“Most Situations Will Go To Ground… The Mantra and the Reality,” by Nev Sagiba


“Strategic thinking embraces everything and leaves nothing out. No gaps. No holes in understanding and practice. Adaptation is the core of all survival.”

sagibaThe mantra of many neo-wrestlers is: “Most situations will go to ground…”

But is this the fact?

Over the years, I’ve witnessed quite a few situations, and as I recall, very few, in fact went to ground. Usually those that did were trivia between hotheads.

I recently read this statement again and I tried to recall a situation of, “things going to the ground.” Especially, the most deadly situations, nothing “went to ground. Sure, in the dojo, groundwork is a given. I grew up on the ground. Before it got given fancy other names, Judo included newaza or ground grappling as par for the course.

Not to bag out the proponents who prefer mostly groundwork, credit where it is due. BUDO DOES INDEED BEGIN FROM THE GROUND UP. Everything does. This is a given. Agreed.

But it does not stay there! It continues and just like tree, must grow.

If you don’t know your grappling, you have not begun training anything. Groundwork is foundational, the VERY BEST ki training and essential training. If you don’t know the ground, that’s where you will likely be finished.

Don’t underestimate the ground. Animals don’t. They fear going to ground and will use every means to get up again where possible. Animals who go to ground and stay there, usually die.

For the human type being, the possibilities are endless. And so are the assumptions.

Newaza possibilities are even more infinite than standing jujutsu. Groundwork is essential. A house without foundations cannot stand and the better the foundations, the better and more stable the walls, and the roof will then sit really well. Silly people who try to put roofs up without even walls, skate on thin ice.

A “real” situation is as varied as imagination itself. There can be a vast range of implements, hand held weapons, farming tools, held carpenter tools, kitchen utensils, knives, guns, swords, spears, broken bottles, axes, machetes, an array of blunt objects.

Ground not recommended.

You do not want to “go to ground” with dogs, other animals either, whether domesticated or untamed. And very seldom will you be attacked by one single person, or animal, who is unarmed, smaller, weaker, disadvantaged or in any way cooperative on a flat empty space with padded floors and good lighting, hydration, three course meals, pillows or an arbitrator.

The ocean also, contains another deadly array of opponents including the moods of the weather. Surviving in water is another story again. Assuredly, attacks happen, or fall into water as well. For example a fight that rolls off a boat. How could that “go to ground”? It won’t. You need wind, swimming and aquatic skills.

Have you ever taken your dojo to train in any body of water; such as a river, lake or ocean. Have you ever conducted keiko in both shallow and deep water? If not, why not?

How prepared are you really?

Back to earth, grappling is indeed one essential tool of the warrior. But it is only one. So also are weapons, striking and other essential skills.

But to suggest that ground fighting is the only way to fight is a bit of a lopsided view.

Assumptions are the most dangerous of all enemies and people carry these in themselves. Usually it is the assumptions that defeat you, long before any actual incident because assumptions limit your mental flexibility.

Fighting with tools that are out of context to the situation at hand is suicidal, no matter how zealous the attempt.

Unless of course you impose the context.

The ground should be avoided. Especially if near a cliff edge, if the opponent has knives, or friends, and especially if one is a sniper.

Notwithstanding, knowing what to do on the ground is paramount. Because sometimes you may fall over. But it is not a given that you should.

Train grappling to get up. Not to stay there. Familiarize with all the ground possibilities you can. They are worthy tools.

Now that I’m older, I fear the ground a little, but only from horseback. It must be global warming or something, but coming off a horse at speed, it seems the ground is getting harder with the passing of the years.

This grappling debate is not really a circular argument. Horses for courses. If you find yourself on the ground, you will need to know what to do. Otherwise you won’t do. Opinions won’t help you. Only skill. Skill has to be practiced and needs be multifaceted. But if there’s weapons or more than one opponent, I recommend, don’t go there in the first place. Or that you get up fast. Train for this.

Ki: the mind leads the body. If you are properly trained and you can mentally see a successful result in advance, there is a likely chance it will be achieved. If your mind believes that, “things will go to ground,” then they most likely will. In most real situations this will not be advantageous.

Practice for both ground and standing and modulating for the severity of the event. Evaluate. Notice the terrain and adjust your strategic variables.

Strategic thinking embraces everything and leaves nothing out. No gaps. No holes in understanding and practice. Adaptation is the core of all survival.

Practical aiki is best learned in newaza. It enables putting the roots down solidly; it can then grow into something refined, elegant, practical and devastating.

Along with bukiwaza and atemiwaza, newaza, is another vital and essential tool in the toolbox of Aikido.

Ground grappling is not at all irrelevant, but strongly contributes to the power of good standing Aikido. But it is not the end all and be all.

Standing Aikido without a working understanding of atemi, buki and newaza will be weak.

Newaza is as old as the world, but when warriors went into real battle, they preferred to fight standing.

What makes practical Aikido so effective is that, in understanding the implications of newaza, Aikido practices to capture the drop, gravity, the ki sinkhole, at the instant when the combined mass would have gone to ground, capturing it instead as a kaeshiwaza or henkawaza, rather than simply resigning to “going to ground.”

This had its origins in the battlefield melees where, (note the length of a katana), “going to ground” would have been the last thing you ever did.

Will most situations go to ground?

They may, and then again they may not. If they do, you will need to be prepared for it. If they don’t, you will be safer from sharp things, other assailants and other things by fighting standing as much as possible. You need to dominate and finish the situation in a few seconds, not entangle for prolonged risk.

Just remember, it does not take much skill for one person, or two, to hold you down while the others sharpen their katana calmly, before killing.

Know what to do on the ground to get off the ground as fast as possible and then avoid the ground using every means possible. It may be a paradox that understanding groundwork can be used to avoid “going to ground,” but it is so.

And there are a panoply of skills available, both armed and unarmed for this.

They can all be deployed with Aiki. Aikido, when properly understood and practiced correctly, capitalizes on the forces of mass, energy, space, time and gravity to maximize advantage in every way possible.

This is the origin of the Aikido techniques. The deployment of our most ancient friend and ally to remain standing: Gravity.

Nev Sagiba


  1. Jason Rhodes says:

    I agree with you 100% about groundfighting, it should be learned in order to not go there or to get up off the ground ASAP. I also agree with you that striking, kicking, kneeing throwing etc. are part of Aikido. I have question about the AIkido community around the world for you, and that is WHY do Aikido schools not train this or teach this to there students? Is it just that they don’t know or do they live in a fantasy world? Thanks for taking the time to adress this for me.

    Jason R.

  2. Taisho says:

    I disagree…
    and don’t know and live in a fantasy world.

  3. Jason, I have no idea. I believe that assumptions and opinions often corrode good things. I’m sure there’s good dojos that quietly train properly. Why do some not? Possibly ego, money, self-deception and plain ignorance. Whilst the history seems sparse, there is more than enough information available, if nowhere else in good historical research such as found in AJ, that O’Sensei and his predecessors, left nothing out of their training. Obviously. I’ve noticed the best Aikidoka come from karate, buki, judo and jujutsu backgrounds. Obviously. How can it be any other way? I suspect some misunderstanding arises when, because traditional budo training necessarily involves preparation drills for practically applicable work that could present some measure of risk in training, has to be toned down for safety in training. And to prevent overzealous, but not too bright, young males from killing themselves in training. The toning down may sometimes be misunderstood by some and then passed down as quasi-religious-gospel by the ignorant who probably have never raised a sweat doing any real work and whose greatest risk in life is a paper cut at work. And so a good art becomes lost in a dance that means nothing, has no purpose and can achieve nothing. There’s also the cultish mentalities whose agenda is not budo, but rather are lost in petty people politics because they don’t have a life and are not of the caliber to serve society in high risk jobs where they can apply a measure of skill to serve and to save lives. In the case of aiki dancing, simple honesty would be a preferred marketing for a yoga-like dance that has nothing at all “martial” about it, but is a great warm up, great for the old and infirm, handicapped and crippled who may benefit from this kind of practice. When whole and health young people engage this frottage it gives rise to questions. Honesty is a good place to begin. Without discernment there is no science i.e. pragmatic questioning and validity testing. You’ll find dilettantes and fakes in all fields. Aikido is not unique. What Aikido is, is the core of all other Budo, and one of the best self-improvement paths on the planet. But not if the other budo are not understood. When merely mimicked it becomes a mockery.

  4. …when lead is flying, going to the ground makes some sense, but in all cases going to ground limits mobility and if in some form of wrestling leaves you wide open to somebody else pitching in to help your opponent without your having much ability to respond. there probably are general rules, but my general rule about the ground would be similar to Patton’s: (roughly and from various places in his work) don’t dig foxholes. don’t hold positions. don’t get ‘pinned down’ so that somebody can order in a mortar strike. advance…

  5. You are correct and…not.

    I too tire of this endless pontificating by people who claim to know, or by those who have no idea and should realize it.

    We ARE VERY LIKELY to go to the ground in a real situation. Probably 1/3 to 1/2 of physical assaults do end up there – having nothing to do with police being involved. Cops go to the ground even more.

    Against MULTIPLE ASSAILANTS, that are not cooperating and falling down when they are supposed to, or following you around on a nice smooth mat, you ARE MORE LIKELY TO GO TO THE GROUND.

    None of the “advisability” of not going to the ground will actually keep you from going there. Multiples, strikes, knives, guns, glass, hypodermic needles, falling into the ocean (that’s a new one!)- what have you.

    They will all be a factor and you still will likely end up on the ground.

    You do need to know how to ground fight. You need to be MORE THAN FAMILIAR with it, and rather develop a comfortable competency with certain critical position skills and an understanding of their dynamics. Why more than just familiar? Because the level of danger upon going to the ground, for all the reasons suggested, is exponentially higher. Therefore, you must have a great level of skill in order to counter that danger. The higher level of newaza skill, the better able you will be to get up and get up quickly without being tied up on the ground.

    I’ve written a piece on it before entitled “Going to the Ground: Lessons from Law Enforcement” and written a lot on it because this same….debate….keeps….coming…up.

    Think of it this way: if even 1/3 of violent physical encounters (actual assaults, not push off of an angry panhandler or shoving match between hot heads as has been suggested, but truly committed violence)end up on the ground, and the ground is actually that much more dangerous, should not at least say, 1/4 or a 1/3 of our regular training – if it is intended for self defense at all – take that into account.

    Few actually do. It appears that most are seeking like minds to agree with them in a false sense of security that ground fighting “doesn’t happen unless you allow it to.”

    Sorry, but this kind of thinking is both misguided and dangerous. Nev is half right – you should train for the ground, and train to get up. But the idea that it doesn’t often happen is simply not true.

  6. Charles, That it in a nutshell. That’s why they sacked Patton. He was too good a warrior and would have finished the war in a few months, before the 5 year profiteering plan of those who fomented it could play out.

  7. Of course traditional aikido curriculum includes suwari-waza and hanmi-handachi. These are forms of groundwork or at least forms of partial groundwork. What happens if you are attacked while sitting down? Well the traditional Japanese sitting posture was seiza (as I understand it), so practicing that form was natural to them. What I haven’t seen practiced in Aikido classes (except mine) are situations where one person in is the other person’s guard or half-guard, etc, situations where one person is either on his back or his front. I don’t know Japanese culture well enough to know the Japanese attitude to fighting on the ground. I’m going to guess that, as Nev suggested, due to the prominence of the sword, if you were on the ground you were about to die (it being too late to “do” groundwork). As mentioned, I do practice some (prone) groundwork in my Children’s Aikido classes. Most like it, especially the boys, dare I say. And, I will practice even more of it having read this post. I believe that Aikido is still very much in its early stages and is still currently very much in the Japanese mould. Over time it’s going to develop in many ways, such as including forms from prone positions. Thanks for your inspiring and insightful article, Nev, and to the fellow contributors as well.

  8. Kit Leblanc says:

    One simply needs to look at the various Sengoku era koryu jujutsu to see that groundfighting tactics were considered part and parcel of total training.

    Perhaps in later training that changed, but a look at the curriculae of Takeuchi-ryu, Araki-ryu, Nagao-ryu, Sekiguchi-ryu, Shibukawa-ryu, Shosho-ryu, and others will reveal kata in which a prone/downed fighter is addressing an attack from an enemy straddling him (standing), sitting on him, on his back, trying to lock his arm, etc.

    Apparently they knew something about actual fighting…

    The idea that a highly trained, professional class of fighting men would be “dead” if they wound up on the ground in a sword fight, as in any encounter, makes as many assumptions as the idea that ground fighting is not likely.

    That they would not expect it, address it, and prepare for it is simply not supported by their earliest training paradigms.

  9. Taisho says:
  10. Taisho says:
  11. Aikido, does not need to be a “partial art” and melees are seldom equitable or totally predictable. Everything is auxiliary to aiki and aiki can be found in all methods that through practice have refined. The expectation is that things will attempt to go to ground. The determination is that it must not. In other words prepare for the worst then work hard for the best. Don’t resign to any outcome other than the best case scenario. And have in depth backup. Have predictability and be unpredictable.

  12. Brett Jackson says:

    Domo arigato gozaimashita!

  13. Taisho says:

    “And have in depth backup. Have predictability and be unpredictable” and learn some newaza be it Judo/BJJ or MMA..your going to need it.

  14. The newaza IS the in-depth-backup. As are buki, atemi and other tools and strategies.

  15. Kit Leblanc says:

    Now, to tackle the other side of the issue: its not just “newaza” as a backup.

    There are things done in Judo/BJJ/Sub Grappling/MMA that are NOT good ideas for self defense/combatives, or that apply differently in a street situation where there are no mats, and weapons and multiples are in play.

    So, one should become familiar with the basic ideas and concepts of newaza, through training in any of the above mentioned arts. MMA has an advantage in that striking is allowed. The arts wearing gi have an advantage in that in real life people wear jackets and other clothes that can have a direct use in real fighting.

    THEN practice that newaza under “street defense” conditions: everyday clothes, with training versions of the weapons you carry: folding knives, firearms, kubotan in the pocket, whatever.

    Watch for positional dynamics and movements that tie up the attacker’s hands, that don’t tie up yours, that don’t inadvertently expose your weapon to the attacker(s), and that develop correct understanding of when and how to get up – even when someone is trying to hold you down.

    The nice thing is, like with MMA, it is only a subset of a “complete” ground game that you want to really get comfortable with if your idea is self defensive and not competitive. You can skip learning most submissions, even. Positional dynamics – adapted for the weapons based environment -are absolutely key.

  16. Well said, Kit. Sounds like experience talking. People take note. Particularly if survival as a professional protector relies on it.

  17. From time to time I’m astounded that some modern “experts” feel the need to decry a drill that has worked well enough to be passed down for thousands of years, instread of investigating, researching and questioning its purpose. Try this: Hanmi handachi/suwari waza is not necessarily for when you get attacked when sitting (unless you are so badly hung over that your zanshin has gone so dull that you can get caught sitting). Hanmi handachi/suwari waza are standing techniques used as a capture. Probably evolved when battles drifted into mud or paddy fields. Research it in practice and see what you will discover.

  18. Brett Jackson says:

    “Hanmi handachi/suwari waza are standing techniques used as a capture. Probably evolved when battles drifted into mud or paddy fields.” I understand you are saying that the encounter likely starting from a standing position and then transformed possibly due to environmental conditions or slips or trips such that one or both participants were down or on their knees. So practicing suwari-waza/hanmi handachi is preparation for those scenarios. Makes sense. Thanks for pointing that out. It’s not just or not primarily a movement practice for strengthening tachi-waza but is rather a practice for a less-than-ideal case scenario. That even makes it more interesting why traditional Aikido does not include any prone practice and/or defenses against shooting take-downs. There is no reason it couldn’t, and I’d say it adds both a useful and a fun element to the practice. Perhaps the safety concerns are the main drawback against this kind of practice in Open Aikido classes. Have to find the right context, and probably a select group of students to participate. It would be a version of an advanced “special” class. I’m in.

  19. Brett, I’ve never come across an “ideal” case scenario outside the dojo. All real violent situations are indeed less-than-ideal. There are a great lot of potentials not generally explored, that exist between standing and prone. For some reason few seem to want to address this, yet are found in good aikijutsu, in fact composing the bulk of it. Precisely because an opponent, especially one who is accompanied, will try to take you to ground.
    I think you said it right, “Perhaps the safety concerns are the main drawback against this kind of practice in Open Aikido classes. Have to find the right context, and probably a select group of students to participate. It would be a version of an advanced “special” class.” But if you can find those who will, it’s a good practice.
    The ancients were horsemen and understood posture and balance. Alive not just theory. That’s possibly why traditional Aikido has decayed. People who walk little and sit in cars most of their life have atrophied and lost many natural attributes of body-mind connection and functionality. A swordsman moves like the horseman. This is nothing new. Whilst the much misunderstood “horse stance” has barely survived, it’s the basis of hanmi posture. And so on.

  20. Brett Jackson says:

    Hi Nev, that’s very interesting. Thanks for your reply and feedback. This past week we practiced defense against shoot-take down (something like omote kaiten) and defense vs full mount (Kokyunages and various Ikkyos). My kids liked this. I’m finding that so long as I can keep my kids in katas (uke/nage) the danger element is about normal. I usually have my students stand in horse stance to practice punching as part of the warm-ups.

  21. Brett Jackson says:

    Leave my hakama in the closet. :)

  22. :) what happend to your horse?

  23. Tony Ramey says:

    I was a military and civilian cop for over 20 years, during those years I must have been in over 100 plus confrontations that required force. Some very violent and some mildly violent, those that I knew were going to be violent I did my best to end the altercation as fast as I could. In fact I tried to end every altercation quickly, but sometimes it didn’t work out that way. Judo and Hapkido saved my butt many times, I survived because I used my wits instead of violence and I would always try to cuff the agitator or suspect as soon as I realized who was the perpetrator. I can honestly say that I never lost a fight, I got hurt several times and on one occasion I was nearly thrown off a ship onto the pier. I had a nightmare one night and in the dream one of my old students had gotten into a fight with a brash and arrogant young MMA fighter, I had failed to prepare my students to defend themselves against all of these young MMA fighters who thought they were the next UFC champ. The very next day I began to research information about learning the best method that I could couple with my Judo training and I discovered the Gracie University website and I was hooked from then on. My students have embraced the concept that Helio Gracie developed before he passed away and how Rorion Gracie has taken his father’s idea one step further into the modern world. No system is perfect, but the hundreds of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies throughout the world must think this system has merit. I believe it does. But one thing I want to express is that the Gracie program does not or has it ever taught the students to “go to the ground” before anything else. The ground is the last place to be and if you wind up on the ground, win.

  24. Keoni Ronald May says:

    During my law enforcement career, when people cooperated, you stayed on your feet. When people did not cooperate, more so than not, you ended on the ground. The trick was, to get that person on his stomach, so that you could handcuff him. This is an occupational hazard. That is why, we have to have spare pants, while working. Your torn at the knees pants, MIGHT become evidence and you can’t continue to work, in your underwear.

    Although some vital ground knowledge is necessary, standing up was a preferred option.

    Post-1993, there is a new generation of fighters, who will more so than not, go to the ground. That is a growing reality. For the post-1993 generation, who have gone to war, staying on the ground, with multiple people surrounding you, is not a primary option.

    Finger locks & wrist locks, changed the ground game. However, these techniques, are considered illegal or fouls in MMA/UFC, and not practiced.

    Therefore, SOME law enforcement officers, practice finger locks & wrist locks. The trick is, to NOT BREAK any bones. Using one finger, to restraint someone, more so than not, will produce broken finger. Two or three fingers, at a minimum, is necessary.

    Choke holds were banned in many law enforcement departments, because badly trained officers, killed people. The law enforcement choke hold, at one era in time, killed more people, than any other restraint technique.

  25. I don’t understand these type of articles. Ground fighting as much as any other type of figting is about superior strategy and position. The technique itself is appliable if you create the adequate position and timing for execution. Suwari – waza is the newaza of Aikido which if mastered can give a practitioner good options on the ground. Look at the way Sakuraba used good seiza position to pound Royce Gracie at 1:46 and look at 2:00 how Sakuraba took Royce to the ground basic suwari – waza move.

  26. Proper maiai (distancing) prevents/protects from going to the ground, i.e. takedowns. And grappling requires two participants. Aikido is kind of a “last word” martial art, not a grappling art. But if you make a mistake it’s good to know how to get out of it. I’m a fan of learning many martial arts and gave studied BJJ and enjoy it, but I think you need to study Aikido/Daito-Ryu alongside it at the same time (half the week to BJJ and half to Aikido) so you don’t get to unbalanced and have your body start to think that everything is groundwork, just like everything isn’t standup, because only learning groundwork leads to bad habits and injuries.

  27. When I was a Nikyu, a man joined our dojo who had been a Judo student at the Kodokan. He was very generous with his knowledge, and we all got something out of playing with him. My Aikido got better – taking the actual technique offered instead of forcing something that wasn’t there, the position of most strength usually feels the most relaxed, waiting and not rushing. Techniques in newaza tend to be more forgiving, tend to need less precision and can be less focused on pain compliance and injury (not always true, I know. I tried to do a Nikyo pin on someone strung out on drugs, and he thrashed until he damaged his own shoulder. My coworkers just laid on him.)

    Do fights go to the ground? If the statement means, “eventually someone is not going to be standing,” well, that sounds like the whole idea of any martial art.

    Does Aikido include newaza? Our mandate to always be ready in any direction aside, I have seen pics of O Sensei doing things like leg locks and sacrifice throws that many Aikido people now say is “not Aikido.” Judo was a contemporary art. Judo students were dispatched to learn Aikido, and probably absorb Aikido into Judo. These students then got thrown out or ordered to make a choice between arts, or formed their own offshoot groups. Judo competition was a big bone of contention. Now newaza, koshinage, and sutemi waza are Judo, strikes are Karate, and Aikido is the wrist lock art. We have allowed other Arts to declare their patents, and we have declared our own. Many Aikido schools could not begin to teach these additional subjects without needing to look to other Arts and associations. The situation seems to have much in common with the articles on this site about weapons training in Aikido.

  28. Yes proper distance does help you not to get into newaza. But you will go into newaza sometime or another so it is good to train for it especially when you have such a good foundation for a superior position on the ground such as suwari waza. Aikido is a counter Martial Art because you use your opponent’s weaknes in your favor which means when he strikes you move in grab and apply technique and when he grabs you strike move out and apply technique. I know this is a simplistic explanation but it is the most down to earth.

  29. I’m strongly in the court of Keoni and John and of course the author Nev. Law enforcement deals with non-ideal situations…otherwise we wouldn’t be there! As homo sapiens we have evolved to be on our feet and use the advantage of that position. The question isn’t will an encounter go to the ground, it is what will you do when it does? Get up, get on your feet and let the attacker have the ground. That might include disengaging. One of the hardest things for anyone in these situations to do (Cops in particular) is to recognize when it is time to disengage. I went to a delightful street survival given by the US Marshals. One message was clear “Tea too hot to handle, tea too hot to drink.” Don’t let ‘a winning sprit’ kill you!

    The philosophy of ‘ground fighters’ is one of competition, points, winning…a sport mentality. That’s ok in a sport setting. Sport techniques are NOT combat techniques. Every fraction of a second that you are in contact with your attacker increases the possibility you will lose.

    In Aikido randori we practice engagement-disengagement as a matter of course. That is unusual in any martial art. In Aikido we don’t equate disengagement with ‘losing.’ That, too is unusual. In Aikido, we train to control without doing unnecessary harm. That is why Aikido was the foundation of modern law enforcement defensive tactics training starting in the 1970’s (or earlier but I know at least that far back). In Aikido, we have incorporated into techniques the principles of doing just enough, of having consideration for our attacker, of managing anger and fear and the urge to retaliate. Our techniques are congruent with our philosophy. We need ‘only’ be committed to effective Aikido in order to handle ‘ground situations.’

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