Two ducks fighting on the ground.

Is BJJ the best self defense? 5 dangers of fighting on the ground

80% of fights end up on the ground. That saying became popular with the advent of the UFC and introduction of Gracie Jiujitsu to the United States. If 4 out of 5 fights end up on the ground, training BJJ only makes sense. But is BJJ the best self defense?

While I’m certain that 80% number is nowhere close to scientific, it is true many fights end up on the ground. Some on purpose, some by accident. But does that mean going to the ground on purpose is the smart thing to do?

Before you answer that question in your head, keep this in mind. It’s easy to look at sports like UFC and see the success fighters have with ground fighting. And indeed, it is an essential survival skill to have. But…

A sport ring and street are vastly different, as is a sport fight versus self defense. The ground is a dangerous place to find yourself when violence begins. Here’s a look at five dangers of being on the ground.

Size disadvantages are more pronounced on the ground

Have you ever heard a martial arts proponent say good leverage can overcome any size attacker? While that’s technically true, it isn’t realistically true. For leverage to work, you need a certain size lever and a certain amount of force to overcome a given weight. At some point, strength comes into play.

The problem presented on the ground is your lever length is finite. So is the strength (force) you have in the moment. For fairness, most combat sports have weight classes. But in a self defense scenario, the fight isn’t fair. If it was, the attacker would pick a target he thinks is a challenge. 

On the ground, an attacker can use his weight, pinning you to an immovable object (the Earth!). You’re not only fighting his size, you’re fighting against gravity. True, it’s not impossible to fight back against a bigger person on the ground– but anyone who says it isn’t harder isn’t being honest.


One of the ways a smaller person can defend against a bigger one is using mobility. Using angles to move around an attacker creates oddball striking angles, and removes you from the attacker’s corridor of power while keeping them in yours.

The ground removes this advantage. Yes, there are methods for moving on the ground, and you should learn them. But you’re still more trapped than if you were on your feet and moving. 

Image by Fabiano Silva from Pixabay 

This lack of mobility also creates a scenario where you expend more energy in a struggle. Ask anyone who trains on a regular basis and they’ll tell you, the quicker you fatigue, the quicker things get out of hand.

One thing many people forget about self defense is you don’t want a drawn out fight. Your goal is always get away as soon as possible. The longer you’re on the ground, the longer until you can get away. 

I once saw an “interesting” women’s self defense technique. While the woman and a would-be rapist were standing, the woman pulled the man down into her guard. That means the woman jumped off her feet, wrapped her legs around the man, and pulled him to the ground. She’s on her back, he’s between her legs. 

Yes, you can fight from this position. But in a rape scenario… well…


Self defense is not a fair fight. Using weapons to intimidate a potential victim is by no means an unusual ploy used by criminals. Weapons like knives are hard enough to deal with when you see them coming at you from a distance. Things get even more dicey when that distance becomes a couple of feet. Add to that the immobility discussed above, and you get the picture.

Did you know there are knives made specifically for use against ground fighters? These small knives, often called push daggers, are typically worn around the neck. They can be pulled and turned into the other person’s body, even when two bodies are close together.

Would your attacker have something like that? Maybe. Maybe not. The point is, any weapon- a gun, knife, or even a collapsible baton or sap- can be deployed quickly from close range. And stuck on the ground is about as close range as you get.

Ground as a weapon 

Besides weapons an attacker may carry, the ground itself essentially a large improvised weapon. You can use it to your advantage, but so can the other person. 

Wooden dummy hit with rock while on the ground.
Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay 

We often discuss two types of force- kinetic and traumatic. Kinetic force is when you hit a target, the target moves, and some of that force is dissipated through the movement. Traumatic force, on the other hand, is when you brace a target against an immovable backdrop and hit it. All the force is transferred into the target.

The ground is an immovable backdrop. If your head is on the ground and someone stomps it or hits it, you suffer a whole lot of damage. But what if your head isn’t lying on the ground even though you’re trapped there?

Lie on your back on the ground. Lift your head. You get what, maybe 4 inches of clearance? The head can easily move that much distance when hit. Getting hit in the head now bounces it off the pavement. Two hits for the price of one, in favor of your attacker.

The ground presents itself as weapons in other ways as well. Broken glass, curbs, stairs. I spent several years training alongside a former undercover police officer. While making a drug arrest, he tackled a suspect to the ground. As the struggle progressed, they rolled into a shallow puddle in the yard. 

As the officer rolled onto his back, he was stabbed by a pipe sticking up out of the ground but hidden by the water, barely missing his kidney.

Other attackers

In the sport fighting ring, it’s one person facing off against another. On the street, it’s you versus…? Maybe one, maybe three. Perhaps it’s a group of 6 or 7. So while you’re on your back hitting that fabulous arm bar, the other three guys will wait their turn.

Or not.

More likely they’ll stomp and kick your head. Remember that idea of kinetic versus traumatic force? Apply that here times 10. 

Even if you believe you’re in a one-on-one confrontation, betting on it is dangerous. I’ve seen many instances where two people were fighting on the ground, and a third party ran out of the group of people watching and took a cheap shot, kicking or hitting one of the fighters in the head. 


Do 80% of fights end up on the ground? Who knows. Many do, many others don’t. 

Regardless, marketers are great at selling ground fighting such as Gracie Jiujitsu as the best self defense. Can you use it for self defense? Sure. It can also put you in danger.

Don’t get me wrong. Ground fighting is an important self defense skill set. I had the good fortune of training under Relson Gracie while stationed in Hawaii during my stint in the Army. I know its effectiveness, but also know it has limitations.

Self defense encompasses much more than physical fighting skills. There are 6 steps before you get to the physical fight. And once you do, be honest with yourself about the pros and cons of any skillset you train.

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*Featured image by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

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