A brilliant, well-written piece on street defense tactics by Trevor Wilcox, Founder of iCombatives.
THE ICE GAME PLAN FOR STREET DEFENSE:
INTERCEPT > CONTROL > END
By Trevor Wilcox
"Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat" (Sun Tzu)
There are three key ingredients that are required to ensure your best odds in a survival street defense situation:
- Attribute development
For self-defense, your strategy is your map, your arsenal your vehicle, and your attributes the engine. To give a shooting analogy, if you have no target, what are you going to shoot? You can fire randomly and aimlessly, hoping to hit something… or you can be the sniper and achieve your objective with surgical precision.
But just as a sniper will have to adapt his strategy to the circumstances he finds himself in, accounting for moving targets, wind strength & angle, range, gravity, humidity, etc, you will also have to adapt your strategy, and continue adapting it until you achieve your objective. The range of variables that you will need to account for include (in no particular order and certainly not limited to these) the potential presence of a weapon, people who are with you, people who are with your opponent, bystanders and witnesses, terrain, environmental obstacles and hazards, lighting, your physical and mental condition, your opponent/s' physical and mental condition (e.g. are they intoxicated, high, a sociopath, etc?), use-of-force and tactical appropriateness. While you need to continue monitoring any of these variables that may arise, having a general game plan will help you to not go into any confrontation aimlessly. And while the list of variables above, though not exhaustive, may seem like a lot to consider in the split second in which you need to make a judgment call, the key to it is maintaining a general awareness and being responsive to your circumstances. Again a driving analogy is fitting; even when you know where you are going and how to get there, you must continue to be aware of what's happening and be responsive to changes in traffic conditions.
In terms of our physical response options in the context of self-defense, while many reality-based instructors will preach "no rules... anything goes...", we do in fact have rules to follow. As citizens, our "rules of engagement"(ROE), legally speaking, dictate that we must avoid a physical fight as best we can, and if we cannot, to neutralize the threat using no more force than is necessary. The force you use to defend yourself paralleling the danger you perceive yourself to be in is a pretty good rule of thumb. However, anyone thinking about their personal safety in these terms, "reality-based martial artists" (reality-based self-defense is a redundant term; how can any approach to self-defense training not be based in reality?), and instructors particularly, make sure you are familiar with your specific local / state laws. If your physical response to a perceived threat is deemed by the court to have been excessive force, then although you may have made great tactical choices allowing you to "win the fight", there were serious strategic flaws that have now landed you in hot water with the legal system. As cliché as it may have become, there truly is no room for ego in self-defense.
The Intercept Combatives system, or iCombatives for short, builds all these premises into a simple three phase game plan or strategy: INTERCEPT > CONTROL > END, with specific tactics for each phase. From the system’s name, it is clearly influenced by Jeet Kune Do Concepts, and indeed the template for this game plan was inspired by Sifu Paul Vunak’s RAT System. As you read on however, you will notice significant differences as to the philosophy, rationale and implementation of the respective game plans. Let’s examine each of these elements one by one and then I’ll follow that with a discussion on appropriate training methods that help develop the tactics which implement the strategy.
Phase 1: Intercept
There are several aspects to the Intercept stage, but while most people will only think of a physical response that cuts into the assailant's attack, in iCombatives it also encompasses all aspects of the pre-fight stage. Considering our ROE as law abiding citizens, our first priority and goal is not to engage in a physical fight at all. Reverting back to the driving analogy once again, most people will not look to have an accident on purpose. As you go about your business, maintain a general awareness, monitoring changes in your environment, your proximal relationship to other people and how they are interacting with you so that you can maneuver in such a way as to avoid an "accident". This might be as simple as physically leaving the location. It may also mean biting your tongue when you would rather lash out verbally in certain situations. And the flip side to that of course is reverting to verbal de-escalation tactics to try and quell a confrontation before it becomes physical. In situations where you have been successful with non-physical tactics, you will have actually gone through the whole game plan by Intercepting his emotional intent, Controlling the situation and Ending it peacefully.
The physical aspects of the Intercept phase are premised by the idea that everything I just described fail. In other words, you've been unable to avoid a confrontation and the potential assailant will not be placated. At this point you have two choices: you can wait for him to initiate an attack, or... you can initiate. Otherwise known as a pre-emptive strike or "sucker punch", in iCombatives it is still referred to as an Interception because while it may not have yet become physical, the fight is already on since he has refused to be placated and is continuing with aggressive behavior. We are therefore intercepting his emotional intent to initiate an attack. Even if you initiate, the fact that you have gone through the paces in trying to avoid and defuse the situation will have helped prepare any witnesses, and this is to your advantage should circumstances reach the legal level.
When you initiate a physical response, this is equivalent to what Jeet Kune Do instructors refer to as the timing of a counter-attack before the opponent attacks. While you will,of course, need to adapt to changing circumstances, initiating a physical response and maintaining pressure will allow you to dictate the flow and outcome of the fight. When the scenario is such that you do not have time to initiate, perhaps things escalate more quickly than you expect, there are two more opportunities for you to launch a counter. Jeet Kune Do parlance refers to these as the timing of a counter attack during (interception / simultaneous defense and attack) and after (block and counter) the attack. Outside of these timings, the only other thing that can happen is you get hit. While there is a clear order of priority here (before > during > after), you do not always get to choose and therefore you must train for all possibilities. What you do must be responsive to what your opponent does.
In iCombatives, while we recognize the need to prepare for the worst-case scenario, we train for our desired outcome first and foremost as this is what we wish to make repeatable, especially under stress. In that vein, we prioritize fundamental initiation and interception tactics, which incidentally are the same tactics. This limits the number of choices we need to make and therefore can help to decrease reaction time. Blocking and then countering in iCombatives falls under the realm of a “secondary support system” – the system that kicks in when our primary support system fails. This may include innate defense mechanisms and sport-trained tactics.
The two primary tactics utilized in the Interception/Initiation phase we call the Kali Cover and the Silat Dive to indicate and respect the source of inspiration. The Kali Cover is similar to a boxing cover, however, it is used with cutting footwork, making impact with the elbow into the opponent’s torso on the upwards motion. At the same time, the other hand extends slightly to pick up and momentarily trap the attacking limb. The ideal entry with the Kali Cover has you driving into the opponent’s attacking limb, with the elbowing arm driving up the center and simultaneously covering you from the opponent’s other hand as your other hand latches on to his tricep. In comparison, this is analogous to slipping outside a punch in boxing; it puts you in a place of relative safety when compared to slipping inside the punch. Executing the Kali Cover if you misread whether the attack is coming from the left or right is like slipping to the inside of a punch in boxing – you have to be wary of the other hand. In this case, a classic Kali/Panantukan entry is used whereby the elbow still seeks to make impact, but the other hand looks to muffle the non-punching hand.
The Silat Dive is almost identical to the Kali Cover in terms of footwork and the hand that meets the attacking limb (i.e. the non-striking hand). The main difference between the Kali Cover and the Silat Dive is the hand/arm that makes impact. Where the Kali Cover impacts with the elbow into the opponent’s torso, the Silat Dive sees the palm going straight into the opponent’s face. These two tactics coupled take advantage of the body’s two natural protective instincts, being compression (Kali Cover) and extension (Silat Dive). Variations of the Silat Dive include the striking hand slipping to either side of the head, such that the forearm is in the same “pocket” as the non-striking hand, or on the other side, setting up a neck clinch / control.
Sidebar: AZTEC Principles
From the pre-engagement phase of a fight through to the fight's conclusion, there are certain principles that permeate throughout the Game Plan that allow you to control the action that takes place, or at least influence it. These guiding principles allow you to improvise and therefore to be spontaneous in your counter-offense, as opposed to having a base of memorized techniques. However, just like a musician must master the basic notes, scales etc before being able to improvise, so too you must work your craft. There’s no such thing as improvising based on nothing.
Adhesion – a concept borrowed from Silat. Stick to your opponent one way or another. This establishes tactile sensitivity allowing you to read your opponent’s movement easier.
Zoning – a concept borrowed from Kali and goes hand in hand with Center Line Control. Don’t stand in front of your opponent where he has the same opportunity as you. Angle off and get behind your opponent if possible.
Target Acquisition – BEAM the Primary Targets. Take his Breath, Eyes, Attention, Mobility – and you “win”.
Energy Efficiency – multi-faceted concept including Economy of Motion, Non-Telegraphic Motion and avoiding strength vs strength tactics in grappling-type situations.
Center Line Control – a concept borrowed from Wing Chun and goes hand in hand with Zoning. There are two basic Center Lines in iCombatives: the “nose line” if you are facing straight ahead, and the spine (posture). Protect your Center Line, make sure your opponent is in front of your centerline and you’re not in front of his, control/attack your opponent’s nose line and his posture.
Phase 2: Control
After Intercepting the initial attack, we transition to the Control Phase. This precedes any physical retaliation, or counter attack if you will, as it is through Controlling the opponent that, firstly, we are better able to make the predator/prey switch. While we are ideally “switched on” enough through the Interception phase that we are poised, physically and psychologically, the reality is we may still have to make that transition. Your Interception may occur while your body is doing what it does naturally to protect itself, and in those moments, there is a good chance that you will not be in the most favorable position athletically speaking in order to finish the fight. However, despite knowing what your body might do in those moments, it makes little sense to practice “flinching”, or to practice moving from a flinch into a better position, as some systems might espouse, because while such natural reactions are reliable to a certain extent, they are not necessarily the most effective thing you can do in a fight. Furthermore it's not something you would want to make repeatable through practicing it. It is more important to accept that you may flinch, know in which position you want to be in, then your body will make the transition naturally through athletic movement. Think about it this way - boxers flinch all the time throughout a fight. It serves its purpose to protect them in an emergency situation, but that is not something they would want to do on purpose. Over-analyzing this flinching process and its application in combat is a futile exercise leading to analysis paralysis.
Brazilian Jiujitsu proponents made the expression “position before submission” into something of a catch-phrase for grappling / MMA. For the street, the same is true except that we do not seek a submission so much as we do retaliation. Without dominant position, the effectiveness of your counter-offense is compromised, whereas dominant position greatly enhances it.
In the iCombatives Game Plan, there are a few basic control tactics that give us this functionality. They include various forms of Neck Control as well as Arm Controls such as Drags, Shoves, Underhooks and Duck-Unders. These tactics are all common to various wrestling systems including Greco-Roman, Filipino Dumog and aspects of Muay Thai. Of course there are also certain disruption tactics that we use to set-up some of these positions or manipulations. Along with angular footwork before a clash, these tactics form a fundamental basis for zoning after the collision of the interception has occurred. Zoning, or flanking, puts us in a position that limits our opponent’s offensive capability and potential weapon access while greatly enhancing our own.
From a Kali Cover or Silat Dive Interception, the Hacksaw is a fundamental disruption tactic in the iCombatives system that sets up the arm controls that allow us to zone to the opponent’s back or to an escape route. The Hacksaw is typically employed when the position of the arms is in the “pocket” created between the opponent’s striking limb and neck. The Hacksaw motion is a repetitive push/pull motion, pulling the target area into a short forearm or elbow shot (the “push” element), which is then caught with the same arm pulling it into another short forearm/elbow shot. Off the Kali Cover, the Hacksaw might typically be employed to the pectoral/sternum area, or for greater effect again, to the neck.
The Pinball is an incidental tactic that works off a Neck Control position. You may have gone for a Silat Dive to the face and due to the movement of the opponent, your hand has slipped off to the opposite side of the head to the engaged arm. The Pinball is a quick ricochet type motion found in Kali, in which the basic sequence typically includes a slapping motion to the back of the head, followed by a Bicep Pop which sends the head backwards. The arm that does the Bicep Pop catches the head before the opponent stumbles out of reach, pulling it back into an elbow strike from the opposite arm.
The Hacksaw and the Pinball are also great set-ups for arm drags that provide a path to take the opponent’s back. Many readers will be familiar with the standard Greco-Roman Arm Drag, however, in this context, the Arm Drag combined with a Kali Arm Shove can help when you encounter resistance to the Arm Drag. In iCombatives, the basic sequence students first learn involves getting to an Arm Drag position after intercepting and disrupting the opponent, attempting the Arm Drag and immediately transitioning to the Arm Shove followed again by an Arm Drag variation.
In addition to the Hacksaw and the Pinball, a Cross-Face motion is a crucial element that helps set up many tactics, including the Arm Drags / Shoves. Forcing the opponent to not face the direction in which he is moving automatically takes away a lot of resistance. This can be done immediately from either Interception, and can be done in a standard pushing motion, or as a ballistic striking motion but sticking to the struck area (an example of adhesion principle) to maintain tactile sensitivity and an additional element of control. The Cross-Face is especially valuable when the opponent is hell-bent on tackling you to the ground. When the opponent's torso is in a horizontal position such as when attempting a tackle, the Hacksaw can be applied to the opponent's neck in conjunction with an Underhook and this works hand-in-hand with a variation of the Pinball whereby from the Underhook, you cross-face him, then claw his face back pulling him into a solid forearm shot to the neck / brachial region. The Cross-Face is of fundamental importance to the application of the Shredder (as developed by Senshido) which follows in the End phase.
Phase 3: End the Confrontation
Once we have achieved superior position and relative control of the opponent, we can look for ways to end the confrontation. The additional advantage of preceding the End Phase with the Control Phase is that as you gain control of the attacker, you gain psychological control of yourself. As this happens, you become more level-headed and can make a more accurate assessment as to the threat level posed by the opponent. This entire approach up to this point makes your actions much more legally defensible, and you can also later rest your conscience that you didn't take any action that wasn't called for. While adrenalin still may well be pumping, and your primary go-to tactics at this point should still be gross motor in nature, there is a point at which fine/complex motor skills become more accurate as from a position of greater dominance and control, you gain greater psychological poise and a sense of relative calm.
In iCombatives there are two sets of tactics that make up our gross motor skills: the first set represents what we consider our "heavy artillery", and is really just a kind of "modified Muay Thai". Primary tactics include palm strikes, elbows, forearms, knees and shins. The disruption tactics described in the previous section still apply and we also make use of the analogy of our forearms representing two sticks of equal length and apply Kali's Sinawali half-beat concepts to our striking arsenal. The Sinawali concepts manifest most clearly and frequently in elbow-forearm hack (forehand-backhand) applications.
As previously mentioned, the Cross-Face is a critical manipulation which really enhances the application of the Shredder. The Shredder, as developed by Richard Dimitri, is a great disruption concept in itself. And while the Shredder is a comprehensive close-quarter concept that can include your entire arsenal, it can't be denied that the primary thrust of the Shredder is the ripping/tearing/gouging aspects of it due to the Five Principles of Physical Retaliation that guide its application, specifically Primary Target Acquisition. While it can cause an immense amount of damage, as someone once said, the fight is only over once the opponent loses the will to resist. Think about that. This attritional factor means that most tactics, including the Shredder, will not necessarily force someone to quit resisting and fighting. However there are some tactics that remove this voluntary factor, firstly the Heavy Artillery. As used in iCombatives, the Shredder is a great set-up for the Heavy Artillery tactics (as well as the tactics described in the following paragraphs),which by virtue of potential knock-out can indeed force the opponent to quit resisting and fighting.
The primary takedowns in the iCombatives system are also a way to, at least temporarily, make your opponent stop fighting. They are applied from a Back Control type position and relies on breaking your opponent's structure or posture as opposed to more technical type takedowns. The idea with our takedowns is to control the opponent's spinal centerline by getting his head positioned behind his hips and feet. From this position, the opponent will tend to concentrate more on regaining his posture and not falling than fighting. Once in this position though, it is quick and easy to slam him down, or if necessary, kick out his legs and achieve the same. For the moment that his structure is broken and he is on the ground, he is less than dangerous than he was a moment ago. As you take him down and maintain control of him, he is in a much more vulnerable position and you in a much more dominant one.
The final tactic in the iCombatives arsenal for the End Phase of a fight is strangulation. When you choke the opponent unconscious, it doesn't matter at all what his pain tolerance is, what drugs he is on, his ability to withstand a blow or the punishment dished out by the Shredder.
Now that we have an overview of the iCombatives system including the rationale for its structure and the tactics that make it up, we have in essence laid down a framework for success. However, as stated in the beginning paragraphs, it is a general guideline or plan, and you must continue to be responsive to the ever-changing circumstances you find yourself in. As effective as the system is, every system has its limitations. However, rather than trying to fill in the holes created by "what-iffing", it's much more productive to work on the strengths of the system so that they way overshadow its weaknesses. Much more important than all the tactics described in this article is the application of the AZTEC principles. The tactics described are mere manifestations of the AZTEC principles in action and you may well apply them differently to the next person. And indeed what works for you may not work for somebody else and vice versa. The system and the principles are really just a mirror to help you find yourself, because in the end, there is no system - there is only you.
With that said, when it comes to how we train these tactics and strategy in order to develop the attributes required to make it happen, there are certain premises that should be kept in mind. Firstly, strive to replicate how events will actually play out. At the beginning level, this means you should not be practicing "dry land swimming" as Bruce Lee used to call it, or choreography, and while shadow boxing has its place in the training regimen, its not how you should train during partner drills, stopping inches before the target. No, actual fights happen hard and fast, and if you are to properly prepare for them, your rehearsal needs to be as close to the real thing as possible. There needs to be appropriate contact and follow through so that the energy in the training session is similar to that of a real fight. However, given that all training evolutions are but simulations, safety measures must be implemented. Injuring our training partners not only is a sign of disrespect and lack of control, but it does them an inservice as they are now not at peak fighting condition. While combat sportsman (eg MMA, Muay Thai fighters) have the luxury of training for fights that they know when will happen and build their preparation (including the rehabilitation of injuries) around that, the reality-based martial artist (RBMAs) is preparing to deal with potential violence daily. RBMAs must be in peak fighting condition 24/7. Training should be hard but should not diminish the fighter's combat readiness. There are several training methods employed in iCombatives for different purposes, but the most significant and productive stays true to the replication concept described earlier. In order to avoid injury, we employ training armor, such as that available through Spartan Training Gear, that allows participants to make contact with real energy and follow through while allowing them to move naturally. In so doing, we safely develop core combative attributes such as timing, speed, power, pain tolerance (the gear reduces the impact, not eliminates it) and proximity sense, to name a few. There is always a place for standard pad work (focus mitts / Thai pads etc), and in iCombatives we often combine the training armor with these devices for isolation drilling, as there is nothing quite like replicating interception collisions against another human being, as opposed to a pad.
In conclusion, the iCombatives system strives to marry strategy, tactics and attribute development as a cohesive whole. The whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts and the absence of any one of these elements disrupts the balance required for sniper-like success in street defense.