and violence. We should become familiar with the conversion of our protective instincts into something practical for the street and practice gross motor skills that can be exercised under extreme stress in full duty gear. This is how we can more effectively prepare to engage in realistic scenario training that prepares us for the MMA-trained subject.

Practical practice makes perfect sense

Training in MMA for officers is potentially an enjoyable way to cover multifaceted training needs: physical conditioning, the study of pre-contact cues and telegraphed moves, intelligent selection and the honing of gross motor skill s, overcoming mental awkwardness being in close proximity or body contact with strangers, and physical awareness and control when locking horns with another human.

The key aspect of transferring the benefits gained from the popularity of MMA and/or participating in it is in understanding the fundamentals mentioned above. If we understand our natural response to violence — both mentally and physically — and can convert that into something useful, a whole new world could be opened up for the law enforcement community in training to win violent encounters.

The overarching point is that training and studying MMA allows officers to more easily detect it on the street, get a good workout in, polish up some gross motor skills to put into the toolbox, and become more comfortable with physical contact and aggression. Many officers coming into the profession over the past few years have never been in the military or played contact sports. Many more have even shown anxiety touching anything other than their iPhone or a joystick.

I suggest that officers use the popularity of MMA to improve LEO training, not overwhelm them mentally. Understanding stress and its effects on the body would be a better use of time than hypothetical training moves for every submission or strike in the Octagon. Even trained fighters resort to primal attacks, as demonstrated in reviews of dashboard cameras and other videos.

So, is there really that much more to concern officers with if they don’t know the basics of the effects of stress and adrenaline on their body and minds? Or if they do not engage periodically in scenario and stress inoculation training, while harnessing their instinctive survival mechanisms? If you or your agency is not covering these bases in training r egularly, then you are rolling the dice and might get a run for your money trying to lock up Waldo, let alone worrying about an MMA student.

Suggested resources
• On Combat, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman
• Combat Psychology, Dr. Paul Whitesell, LETN video


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