Do Most Fights Go to the Ground?

I constantly read that “Most Fights Go to the Ground“, but is it true? Here is a study done on that question. No it is not perfect and there are a lot of factors to consider when looking at real fights. I offer this and you can draw your own conclusions. I came up with mine, hint, I train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu…

By Bakari Akil II, Ph.D.

People who have been following MMA, submission grappling and martial arts since 1994 have been aware of the increasing emphasis placed on ground fighting. Yes, a lot of the push is because ground-fighting experts are trying to convince people to become involved in their martial art or trying to attract more students to their studios. However, there is an extreme seriousness to their claims as well. People can get injured, maimed or killed if they aren’t able to defend themselves.
As a serious MMA or submission grappling fan you’ve probably either heard or read the following claims:

Ninety to Ninety-five percent of fights go to the ground; or most fights go to the ground

These claims have become a part of the lexicon of grappling gurus and their participating disciples, including me.  However, is it true?

As a person who has been involved in some aspect of martial arts since I was nine years old, I have been apart of the tradition of accepting claims, verbatim, from martial arts professionals. Most of the advice has been wise, while other times it has landed me in situations I don’t want to talk about. So when I heard this claim coming from so many Jiu-jitsu and submission grappling experts in the mid 1990s I accepted it at face value.

However, as an academic, this statement over the last few years has begun to bother me. I began to wonder on what basis this claim can be made. Are there any studies that have been conducted to verify these assertions? Finally, I reached a standstill in my thoughts on the subject. I needed to know what was fueling the mantra that 90 to 95 percent of fights go to the ground. Is it an urban myth or is it for real?

So over a period of three months I designed an implemented an exploratory study with the expressed interest of trying to see if there was any validity in the claim that 90 to 95 percent of fights go to the ground or that most fights go to the ground.  Over 300 street fights were analyzed during this study. The results were clarifying as well as totally unexpected.

For the purposes of my study, I needed actual fights between average citizens. However, it is nearly impossible to find access to enough physical fights between two people to analyze in person, especially in a timely and safe manner. Therefore an alternative method had to be chosen in order to study this question. This problem was resolved by using the readily available data uploaded and archived on the popular video sharing site, YouTube. The video sharing website provided the researcher with an abundant amount of data to analyze the question regarding how often fights end up on the ground and by what methods do fighters end up on the ground. For the purposes of this study, a content analysis was conducted where 300 fights were dissected over a two month period in order to address the question of whether 90 or 95 percent of fights go to the ground.

For a more detailed description of the abstract, literature review, hypothesis, methodology, findings and conclusions, contact bakil@mgc.edu.

Below are the research questions and the findings from the study:

Research Question

RQ1: What percentage of fights end with both fighters having gone to the ground at some point during the physical confrontation?

RQ2: What percentage of fights end with only one fighter having gone to the ground at some point during the physical confrontation?

RQ3: By what methods do fighters end up fighting off the ground? (i.e., punch, kick, takedown, push)


Although the findings cannot be generalized to the entire population; in this study both fighters ended up on the ground in 42% of the fights analyzed. This percentage increased substantially (72%) when analyzed for at least one fighter going to the ground.

So what do these numbers indicate for research questions one (RQ1) and two (RQ2)? It means that the people who have been making these claims are not far off the mark. They just have to be more specific.  In other words, there is more than a good chance that if two people fight, one of them is going to end up on the ground (72% in this study). The chance that both will end up there is much less (42% in this study), but it is still substantial enough that one should focus on ground defense.

The third research question that needed to be answered is how do those fighters end up on the ground? The answer to that query is that in our study, 57% of the fighters who ended up on the ground were taken down by a throw, a trip or being pulled to the ground. Being pushed only accounted for 7% of fighters who ended up on the ground.  So learning how to grapple and more specifically; how to apply and stop takedowns is vital to fighting.

The other most common way that fighters ended up on the ground was by being punched.  This accounted for 35% of the total incidents where a fighter was sent to the ground. One other important point is for martial artists or others who might rely on kicking techniques.  Out of 300 analyzed fights and 600 fighters, only one person fell to the ground because of a kick.  However, that kick did result in a knockout of the person on the receiving end.

What happens when fighters hit the ground?

One very interesting finding from this study involved what happens to fighters once they do fall to the ground. At the following rates, the first person to hit the ground faced the following outcome. They either lost the fight (59%) or there was no discernible victor (33%), essentially a draw. Those who hit the ground second or remained standing faced different outcomes. They either won the fight (59%), nearly sixty percent, or no discernible victor could be declared (33%). This finding recurred repeatedly even if only one person went to the ground or if both people went to the ground. It even applied to situations where both fighters ended up on the ground and the person who initiated the takedown or pushed or punched someone in that direction landed on the ground first. In this study, fighters who hit the ground first were the clear victors in less than 5% of fights observed.

This indicates that in a street fight it is a major no-no to hit the ground first in any way. The findings were so one sided in this category it is highly likely that this is a major factor in determining who wins fights. Future studies should replicate these results.

Women should also be very careful to make sure that there hair is pinned up in an altercation as many takedowns involving women were due to their opponents (women) grabbing their hair (19%) and using it as a tool to control their head movement. In this study it was almost a guaranteed takedown if only one woman had control of the other woman’s hair. The other option was being pummeled. In one fight, a man’s ‘dred-locked’ hair was also used to throw him to the ground. I think further research would demonstrate that hair grabbing is not a habit related to gender, but availability.

Another finding that could support the argument that people should learn ground defense is that the first fighter to hit the ground usually lost the scramble for positional dominance. They were either quickly mounted, side mounted or had blows reigned down on them from many angles. Although the majority of the positional dominance observed would be considered crude from a trained martial artist’s perspective, it did demonstrate why ground training is necessary. Most of the combatants were at a loss of what to do when they were being controlled and subsequently pummeled.

Who’s Fighting Who?

In reference to the characteristics of the fighters in this study, demographic questions such as age, ethnicity or race could not be asked. However, records were kept using this researcher’s best judgment. Of the 600 combatants who fought, their opponents usually looked like them in a number of categories. Men fought men. Women fought women. Ethnicities or races appeared to be similar as in whites fighting whites, blacks vs. blacks, etc. Combatants also appeared to be the same age. Old men fought old men, teenagers fought what appeared to be teenagers and adults fought adults. This study suggests that a person involved in a street fight is most likely going to fight someone just like them.

Tips for: Avoiding Conflict or Inevitable Confrontations

Other interesting things to point out are that although some fights appeared to be spontaneous, most of them had an incubation period where many decisions led up to the ultimate physical confrontation. From studying these fights it is this researcher’s opinion that many of them could have been avoided. However, in cases where a fight is unavoidable, the following advice would be offered:

  • Never allow anyone to invade your zone of safety (a distance where they can quickly ‘sucker punch,’ push, pull or grab you without you being able to react).
  • Do not walk up to anyone ‘talking trash’ or allow them to ‘talk trash’ to you. Either way someone will most likely be hit mid-sentence.
  • Either fight or exit the scene. Make the decision quickly. Do not argue and do not posture up face to face, chest to chest or shoulder to shoulder. (Watch out for head butts!)
  • Do not try to fight more than one person, especially if you are alone.
  • Do not allow yourself to get mounted. (Where your opponent is sitting on your chest with both of their legs straddling your ribcage.) This was the absolute worst position for the fighters in this study; and most important.
  • Do not be the first person to hit the ground!

So, there you have it; an exploratory study to try to find out if 90 to 95 percent of fights end up on the ground.  The results offered in this study indicate that 90 to 95 percent is too high of a percentage rate.  It is probably closer to 42% where both fighters hit the ground and 72% where at least one fighter ends up on the ground.  In the final analysis, an overwhelming majority of fights did end where at least one fighter ended up on the ground at some point. As this was an exploratory study, more are definitely needed to explore this topic and other grappling or MMA related issues.

However, what was probably the most important finding in this study is that if you are untrained and are the first person to end up on the ground in a fight there is a good chance that you will lose and the best you can hope for is that no victor can be declared.

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