“All fights end up on the ground” is right, but for the wrong reasons.

We just completed our 53rd biannual testing cycle — yeah, we’ve been doing this a long time — where a bunch of people leveled up, including three new Instructor Candidates and several Instructors picking up degrees in the march toward Master. The day was a veritable soup-to-nuts display of humanity’s predatory birthright.

After six hours of teaching, testing and training I was exhausted… but lit from within by the afterglow of the pure, unfettered freedom of it — mat time is the only place we can shrug off civilization’s straightjacket, Houdini-like, and vanish from polite society, if only for a brief lung-filling, horizon-striding moment before returning, resigned to buckling ourselves back in so we’re fit to order a burger at the drive-thru.

And this time I kept enough man in the human to remember to take pictures and video.

That night I settled in front of the screen, drink in hand, to scrub through the day’s good work, to find those moments in the vacation slideshow worth sharing, the ones that might let you feel the thing, a call from twilit woods you just might answer…

But instead of the drama of the hunt there was just the curl of bodies, a recursive infolding, each turn a crumpling of the human frame into a ball like the final page of an unfinished manuscript. Again and again they met and folded, half of them in the way it was built to go, the other half in the completely wrong direction. The video was a banal scrum of clumps of people oscillating open and closed in this fashion. To the initiated, there’s information in there — a finger in the eye, a fist in the groin, a wrist broken just so to chain up into the rest of the skeleton to put the throat at risk — but to everyone else it’s just the static hum of rolling bodies. Practice, it turns out, is not nearly as interesting as performance.

So I switched over to pictures. Surely the camera caught some kinetic moment, a frozen hurling, a brain inches from the deck after an accelerated fall, the face registering the power of what that might mean outside on concrete — but no. The pictures — all of them — showed half the class lying on the ground, the other half wound up over them, the cocked harbingers of busted ribs and cracked skulls.

And that’s it. Every. Single. One. Someone stomping, someone getting stomped.

What would have been more affecting? Combatants standing, brandishing tools, lighting up your brain with possibilities: “Who will prevail?” And your armchair quarterback pops the popcorn.

Real violence is boring — it’s not the back-and-forth drama of the fight, but the unidirectional gut-sick crunch of pedestrian-vs.-truck. There’s a moment as the parties vector for each other, lining it up, and then the brief flurry of action that makes us think fight and piques our interest, but as soon as something horrible happens we’re no longer titillated. The sane and socialized aren’t going to stick around while the loser gets set on fire, and even psychopaths are bored by inevitability.

Indeterminate, non-specific trauma and struggle — the fight — is a dominance display that speaks to deeper brain structures in the language of dance, whereas one animal destroying another says capital-N Nothing.

That’s why the four-year-old said of our training, “They knock people over.” The five-second sequence of any given turn looks like this: lance your skeleton through their soft tissue to pop it, foul their stagger to put them down, then the real work begins.

That’s what I’d do to me.

The needs of injury — catastrophic volume change in critical anatomy (you have to smash it faster, harder, farther than it can stretch) — are always at odds with dominance games. The body’s evolved penchant for yanking things away (organisms move away from negative stimuli) reduces pressure and gives ribs and spleen the best possible chance of mitigating the damage. (Eyeballs can only stand the massless feather-dusting of photons, after all.) Combined with the compromise of bipedalism — people who have their balance taken from them fall away, further reducing pressure — means that the calculation for the standing man is a full-throttle overrun of three feet, three inches. Inches for the amount ribs can flex before breaking, feet for the off-balance travel from the collision. This is why stuff socked at arm’s length sometimes breaks, sometimes doesn’t. But a spleen socked squarely 3’3” blows a gasket.

Ah, but on the ground…

The ground is where both of these incidentally protective mechanisms fail. The body is stuck flat, it can’t move appreciably when intersected at speed, and it’s done falling away, every piece of anatomy firmly fixed to the anvil of Earth. Now the falling hammer is all of you, accidentally, your entire mass jacked through the superior leverage of your leg, shod at the end in something sturdier than flesh. Your feet bear your weight effortlessly; now they will transmit it just as easily.

The goal of all violence is the offlining of the brain — whether by triggering hopelessness through attrition, or physically tripping the off-switch — and the easiest way to do that is with sudden, sharp acceleration, flooring the accelerator so hard the passenger slaps the seat, or angling the car into the bridge abutment so the passenger tries to flee through the windshield. And nothing romps an accelerator like a boot. When you lay him out, he lays his brain on the starting line. All you have to do is punch it to turn his consciousness into a rooster tail of smoke.

This is why bar fight fatalities spike when someone hits the ground — they strike their head at the end of the fall, and then they get the boots put to them, greatly enhancing the physics of the untrained drunk. All they have to do is accidentally line up the anatomy and their amateur efforts are magnified into professional results. “The ground is where you die” has to do with the fact that while most people can’t Bruce-Lee a standing man to the head, everyone can punt a brain laying on the ground.

And so in our attempts to make our practice jibe with reality it ends up looking like nothing more than a couple of thrown punches, a serendipitous trip-and-fall, and a gasp-inducing news clip of full-bodied stomping. It’s not sexy, it doesn’t look cool, and there are no bragging rights — everyone you meet has a frame that can knock you out — but isn’t that exactly how you’d want your attempted murder to go? I’ll take the boring, five-second physics and physiology workshop over the multi-minute fight to the death any day. Even if it won’t look good on social media.


— Chris Ranck-Buhr

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