Safety in Structure - Defending head-on attacks

Written by John B Will

BJJ and MMA instructor John Will shows how three simple physical structures can be used to much better effect than a ‘block’ when the chips are down and fists start flying.

BJJ and MMA instructor John Will shows how three simple physical structures can
be used to much better effect than a ‘block’ when the chips are down and fists start flying.

The human body is a structure, to be sure, but also a fluid and mobile organism. Our form is set, but only to a point; and as such we have the physical ability to restructure ourselves to suit a whole variety of different tasks, be it a spear-like shape to easily enter water, a ball to forward-roll out of a fall, or a wedge made with extended arms to cover our head as we crash in on an attacker.

The use of ‘structures’ to provide protection is no new idea. Castles, forts, walls, bunkers, tanks and the like have all been used to good effect for a long time, some for tens of thousands of years. Historically, protection through the use of structure often meant a trade- off in mobility: by building a wall between ourselves and our enemy, we gained protection but were often condemned to hold position and forfeit our ability to retreat or advance. Likewise, the more heavily armoured the tank, often the slower or less manoeuvrable it was.

Other smaller types of structures, such as the shield, gave us both mobility and protection, albeit limited in the latter — and again, the larger and thicker the shield, usually the more cumbersome and restrictive to the warrior. Similarly, armour for the head and body was another great innovation, and many different incarnations of each have been used by warrior cultures worldwide for thousands of years, from the steel exoskeletons that encased the Medieval knights to the relatively lightweight Kevlar vests and helmets worn by our soldiers today.

So, the concept of using structure of some kind to provide protection from the onslaught of an enemy is certainly no new idea.

Even though we need not wear battle armour in the street (speaking to those who work outside of front-line law enforcement, of course), in hand-to-hand combat it is somewhat instinctive for all of us to respond by creating a structure to provide protection, even if no external implements are at hand. Think of a situation wherein an untrained person finds themselves on the receiving end of a barrage of punches — and ask yourself, where are their hands?

Usually, in such a situation, the hands are held up (in some loose structure) around the head in an effort to ‘hide’ from the strikes. So, in one way, we are all innately hardwired to seek and create protection in structure when things have gone beyond our control.

The benefit of building and utilising structure to provide defence is that it is a skill that can be developed relatively quickly with very little training. It offers a very big return on investment in time, especially when compared to the development of skill-based defensive strategies like ducking, weaving, slipping, parrying, footwork, smashing attacks with solid blocks (as used in karate, for example) that require heavy conditioning, and so on.

There are various different kinds of bodily structures that we can use to meet an attack at close-quarters, each offering its own strengths and weaknesses. Here we will take a look at several that I have found to be very effective and easy to use.

The Foxhole

I was originally introduced to this structure in my early silat training in Indonesia during the late 1970s. I coined the name ‘foxhole’ myself because it reminded me of hiding inside a mobile foxhole.The way I learned it back then is still pretty much the way I teach it today. 

The way I learned it back then is still pretty much the way I teach it today. The idea is to create the structure by locking your lead hand onto the top of your head with your elbow pointing directly at the opponent; at the same time, your other hand locks onto the middle of your leading forearm in such a way that your vision is not hampered.

The basic idea is to then run at the opponent as hard as you can and ‘spike’ him with your elbow — and then follow up with either striking techniques (as we did in Indonesia) or grappling/clinching techniques (as I often teach today), or a combination of both. Hence, I often refer to the utilisation of this structure and entry as the ‘foxhole and spike’.

The Diver

The ‘diving’ frame is a concept I first learned in my early Brazilian jiu-jitsu training. My epiphany around this concept came when I learned headlock escapes on the ground, as the idea of creating a strong frame between ourselves and our opponent was very central to the most basic headlock-escape techniques. Taking this frame from its horizontal application on the floor to a vertical application on our feet was also something I learned in BJJ, albeit as a defensive measure, as demonstrated in this article.

It is interesting to note that it can also be used as a way of taking the initiative and ‘blasting’ into an opponent again to set up either clinching or striking combinations. It is also very easily formed from the standard passive negotiation stance commonly known as the ‘fence’, whereby our palms are out as we use both hands to subtly control the distance between us and our opponent. From this (mobile) position, the arms are halfway to forming the diver frame already.

The Visor

The visor, again, is a very useful structure for crashing in on an opponent. I put this together myself after being asked to develop a training package for some security staff many years ago.

The big benefit of this particular structure is that it can be ‘pre-fabricated’, if you like, during the negotiation stage of a potentially violent altercation; meaning, we can stand with our arms folded (that is our basic structure) and as soon as we need to, we can then lift the whole structure up to protect our head, and charge forward. As we crash into our opponent with the visor, we will nearly always be able to find our opponent’s head with our lead/top arm, thereby setting ourselves up for some strong knee and elbow attacks.

Structural Decisions

Each of the aforementioned structures has its advantages. The foxhole-and-spike is great for crashing in hard and ramming the elbow into our opponent before following up with takedowns, clinching or more striking. The frame is a great defensive strategy — we use it to create a strong wedge between our opponent’s striking arm and neck, and it is also very useful for establishing some initial control against an armed attack. The visor’s strength is in that while being easily disguised as a casual and inoffensive negotiating position, it is very good for crashing in on an aggressor safely and setting up an outside collar-tie grip for either grappling or knee techniques.None of these structures are designed for ‘sparring’; they are all about moving forward explosively, either to surprise the opponent

None of these structures are designed for ‘sparring’; they are all about moving forward explosively, either to surprise the opponent with a pre-emptive move or to turn the tables on them immediately as they launch their first attack. With a little practice, the foxhole, frame and visor can provide excellent protection from head strikes, which are far and away the most common way people are injured or knocked out in street altercations. I very often use structure-based defence when running or designing specialised law enforcement and military-specific defensive tactics courses, largely because they are not only highly effective but require comparatively little training to acquire efficacy.

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